Should we message ET?


By Steven J. Dick, Trustee, METI International

One of the primary purposes of METI International is Active SETI, “in which powerful, intentional information-rich signals are transmitted to possible extraterrestrial civilizations."  This goal is surprisingly controversial, indicating just how seriously many scientists and others take the possibility of advanced alien life.  Indeed, earlier this year a group of scientists signed a statement originating at Berkeley urging caution in any Active SETI project.  Although I am in agreement with much of the Berkeley statement, the devil is in the details.

I am on the record as saying that governments should not fund Active SETI (also known as METI, for Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence), but that groups that want to undertake METI cannot practically be regulated short of legislation on the subject, which does not exist and is unlikely to happen.  Given that, it seems to me a responsible group of scholars that wants to undertake a METI project should be free to do so if it seeks consensus inside and outside the group.  Though an international consensus at the governmental level is in my view unlikely in such a matter, the first goal of METI International’s Strategic Plan stipulates broad consultation with scholars in many fields to encourage a responsible approach to sending messages.  I confess to some uncertainty about the substance of the consultation:  Is it to craft the perfect message?  To ensure a politically correct message?  To ensure not too much information is sent?  This is all up for discussion, but the desire for international input seems to me to improve on the methodology of past messages, including Frank Drake’s Arecibo radio transmission, the Pioneer plaque, and the Voyager record, all sent in the 1970s.  It also improves on the methodology of a series of messages sent from Russia over the last 15 years.

Many readers will recall Stephen Hawking’s warning in 2010 that aliens might be dangerous to Earth.  A few readers might also recall that in the wake of Drake’s message, sent in 1974 to the Hercules cluster of some 300,000 stars 22,000 light years from Earth, Nobel Laureate Sir Martin Ryle appealed to the International Astronomical Union that no attempts be made to signal other civilizations for fear of the consequences.  In response a New York Times editorial asked “Should Mankind Hide?”  Its conclusion was a solid “no.”  “To live is to accept dangers,” the Times wrote, arguing that “the universe seems too rich to require an advanced race to look hungrily on Earth’s eager patrimony.”  That was admittedly only one editorial in one newspaper at one point in space and time, but the underlying spirit of the conclusion seems to me to be correct.  

The underlying principle guiding my opinion in this matter is that humanity as a species should not cower and hide from the stars. We cannot isolate ourselves from the universe because we are an integral part of it. METI is in the same spirit of exploration as passive SETI, which some also said was not a science when it began more than 50 years ago.  And both are in the same spirit as astrobiology in general, which seeks life in the universe, leavened by planetary protection protocols.  I must also say it seems to me the METI controversy is greatly overwrought; the chances of success are probably low, and one could argue that any advanced civilization would likely already have us in their catalogue of galactic civilizations. And they would be so distant as to be unlikely to pose a threat, unless they have a hyperwarp drive, in which case they might be here.  But they’re apparently not here, giving rise to the famous “Where are They?” question at the core of the Fermi Paradox.  Meanwhile, the research into message construction that METI International is undertaking would have benefit should a SETI search prove successful.  

Among the concerns about METI, many expressed in the Berkeley document, are the following: 

1) It is impossible to predict whether ETs will be benign or hostile.  This is certainly true, since no universal principle of intelligent behavior can be applied on Earth, much less to extraterrestrials.  Early hopes that ETs would be our savior for a variety of terrestrial ills ranging from cancer to war, are just that – hopes if not fantasies.  A fascinating recent volume on Extraterrestrial Altruism: Evolution and Ethics in the Cosmos, explored the pros and cons of altruism in the universe.  The bottom line is that no definitive conclusion is possible.  No one knows if ETs are good guys or bad guys.  The question is whether this should prevent METI from happening. “Curiosity killed the cat” critics might warn.  But do they really mean to imply we should stifle curiosity?

2) It is likely civilizations will be millions of years more advanced than us.  This is also probably true, given the age of the universe and the youth of our species.   The implication is that we have no idea of their capabilities, which might be hostile.  This is an unproven assumption no less than the assumption that longevity implies wisdom.

