Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Extraterrestrial Contact: Do We Believe Them?

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.


Carl (from UK) said...

I agree that we should spend more time thinking about and discussing potential contact with extraterrestrials, or a discovery that life is/has been present away from our planet.

If we were to receive high information first contact today a large proportion of society would not be prepared. More mainstream media (TV, radio & internet) time needs to be given to this subject to prepare us for any such contact.

I hope that initiatives such as the Mars Curiosity Rover or the Grail satellites mapping the moon will get media attention and reinvigorate the interest in space and the possibility that life could exist away from this planet.

As we know more about our galaxy and exo-planets thanks to the Kepler telescope the chances of finding life, being noticed, or being worthy of contact increases. Therefore we need to start thinking of an existence where life on Earth is not the only life in the universe.

Happy new year to all who read this blog. Hopefully 2012 will herald more exciting debate and discoveries!

Eric Melcher said...

Carl: You make a good point- there are plenty of active scientific endeavors that deserve more attention and can help spark a conversation about the larger issues of First Contact. Happy New year to you as well. Given the Kepler discoveries in 2011, I think 2012 will be exciting for space exploration.

Álvaro Cardoso said...

I totally agree with has been said, still i don't believe that if the "First Contact" happens/happened it would be shared/said to the Public.

Governments, Scientific/Militar/Other Institutions don't share other type of knowledge, events or activities, so why would they do it for a "First Contact"?

Such event, would dramatically change our Society and Way of Living, even Faith... and who is "leading" this Society don't want to lose the control of it.

Besides that, i believe that an advanced civilization, wouldn't establish contact with a less advanced civilization, and why? Because of the consequences of that event. If they do, well, movies like "Independence Day" would show what is the purpose.

Our Society needs to evolve in so many aspects before a "First Contact" happens or becomes "public". :)

Eric Melcher said...

Alvaro: I think that you're right about government control. If a government has the ability to control first contact I think they would do such. Scientific bodies would really depend on who made the discovery. I think anyone involved in the SETI community would face a strong pressure by colleagues to make it public. And you're right...we probably have a long way to go before we're ready for such things, or it could be that we could never be more ready than now.

Álvaro Cardoso said...

Hello Eric! :) Thanks for the reply!

What makes you think "now" would be right moment to "open it" to the public? You think it wouldn't create more "chaos"?

Eric Melcher said...

Alvaro: That's a good question. I think we have the technological linkages now to help us deal with First Contact (Internet, social media, satellite media sharing) however what we're lacking is a solidified international body to respond to First Contact diplomacy needs. The United Nations could be that organization, but it certainly isn't prepared now. Will it ever be prepared? Possibly not. If humans won't take First Contact planning seriously now, will they in 20 or 30 years? Institutions respond to the greatest need. Until they see a clear need for a First Contact diplomacy process they probably won't prepare one. So, now could be as good a time as any for First Contact. I say bring it on.

Carson said...

Well said. I have always been shocked how little planning our government and scientists have put into such an important situation that may arise.

I do think we are ready. We can handle it and people always under estimate humans ability to survive and adapt. As Carl said, much more time is given to the science and seriousness of SETI, astrobiology and space missions. It is seeping into people's consciousness. The discipline astrobiology, is blowing up and technology is only going to get better.

I apologize ahead of time for getting political and religious :-) However, it is a huge problem. I worry the huge sect of American conservative Christians will not take the news well. Their reaction will be interesting and perhaps dangerous. Some will flat out deny all evidence as they do with most science (unless it's high info first contact) and others will think it's the sign of the devil or demons. I can't imagine the conservative republican politicians response, but it won't be thoughtful or intelligent.

Sadly most politicians do not think long term or in decades.

Eric Melcher said...

Carson: You're right, the religious fundamentalist reaction could be a big issue, across a number of different religions, but certainly among those with apocalyptic beliefs. There have been studies showing that people with stronger religious convictions were more likely to respond to first contact in a negative way. It would be interesting to take that a step further and really investigate fundamentalist perceptions and possible reactions to first contact.