18 February 2010

Talking Aliens

...time for some comedy

Reposted in full from Letter to the Editor, New Scientist, 10 February 2010

'Stephen Battersby discussed the current debate over broadcasting messages into space with the intention of their being detected by extraterrestrial life forms (23 January, p 28). The editorial in the same issue (p 3) endorses the idea.

As an astronomer who has been involved in topics relating to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) for 30 years, and as a former member of SETI advisory panels, I feel there is an arrogance in the transmission of these messages by small groups who have claimed the right to shout on behalf of Earth without consulting anybody else.

Many SETI researchers and others, including the editorial board of Nature, have asked for there to be a moratorium on these messages until broad international discussions can take place. These should involve biologists, historians, ethicists and members of the public.

That doesn't seem much to ask, given the importance of the matter and our ignorance of the cosmos. However many technological species there are out there, we are almost certainly the youngest children, suddenly shouting in an unknown forest. The daunting silence in the sky has its creepy aspects.

Can't we discuss the implications and satisfy reasonable concerns before yelling "Yoohoo"?

The message zealots label as paranoid anybody who wants open discussion. With their peremptory broadcasts, they bet our future on the assumption that all technological alien species will be altruistic. In doing so they ignore all the indications from human or biological history that suggest this is highly unlikely to be the case.

They deploy a host of blithe excuses, such as "aliens have already picked up our radio leakage" and "harm cannot span interstellar distances", but they do not hold up under scientific scrutiny.

Eagerness to achieve "first contact", while laudable, should be tempered by awareness of the history of first contacts between human cultures, and between previously isolated Earthly biomes. These make a sad litany that suggests patience, caution and lengthy discussion are in order before we make our presence known to the cosmos at large.'

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