Monday, December 26, 2011

Extraterrestrial Contact: Human Reaction

There’s a big difference between speculation and science. Much of this blog is speculation, the fiction side of science fiction. The science of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, is founded in physics. However, there is another type of science that is also important in SETI consideration, the social science of human perception and behavior. Psychologist Douglas Vakoch leads this mission in his role as social scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. Social scientists considering issues of First Contact are a small group. While some like to argue that all considerations of the impact of First Contact on the human civilization are speculative, there is one realm that can be researched in a scientific method: current human perception. If we know what humans think of extraterrestrial First Contact now, we can better discuss how institutions might need to prepare for First Contact in the future.

Vakoch published an important paper in Acta Astronautica in 2000 with Chinese researcher Y.S. Lee. In a nutshell, the paper explores the idea that human reactions to the prospect of First Contact are complicated, with at times divergent or contradictory responses. The basic question put forth is whether human reaction can be plotted as a continuum or should rather be thought of as a series of interrelated reactions. Also, do humans project their own attributes to extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) when considering whether First Contact would likely be positive or negative?

The survey study was conducted with two similar and dissimilar groups: college students in Hong Kong, China and Nashville, Tennessee. The obvious flaw can be noticed immediately. College students, by their very position, are likely to be better educated than the majority of humans. The authors acknowledge as much in the discussion. However, the choice of Americans and Chinese is quite important. It shows that different cultures may view First Contact differently. It also chooses two nationalities that would be highly influential in any First Contact response by humans and nations that could conflict in such a situation.

The authors explore attitudes and opinions in four domains with their subjects: dispositional optimism, anthropocentrism, religiosity and alienation. They use statements to assess current beliefs, utilizing a variety of scales for measurement. They presented the students with a series of questions and a hypothetical scenario, involving humans receiving an ETI message from space.

Most interesting in the results was that Americans were more likely to have expectations of ETI benevolence or malevolence as a simple either-or proposition. Chinese students however were shown to have a more complicated perspective, often considering that ETI could be both benevolent and malevolent.

Religious beliefs also had a big impact on perception. Not surprisingly, the students who considered themselves to be more religious were less likely to believe in the existence of extraterrestrial life. Religious Americans in the study were also more likely to view proven ETI as most likely hostile or untrustworthy. The Chinese students who fell into the alienated end of a scale (considering alienation and optimism as the poles) were more likely to believe that there would be religious significance in First Contact, in that humans could probably learn a lot from the religious teachings of ETI. The authors say this shows the Chinese students more likely to look to ETI for a sense of meaning.

The study also shows that those with strong religious beliefs could be more likely to have a negative reaction to First Contact. The discovery of ETI would pose significant challenges for anthropocentric individuals. These are reactions that some of use might expect from such a situation. However, this study takes the idea beyond speculation and provides some meaningful data to consider.

As for the issue of projecting ones personality on the concept of First Contact, the researchers say their results show that in the absence of information individuals will react in ways that more represent who they are and how they think, than the reality of the situation. If an ETI signal is ever discovered, deciphering the signal may be a difficult and time-consuming proposition. There will likely be an information “vacuum” of sorts that could last for some time.

Why should you give a damn about an 11 year-old research study? Human reaction to First Contact would be tremendously important. The public reaction would likely influence the response of world leaders and the institutions they represent. Those responses would decide the future of human-extraterrestrial relations. By studying our current human perceptions we can better prepare those institutions for the reaction to First Contact. And if the unlikely event ever does occur, such research could provide an important road map to help us plot a course for human response and the development of extraterrestrial relations. We have a choice in our response to First Contact. We can make hasty, knee-jerk decisions or we can utilize the findings of dedicated social science researchers to help us make intelligent and informed decisions.

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