Monday, February 16, 2009

Contact: Would we know if it happened?

Forgive my cynicism, but I have to ask: If we received an irrefutable ET signal, would the public ever know?

Suppose it happened tomorrow: Radio astronomers detect an intelligently crafted burst of data lurking in the interstellar noise. According to international SETI protocol, the receipt of such a signal, once verified, would be disseminated among the astronomical community and made public. Indeed, international cooperation might be necessary in order to distinguish a legitimate alien signal from any number of phenomena capable of generating false alarms.

SETI's disclosure scenario only makes sense if the signal in question is of no strategic importance. But, in reality, we have no way of anticipating what an alien intelligence might choose to send us. While many scientists find the prospects of interstellar hate mail slim, we can't immediately rule out the existence of malevolent ETs or cosmic "spam."

A transmitting civilization wouldn't even have to be hostile to pose grave threats to SETI's promise of prompt dissemination. For example, a radio-frequency communiqué might contain data pertaining to a relatively near-term celestial threat such as an impending supernova. In effect, our first signal might prove to be a warning from a galactic emergency broadcast system. While the motive behind the message might be perfectly benign, the effect on our society could prove debilitating.

Which begs the question: How do we distinguish between the sort of lofty, abstract dialogue immortalized by Carl Sagan and less palatable alternatives? More pressingly, how do we make such a determination within a reasonable time-frame?

The arrival of an extraterrestrial signal would almost certainly be fraught with some degree of bureaucratic interference, and it would be the height of naïveté to expect the national security establishment to content itself with idle observation of the proceedings. At some point during the decryption of a candidate signal someone is bound to intervene. If the message seems at all intriguing, I can't help but envision the discovery going underground . . . at least until sufficiently analyzed. (One naturally wonders if the public announcement of an ET transmission would represent the whole signal or a "sanitized" remix.)

Lest my concerns seem like so much "X-Files" paranoia, it's worth considering some of the reasons an ET intelligence might send us a message in the first place. Perhaps, as noted, we're due to experience an unforeseen "existential threat" via gamma radiation or the close approach of an uncharted black hole. Or we may be in the line of fire of someone else's war. More extravagantly, we might discover that our section of the galaxy is scheduled for demolition in order to make room for an astro-engineering project -- in which case our stellar landlords could be sending out a most unwelcome eviction notice (albeit one we can postpone heeding for a few thousand years).

The threats above may seem reassuringly distant to citizens of the West, but the governments of less-developed regions might see things quite differently. While our ET neighbors might be able to take a long-range view, we can scarcely say the same for our own species.

Ultimately, would nation states elect to gamble with their respective economies and socio-political agendas for the sake of imparting knowledge of no apparent practical consequence?

I think the answer is no.

This piece originally appeared at


Anonymous said...

"we can't immediately rule out the existence of malevolent ETs or cosmic "spam.""

I can see it now.

My name is Usha, My late husband was a Prince in the recently deposed kingdom on Alpha Centuria II.
After he passed away, the government has been looking for his substantial wealth. I have been hiding it in Vegan bank accounts, but need to move it to a less obvious part of the Galaxy. Due to your fine credit and reputation, I humbly ask if you would be willing to keep this substantial sum (over 20,000,000 Centurian dollar) until I can sort out my passage to Earth.
Due to the difference in size of species, I think you being human would be a perfect match as the entire sum could be safely held by you in a rectal suppository or tampon. I will be willing to split the 20,000,000 50/50.

Yours Truly

Princess Usha Usha


Mac said...


Not quite what I had in mind, but I suppose I deserved this! :-)

purrlgurrl said...

SETI wouldn't disseminate any signal information for a much more banal and mundane reason - it likely would not be allowed to continue in its present independent format doing what it does. There would almost certainly be some type of government intrusion, and the SETI folks would no longer have control of their own work, funding, and purse strings. They'd just become your basic government employees, subject to all the restrictions of their job grades. I'm just way too cynical about the whole SETI enterprise at this point to think there'd be any other reason they'd conceal a signal. They have great jobs, doing what they love, and people keep giving them money to do it. Why would they derail the gravy train? Seems to me SETI is the last organization that would admit evidence of extraterrestrial life.

Mac said...

SETI's Seth Shostak is something of a snake-oil salesman in that he promises that SETI will detect ETI in 20 years . . . but only, of course, if the cash keeps coming. That's not science; it's phony-baloney salesmanship.

Anonymous said...

It's nice to see these posts revisited here on PHB. Thoughtful and thought provoking.


Mac said...


Thanks. I figured I might as well have them here, especially as aboutSETI has apparently decided to go on vacation and I have no way of knowing how much longer their site will remain online . . .

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