Human beings have a natural tendency to communicate and to seek new challenges, new frontiers and new ways of interacting with the environment.
For 80 years, the SETI program has been engaged in an active search for intelligent life. So far, this search has not yielded any results, so it is legitimate to ask whether this search makes sense.
In this post we collect the opinion of Dr. Jason T. Wright, who in 2021 made a series of recommendations and statements in this regard.
First of all, it should be borne in mind that this search and the possible subsequent contact (should it be effective) is not risk-free.
We could attract the attention of potential attackers to whom, until now, we would have gone unnoticed, but at the same time, contact between such distant civilizations could also be enriching for both sides.
Dr. Wright’s first recommendation is to “stay close to the data”. According to this author, it is very easy to make hypotheses about the possible behavior of extraterrestrials and from them generate working hypotheses, strategies, models for their detection, etc., and thus, little by little, build castles of concepts that will give null results.
It is possible to make a great theoretical development that in the end proves to be false.
Therefore, any proposed theory should be based on the results of previous observation.
This is why it is sometimes said that elaborate analyses are done on nothing, which allow us to elaborate meta-analyses on nothing. By staying close to the data, we avoid deviating significantly from our objective.
Let’s look at an example: sometimes it is said that “the extraterrestrials know of our existence, but for some reason they have decided not to contact us”. In these statements, the millions of individuals that make up a civilization, or the millions of civilizations that could be out there, are considered to have a single opinion. It is difficult to imagine a “universal behavior” in all the members of a civilization, or among several of them, when we observe how complicated it is for human beings to have the same opinion on issues that may be banal.
Why is it interesting to keep looking for intelligent life?
Despite the difficulties and limitations that this task entails, this search remains useful and necessary because, even if intelligent life is still not found, it is possible to establish synergies with other researchers that will also allow us to know the limits of our civilization, our technological development and our communication.
The skills developed in this field can be naturally transferred to astrophysics, to other sciences and disciplines, and to society in general.
Any project to search for intelligent life generates knowledge that enriches other disciplines, allows debate with skeptical researchers and makes this field (and other related fields) grow more vigorously.
Moreover, as this is a particularly complex subject, interdisciplinary collaboration is necessary.
For example, astrophysicists should also be trained and reflect on issues such as the nature of intelligence, the mathematics of expanding systems, the difficulties of interspecies communication, the ethics that any type of communication should follow, or the effects that one of these contacts could have on the human species. This same process of reflection can occur in other scientists, such as biologists, psychologists or anthropologists, which will result in the growth of new fields of knowledge.
Plans for success and plans for null results
For Wright it is not enough to make a plan to find intelligent life. We must also plan what will happen if this plan is successful (i.e., if we end up finding this type of life) and what will happen if we find nothing (he avoids using the word failure, because the fact of not finding anything is in itself a fact that can guide us in subsequent actions).
Before starting the search, it should be clear what to do from the moment a surprising, interesting, intriguing, confusing, or simply curious signal appears, until contact with an intelligent civilization is finally established.
It is possible that the first significant signal detected will not make us exclaim “Wow!”, but “Huh?”. That is, it may be something difficult to understand at first, and we may need years or decades until the result can be made public, because first we will have to develop a consensus among the different specialists that it is really a sign of intelligent life.
Specialists must be prepared to rely on the help and advice of experts in risk communication, sociology, anthropology, psychology, etc., in order to provide information in an accurate and correct manner.
However, planning what to do in the event that null results are obtained is equally important, because this will, in fact, be the most frequent outcome. This information should be recorded in some way to allow later analysis and to guide future research.
Los especialistas deben estar preparados para contar con la ayuda y el consejo de expertos en comunicación de riesgos, sociología, antropología, psicología, etc., para dar la información de la manera precisa y correcta.
Sin embargo, la planificación de lo que se va a hacer en el caso de que se obtengan resultados nulos es igualmente importante, porque este será, de hecho, el resultado más frecuente. Esta información se debería registrar de algún modo para permitir su posterior análisis y orientar las investigaciones futuras.
Wright, J. (2021). Strategies and advice for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Acta Astronautica, 188, 203-214.