Friday, May 9, 2014

Extraterrestrial Contact: Are We Educated Enough?

It’s a central question when it comes to extraterrestrial contact: are humans ready for such an event? Dr. Gabriel de la Torre of the University of Cadiz in Spain is one of a handful of researchers who have attempted to answer the question through research. His answer is simple: no. 
De la Torre did a survey of 166 university students in America, Italy and Spain. They were asked general questions about their religious beliefs and their knowledge of cosmology. They were also asked about their beliefs in regards to First Contact. De la Torre has published the results in his paper “Toward a new cosmic consciousness: Psychoeducational aspects of contact with extraterrestrial civilizations.”

It’s always a disappointment not to have access to the full paper. But as usual, it’s an Acta Astronautica publication and there is no free view available. I found out about the study via the Universe Today. 
It’s an interesting topic for a neuro-psychologist to explore. De la Torre concludes that due to a poor understanding of the science of the cosmos, the university students would end up relying on political and religious figures to mediate their response to First Contact. The report recommends that we do not attempt to contact extraterrestrials, because we are not ready. De la Torre concludes that education is the key to preparation.

I can understand the concern that Dr. De la Torre has in regards to mediators. An uneducated public could be easily swayed by fear messaging. Given the human condition, it does seem likely that politicians, religious groups and other organizations might spin First Contact in a way that gives them more power.

I think the only antidote to this problem would be an active and aggressive news media. If First Contact does indeed happen someday, the media will be critical in relaying information and providing perspective. Now, many folks involved in this subject matter have worries about how the media might handle First Contact. Those are legitimate concerns. One need only look to the CNN coverage of the search for Malaysian Flight 370. The speculation and hyperbole have been excessive and quite frankly, rather stupid. But it brings up an important point. The most dangerous situation in any media event is a lack of information. Speculation comes about when there is a mystery. The longer the mystery, the worse the speculation can become. I have called this phenomenon an information vacuum. It’s a big part of crisis communications. A crisis communicator must work quickly to provide facts, so that people don’t fill in the gaps with speculation.

How would this work in First Contact? I think the key is to have a well-considered plan for contact. And this is where it gets complicated. I don’t mean a plan for humans, but rather for aliens wishing to make contact with us. They would have to consider human crisis communication issues and have a plan to respond in a way that obviates the dangers inherent in high-stress situations. People assume that aliens would be so different from us that such considerations would be impossible. I think this is a naïve view. One would imagine that an extraterrestrial civilization with the technology needed to contact humans would also have the ability to study us, perhaps via the internet, if they had a probe of some sort. That research would be critical. But everything needed to plan a thoughtful, and hopefully successful, First Contact event is available on the internet. Would it take time to learn our languages, examine human psychology and understand sociology? Certainly. But if you are an alien civilization with advanced technology, you are used to doing the hard work, in whatever context that means for your particular extraterrestrial perspective. There would be no advantage in a hasty and poorly-prepared First Contact with humans, no matter what the agenda. I think aliens interested in contacting humans would likely prepare well.

How best to approach humans and how to make sure such a First Contact event is successful is a matter that could be studied today, using research and knowledge that humans have already collected. The human response has nothing to do with aliens. It has everything to do with human behavior.

Ultimately, I don’t agree with Dr. De la Torre, if his comments in the popular media are in fact representative of his paper. I think humans are ready. But the process is the key. Scientists must be front and center in the media, providing perspective and calming fears. Attempts by politicians and religious leaders to spin the situation for their own interests must be called out by the media, scientists and more enlightened leaders. In the end, the type of First Contact would be what could decide human reaction. All of these factors must be considered and unfortunately for us, it’s up to the aliens to do the work on the front end. Once the ball is rolling we will need to be ready, but I don’t think education will get us there. Now, I agree with Dr. De la Torre that an educated human population would be best. But we have everything in human society that we need to accomplish a positive First Contact right now. Those components just need to be used properly.

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