Alien attack in the movie Independence Day

Is It Really a Good Idea to Try and Contact Extraterrestrial Species?

While we are all now familiar with SETI – the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, by searching the skies looking for alien broadcasts – in recent years a lesser known aspect to that quest has been generating plenty of debate. A number of researchers – including one of SETI’s most well-respected and recognised scientists, Seth Shostak – have been arguing that a comprehensive approach to searching for aliens should include us trying to make contact with them, referred to as both ‘Active SETI’ and METI (Messaging to ET Intelligence).

But is this really a good idea? Should we be shouting out our location to the cosmos, when we don’t know the intentions of any alien intelligences lurking out there? This is one of the major criticisms of Active SETI voiced in a recent paper on arXiv.org, “Reviewing METI: A Critical Analysis of the Arguments“.

The author, John Gertz, points out that in the medical sciences, any proposed experiment must pass ethics review boards. Some experiments are deemed to be too dangerous, or unethical, and are rejected. And yet, “astronomers face no such ethical reviews, since theirs is normally an observational science only”, he notes. But “when it comes to METI, which is not observational but manipulative, and on which may hinge the very fate of the world, perhaps they should.”

In the paper, Gertz lists and critically evaluates the most common arguments in favour of an Active SETI approach, but finds them wanting:

Whenever one hears a “scientist” assert that ET must be altruistic, or that ET surely knows we are here, or that the closet ET civilization is at least ‘x light years’ away, ask to see the data set on which they base their conclusions. As of today, no such data set exists. In the absence of any evidence whatsoever, whether one believes that the extraterrestrial civilization we might first encounter will be benign, in the fashion of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or ET, or malicious, asin Ridley Scott’s Alien, or robotic, or something else entirely is strictly a matter of one’s personal taste. SETI experiments seek to learn what actually resides or lurks out there in the universe. METI plays Russian roulette without even knowing how many bullets are in the chamber.

It would be wiser to listen for at least decades if not centuries or longer before we initiate intentional interstellar transmissions, and allow all of mankind a voice in that decision. The power of SETI has grown exponentially with Moore’s Law, better instruments, better search strategies, and now thanks to (Russian billionaire) Yui Milner’s visionary investment, meaningful funding. The advances are so profound that it is reasonable to say that the SETI of the next 50 years will be many orders of magnitude more powerful than the SETI of the last 50 years.

[Seth] Shostak, perhaps METI’s most articulate proponent, knows this and has widely predicted that we will achieve Contact within the next two decades. So why can he and his fellow METI-ists not wait at least until then before initiating transmissions?

What do you think? Should we shout out to the cosmos and see if anybody shouts back? Or is it safer not to tempt the fates?

Paper:Reviewing METI: A Critical Analysis of the Arguments

(h/t Norman Redington)

Editor
  1. Shouting Out to the Cosmos
    It would be nice to assume that life forms out there are more highly evolved and peaceful…BUT, extra grey matter requires extra protein. I wouldn’t want to be a new resource.

  2. SETI / METI
    Try reading John C. Wright’s “Count to a Trillion” series. Any intelligence able to traverse tens or hundreds of light years of space would probably have to be some kind of machine intelligence, since the time involved would be thousands of years, even at, say, one-tenth light speed. The energy costs to boost any significant payload even to that speed, as well as slow it down when you get to your destination, would be enormous. Even a fairly long-lived biological species would probably not be able to maintain political institutions over a long enough span to make such a journey worthwhile, since by the time they got here those on their home world(s) might have gone extinct or changed so much that they would be unrecognizable. Even a highly advanced biological species, to say nothing of machine intelligences, might have motivations that we could not begin to comprehend, and might view us as we view a roach infestation, or, if we’re “lucky,” as good candidates for enslavement.

