Monday, November 21, 2011

Extraterrestrial Contact: Secrecy

It’s an essential question of any extraterrestrial First Contact scenario: disclosure. Do the people who make First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization tell the rest of the world? It’s easy to assume the inherent correctness of full disclosure. First Contact would change human history and it might be nice if all humans knew that it was occurring and perhaps had some say in how First Contact diplomacy progressed. Recently, a reader made a sound argument for keeping First Contact secret. The basic premise is that certain people in leadership positions should develop an action plan in secret, exploring the possibilities and negative impacts, before notifying the world. There are clear benefits to secrecy. Decisions can be made without the weight of public opinion and influence of potentially fractious public debate. Building a framework for diplomacy behind the scenes could help prevent panic. Humanity would be presented with a safe and controlled First Contact event, not one fraught with uncertainty and fear. Military leaders could asses threats and make preparations for defense. The group or nation in question could benefit from alien knowledge and prevent the release of technological information that could be dangerous in the wrong hands.

Allen Tough covered many of these ideas in a paper for Acta Astronatica in 1990 titled “A Critical Examination of Factors That Might Encourage Secrecy”.Tough breaks down the possible benefits of secrecy, including: prevention of panic, controlling the impact on our culture, and allowing one group to gain competitive advantage. However, he is clearly in favor of transparency. He refutes each of the reasons for secrecy and provides arguments for why transparency would be beneficial.

Panic is his first point. Some argue that the public will panic if information about First Contact is released without government control. Tough points to studies that show the majority of humans believe in extraterrestrial intelligence. Those studies also show that people would be inclined to handle the news with wonder, not panic. Popular fiction has certainly allowed us to play out the many possibilities and fears involved in extraterrestrial contact. It seems unlikely that the real thing will be anywhere near as dramatic as Hollywood portrayals. So, why panic?

The next point is impact on culture. Controlling the impact on our culture is more of a gatekeeping issue. The question is not whether the revelation of First Contact would change us, but rather that the information that could be revealed to us in a high-information First Contact scenario could affect us. Tough reasons that the scientific and other institutions that hold together our society are resilient and would be unlikely to crumble under the weight of high-information First Contact. While I can agree that we humans are a fairly adaptive lot, I do think that high-information First Contact would pose major challenges for our institutions- especially for the scientific and economic communities. I believe that some form of gatekeeping is essential when it comes to information provided to us in a First Contact situation.

Gatekeeping is a problematic issue. The very nature of gatekeeping means that someone must be privy to information that others are not. In a sense, in advocating for gatekeeping, you are advocating some degree of secrecy. I believe that information that could cause volatility to our economic and scientific systems must be carefully considered before release. That’s not to say I’m advocating for not releasing such information, but merely that we consider the consequences and look to alleviate the negative impact as much as is possible. That will require some group keeping matters secret for a period of time. The only way to make this transparent is to make the process of gatekeeping transparent. You admit there is information that is not being released. You give a timeline for when you will be able to release the information and you keep as much of the gatekeeping process in the public eye as is possible.

Tough points out that competition is another critical factor in secrecy. Researchers could seek to keep news of First Contact secret until they can develop the discovery and stake a bigger claim in the scientific history books. Still, it seems to me that the bigger question is of national control of First Contact news. If one nation discovers extraterrestrial intelligence, those leaders might hope to keep that discovery quiet. That would give them time to determine what technological information might be derived from the contact, giving that nation a very strong advantage in everything from military strength to economic power. Luckily, in a SETI based discovery there are likely to be teams of scientists involved in not only the discovery of a signal, but more importantly the confirmation of such a signal. SETI scientists already have a protocol for sharing information in order to confirm that a signal might actually have been created by extraterrestrial intelligence.  

Keeping secrecy is not as easy as one might think. The United States couldn’t keep nuclear weapons technology secret in the 1940’s and 1950s. Many nations gained advantage through spy programs. With electronic communication those leaks are even more prevalent. Consider the primary revelation of the Wikileaks release of top secret military information. That top secret info that Wikileaks uncovered was actually available to tens of thousands of government employees. So, when the White House comes out and says they have no evidence that extraterrestrial intelligence exists or that any human has had contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, as they did recently, I believe them. It would be unlikely that any government could keep such information secret for long. This is especially true since the investigation of any extraterrestrial contact would require help from the scientific community and most scientists seem to agree that such First Contact should be a public concern, at least after such a signal is confirmed.

The biggest problem with secrecy is the long-term damage created by such a strategy. Trust will be a big issue in the wake of First Contact. Creating and keeping trust will be the only way to avoid fearful reactions and the development of wide-spread conspiracy theories. No matter how mentally prepared we think we are, in reality I think First Contact will create a feeling of vulnerability in various forms across human society. The only way to lessen fear and concern is through transparency. For that transparency to be effective it needs to start at the very beginning of First Contact and continue through the diplomatic process.

I have said it before, and I know I probably sound like a broken record: First Contact needs to be an open event for all nations and all of humanity. The information shared should be shared equally. The process developed for the international response needs to be protective of our society but also transparent and open to public debate.

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