Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Civilizations Beyond Earth

By Morris Jones

How does the public feel about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and what will happen if we actually discover that we’re not alone?

For more than half a century, astronomers have been searching for intelligent life in space. The search has mostly been conducted with the use of radio telescopes, patiently waiting for a transmission from another civilization.

The Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has mostly been the domain of physicists, astronomers and engineers. But how does the public feel about this, and what happens if we actually discover that we’re not alone? Enter the social sciences, ready to provide answers to some hard questions.

Emeritus Professor Albert Harrison from the University of California is a psychologist who has recently co-edited “Civilizations Beyond Earth” (Berghahn Books, 2011). Harrison and co-editor Dr Douglas Vakoch have drawn more than a dozen contributors from different disciplines to look at the social aspects of communicating with extraterrestrials.

Albert Harrison recently discussed his work on this book, and SETI research, with Australasian Science.

What prompted you to co-produce “Civilizations Beyond Earth”?
When SETI began, the physical scientists involved in the search realized that their efforts had tremendous implications for humankind, and sought to involve anthropologists, historians, political scientists, psychologists, and sociologists. SETI is a truly interdisciplinary effort that bridges the physical, biological, and social scientists, and there representatives of the humanities, including philosophy and theology.

SETI has two tracks: a science track and a social science track, and the cultural aspects of SETI or “CASETI” are the convenient short-hand way of referring to the activities of those of us who are pursuing the social science track. “Civilizations beyond Earth” include scholars from many different fields, but anthropology predominates.

What are the main issues you are considering?
The cultural aspects of SETI include the organization and conduct of the search, message decryption and interpretation, preparation of a model reply, and the potential impact on society of a verified “hit.” These topics may sound relatively simple, but they are profound and complex. How can we enlist political and popular support for the effort? What are the assumptions that we make that govern the search, and how might these assumptions limit our ability to find ET? Can we identify forms of intelligence that come from a completely different genetic line and are raised on another planet in another solar system? How can we identify ourselves as intelligent, and enter into a dialogue – if we can consider messages that take years to reach their destinations a dialogue. Can we avoid the gaffes and misunderstandings that are so common when different terrestrial cultures come into contact with one another? How long should we be willing to continue the search?

Even though search technology has improved incredibly over the years – contemporary searches can cover billions of microwave frequencies or channels at once – only a small portion of the search space has been covered so far.

How can you develop credible social theories for SETI when we have no experience in dealing with extraterrestrial civilizations?
People can sometimes lose sight of the fact that their views are based on speculation. Almost everyone who is interested in SETI has an opinion, and since their opinions seem as good as others, they sometimes judge things on instinct rather than objectivity.

But there is science in social science, and ways of looking at what we do know. We can turn to anthropology and history to learn what happens when very different cultures come into contact with one another. We can turn to historical prototypes or analogues – there are several of them ranging from a widely accepted hoax involving “bat men” on the Moon in the 1830s through the canals of Mars, the discoveries of quasars and pulsars (briefly thought to be interstellar beacons) and a few more – to educate our guesses as to how people might react today.

We do not know if ET and humans will be able to understand one another, but we can identify some of the challenges associated with human-animal communication, adult-child interactions, efforts to understand the worlds of people with brain injuries and neurological impairments, and, once again, contact among cultures that are remote in distance or time. One chapter in “Civilizations Beyond Earth” provides a wonderful description of the trials and tribulations of early missionaries seeking to understand the worldviews of Native Americans.

The use of analogues is very common as we contemplate the future of space exploration. We study people in Antarctica to get some idea as to how they might get along on Mars, and turn to studies of natural disasters when we wonder about how people might react to the prospects of an asteroid or comet impact.

Survey research is another powerful enabler, and some chapters look at the foundations of belief (or disbelief) in “ET,” and how educational levels, religiosity and other factors shape peoples’ views. It also helps if your ideas are backed by good theory. There’s necessarily a lot of guesswork but as much as possible we try to make it educated guesswork.

“Civilizations Beyond Earth” is available through Berghahn Books (www.berghahnbooks.com) and other retailers. Dr Morris Jones has contributed a chapter to the book.