What's More Likely: That Your Vote Will Matter or That You'll Help Discover Extraterrestrial Life?

Here’s an e-mail from a reader named Nadaav Zohar of Akron, Ohio. I like the way he thinks.

Every election season, I can usually count on a Freakonomics blog entry or three about voting and why it is pointless. I very much agree with your analysis, and I don’t vote.

However, I was wondering if you would also not participate in SETI at Home.

The chances that the power boost provided by your idle computer would help the SETI project discover something useful (the jackpot being extra-terrestrial life) is probably about the same or greater than the chances that your vote would decide an election. And the cost (10 MB on your hard drive and any unused RAM) is probably about the same or less (no waiting in lines, no researching issues, etc.).

The potential payoff of SETI is definitely better than the potential payoff of voting. Even if the election goes your way, you get another politician, another stupid law, etc. But if SETI finds something useful, we have revolutionized everything we know about life in the universe.

What do you think? Is SETI at Home worth it?


What about the power usage of a computer running SETI? Those costs are not negligible, especially when compared with the chances of finding life via SETI.

Dan J

You're forgetting about the extra power consumed by your CPU when those cycles are used for real calculations instead of power saving cycles. There is extra energy expended there.


It's of course true that from a narrow, self-interest calculation voting does not make sense. The arguments for voting -- and the reasons most people vote -- are moral. If no one or very few people were to vote, it would undermine our democratic society in very bad ways. It's part of the social compact if you like.

There can be no question that SETI at home doesn't make sense from a payoff point of view. The chance of your participation causing a "jackpot" that wouldn't have happened otherwise is vanishingly small. Personally, I don't see a moral obligation here. YMMV.


I think all those articles about the relative worthlessness of voting are actually written to discourage people from voting, and thereby to increase the value of the author's vote.

The best strategy would be if you had a foolproof way to discourage everyone else from voting, you could cast the only ballot and be 'the decider'. Of course, a functioning democracy requires high voter turnout so no individual (or group) can control the process.

Gender Bender

I agree Nadaav, voting is stupid. I mean, who cares who makes the laws, the decisions regarding the future of a nationstate, or community. All laws are the same anyways, where they just restrict us as human beings.

Further to that, participating in democracy in any form is also stupid and pointless. I mean, why bother to talk about politics and all that other junk that goes on in the community. Frankly, if it doesn't effect me directly, why bother to even talk about it?

After that, I mean really what's the point of doing anything but the bare minimum. Sure, I'll go into work and stuff, but I'll be damned if i'm going to do any more work then is absolutely necessary. I won't really talk to people, that's pointless. Heck, I won't even smile at others, it's pointless, and stupid politicking.

[/end sarcasm]


As remote as the odds of making a difference in an election are, we are at least certain that elections actually occur, and that votes are actually cast. And we have even seen, rare though it may be, elections in which an individual vote mattered significantly.

In the meantime, we have never heard even the slightest inkling of a peep from extraterrestrial life, and we likely never will. (I believe that they probably do exist, but the universe is so large that they're outside our light cone, and might as well not exist at all.)

Meanwhile, SETI@Home burns a significant amount of electricity from what would have been an otherwise idle computer, incurring direct costs to you, and indirect costs to the environment.

Richard, UK

I think the 'fallacy of the wasted vote' misses several important points. It's been a while since I read freakonomics (sorry!) but I think you mention at least one of these. The obvious one is the possible externality of more social awareness that arises from the voting procedure. Granted you could get this by not voting but by voting it acts as a reinforcement that you should and do care.

Something I've thought about quite a lot and haven't seen argued anywhere (not that I've looked very hard), is the possible spillover effects of not voting. True, my vote doesn't matter, or at least is unlikely too. Like it or not, however, my actions probably influence others. So say if I don't vote, and as we like to be self-righteous creatures, proclaim to those around me my intelligent reasons, it probably increases the chances that those around me don't vote. Now clearly this would be of little concern if political preferences were randomly distributed, but they're not. By not voting, it's likely I make my friends and family less likely to vote, who probably would have voted for the same thing, certainly at a higher proportion than you would expect in the population. The result, the probability of you preferred result being realised in the vote decreases.

Clearly this wouldn't be an issue if you didn't tell anyone you didn't vote and could credibly fool them. Arguably with a slight cost (lying to those around you), but maintaining the greater benefit. I'd like to think it gives at least some reason why voting could be given a pass on the 'rationale' test, even if it is erring dangerously close to the 'what if nobody voted' naivety.



The chances that your vote will decide an election may be 1 in 100,000 (local elections decided by a single vote aren't unheard of). The chances that your computer will find aliens is very possibly nill.


