Consideration of improbable events falls outside of proactive preparation in most instances. I work in public relations in Tennessee. We have plans and procedures for handling dangerous weather. Tornadoes in Tennessee are a common occurrence. While the risk of one hitting your house or place of business may be minimal, it is high enough to warrant planning. The same is true of a fire or violent incident. But how about consideration of a satellite hitting your workplace? Or even an airplane? Now, truly there is not much you can do to prepare for those specific incidents and general planning can cover many scenarios. Still, it raises an interesting question- what do you need to prepare for?
I have advocated for planning to form a proactive response to extraterrestrial First Contact. SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence) researchers have been advocating this for many years. SETI and the International Astronomical Union have a brief protocol for the discovery of an extraterrestrial signal, determined to be engineered by an intelligent civilization. Still, that protocol is almost entirely confined to the confirmation and reporting of the discovery of the signal. SETI scientists have asked the United Nations to consider the matter in more depth. Thus far, that request has been tabled, on a number of occasions.
There are two primary reasons. The first is, of course, the nutty factor. Unfortunately people have blown up extraterrestrial contact in the popular imagination to the point that it cannot be taken seriously. The second reason is more practical: humans face many tangible threats in the form of war, famine and disease. The United Nations likely takes both reasons into account when tabling alien protocol proposals. But are we putting ourselves at risk by doing so?
I found this risk management blog entry by MarcRonez. It follows the Nicholas Taleb Black Swan theory: high-profile, difficult to predict and rare events have a major and disproportionate impact on human endeavors.
Ronez advocates for a wider interpretation of risk based on the idea that over the course of time, even the most improbably events will eventually occur. Now, extraterrestrial contact is not necessarily one of those events. Intelligent civilizations may not even exist. And if they do exist they could be so far away that we would never contact them. At best, we might hope to discover a far-off signal some day and spend years and years trying to decipher the signal. But the very nature of our ignorance (we don’t know if intelligent aliens exist of not) means that it is still a possibility.
Ronez says that people and ultimately organizations have a natural tendency to ignore the improbable. And in doing so, that ignorance opens the organizations up to potentially catastrophic risk. Another example is the probability of a massive asteroid or comet hitting the planet Earth. It has happened on many occasions in the history of the planet. Astronomers point out that it is likely to occur again, but likely could be a time frame of 100-10,000 years. The threat of such objects is just starting to hit the human radar, so to speak. Astronomers carefully track such objects and determine the probability of them hitting Earth. Still, how often do you hear a public outcry about the possibility? We have the science and technology to prepare for some sort of interception of such an object and yet are we actively doing so? It seems to me that such conversation is only occurring at the fringe of the public discourse. The Siberian meteor explosion earlier this year received much news coverage and perhaps started the conversation. However, quickly the civil war in Syria and threats by North Korea pushed such talk out of the popular media. Will we eventually develop a sophisticated plan to respond to the threat of extraterrestrial objects? Perhaps, but if we continue to move only when such threats become real, it may be too late. Such an event is highly improbable and yet it could render the human species extinct.
Contact with intelligent aliens has risks as well. The most obvious is that an alien civilization could wage war on humans. Less obvious is the threat of extraterrestrial information to human systems of science, technology, religion and government. Is it prudent to plan for an event that may never happen? I would argue that the likelihood of a threat should determine the amount of planning and the resources dedicated to prepare an effective response to the threat. Thus, planning to counteract the bird-flu should have massive planning and resources. The threat is immediate and the risk is drastic. The threat of objects hitting the Earth is more remote, but perhaps even more consequential. It deserves a modest level of planning and resources (and we’re not even close to that level right now). Extraterrestrial contact may never occur, but if it does the consequences could be extreme. So, for First Contact I suggest a small amount of planning and resources. It would be stupid to put billions of dollars into planning for extraterrestrial contact. Luckily, such planning wouldn’t take much money or time. SETI researchers and other astronomers would be more than happy to dedicate the time and energy. All it requires is for the United Nations to take a risk. The risk is minimal, but in a world that questions the need for the United Nations, appearing silly is a real concern. I know that United Nations leaders would be subject to public criticism if they opened extraterrestrial First Contact protocol discussions. Sometimes that’s the risk of vision. You must look beyond the horizon and ask yourself what might occur next, and even more so, what should occur next. Those mired in the daily slog of existence might call United Nations leaders crazy or frivolous for considering extraterrestrial First Contact. So be it. The risk exists and the cost of planning is minimal. Call it a reasonable investment in risk management. It’s time for the UN to act.
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