Part of the problem with speculation about extraterrestrial contact is that we often tend to gloss over the details, which is understandable, considering that the details could turn out in a million different ways. Speculation is always suspect if it has no basis in fact. There is no evidence regarding extraterrestrials, so we have no fact for foundation.
So, why am I wasting my time?
I believe that there is one thing we can discuss that has relevance: the process of extraterrestrial contact. Now granted, to even begin this discussion we will have to make a few assumptions, to narrow the playing field so to speak. Let’s confine our thinking to high-information First Contact, that is, First Contact that involves humans receiving a great deal of information from an extraterrestrial source. It could be a signal sent to us from a far-off planet. It could be information provided to us in a Direct First Contact scenario closer to home. There is one part of the process that I think would be essential in any response to high-information First Contact. We would need to employ critical thinking at every step.
Here’s a scenario to show what I mean. Humans receive a transmission from another world. In the transmission the sender/senders describe their world, their culture, their science and how they perceive the universe. Well, that would be one hell of a long transmission. But let’s say those are the highlights. What do we do with that information? Unfortunately, I think it depends on who receives the information here on Earth and how it is disseminated. If the transmission is easily translated or perhaps written in a human language (both unlikely, granted) the entire transmission could just be released publicly. Then everyone could be involved in the discovery process. Very exciting. But there is one clear danger: not everyone on the planet employs critical thinking. Unfortunately, it’s much easier to believe what we are told. And if the source is an extraterrestrial, then who are we to question what they say? Scientists and other academics would likely be skeptical. They would probably ask a series of questions. Who is this information coming from? Is it from one source, from one particular culture of this extraterrestrial civilization? Is this information the product of a much larger process involving many facets of the extraterrestrial civilization? Are there other extraterrestrial civilizations that might have a differing view of things? What is the agenda of the authors? What are they hoping to accomplish by releasing the information to us? Could there be a hidden agenda that we are not aware of? Human scientists would probably add another set of questions: what empirical evidence do you have to show that the universe operates in the way you describe?
These questions would get quite complicated. Depending on the method of transmission a reply could take decades, if not longer. In the meantime, how does the public react? If provided the information wholesale, there could be dangers in misinterpretation. People could seize on particular parts of the transmission to support a political or religious view that they have. There would, needless to say, be tremendous debate and discussion. All of that could be beneficial, but only if we have some organized process to help lead the discussion. Such a scenario would be the first time that humans had encountered a great deal of information at one time. The entire planet would need to employ critical thinking in a sense, and of course with critical thinking being a hard process, many would choose not to do so or quickly jump to conclusions based on their way of thinking about the universe. We’ve discussed that the lack of information often causes humans to fill in the gaps with their own particular perspective. I think that massive amounts of extraterrestrial information could have the same effect.
So, the other option would be for scientists to keep the transmission from the public at first, and then have an organized process of scientific discussion. The subsequent information could then be released, bit by bit, with thoughtful and educated analysis. There would certainly be a fist-fight over who would get to be employed in such a remarkable and important role. It would have to be an international group with solid academic credentials and an emphasis on impartiality. Someone would need to make the decision over who would be included in that group. But embargoing the information to the public could cause another reaction: distrust. Fringe groups, and even those in the mainstream, could find such an embargo threatening. Such concerns could lead to speculation about conspiracies. Some would ask: who is controlling such important information and for what purposes? What is being kept from us?
I think the only solution in a high-information First Contact situation is complete transparency and openness, combined with an active and high-profile process of critical thinking lead by key academics. This process would need to be broadcast to the world, so that the resulting conversation would become as equally important as the information from the transmission itself. Will it be an ugly, tumultuous process full of heated debate? Of course. With humans, such global discussions are always interesting. It will be a necessary process though, and we might find that after many years of discussion, what we think of the alien transmission has changed to some extent. The more questions we ask, the more questions will be raised. Hopefully, at some point we could ask those questions of our new extraterrestrial pen pals and get a thoughtful response. In the end, the process we use to disseminate and discuss the information would be almost as important as the information itself. The great thing about process is that it is something we can consider now, before we ever receive extraterrestrial information.
First Contact may never happen and there are those who say, why waste your time thinking about it? First Contact of any type would fundamentally change human civilization and in a high-information First Contact situation that change could be quite dramatic. Doesn’t that make it worth discussing now? Let’s just take a tiny fraction of the time we spend discussing celebrity foibles and apply that energy and effort to the consideration of First Contact. If we’re going to waste our time, let’s waste it on something important.