3) It is prudent to listen before we shout, and in any case transmission is not necessary.  If all ETs follow this rule, everyone may be listening, and no one messaging, and therefore SETI has no chance of success. There is always the possibility of leakage radiation, but as Drake has pointed out that is decreasing on Earth due to cable and satellite TV.  Leakage radiation aside, only if ETs have a debate about METI and decide to go ahead could SETI be successful.  If no ETs have a METI program, this is one solution for our failure to see them.

4) METI may jeopardize funding for astrobiology and SETI.   I am confident funders can see the difference between microbes and SETI, and between SETI and METI.  After all, for more than 20 years the U. S. Congress has declined to fund SETI, all the while funding a robust astrobiology program that focuses on microbial life.

5) METI is a religious cult, not science.  This a charge also occasionally levied at SETI, which has been called a search for “deities for atheists.”  But the essence of religion is supernatural; neither SETI nor METI has anything to do with the supernatural.

Other objections have been voiced, but underlying most of them is a kind of xenophobia, a fear of the unknown in general and fear of the Other in particular.  This is in part based on analogies of culture contact on Earth, especially the largely disastrous European contacts with the Americas in the Age of Discovery 500 years ago.  A recent science fiction novel by the Chinese writer Cixin Liu, in which a Chinese METI project leads to an invasion of Earth 400 years later, was inspired by such analogies.  But the author might just as well have used a more benign analogy from his own country: the treasure fleet voyages of Zheng He three generations before Columbus, which did not result in such destruction.  Or indeed the later Jesuit missions around the world, which, while proselytizing, raised many interesting questions about communication and conceptual difficulties.   Moreover, some have argued that the withdrawal of the Chinese fleet in 1433 was an important element in its demise, as China turned inward and away from maritime trade and exploration.  There may be a lesson in that for those who want to turn inward rather than outward.  Analogies are an important mode of argument but must be used with caution.  Their proper use is just a small part of the study of the societal impact of discovering life beyond Earth, which is now finally receiving the scholarly attention it deserves.

More generally those who oppose METI are undoubtedly influenced by science fiction, which tends toward conflict for dramatic effect, especially Hollywood movies such as the Alien series and Star Wars, where action and conflict are necessary to appeal to young audiences.  Popular culture driven by such profit motives greatly influences us all, but may well have no bearing on reality.  The only way to find out is to explore.  Part of my outlook has been shaped by my time at NASA, the premier Agency for exploration in the world.   I arrived at NASA Headquarters in the wake of the Columbia Space Shuttle accident, when some outside critics wanted to cancel the Shuttle program, and even human spaceflight as a whole.  But wiser heads prevailed.  I well recall the NASA Administrator’s Symposium on Risk and Exploration, in which many explorers ranging from mountain climbers to astronauts concluded that safety is not the first priority in exploration.  The first priority, after taking all necessary precautions, is to GO. Otherwise Homo sapiens would never have left the cave, Columbus would never have left Palos, and we would not be exploring the universe. Risk is the inevitable companion of exploration.

In this spirit of exploring the unknown, the recently announced $100 million Breakthrough Listen project is accompanied by a Breakthrough Message project.  Although the latter does not immediately seek to send a message, it is certainly consistent with transmitting a message in the future.  Interestingly Stephen Hawking helped launch the Breakthrough Listen and Breakthrough Message programs last July, leading some to conclude that his desire to know about ETs may trump his fear of them.  The triumph of hope over fear is always a good thing.

In short, while there is room for valid arguments on both sides, and for discussion of what level of international consultation is optimal, I come down on the side of not isolating ourselves from the universe of which we are a part, for better or worse.   Waiting until a SETI signal is received and confirmed is certainly one strategy.  But if everyone in the universe is listening and no one is sending, we will never make contact.  And if we never make contact we will not solve one of the great mysteries of science.  Humanity should not hide.