Special Report

…Or How SETI has Taken a Worrisome Turn Into Dangerous Territory

by Lifeboat Foundation Scientific Advisory Board member David Brin, Ph.D.
Article written September 2006, last updated July 2008.


1. Emerging From Ridicule to Popularity

SETI — the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence — has long occupied a unique niche in modern intellectual life, at the same time both widely popular and a bit obscure, combining serious and far-reaching science with a kind of gosh-wow zeal that seems (at times) to border on the mystical — perhaps as much religious as a product of science or science fiction. Indeed, to some, the notion of contact with advanced alien civilizations may carry much the same transcendental or hopeful significance as any more traditional notion of “salvation from above”.

Certainly, the ardent sense of wonder that Carl Sagan poured into both his nonfiction television series Cosmos and the novel/film Contact, conveyed something both thrilling and slightly off-angle from conventional science. This unconventionality caused some problems for early researchers, putting their budgets under constant threat of being “proxmired” or unfairly derided… a danger that gradually faded as public support built, over time. Support that arose in part (ironically, as we’ll see) because of steady exposure that the ideas were given through high-end science fiction.

Although the concept and the “search” have roots extending back at least a century, recent years have been a kind of golden age for SETI, with the era of William Proxmire long behind them. Increasingly — from press and politicians all the way to popular culture — the project has been portrayed as a bold expression of human mental expansiveness, attracting major support from enthusiasts like Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who funded the Allen Array, a sophisticated radio observatory dedicated solely to scanning the sky for signs of civilization among the stars.

Technological breakthroughs — for example in the development of sophisticated multichannel spectrum analyzers — have enabled researchers to sift through interstellar static with fine-toothed combs that compensate for everything from orbital doppler effects to quirks in the manner that aliens might choose to transmit, enabling investigators to search — patiently and relentlessly — for needles in the “Cosmic Haystack”.

Let there be no mistake. I and the other recent dissenters have always supported this baseline SETI endeavor. Indeed, I share with the leaders of the SETI Institute a firm belief that the scientific listening program is among the most important and worthwhile quests that a vigorous and far-looking civilization could undertake.

Testifying to public approval is the success of SETI@Home, the world’s first major project to link hundreds of thousands of home computers, using spare processing time to help digest signals gathered by radio telescopes. Instead of a screen saver showing ersatz fish in a simulated aquarium, people would see displayed on their idle monitors spectrum charts, changing in real time — knowing that the next one, or the next, just might be the “hit” that everybody is waiting for. This early breakthrough in volunteer “gridware” spawned dozens of others in which amateurs and aficionados sign up to help science by contributing their own bits of digital (PC) muscle to composite grids that combine millions of home processors, analyzing everything from genomes to cancer.

SETI’s role as the initial midwife for gridware testifies to the potent popularity of the search itself.


2. But Self-Protection Has a Cost

Along the way, SETI workers have understandably taken pains to distance themselves from other notions that have resonance in popular culture, like UFOs. As scientists, they do not want to be mistaken for fervent believers in slippery alien visitors, always evanescent and never connected with any tangible evidence. SETI researchers rightfully fear and avoid contagious associations with kooky pseudoscience.

Of course there is another sub-text in rejecting UFOs — a bit of simple logic. If star-voyaging aliens are already here, or even possible, then some might conclude (wrongly) that an all-sky survey for radio beacons is moot.

(Sharing a contempt for UFOs, I do part company with the Drake Doctrine (held more mildly by Sagan) that calls star-travel inherently “impossible”.)

Moreover, in their prickly effort to distance themselves from flaky cults, members of the SETI community have also pushed away a field that was very kind to them — bona fide science fiction, the outward-looking genre of literature dedicated to exploring ideas and change.

Tragically, this defensive reflex — much of it inherited from the Proxmire Era — has gone even further, prompting the small band of SETI researchers to cull their associations down to an absurdly narrow community. Not only science fiction has been banished. Researchers in fields as close as “exobiology” and “biosastronomy” — studying scientific aspects of potential life on other worlds — find their input unwelcome. These university and NASA scientists often have only a nodding or edgy acquaintance with the small band of radio astronomers running SETI. Moreover, many of them report that SETI folk seem to like it that way.

Let me be frank. This fetish to narrowly define the field has resulted in a view of alien life that is as constricted and ironic as it is unsupportable.

