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What Can SETI Scholars Learn from the Covid-19 Pandemic?

The pandemic has everyone’s attention, but it’s not too early to ask what lessons might be learned from public response to it. In particular, are there nuggets of insight here into what might occur with another sudden and startling event, the reception of a signal from another civilization? John Traphagan takes a look at the question in today’s essay. Dr. Traphagan is a social anthropologist and Professor of Religious Studies, in the Program in Human Dimensions of Organizations, and Mitsubishi Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. He also holds a visiting professorship at Waseda University in Tokyo, as well as being a board member of SSoCIA, the Society for Social and Conceptual Issues in Astrobiology. His research focuses on the relationship between science and culture and falls into two streams: life in rural Japan and the culture and ethics of space exploration. John has published numerous scientific papers and several books, including Science, Culture, and the Search for Life on Other Worlds (Springer, 2016). His most recent book, Cosmopolitan Rurality, Depopulation, and Entrepreneurial Ecosystems in 21st Century Japan, was published in 2020 by Cambria Press. This essay is a shorter version of a more detailed paper that is slated to appear in JBIS.

by John W. Traphagan

For people interested in the potential outcome of contact with extraterrestrial life, whether intelligent or otherwise, the Covid-19 pandemic is a timely case-study that can help us think through some of the challenges first Contact with ETI or even simple life might present for humans, because it represents a potential existential threat to the entire population of our planet. And that threat has forced governments into actions with widespread social, political, and economic implications up to world-wide depression.

Like the emergence of Covid-19, first contact, in particular, has the potential to set in motion political machinations on the part of nation-states as national security interests are identified. If resources or information associated with contact are considered important to control by governments (see our earlier article On SETI, International Law, and Realpolitik in Centauri Dreams), then unexpected events which threaten global political and economic stability, regardless of the risks associated with contact itself may unfold. Indeed, this has been one of the outcomes of the Covid-19 pandemic in which there was early concern about the potential impact of policy responses to the pandemic and the associated collapse in oil prices. This could easily have led to political instability in already unstable areas of the world such as parts of the Middle East.

In general, successful human response to a pandemic (such as Covid-19) is based on a combination of credible action by governments, strong leadership from international organizations such as WHO, and responsible behavior by nation-states concerned with the well-being of their populations. The same factors apply to contact with extraterrestrial life. In the event of an encounter with life from another world, public safety and health (including mental health) depend on: 1) timely and credible actions by governments where contact is made; 2) clear direction and leadership from international organizations and the scientific community to coordinate a global response; and 3) responsible behavior on the part of governments naturally concerned with protecting parochial national interests.

In the case of non-intelligent extraterrestrial life, such as microbial life, the parallels with the Coronavirus pandemic are obvious, but are still complicated by the fact that we do not know how introduction of an alien microorganism into Earth’s ecosystem would affect life on Earth. But contact with any form of extraterrestrial life presents risks that have the potential to place our species in a position similar to what we are currently facing with Covid-19, which represents a global threat necessitating a global response.

So, what can we learn from the pandemic? There are at least four tactical points to take away from our current situation:

1. Differential values play a significant role in how governments respond to the pandemic, despite the fact that Covid-19 represents a global threat to human life.

2. Each nation-state is largely going it alone in assessing the level of threat and developing appropriate responses to the pandemic based on risk assessments.

3. There has been limited cooperation and some governments have withdrawn from the international political environment or even tried to thwart international organizations such as WHO.

4. Responses to government rules such as wearing masks in public have varied and in some cases been resisted.

The key point to take away from the Covid-19 pandemic for those interested in the potential risks and influences of contact with ETI is that different responses and policies are products of cultural, ideological, and political variations among and within nations of the world. Factors such as population density and socio-economic status also play a significant role in how the virus has spread and how governments and individuals have responded. And structural patterns of social and political life—such as the presence of systemic racism in the US—clearly shape how different people are affected by the pandemic. There is no reason to think contact with ETI would be different.

Culture matters. There are at least three strategic lessons we can draw from this observation:

• The world is unlikely to react as one. Even if it is determined that ETI poses an existential threat to humanity a well-coordinated and unified response to either physical or remote contact with ETI is unlikely, unless significant changes in human political behavior occur.

• Culture will drive state and sub-state response. Cultural variation evident in complex and conflicting value systems will influence nation-states and other groups as they interpret and respond to contact.

• Diversity of perspective, a significant advantage in assessing options, can be a hindrance to unified action. Diverse cultural, political, and economic characteristics that humans display and experience have the potential not only to provide multiple options in responding to contact, but may work against a successful response.

We should be concerned. In the face of potential existential threat, unified and coordinated action is central to successful results—thousands of years of experience with warfare have shown this clearly to be the case. Unless we prepare for the fact of diversity in human responses to contact, rather than being a source of strength and options when facing contact that diversity may work against a coordinated effort.

It would help for the SETI scientific community to move away from the often tacit assumption that humans live and operate within a single, unified (or monolithic) civilization to a concept of both our world and potential other worlds that expects diversity in cultures, interpretations, and likely responses to a contact scenario. Recognition of the potential for contact to stimulate increased conflict and disagreement among human groups—again as is evident in the Coronavirus pandemic—rather than to unify humanity in response to a real or perceived global threat, would represent a good starting point for thinking about protocols for contact.

{ 98 comments… add one }
  • ljk July 10, 2020, 11:52

    Sample Return in the Time of Coronavirus

    JULY 7, 2020



    To quote:

    This is a pretty obvious example of the “gap” that exists in planetary protection policy. NASA missions must abide by long-standing (though evolving) guidelines for how to protect against forward and backward contamination. Many of those guidelines are contained and managed internationally by the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR). Space agencies globally have maintained compliance with the 1968 [1967 actually] Outer Space Treaty by following the COSPAR Planetary Protection Policy.

    But these guidelines do not clearly apply to commercial space companies — which were unimagined when the framework for space law and regulation was developed in the 1960s. What’s more, neither NASA nor COSPAR are regulatory agencies and so do not have statutory authority to tell private companies acting on their own what to do. COSPAR maintains that national space agencies are obliged to control the activities of all non-agency space entities in their countries, but that has certainly not always resulted in clean lines of authority between space agencies and commercial companies.

    “Regarding missions where the private sector cooperates with NASA, it’s understood that the agency has the authority to impose planetary protection measures,” said Fidler said. “The challenge comes when the private sector conducts a mission without a contract or an agreement with NASA. If a private company were to now wend a robotic mission to Europa or Mars, that’s where the regulatory gap emerges. And this is not just an American issue; it’s global as the private sector becomes more and more capable in space.”

  • John Traphagan July 10, 2020, 12:29

    Please note that this blog is based on a more detailed piece that is slated to be published in the next issue of JBIS.

    • John Traphagan July 10, 2020, 15:41

      Forgot to mention that the JBIS article is co-authored with my colleague, Ken Wisian. We both look forward to the conversation on this.

      • Enrique Cordova Rodriguez July 11, 2020, 9:56

        Dr Traphagen

        You may be reassured to know that Try as I could, I could detect no trace of bias, ideology or “code words” in your excellent article. Unfortunately, I’m not able to say the same about the critical responses to it.

        It is only fair to warn you, though, I am one who wears his politics on his face. These days, when I go out in public, I wear a mask.

        I’m an atheist, too, but when I visit a church, I remove my hat. It is a sign of respect and a courtesy to believers.

        • John Traphagan July 11, 2020, 11:55

          Thanks for this. Different people will interpret things in different ways–there are diverse and complex perspectives and assumptions and I think it is useful to hear those perspectives, even if I disagree. If someone points out a phrase or idea that I present which can be interpreted as political or politicized, even if I didn’t intend it that way, it is helpful for me to see that such a perspective represents one way of reading my work. What I will say is that there is, unequivocally, bias in my writing. There is bias in everything that gets written or thought, because we being with assumptions and that shapes the ways in which those ideas are developed and presented. As Doug Loss writes below, it is important to be aware of one’s biases. It helps in generating rational arguments and it also helps in responding to interpretations that do not necessarily reflect what was intended.

          • John Traphagan July 11, 2020, 12:14

            Correction: “we being with assumptions” should be “we begin with assumptions”. I love auto”correct”. Need to proofread more carefully…

            • Doug Loss July 11, 2020, 16:11

              I believe the proper term is “auto-corrupt.”

  • Henry Cordova July 10, 2020, 12:45

    An excellent essay. There’s a lot of food for thought there, and I’m going to have to think about it for a while before I comment at length.

