The Stephen Hawking controversy continues to bubble, with discussion on the Larry King show and the appearance of David Brin’s essay The Other Kind of Aliens. It’s all to the good to get such discussions widely circulated, even if it can be dismaying to find that so many respondents believe the answers about how alien cultures will behave are obvious and can be readily deduced from our own cultural experiences. But maybe that’s because this is a new controversy, one that the search for exoplanets is only now bringing to a wider public in any serious way. There is plenty to ponder, and while we debate the nature of alien culture, let’s look at something more immediate.
The Protocols of SETI Success
SETI continues to look for signals of extraterrestrial civilizations. What happens if a signal is actually detected? For the answer, we can look to the SETI Post-Detection Taskgroup, created by the SETI Permanent Study Group of the IAA (International Academy of Astronautics). The Taskgroup’s job is to look at what would happen if we do get a confirmed detection. Understand that we’re talking about a group that is purely advisory in nature, but one whose insights may help scientists. It’s an impressive group whose members are listed here.
Step one is obvious. The reception of a signal would be met with the Taskgroup urging its discoverer to evaluate its authenticity beyond any shadow of a doubt. If it is genuine, the Taskgroup then advises that details be disclosed to the astronomical community first, beginning with the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which would then pass the news along to the United Nations and other govermental bodies. The discoverer would then be free to call a press conference to announce the finding, and soon the airways and computer networks would be filled with discussion.
Paul Davies runs through all this in his book The Eerie Silence (Davies is currently Chair of the Taskgroup, so he’s an unusually good source). And he notes that this calm procedure would likely be a good deal messier in practice:
The discoverer may be deliberately uncooperative or overawed and disoriented by the magnitude of events. There may be more than one person and one country involved. The news might leak out ahead of the formal diplomatic steps… Also, there is nothing to stop an astronomer who detects a signal out of the blue from going straight to the press or to her or his government, or any other organization, bypassing our Taskgroup altogether.
Handling Our Response
Davies goes on to say that despite all this, the most likely scenario is one involving a detection that occurs within the SETI community, and in that case the Taskgroup protocol is likely to be followed. You can read more in the Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence, written in 1989, which runs through the above steps. Here’s an interesting bit that bears on the debate about beaming signals to the stars. It’s in sections 7 and 8 of the protocol, the first dealing with protecting the critical frequencies:
If the evidence of detection is in the form of electromagnetic signals, the parties to this declaration should seek international agreement to protect the appropriate frequencies by exercising procedures available through the International Telecommunication Union. Immediate notice should be sent to the Secretary General of the ITU in Geneva, who may include a request to minimize transmissions on the relevant frequencies in the Weekly Circular. The Secretariat, in conjunction with advice of the Union’s Administrative Council, should explore the feasibility and utility of convening an Extraordinary Administrative Radio Conference to deal with the matter, subject to the opinions of the member Administrations of the ITU.
There follows the policy on response:
No response to a signal or other evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence should be sent until appropriate international consultations have taken place. The procedures for such consultations will be the subject of a separate agreement, declaration or arrangement.
When Speculation Runs Wild
The trick in all this is early in the detection process, when every attempt will be made to ensure that the signal is both artificial and not from this Earth. Verification could take time, and with today’s inter-connected web of communications, bogus information can spread in seconds, quickly tinged with dark hints of conspiracy when answers are not immediate. Science is deliberate and rigorous fact-checking is woven into its very being, so it’s unlikely a SETI scientist is going to make sensational claims without absolute certainty. This contrasts sharply with media expectations and can lead to an avalanche of misleading information.
And what about government in all this? If a possible detection is leaked and later proven bogus, conspiracy theorists will be all over it, claiming that the knowledge is being suppressed. I think Davies’ treatment of secrecy and SETI is to the point:
…if there are government plans to seize control of SETI following a positive result, they haven’t yet come to the attention of the SETI community, in spite of several high-profile hoaxes and false alarms. In fact, far from taking an unhealthy interest in the subject, governments worldwide seem to be completely indifferent. A member of the British House of Lords once asked me about SETI, but purely out of personal curiosity. In the US, Congress cancelled public funding for SETI in 1993, on the basis that it was a waste of money. That is hardly the action of a government that has a serious interest in ‘contact.’ As for secret government post-detection contingency plans, I have no doubt they are non-existent. When it comes to post-detection policymaking, the Taskgroup is it.
Will the Taskgroup’s recommendations ever get put into practice? The world will be utterly changed if a genuine signal is received and verified, and much will depend on its nature. Confirming an artificial pulse aimed at us raises the question of response, what to say, how to say it, whether to respond at all. But perhaps we’ll just detect the clear signs of a civilization at work, without necessarily knowing that it knows about us. The detection of an artificial construct in another galaxy comes to mind. It’s millions of light years away and we know nothing about its builders or whether they even still exist. That’s a more likely scenario, I suspect, and one that would shake up our culture without our ever having the possibility of genuine contact.