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    METI: Should We Be Shouting At The Cosmos?
    By David Brin | June 13th 2013 02:19 PM | 28 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About David

    David Brin is a scientist, public speaker, technical consultant and author of books including The Postman, Startide Rising, The Uplift War and Existence...

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    David Brin first wrote this in 2006, summarizing a controversy that was then emerging among members of the community engaged in SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligent civilizations. Since I am covering a new effort at METI - Messaging Extra-Terrestrial Intelligent civilizations - going online next week, he sent me this in our email exchanges and agreed to repost it here and provide a follow-up addendum at the end - Hank

    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 book and 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.


    [image from Wired]

    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 pseudo-science.

    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.


    [image from science base]

    Frustration leads to risk-taking

    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 Craigslist, 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 differeing 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 worry-warts.

    In Russia, especially, the near unanimous consensus among radio astronomers in favor of METI is apparently founded upon a quaint doctrine -- first promulgated by Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, in the 1930s -- maintaining that all advanced civilizations must naturally and automatically be both altruistic and socialist! This Soviet Era dogma -- held over today as a reflexively unquestioned axiom -- dismisses all thought that technologically adept aliens could be motivated by anything other than Universal Altruism (UA). The Russian METI group, among the most eager to commence broadcasting into space, dismisses any other concept as childishly apprehensive "science fiction."

    (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.


    [image from Beautiful Libraries]

    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.

    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.

    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.


    [image from Gizmodo]

    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.

    ===================

    2013 ADDENDUM: 

    Much has happened since this article was first published. Sporadic METI projects have beamed brief "messages" at individual sky targets. For example, one high-powered digital radio signal that was sent on 9 October 2008 towards Gliese 581 c, a large terrestrial extrasolar planet that was discovered by the Kepler telescope to be orbiting a red dwarf star just 28 light years away. Alexander Zaitsev has continued his campaigns to perform more Active SETI experiments.

    The international commissions operated by Dr. Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute have ratified their changes to the Second SETI Protocol, provoking Michael Michaud - the only senior diplomat ever to participate in this topic and author of "Contact With Alien Civilizations" - to resign from the commissions, protesting closed and apparently stage-managed meetings. Further, Dr. John Billingham, former head of NASA's SETI Program, also resigned.  I completed my own withdrawal and other prominent scientists, such as Dr. James Benford, have joined our SETI dissidents group.

    I should re-emphasize that our objection has never been to METI per se but to METI-WC... or METI without consultation, refusing to subject questionable assumptions to input from humanity's best and wisest sages. When zealots embark on an activity that they openly proclaim has the objective of transforming human destiny, then a little discussion with peers would seem wise, while laying all the issues before a fascinated general public. 

    Indeed, despite continued obstinacy by those at the core of this mess, I can report that a little progress has been made. Some important names in the field -- including Frank Drake and Jill Tarter  -- have taken some pains to separate themselves from the most fervent defenders of METI-WC, offering some support for our efforts to open up broader, more eclectic and ecumenical discussions.

    There did come a bright moment, when the Royal Society of London held a one-day debate of the METI question. At this event, papers that both defended METI and rebuked the dissidents were presented by Shostak, Zaitsev and Canadian Stephane Dumas. Rebuttal papers probing the broad range of METI issues were presented by Billingham and Benford, by Michaud and by me. These articles will all be collated in a special edition of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, later in 2013. I expect to post my own paper, which extensively reviews the Fermi Paradox as well, on my web site by 2014.

    Moreover, we hope soon to convince all parties to join together in calling for a more extensive discussion that would extend beyond astronomers and diplomats, to include experts in history, astrobiology, ethics, ethology and many other pertinent fields, in an open and extended conversation that should be fascinating and entertaining as well, for millions of citizens of Planet Earth.. To reiterate, that is all we have ever asked... for an issue that might weigh heavily upon our descendants to be examined from many angles and perspectives, and for zealots to expose their assumptions to collegial critique, which is - after all - the very soul of science.