    The point brought up in the last paragraph is particularly insightful. An alien species is likely to be much older, and perhaps much more experienced at dealing with strangers than a young culture like ours which has just discovered radio. They may not be prepared to interact with a civilization that cannot respond to extra-terrestrial communication in a coherent and unified, or even rational, manner.

    Since it is possible that the communication may be one-way (one side will detect but not immediately respond to the other) the possibility for misunderstanding and confusion is amplified.

  • Dwight Williams July 10, 2020, 14:38

    And another pandemic can be another direct consequence, intended or not on the part of any and all involved, of a first contact situation. We’ve had that at the backs of some of our minds ever since War of the Worlds was first published as a novel. That would further complicate everything you describe here as possibilities.

  • Thomas W Hair July 10, 2020, 14:54

    While I somewhat agree with Dr. Traphagan, there does seem to be some political code talk going on in his post. The words diversity, culture and government are mentioned multiple times which leads me to believe that this post is not scientific in nature. This sounds like an agenda driven soapbox statement…sorry if my comments are too forward.

    • John Traphagan July 10, 2020, 15:34

      Nope. No political agenda. I’m a cultural anthropologist, so it seems logical that I would use the term “culture” fairly often. Cultural anthropologists are scientists who are interested in the diversity of patterns of behavior, values, and beliefs. Thus, “diversity” seems a fairly logical term to use. And as for “government”, well as far as I know every society on our planet has a government and it’s pretty difficult to talk about the reaction of governments without use of the term “government.” No codes, just the appropriate words for the topic about which I am writing.

      • Doug Loss July 11, 2020, 7:49

        John, your reference to “systemic racism” is a clear code word. This is a term not accepted outside of one particular ideology in our society (although that ideology is nearly ubiquitous in academia). I don’t impute an agenda to you at all, as I know you don’t intend such. But it’s important to realize that we all have implicit biases in how we view the world and society around us, and to try to recognize those biases in ourselves as well as in others.

        • John Traphagan July 11, 2020, 11:50

          I agree. We all have implicit biases and we should be aware of these. I would disagree on the idea that the notion of systemic racism is necessarily a code word. It can be interpreted that way, but that does not necessarily mean that it is always intended that way. I actually see it as a structural element of American and many other societies. But I also recognize that the phrase can have multiple meanings. That said, the debate about whether or not systemic racism is an actual part of our, or any other society, is best left to other arenas of discussion.

        • Alex Tolley July 11, 2020, 12:04

          Are you saying “systemic racism” does not exist and is a made-up code used for a particular political agenda?

          • Doug Loss July 11, 2020, 12:52

            Frankly, yes. But as John says, that’s not a debate we should be having here.

          • Thomas W. Hair July 11, 2020, 15:12

            Agreed, it’s not a made up code Alex, but it does carry some cultural baggage that has no place on this forum. We should not use our 5,000 years of recorded history to try and understand how we would react to a 5 billion year old intelligence. SETI is a very speculative scientific endeavor so we must be mindful not to paint our personal take on the issue.

            • John Traphagan July 11, 2020, 18:08

              Thomas, from the perspective of an anthropologist, I would argue that it is basically impossible to have any discussion without cultural baggage. The language we use, alone, is a form of cultural baggage (if you doubt me, think about the current issues with use of pronouns, which are not an issue in a language like Japanese in which pronouns are rarely used). Objectivity is not really possible; but awareness of one’s assumptions is.

              • Henry Cordova July 11, 2020, 21:18

                In Spanish, all nouns have gender, none are neutral, which renders our contemporary obsession with the feminist implications of English pronouns seem rather absurd. Furthermore, the gender of a noun is clearly arbitrary, it has nothing to do with the object’s supposed or perceived masculinity or femininity. For example, la pistola is a different gender entirely than el revolver. The common vulgarities for the male and female sexual organs are assigned the gender of the opposite sex!

                Having said that, you can still get into a lot of trouble by assigning the wrong sex to even an ordinary object. Words have meaning at multiple levels, and it changes over time and context. It does matter. And in the mouths of the culturally ignorant or naive or malicious, they can be deadly.

                Not only can a word or phrase suddenly be inappropriate, it can often be deliberately defined as inappropriate. No one needs a reminder from the Word Police. To paraphrase Mr Dylan, they are restless, and they need a place to go.

              • Thomas W. Hair July 11, 2020, 21:24

                Fair point John. Objectivity is not completely possible in any context.

    • EricSECT July 12, 2020, 19:12

      Agree Thomas.
      This essay was way too full of political code words ….so much that I stopped reading a quarter way through.

      Makes more sense to just read the comments.

  • Alex Tolley July 10, 2020, 14:57

    A very timely POV. SciFi movies usually depict a single response, often within one nation (often the USA), with rarely a dissenting voice. If the military tries to stop an alien invasion, there are rarely concerted efforts to thwart this. [Arguably the 1951 movie The Thing From Another World does have a concerted opposition – Carrington and some of the scientists oppose the Air Force’s attempts to kill the alien.] Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and The Hammer of God both have organizations opposing the protagonists’ actions. Pandemic stories tend to have singular response plots with relatively few rogue players disrupting the response.

    The Covid-19 response has been frankly horrifying. Governments failing to understand that a global response was needed, and ideological responses to thwart a successful action within nations have demonstrated that singular responses we assumed to operate in the mid-20th century are no longer true, if indeed they ever were.] We have had a small taste of this on the purely hypothetical level with the different responses to METI and the willingness of some to go ahead and attempt to send signals regardless of other viewpoints. It would be interesting to consider what might be the outcome if a privately funded Mars colony developed an untreatable outbreak from a mutated terrestrial organism or a novel microorganism endemic to Mars. Or consider a new life form discovery that turns up in a private mining operation. Would a government try to confiscate the sample, and would others try to do so too, even if it meant piracy?

    But I think we can also turn this on its head. As many have argued, we cannot expect even a single alien species to offer a singular contact response, let alone many different species or civilizations. How should we respond to the equivalent of millions of “spam” messages from space exhorting us to respond to their particular offer?

    Liberal democracies claim (rightly, I think) that diversity builds resilience. But as we see, this can also be a failure mode under some circumstances. If we assume that alien civilizations are also diverse, could it imply that inevitable civilizational failure occurs due to this failure mode soon after any contact is made, which is why the Fermi Question is so important? Are there civilization hiding as best they can, dead ones that tried to communicate, or are we alone?

    In regard to the OP, it does suggest to me that we do need a more diverse group to assess a novel response, but one that can reach consensus and then offer a unified response without dissent.

    • John Traphagan July 10, 2020, 15:37

      The Thing is one of my all-time favorite movies. Scared me to death when I was a kid.

    • Wojciech J July 15, 2020, 14:40

      ”We have had a small taste of this on the purely hypothetical level with the different responses to METI and the willingness of some to go ahead and attempt to send signals regardless of other viewpoints.”
      This has been decided by our planet already, so to speak. Both our atmosphere and biosphere send clear signatures of life and technological civilisation to anyone looking with advanced telescopes.

  • charlie July 10, 2020, 15:57

    Contrary to my feelings on how there may be or they there may not be intelligent life in the universe I consider the idea that there could be hostile microbiology in the universe to be extremely high probability.

    There could even be a situation where you have some type of chemical equivalent of a virus which could infect animal, plant, or human cells and have the possibility of replication of this particular type of chemistry to the detriment of the host Organism, so it might be wise to have a type of exploration in which you would have individuals who would be dedicated researchers who have no intention of returning to earth whatsoever – so that they would be willing to explore but not come back with a potential lethal pathogen of some type that might cause havoc back here on earth. Just a thought.

  • Joe H. July 10, 2020, 16:25

    I think a lot of cultures here on Earth would simply deny the occurrence of a actual, unequivocal, signal from an extraterrestrial civilization. After all, the Chinese government denied that the U.S. had landed on the moon until the mid 1970s. Some people still deny it.

    There is also a certain (perhaps inevitable?) callousness among world leaders when it comes to the value of human life. Therefore it’s unlikely the threat of a pandemic would matter much, given the opportunities for wealth and new knowledge that physical contact with advanced extraterrestrials might provide.

    For example, the 1918 flu pandemic was not even mentioned in high school history books until the 1990s. Another example is the fact that the Bengal famine of 1943 killed 3 million people, and yet it only rates a few pages of discussion in a recent 500 page book on India in WWII.

    Leaders like Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, etc don’t care much about individual lives. It is the state, the working class, the future that matters.

    Napoleon once said that all his losses at Borodino would be replaced with one night of passion in Paris. As Kurt Vonnegut liked to say “And so it goes.”

