“Imagine how foolish you would feel if you didn’t try, only because someone said you’re a lunatic.”
— Paul Horowitz, SETI scientist
Although entirely speculative, the notion of the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence has over the years attracted the interest of a growing number of scientists outside of the fields of astronomy and astrobiology that have traditionally been associated with the search for its discovery. Researchers from a wide range of disciplines like anthropology, psychology, and the societal sciences have studied the possible effects of such a discovery to society and culture. If such a discovery were to take place, either by the reception or transmission of an interstellar message, how would we react as individuals and as a society? The last part of this article examines the results of a study which cautions that contemporary society may not be ready for such a monumental event.
The main goal of SETI has been the detection of other intelligent civilisations in the Universe through the use of radio communication methods. By scanning the skies with ever-growing arrays of radio antennas, scientists hope to discover an extraterrestrial signal of artificial origin that would indicate the presence of an intelligent civilisation. In addition, a small part of the SETI community has long argued that we shouldn’t only passively monitor the skies in the hopes of discovering that long-sought-for signal from another extraterrestrial intelligence, rather we should make our presence known to the rest of the galaxy as well, by transmitting our own radio signals. As part of this “Active SETI” approach, SETI scientists (often with collaboration from the public) have in the last 15 years transmitted several radio messages containing scientific and other cultural information to approximately two dozen neighboring stars in the Milky Way.
These actions have received much criticism from a large part of the scientific community and the general public alike, because of the potential dangers that they represent to the safety of humanity. As examined in the second part of this article, one of the contemporary beliefs regarding the nature of extraterrestrial intelligence is that it’s utterly malevolent, imperialistic, oppressive, and potentially fatal for humanity. Proponents of this view have argued that the most prudent for our civilisation is to stay as “radio silent” as possible in order to survive from other possibly predatory alien species that may roam the galaxy. For some, the absence of any confirmed discovery to date of any radio signals from other extraterrestrial civilisations reinforces this view. “If aliens are so advanced and altruistic … and yet are choosing to remain silent … should we not consider following their example and doing likewise?” argues noted American scientist and science fiction author David Brin . “At least for a little while? Is it possible that they are silent because they know something we don’t know?”
A new study published last month in the science journal Acta Astronautica has approached the subject from a slightly different angle, by studying the possible effects to society and culture from the transmission of radio messages to space, as part of “Active” SETI. “Can such a decision be taken on behalf of the whole planet?” asks Dr. Gabriel G. De la Torre, Professor of Psychology at the University of Cádiz’s Department of Psychology in Andalusia, Spain, and author of the study. “What would happen if it was successful and ‘someone’ received our signal? Are we prepared for this type of contact?” .
In order to answer these questions, Dr. De la Torre tried to assess the scientific literacy of 116 university students from Spain, Italy, and the U.S., while conducting a survey on their understanding of astronomy, cosmology, and physics, as well as their opinions on subjects ranging from the existence of God to the existence of other extraterrestrial civilisations in the Universe. The results of the survey have been disheartening, according to Dr. De la Torre, revealing a lack of knowledge among the survey’s participants about basic scientific concepts, while showcasing that most shaped their opinions regarding these topics according to their religious beliefs. “This pilot study demonstrates that the knowledge of the general public of a certain education level about the Cosmos and our place within it is still poor,” says De la Torre. “Therefore, a cosmic awareness must be further promoted – where our mind is increasingly conscious of the global reality that surrounds us – using the best tool available to us: education. In this respect, we need a new Galileo to lead this journey.” Based on these results, De la Torre cautioned that our understanding of the possible nature of extraterrestrial intelligence and our level of intellectual preparation to an eventual discovery is also lacking. “Regarding our relation with a possible intelligent extraterrestrial life, we should not rely on moral reference points of thought, since they are heavily influenced by religion,” he says. “Why should some more intelligent beings be ‘good’?”. These findings, according to De la Torre, should be taken into account by SETI scientists, who he argued must reconsider their research strategies. “[The transmission of radio signals], is a global matter with a strong ethical component in which we must all participate.”
Of SETI and human intelligence
The widespread belief that contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence would lead to chaos and the degradation of society was popularised in the aftermath of Orson Welle’s highly sensualized radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” in 1938, about a fictitious invasion of Martians on Earth, which supposedly terrorized approximately a million listeners. Although the number of listeners who mistook the radio program as a real news broadcast was far lower than that reported by the media at the time, Orson Welle’s narration nevertheless panicked enough people to cause a nationwide sensation. Many science fiction movies in the decades that followed helped to perpetuate this belief by often depicting a panicking population reacting hysterically at the sight of an invading malevolent alien species.
