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Active SETI and the Public

When it comes to understanding possible extraterrestrial civilizations, I’m with Freeman Dyson, who had this to say:

“Our business as scientists is to search the universe and find out what is there. What is there may conform to our moral sense or it may not…It is just as unscientific to impute to remote intelligences wisdom and serenity as it is to impute to them irrational and murderous impulses. We must be prepared for either possibility and conduct our searches accordingly.”

As quoted in a 2005 essay by Michael Michaud, Dyson saw two alternatives: Intelligent races may rule their domains with benign intelligence, occasionally passing along the knowledge they have accumulated to a universe eager to listen. Or intelligence may be purely exploitative, consuming what it encounters. We don’t know which of these alternatives prevails, if either, and that’s one reason that Michaud, a former diplomat who became deputy assistant secretary of state for science and technology, resigned from the International Academy of Astronautics’ Permanent Study Group dedicated to SETI in September. The issue: Active SETI, not just listening but beaming signals at will to other stars.

M31 galaxy

If you want to have a good look at the controversy, read David Grinspoon’s article “Who Speaks for Earth,” as comprehensive a look at the issue as I’ve seen. Grinspoon is a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute (Boulder, CO) as well as the author of Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life (Harper, 2004). Two years ago we looked at his provocative ideas about life on Titan in a Centauri Dreams posting.

Image: M31, the Andromeda Galaxy. Are ‘cities of stars’ like these home to benign species exchanging information, or are there threats we know nothing of that make silence a better choice? Credit: NASA.

Running in SEED Magazine, Grinspoon’s latest article should receive plenty of attention, a good thing given the fact that most people either don’t know that signals have already been sent (not just from Arecibo but to nearby stars from the Evpatoria planetary radar site in the Crimea), or else think that sending signals is a harmless exercise, because surely extraterrestrial civilizations are, though entertaining, pure science fiction.

And perhaps they are — people like me think they’re vanishingly rare — but the point is that we have nothing more than speculation to work with. Meanwhile, what would we do if we ever did receive an actual SETI signal? The First SETI Protocol was drawn up in the 1980s to address the issue, laying down procedures that begin with notifying the worldwide SETI community, verifying the potential alien signal, then announcing it to the public. No reply would be sent without first establishing a global consensus.

That latter, of course, is the sticking point. As Grinspoon explains, a Second SETI Protocol should have tuned up our policy for sending messages from Earth, but arguments over whether it should only affect responses to received messages — or messages sent before any extraterrestrial signal was detected — have complicated the picture. Language calling for international consultations before we make further deliberate transmissions was deleted from Michaud’s draft of the Protocol when the Permanent Study Group of the SETI subcommittee of the IAA met last year in Valencia.

Grinspoon’s article is a calm assessment of the current situation, and I recommend it to you. He discusses the work of Alexander Zaitsev at Evpatoria, whose team has sent a series of messages toward nearby stars. Remember that Frank Drake’s Arecibo message of 1974, the first active SETI attempt I know of, was aimed at the globular cluster M13, some 25,000 light years away, and was thus something of a scientific exercise rather than a active attempt to open a communications channel. But the stars reached by the Evpatoria messages are between 45 and 70 light years from Earth, more or less in our back yard.

Discussions between the two camps continue. But two Grinspoon points merit special attention. One is that the kind of facilities that can make active SETI broadcasts are today largely in the hands of national governments or large organizations answerable to public opinion. Will it always be so? Grinspoon says no:

…seemingly inevitable trends are placing increasingly powerful technologies in the hands of small groups or eager individuals with their own agendas and no oversight. Today, on the entire planet, there are only a few mavericks like Zaitsev who are able and willing to unilaterally represent humanity and effectively reveal our presence. In the future, there could be one in every neighborhood.

Which is one reason why public indifference to the question of broadcasting to the stars may not last much longer. In fact, the Grinspoon article may be a watershed event in changing awareness. The issues are clearly large. As David Brin has been pointing out since the 1980s, one possible answer to our failure to detect other civilizations is that there may be a reason why such civilizations would want to remain silent. Is there a threat to emerging intelligence that could make our attempt to draw attention to ourselves a dangerous mistake? We can’t know at this juncture, which makes deliberate broadcasts something of a shot in the dark. And that dark is quite impenetrable at present.

Grinspoon also makes the point that the entire discussion on active SETI may in itself be a good thing for our own understanding. Let me quote him again:

…even if no one else is out there and we are ultimately alone, the idea of communicating with truly alien cultures forces us to consider ourselves from an entirely new, and perhaps timely, perspective. Even if we never make contact, any attempt to act and speak as one planet is not a misguided endeavor: Our impulsive industrial transformation of our home planet is starting to catch up to us, and the nations of the world are struggling with existential threats like anthropogenic climate change and weapons of mass destruction. Whether or not we develop a mechanism for anticipating, discussing, and acting on long-term planetary dangers such as these before they become catastrophes remains to be seen. But the unified global outlook required to face them would certainly be a welcome development.

