Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Extraterrestrial Contact: The Impossibility of Human Consensus

I often speak of the importance of wide spread human involvement in the decision making to resolve issues raised by contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. I am not advocating that everyone be directly involved in the process- clearly that is not practical on any level. But I do suggest that humans in countries big and small, and from all over the planet, be represented in the process. The easiest way to accomplish this would be to use the already existing system of representation in the United Nations.  

It’s a hard topic to discuss without an example. Let’s consider the possibility of an extraterrestrial civilization reaching out to humans to make First Contact. In a signal based communication scenario, the most obvious questions would be: what do we do next? Do we send a message back? What should that message say? The message the aliens send us would, of course, be the primary factor driving our decision making process. For this example let’s have the aliens simply say hello and ask- would you like to trade information with us? Do we say hello back and beam out the contents of Wikipedia, as has been suggested by some researchers, and let them sort out who we are? Or do we send a simpler, targeted message?
The debate already rages in some circles. Recently the issue was brought up at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in California. Even before a session on active SETI (sending a signal to outer space) was held, some scientists spoke out against such actions. Those feelings of caution and concern are held by some well-known researchers, including legendary astrophysicist Stephen Hawking.

Scientists, governmental leaders, diplomats and academics will likely be leaders in determining actions to take in the wake of a First Contact event. Hopefully, they will look to opinion polls to see how humans in various locations across the globe feel about such responses. There will be fringe elements vigorously espousing their views in public and in the media. Those views will need to be considered, as well.
It has been suggested that a group of scientists and other leaders might make such decisions on their own. I think that would be unwise. Such important considerations deserve the global reach of a group such as the United Nations.

The decisions made are unlikely to make everyone happy. The final decisions could even go against popular sentiment on the issue. Governmental leaders and others would probably argue that decision making on a global scale cannot be decided by opinion polls. In the end, hard decisions will need to be made. Humans will need to accept this result and do so without violent or disruptive protest. We will have to have faith in our institutions. This may be tough to swallow for some humans. It could be especially tough for humans living in countries without democratic-style representation. Would leaders of a totalitarian regime consider opinion polls of their countrymen when deciding how their UN representative should vote on a First Contact issue? It seems unlikely.
The entire process would be a considerable challenge, because we have nothing to compare it to. Usually the United Nations operates relatively quietly and out of the scrutiny of the popular media. Most of the publicly noticed action seems to come in the Security Council. And First Contact issues may start out there. However, it would be important for the larger issues to reach the General Assembly for a vote, to ensure greater international participation in the decisions.

There will be many differing opinions about First Contact, along a spectrum that would include those opposed to a relationship with extraterrestrials, to those actively encouraging such a relationship. Not everyone will be happy with whatever is decided in terms of response. But the debate would be important to the future of humanity. As long as many differing viewpoints are considered, and most humans have some sort of representation in the process, the results should help us move forward in a safe and positive and way.
What do you think? Give your opinion in a comment here or visit the Alien First Contact Facebook page.

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