    1. Limitations?
      @ Vrillord: The first segment of your post, I believe, overlooks much. It assumes visitors from afar are not much further advanced than we, in that they have failed to conquer the limitations of C. Perhaps a species who has survived long enough to venture into the cosmos have found a way around it: wormholes, for instance, or the folding of space, or discovering reality is malleable, or perhaps other advancements we have yet to consider. You seem to lay our technological shortcomings at their doorstep. I do agree, however, that their institutions would quite probably undergo unrecognizable change over extended periods of time. How many human empires have risen and fallen during recorded history; how many nations come and gone?

  3. These Aren’t The Real Points Of Interest
    SETI, METI and all of their proponents and critics are avoiding two main points:

    First, “They” (whoever they might be) are already here! And by the looks of some ancient legends, from the Vimana of the Sanskrit epics to the “wheel in a wheel” sightings in Ezekiel, they’ve been here for quite some time. I won’t debate the “where’s the proof” doubters: from overflying the Bush ranch in 2008 and appearing over Concourse C at O’Hare Airport in 2007, there’s more than enough evidence of non-human craft filling our skies. Those with an impartial mind will admit there’s more up there than our Black Projects, and those with closed minds won’t believe in Their presence until an eight-foot insectoid taps them on the shoulder and chirps, “Take me to your leader.”

    Modern scientists are incredibly short-sighted to think that non-terrestrial intelligences would only bother coming to visit Earth after humanity developed modern technology. If the situation were reversed, would we as humans wait to visit a planet until its inhabitants developed flying machines and television? Of course not. We’d visit any planet that seemed viable to harboring life, although we’d probably make a more hurried visit if we knew the inhabitants were playing around with planet-threatening weapons like nukes.

    Which brings up point two: the interest “They” have already shown in us is partly benign, and partly “don’t play with matches.” The numerous sightings of non-terrestrial craft close to nuclear weapons storage areas, both U.S. and Russian/Soviet, suggests They are well aware of our use of nuclear weapons, and are perhaps trying to caution us against their use.

    It’s long past time to wonder if any visiting intelligences would be benevolent; if They had wanted to rid our planet of its greatest pestilence, then none of us would be here today. But that’s not what has happened; instead, it appears that they’ve managed to carefully and cautiously reveal themselves in bits and pieces, but not in such an overwhelming manner that would cause the planet’s civilizations to totally collapse. That suggests They’re undertaking a long-term process of Revelation, either due to the awareness of the problems we’d face if we’re not properly prepared (“To Serve Man” references aside), or else due to some sort of agreement that might be in place between Them and certain portions of our existent governments.

    A secondary miscalculation is in trying to suggest we could possibly understand what type of technology They’d use to arrive here. That’d be like Native Americans trying to suggest that giant steel cruise ships are out of the question, and that the only way to ply the Pacific would be in dugouts or birchbark canoes.

    We still don’t understand the basic principles behind Dark Energy or Dark Matter, so we can’t begin to grasp what technology could harness such currently impenetrable sciences. Many non-terrestrial craft appear to exhibit signs of anti-gravitational capability, from levitation to ninety-degree turns at such speed that the G-forces exerted would instantly kill any human pilot. This is using technology beyond how we currently employ it. Obviously, whoever created such craft have mastered travel in ways that we can only dream of.

    I won’t go so far as to say SETI and METI are mere smokescreens, designed to draw our attention away from the real story of Their presence here. But it’s clear to me and many others that searching for ET “out there” and wondering if they’d be dangerous to us when they get here, is like asking what would happen to North America if the Europeans ever landed on our shores.

    1. Agree with well put, however
      Agree with well put, however i would like to add that it is doubtful our current Overlords are interested in inviting potential Uber-Overlords. Afterall they have a good thing going on this planet.

  4. Reviewing METI
    First of all, we don’t know if there’s anyone out there To contact. But assuming there is, the only possible answer to ‘is it a good idea’ is YES. Even if they got our message and came here for something ridiculous like using us as moving snacks, it would still be one of the most important events Ever on this planet. Forget these ‘are we ready’ and ‘is it a good idea’ posts. We should absolutely reach out.

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