  • Robert July 10, 2020, 16:46

    It may not be that big of a deal, at least the official announcement. We have been culturally preparing to the idea we are not alone through media for decades. Most scientists and people in general assume ETI exists somewhere. A significant number of people already believe ET has visited Earth. The big announcement might be met with a yawn.

    • Thomas W. Hair July 12, 2020, 10:06

      Hi Robert, agreed detecting someone or something you will never meet or interact with out in the universe is exciting, but in the end it means next to nothing in our day to day lives. Yawn, I try not to overthink things that are highly speculative.

  • Christian G July 10, 2020, 17:27

    Star Trek has a particularly timely quote:

    (Spock) “Surely you must have realized what would happen if you removed the tribbles from their predator-filled environment into an environment where their natural multiplicative proclivities would have no restraining factors.”

    This is, of course, exactly what is happening now. A (semi-)organism has found its way into an environment(the human body) where the restraining factors(the immune systems of the previous hosts) do not exist.

    David Gerrold, who wrote that episode, also wrote the War Against the Chtorr series, which has a few interesting things to say, both about a set of alien organisms colonizing Earth’s ecology and about the likelyhood of a unified response from the world(spoiler: nope).

    • Joe H. July 11, 2020, 14:37

      Homo Sapiens also managed to escape their predator-filled environment into an environment where their natural multiplicative proclivities have no restraining factors. The result is 7.8 billion and rising.

  • Michael Fidler July 10, 2020, 20:17

    One point that we a species have totally missed is the final outcome of what is happening with Covid-19 is exactly what you see in chaotic systems. Chaos theory has been around for a long time, with its beginnings going clear back to the Henri Poincaré three-body problem. Why does this matter, well the outcome in this situation should be a higher order state of the system. In simple terms we should have a much better understanding of the whys and wherefores of what happened. We now have a severe chaotic system that is way out of bounds but once we look back at it the reasons that it happened should be obvious. From that we learn how to correct and improve our response at every level from economics to viral life cycles.

    Read: Chaos theory

    • Robin Datta July 11, 2020, 3:39

      For purposes of instruction, one might say of COVID-19 and the population that 20% remain uninfected, 20% are asymptomatic – indicative of innate immunity, with some of these remaining seronegative, suggestive of cellular and phyletic immunity. Another 20% have mild symptoms, not prompting a contact with a health care provider. 20% have moderate symptoms not requiring hospitalization. 20% need hospitalization, of which half need the ICU and 3% die – more die if the ICU is not available. Herd immunity requires 60% to 70% immune. (We ain’t there yet).

      But there are plenty of folks running around with innate and acquired immunity: presence of antibodies would identify some, but the immunes sans antibodies would not be identifiable.

  • Neil Stahl July 10, 2020, 20:22

    One big difference between Covid-19 and Contact is that with Covid-19 experts existed, whose advice, while not always right, could reasonably be expected to be the best available. Unfortunately in the US that advice was inconvenient for an administration which was too concerned about the coming election. In the case of Contact there will be no people with clearly better advice. It will be a marketplace of ideas if not a skirmish of ideas. Claims of correctness will come from all directions.
    How things settle out will depend to some extent on the immediacy of intercourse. If it will take a hundred years or so for a message to go one way the excitement will run its course; we don’t have the wiring to quickly address remote future dangers and no experience I can think of with remote future opportunities. It will have an impact on philosophy and on religion but religions are robust and find a way to seem to be relevant in any situation.
    If intercourse is more immediate we probably can consult sci-fi for the variety of courses that will be proposed.
    In any case there will rightly be suspicion of whatever is gleaned from their message, if that’s the nature of the contact. It would be interesting to watch that debate if that debate is public.
    Is it still understood that an incoming contact would immediately be made public before it could be censored?

    • Doug Loss July 11, 2020, 7:59

      You miss a major point about the political response to Covid-19, Neil. Your “expert” advice on Covid-19 infection rates and methods, lethality, and means for mitigating its effect were contradictory and changed from week to week. There was very little scientific about the advice erstwhile experts gave. This being the case, politicians (in the US at least) of all ideologies and at all governmental levels used whatever “expert advice” they had that enabled the actions they wished to take to justify such actions, and ignored conflicting “expert advice.” Unexpectedly (that’s sarcasm), those actions always seemed to increase their social power and control.

      In a SETI first contact situation, I strongly suspect the situation would be very similar. As Rahm Emmanuel once said (and as politicians always do), “Never let a crisis go to waste.”

      • John Traphagan July 11, 2020, 9:20

        Doug, this is a great point. Also, we should note that in some societies (perhaps most), such as the US, there are areas–including areas within government at times–that have open contempt for experts who do not express ideas that align with established ideological doctrine.

    • James Jason Wentworth July 15, 2020, 1:38

      “Unfortunately in the US that advice was inconvenient for an administration which was too concerned about the coming election.”

      That “unfortunately” would have occurred regardless of who was President; ditto for which party he (or she) was in. A nation-wide epidemic–and even more, a global pandemic–is a major wooden shoe in the gears of ^any^ administration, be it left- or right-oriented, and this isn’t unique to the United States, either (even totalitarian nations such as the DPRK [North Korea] found it to be a serious problem that they had to deal with somehow, although their remedial methods were very different…).

      • Alexander Tolley July 15, 2020, 13:48

        Neil is correct. It was unfortunate as the current administration had done almost everything it could to reduce the effectiveness of outbreak control. This included defunding CDC operations in the US and abroad, most importantly in China. Exacerbating Chinese secretive response due to trade frictions, delaying domestic responses, and ultimately abandoning federal help for states. This latter included supplies and, with GOP enabling, extended help for the newly unemployed. Add in denial and politicization of the public health measures, and the result compared to other countries, is pretty clear. So “unfortunate” is an apt word, and a rather mild one, IMO, given the unnecessary scale of the economic and social welfare disruption.

        If this was an alien invasion, we would be losing in the US and have allowed a beachhead, while many other countries would be succeeding in holding back the invaders to small pockets. It was joked that the 43 administration was the start of Heinlein’s predicted “crazy years” in the US. It was barely a prequel to what is happening today. Europe wasn’t exemplary with regards the Covid-19 outbreak, especially denying help to Italy (due to Italy’s public anti EU position?). Had help been provided early, the source of much of the infection to the rest of Europe, and the spread to NY, might have been largely avoided. I know, “could, woulda, shoulda”. Yet the US is still not following a national public health policy, one that is undermined by the federal administration’s policies. This does not bode well for a US, let alone global, consensus response to a contact scenario.

    • Wojciech J July 15, 2020, 16:47

      “It will have an impact on philosophy and on religion but religions are robust and find a way to seem to be relevant in any situation.”
      Roman Catholicism has been debating possibility of other worlds since centuries and it is now quite open to the idea of alien life, Islam likewise has certain openness to this. Mormons do believe in it as part of their religion, so it’s not a problem for them at all. You will actually find that major religions aren’t that much concerned with the possibility of alien life and have prepared ground work so to speak to accommodate it in their teachings.


  • Mike Jude July 10, 2020, 20:48

    I wonder if this has implications for ET as well. Would it take a unified world to send a signal or would a single political group on a planet be sufficient to send one. We might find ourselves taking part in a power struggle on another plant inadvertently, if we responded to a signal that we assumed represented an entire civilization.

    • James Jason Wentworth July 15, 2020, 2:17

      Dr. Ronald N. Bracewell discussed that possibility in his 1974/1975/1979 book “The Galactic Club: Intelligent Life in Outer Space,” in the event an alien interstellar messenger probe entered our Solar System (in which case the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. might each have tried to “befriend” the probe and gather its communicated data exclusively, due to its economic and military potential), and:

      He discussed how such a probe might deal with the problem of “being beset by multiple suitors.” Also–pointing out that our socio-political situation on Earth (or something similar) might also exist on at least a few inhabited planets–he suggested that our own future Bracewell probes should incorporate the same programming, to deal with such a problem.

  • Robin Datta July 11, 2020, 2:45

    Much will depend on the details.

    Microbial seeding can be with genetically and biochemically identical life, which could blend in without a trace. Radically different life in terms of nucleic acids, genetic code, amino acids and molecular cell biology may hybridize, or be outcompeted, but may instead outcompete the native life at such a basic level as to rapidly eradicate and replace all of it, regardless of eukaryote metazoal politics. Bye bye Homo paucisapiens.

    Arrival of zenobiologic intelligent beings or a postbiologic machine civilization will depend much on their morals, ethics, and intentions. Interstellar travel would mark them as advanced in their technology, and therefore less likely to be exploitative.

    Megastructures or intelligent signals would reset Fermi’s paradox without close-up contact, and lead to prolonged debates, and various and even contradictory responses.

