Stranger danger: Extraterrestrial first contact as a political problem
Carl Sagan, icon of the First Contact optimists, prophesied that humans might benefit immensely from access to the “scientific, logical, cultural and ethical knowledge to be gained from tuning into galactic transmissions.”28 Sagan was confident that the consequent cultural shock would be relatively small and that the decoding of signals would be possible though perhaps requiring decades or centuries.29 Albert A. Harrison anticipates encountering peaceful and cooperative intelligent extraterrestrial species flourishing in the interstellar equivalent to the Kantian Peace.30 He pictures a Galactic Club of such species operating on broad principles with experience at enrolling new member species such as our own. Alas, several decades of searching now suggests that intelligent extraterrestrial entities broadcasting invitations to communicate by radio must be exceedingly rare or occur at distances so great from Earth as to be functionally non-existent.
What benefits might be derived from communicating with an extraterrestrial entity? We already know that intelligence has arisen multiple times on Earth but have yet to converse with any of the terrestrial species exhibiting intelligence about anything other than naming food, identifying predator threats, claiming territory, and expressing affection.31 To that extent humans already know they are not alone in the universe. Alas, we are unable to compare notes with any terrestrial intelligent species about more abstract matters. That is what we might achieve if we are able to translate messages from an intelligent extraterrestrial entity.
Proponents of attempting to communicate with intelligent extraterrestrial entities typically assume that our mathematics reflects something universal and would thus serve as the basis for the development of a common terminology. They might be mistaken. The mathematics we know might simply reflect the thinking of our species, centered on performing the sort of operation that is useful to us. Even ostensibly “pure” mathematics may simply be applied mathematics applied to itself, rendering the divide a case of degrees of removal rather than a difference in substance. An important benefit of First Contact would be to determine whether we know what we think we know about mathematics, both in content and scope. Discovering that mathematics is not shared might however foreclose use of the most promising means for achieving translation of messages. Not recognizing this, if it is so, may mean we toil in vain at an impossible task for a very long time.
Another benefit would be that we could “avoid re-inventing the wheel” by adopting much of the scientific and engineering advances made by other species. However we cannot assume that the science and engineering of an extraterrestrial entity would be of any practical use.32 Humans might also benefit from exposure to new examples and benefit by recognizing value in what we already possess. Thus we might be in a situation analogous to the pre-contact Inca, who were aware of the wheel but did not put it to use in transportation. An extraterrestrial entity might possess philosophic or spiritual insights as yet unimagined by our species.
Even if the extraterrestrial entity has nothing to offer that we do not already possess, would there be any benefit to communication? Donna Haraway argues that the relationships we develop with domesticated animals, creatures with different minds, is crucial to human moral development.33 Steven Pinker argues that mass communications, which has resulted in greater exposure to the minds of humans and other animals unlike ourselves, is in part responsible for our increasingly peaceful behavior.34 So simply being exposed to different and radically alien minds might have a pacifying effect on our behavior by permitting further moral development. That effect is of course dependent on actually communicating in something close to natural language.
What do political decision-makers know about the benefits attending First Contact? The answer is that they know very little. Indeed, the claimed benefits appear to reflect wishful thinking.
The political problem
The search for radio signals from extraterrestrial entities has been ongoing for decades despite the absence of an unambiguous public policy consensus about the wisdom of doing so. Instead, enthusiasm about the possibility of detecting intelligent extraterrestrial life has been assiduously cultivated in popular culture. It sometimes seems as a means of inoculating the public against xenophobia about human Others.35 Belief in the benign character of any extraterrestrial entity is sufficiently common among members of the attentive public that The Planetary Society uses it to raise money. Thus an August 15, 2014, fundraising e-mail message ends with the following promise: “If an alien civilization broadcasts our way, it would be a major discovery in human history. And you’d like to be part of it. Please help keep the search alive.” The appeal for contributions makes no mention of the risks attending detection or response to such a message. Nor is there a mass membership lobby comparable to The Planetary Society opposing the effort. There is dissent from this but it fails to resonate strongly in public opinion.36
Scientific experts are divided about the advisability of responding to any detected entity and of unprompted signaling of our species’ existence as an intelligent technological entity.37 Unfortunately, much of the public, which might be in opposition, ignores expert opinion in favor of more entertaining conspiracist narratives of the sort offered up by The Discovery Channel.
What do political decision-makers know about the risks attending First Contact? The answer is woefully little, and what they do know is decidedly woeful. The tragic encounters detailed in Table 1 do not bode well even for encounters confined to radio transmissions. Memes, in the original sense that Richard Dawkins coined the term, could be demoralizing and disruptive in the same manner as pandemics.38 As we are discovering in the 21st century, information itself may be weaponized.
