“What would you do if we found aliens?” That’s one of the questions in an online survey that asks earthlings their views on the search for aliens and how they’d react to the discovery of aliens. The UK SETI Research Network or UKSRN announced the survey, which it said is the largest such survey to date, in July this year. The online survey includes questions such as: If we discover a signal from extraterrestrial intelligence, would you: Not care much about it? Just follow the news, comment? Interact on social media about this topic?
Some people think we should send messages into space even if we don’t receive a message first. What is your opinion? This is a bad idea. We should ban people from sending messages. There should be rules or laws about who can send messages and what they can say. Anybody who wants to send a message into space should be allowed to do so.
Jeanna Bryner quoted from an email to Live Science by Martin Dominik, an astrophysicist at the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom. “Despite the fact that we have never detected a signal from extraterrestrial intelligence, this does not mean that it is never going to happen. What if it does? The SETI community is currently rethinking this issue in the wake of the spread of social media and fake news. If there are consequences for the wider public, the decision about where to go becomes a political one rather than a scientific one,” said Dominik, who is also a UKSRN member. While an analysis of the survey responses is awaited, Bryner points out significantly that there are still plenty of spots and wavelengths where aliens could be hiding. So, what would humans do if we found concrete evidence that we are not alone in the universe? Turns out, there’s no real plan for how humanity would respond, let alone how we would deal with such a monumental discovery.
Earlier, in February 2018, the findings of another very interesting survey were widely covered in the media. The Atlantic ran a feature titled “How Would People React to News That Aliens Exist? The microscopic kind, not the scary, slimy monster type…”Marina Koren wrote: “But what if the extraterrestrial life we confronted wasn’t nightmarish and intelligent, as it’s commonly depicted, but rather microscopic and clueless?”
Apparently, this was the question Michael Varnum, a psychology professor at Arizona State University and a member of the school’s Interplanetary Initiative, a space-exploration research project, wanted to answer. “Microscopic organisms don’t make for good alien villains, but our chances of discovering extraterrestrial microbial life seem better than encountering advanced alien civilizations”, Varnum said. Varnum and his colleagues at ASU conducted several experiments to try to gauge how people would react to news of microbial life elsewhere in the universe. The results, they concluded, suggest people might actually take it pretty well
Koren revealed that in multiple studies, Varnum and his team ran different kinds of text through software that detects and analyses positive and negative affect in language. One batch included news coverage about the more recent discovery of “Oumuamua”, the first known interstellar object in our solar system. In every case, the text-analysis software showed that people, journalists and non-journalists alike, seemed to exhibit more positive than negative emotions in response to news of extraterrestrial microbes.
Koren points out that the results seem to suggest that as long as aliens aren’t dropping out of the sky into our cities, people may be okay knowing something else is out there. Even though there was some speculation that “Oumuamua” was an alien spaceship—potentially scary!—Varnum’s analysis showed the news reaction still leaned positive, perhaps because the object was moving away from Earth and posed no threat to the planet.
Varnum’s findings are welcome news, wrote Koren, to some astronomers who study exoplanets and astrobiology, including René Heller, an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen, Germany. Heller conducted an online experiment in 2017 that asked people to decode a fake alien transmission and garnered 300 responses. “I was naturally delighted to see that the experimental subjects tended to associate the discovery of extraterrestrial life with positive emotions,” Heller said in an email.
Heller pointed out that Varnum’s studies have some limitations. Amongst these: the participants were based in the United States, the researchers’ findings can’t easily be extrapolated to other populations. Varnum’s research tackled the question of how, but it leaves unanswered the why. Why would we take this kind of news well?
But what about those for whom the idea of life outside of Earth flies in the face of their beliefs? Varnum’s studies did not ask participants to report their views on religion. “A lot of worldviews, both religious and secular, have shown themselves to be pretty flexible,” Varnum says. “The Catholic Church eventually made peace with a heliocentric solar system, right?” Varnum says his team is planning follow-up studies to investigate potential reactions in other cultures, particularly non-Western populations. The project is expected to roll out to another 30 countries spanning the globe.
Douglas Vakoch, an expert in the field of psychology and extraterrestrial life and the president of Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence, focuses his research on finding intelligent life. As technology progresses, Vakoch said more sophisticated equipment will allow scientists to better detect more forms of life, encompassing both intelligent and microbial life. “It’s important to take it ahead of time how people will respond to the discovery of extraterrestrial life because historically, it’s been that everyone is going to freak out,” Vakoch said.
However, the key question of actually finding intelligent extraterrestrial to which humans can react remains. Avi Loeb of Harvard University, has noted in National Geographic: “Based on our own behavior, there must be many civilizations that killed themselves by harnessing technologies that led to their own destruction. If we find them before we destroy our own planet, that would be very informative, something we could learn from.” And something that would give us actual reactions from earthlings instead of relying as we are at the moment, on surveys and studies, no matter how fascinating.