Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Debate Over Active SETI

Recently, Centauri Dreams has hosted some absolutely fascinating discussion about how to determine the threat to Earth from broadcasting messages to the cosmos. Check it out: “Active SETI & The Public” and “San Marino: Assessing Active SETI’s Risk” (don't skip the comments for either post).

One particularly eloquent commenter summed the problem:

It is arrogant in the extreme, for a small group of scientists to take upon themselves the responsibility of representing all 6 billion of humankind. Nobody has ever asked the citizens of the world whether they agree to their presence being broadcast far and wide. Regardless of whether contact with ETIs is completely benign or a profound discontinuity in our history, it is a step which should not be made unilaterally by a small group without the consent of a majority of our global civilization.

The great thing about Centauri Dreams is that often the actual scientists participate in the conversation. In this case, a Dr. Alexander Zaitsev actively responds to commenters (especially in the first post). Several others mentioned his “arrogant” tone but, based on my experiences with people speaking English as a Second Language, sometimes the informality of English is hard for non-native speakers even when they may be very articulate on technical matters. However, I very much agree that he has done an incomplete job of addressing with the political and social ramifications of Active SETI. The general response has been to say “Well, there’s no agreed way to choose someone to speak for all of Earth, so we’re not going to do it.” This seems to me a somewhat circular argument. At the very least, more effort could be made to start that conversation about how we go about choosing someone to speak “for all mankind”.

One thing I was quite surprised about (but when I thought about it made sense), it appears even our radar transmissions to track asteroids and comets could tip off an alien civilization that we're here. But I guess if our wayward radio signals can leak into space, then I should expect signals actually sent into space would be detectable as well. These radar signals would be unlikely to provide repeating or message-like signals but they would nevertheless be quite distinctive.

This has been an issue that bothered me for some time (see here and here) so I’m thrilled that someone is finally started to ask questions and have a conversation about how we, as a planet, would want to pursue this. Consider how once upon a time asteroid impacts were just a topic for scientists but are now discussed widely by people in a variety of professions and governments. I can only hope this discussion also successfully transforms into a wider debate.

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