No matter you who vote for, the aliens always win?


I honestly believe that my vote counts ... when the voting machine has NOT been tampered with. I live in MA and believe our voting machines are reliable. I am 91 years old and still manage to drive myself to where I am supposed to vote. I also urge every eligible person I know to vote.

Robert Cosgrave

In calculating individual benefits to yourself you neglect to consider what the effect would be if everyone behaved in that way. No one would vote, leading to a dictatorship by default. Dictatorships have, historically, tended to do badly for their citizens of which you, the non voting, would be one. Hence, the collective effect of non voting would have an adverse effect on the individual (more probably your children, given time lag effects) and is thus, unwise.
I also note that most of us are, for good or ill, human, and not neoclassical economic automatons. People died so I could vote, so I vote to honour their memory. Not because I am rational, more than that. Because I am human.

Baba Ghanoush

Presuming you don't research your vote ahead of time, you're just as likely to be doing harm rather than good by casting it, voting for the less-worthy candidate. Participating in the Seti project is at worst value neutral.


The power consumed by the CPU between idle mode and "SETI" mode is insignificant consider cooling is the biggest energy sapper in any PC.

I don't agree with your comments. In the UK we have less of a 2 party system, it is still dominated by centre left and right; so a can kind of appreciate how it must get boring for you guys in the US. Voting is a fundimental right, you should be proud to exercise it (Obama must have restored some faith?). I think voting often gets boiled down into it's cost/benifit to an individual (time taken to vote-understand the parties policies/does my vote count) and we should look at it's benifits for society. It's not MY vote that decides the election its OUR votes that do. In the same way, it's not my CPU that finds life, its our CPUs together.

Eric M. Jones

Global Warming types should certainly object to SETI, or any other expenditure of energy in our cold dark world...There are "SETI-type" computer searches that have a more immediate payoff--aids drugs, rice-variants, protein folding, etc.

I support SETI and at times have joined up, because we learn something about the probability of ETs (esp. those who use radio frequencies, or now lasers, to communicate) even if nothing is detected. Every proper experiment tells us something, even if it's not what we expected to find.

Looking at the numbers is sobering though: There are approximately 2 x 10E11 galaxies in the universe. So if there are (as wild speculation) 2 x 10E9 advanced civilizations in the universe, then there is far less than a 1% chance that there is anyone else in our galaxy. This is a kind of reverse Drake Equation view of the problem, but I think it is instructive.

Bob Whiteman

Voting is nearly pointless only if there's no difference between a close race and a landslide. But politicians pay close attention to the final vote count. After a close race they change policies to attract more voters in the next election. After a landslide they use it as a mandate to act aggressively on their campaign promises. The vote vounts also affect how districts are gerrymandered.

Richard, UK

The first part of your argument misses the point Robert. However, the second part is a very good concept, voting out of respect. I'll add to my list of self justifications for voting which you need as a self respecting economist.

Jonathon K.

I wonder what the cost difference would be for running SETI for a year vs the cost of traveling roundtrip (probably 5 miles roundtrip) when I go to vote my 2 times year (I am from Chicago, but those are different elections, not the same one).

I actually do both regardless of the cost / benefits - I look at it just like I look at the lottery; odds are stacked against you, but you can't win if you don't play.

Jim Burden

I think is is worthwhile, for a very non economic reason. Every theory I have heard about historically that was based on humans being special and or unique (earth being the center of the solar system, etc) has eventually been proven wrong. The more I look at the data the more I believe we are the result of normal physical systems and laws. All Nitrogen/Oxygen atmosphere planets with similar temperature and chemical composition probably eventually trend toward life. I can't prove it, but I feel that is true. Imagine if there was a huge galactic civilization we could participate in, and missed out due to apathy to listen for its EM noise?


I know my vote counts to someone because an alternative political party candidate will see his/her tally. Most people don't even comprehend that there are always more candidates than the journalism manufactring industry publishes...

Downside is that the documented voting machine skeeziness and "man in the middle" computer server vote changing exploits tend to cheapen everyones votes...

At least voting uses my already paid taxpayer money for the machines, lights, supplies, etc versus SETI at Home using extra power and cycles of my pc's life...


Your vote is useless just as that grain of sand or salt or single star within the universe. An example of the American difficulty with numeracy - that sufficient epsilons, episilon small, becomes an N, N large. (consider the 2000 presidential election.)

And as for the negligence of a single star, it depends upon the star. I rather value the star Sol.

If you care not what kind of society in which you will live and spend the remainder of your life, by all means, do not vote. Then my vote will potentially have double its value if my vote is contrary to how you otherwise would cast yours.