Did the United Nations screw this up? Word came out this weekend, first in the U.K. Sunday Times, that Dr. Mazlan Othman, the well respected director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, would become the point person for alien First Contact strategies. The media of course whipped this up into a lather calling her the "take me to your leader person" with generous help from various U.K. sources.
Now Dr. Othman is denying the report and even the Sunday Times is backpedaling, in a fashion anyway. How would such a rumor get started anyway? I've worked for 22 years in the news media and with the news media. This seems like a case of backlash and regret on the part of the U.N. While many of us heralded the news as a positive and logical step by the United Nations, many others didn't see it that way. The report was blasted all over the globe as another example of U.N. waste and lack of credibility.
I have one message for the U.N.: toughen up now or prepare to be irrelevant.
If the U.N. was seriously considering giving Dr. Othman a larger official role in First Contact preparation they were doing the right thing. As you may know from reading this blog I have called for this for quite some time now. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs is the only logical body to lead First Contact planning. My gut tells me that they were heading in that direction and couldn't handle the initial fall out and criticism, so they back pedaled and left Dr. Othman looking silly.
I cannot tell you how damaging this is to the cause at hand. Sure, First Contact is an unlikely event in our lifetimes. If it does occur it will probably be SETI based and we'll have some time to consider our options. However, it would undeniably have the most profound impact on human civilization of any event in centuries. The simple act of letting Dr. Othman lead a quiet consideration of First Contact strategies would have been a kind of insurance policy. It doesn't have to cost much of anything at all. What is needed is the intestinal fortitude to stand up to the critics, laugh it off if need be, and let Dr. Othman take U.N. planning to the next level. It could be as simple of her just leading a regular discussion. The effort could cost next to nothing.
My fear is that with this apparent blunder the entire endeavor will be mortally wounded. The careful politicians will fear to return to the matter in earnest.
It is time to suck it up and act like leaders. This issue is funny to many and that's fine. Those of us who take it seriously are prepared for the jokes and the ridicule. This is an important topic that deserves to be examined from a full range of social scientific perspectives.
Dr. Othman is apparently going to attend an excellent forum coming up next week at a Royal Society conference. That event is one of the first to examine First Contact from a primarily social science perspective. We can only hope that everyone can put the media frenzy behind them and turn all of that news coverage to an honest discussion of the issue.
Dr. Mazlan Othman should lead the effort to develop strategies for dealing with First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs is the logical group to take up the issue and take the lead in the event of First Contact.
Why everyone thinks this is so funny is beyond me. It's time for the United Nations to do the right thing.