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Perspectives on SETI and Aliens
David Brin   May 6, 2010   Contrary Brin  

Nobody knows a damned thing about aliens—but that doesn’t keep almost everyone from behaving like children, weighing in with their “of course” explanations for how advanced sapient races would “naturally” behave, or why ETs haven’t been seen, or what they would do if we encountered them.

Responding to Stephen Hawking’s new Discovery Channel program, I recently debated the “alien threat” on Larry King Live with Michio Kaku, Seth Shostak, and actor Dan Aykroyd (who pushed UFOs.)
The format—four smart sure-of-themselves egotists, being interviewed by a fifth—made for some very short but avid sound bites.

In this field, as in the furor over Transparency, my attitude is one of fierce moderation. My fundamental point is that nobody knows a damned thing about aliens! Alas, that doesn’t keep almost everybody from behaving like children, weighing in with their “of course” explanations for how advanced sapient races would “naturally” behave, or why ETs haven’t been seen, or what they would do if we encountered them.

I know a lot of very bright people who have opined in this field, and nearly all of them proceed to sigh and roll their eyes, expressing contemptuous disdain for anyone daring to have a different notion about Alien Life.

Sure, one explanation comes to mind—any field suffering from a complete lack of data can become a mirror, in which even (especially) bright people see only a reflection of their own dreams and biases. Still, please! Does the reflex have to be followed by everybody? Frankly, watching the same phenomenon occur over and over, I am getting fatigued.

But let me try one more time, since the topic is public and hot right now. I’ve been at this a long time.  Back in 1983, my Great Silence paper was… and remains… the only genuine review article ever published in the SETI field. Because almost every other paper has had a particular axe to grind, I attempted to catalogue and compare 100+ theories, covering the wide range of possibilities, re alien life, thus demonstrating just how little we yet know. While suggesting some avenues for research, I concluded by pleading for a tentative, contingent, open-minded attitude, of the sort we’ll desperately need, if contact ever does occur.

For a general, popularized account see “Xenology.” More recently I argued against messages to ETI in “Shouting at the Cosmos” and pungently suggest “What to say to an ET lurker.”

But, as I just stated, it seems this topic brings out the amateur sci fi author in every person who touches it. Hence, Stephen Hawking, Stephen Jay Gould, Jared Diamond, and Freeman Dyson… four of the very smartest human beings who ever lived… have all recommended that we not shout into the cosmos to draw attention to ourselves, because it might be dangerous—(I agree so far)—only then each of them goes on the fantasize some particular simplistic scenario for why aliens could be hostile or dangerous. In Hawking’s new show, for example, he posits that super-advanced civilizations might come charging in to exploit our solar system’s resources, use them up and then move on, leaving us in a trashed wasteland.

Now, at one level, Hawking’s fear is not entirely off target. I’ve pointed out elsewhere: “All living creatures inherently use resources to the limits of their ability, inventing new aims, desires and ambitions to suit their next level of power. If they wanted to use our solar system, for some super project, our complaints would be like an ant colony protesting the laying of a parking lot.”

In contrast to this trend that’s seen across nature, we now have a new, tentative value system that’s arisen in the most recent generation of the Modern West, wherein some initial signs of self-restraint and satiability have started to appear. We relish this new trait of altruistic self-control and wishfully imagine that we’ll do even better, in our Star Trek future. Moreover, we hope that aliens will do the same, progressing in this new direction that we dream for ourselves—toward universal altruism. And sure, I deeply hope this will turn out to be true.

On the other hand, it ain’t necessarily so.

This projection of our present culture’s idealized trend onto ALL star travelling races could be viewed as incredibly arrogant cultural myopia, even chauvinism! (Will the descendants of pack carnivores or stalking predators or paranoid herd beasts view such things the same way as we descendants of gregarious apes?)  In fact, “altruism” is rare in nature [PDF] compared to Darwinistic predation or opportunism, or even quid pro quo.  Those who declare that “of course” aliens would “outgrow all that” are engaged in bizarre wish projection, without any basis at all, other than their hopes.

On the other hand, Hawking’s scenario isn’t just about aliens rapaciously using up solar systems. It is about us foolishly attracting aliens who thereupon do such things. And this makes no sense at all. The Earth has been prime real estate ever since it got an oxygen atmosphere, a billion years ago.  If ETs wanted a nice planet to colonize, or a system to loot, they could have come during any of that time. Paul Davies makes this point in his new book THE EERIE SILENCE, as I did in my 1983 paper.

A foolish METI “yoohoo!” message from us isn’t going to make them come for resource rapine. Though, in fact, Hawking’s scenario does have some plausibility as an explanation of the Great Silence (Fermi Paradox), along a different path of logic.

Ponder this: if such a wave of greedy exploitation DID once pass through our region of the galaxy, and it just happened to miss Earth, then that might explain our current loneliness… the paucity of other new races around us. Because that prairie fire knocked down every other promising race or planet in the region, leaving Earth like an isolated oasis in a desert. I talk about this scenario (and many others) elsewhere.