  • Marco Paluszny July 11, 2020, 8:18

    Excellent, timely article.

  • randomengineer July 11, 2020, 10:08

    COVID in the USA is likely to be perfectly illustrative. The population is told to lock down and never gather in crowds because the virus spreads. Except for the 1000+ scientists signing a paper in a time of civil unrest stating that leaving home and protesting in crowds isn’t a problem, but the subject of the protests is, so gather at will. As I write this we have some places where the same state government doesn’t stop street rioting yet sends cops to prevent churchfolk from gathering or singing, and scientists have apparently signed on to this. In fact the laws, edicts and diktats are claimed to be based on science. Crowds are either a danger or they are not a danger, not both, and certainly not based on why one is in the crowd. In the USA we have multiple conflicting edicts/etc all claiming to be scientific, almost to the point of channeling Lewis Carroll: “science is what I say it is, nothing less, and nothing more.” So sure, if first contact is just as idiotically handled then there’s going to be problems.

    • Thomas W. Hair July 12, 2020, 10:00

      Randomengineer, you are so correct. Those who do not see the world like you and me often milk the science to fit an agenda and unfortunately this Centauri Dreams post went off the rails in its first few paragraphs. I think everyone should chill and read Paul’s “on comments” at the top of the page. John’s post tells me what his politics are, and that has no place in a scientific forum.

      • Ron S. July 12, 2020, 13:14

        I am perplexed. Perhaps there’s a sore point here that only Americans see. I read the article and saw it an interesting perspective on how contact might be handled by those in positions of authority all across the globe.

        Examples are useful though certainly not a bald prediction of what might transpire in the event. I saw nothing overtly political that would raise hackles, but then I’m not American and the concern some are seeing is invisible to me.

        • James Jason Wentworth July 15, 2020, 1:22

          I *am* an American, but I don’t grok the powerful reaction this article has touched off, either, even though I surmised (before I went down to the comments section) that the author holds views that I don’t support (as did other readers, as the number–and the intensity of many of the comments–indicate). The thesis of the article, though, seems self-evident; worldwide human reaction to First Contact (which is not just a rare event, but will be, if/when it happens, a unique event without any really adequate parallel) will be like the proverbial Chinese fire drill. Like battle plans (“which never survive first contact with the enemy”), all of the carefully-considered plans for First Contact won’t survive first contact with the aliens (or their artifacts or signals, depending on how it goes). Also:

          One thing we need not fear–you didn’t mention this, but other commenters have alluded to it–but which is often mentioned by SETI/CETI enthusiasts (with worry or delight, depending on their opinions of the people in question; even the Brookings report mentions it as a concern), is that religious people–and Christians in particular–will “go berserk because alien contact will disprove their faith,” but:

          Nothing could be farther from the truth; indeed, this very notion (as well as another commonly-expressed one, that astronomy–by constantly revealing an ever-larger universe–is a challenge to religions, especially the Abrahamic ones) indicates how little such people know about religious *and* science history. Even in ancient times, Western as well as Eastern religious thinkers considered that life might exist elsewhere in the universe (and found no theological reasons why such life could not exist), and even the earliest Christian theologians were well aware that the size of the Earth, in comparison to that of the universe, was a mathematical point. Plus:

          C.S. Lewis, the Christian professor of medieval and renaissance literature at Oxford University, was also a theologian, and the author of some of the few science fiction novels that are considered true literature. He devoted a lot of thought to possible intelligent alien life, and how humanity should deal with that possibility should such beings be discovered (or discover us). He considered the interstellar distances to be a form of quarantine, and he wasn’t happy at the prospect of human beings traveling in space and one day, in the far future, meeting aliens (he wasn’t pleased at what Sputnik I portended). He thought it would be best for any aliens if we never met them, because he suspected that humanity might be the only unfallen intelligent species and that we might contaminate them. As well:

          The Reverend Billy Graham also thought a great deal about alien life, and about what–if anything–humanity should do about it. In his latter years, he said that if other intelligent species are ever discovered, Christians should *not* preach the Gospel to them, because it is exclusively for human salvation. If other races are in need of salvation, he said (like Lewis, Graham speculated that it’s possible that only humanity fell, warping human nature to be inclined toward wickedness), they will have been provided with other means of attaining it that are appropriate to their species, and:

          This oft-expressed concern about how religious people in general, and Christians in particular, will react to the discovery of alien life ^really^ expresses the attitudes of the “SETI success reaction worriers” toward religious people–that they’re all a bunch of knuckle-draggers, in other words…

          • Alex Tolley July 16, 2020, 8:06

            I think you are making a common mistake in suggesting that each faith is monolithic in its beliefs and responses. Christianity in the UK is almost secular. Conversely, Christian fundamentalist in the US are very different, believing in a literal interpretation of the [King James] Bible as the word of God.. One sees the same with Islam. Some extremists of their faith will “go crazy” with an alien contact.

  • Alex Tolley July 11, 2020, 11:59

    1000+ scientists signing a paper in a time of civil unrest stating that leaving home and protesting in crowds isn’t a problem

    I do not think that is true and couldn’t find any evidence supporting that claim. Scientists and doctors did state that protesting did entail risks (although most protestors in photos are wearing masks) but that protesting might be a risk worth taking given the situation.
    Here is a CBC report of that issue.

    I also note that voters went to the polls in Wisconsin despite the risks and reduced polling stations in some districts to make their voices heard at the ballot box.

    • randomengineer July 11, 2020, 14:36

      I don’t understand the quibble. Early versions of the reporting depending on outlet used the phrase “scientists” rather than “health experts” but that’s a distinction that isn’t meaningful to the man on the street anyway.

      • Alex Tolley July 11, 2020, 16:05

        It isn’t a quibble. There was no claim from the signers that protesting in crowds was not a risk as you stated. IOW, their opinion did not deviate from the consensus on infection risks. The good news so far is that the demonstrations have not created local outbreaks, whereas other social groupings have created local outbreaks.

        • randomengineer July 12, 2020, 9:44

          Yes, it’s a quibble. Half of the electorate has watched the president being attacked by the mainstream news media for 3 years, and they’re turning even more to talk radio, fox, and their pastors; what they *hear* is that 1000 scientists are saying science says it’s ok to vandalize and riot and loot, but it’s not ok for them to go to church. This half of the electorate goes to church, and a large portion are influenced by their pastors. The mixed messaging they *hear* and the outright disgust they have with the mainstream media is such that if CNN says “X” then it’s likely “X” is false. As they see things, media screamed about russia and such and it was not just wrong, but a lie, so why would anyone think media is trustworthy? Quickly, what’s the #1 tv news in the US? What’s the dominant radio format? Read conservative sites, they reckon the media is at war with them.

          Meanwhile we mostly atheist rocket lover types are discussing academic esoterica and first contact, but I don’t think we’re qualified to talk about societal response until we understand the perspectives of the lutheran congregation in Resume Speed, Kansas, which probably represents about 50% of America.

          What I am speaking to is the notion that half of the American voting pool isn’t in agreement with you even on what is being said. That’s why an academic distinction between “expert” and “scientist” is a quibble.

  • John Traphagan July 11, 2020, 12:22

    A thought occurred to me in reading the comments. Perhaps, not surprisingly, there is an undercurrent of political debate and disagreement lurking in the comments–not all of them, but some, at least. Perhaps this is a nice data point supporting one of the overall themes of the articles–that humans have tremendously diverse opinions, which tends to make it difficult to act in unified ways against outside threats. In fact, often we don’t even agree on what constitutes a threat to life, liberty, or anything else. I would assume that most of this group has similar interests in issues related to space exploration and the possibility of contact with ETI. At the same time, there is at least a sense from the comments (and perhaps a pretty clear sense) that there are some rather significant differences of opinion about the current political climate in relation to Covid-19 and other events going on. I really don’t want this to become a forum for political debate (and that is clearly not what Paul has intended with this site). But I do think it instructive that in a very small group like this with some common interests, we see assumptions and biases (including my own) lurking and influencing the course and nature of discussion. It’s a key element of the point of the article.

    • Alex Tolley July 11, 2020, 16:00

      You will find that the commenters have very varied opinions on a host of space-related issues from modes of exploration, SETI, METI, solar system colonization, interstellar flight, galaxy colonization, and the future of humanity. They would pose real policy differences.

      Once we might have expected a body like the UN to form a coherent, global policy on issues. That has proven a false hope. Nations ignore UN policies and international laws, and powerful corporations ignore nations too. As technology becomes cheaper, eventually individuals can do what they like, ignoring any restraints. We have had discussions on METI and whether any group can be stopped from trying to communicate should a consensus arise on not sending messages.