Given the worrisome “cat-killing” curiosity common to our species, some may be tempted to respond to a radio signal before it is deciphered and before it is determined whether humans are the intended audience. Mounting popular and scientific enthusiasm driven by curiosity might be difficult for political decision-makers to resist. Frustration at the inability to derive a message from the radio broadcast is likely to feed conspiracist suspicion that decision-makers are concealing information that they do not possess. The temptation to respond will probably be strengthened by what are, in human perception, very long time periods between sending and receiving radio messages. The time horizons for decision makers are typically much shorter. Long-term consequences of even the most momentous policy making may be discounted in favor of near-term advantages that can be reckoned in public opinion polls and election outcomes.
Decision-makers are no less prone than anyone else to errors of misperception that are the product of a human proclivity to tell one another stories in which missing information is replaced with supposition. Several of the hypothesized misperceptions involved in nuclear deterrence identified by Robert Jervis are relevant here: the tendency to accept or reject new information based on existing beliefs or theory, the tendency to successfully assimilate new information only if it is received piecemeal, the tendency to believe that messages received are in response to messages sent, the tendency to overestimate the clarity of messages sent, and the tendency to believe that message recipients share common interests and perspectives.39 These tendencies to misperception may be reinforced by both the “groupthink” syndrome identified by Irving Janis40 and the competition between bureaucratic organizations even during existential crises identified by Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow.41
In his discussion of conceptualization in international relations, Robert Jervis notes that the most basic perceptual thresholds are also the most difficult to correct: whether or not decision-makers possess a concept for a category of thought.42 Thus the inaccurate image of the West employed by Chinese decision-makers in the mid-19th century delayed their learning about their challengers and rendered their response to those challenges inadequate. They thought they were interacting with a power comparable to 16th century Portugal when in reality they were dealing with 19th century Britain. One hundred years of violence and humiliation were the consequence.
The political problem is initially one of choosing between non response and delayed response. As displayed in Table 3, any response to the message should be delayed at least until the message has been deciphered and the intended recipient identified. Potential existential threats warrant decision making patience born of extreme caution.
Table 3: Optimal near-term decision-making
Non-response will require official messaging to dampen both public and scientific enthusiasm. As the experience of nuclear deterrence during the Cold War reveals, news audiences can be persuaded to accept the strategic logic of preparation coupled with inaction. What that is likely to require are periodic official reports on progress in deciphering the message together with a narrative emphasizing the possible existential threat. Although it rubs against the grain of thinking since the beginning of the Modern Era, humans are proficient at living in a state of fear. Indeed, traditional societies are characterized by hostility to strangers, finding in that antipathy a source of social unity.
The longer-term political problem involves decision making with respect to messages that have been sufficiently deciphered. The choices are displayed in Table 4.
Table 4: Optimal long-term decision-making assuming intended transmission
Unless the message can be determined to have been intentionally transmitted and that humanity is its intended recipient rather than some other extraterrestrial entity, then not responding remains the optimally rational decision. The value of not responding would be reduced, though not entirely eliminated, if it is determined that humanity is the intended recipient because that would indicate knowledge of our location in space and perhaps other information. Not responding to a message would deny the extraterrestrial entity additional information that might render humanity even more vulnerable. If the message evidenced some malign intent in the form of a threat or weaponized meme, then not responding remains the optimally rational decision.
There are possible advantages to listening in on communications between extraterrestrial entities without their knowledge. Given prophylactic measures to avoid releasing a weaponized meme, the intelligence collected through covert monitoring could be used in deciding whether and how best to respond to a message. Indeed, such monitoring might provide the benefits of First Contact without incurring the risks.
The relatively high probability of the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence has led to conversation about the possibility of prolonged communication with such distant intelligences. A number of logistical details beset and make problematic any attempt to engage in the communication between Earth and whatever lies in the great beyond that might speak back to us. That engaging in such communication will be advantageous is by no means a foregone conclusion. Indeed, there are good reasons to suspect that the encounter will be either non-advantageous or disadvantageous, and very possibly extraordinarily dangerous.
What a national political decision-maker is likely to seek upon encountering an extraterrestrial radio signal will depend on both their relative risk acceptance and on their willingness to act in concert with other national political decision-makers who are in possession of the same information. At present, the bureaucratic scientific apparatus for detecting such is still limited to a handful of countries, but as that number grows a coordinated response becomes more difficult, not the least because of the temptation to defect from a policy of restraint by seeking an advantage in establishing communication.