Who should be in charge of First Contact? Should it be the U.S. government? Another nation? The United Nations? Clearly there is an important role for all of those entities. Depending on how First Contact occurs, though, perhaps it would be best handled by scientists? This is the argument in the SETI post-detection protocol. It is a well-developed set of guidelines for how to handle First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization.
A science based approach in a SETI communications scenario makes sense: the event would be essentially a scientific discovery. Scientists across the planet are actively engaged in a search of the universe for extraterrestrial communication signals of all sorts. The SETI Institute itself has more than 150 people working on the endeavor. It is the most organized and reputable scientific investigation of extraterrestrial life. The hard work of SETI scientists had led to a well developed response to the discovery of an extraterrestrial signal. There is an organized method of confirmation and disclosure that answers many questions that would be raised by such a discovery. Who should be notified first? How should the announcement be made to the public?
This is the first part of the SETI post-detection protocol provided here thanks to the folks at the Planetary Society:
Any individual, public or private research institution or governmental agency that believes it has detected a signal from or other evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence (the discoverer) should seek to verify that the most plausible explanation for the evidence is the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence rather than some other natural phenomenon or anthropogenic phenomenon before making any public announcement. If the evidence cannot be confirmed as indicating the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, the discoverer may disseminate the information as appropriate to the discovery of any unknown phenomenon.
Prior to making a public announcement that evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence has been detected, the discoverer should promptly inform all other observers or research organizations that are parties to this declaration, so that those other parties may seek to confirm the discovery by independent observations at other sites and so that a network can be established to enable continuous monitoring of the signal or phenomenon. Parties to this declaration should not make any public announcement of this information until it is determined whether this information is or is not credible evidence of the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. The discoverer should inform his/her or its relevant national authorities.
After concluding that the discovery appears to be credible evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, and after informing other parties to this declaration, the discoverer should inform observers throughout the world through the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams of the International Astronomical Union, and should inform the Secretary General of the United Nations in accordance with Article XI of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Bodies. Because of their demonstrated interest in and expertise concerning the question of the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, the discoverer should simultaneously inform the following international institutions of the discovery and should provide them with all pertinent data and recorded information concerning the evidence: the International Telecommunication Union, the Committee on Space Research, of the International Council of Scientific Unions, the International Astronautical Federation, the International Academy of Astronautics, the International Institute of Space Law, Commission 51 of the International Astronomical Union, and Commission J of the International Radio Science Union.
A confirmed detection of extraterrestrial intelligence should be disseminated promptly, openly, and widely through scientific channels and public media, observing the procedures in this declaration. The discoverer should have the privilege of making the first public announcement.
Dr. Albert Harrison talks about the protocol, and the role the news media will play in such an announcement, in his book “After Contact: The Human Response to Extraterrestrial Life.” Most of us will receive news of a SETI based First Contact from the media. Harrison observes that the news media has some serious differences from science based communication. There is often a loss of detail in reporting, due to the need to make the information understandable to a general audience, but also to make it engaging and interesting. That process can lead to a loss of context and an exaggeration of some facts, while leaving others out entirely.
The SETI protocol is controlled by scientists and scientific organizations. But the United Nations is not the first stop in the process. The discoverer is supposed to notify the appropriate government authorities for his or her nation. Of course most governments don’t even take the more formalized and organized SETI suggestions seriously. The SETI folks have had limited success with the United Nations.
All of this makes complete sense for a SETI, signal based, First Contact scenario. How about Direct First Contact? Would any of these steps apply?
Direct First Contact is a challenge, because it could happen in a multitude of ways. That’s why I am proposing a relatively simple approach. Use a dramatic First Contact event, such as an extraterrestrial craft flying over a city, to leverage the news media and use the world-wide communication system to spread the word. Within minutes in some locations, and hours in others, most of the world population could watch or listen to coverage of First Contact. This would provide a direct introduction to the entire planet. A SETI based approach would not work with a Direct First Contact scenario. All of the bureaucracy that supports scientists would prove cumbersome and ineffective in Direct First Contact.
There needs to be a clear path and a simple process in a Direct First contact event. It needs to operate entirely outside the system of government and science at first, and then bring those entities into the process soon thereafter. In essence the extraterrestrial visitors need to control First Contact. If not the process becomes tarnished by government self-interest and subject to all sorts of outside influence. We have a robust media and communications sharing network on this planet that can allow an extraterrestrial group to speak to the world directly. It would only require a simple, one-day, process to put it to work and make that big introduction.
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