How would we tell the world we’ve found alien life?

Assuming that aliens don’t arrive in London, Mars Attacks style in a hail of plasma death rays, somebody is going to have to make the announcement that we’ve found life beyond our planet. And given there are conspiracy theorists who still dispute the moon landings ever happened, this is something that will need to be handled with tact. Well presented papers are going to struggle to be heard in the social media age.

That’s the topic of an interesting new paper out of St Andrews University. The public’s huge interest and scepticism of life beyond Earth is something any scientists reporting of life in the galaxy needs to be prepared for, and our existing protocols need some refining, the researchers reckon.

A critical concern for scientists pursuing the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is the reaction of the world to the knowledge that humans are not the only technological civilization in the universe,” the scientists write.

The process for announcing alien life outlines by the International Academy of Astronautics was first written up 27 years ago (and revised in 2010 for the internet age), but there are no specific guidelines for SETI scientists: something the paper aims to address.

In theory, the announcement of extraterrestrial life shouldn’t come as a massive surprise given the huge odds in favour of life existing somewhere out there (see the Fermi Paradox for more information on this), but that doesn’t mean the “culture shock” wouldn’t ensure huge scrutiny for any SETI scientists breaking the news.alien_life_discovery_protocol_seti

Openness is the key, and to that end, the authors recommend SETI scientists don’t just rely on press releases, but establish a good relationship with the public across social media. “SETI scientists must be prepared to not simply announce a detection via press release, but to be a trusted voice in the global conversation that will begin after the initial announcement. This will require both pre-search and post-detection protocols to be implemented.”

To that end, any scientists conducting SETI experiments should outline their search methodology in advance, and be clear about what constitutes a “discovery”. This should be clearly published in a blog for any media types to examine to reduce the risk of misreporting.

If a signal is discovered, scientists are advised to be open about it – because if anyone was discovered to be holding back information, it would be assumed as a cover-up rather than understandable caution, and that just causes problems. Scientists are advised to announce the discovery, but downplay it as natural or having manmade origins until proved otherwise. Naturally findings should be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal and data uploaded to be scrutinised by other scientists.

If detection cannot be confirmed, the scientists should make the fact clearly known, but if it is, then the discoverers should be prepared to discuss their findings for the rest of their lives, and be prepared for the downsides of their sudden fame, like cyberattacks.

All in all, it would be much easier if aliens made themselves so obvious we couldn’t miss them. Any intelligent life beyond Earth reading this, would you mind making yourself known so we can do things through a stirring presidential address like in the movies?

READ NEXT: Where are all the aliens?

Images: FabianOrtiz and Beckie used under Creative Commons

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