If we come into contact with aliens, the biggest danger will be our politicians, say scientists
What would be the geopolitical fallout from a successful search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI)?
A major growth area of astronomy is the study of exoplanets – planets orbiting other stars outside the solar system. This is unlikely to lead to an alien discovery anytime soon. After all, the new James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will at best reveal only the most basic biosignatures in the atmospheres of these planets.
However, radio telescopes are currently pointed all over the night sky as astronomers study distant galaxies and stars. What happens if they accidentally detect alien technology? Or receive a message from an extraterrestrial civilization?
A new paper published online and accepted for a future issue of Space policy consider the “realpolitik” of this scenario – not what should happen, but what would happen.
It makes for exciting reading.
The authors, affiliated with the Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence Center as well as NASA, offer three recommendations for how the world should handle the detection of intelligent life:
- transparency and data sharing between organizations and nations.
- development of “post-detection” protocols.
- training of policy makers.
They respond to a number of disturbing scenarios that could arise if aliens were detected.
Their main concern was that nations might seek an information monopoly over communications with any extraterrestrial intelligence. They point out that such attempts could lead to an international conflict.
This is a question that has already been considered. In 2020, an article was published in Space policy which identified similar disturbing results from a successful SETI, but prescribed different solutions.
Both papers argue that if a nation could monopolize communications with an extraterrestrial race, it could receive – or be seen to receive – the benefits of extraterrestrial technology. However, the authors of the new paper say this would be highly unlikely. Largely because scientific knowledge is gathered incrementally and in a non-linear way. They offer an example of medieval scholars receiving a textbook on nuclear weapon design, which, absent a background in nuclear physics, would simply tell them that the manufacture of nuclear weapons was possible in the future.
The authors also point out that a nation capable of using extraterrestrial technology to develop sophisticated weapons would mean little, in practice, in a world already saturated with nuclear weapons. The same deterrent effect would apply.
Instead of locking down security and information after detection, the new document prescribes openness and transparency. After all, if there is a detection that shocks the world and the scientists involved, then shut up, it could be misconstrued as secret. There could be accusations of scientists or states hiding the truth from the world. This alone could lead to conflict between nations if the stakes were deemed high.
However, it is also suggested that the realpolitik response to a contact scenario might actually be more comprehensive cooperation.
The successful detection of an extraterrestrial civilization or any form would be truly revolutionary for science. However, would it really affect our daily lives? In practice, many of us would quickly overcome post-detection anxiety and/or excitement and return to normal life.
It’s not the extraterrestrials themselves we have to worry about, but the reactions of our leaders to such a discovery – and to each other. Perception always trumps reality, and it could be misconceptions, misunderstandings, and suspicions of secrecy that cause unrest after detection. After all, unless we’re dead wrong in basic physics, there’s no way aliens, detected or undetected, will appear in our skies anytime soon.
I wish you clear skies and big eyes.