      I cannot be sure, but posts and comments come almost exclusively from people in western liberal democracies, representing a fraction of the globe. Add in differences of opinion from other nations and the diversity of opinion gets even wider.

      • John Traphagan July 11, 2020, 18:05

        Alex, yes I agree. The overwhelming dominance of individuals from western societies in the SETI/METI discussion is one of its major problems. There are some scholars from Japan and India (and a few other places) that have been contributing, but the percentage of people from non-western societies is small. I’ve been concerned about this for some time and actually have written on it, as well (see Steve Dick’s edited volume Life Beyond Earth). Increased contributions from people living outside of the industrial west would improve the discourse by increasing the diversity of perspectives on topics like the ethics of METI or SETI.

    • Doug Loss July 11, 2020, 16:14

      Yes John, it’s an example of the old conundrum: “How can we arrive at an answer when we can’t even agree on what the question is?”

      • John Traphagan July 11, 2020, 18:17

        Doug, I agree, this is at the core of many of our problems. I think the starting point is to listen to all perspectives, or at least as many as possible, and make a sincere effort to understand X issue from the perspective of others. That’s what cultural anthropology is really all about–trying to understand subjective experiences of the world and exploring the internal logic that shapes how people respond to those experiences. This is also, in my view, the key thing we need to be doing when thinking about intelligent life on other worlds if we are going to have any luck in communicating and understanding the alien other. If we can’t communicate well in our own society about issues like whether or not to wear masks (simply as an example), I don’t think we are going to have any luck at all communicating with intelligent beings who evolved a different culture (or set of cultures) on a different world, with different physical conditions on that world. Perhaps the first step forward is to recognize that there isn’t one question, but that there are multiple questions and responses to the same situation. I work from the perspective of cultural relativism, which is basically an intellectual stance that is intended to help us see the perspectives of others without judging whether or not those perspectives are right or wrong. It gets debated in anthropology, but it is also a useful way of trying to deal with the question of not being able to agree on–or even see–what the question is.

    • James Jason Wentworth July 15, 2020, 2:00

      I see it (the arguments) as a refreshing and healthy thing. The rocket engineer, futurist, and science fiction author G. Harry Stine (his occasionally-used pen name was Lee Correy; he also co-invented the hobby of model rocketry) described, in his “Handbook of Model Rocketry,” an aerospace symposium of many years ago, whose outcome was relevant to this. Dr. Theodore von Kármán, summing up the meeting, said the following (I’m paraphrasing, but this is close to the account in Stine’s book):

      “A very fine meeting. Many excellent papers, on many subjects. BUT NO ARGUMENTS! Ladies and gentlemen, how can we ever have progress without controversy?” (Stine included this account in a chapter about model rocket aerodynamics, in which he pointed out that different designers not only make different design trade-offs, but that their wind tunnel and other tests not uncommonly generate data that totally contradict other designers’ data [unknowingly; the discrepancies only become known when they meet or correspond, and compare each other’s findings].)

  • AlexTru July 11, 2020, 13:15

    Obvious political bias i quoted text, do not give me possibility to accept this article as something related to science, sorry.

  • Gary Wilson July 11, 2020, 14:10

    A wonderful, thoughtful post Mr. Traphagan. I look forward to reading the full JBIS article if I am able to. The outsiders view is often very informative. I think ET would have some very insightful comments to make about we humans. I’m particularly interested in the comments about systemic racism. It seems many who are systematically unfairly treated (I admit to being on that side of the argument) are not on here to defend their point of view. Unfortunately systemic racism has negative connotations to those who are part of the group carrying out the mistreatment (at least in terms of skin colour) and so denial creeps into the argument. I’m a Canadian and many of us have a different point of view to many Americans about this. The use of propaganda also reinforces incorrect beliefs and many who believe they are not subjected to continuous propaganda from birth may be surprised by the outsiders point of view on this as well. The response to Covid-19 can be looked at purely in statistical terms to remove some of the incorrect statements (i.e. outright lies) that are being presented by certain highly placed individuals. Looking at per capita death rates in various countries will help clarify which ones handled the pandemic best and reveal which handled it worst. The countries with what is referred to currently as populist leaders have clearly had some of the worst responses for many reasons but those would definitely include ignoring scientific facts and data and and turning away from centralized, organized responses by certain national (and state) governments which I will not name for obvious reasons.

    • Robert July 13, 2020, 13:37

      “Looking at per capita death rates in various countries will help clarify which ones handled the pandemic best and reveal which handled it worst”

      Given that national boundaries are arbitrary, population densities vary widely and many random factors are involved, the simple metric you suggest becomes meaningless.

      • Gary Wilson July 13, 2020, 22:52

        Completely incorrect Robert. Every country is comparing per capita death rates. The US has the 9th worst in the world. That is due to incompetence and a very large number of Americans’ willingness to believe disinformation, as well as an incompetent federal government effort which is obvious to most people, because it is based on analysis of the available data. The key is the ability to vet the information available and not accept lies no matter the source.

        • Robert July 14, 2020, 19:46

          In my view, the federal government effort was immense and about as reasonable as one could expect. All they can really do is coordinate money and supplies which they did do and I thought very well. The real question is why medical administrators waited till an emergency to do anything? The time for them to panic was in January which is when they should have been scrounging supplies and preparing. I think the biggest sign of incompetence I saw was when Dr. Fauci was asked if it is OK to have random sex with strangers through hookup websites. His answer was yes but wear a mask. He lost me then.

  • Dimjo July 11, 2020, 18:29

    Nice article!
    I would like to add 2 perspectives.
    Covid 19 is behaving naturally. Meaning it is following evolution as it proceeds on this planet. This particular virus is novel to humans. We are not yet at technological level to greatly affect outcome. Ventilator and steroids have mild effect on this evolutionary process we are witnessing. This virus is doing what comes naturally, and has happened innumerable times in the past. Eventually, it will become old news as the 1918 flu alluded to above. The political reaction is probably identical to the Moses-Pharoh- plague event.
    Eventually ET will reveal their existence to us, unless the plan is to for us to “find” them when we have sufficiently advanced in detection technology, or other science. However I think the human response will evolve over time as a result of genomic engineering. This article is applicable to present day earth. If we don’t end our civilization, then in 250-500 years, with genomic engineering, contact will be a different movie.
    In summary, time is everything. In 250 years there will be no pandemic, and there will probably be only one global response to 1st contact.

    • tesh July 12, 2020, 4:23

      I have to disagree on the later part of your response – unfortunately.

      Nothing happening currently suggests we are becoming more cohesive as a society/civilisation. If anything we are polarising further. Engineered Genetic Evolution will if anything create further polarisation. There will be those that resist change, there will be those that cannot afford it and there will be those that push the boundaries. This is all assuming that a format will be agreed to allow changes to be made…

      Finally, if nothing else, I’m not sure 250-500 years will not be enough to for Hs-1.x to have wiped out Hs-1.0 and even if it does do so, I’m sure there will be some sort of outrage on the how long the grass is allowed to grow… In short there wil never be a “unified” response – it is almost un-human!

  • Laintal July 11, 2020, 21:35

    Hi Paul

    Another interesting post and comments, Yes I agree with you that Covid and geo politics has everyone attention, mine included.

    It sure is concerning times, so its always good to enjoy reading your posts.

    Cheers laintal

  • Curious July 11, 2020, 23:22

    “such as the presence of systemic racism in the US” – oh please. When you make sophomoric statements like this it undermines your whole story and frankly is an insult to decades of hard work and positive progress in the US. You imply the US is far worse than anywhere else which is a laugh. Have you ever lived in a non-Western foreign country? Not just visited on vacation but actually lived there long enough to see how the society works? For example in the Middle East, Africa, or in Asia? If you had you would have seen many examples of horrific racism in which one different ethnicity will try to wipe out the other, or where one will never be allowed to do more than sweep up after the other, nor intermarry with the other, and this is today in 2020.

    BTW a common response to COVID was both impossible and unwise given that in the beginning (and even now) the facts re it and the reaction with diffferent populations were almost entirely unknown and with too little “n”. From the viewppoint of the survival of the human race, a diverse response, even if with the luxury of hindsight some were incorrect, is a GOOD thing because it also keeps everyone from making the same mistake. For example who would have thought that the presumably professional head of the WHO would tailor and ignore evidence simply because it came from a country which he was politically bigoted against.