None of which would be particularly bothersome, under normal circumstances. Science has its own parochialisms, after all. At least, unlike other areas of discourse, science does have an ultimate arbiter — objective reality. Sooner or later, the truth usually prevails. Hence, we can tolerate each others’ idiosyncrasies. Most of those working in exobiology simply shrug and wish SETI well.

Unfortunately, this is no longer a matter of mild regret, watching a small group of scientists tread down a path resembling many of the “cults” that they disdain. No, things are much worse than that. For it seems that this small community is about to undertake a new endeavor, one that is a complete departure from the older SETI tradition.

Serenely confident in a “we know best” attitude, they are embarking upon this new path in blithe confidence, unwilling to even discuss their plans in an open forum.

A path that might have serious consequences to humanity.


3. Frustration Leads to Risk-taking

A risk that a handful of individuals have decided to inflict on us.

Despite a patina of transcendental zeal, SETI has also given an impression of inherent harmlessness. Capital costs are small. Beneficial side-products include detailed maps of the microwave sky and fresh public enthusiasm for astronomy. Anyway, what can it hurt to listen?

And yet, even as the program’s popularity and funding increased, so did frustration as, year after year, deep sky radio searches came up with nothing. None of the expected “tutorial beacons”. No sign of busy interstellar communications networks. Indeed, no trace of technological civilization out there, at all.

True, in a sense, SETI has only just begun. There is a lot of territory out there! Only a few of the blithely optimistic models that were offered early on (e.g. blatant and pervasive tutorial beacons) have been disproved so far. There’s still plenty of room for interstellar cultures that are transmitting more quietly, by orders of magnitude. Quieter, but still possibly detectable, if we keep searching with better instruments. And patience.

Alas, there are signs that decades of silence have taken a toll on the morale of the SETI community. After decades of passive listening, using radio telescopes and sophisticated multichannel processors to sift the starscape in search of sapient-origin signals, this small community now contemplates a shift in policy. A transformation in their “rules of engagement” with the cosmos.

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. (Even Frank Drake, who famously sent the “Arecibo Message” toward the Andromeda Galaxy in 1974, considered “Active SETI” to be, at best, a stunt and generally a waste of time.)

Sagan — along with early SETI pioneer Philip Morrison — recommended that the newest children in a strange and uncertain cosmos should listen quietly for a long time, patiently learning about the universe and comparing notes, before shouting into an unknown jungle that we do not understand.

Alas. To date, groups that plan to engage in METI have done the opposite, keeping a low profile and avoiding discussion with experts in near-related fields like exobiology, bioastronomy, or evolutionary biology… or even historians who are knowledgeable about human “first-contact”. Especially biologists and historians. (For reasons that will become clear.)

(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.)

Perhaps driven by frustration over the lack of SETI-gleaned signals, so far, the few dozen radio astronomers in this international community-of-interest now aim to poke at the experiment in hope of provoking a response from the stars. Moreover, those few who have objected — asking for a conference to discuss the matter — are dismissed as paranoid worrywarts.

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”.

(Ironically Dr. Alexander Zaitsev has modified this doctrine to suggest that advanced aliens are not only altruistic but also cowardly — thus explaining their failure (so far) to create beacons or beam messages at Earth. He reasons that the youngest and most ignorant technological race (humanity) is behooved to overcome this universal cowardice by boldly announcing ourselves.

(This is not the place to analyze the logical faults of this assumption. I have a whack at it in a different article: Let me just offer one thought here. If aliens are so advanced and altruistic… and yet are choosing to remain silent… should we not consider following their example and doing likewise? At least for a little while? Is it possible that they are silent because they know something we don’t know?)

For the record, let me make clear that the most famous, core SETI group, at the SETI Institute — led by Dr. Jill Tarter and Dr. Seth Shostak — has officially denied having any intention of engaging in Active SETI, or beaming messages outward from the Paul Allen Array. On the other hand, individual leaders of the SETI Institute have made clear that they are friendly to these “Active SETI” efforts in Russia and elsewhere. (As clear leaders of the movement, their approval carries great weight.)

Moreover, they firmly reject any notion of even asking those groups — politely — to pause for a moratorium, eschewing broadcasts long enough to “talk it over” with other scientists.


4. The SETI Protocols

Very few in the public — or even the astronomical community — are presently aware of this situation, which has so far come up only before a small committee of the International Academy of Astronautics — a committee chaired by Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute.

In the past, this committee has done good work. For example, a subcommittee was charged with developing a “Declaration Of Principles Concerning Activities Following The Detection Of Extraterrestrial Intelligence” — also called the First SETI Protocol — a document that I had the honor to help draft, under the leadership of retired senior US diplomat Michael Michaud, who is also chairman of the Subcommittee on Transmissions From Earth.

