July 13, 2008

Is there anyone out there?

This is one of the most interesting things I've read in ages -- and while I tend to think that whatever happens I'll continue to sleep soundly, nevertheless here I am at near 2 a.m., suddenly insomniac with my mind rushing to, well, this.

There's been a long standing effort -- largely volunteer -- to listen to space, with the hope of picking up patterns in frequencies suggestive of language, or intelligence -- proof of extraterrestrial life. (It's called SETI, or the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life.) Now some of those folks are thinking of trying to get aliens to notice us:

Recently, several groups, ranging from radio astronomers in Argentina and Russia all the way to the web advertising site Craig's List, have declared that they intend to commence broadcasting high-intensity Messages to ETI... or METI... an endeavor also known at "Active SETI". Their intention is to change the observable brightness of Earth civilization by many orders of magnitude, in order to attract attention to our planet from anyone who might be out there.

Let there be no mistake. METI is a very different thing than passively sifting for signals from the outer space. Carl Sagan, one of the greatest SETI supporters and a deep believer in the notion of altruistic alien civilizations, called such a move deeply unwise and immature.

Why is this a bad idea? David Brin, author of the piece I'm linking, gives a very succinct reason:

In The Third Chimpanzee, Jared Diamond offers an essay on the risks of attempting to contact ETIs, based on the history of what happened on Earth whenever more advanced civilizations encountered less advanced ones... or indeed, when the same thing happens during contact between species that evolved in differing ecosystems. The results are often not good: in inter-human relations slavery, colonialism, etc. Among contacting species: extinction.

And here we might add: Modern western civilization, with its interest in foreign literatures and languages, its attempts to preserve environments and species, may be entirely anomalous in all the universe. Calling attention to ourselves might be suicide. It seems far more likely than this somewhat self-contradictory bit of ideology:

In Russia, the pro-METI consensus is apparently founded upon a quaint doctrine from the 1930s maintaining that all advanced civilizations must naturally and automatically be both altruistic and socialist. This Soviet Era dogma now stripped of socialist or Lysenkoist imagery still insists that technologically adept aliens can only be motivated by Universal Altruism (UA). The Russian METI group, among the most eager to broadcast into space, dismisses any other concept as childishly apprehensive "science fiction".

What's amazing, of course--and I believe this is the main point of Brin's essay--is that such a small number of people, acting in small groups, could make a decision of such existential importance for not only the human race but for every species on earth.

And here I must confess that I'm reminded of a bit from a Woody Allen story -- "[Andre Malraux and I] talk of serious things, and he tells me man is free to choose his own fate and that not until he realizes that death is part of life can he really understand existence. Then he offers to sell me a rabbit's foot." I don't think I believe that aliens are traversing the cosmos -- that real versions of Klingons, Mysterons or even Galactus are out there ready and able to pick up on a signal from earth. But this is merely my gut talking, as well as my prejudice (which serves me just as well when it comes to religion) that absence of evidence for thousands and thousand and millions and millions of years is, in empirical terms, sufficient to conclude there is evidence of absence.

But I really DON'T KNOW, and just as I'm unlikely to, for example, find out if a massive body builder has a bad temper by repeatedly calling him a wimp and a wussy, I'm not sure that advertising earth's location is the smartest way to find out whether I'm right about Galactus. Two rabbit's foots, please.

Posted by Ideofact at July 13, 2008 02:20 AM