These are welcome words, highlighting the fact that the issues we confront as we look for extraterrestrial civilizations are just as significant for our own dealings here on Earth, where other cultures can sometimes seem as inscrutably alien as anything we might find through a radio telescope search. And Grinspoon is surely right about the proliferation of technologies expanding active SETI in the future. We need to be raising public consciousness on this issue and getting the entire active SETI question into broader forums, where people from a wide range of backgrounds, in and out of the sciences, can address it. We need to do that so we act not as individuals but as a species, looking out into a universe that may or may not welcome us as friends.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • joeo33 January 2, 2008, 12:29

    Suppose a simple experiment might show that ETs are already visiting our world…would the SETI researchers, and other scientists, conduct the experiment, and attempt to communicate with them? …And ask them if Active SETI is dangerous?

    Many people have suggested that the ETs have been trying for years to make their presence known, without causing panic and chaos, and are waiting for one or more nations to acknowledge their presence and begin a conversation. To test this theory, the SETI researchers, other scientists and scientific organizations, and the news media could join together to ask NASA a simple question:

    “Would you welcome an open and public communication from ETs who may already be here–such as an electronic message which the SETI Institute and others, including the news media–could receive?”

    If the alledged ETs are monitoring our communications and thoroughly understand our civilization, then a simple answer from NASA might be understood as a ‘request for communication’ from the United States. A more explicit, carefully worded welcome message from NASA, or a message from the UN might be more likely to elicit a response…

    Many scientists, and others, have argued that ‘contact’ with an ETI would be a disaster for humankind. And yet many of the same scientists, and others, have warned of the threats to our civilization from nuclear weapons, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and global warming, etc. Some say the human race may not survive this century, or even the next few decades…or even the next few years.

    If it were possible to communicate with an ETI, and learn of the experiences of other evolving civilizations, would we? What would the government officials, scientists, and the people who lived long ago and faraway say to us, if they could speak? Did they survive this era of technological development? Could we avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, and learn how to create the kind of future we want to live in? Or would the harm caused by contact far outweigh any possible benefit to our civilization?

    If contact between evolving and advanced civilizations–learning the facts of life in the Universe–is a normal part of growing up as a civilization, then the ETs should be able to predict, more accurately than we can, how the experience might affect our civilization. If we asked, would they tell us some or all of the story of life in the Universe? Would they first explain the likely costs and benefits of the contact process, and let us decide, to some extent, whether and how to proceed?

    Perhaps they’ll talk to us…perhaps they won’t. Do we want to know?

  • Ronald January 3, 2008, 5:47

    First of all happy new year and lots of success, everybody!

    This whole discussion (actually a continuation of a long ongoing discussion on this website) confirms to me what I stated before: that, even regardless of the theoretical dangers of it, METI and maybe even SETI, is vastly premature, almost arrogantly so.

    We seem like ancient sailors trying to sail the oceans and theorizing about new lands and the the pros and cons of contact with other cultures, without even possessing basic maps to go by!

    Set the priorities right, I would say, roughly:
    1- the (more or less complete) characterization of (many, representative) extrasolar planetary systems
    2- the discovery and description of terrestrial planets in those systems
    3- the discovery and description of biosignatures of habitable terrestrial planets
    4- Zoom in on (some of) them to obtain a much more complete and detailed description
    5- And then, when we have a reasonably complete inventory of habitable planets in our galactic neighborhood: perform comprehensive SETI on the most promising of them and maybe, just maybe, a broad discussion on METI.

    First things first, METI should come last, not first, by any standards and criteria.

  • Sergei Kopeikin January 3, 2008, 12:05

    I have read with keen interest the on-going discussion. I think Alexander Zaitsev is very good in making people active in thinking on diverse (not yet solved or commongly adopted) issues. Alexander is a real scientist, and he is not doing this program alone – he is supported by the state and international organizations. So, it is not right (and look absolutely inappropriate for civilized men) to put labels on him like “arrogant”, “lunatic’, etc. Such labels are extracted every time when people have no reasonable counter-arguments. I think it is responsibility of Mr. Administrator to prevent making use of personal assaults in scientific discussion, and to warn those who are trying to boil scientific debate with inappropriate personal accusations.

  • Administrator January 3, 2008, 13:36

    Sergei, this is indeed an issue that provokes controversy, but I take your point about inappropriate personal attacks, which can detract from scientific discussion in any forum. The need for objective assessments on these issues is clear, which is why I look with interest at the San Marino Scale as a starting point.

  • andy January 3, 2008, 13:46

    Sergei Kopeikin: I think I have given quite a fair rationale for why METI practitioners are behaving in an arrogant manner. If you disagree with my rationale as to why it is arrogant, then come up with a counter-argument. Or if the word “arrogant” is too politically-incorrect for you then come up with a better word. However it is the word I feel fits best to describe someone acting unilaterally to speak for all humanity.

