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For many people it is a question of when, not if, we discover intelligent life beyond the Solar System. But, when that time comes, how should the public be informed about what would arguably be the biggest story in human history?
That’s a topic discussed in a paper from astronomers Duncan Forgan and Alexander Scholz from the University of St Andrews in Scotland (hat tip to Cosmos Magazine for picking it up). They have examined the protocols that are already in place, and have suggested ways that those involved in the discovery should prepare for the media onslaught that would accompany a tentative detection.
“A critical concern for scientists pursuing the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is the reaction of the world to the knowledge that humans are not the only technological civilization in the universe,” they write. They suggest that the “culture shock” of such a discovery will put SETI scientists under intense scrutiny, which they must be prepared for.
Contrary to what conspiracy theorists might have you believe, there will be no “government cover-up” in the event that a promising SETI detection is made. Instead, like any scientific discovery, protocol will have to be followed. Preliminary findings will be released to the public, with subsequent studies required to verify – or refute – the discovery.
This in itself raises problems, though. This is a topic wrought with intense public interest, one that garners huge attention. Any signal we detect from the distant universe that has even an inkling of being of intelligent extraterrestrial origin will no doubt become front page news all over the world.
“If any SETI group were to find a signal that looked more than moderately interesting, you can be sure it would be on someone’s blog or Twitter feed immediately,” Seth Shostak, the director of SETI, who was not involved in writing the paper.
The search for alien signals is intensifying. sdecoret/Shutterstock
To prepare for this eventuality, the authors want SETI scientists to ensure they already have a good rapport with the public across all forms of media, from Twitter to traditional newspapers. Frequent blog posts, where potential discoveries can be discussed in detail, should also be encouraged.
“SETI scientists must be prepared to not simply announce a detection via press release, but to be a trusted voice in the global conversation that will begin after the initial announcement,” the authors write. “This will require both pre-search and post-detection protocols to be implemented.”
There are already loose protocols in place for a discovery, drawn up by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) first in 1989, and revised in 2010. But, as the authors note, there remains “no specific guidance for scientists’ communication with the general public using modern methods of news dissemination.”
And in the event of a detection, communicating the correct information will be key. One only needs to look to the infamous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast in 1940 to see how things can go wrong (although the extent of the trouble is overstated). When the stunt was repeated in Ecuador in 1949, the resulting riots claimed the lives of up to 20 people.
“In the early days of SETI, the conventional wisdom was that any discovery of an extraterrestrial signal would be announced with a press conference,” said Shostak. “But by 1997, when an interesting false alarm was picked up in one of our search programs [by the New York Times], we realized that formal announcements were a pipe dream.”
As our methods of searching for alien signals improve and intensify, and new projects like Breakthrough Listen spring up, we move ever closer to discovering we are not alone in the universe. When that time comes, we’d better be ready.