    • John Traphagan July 12, 2020, 9:15

      Curious, I’m curious about your response. You seem to assume that any comment critical of the US is inherently negatively comparing the US countries, but no comparison was made. Actually, I have spent more than five years of my life in a non-western country and speak the language where I’ve lived. I am well aware that there is systemic racism in many–perhaps most–other countries. That does not somehow absolve the US of its own problems. It is a logical mistake to argue that simply because the same or similar problem exists elsewhere, we don’t need to consider the possibility that it is significant here. Also, the example, was just that, an example. I could have also used something like presence of Christianity, or presence of a constitutional government, etc. The point really had nothing to do with racism; the point was that the local social conditions in a given context will shape the way people respond to contact with ETI. It doesn’t matter what those conditions are. But in the case of systemic racism, a society that has practices like slavery (and, no, I am not arguing that the US has slavery, so don’t go there), is going to be shaped in its response to ETI in part by the presence of those social parameters. It could well generate racist or speciesist responses in some Americans (think about the movie District 9). Humans are social animals and our behaviors and attitudes are shaped by the social contexts in which we live. And, perhaps most importantly, we do not as a species live in a single social context, but in a wide variety of social contexts, which suggests we will not, and perhaps even cannot, respond with a unified voice. Your statement also suggests that you believe that social problems never change. It would suggest that if I wrote, “there are trees in the US” the statement assumes that there has been absolutely no change in the composition of trees in the US since its founding. Have Americans made progress when it comes to racism, say since the 1950s? I think so, although I think we can have reasoned discussions about the extent of that progress and I certainly think we continue to have many problems. Human contexts change–they never stop changing–so if we have a contact event, not only will ETI be encountering a changing context with complex social structures, the fact of contact itself will change us. I’m willing to speculate that the same will be the case for ETI, regardless of its technological ability or age of civilization. That’s a pretty clear lesson from anthropology–when two different people or groups of people come in contact, they change. In order to deal with that fact well, we must recognize that we, ourselves, are constantly changing.

  • Hamilton1 July 12, 2020, 8:22

    I thought this was supposed to be ‘not a soapbox for political views’. Hey Paul, practise what you preach and cut out the propaganda.

    • John Traphagan July 12, 2020, 9:29

      Hamilton, I’m not really sure where the propaganda lies in my article, although I’d be delighted if you would enlighten on that point. The article describes a possible scenario in the event of contact and it takes a position on what I think is likely to happen. Based on the evidence from the Covid-19 situation, I think my argument is reasonable. The point of the article here, as well as what will come out in JBIS, is to consider what we can learn from the Covid-19 situation when it comes to contact with ETI. I don’t really see what kind of soapbox I’m standing on to ask that question and suggest possible answers. So here is a question for you: Contact with ETI will inherently be political. It will involve the government of the nation that makes contact and will also involve the governments of those left out of that contact. The extent of that involvement is unknown at this point, but past experiences are suggestive that it may be significant. Can you make any case for the idea that when human governments are involved and those governments have different ideological frameworks, they are unlikely to compete for control over resources–even if those resources are relatively trivial? Can you make a case based on evidence, such as what we have seen in the Covid-19 response, that governments of the world can cooperate to address a potential existential threat to humanity? I think that would be a more productive line of argument for this blog and is one that has been followed by most of the contributors in a productive way. Thank you all, I am learning form you!

      How about if I start off with a suggestion on this? I think there is a case that might suggest cooperation is possible–it’s the Allied response in WWII and the following development of NATO, which has been one of the most successful international organizations in the world. However, one needs to keep in mind that the cooperating nations in NATO have largely similar political ideologies. The Allies were different. Out of necessity the US, UK, and Soviet Union were allied, but consider what happened as soon as the war ended. That cooperation stopped very quickly between the Soviet Union and US/UK and turned into competition and the Cold War. Different ideologies make cooperation among governments very, very difficult and that is one of the main points of the article. There is no propaganda in this–these are historical facts. And those facts should inform how we think about the moment of contact with ETI, should it ever happen.

      • randomengineer July 12, 2020, 10:01

        I have been discussing the 1000 scientists issue with Alex Tolley (above) and I’ve been saying that at this point at least half the US is tuning out the media. I’m not an anthropologist (my daughter is, however) but when half the country doesn’t trust the media to say anything truthful, that’s a huge problem that needs to be addressed and tosses a huge spanner in speculation. For your speculations to have merit, doesn’t this at least assume that the public is being fed information that it knows isn’t biased/spun/twisted/a lie? At this point if ET landed on the lawn of the White House as per film, half of the country would denounce it as a hoax. This would not be the case 10 years ago, and hopefully won’t be the case 10 years hence. But if this persists, how does this affect the speculation?

        • Gary Wilson July 12, 2020, 13:32

          There is a growing distrust of “expert” opinion and growing polarization in many countries. Unfortunately this leads to mistrust of facts and reliance on information sources that are not in any way vetted such as Facebook (a complete disaster as far as dissemination of facts is concerned). Another major problem is lack of high quality universal education which should teach people the value of facts and data. In many powerful countries the best education is mainly reserved for the wealthy. This is a common problem and has not been avoided by the first world democracies. If we want a unified world wide response to something like First Contact we will, I think, have to deal with the problem of lack of education. Rumours and falsehoods spread extremely fast now (I think a recent study revealed that falsehoods spread much faster than facts through a given society). We must find a way to teach people how to recognize and vet information for themselves and separate it from lies, rumours, and innuendo.

          • randomengineer July 12, 2020, 16:57

            Uneducated rubes aren’t the problem. This is:


            When 50% of the country reckons that the media is openly gunning for the president, maybe recognizing that the media gunning for the president is in fact real enough and could be a problem that has nothing to do with education. I’m not personally invested here; I reckon the media gunning for the president is part of their job. But claiming that they are *not* is incorrect. They are. Absolutely.

            One problem with the media sensationalizing things (lying to the people) and people dismissing the media accordingly is that at some point the media flogs the “COVID is dangerous, stay inside” message and the conservatives — quelle surprise — see this as the media yelling “wolf” one more time.

            People are not uneducated. They are not stupid. They’re not rejecting science. They’re rejecting *media.*

            • Robert July 15, 2020, 13:13

              It’s worse. There is a belief among many many people that if only we had a different president the number of cases and deaths from Covid in the U.S. would be minuscule. This unscientific and irrational belief is actually strongly encouraged by the major media and that is scary.

              • Alex Tolley July 15, 2020, 14:36

                As opposed to a minority media that supports the administration claim that the US situation is getting better despite the evidence of reality?Counterfactuals are not possible to prove, but models have shown that the outcome would have been different had different decisions been made at different times. No one can say whether these decisions would have been different, but clearly some decisions that worsened the hypothetical outcome were taken by this administration. In my community, poor decisions to reopen the local economy have resulted in a surge of Covid-19 cases that overloaded the local hospitals. This decision was made despite a vocal opposition from the [non-business] community. Had a different decision been made, the surge in cases would probably not have occurred. As I say, a counterfactual, but models are just tools to formalize thinking of possible cause and effect decisionmaking that we make all the time.

                • Robert July 17, 2020, 12:50

                  I do not hear that things are getting better from the ‘minority’ media at all. But at least they don’t blame the Administration for every person that dies and make spurious claims that the president basically could care less and even worse.

        • John Traphagan July 12, 2020, 14:28

          Randomengineer, I think you are supporting my point. There will be a very complex collection of perspectives. It doesn’t matter what is being fed to the public–they will interpret it in various ways, which simply makes things more complex. In no way am I arguing that people will just line up with government directives. That’s kind of the point–just like what is happening with Covid-19. Also, the scenario does not require ET landing here. It only refers to contact. Receipt of a signal is enough.

          • randomengineer July 12, 2020, 21:17

            The collection of perspectives in this era has reached an almost cartoon level in the divisiveness. And the advent of cancel culture has infected everything as well. Like others I took note of your “probably-now-required-by-academia-so-you-can-keep-your-job” shout-out to systemic racism, something that I doubt would have ever been a concern had your article appeared two years ago. Perhaps I’m incorrect; I’d like to read your papers etc from a few years back with the same shout-out. Consistency, like words, has meaning.

      • Hamilton1 July 12, 2020, 18:10

        The problem was, by your introduction of the provocative phrase ‘systematic racism’, you were being selective in highlighting one controversial issue over a myriad of other controversial issues, which therefore identifies you as belonging to a particular political persuasion. This sort of partisan commentary should have no place on a normally excellent scientific forum, in my view. But I will continue to frequent this haven, as an ameliorative alternative to the 95% of dross which constitutes the ‘media’.

