“Trust Me, I Know Exactly What’s Out There!”

I congratulate Doug Vakoch on offering up what may be the first cogent argument for METI, or active SETI. It fails, but not without – for the first time - at least offering some logic.

“If mutual comprehension is best attained when older civilizations try to understand younger civilizations, we would benefit by diversifying our search strategy to include active SETI.”

To summarize: Doug asserts that, since light speed slows the conversation, each leg of the back-and-forth conversation should be efficient. Older/wiser and more experienced ETCs would do the heavy lifting by deciphering the clumsy contact messages of neophytes like us, offering a higher likelihood of first-round comprehension than if we had to try deciphering them. I believe that’s a fair paraphrasing.

Without doubt, this is better than the pro-METI argument of Russia’s Alexander Zaitsev, who claims that the Great Silence means advanced aliens are simultaneously both altruistically harmless and “cowards,” refraining from contact out of unreasonable fear. Zaitsev then asserts that we neos are behooved to be the calming, nurturing voices, easing the fears of those who are vastly older and more powerful than us. Gosh.

Doug’s argument is also better than the one offered by Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute – that any extensive and worldwide discussion of the pros and cons of messaging would automatically result in a worldwide ban on all broadcasts into deep space, censoring Earth forever. (My response: if we were that kind of people, we would not deserve contact!)

On this occasion, Dr. Vakoch does give a nod to the classic METI justification: that the “horses have already left the barn” and that Earth civilization has already revealed itself, so why not just go ahead and shout? In fact, it has been repeatedly shown that this is not so – that it would take prodigious and dedicated efforts by super-races to detect Earth’s non-coherent radio, even during our noisiest decade, the 1980s. But that argument is hypocritical, anyway, since METI proponents clearly and openly want to change something with their yoohoo messages. If the horses are gone, why are they so eager to open the barn door?

In contrast to those older, specious stances, Doug at least offers the logical assertion that we might save one leg of the first back-and-forth of messages with another civilization – in which each leg might take a hundred years or more. If those others out there got our brave “hello” asap, and used their great experience to interpret, they might then reply to us with a savvy and gracefully skilled greeting.

Having thus paraphrased Doug’s argument, with some appreciation of its logic, I must (alas) respond with – “baloney.”

1. Doug’s cycle time effect is improved far more if the advanced Elder races provide beacon tutorials, as Frank Drake and Carl Sagan originally expected, giving the neo-species at least a chance to figure it out. Those beacons would have saved far more back and forth time!  They also would be far cheaper for advanced ETCs than our little METI yoohoos are, to us.

Even if we humans are too stupid to interpret their equivalent of Sesame Street, it would give us both a welcome safety encouragement and a target to aim our METI responses. But there are no such beacons. Failure to detect any is the one null SETI result that is already definitive, disproving that early, optimistic, Drake-Sagan expectation.

2. Advanced ETCs (AETC) would not even have to make beacons! An AETC need only send occasional “pings” at all the nearby systems that have planets with non-equilibrium atmospheres. Such pings could say: “We are here. We are here. Answer when ready. And even if you don’t grasp the embedded message of gifts, do respond. We’ll handle the decipherment.”

What either a ping or a beacon proclaims is “the universe is at least somewhat safe. See? We are exposing our position. When you are ready, send us something and we’ll respond.”

Hence, clever as it is, Doug’s logic collapses. AETCs should still do the heavy lifting. Their failure to do so has implications that are huge to anyone but a zealot. If powerful and advanced races are silent, the lead hypotheses must be either: they are absent… or they are keeping quiet ‘cause they know something we don’t know.

3) There are many categories of the “Zoo Hypothesis,” and Dr. Vakoch conflates several. But let’s drill down to just one. Doug says: “One might imagine extraterrestrial research protocols that require silence if only undirected leakage radiation were detected, but that would authorize a reply to intentional efforts to make contact.”

Indeed, one can imagine that. In fact, I worked out this scenario, in some depth, in a novel called Existence. Professor Allen Tough’s Invitation to ETI program also took steps to demonstrate assertive intentionality toward any lurking/observing aliens, via our Web and comms networks, which, according to Doug’s scenario, are being monitored. Hence no need to beam a blaring radio yoohoo.

Nor were these the only examples of humans assertively demanding the equivalent of a Galactic Federation application form. I have done it on radio shows, countless times! I’ve also put out a plea for attention from alien lawyers and do-gooder NGOs, asserting our rights under whatever “galactic law” might prevail, out there. All to no avail! (See www.ieti.org… and my specific, context driven message to alien lurkers, at: http://www.ieti.org/articles/brin.htm)  

No, Doug’s assertion experiment has already been tried. If they are already watching and listening, they’ve heard the words, and they are refusing the plea.

4) One of Doug’s points is disingenuous. He dismisses the Second SETI Protocol’s call for pre-discussion before de-novo transmissions from Earth. “Why, then, did this call for international discussion fail to gain the support of the majority of the members of this committee on three separate votes?”

