Monday, December 13, 2010


Humans have had an interesting relationship with science in the last 90 years. Michael Specter examines this in his book “Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.”

The major question is: how have we arrived at a point where many people deny the science of global warming, the safety of vaccines and even the theory of evolution?

Specter’s first law of denialism: “The truth is not going to get in the way of people who are moved by faith, greed, fear or a desire to deny what they see.”

His second truth of denialism: “Denialism transcends politics.”

Specter mentions the fear of food bio-engineering when pointing out that the left has participated in plenty of science denialism in recent years.

How does this tie into extraterrestrial First Contact?

Specter says that fear and superstition are threatening human progress, building a public antagonism towards science. This is a marked turn from attitudes 90 years ago, when science was looked upon to transform society. What happened? The unleashing of the first nuclear bomb is one turning point. Suddenly, humans were aware that technology could be deadly on a scale not previously imagined. There was a realization that there are many possible dangers in science. Just look to the science fiction of the 1950s to see what developed in the collective consciousness: nuclear technology producing monsters of all sorts. Of course, this notion of dangerous technology had actually been creeping up in the collective consciousness for many years, with the development of gas warfare in WWI and massive aerial bombardment at the start of WWII.

In the wake of First Contact, denialism would be a huge issue. Many people would be unable to fit the reality of an extraterrestrial civilization into their religious and philosophical views. Distrust and fear would run rampant. Science and the scientific process could be viewed as a dangerous conduit to alien thinking and alien ideas.

Granted, some concern in the aftermath of First Contact would be quite warranted. Many argue that the path of current technology, without careful controls, could harm or even destroy human civilization. It seems to be one of the great arguments of our time, especially with advances in bio-technology that allow us to literally transform biological life itself.

Bill Joy, who formed Sun Microsystems, has called for restrictions in the use of technology and limiting the pursuit of some kinds of technology. Joy’s most famous call to action came in a 2000 Wired magazine article titled "Why the future doesn't need us." Specter calls this worry a type of Luddism, dangerous in itself, saying that it’s like asking society to have a preventive technological lobotomy. Still, with the advent of advanced biological manipulation and of computing power soon growing beyond our comprehension, you can understand where Joy is coming from. We have been creating technology that has the ability to not only destroy our planet, but potentially change the very nature of human biology. We have reached the point of danger with nuclear technology. We may soon approach the point of danger with bio-technology.

This debate would be even more vigorous After First Contact. If alien visitors decided to share information about science and technology, we will have to decide what we want to know and how we want to receive the information. Most importantly, we would have to decide how we would allow that information to be used.

While I understand and respect the concerns on both sides of the argument, one would imagine that as in most things human, the key will be balance. We will have to walk a fine line between allowing an unrestrained leap in technology and living with a controlling, forced system of limited access to alien technology and science.
Specter argues that ultimately, the world needs an education system that stresses skepticism and critical thinking, and perhaps most importantly, a real understanding of science and the scientific process. First Contact would make this need only more dramatic. Humans, at all social and economic levels, have a right to a robust educational system that helps humans to be capable of understanding what is happening in their world. This would be perhaps the greatest challenge After First Contact. Will we make the effort to bring all humans into the decision making process? Will we help even the poor to understand what is going on? Or will we fracture, on an even larger scale, into a society of information haves and have-nots?

One cannot have a functioning, technologically advanced, democratic society, unless the majority of people in that society truly understand science and can think critically. With or without aliens it may be the challenge of our times.

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