Do any of these portrayals of science fiction have any basis in fact? According to a vast number of studies, the notion seems to be largely unwarranted. “Oftentimes accounts of disasters include stereotypes or ‘myths’ that are widely assumed to be true but are not supported by the evidence,” writes Dr. Albert Harrison, Professor Emeritus at the University of California’s Department of Psychology . “Three such myths are: (i) people panic in times of catastrophe; (ii) there is a sharp increase in antisocial and criminal behaviour; and (iii) people within a disaster area helplessly await rescue from the outside. These myths have been refuted again and again … Disaster research views disruption as a part of a larger sequence of events that also includes adaptations. Any disruption posed by finding extraterrestrial life, is likely to be followed by processes that either restore the status quo or establish a new equilibrium that soon seems normal … Disaster research certainly acknowledges human vulnerabilities, but also recognizes that most people are hardy and well equipped to fend for themselves. Hazards and vulnerabilities are but one part of the equation; these are offset by individual and community strengths. Problem-solving skills and ego-defences protect people from being overwhelmed by stress.”
The belief that people are generally becoming less intelligent and educated with the passage of each new generation has also long been widespread, with no shortage of scientific studies being conducted on the subject that have widely contradicted each other, while failing to reach any consensus. According to one such controversial study conducted by Dr. Gerald Crabtree, Professor of Pathology and Developmental Biology at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, the transition of our hunter-gatherer ancestors toward an agricultural society has advanced with each passing generation the number of the harmful genetic mutations in the human brain that hinder the development of intelligence. “The need for intelligence was reduced as we began to live in supportive societies that made up for lapses of judgment or failures of comprehension,” argues Crabtree . “A hunter-gatherer who did not correctly conceive a solution to providing food or shelter probably died, along with his or her progeny, whereas a modern Wall Street executive that made a similar conceptual mistake would receive a substantial bonus and be a more attractive mate. Clearly, extreme selection is a thing of the past … I would wager that if an average citizen from Athens of 1000 BC were to appear suddenly among us, he or she would be among the brightest and most intellectually alive of our colleagues and companions, with a good memory, a broad range of ideas, and a clear-sighted view of important issues.”
Dr. Crabtree’s conclusions have been under fire by many in the scientific community. “Whether causally or as a correlated indicator, intelligence is strongly associated with evolutionary fitness, even in current societies,” counters Dr. Kevin Mitchell, Senior Lecturer at the Trinity College’s Institute of Neuroscience in Dublin, Ireland. . “The threat posed by new mutations to the intellect of the species is therefore kept in check by the constant vigilance of selection. Thus, despite ready counter-examples from nightly newscasts, there is no scientific reason to think we humans are on an inevitable genetic trajectory towards idiocy.”
In addition, Dr. James Robert Flynn, Emeritus Professor of Political Studies at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, argues that the continuing increase of IQ test scores during the last century, also known as ‘The Flynn effect’, indicate that intelligence is a somewhat relative concept, largely influenced by society instead of genetic reasons alone. “Are we getting smarter? That depends what you mean by smarter,” he says . “It really breaks down into four questions: Do we have better genetically engineered brains than we did in 1900? Of course not. Genes don’t select like that in four generations. So, if by ‘intelligence’ you mean a brain engineered to accomplish greater things, then we’ve made no progress at all. But if you mean: Is our ability to attack a wider range of conceptual problems improved? Then yes, we have gained in intelligence. The average person can do creative work today that they couldn’t do in 1900.”
Are we ready for contact?
Probably the best indicators for assessing humanity’s intellectual and emotional readiness in the event of contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence are the instances of “false alarms,” when SETI scientists thought that what they were detecting was the real thing. One such instance was the reception of a strong, narrow-band signal by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, W.V., in the early hours of June 23, 1997, as part of the then-ongoing Project Phoenix. “The possibility of discovery was making me fidgety,” recounts Seth Shostak, an American astronomer and SETI researcher, who was part of the search team. “My immediate worry, ironically, was about trivial matters. If the signal turned out to be real – if it really was beamed from aliens – then my schedule for the week was going to be completely messed up. … We were on the verge of proving that humankind had company, that other intelligence dwelled among the stars. But I wondered if we were ready to hear from beings that would make Homo sapiens look like an also-ran” .