No, Hawking’s logic does not make sense as a reason not to shout. On the other hand, there are dozens of other possible reasons why a Yoohoo Message could be dangerous. I could go into lots of them…

... but I won’t! Not here. Because I am NOT trying to argue that METI will cause invasion or directed havoc. Personally, I think the odds of that outcome are low.

No, I am trying to get people to stop leaping to unjustified assumptions and conclusions and especially to stop proclaiming that things are so, just because you made a glib sounding assertion. (Isn’t that bad habit doing enough harm, in Culture War?)

For example, Paul Davies and George Dvorsky and Michio Kaku and many other smart guys have asserted “if they wanted to harm us, they would have done so by now.”

Say What? Oh, this is just more blithe, dismissive nonsense, with so many sub-variations and counter-hypotheses to ponder you could shake a stick at them all day. Leaping to make such a generalized statement is no less than an expression of the most outrageous smugness and incuriosity, especially unworthy, coming from such smart fellows.

Just like the idiotic cliche that I Love Lucy has already made Earth a blaring beacon in the sky, so why bother restraining ourselves now?

(Here’s an illustrative experiment: go to a lake with a rock and a laser pointer. Now drop the rock into the pond, making ripples. Then aim the laser pointer at the other shore. Which wave front will be detected on the opposite side? That’s I love Lucy versus a high-power, colimated, coherent transmission from Arecebo. Sure, in theory, advanced scientists on the other shore, who are passionately eager and who know where to look, might detect the rock-ripples. But Jesus, have some scale and some sense, before you blithely declare that everybody on all shores will always detect all ripples!)

These positions are arrant nonsense and deeply illogical. (Here’s another. If we’re “already blatantly visible” out there, then what is METI trying to accomplish, by deliberately making our Earth SEVEN ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE brighter? Hm?)

I do not have time to get into this vast topic in detail. I have spent decades on it, exploring countless ramifications like:

But the crux is this:

Stop assuming that asserting something makes it so!

It doesn’t. Nor does positing an “of course” pre-explanation of the Great Silence make you wise.

In fact, it’s time for a much wider conversation about this, bringing together our best minds from dozens of fields and opposing viewpoints. This is a topic where nobody is right who blithely rolls off cliches and says “of course the answer is this.”

Finally, regarding my suggestion—on Larry King Live—that SETI shift from one expensive and ridiculously over-specialized telescope to 10,000 net-linked backyard receivers… the SETI League is a real outfit that tries to do this. They believe the “WOW” signal would be detectable by a few thousand dollars worth of electronics attached to a 12-foot satellite dish. They’re all about getting thousands of amateurs into the SETI field. While the sensitivity could never match the Allen array, the Allen array cannot hope to cover the entire sky, full time, over the entire radio spectrum. Only a large number of receivers give us any chance of detecting signals beamed our way. (By the way, on Larry King I should have pointed out a side benefit… that such a system would also help catch Dan Aykroyd’s UFO saucer guys!)

Alas, some of the researchers in this field have expressed deep contempt for science fiction. This ready dismissal of the entire field of gedankenexperimentation by thoughtful and scientifically deep authors is nothing but flat out—and proud—ignorance.  Such people dismiss—without having ever read them—mind-blowingly original thought experiments by the likes of Bear and Banks and Vinge (and me), which make up the only real library of what-if extrapolations that our committees could quickly turn to, in the event of a post-contact situation!

To call such explorations “simpleminded” and unimaginative and based solely on copying the human experience is to declare openly “I am satisfied that B-Movies typify ‘science fiction’. I have never cracked the spine of a grownup science fiction contact scenario… nor will I, ever.”

That’s just dunderheaded and close-minded and especially unworthy of people who have earned great merit in other fields. People who now propose to represent us, if and when we meet the alien.

David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."


Yep. as usual, well said.

‘The thing about Aliens is, they’re ALIEN’
  I’d like to attribute that but for the life of me I cannot remember where i saw it nor can i google it up.

Any other comments is us sitting around the campfire telling scary (or comforting) stories.

Nearly all ET scenario’s that I have encountered assume (implicitly or explicitly) that the majority of extraterrestrial intelligence will be carbon-water, and perhaps oxygen based. What it this is not so? Suppose, for example that the alien is carbon-methane-hydrogen based, (or some other combination) and also happens to be expansionist/hostile. Perhaps it is not us that is at risk but the life form (if it exists) on Titan! Do we dare to attract predators to Titan!

There is a lot of emotion in these discussions and this, I find, is diverting from the main issue.
There is actually scholarly work on the UFO/ET issue. Again, as I have said elsewhere, researchers on this thorny issue should read Professor Peter Sturrock’s (Stanford University) work “The UFO Enigma : A New Review of The Physical Evidence” (1997) from a collaboration of physical scientists and UFO researchers who were mainly scientists. Kirkus Reviews state “all the more riveting because it is both skeptical and scrupulously objective”. Follow the deep reference section, study the cases, and go from there. From studies like these some progress can be made. I have it and was fascinated and I’m no fool, I have degrees in astrophysics and nuclear physics. Frankly, I think it is highly embarrassing that much of the scientific community has missed the boat on this one. But to their great credit Prof. Michio Kaku, gave a talk together with Prof. Sturrock, Prof. Richard Conn Henry and Dr. Bernard Haisch on UFOs in November 8 2002 in the US.
A new direction is needed in all this.