That protocol was accepted by most of the radio astronomers, research groups and observatories capable of engaging in SETI research, and also (sometimes informally) by many of their funders and supervising agencies. The First Protocol might be seen as an archetype of consensual and collegial self-policing by a scientific community, agreeing in advance to sensible standards of behavior, in case the SETI dream of contact ever does come true. A contingency that may never occur — but one that could have critical urgency if it ever did.

(For your perusal, I have attached to this message a copy of the First SETI Protocol. As both an astronomer who has published in this field, and the sole science fiction author on the committee, I helped draw up that protocol, which gained near universal acceptance and moral authority amid the relevant communities. The disputed draft of the Second SETI Protocol is also attached.)

With that success behind us, we on the IAA subcommittee turned to a Second Protocol dealing with Transmissions from Planet Earth. The widely accepted draft contained articles asking that all of those controlling radio telescopes forebear from significantly increasing Earth’s visibility with deliberate skyward emanations, until their plans were first discussed before open and widely accepted international fora.

It seemed a modest and reasonable request. Why not present such plans, openly, before a broad and ecumenically interested community of experts in fields like exobiology, sociology, history and biology, at a conference where all matters and concerns could be honestly addressed? If for no other reason, wouldn’t this be common courtesy?

At first, the subcommittee drafting the Second Protocol deemed this to be obvious. Moreover, the core group at the SETI Institute seemed to concur. Indeed, this was not even a new document, but rather a revision of one that the Institute’s own Jill Tarter presented to the UN six years ago — confirming that they once favored restraint and consultation before transmission. They are the ones who have changed their minds.

But recently… and after a draft appeared ready for submission to the IAA… several members of the IAA SETI Committee, including chairman Seth Shostak, abruptly balked and demanded alterations, abandoning even a collegial and moral call for pre-transmission discussions.

Indeed, suddenly all notions of pre-consultation or discussion — before making Earth dramatically more visible — were derided as paranoid, repressive of free expression and nonsensical. Almost no discussion of the matter was brooked; no questions were answered.


5. Arguments and Answers

Well, almost none. In a few, brief email discussions (involving less than a dozen individuals) supporters of METI offered a few justifications. A few reasons why pre-discussion would be futile and that anyone should feel free to broadcast from Earth, whatever, whenever and however they want.

For example —

  • “Earth civilization is already glaringly visible in radio, so it’s too late to stay silent.”

    This widely-held supposition was, in fact, decisively disproved years ago, in a paper written by Dr. Shostak himself! In fact, even military radars and television signals appear to dissipate below interstellar noise levels within just a few light years. Certainly they are far less visible — by many orders of magnitude — than a directed beam from any of Earth’s large, or even intermediate, radio telescopes.

    Moreover, this reasoning is illogical, since METI’s whole purpose is to draw attention to Earth by dramatically increasing our visibility over whatever baseline value it currently has. If it’s already “too late”, then what are they aiming to achieve?

  • “Nobody can or should repress free speech and voluntary moratoria don’t work.”

    Does that mean we should not at least talk about it? Nothing in the Second Protocol forbade or coerced or repressed speech. It simply established a collegial and consensual rule of courtesy, asking for restraint until the whole topic can be openly discussed.

    Moreover, in fact, there are countless precedents. Biologists have agreed to many temporary moratoria, in order to discuss and reach consensus on issues like animal experimentation and altering human germ-cells. These brief pauses never did any harm over the long run and often resulted in stronger research.

  • “Because of expanding access to technology, millions will have the means to broadcast, within 20 years.”

    A valid point! So? Should we not start the discussion right away?

  • “Attracting attention by radio is inherently harmless. Anyone talking about a range of hypothetical ‘dangers’ must be ‘paranoid about lurid invasions by space monsters’.”

    Seriously, those are the very words. But… um… doesn’t that sound just a little, well, dogmatic? Assuming that your opponents are motivated by insipid passion, instead of valid reasons… well, can we have a forum to see if this assumption is true, or maybe a little insulting and paranoid in its own right?

The list goes on and on… justifications that are easily refuted… or else at least put into enough question that they ought to be dealt with much more openly.

But open discussion is not currently in the offing! Indeed, for the lack of any discussion, the October IAA meeting in Valencia seems likely to quietly ratify the position put forward by the SETI Institute. And that will be that.

