DAVID BRIN's world of ideas


"Active SETI" Is Not Scientific Research

An article by Michael Michaud, November 2004

(Copyright © 2004)

ABOUT MICHAEL MICHAUD: During his career with the U.S. State Department, Michael Michaud served as Director of the Office of Advanced Technology, and as Counselor for Science, Technology, and Environment at the American embassies in Paris and Tokyo. He led U.S. delegations in the successful negotiation of international science and technology agreements. He played an active role in reviving U.S.-Soviet space cooperation, and in initiating U.S.-Soviet talks on outer space arms control. He represented the State Department in interagency space policy discussions, and testified before the U.S. Congress four times on space-related issues. He presently lives in Vienna Austria.

Michaud has been a leading figure in the debate about what would happen if we came into contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. As chairperson of International Academy of Astronautics working groups that considered this subject, he coordinated the drafting of the Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence, also known as the "First SETI Protocol." Michaud also is a member of the International Institute of Space Law, the American Institute of Aernonautics and Astronautics, and the American Astronautical Society, and is a Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society. He has published more than thirty articles and journal papers on the implications of contact, as well as more than sixty articles on other subjects. He is the author of a previous book entitled Reaching for the High Frontier: The American Pro-Space Movement, 1972-1984.

[image from LizaPhoenix.com]

Recent discussions within the SETI community have explored the issue of whether people with access to radio telescopes should send powerful signals to alien civilizations without some process of prior international consultation. In particular, those exchanges have focused on the question of "Active SETI."

Some who oppose prior consultation have framed their arguments in terms of our right to free speech. Far fewer have addressed the other side of this coin, which is our responsibility to the human species.

Let's be clear about this. Active SETI is not scientific research. It is a deliberate attempt to provoke a response by an alien civilization whose capabilities, intentions, and distance are not known to us. That makes it a policy issue.

We cannot assume that we already have been detected, or that detection is inevitable. Extraterrestrial civilizations might not be looking for the kinds of signals we normally radiate. More importantly from a policy perspective, our leakage signals may be below their detection threshold. An Active SETI signal much more powerful than the normal background emitted by the Earth might call us to the attention of a technological civilization that had not known of our existence. We cannot assume that such a civilization would be benign, nor can we assume that interstellar flight is impossible for a species more technologically advanced than our own.

This is not just the concern of a few paranoids. Many significant people have argued against our actively seeking contact. Pulitzer Prize-winning author and scientist Jared Diamond, calling astronomers' visions of friendly relations "the best-case scenario," warned that "those astronomers now preparing again to beam radio signals out to hoped-for extraterrestrials are naive, even dangerous" (he was even harsher about the Pioneer plaques, which provided any species that found them with a kind of map to our location in the galaxy).

Nobel Prize-winning biologist George Wald declared that he could think of no nightmare so terrifying as establishing communication with a superior technology in outer space. Even the New York Times questioned the view that the effect of signals from extraterrestrials would be beneficial, stating that the astronomers were "boyishly defiant" of our inherited wisdom.

Astronomer Robert Jastrow, addressing the consequences of possible future contact with an alien civilization, wrote that he saw no reason for optimism. Astronomer Ronald Bracewell warned that other species too would place a premium on cunning and weaponry; an alien ship headed our way is likely to be armed.

Astronomer Eric Chaisson thought that physical contact could lead to a neo-Darwinian subjugation of our culture by theirs. Astronomer Zdenek Kopal was more specific: should we ever hear the space-phone ringing, for God's sake let us not answer, but rather make ourselves as inconspicuous as possible to avoid attracting attention!

Other scientists also have warned of potential dangers. Biologist Michael Archer said that any creature we contact will also have had to claw its way up the evolutionary ladder and will be every bit as nasty as we are. It will likely be an extremely adaptable, extremely aggressive super-predator. Physicist George Baldwin predicted that any effort to communicate with extraterrestrials is fraught with grave danger, as they will show innate contempt for human beings.

Astronomer Robert Rood warned that the civilization that blurts out its existence on interstellar beacons at the first opportunity might be like some early hominid descending from the trees and calling "here kitty" to a saber-toothed tiger.

Consider the cautionary views of SETI Institute astronomers. Seth Shostak wrote in one of his books that we can no better guess the motivations of alien intelligence than goldfish can guess ours. Jill Tarter asked rhetorically: who knows what values might drive an alien culture? Aliens might not have the same motives that we do. Douglas Vakoch wrote that we should not assume that the ethics of extraterrestrials will be like our own.

Physicist Freeman Dyson has written eloquently on this subject. He issued a warning that should be heeded by SETI researchers: "Our business as scientists is to search the universe and find out what is there. What is there may conform to our moral sense or it may not.... It is just as unscientific to impute to remote intelligences wisdom and serenity as it is to impute to them irrational and murderous impulses. We must be prepared for either possibility and conduct our searches accordingly."

Dyson proposed two alternatives. Intelligence may be a benign influence creating isolated groups of philosopher-kings far apart in the heavens, sharing at leisure their accumulated wisdom. Or intelligence may be a cancer of purposeless technological exploitation sweeping across the galaxy.

None of us knows which alternative prevails. The best-case scenario that underlies Active SETI is based on belief or preference, not on proven facts.

In modern times, the public, their representatives, and the media have increasingly demanded accountability when powerful technologies are used for controversial purposes, especially when those technologies are built and operated with the taxpayer's money. Given the fact that there may be risks involved, using radio telescopes to attract the attention of other technological civilizations is controversial. We owe our fellow citizens some respect for their opinions.

More than a year ago, I proposed a standard that recognizes that signals already sent can not be called back: do not transmit a signal more powerful than the Earth's radio leakage (including radars) without international consultation. Canadian scientist Yvan Dutil, who has designed three interstellar messages for transmission from the Evpatoria Radio Telescope, has endorsed a similar approach.

If the advocates of Active SETI are not comfortable with the United Nations, I suggest an alternative. Take an Active SETI proposal to the International Astronomical Union and seek that organization's endorsement. If the IAU will not endorse Active SETI, there will be even more doubt about whether it is legitimate science.