What are ET thinking About Us?

Saturday, August 20th 2011. | Science News

A study that reviews a host of sci-fi scenarios for contact with extraterrestrials stirred up such a ruckus today that NASA had to step in and distance itself from the research. The controversy focuses on the idea that E.T. could well decide that we’re a threat to interstellar order, and therefore we have to be stopped before we spread.

The report itself, published in the journal Acta Astronautica, covers ground that’s familiar to dedicated fans of E.T. lore. For example, the premise of the 1951 sci-fi classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is that universalist-minded aliens see our civilization as so rooted in violence that it’s better to snuff us out than let us ruin the neighborhood. (The 2008 remake, starring Keanu Reeves, recycled that idea with an environmental theme.) Then there’s the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” scenario, in which Earth is destroyed merely to make way for a new stretch of intergalactic infrastructure.

“At the heart of these scenarios is the possibility that intrinsic value may be more efficiently produced in our absence,” the researchers write. The most familiar sci-fi scenario is the one in which the aliens are as selfish and territorial as we are, and want to wipe us out or enslave us and take our stuff. Think “War of the Worlds” or “Independence Day.” In such cases, the researchers note that there’s the potential for big payoffs … if we prevail.

“Humanity benefits not only from the major moral victory of having defeated a daunting rival but also from the opportunity to reverse-engineer ETI [extraterrestrial intelligence] technology,” they write. Indeed, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman joked last weekend that a fake alien invasion might be just the thing to spark an economic turnaround.

The researchers touch on more benign scenarios as well — for example, the “Star Trek” scenario, in which helpful aliens welcome us into the United Federation of Planets because we’re all basically good guys (as opposed to those evil Klingons, until they become good guys, too). And then there’s something like the “E.T.” scenario, in which the aliens mostly just want to stay out of our way.

The 33-page study reflects at length on the potential risks.
“The possibility of harmful contact with ETI suggests that we may use some caution for METI [sending messages to extaterrestrial intelligence],” the researchers write. “Given that we have already altered our environment in ways that may be viewed as unethical by universalist ETI, it may be prudent to avoid sending any message that shows evidence of our negative environmental impact. The chemical composition of Earth’s atmosphere over recent time may be a poor choice for a message because it would show a rapid accumulation of carbon dioxide from human activity. Likewise, any message that indicates widespread loss of biodiversity or rapid rates of expansion may be dangerous if received by such universalist ETI.” In short, let’s keep our environmental bad habits on the down low, so as not to get the sad-Keanu E.T.’s on our case.

The basis of the brouhaha
By themselves, these ideas are not all that, um, alien. For years, sci-fi author David Brin has advised keeping quiet about our existence, and celebrity physicist Stephen Hawking agrees. U.N. officials and scientific experts also say the messages we direct toward any aliens we come across would have to be carefully managed.

So what’s the big deal? Well, one of the authors of the paper, Shawn Domagal-Goldman, happens to be a postdoctoral student working at NASA Headquarters  and that highly tenuous connection to the world’s most influential space agency sparked a huge wave of scare headlines. It started with The Guardian’s story, and rolled onto The Drudge Report’s webpage with a headline reading “NASA REPORT: Aliens may destroy humanity to protect other civlizations…” Another variant was this one: “NASA: Aliens May Destroy Humanity Over Greenhouse Gases.”

Eventually, NASA had to send out a Twitter update saying “Yes, @drudge and @guardiannews are mistaken about an ‘alien’ report. It’s not NASA research. Ask the report’s author….” The space agency followed up later with two more tweets, emphasizing that it was not involved in the study and saying that “have it wrong.”

In each case, NASA linked to a lengthy clarification and apology from Domagal-Goldman, who made clear that the study was not a “NASA report,” that no NASA funding was expended on it, and that he spent none of his working hours on writing the paper. He said his two co-authors, Seth Baum and Jacob Haqq-Misra of Pennsylvania State University, “put in the vast majority of work on it.”

“It was just a fun paper written by a few friends, one of whom happens to have a NASA affiliation,” Domagal-Goldman wrote. He admitted that including the NASA affiliation turned out to be a “horrible mistake”:

I did so because that is my current academic affiliation. But when I did so I did not realize the full implications that has. I’m deeply sorry for that, but it was a mistake born out of carelessness and inexperience and nothing more. I will do what I can to rectify this, including distributing this post to the Guardian, Drudge and NASA Watch. Please help me spread this post to the other places you may see the article inaccurately attributed to NASA.

“One last thing: I stand by the analysis in the paper. Is such a scenario likely? I don’t think so. But it’s one of a myriad of possible (albeit unlikely) scenarios, and the point of the paper was to review them. But remember — and this is key — it’s me standing for the paper … not the full weight of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. For anything I have done to mis-convey that to those covering the story, to the public, or to the fine employees of NASA, I apologize.”

This isn’t the first case where the NASA connection has become entangled in scientific speculation. In March, the space agency took great pains to distance itself from NASA researcher Richard Hoover’s claims to have found evidence of outer-space organisms in meteorites. In Domagal-Gordon’s case, the substance was far less controversial. As I’ve tried to point out above, the views expressed in the paper aren’t that far off from the typical science-blog fare. I’m willing to bet a goodly sum of quatloos that Domagal-Gordon will go on to have a fine career in science … and also that this won’t be NASA’s last P.R. kerfuffle over E.T.

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