Summary: What happens if we find intelligent extraterrestrial life? This Report is the product of a Workshop convened by NASA, with the support of the SETI Institute, to examine the implications for human society of such a discovery.
Before 1992, SETI searches were conducted on a limited scale by NASA, the Planetary Society, and a few astronomical organizations and individual investigators. The pace of the search was markedly accelerated in October 1992, when NASA began a detailed survey of selected stars and a full-sky survey. The NASA project, known as the High Resolution Microwave Survey (HRMS), uses radio telescopes outfitted with specially-developed high speed computer systems. It eclipses all previous searches and reinforces the need to seriously address a significant question related to the outcome --
What happens if we find intelligent extraterrestrial life?
This Report is the product of a Workshop convened by NASA, with the support of the SETI Institute, to examine the implications for human society of such a discovery.
The chapters that follow describe NASA's Microwave Survey. They examine the idea of extraterrestrial life through recent history, analyze ways in which people and groups might react to a detection of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) or to a long search with no detection, and assess possible reactions to a detection by political and governmental entities. A final chapter examines the roles of educational institutions, news media, and entertainment media as informers of the public in the event of a detection.
The chapters seek to identify studies and actions that ensure that the public and various political entities and organizations can be better acquainted with SETI and more likely to respond to an announcement of a detection in ways that are orderly, positive, and beneficial. Each chapter concludes with a list of recommendations.
The principal findings and recommendations are summarized in the following.
Detection of an ETI signal would spark intense widespread interest that would in turn prompt new technological advances and highlight a need for organized assessment of the discovery. The discovery would contribute to philosophical discussions and perspectives. Non-detection after a long interval would likewise suggest insights about humanity's situation in the universe, perhaps reflecting an apparent scarcity, uniqueness, and loneliness of intelligent communicating beings.
For several centuries people have accepted the possibility that other worlds house other intelligent beings. Whereas many have been relatively indifferent to this idea, others have sorted themselves into "millennial" and "catastrophist" camps, respectively espousing positive or negative views of the implications of ETI existence. Both views have continued to attract adherents in recent years, these using modern terminology to argue for or against efforts to detect ETI's. Modern arguments about ETI's focus on the Drake equation, which gives highly-varying assessments of the abundance or scarcity of ETI's in our galaxy.
Views of SETI are confused by public perceptions that physical contact between human and ETI cultures must inevitably be involved. Cultural contacts in history have had unfortunate outcomes for many people, prompting negative analogies with SETI. In contrast to prevailing impressions, however, some cultural contacts have resulted in outcomes in which all parties benefitted. In particular, entry of Arab knowledge to medieval Europe, with consequent flowering of European scholarship and subsequent discovery, may be analogous to the Microwave Survey's potential to provide advanced new information without physical contact. There are no historic events that are exactly analogous to an ETI detection. This mandates caution in seeking insights into likely human reactions to such a detection from partially-analogous historic encounters and events.
The factors that influence human responses include attributes of individuals (for example, gender, race or ethnic affiliation, religion, level of education) and attributes of the environmental backdrop (including nuances of languages used to describe events, whether outlooks are optimistic or pessimistic, belief systems, economic situations, cultural stores of image, and frames of reference). The reactions of individuals and groups depend upon interplays among factors, in ways that are not known or presently predictable.
Reactions to a detection (or non-detection) can range from indifference through mild positive or negative curiosity, through millennial enthusiasm or catastrophist anxiety, to full scale pronoia or paranoia. Most individual reactions to an announcement would include active expanded searches for additional information, with significant coalescences of like-minded individuals in support (or opposition) groups. A few reactions would probably be irrationally extreme or even violent.
Education is identified as a factor that correlates with positive attitudes toward SETI. Research is recommended that enables us to better understand factors that underlie various responses and to identify activities that increase the likelihood that responses will be well-informed and even positive. One promising fact-finding technique is to pose specific alternative ETI detection scenarios, then poll the public on likely responses to those scenarios.
Many organized entities are likely to try to use news of an ETI detection in ways that serve their purposes. These include promotion of claims of a "cover-up" of information about the detection, advocacy of increased aerospace research, maneuvers to manipulate the release of information about the find for political benefit, and efforts to control or suppress the release of information. Efforts to suppress or control information are unlikely to succeed, given the widespread SETI verification and data-sharing network and the likely ability of most nations to "tune in" an ETI source with modest equipment.
Government bodies will need to respond to news of an ETI detection. Most have no policy or mechanisms in place for responses, and could benefit from discussion now of possible actions to be taken in the event. One existing agreement on actions to be taken by SETI researchers in the event of a detection is widely endorsed. However, it has no legal status or government signatories at present.
An important question would be that of sending a reply to an ETI message or signal. That discussion would be guided by whether the ETI transmission was intended for us or was overheard in passing, whether it was information-rich or information-poor, "friendly" or "hostile" in tone, and by other considerations. Discussion should begin on whether or how international or national representative bodies should address this issue.
Because existing institutions, processes, and agreements generally neglect the possibility of an ETI detection, much remains to be done to prepare for policy responses to a detection. The work could be addressed in two broad categories: first begin the educational and informational processes necessary to prepare government bodies and international institutions most likely to be affected by an ETI detection, and second begin establishing procedures and mechanisms similar to those outlined in this chapter, to make humankind's responses to detection more effective.
Schools, libraries, museums and universities are able and likely to respond quickly with detailed accurate information on SETI, both in the short term if deluged with requests following a detection and in the long term via education programs. One weakness in this network is identified, a disproportionate availability of materials on UFO's and pseudoscientific aspects of extraterrestrial life in libraries alongside reliable SETI material. How educational institutions themselves would be changed by an ETI detection is not easy to predict. Studies of ways in which the somewhat analogous Sputnik launch or Percival Lowell's conjectures about intelligent life on Mars affected schools and texts may provide insights.
News media will be the source of information for most people during a detection event. Reliable reporting and minimization of sensational mistaken misrepresentations are assured if SETI researchers follow procedures used during the Viking (and similar) missions; however some misrepresentation is inevitable given the lack of training in science of most reporters. One worrisome dimension of reportage is the likelihood that "candidate signals" -- promising but unconfirmed radio bursts -- will be prematurely or mistakenly reported as genuine signals from ETI's. These repeated "false alarms" can negatively affect public perceptions of science and the Microwave Survey project.
Entertainment media delve into the fantastic and do not necessarily convey accurate SETI-related imagery to the public. For example, films and novels have created a widespread public impression that interstellar travel is easy, and that physical encounters between humanity and ETI's could become commonplace. The responses of the entertainment media to an ETI detection are not easy to predict; controversy or widespread perception of "reality" following a detection might unexpectedly mute, rather than stimulate, their treatment of ETI-related subjects. Tabloid media will certainly misrepresent all stories and cannot be persuaded to do otherwise. Regular reporting of "no detection" is required, in part to forestall tabloid (and other) stories about "suppression of a discovery."
Both entertainment and news media reflect and shape the emotional backdrop of nations and the world, which in turn is likely to tilt public reactions to a detection in "anxious" or "enthusiastic" directions.