    Use of the term “lunatic” on my part was (I admit) hyperbole. However having had some small experience of work in safety-critical industry, it is how I would describe working in an area with unknown hazards, without a detailed safety assessment and without any kind of risk mitigation processes whatsoever.

    We can rephrase: Complaints against an argument on the grounds of political correctness are extracted every time when people have no reasonable counter-arguments…

  • Sergei Kopeikin January 4, 2008, 1:28

    Andy – thanks for your respond. You should keep in mind in what political and social enviroment Alexander Zaitsev works. It’s almost impossible to survive in there but he is active and is able to find money for maintaining the large dish in Eupatoria working. Compare with what the Congress did with our budget for FY08 and you may understand that Zaitsev needs to be treated in much more friendly way than that he has met on this forum. I hope all of you will be able to figure out the best way for making this discussion fruitful scientifically and not offensive personally. Thank you. Happy New Year 2008!

  • Administrator January 4, 2008, 10:04

    Sergei, I join with you in your appreciation of the challenges Dr. Zaitsev faces in maintaining operations at Evpatoria. I also appreciate the fact that in these most recent discussions, as well as many in the past, he has always been willing to take the time to join in our conversations and contribute his expertise. While he often faces opposition, I should point out that METI also has supporters here; indeed, our discussions have been anything but monolithic, as viewpoints on this go all over the map, and I’m seeing a wide range of opinion on the subject.

  • andy January 4, 2008, 10:14

    You should keep in mind in what political and social enviroment Alexander Zaitsev works. It’s almost impossible to survive in there but he is active and is able to find money for maintaining the large dish in Eupatoria working. Compare with what the Congress did with our budget for FY08 and you may understand that Zaitsev needs to be treated in much more friendly way than that he has met on this forum.

    Why? To take a hypothetical situation (and I am not accusing Zaitsev of fitting this description), should a dictator conducting a program of genocide be treated in a much more friendly way if his country has no money and he is constantly having to survive assassination attempts – making it harder for him to stay in a position where he can conduct his genocidal program?

    Whether it is or isn’t difficult for Zaitsev to stay in a position where he can make these transmissions, does not change the fact that he is making the transmissions and is evidently capable of holding this position. Thus I judge him on the fact that he is making transmissions, and the political implications of making the transmissions. If it is arrogant to make such a transmission, it is still arrogant even if the person doing the transmission is struggling for funds to keep going.

    I hope all of you will be able to figure out the best way for making this discussion fruitful scientifically and not offensive personally.

    Again, you are the one who has a problem with the use of the term “arrogant” (apparently independent of whether the accusation has merit). Why don’t you figure out a way to express the term in a less “offensive” manner, since it is you who are having the problem with the term.

  • Dr. Alexander Zaitsev January 4, 2008, 11:22

    Sergei, I see here, at Centauri Dreams, anonymous andy meets with approval from the direction of Administrator in using abusive language “arrogant”, “lunatic”, etc, against me, who is not hide the true name. It’s a pity…

  • Lee Billings January 4, 2008, 11:27

    Andy, you’ve raised some valid points and contributed some good ideas to the discussion (such as whether or not United Nations oversight would work for this), and I’m glad you’re passionate about this issue, but you’re being a bit shrill.

    The purpose of the article, and of the public dissent by Michaud, Billingham, Brin, and others, is to get more people involved in a *productive* conversation about Active SETI. Personal attacks and name-calling aren’t going to produce anything but more of the same.

  • Administrator January 4, 2008, 13:39

    I have to disagree with what Dr. Zaitsev says above. Let me repeat my original response to Sergei: “…this is indeed an issue that provokes controversy, but I take your point about inappropriate personal attacks, which can detract from scientific discussion in any forum. The need for objective assessments on these issues is clear, which is why I look with interest at the San Marino Scale as a starting point.”

    I do not see the above statement as conferring approval upon anyone’s particular posts. We are seeing a wide range of discussion about the topic of METI, some of which has sparked contention. My own position is what I lay out in my posts on the site, but I am glad to see all points of view represented. Since this is a moderated site, I do not let some messages through, having to make an editorial judgment based on what I think inappropriate. This can be a balancing act and some calls are difficult to make, particularly when good points are being made. But I think at this point we can all back off on some of the ‘heat’ in this discussion and aim more for the ‘light.’ Lee Billings’ point about productivity is well taken.

  • Dr. Alexander Zaitsev January 4, 2008, 14:56

    >>We are seeing a wide range of discussion about the topic of METI,

    but never have the right to change from the topic of METI to the damaging words …

  • Administrator January 4, 2008, 15:21

    We will return to the topic of METI, I’m sure, in the future. It has proven more than controversial, and I can understand why Dr. Zaitsev objects to some of the terms used in the heat of discussion. My hope has been to let the readers adjust and moderate the tone of the debate and most have, but it’s also clear from my back-channel e-mail that both sides on this issue are getting angrier, and we may be in for a flame war, which is not my intent. So for the time being, the METI topic is closed, with thanks for much good participation and apologies to those offended. A needed breather may calm things down.