Monday, April 12, 2010

The Social Sciences and First Contact

The academic exploration of extraterrestrial First Contact is a very narrow field that has been dominated by those from the physical sciences. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence is conducted by astronomers and astrophysicists. Speculation about alien life forms is considered in astrobiology. But alien First Contact is a particularly human issue and First Contact brings a whole host of important social science questions. So, why hasn’t the social science aspect of First Contact received more attention?

Michael Michaud, in his book Contact with Alien Civilizations,points out that there have been calls for an interdisciplinary approach. John Billingham made the argument in 1994. He put forth many areas that should be involved: psychology, anthropology, law, political science, history and communication.

First Contact is an unusual thing to consider. Usually scientists examine actions that are occurring right now, such as the change in race relations after the election of President Obama or human social interactions using the internet. Social scientists need something to observe and ways to conduct research. First Contact speculation provides none of these necessities. At best it could be a literature review of past research with an eye towards considering First Contact. This really isn’t a scientific endeavor and would not receive much respect in academic circles.

The problem is that the social science aspects of First Contact need to be considered now. It is only through thoughtful speculation that we could hope to build a blueprint for how to respond After First Contact. We need to have an idea of what might happen to our political institutions, our economy, and our religion. We need to think about the psychological implications of First Contact. We need to consider the media role in disseminating information about First Contact and how this could influence reaction.

Researchers like Billingham and David Morrison have suggested not only a literature review method, but also studies on human perceptions of extraterrestrial life. By knowing what people think currently about First Contact scenarios we would have a better ability to extrapolate possible reactions in the event of First Contact. That is actual social science research that could occur now. The problem is finding the brave academic folks to do that research and finding the funding to support it.

The SETI 2020 report makes similar suggestions and anthropology has been represented at the annual Contact: Cultures of the Imagination conference. Social science journals focusing on extraterrestrial contact issues were published at points in the 70’s and 80’s. Still, Michaud points out that little has been done in this area and certainly not in a consistent and sustained format.

In this blog I take a closer look at human communication and First Contact. I believe that communication will be one of the most important social science issues in the initial days and weeks After First Contact. Now matter what the scenario, how information about First Contact is communicated to the public will likely have a huge impact in public perception.

In regards to the larger social science issue the only hope is that a respected agency, like the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, will take action. If they bring together the wider academic community, including the social sciences, to examine the implications of extraterrestrial First Contact, it could help open the door for other academic fields. That could lead to university support and maybe even grant funding. Is it such an outlandish consideration?

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