The answer is simple. It did get support from the majority on varied SETI commissions, for quite some time. I served on the drafting committees and such a call for pre-discussions was a part of the Second Protocol for more than ten years.  It was only removed at a series of rigged, Potemkin “meetings” that were packed by later METI zealots with the skill of Tammany Hall. The chief result was to disgust dozens of colleagues, making us realize that we cannot trust these “discussions” to a tiny, inward-looking coterie of true believers and fans who have no interest in multiple points of view.

Doug demands to know details about the pre-discussions that Michaud, Billingham, Benford, Hawking, Messerschmidt and so many others have asked for. Again, how silly. We have deliberately avoided demanding anything specific because it is clear what “eclectic and extended and open” means, and we’d accept a wide variety of negotiated fora, so long as the process included a wide variety of human sages from the full range of relevant disciplines. For example, experts on past first contact encounters between human societies, or when whole regions of Earth encountered each other biologically, as when the Isthmus of Panama suddenly connected North and South America. These are pertinent topics, about which the tiny coterie of a dozen radio astronomers and their fans know nothing at all.

What has become clear is how obstinately determined the METI zealots are to avoid public pre-discussion before a rapt and fascinated international viewership. They do not want SETI matters discussed in venues they do not control.

Fortunately, there are wiser heads. One of the great lights of SETI – Dr. Jill Tarter – led in formulating a coming 90 minute debate at the 2015 AAAS meeting – in San Jose in February. Though far too brief, that session will at least have time to air the basic situation before a fairly wide audience. But what’s needed is a venue for astronomers, biologists, ethologists, ethicists, and many other realms of human sagacity to truly thrash this out in the detail it deserves, with input from humanity as a whole. Ideally, televised so that everything can be absorbed and cogitated by millions.

Indeed, what could be more fun?  What discussion could possibly do more to set into perspective humanity’s many squabbles and crises, letting us look at the Big Picture, for a refreshing change?

Isn’t there something kind of creepy and suspicious about a cult that seeks to evade such an intellectual feast, so basic and wonderful and wise?  Instead, they want to wager all of humanity’s destiny upon a handful of arm-waved suppositions and assumptions, bandied by maybe a couple of dozen devotees who are so certain that their logic trumps any other.

One thing is clear. We who have resigned from all the SETI commissions, in protest over the highhanded hijacking of a field of science, are not going to be mollified by a couple of tightly controlled “meetings” at the SETI Institute, whose conclusions will be foregone.  

What we have before us is a matter for humanity. Indeed, I can well imagine aliens deeming this to be one of many tests that maturing newcomers should pass!  A test of whether we have the wisdom to at least talk things over and compare notes among ourselves, before letting a teensy tribe of enthusiasts declare: “trust me! I know exactly what’s going on, out there!”

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • SETI, METI and the paradox of extraterrestrial life: is there a libertarian perspective? by David Brin

    David Brin criticizes the possibly reckless turn in recent SETI research. He also speculates on what the great silence may say about human societies. It may not be such a good idea to go about shouting to the cosmos - not when we have so little idea of what may be out there.

    That said, Brin speculates on the nature of any intelligent life we are likely to meet. He notes that our scientific and technological society is very unusual when compared to societies of the past: It is, he says, diamond-shaped, with relatively few at either the bottom or the top, and with a broad equality of social station, rights, and even wealth in the middle. Maintaining such a society is hard work, and one reason we seem to be alone in the universe may simply be that very few alien civilizations have escaped from feudalism or something like it.

Response Essays

  • Should Earth Shut the Hell Up? by Robin Hanson

    Robin Hanson runs a cost-benefit analysis on our use of very loud radar signals. He finds that if there is even a small probability of a hostile civilization hearing us, then the risks are not worth the rewards. This conclusion holds up under fairly severe assumptions, and it grows much firmer as we consider our likely technological developments in the near future. Astronomy, moreover, is advancing rapidly, and it will likely tell us much more about the probability of existence and the nature of extraterrestrial life. When it does, we may have a better idea of the wisdom of sending out very loud radio signals. In the meantime, he concludes that yes, humanity should indeed shut the hell up.

  • Extraterrestrial Evolutionary Psychology by Jerome H. Barkow

    We have few tools at our disposal to learn about intelligent extraterrestrials - if they even exist. But one relatively powerful tool is evolutionary psychology. Jerome H. Barkow reviews some findings from terrestrial evolutionary psychology and considers their implications for alien life. We will learn a lot if we can discover what aliens find sexy, he claims - because sexual selection has overwhelmingly influenced terrestrial animals, including ourselves.

    We will also learn a great deal by observing aliens’ predation history, their group cooperation, and their genetic transmission of culturally favored traits. Of course, these observations will have to wait for first contact. Barkow concludes by agreeing with Robin Hanson - until we know more, humanity should probably keep relatively quiet.

  • The Importance of Active SETI by Douglas Vakoch

    Douglas Vakoch argues that active SETI is not to be feared: If highly advanced civilizations exist out there, they will have highly advanced radio detection equipment. If they are anywhere near us, then they will have known about us for decades. Messaging them can do no more harm than what we have already done, and it may do us a great deal of good, particularly if these civilizations are waiting for us to make the first move, and if messaging them directly is the signal they need to initiate contact.

The Conversation