Brown students want to believe (in intelligent life off Earth)


Photo: “Ladd Observatory at Brown” by Michael L. Umbricht, licensed under CC 3.0.

By Ethan Minkoff

“It’s too good to be true that we’re the only people out here,” a sophomore who took the poll agreed. 83.74% of respondents believe in the possibility of intelligent life, while only 13.90% of Brown undergraduates responded that the existence of intelligent life beyond humans was “unlikely.”

Throughout the Milky Way, over 300 million planets exist with conditions similar to Earth, according to a 2020 NASA study — bearing the question of whether or not intelligent extraterrestrial life exists.


According to the Brown Opinion Project’s April 2022 poll, the vast majority of Brown undergraduates have at least some confidence that intelligent life resides somewhere other than Earth in the universe. 83.74% of respondents believe in the possibility, with 52.58% stating that it is “likely” that intelligent life exists beyond human beings, with another 31.16% “definitely” giving credence to the idea.


One junior who took the poll commented that the universe is “so big, (so) of course there’s something (out there). Statistics-wise, there has to be some sort of intelligent life somewhere.”


“It’s too good to be true that we’re the only people out here,” a sophomore who took the poll agreed. Only 13.90% of Brown undergraduates responded that the existence of intelligent life beyond humans was “unlikely,” and 0.26% dismissed the idea entirely.


Another member of the class of 2023 criticized the idea that intelligent life does not exist elsewhere in the universe.


“I’m not sure it’s arrogant so much as it is close-minded,” they said. “Because statistically, scientifically, it’s probably going to happen.”


Still, some respondents qualified their belief in extraterrestrial life, including one first-year who took the poll that noted that extraterrestrial life exists “maybe not the way we think about (it).” “Microorganisms or other things could definitely exist in the universe,” they noted.


Belief in a God, multiple Gods, or a higher power had little correlation with students’ belief in intelligent life.


According to the poll, of those who responded that intelligent life “definitely” exists, 43.0% said they believed in a higher power, 28.90% were unsure about their religious views and 28.1% did not believe in any higher power. Additionally, 41.20% of those who thought that the existence of intelligent life was “unlikely” did not believe in a higher power, with 35.30% believing in the opposite and 23.5% unsure.


The divide of students who took the poll that said extraterrestrial life is “likely” was even thinner along religious lines: 34.0% believed in a higher power, 32.50% were unsure and 33.50% did not.


A first-year who indicated in the poll that they believe in a higher power noted that they didn’t “think there was necessarily a really strong correlation between [my belief in intelligent life] and my religion.”


While students overwhelmingly indicated that they think intelligent life exists, students interviewed by BOP were less sure about actually encountering it. Some students who took the poll said they thought the search would ultimately fail — but one senior who took the poll expressed optimism.


“We have already found out some clues about intelligent life and the universe, and we probably can find out more later,” they said. A first-year who took the poll agreed: “I mean, keep searching and you’ll find it, right?”


Note: All quoted poll-takers remain anonymous to maintain the integrity of Brown Opinion Project surveys. Brown Opinion Project conducted its April 2022 poll from April 20-22, collecting 365 total responses from Brown undergraduate students with a margin of error of 5.33% with 95% confidence.