        • John Traphagan July 13, 2020, 10:49

          Actually, the provocation, if it really is that, served a useful purpose of highlighting exactly the point of the article–that people and groups of people are shaped by ideologies that significantly influence how they react to a provocative situation and this needs to be taken seriously into account when thinking about a contact scenario with ETI. That is clearly evident in the responses to the article, including yours. Thank you!

  • Harold Shaw July 12, 2020, 9:53

    Diversity and unity are powerful recursive symmetries. Complex life would not exist if one couldn’t build upon the other. Civilization would not exist unless diversification and unity were able to dance. Perhaps the only answer to the question of which must is lead is, Yes! Giving to much control to either can lead to failure. Doesn’t matter if everyone is of the same mind and walking off a cliff. Diversity won’t build complexity and increase the unity’s ability to do work if the unique element can’t process reality.

    If an ETI wants this planet or wants humanity gone, unity will not save us unless we are targeted by the equivalent of the Kesytone Cops. John Traphagan, I agree with your general thesis but, in the context of a genuine existential threat, the effects of a lack of unity won’t be realized.

  • Paul Gilster July 12, 2020, 13:01

    I think John was exactly right in his summation, particularly in this point:

    “Diversity of perspective, a significant advantage in assessing options, can be a hindrance to unified action. Diverse cultural, political, and economic characteristics that humans display and experience have the potential not only to provide multiple options in responding to contact, but may work against a successful response.”

    And I think the ensuing discussion has illustrated the problem. If we range this widely on issues involving our own species, what will happen if we try to craft a response to another? Everyone has gotten their points in, so let’s ease out of the politics and continue to consider how we reach consensus and how we deal with ingrained preconceptions. Is a truly global response to ETI even possible?

    • Harold Shaw July 12, 2020, 14:50

      It is clear what a “successful response” to an alien invasion would be and it would require a unified global response. Again this assumes we are faced with the Keystone Cops.

      What does a successful response to contact mean? I don’t see what the benefit of a unified global response would be if there is no threat. Confusion can be an obstacle but I don’t think it qualifies as a threat.

    • John Traphagan July 12, 2020, 14:53

      Right on, Paul. I’d like to see this move away from the politics. That said, I would like to make a point along the lines of what you quite rightly indicate is illustrative of the problem. Everyone in this chat should give some thought to what two words, “systemic racism” did to the overall discussion. It dominated quite a bit of what has been written to this point in the comments, either overtly or tacitly, despite the fact that the article has absolutely nothing to do with racism of any kind. That is important and a good lesson for SETI scholars to mull over when they think about the implications of contact. If there is one thing that is clear from the discussion, it is that we do not all interpret the phrase “systemic racism” in the same way and we also tend to bring our preconceived ideas with us when we decide what it means. How many people have contributed to this set of comments? Ten, fifteen? I didn’t count, but if a group of smart people with common interests can so easily be redirected by two words into a politicized discussion, what will happen when 195 governments with different ideologies (some of which are close and some of which are distant from each other, but even when they are close still often have significant differences) start assessing and debating the implications of a signal from ETI? And what will happen when all of the different interest groups, militias, religious groups, political parties, and so on that exist within those geopolitical structures bring their own biases and perspectives and ideologies to bear on interpreting the meaning of the signal? I don’t simply refer to the content of a message; by “meaning” I also refer to what it is interpreted as meaning to humanity and to individuals in all of those different groups that make up humanity. There will be hundreds of different interpretations (maybe thousands) of what the message means for humanity and how we should respond. The diversity of human cultural forms and values makes it difficult to realistically imagine, at the very least, anything other than a disjointed and uncoordinated response to a contact scenario that is in any way interpreted as a potential threat by even part of humanity (it does not have to be an actual threat).

      I would very much like to see this conversation move to the question Paul indicates: Is a global response possible, given the current state of our world? And what can crisis situations like the pandemic tell us about who and what we are as a species and how we might respond to contact from another species? (I resist calling this a “civilization” because I don’t think we really are a single civilization, but we can debate that.)

    • david lewis July 13, 2020, 18:24

      “Is a truly global response to ETI even possible?”


      The issue, as I see it, isn’t whether we’re able to form a unified response, but whether any of our responses are going to provoke an unwanted response. For example, if we were to send certain bible passages, which I won’t mention here, how is an alien civilization supposed to respond? They won’t be human, and won’t have our cultural acceptance of such insanity. Or they might have their own gods that tell them to go forth and slaughter . . . .

      Or what if they take our religions to be fables we tell each other and create illustrations to tell each other those stories. What happens when those illustrations include pictures of Muhammad? Does the Muslim world declare Jihad? Might sound crazy now, but in a hundred years would it?

      For that matter, what happens when some hacker tries to hack their systems? Sure it might sound crazy – we’re taking decades after all – but they could send a program that a curious ETI might decide to run. If that ETI doesn’t have hackers, and as such don’t have safeguard in place, even a few lines of code could do a lot of damage. Now they, that civilization, is faced with two choices: Safeguard their computer for the rest of “eternity,” or get rid of the problem at it’s source.

      For that matter, if they were to send a sequence of code to us someone would run it, guaranteed. And I mean this is totally, one-hundred percent guaranteed.

      The problem with debating ETI is that the scenarios are “infinite.” And humans are not sane. If they’re a few thousand years ahead of us we might not even know it when they visit. Rather they’d just quantum-tunnel in, decide to take a look around, and take a few samples of the local wildlife by using nano-probes to disassemble it. (Hey, I think I just explained spontaneous combustion. And spontaneous combustion happens, so alien visitors must be real. Hey, I also just proved aliens are real. :)

      But as I said, humans aren’t sane, so if we were to count on that insanity, I can tell you how the majority (but by no means all) of humans will act if those aliens are smarter than us – they will claim it’s a hoax by the government.

      Some of the rest will want to sell them stuff, like charge them for using memes and demand they sell their planetary resources in exchange.

      Some of the others will want answers to all of humanity’s ills. The conversation will go something like this: hey, give us the scoop on fusion technology so when you implement a socialist system of government we can make interstellar fusion missiles to shoot you with.

      Others will . . . . Crazy is as crazy does. After all, we’re machines that run on biases. And we can’t escape that, so perhaps the first message we should send is: “Hello there, my name is Crazy. Who’re you?” You know, be upfront about it and hope they take it into consideration. And perhaps we should do the same if they tell us that babies taste good in stew. (If we were to ask for the solution to over population that is the response we might get if they breed like rabbits. Rabbits sometimes eat their young when stressed, and since we will talk about environmental issues, that is one of the replies we might get.)

      I’m hoping our first contact is one-way with us spotting their world and having a chance to listen for a bit before we respond.

  • Gary Wilson July 12, 2020, 13:40

    Currently we face an extremely polarized human race. We have many countries which have not attempted universal high quality education. We have many new companies which allow rapid dissemination of falsehoods. Many of them are the relatively new internet giants like Facebook, and Twitter to name but two. Good education would teach people how to vet information properly. A global unified response by humans to any threat at all is currently impossible. The key to at least reducing the dissemination of lies is clearly education. We who blog on this site accept our own education as a given. It at least gives us a chance to separate the wheat from the chaff. In comparison billions of people have little or no ability to separate truth from lies. It has allowed the current series of disasters to unfold in several very vital countries including the US, Russia, and Brazil where dissemination of lies has reached extremely dangers levels.

  • lori July 12, 2020, 18:53

    Assuming the pandemic response is instructive, would it break no-politics rules if I say that 12 minutes after it’s announced that ET phoned you could find me in the toilet paper aisle?

  • Alex Tolley July 12, 2020, 23:46

    Is a global response possible, given the current state of our world? And what can crisis situations like the pandemic tell us about who and what we are as a species and how we might respond to contact from another species?

    Despite movies like “Independence Day” suggesting that a common global response is possible against a clear existential threat by an invading ETI, reality is that even clear threats are not acted on. Consider that it took the US 2 years to get involved in WWII, and even that required a mistake by Imperial japan that had an alliance with the Third Reich. If Lindbergh’s child hadn’t been kidnapped and killed, Lindbergh might have become president, the US stayed neutral and even sympathetic to the Nazis, and Europe, possibly even Russia, might have become part of the Third Reich. It is often said that an external threat brings a country together, but does it? The Soviet Union was perhaps the greatest threat the US has ever faced. How cohesive was the country during the Cold War? Artificial threats, such as the spread of communism after WWII split the US, as did the events of 9/11. Certainly, western allies in Europe saw neither of these 2 cases as threats requiring serious involvement.

    A contact event, even just a message, would surely result in very different perceptions. I democracies, especially those we have now where the voices of the populace can easily make themselves heard and even drown out the broadcast media and key influencers, the fractiousness is likely to be much greater than when governments could attempt to control the message and sideline dissent.

