Monday, March 29, 2010

The Case for Controlling First Contact

Dr. Seth Shostak makes an interesting argument about controlling First Contact. Michael Michaud cites the SETI scientist frequently in his book “Contact with Alien Civilizations”. A comparison is drawn to the Japanese leaders in the 16th century. They feared Western contact, as much for destabilizing political rule as negatively influencing Japanese culture. Japanese leaders worked actively to keep Western explorers away from the Japanese population.

So, is it out of line to want to control extraterrestrial contact? Shostak argues that it would be a mistake, costing us access to important information and preventing all of humanity from participating in an open relationship with a new civilization. Michaud points out that Japan might have had better outcomes, overall, in their contact with the West than many other Pacific cultures. The Shogun enforced isolation may have helped in the transition.

I’ve argued many times on this blog that First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization needs to be transparent. While this is important for the start of a good relationship it doesn’t necessarily mean that the floodgates need to open in terms of information. First Contact raises the following questions:

-What are aliens hoping to accomplish with human contact? Can we immediately trust those motives?

-What information could be damaging to our society and should that information by controlled?

-Who will regulate contact after First Contact?

-How can we be assured that the group in charge of diplomacy is acting in the best interests of all of humanity?

We have to have some degree of suspicion and critical thinking attached to any extraterrestrial relationship. We cannot take them at their word. Does this mean we have to cut them off and have the government control the situation behind the scenes? Certainly not. It’s possible for the entire process to be transparent and yet have part of that process be a set of guidelines for how information is disseminated. If open and independent bodies review the impact of certain types of information, we will have better control of the overall impact of extraterrestrial knowledge. The most important areas for this type of review would be physics and engineering. In these areas revolutionary concepts could have a profound impact on our system of science and our economy. What if extraterrestrial knowledge provides us with technology to create weapons more powerful than hydrogen bombs? What if it undermines an entire segment of the economy?

Other information does not carry such negative impact. We could find out everything they know about astronomy, astrobiology, and their history and culture. This could keep us busy for years and have much less of an impact on the foundations of our society.

Michaud points out that some writers have worried that a massive flow of information would break the morale of human scientists. It’s interesting that the New York Times has an article from 80 years ago concerned with this issue. The scientific fields would need to determine how extraterrestrial knowledge would be integrated into our scientific system. If the information is disseminated in a way that is slow and careful there should be time for human science to adapt, respond and grow stronger. Extraterrestrial knowledge cannot become a substitute for human learning and the scientific process.

It will be a great challenge to maintain the balance. And for those in control of this knowledge there will be a great deal of power. These information review groups will need to be peer chosen and representative of the world scientific bodies. Members should change out frequently, to prevent one small group of scientists from having too much control. The entire process for picking the members of these review groups would need to be transparent.

The biggest problem with information control is the impression it creates. How much suspicion will build up when it is clear information is being kept from the public? Will this create conspiracy anxieties?

This is why protocols need to be established now. The debate needs to be held now.

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