In a fait accompli of staggering potential consequence, we will thereupon see a dramatic change-of-state. One in which Earth Civilization may suddenly become many orders of magnitude brighter across the Milky Way… without any of our vaunted deliberative processes having ever been called into play.

A roll of the dice, tossed by a few dozen fervent believers in a theory.

We have seen this sort of thing happen before, all too often in history. It is called hubris. From experience, we know that such gambles can either prove harmless… or else lead to terrible harm. And yet, one thing is certain. The most eager proponents are never the ones to accurately predict which way things ultimately go. Especially when they go to great lengths to avoid the cleansing corrective known as criticism.

In any event, one thing is clear.

This is the very opposite of science.


6. So Why Am I Offering This Situation Report to You?

At one level, it is simply in order to spread the word among those who might find the situation interesting!

Whether or not it raises your sense of resentment or danger, this little tale of narrowly-focused intellectual drive may have been diverting. Did it perk up a little curiosity? Clearly — even if my report is biased — there is more going on in one of the more colorful corners of science, than many people realized. Evidently, there is much more to SETI than the blandly-benign image conveyed in Cosmos and Contact.

At another level, this would seem to be one more example of small groups blithely assuming that they know better. Better than the masses. Better than sovereign institutions. Better than all of their colleagues and peers. So much better — with perfect and serene confidence — that they are willing to bet all of human posterity upon their correct set of assumptions.

If that strikes you as… well… at best premature, then perhaps you might want to help come up with an alternative path?

At present, the chairman of the Transmissions from Earth Working Group, former diplomat Michael Michaud, is on the verge of resigning in frustration. After reporting this impasse to the IAA in Valencia, in October, he will broach an alternative, for the IAA to significantly broaden the Committee on SETI, beyond a narrow coterie that is liked by the SETI Institute — ideally reconfiguring the group outside of the Academy to include a much more eclectic group, including exobiologists, planetary scientists, philosophers, historians…

…but the chance of this happening seems next to nil. Not without some groundswell of support from others who either plan to attend the IAA meeting. Or who might write in about the topic. Or who might suggest and generate another venue than the IAA.

Attempts are being made to engage individuals of proved reputation, sagacity, breadth and eclectic interest who might enjoy tossing around notions of human destiny, while also focusing on technical aspects of an ongoing Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.

Perhaps experts on biology, history, evolution and astronomy? Alas, I must say that I think the deck is already heavily stacked against this collegial approach. I don’t perceive much chance of an expanded, IAA-sanctioned discussion gaining traction. The forces involved are too entrenched and obstinate. Too contemptuous of disagreement.

There may need to be another approach. One that is more confrontational. Going public about this imbroglio, perhaps finding a reputable science journalist, and offering him/her a story whose sensational aspects would make for a sure-fire best seller. I have been reluctant to do this till now, because of the possible side effects. One potential outcome might be to resurrect the bad old Proxmire days, in which SETI was considered a field rife with nut jobs and unscientific zealots.

Seriously, I do not want to see twenty years of good work harmed… or the honorable passive search program set back… by bad publicity. I’d much rather do this collegially.

Certainly the general public, who have been lured into viewing SETI as universally benign, deserve to hear all sides.

Especially since it is their posterity that (under some worried views of the universe) may ultimately be on the line.


7. Information/Resources

It is naive to assume there is no evil in the universe.
Image courtesy Dark Project Studios.

Check out the information/resource page concerning this fast-developing scientific controversy. Organized by David Brin.

8. Updates

UPDATE I: As of late October 2006, attempts (such as this one) to spur negotiation over the issue of de novo transmissions from Earth have been largely stonewalled. The IAA working group meeting in Valencia went largely as expected, choreographed to the beat of the SETI Institute. Offers of mediation have gone unanswered. People who care about this — preferring a wide-ranging discussion before a few individuals start screaming into space on our behalf — are going to have to do some yelling of their own.
UPDATE II: As of Summer 2008, Retired senior US diplomat Michael Michaud has resigned from the IAA SETI Subcommittee in protest over what he sees as continuing efforts to repress open discussion of these issues, and to disparage those who see anything wrong with METI. He was recently joined by Dr. John Billingham, one of the founding fathers of SETI and director of NASA’s long-running SETI program.
Some more recent links on the topic include:
A widely-discussed article by British astronomer David Whitehouse.
An editorial in Nature requesting a METI moratorium.
David Grinspoon’s article in SEED Magazine November 2007.