I often joke with friends that the seemingly preternatural speed at which time rips by ( especially at certain times of year) must be the result of an alien conspiracy 🙂 Which is interesting because, as I have stated more than once on this blog, I dislike the term ” alien”. It’s become a “loaded” word that conjures up silly images of little green men or worse—reptilian monsters coming to enslave us and plunder our resources. Oh yeah–we are actually doing a pretty good job of that all on our own 🙁
Anyway, I do prefer the term ETI ( extraterrestrial intelligence ) which essentially means the same thing. The difference is in how people react to the words. And speaking of reaction and speaking of aliens…
Life, work and the occasional lack of motivation has kept me away from the page these past few months but it’s a New Year and time to take a look at what’s going on in our world One of the more interesting things that appeared in my mailbox this past month is a Washington Post article by science journalist Ben Guarino entitled ” How will humanity react to alien life? Psychologists have some predictions.” I was excited to read it on a couple of levels. First of all, the Washington Post is clearly in the mainstream media and it is a credible and literary publication. ( I can’t recall if it is one of the publications on Donald Trump’s hit list of “fake news” but if it is, that should raise its credibility and respectability even higher). Yeay–something that takes this subject seriously and is not in the National Enquirer!
Secondly, I checked out Ben’s work online and he is a solid science journalist with the education and credentials combined with enthusiasm and an open mind. Just the right combination, I think, for informing people about new discoveries and potential. I will post the link to his article at the end of this post and hope that you will take the time to give it a read. It’s worth it:)
Ben’s piece was inspired by the recent discovery of possible “alien” microbes on the outside of the International Space station which are currently being studied to determine their origin. Although the jury is still out on that, they apparently pose no danger. Ben feels that it is unlikely that the microorganisms came from elsewhere and more likely that they hitchhiked from our planet’s surface. Still…it gets one to thinking and he decided to check in with some psychologists to see if they had any meaningful predictions as to how humanity would react to the news of the discovery of alien microbes.
Now, this is something that I have also pondered and is an integral part of what this blog is all about. In this case, we are looking at a general reaction and not one specific to religious belief. However, I believe that you could likely deduce one from the other. One thing that I have discovered from interviewing folks who have appeared in my posts and just listening to people in general is that the nature and degree of the reaction depends a lot on the nature and degree of the announced discovery. My purely anecdotal and non scientific speculation is this formula: The discovery of alien microbes or detection of chemicals in the atmosphere of an exoplanet that indicate the presence of organic life of some kind: Small reaction– a snoozer for most people as they either aren’t interested in or have the time to look up the scientific implications.
The detection of a signal that could only come from an ET intelligent civilization? : Big reaction. As to what that reaction would , I have no idea. World wide panic? Rapturous joy that we are not alone and hand extended to visit? Let’s see what the psychologists have to say.
Ben tells us that this has been a budding subject of interest to psychologists and that a recent study done by Michael Varnum , an Arizona State University psychologist and member of its new Interplanetary Initiative ( what’s this? I will have to check it out. See next post for results ) recently conducted three experiments which essentially, bore out my very anecdotal “small reaction/big reaction” formula. The article quotes Doug Vakoch, President of METI, Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence, as saying “the psychologist and his co-authors make a critical distinction between reactions to the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence and finding evidence for microbial life beyond earth.”
The article gives more specific detail about how the studies were done and the size of the sample groups. I was particularly intrigued by the second experiment where 500 online participants were asked to describe their reaction to the hypothetical discovery of alien microorganisms. They were also asked to speculate as to how others would react. This is where it gets interesting and is a rather fascinating insight into human nature. Most participants responded “positively” to the discovery themselves but projected that others in their country ( the USA in this case ) would be less agreeable. And according to Varnum, who is quoted in the article, the reason may have more to do with the nationality of the participants .
” Most Americans tend to think , on any desirable trait or ability , that they’re better than the average person”. Lest anyone think that I have any prejudice against Americans, that is a direct quote and the results could be very similar in my own country. What’s important to reflect on is that the participants were American and the reported positivity may be culturally influenced and we really don’t know how the same news would be received in other countries and cultures that are vastly different from our North American culture. We don’t have any way of knowing how the same experiment would play out in China or India or ( and I shudder to think ) North Korea! And that’s a really big problem, isn’t it? How do we find our common ground and more importantly, our common voice as the human race when one day, inevitably, we may be presented with this scenario ?
More detail on the other experiments are provided in the article but I think that it’s important to keep in mind that the studies dealt specifically with the scientific discovery of alien microbes. Which is, in my very unscientific model, the small discovery/small reaction formula. And when I use the term “small”, I mean relatively speaking. To me and others who ponder the larger implications of such discoveries, the discovery of any microbial extraterrestrial life is not small- it’s huge! But relative to the “big discovery/big reaction” of the detection of an ET signal from an intelligent civilization or gasp–an ET spacecraft landing downtown Toronto –finding some alien microbes is not going to be a big disruptor in most people’s lives. It’s my observation that most people live rather insulated lives and although they might find such news interesting- perhaps even fascinating- it won’t affect their daily lives and will soon drop off their radar.
However – an announcement of an ET signal or the landing of a craft, is a “big discovery” and will get the accompanying reaction. It will challenge people on a whole different level. Some people will go directly to the philosophical and spiritual: what does this mean? Others will go directly to the practical: OK–so there are other species out there. What do they want? Are they going to hurt us? Others yet, and I include myself in this category, will ask: how advanced are they? what can we learn from them? Can they learn anything from us? How can we work together?
I think/hope that , as we move forward with our scientific exploration and search for life elsewhere, we are going to see more of these kind of studies so we can get a sense of how ready we are (or aren’t) for that moment of first contact, whether it be “big or “small”. Please jump into the conversation. What would your reaction be the discovery of alien life? And do you think it would it be different from the reaction of other people? Any thoughts on how we can prepare the public or do you fall into the category of —nah–let’s just wait until it happens and figure it out then. It might not be in my lifetime anyway… And that’s not a bad response. It has a practical element that appeals to my pragmatic nature. Except for one thing: God willing, I think that it will happen in your lifetime –and mine 🙂
Thanks to Ben Guarino for a first class article and hopefully we will hear more from him on this compelling topic 🙂