What we need is a statistician who can tell us the probability of meeting hostile extraterrestrial lifeforms: 900 octillion to one against?

@ postfuturist

A statistician can’t calculate the odds with absolutely no info.  That’s the whole point here.

Sure, George, that’s why I wrote “900 octillion”; as silly a number as Hawking’s silly comment on SETI. Only explanation I can think of—right at the moment—for a guy as smart as Hawking to mention the totally unlikely prospects for ET attacks provoked by SETI, is he is stirring the pot
—perhaps for publicity.

Actually, this article is nonsense.
It’s really, really very simple.
Unless you believe that a technologically advanced race relinquishes it’s ability to progress, then any species which reaches OUR level of technology will soon encounter it’s own technological singularity.
But, aside from technological singularities, all you need to do is look at our own abilities to observe the cosmos (we are finding exoplanets at an extremely rapid pace, and our ability to image them is growing exponentially - we will soon be able to determine if there is life or civilization on these exoplanets) and then imagine that ANY species which is more advanced than us (even by as little as a few decades: that’s how fast our progress is now) would be doing the same thing (they’re going to scout us before they come) and therefore, if they’re out there THEY ALREADY KNOW WE’RE HERE. It doesn’t matter one bit if we are transmitting signals, or completely “radio silent”. They would have telescopes scanning every inch of the galaxy, JUST LIKE WE DO. And their telescopes are far more sensitive than ours. Therefore, they would have already found us.
If they are more advanced than us, then there’s no way we could catch up to them.
I think most people continue to think of aliens in a kind of arrested development. That for some unknown reason, their technology stops progressing. Whether they reach some fundamental limit, or collectively choose relinquishment.
Why would they do that? That’s rediculous.
This is why we wouldn’t be able to play “catch up” with an alien race, because as much as we are advancing rapidly right now, SO ARE THEY, and they are ALREADY AHEAD.
Perhaps if they share technology with us, we might be able to get to even footing. But that would be entirely at their discretion, and in such a scenario, it’s implied that we are interacting with them diplomatically.
In the end, there is simply no plausible way to hide from advanced technology. And I GUARANTEE YOU that if they have spaceships that can REACH EARTH, then they DEFINITELY have the technology to detect us from anywhere in the galaxy.
Although George Dvorsky may have seemed a little arrogant in the MANNER in which he stated this, he is ABSOLUTELY RIGHT. We CAN’T hide from advanced technology. It’s that simple.
Hopefully John Smart is correct, that’s our safest bet.

The only alien species we would ever need be worried about would be one the evolved within the SAME solar system we did, and it would have to be pretty much at about the same level of technological advancement that we are at.
There doesn’t seem to be (so far) and sign that their are other technologically advance species in this system, so there is either nothing to worry about, or there’s nothing we can do about it.

“so there is either nothing to worry about, or there’s nothing we can do about it.” But in the Hawking can, he can sell a few more books, and go on Larry King Live. Is that cynical? no more than Hawking is in floating a fantastic Star Wars scenario that has his esteemed name attached to it. Academics might not be as conniving as attorneys yet they are conniving nonetheless.

“all you need to do is look at our own abilities to observe the cosmos (we are finding exoplanets at an extremely rapid pace, and our ability to image them is growing exponentially - we will soon be able to determine if there is life or civilization on these exoplanets) and then imagine that ANY species which is more advanced than us (even by as little as a few decades: that’s how fast our progress is now) would be doing the same thing (they’re going to scout us before they come) and therefore, if they’re out there THEY ALREADY KNOW WE’RE HERE.”

I think an advanced alien race would be invisible to the human eye, if they were to come down here to investigate Earth.  In my book Bialien Vol 1: The Rise of the BiAlienSapien (Human Evolved).  An advanced alien species called Andromedians (70,000 years ahead of humans), use Microscopic eyes called Nanoscanners to scan an entire solar system of planets in less than 1 hour.  They would know the DNA, oxygen levels, planet structure, history and memories of a life form.

Aliens can also probably come down to this planet, steal our resources and we probably won’t even know anything about it.
So we as humans need to think a little more outside the box and evolve our thinking.

Aliens might not have to travel to Earth to get our resources, they could possibly extract whatever they want by telekinesis.

Vlane, I’m curious what is the difference between “think a little more outside the box,” and “evolve our thinking.”

Question I have is, can’t statisticians do ballpark figures? Sure, they wont say “the odds are 89.00006 octillion to one aliens would not be provoked by SETI into attacking humans”, but they can say “it is so unlikely, that you are a dope for even asking.”

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