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Cultural Aspects of SETI

SETI Institute

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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.

Principal Findings and Recommendations:


Chapter 1. The NASA Observing Program -- A High Resolution Microwave Survey.

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.

Chapter 2. History And SETI.

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.


Recommendations. (Paraphrased; see Chapter for the full text.)

  1. NASA should examine events that are partially analogous to an ETI detection, drawn from earlier human experience, but should also recognize that these provide only approximate guides for insights about SETI and not precise predictors of the future.
  2. Study should be focused on historic analogies based on the transmission of ideas within and between cultures, rather than on analogies based on physical encounters between cultures.
  3. NASA's educational programs should place SETI within the historical context of humankind's effort to comprehend its place in the universe and to understand the nature and possibility of other intelligent life.

Chapter 3. SETI And Human Behavior: Human Responses To An ETI Signal Detection.

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.

Recommendations. (Paraphrased; see Chapter for the full text.)

  1. Many cultures have traditions of depicting strangers, aliens, and ETI, and have different emotional responses to specific terms used within those traditions. Analyzing these terms (and perhaps coining new ones) will enable SETI participants to anticipate and preempt possible negative responses by adopting accurate language that is free of unexpected shadings of value.
  2. There is need for research on popular public visions, perceptions, and image of ETI's, and on cultural conceptions of science and technology.
  3. The preliminary approach that we have adopted in this Report identifies separate variables that motivate behavior, but does not specify the ways in which interactions among the variables influence behavior. Studies are needed to learn how these various elements interact.
  4. We should try to identify and clarify the responses of various peoples to the Apollo and Viking missions (activities that were remotely analogous to NASA's HRMS research).
  5. We should identify groups with unusual abilities to affect policy whose members might require better information about SETI. Can better understanding of SETI encourage their members to view these endeavors positively (or more positively)?
  6. SETI researchers (or their designees) should identify individual and institutional responses that are viewed by the public as positive and achievable in the event of a signal detection, then participate in programs of education and information that will enable people to respond in those ways.
  7. SETI researchers or their designees should make greater use of popular media, including movies, computer games, and popular music, to present SETI and ETI themes. These avenues could greatly increase public interest and exposure.
  8. SETI researchers should identify, assist, and inform national and international organizations concerned with SETI-related issues.
  9. SETI researchers should affiliate with "soft" science researchers through such bodies as the World Ethnographic Union. These relationships could bring relevant questions of behavior to the attention of those workers, and draw upon multiple disciplinary resources for understanding those variables whose effects on human reactions are unclear.
  10. The creation of a panel of expert behavioral scientists as a "reaction team" should be considered. Such a team should be available for advice and help in situations where information about an ETI signal seems to cause unusual disruption of normal patterns of life.
  11. Means should be devised for including the perspectives and inputs of members of non-American, non-White societies in the future.
  12. Great care must be taken that methodological assumptions are not made into metaphysical assumptions in describing SETI activities. We should not assume, as a matter of dogma, that ETI civilizations are anxious to communicate with us, nor that all human beings are anxious to communicate with them.

Chapter 4. SETI And Policy.

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.


  1. NASA should encourage establishment of post-detection notification processes within and among concerned national governments and inter-governmental bodies identified by this report;
  2. NASA should clarify the its own policy and procedures for public dissemination of information about the detection;
  3. In accordance with established diplomatic procedures, NASA should brief national governments and international organizations about the Microwave Survey project and the implications of detection;
  4. NASA should conduct further analyses of the political consequences of detection;
  5. In accordance with established diplomatic procedures, NASA should work with governments and international organizations to develop procedures within international organizations for responses to detection;
  6. NASA should broaden international participation in SETI through training and technical assistance.

Chapter 5. SETI, Education, News, And Entertainment.

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.

Recommendations: Educational Institutions.

  1. SETI researchers should identify a way in which information that would be useful to school teachers for presenting and displaying SETI information in their classrooms can be made available to them. (This could include identification or even publication of appropriate books, which would also be recommended to librarians; see 5 below);
  2. SETI researchers should make updated lists of reliable SETI books and materials available to librarians (possibly through their professional associations and networks);
  3. NASA should establish a formal line of communication between the SETI community and leading professional organizations of teachers (such as the National Science Teachers Association), for routine updates about SETI and for use in the event of a detection.
  4. SETI researchers should identify ways of informing the public that scientific disagreement and debate over the nature of a candidate signal is a normal and expected feature of scientific dialog;
  5. Elementary school teachers should be surveyed to learn what information about SETI (and the forms in which it should be made available) would be most useful to them;
  6. SETI researchers should study ways in which several dramatic events -- the Sputnik launch, the discovery of Pluto, Lowell's conjectures about Mars -- influenced textbooks and educational institutions.

Recommendations: News Media.

  1. Prior to a possible detection, NASA researchers should find a timely and routine way of keeping news media (and through them, the public) informed about any candidate signals checked and discarded, or checked and still under scrutiny;
  2. During the pre-detection interval, Microwave Survey news releases should regularly remind the public that dispute and debate among scientists is a normal feature of science, and that such should be expected if an ETI detection in announced;
  3. NASA should devise a formal mechanism for release of information to the media, drawing heavily upon the Viking experience;
  4. Studies of historic science stories that have resemblance to an ETI announcement should be conducted for insights on which communications and reports were effective, which were not, and how the public responded. (Examples are listed in the chapter.)
  5. Microwave Survey researchers should devise a way of regularly reporting the absence of detected signals for the part of the search that precedes a genuine detection, and of reporting other (unanticipated) astronomical discoveries resulting from the project;
  6. NASA should designate a standby team of scientists, journalists, and others who will respond to exaggerated or erroneous reports, where the latter appear to be confusing the public;
  7. NASA researchers should devise a way of regularly reminding the public that "false alarms" (detections of transient radio noise or "signals" from human sources) will be a frequent and ongoing result of the HRMS research.

Recommendations: Entertainment Media.

  1. Microwave Survey researchers should establish liaison with the entertainment industry, both to educate key media artists and producers and for staff to learn about communicating through popular forms. Briefing materials made available to news and information media should also be made available to entertainment media people. HRMS/NASA technical assistance might be made available during film and television productions of relevance to SETI.
  2. HRMS researchers should consider encouraging a filmmaker to develop a major feature about SETI and receipt of an ETI signal in a responsible dramatic way.
  3. Microwave Survey researchers should consider offering a non-technical seminar for producers, screenwriters, television executives and programmers to demonstrate how the HRMS works and what actual detection scenarios might be like.
  4. NASA should regularly invite science fiction writers to briefings for the press and VIP's, as JPL started to do with later Voyager flyby's.
  5. NASA should invite representatives from major entertainment media to serve on committees that plan the HRMS's public relations/public information efforts.
  6. A summary should be compiled of scenarios to ETI detection as envisioned by works of science fiction.

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