    On the other side, ETI that has observed us would not come in like War of the Worlds, and similar fictional invasion scenarios. They will sow propaganda and create dissent just as the Russians have done and continue to do to the West via social media. As throughout history, they can also offer certain actors a [useful fool] role in the new administration and use them to further undermine any attempts at concerted resistance. The missionaries of organized religions have done a far better job at enabling colonization/invasion by the colonial powers. H G Wells’ Martians were not very smart relying on overwhelming superior force.

    Unless the alien contact is from a single unified organization, we might have just as much capability to sow dissent and chaos in their direction, as they might in ours. Our divisiveness may be as much of a benefit as a problem, even if we are uncoordinated and think our various factions are working at cross purposes.

  • ljk July 13, 2020, 9:21
  • Project Studio July 13, 2020, 10:47

    So, recognising the potential for contact to stimulate increased conflict and disagreement, what are the protocols for contact to a perceived threat? I think it might be possible for diverse groups to agree on the tactical value of presenting at least appearance of a unified front. What makes this possible is that relatively few organisations around the globe have the technological capability to respond to the extraterrestrial signal. If these organisations simply agreed, between themselves, that they would respond ‘as if’ the geopolitical world were in fact united and resolute — even though it isn’t — then the world be like that little animal that puffs itself up in order to look bigger to a predator, with the hope the predator might become convinced an aggressive action against the inflated animal just isn’t going to be worth it (and goes looking for easier prey). Or perhaps earth needs a galactic public relations firm to create an appealing image of earth for alien consumption. No sense letting the galaxy see our dirty laundry.
    Speaking of alien consumption… and how a signal is interpreted differently by different groups… I’m reminded of the original Twilight Zone episode ‘To Serve Man.’

    • John Traphagan July 14, 2020, 9:41

      PS, thanks for this–it is exactly the main issue. My collaborator, Ken Wisian, and I are interested in trying to push forward a discussion on how to create a protocol for first contact situations that would gain buy-in from international actors and governments. As I mentioned elsewhere in the comments here, we do have some examples of constructive international cooperation such as NATO, the ISS, etc. Conflict is inevitable, but if we can agree on frameworks for managing that conflict and can agree to a protocol that has actual political weight (there is a protocol, but there is nothing to bind anyone to adhere to it), then we might do better in dealing with those things difficult to anticipate as well as those things we can anticipate (such as ideological disagreements). What the Covid-19 pandemic shows is that right now, we don’t seem to be able to do that on a global level and even among closely aligned allies (US/EU) ideology has informed and shaped behavior significantly.

  • ljk July 13, 2020, 13:12

    According to the experts, if you do encounter an alien, you should run away as fast as you can…


  • ljk July 13, 2020, 13:15

    Here is one very likely way humans will respond to first contact with ETI, from the film Contact in 1997:


  • charlie July 13, 2020, 16:34

    So does everyone believe that the discovery of some kind of foreign and alien bacterium or virus (if you will) in some other planetary body would be met with the same degree of enthusiasm as the discovery of an intelligent alien being?

    • ljk July 14, 2020, 12:37

      The odds are probably not, although they should. But it is hard to fight several centuries of fictional indoctrination regarding alien beings.

      As I put in my list of references just above, see Frank White’s book from 1987 titled The SETI Factor:


      His work examines the very question you asked.

  • Harold Shaw July 14, 2020, 15:45

    Assuming no true threat….Perhaps it is less about a global unified response and more about suppressing some diverse motivations while encouraging others. Put another way, it is about identifying and reinforcing the necessary principles for maintaining sufficient coherence.

    If we eliminate fighting, exchanging value becomes much more likely. Unified global responses look like rent seeking or paternalism. The value of diversity is obvious in the context of civilizations trading value. The two civilizations will each demand from the other what each can’t produce. Homogenizing the response to contact could erode our pool of unique value.

    It will be impossible to leverage bluffing contact or access to alien tech. Gathering signal or evidence from any distance will be expensive and competition and cooperation will hopefully prevent any nations ability to monopolize contact. This hopefully should be reinforced. A ship landing in just one country’s capital should be considered evidence that ET isn’t here to trade value, or at least value based on the value of diversity.

    Perhaps the greatest threat posed by contact is how we use any artifacts or technology. We should establish global protocols. They wouldn’t have to provide perfect adherence, increasing the likelihood of adherence makes a difference. However, diversity offers gains here as well. Mistakes will be made and a civilization of diverse peoples is more resilient.

  • Wojciech J July 15, 2020, 14:59

    I will offer a dissenting view in regards to the article. I have been enthusiast of SETI and interstellar exploration for many decades, devoted to the subject in most of my free time. My view, based on what I have read and the knowledge I gained from other works is that there won’t be any direct contact in any near future. What will happen(if it will happen of course ) is that we will detect first traces of biospheres on some exoplanets within next 20-30 years and much later will find traces and hints of technological activity in solar systems that will be vastly distant from ours. These hints and traces will be scrutinised and analysed with more and more powerful instruments until consensus will emerge that they belong to ETI. As such I think we will observe rather than contact, and the contact will be far away in the future(if at all) by our mostly posthuman descendants. It’s just that the differences in evolutionary timescale and geological timescale mean differences in development would be too far apart for us or them not noticing life elsewhere, well before any technological civilization appears.If contact would be sought then we would be already contacted.The answers are that we are either first ones, contact isn’t sought, they don’t exist or that they are too far away(and contact from those might be so unnoticeable that it will be hardly influential, see reaction to FRB’s) . These discoveries will probably have gradual effect on human culture and beliefs and probably limited mostly to intellectual and business elites, while feeding some entertainment to the rest.All major religions today(Catholicism, Islam, Mormons, Judaism, Buddhists) accept in one form or the other possibility of alien life being created by God elsewhere, and this would be no shake up or revolution for them, besides minor orthodox denominations of Protestants I believe.
    Potential discovery of life on Mars, Venus clouds, subsurface of Europa or Enceladus while hugely interesting and scientifically revolutionary won’t have major impact on the overall human population-most people accept possibility that it exists, and it would likely be microbial in nature, and possibly of common origin from one of the celestial bodies in our Solar System.

  • ljk July 28, 2020, 12:34

    The real science behind SETI’s hunt for intelligent aliens

    Inside the current hunt for “technosignatures” in radio waves.

    MADELEINE O’KEEFE – 7/25/2020, 9:00 AM

    In 1993, a team of scientists published a paper in the scientific journal Nature that announced the detection of a planet harboring life. Using instruments on the spacecraft Galileo, they imaged the planet’s surface and saw continents with colors “compatible with mineral soils” and agriculture, large expanses of ocean with “specular reflection,” and frozen water at the poles. An analysis of the planet’s chemistry revealed an atmosphere with oxygen and methane so abundant that they must come from biological sources. “Galileo found such profound departures from equilibrium that the presence of life seems the most probable cause,” the authors wrote.

    But the most telltale sign of life was measured by Galileo’s spectrogram: radio transmissions from the planet’s surface. “Of all Galileo science measurements, these signals provide the only indication of intelligent, technological life,” wrote the authors.

    The paper’s first author was Carl Sagan, the astronomer, author, and science communicator. The planet that he and his co-authors described was Earth.

    Twenty years later, as far as we can tell, Earth remains the only planet in the Universe with any life, intelligent or otherwise. But that Galileo fly-by of Earth was a case study for future work. It confirmed that modern instruments can give us hints about the presence of life on other planets—including intelligent life. And since then, we’ve dedicated decades of funding and enthusiasm to look for life elsewhere in the Universe.

    But one component of this quest has, for the most part, been overlooked: the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). This is the field of astronomical research that looks for alien civilizations by searching for indicators of technology called “technosignatures.” Despite strong support from Sagan himself (he even made SETI the focus of his 1985 science-fiction novel Contact, which was turned into a hit movie in 1997 starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey), funding and support for SETI have been paltry compared to the search for extraterrestrial life in general.

    Throughout SETI’s 60-year history, a stalwart group of astronomers has managed to keep the search alive. Today, this cohort is stronger than ever, though they are mostly ignored by the research community, largely unfunded by NASA, and dismissed by some astronomers as a campy fringe pursuit. After decades of interest and funding dedicated toward the search for biological life, there are tentative signs that SETI is making a resurgence.

    At a time when we’re in the process of building hardware that should be capable of finding signatures of life (intelligent or otherwise) in the atmospheres of other planets, SETI astronomers simply want a seat at the table. The stakes are nothing less than the question of our place in the Universe.

    Full article here:


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