Although the signal was ultimately found to be coming from NASA’s orbiting SOHO observatory, for Shostak the whole incident is really telling of the possible immediate reactions in the event of a real discovery. “I kept waiting for the Men In Black to show up, I kept waiting for my mom to call, for somebody to call, the government to call; nobody called,” he jokes . “I was so nervous, that I couldn’t sit down, I just wondered around, taking photos, looking for something to do … At 9.30 the next morning, the phone rings and it’s the New York Times, and I think there’s a lesson in that. And that lesson is, that if we pick up a signal, the media will be on it faster than a weasel on ball bearings. It’s gonna be fast, no secrecy, you can be sure of that. But what about you? What it’s gonna do to you? And the answer is that we don’t know the answer. We don’t know what it’s gonna do to you, not in the long-term and not even very much in the short-term. That would be a bit like asking Columbus in 1491 ‘Hey, Chris, what happens if it turns out that there’s a continent between here and Japan where you’re sailing to?'”
Yet, according to Shostak and many other researchers, the fact that false alarms like these go by relatively unnoticed by the public without causing any mass hysteria are indicative of a culture that has been increasingly used to the notion of alien life, even if its understanding of the Universe and humanity’s place in it is influenced more from religion than from science. “Perhaps we should not worry too much about people who protect their belief systems by denying scientific findings (or recasting them as theory), and it seems unlikely that a ‘dial tone at a distance’ will shock people who are embroiled in civil war, caught up in genocide, or wracked by AIDS and starvation,” argues Harission. “People conditioned by years of participation in UFO clubs, science fiction and an endless parade of purported documentaries, may find the discovery anti-climactic.” That view is also shared by Charles Rubin, an associate professor of political science at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Penn., who has also been studying the societal consequences of SETI. “I have no doubt that the receipt of [an extraterrestrial] message, would be a huge and genuinely exciting moment. But I don’t think it would cause a great cultural shift, because the notion of extraterrestrials is common both in popular culture and in scientific circles. It would confirm what many already suspect to be true” .
The belief of societal collapse or disruption caused by a possible contact event comprises just one end of the spectrum of the overall possible outcomes, with the other being that of societal transcendence. Just as with our own preconceived notions regarding the nature of extraterrestrial intelligence, our predictions of the possible societal consequences of contact are more indicative of our inner hopes and fears than the way with which events surrounding the discovery of any alien life might unfold.
In the meantime, SETI can play a very important role on helping to elevate the general level of education and scientific literacy in the younger generation, by engaging their imagination and sense of awe about the Universe. “We have to solve the problem [of scientific illiteracy], cause it’s a critically important problem,” says Shostak. “You may say, ‘how are we going to solve that problem with SETI?’ SETI can’t solve the problem but it can address it, by getting young people interested in science. [Modern] science is [many times] hard, it has a reputation of being hard, and the facts are that it is hard … SETI on the other hand is really simple: We’re gonna use a big antenna and we’re gonna try to eavesdrop on signals; everybody can understand that. It’s also an exciting science, because we’re naturally interested [as people] in other intelligent beings … I think that if you can instill some interest [to young children] in science and how it works, that’s a payoff beyond easy measure.”
In the end, the promotion of a new cosmic awareness, which is so urgently needed, according to De la Torre, may indeed be SETI’s biggest contribution to society, even in the absence of any confirmed radio signal from an extraterrestrial intelligence.
1. ‘Shouting at the Cosmos…Or How SETI has Taken a Worrisome Turn Into Dangerous Territory’ The Lifeboat Foundation, September 2006.
2. ‘Toward a new cosmic consciousness: Psychoeducational aspects of contact with extraterrestrial civilizations’, Acta Astronautica, Volume 94, Issue 2, February 2014, Pages 577–583.
3. ‘Fear, pandemonium, equanimity and delight: human responses to extra-terrestrial life’, Philosophical Transactions A of the Royal Society, 2011 369.
4. ‘Our fragile intellect. Part I’, Trends In Genetics, Volume 29, Issue 1, p1–3, January 2013.
5. ‘Genetic entropy and the human intellect (or why we’re not getting dumber)’, Wiring the Brain, December 2012.
6. ‘Smarter than ever?’, Monitor on Psychology, March 2013, Vol 44, No. 3 p, 30.
7. ‘Confessions of an Alien Hunter’, Astrobiology Magazine, March 2009.
8. ‘What if ET is out there?’, Seth Shostak at TEDxSanJoseCA, June 2012.
9. “Contact: The Day After”, Scientific American, Volume 304 Issue 1, January 2011, Nature Publishing Group. pp. 40–45.