    Comments

    MikeCrow
    I've referred to this as "chumming for sharks".
    Never is a long time.
    The Wow signal being the STFU call of a concerned neighbor, right ;-) Funny, I always thought that a random swarm of interstellar jellyfishes would be much more problematic. One thing is sure; the time delay involved in a conversation with another sentient world slooowwly turns into a serious case of misunderstanding. Anyway, my opinion; we should be as stealthy as we can.

    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    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?
    Very good question David. I totally agree with your recommendation that 'all parties join together in calling for a more extensive discussion that would extend beyond astronomers and diplomats, to include experts in history, astrobiology, ethics, ethology and many other pertinent fields, in an open and extended conversation that should be fascinating and entertaining as well, for millions of citizens of Planet Earth.' Great article :)
    My latest forum article 'Australian Researchers Discover Potential Blue Green Algae Cause & Treatment of Motor Neuron Disease (MND)&(ALS)' Parkinsons's and Alzheimer's can be found at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Gerhard Adam
    I certainly think that more extensive discussions are warranted, but isn't that sort of a euphemism to simply stop any idea of such transmissions?

    The "freedom of speech" issue was just childish, since it is clearly understood that no individual citizen has the right to negotiate with another sovereign and you don't get any more sovereign than an alien civilization.

    Regardless of how one might individually feel about extraterrestrial civilizations, the primary factor here should be what the METI individuals feel.  Clearly they wouldn't be engaged in this activity if they didn't believe that it would produce results.  Therefore, their actions must be evaluated from the perspective of their view being correct.  As a result, we can clearly see they are behaving recklessly. 

    There is nothing good that can come from it. 

    Despite all the rhetoric surrounding these types of projects, I haven't heard much to address the situation of what occurs if we do discover another civilization, since this is clearly more significant than simply discovering life.  After our initial curiosity has been satisfied ... what then? 
    Mundus vult decipi
    MikeCrow


    :)
    Never is a long time.
    vongehr
    I should re-emphasize that our objection has never been to METI per se but to METI-WC... or METI without consultation, refusing to subject questionable assumptions to input from humanity's best and wisest sages.
    You just exploded the irony meter. Ha ha - the whole is a non-issue that you adopt to sell your science fiction, but selling it as "input from humanity's best and wisest sages"? Let me tell you what sages think:
    You sell your own persona on top of a non-issue while the establishment encourages you because as long as people are afraid of green men thousands of light years away, they care even less about that humans are already mass imprisoned and killed and tortured all over the world, all in order to stabilize our oh so sophisticated let-them-eat-cake lifestyle.

    Here is the message that we need to broadcast into the sky:
    "Dear green men, HELP, please come as soon as possible to stop the war on drugs that puts incredible numbers of innocent people into jail, destroys communities and fuels countless other wars; we humans are unable to do so, because our sages are busy with science-fiction and discussing green men so they can get more likes on facebook and twitter to sell their creative writing!"
    DavidBrin
    Gerhard you expressed humanity's great gift - curiosity, along with courteous discourse, unlike the incurious/insipid fool who followed you.

    In fact, there have been extensive studies and workshops to appraise what assumption sets and methods are most likely to be common and which ones parochially human, in any contact scenario.  Look up the CONTACT conferences held near San Francisco, most years.  I have often participated and I have explored variations on these themes, both in my SETI/astronomical work and in science fiction, for most of my life.  I am engaged in these areas and have no lack of interest or imagination.

    In fact, I refuse to make or depend upon assumptions.  Yes, the odds are against these fools doing us harm.  But there are some kinds of harm that would be lethal to all our descendants.  I see no harm in discussing this openly.  Yes, among "sages" such as the best anthropologists, linguists, historians, ethicists and so on... but openly in front of an engaged public, with lots of opportunity for general feedback.

    Hey, would not YOU enjoy that process?  Wouldn't it be great TV?  Edifying and broadening?

    These dopes are not only playing dice with our kids and behaving like cultists, they are denying us that grand Debate, which would have been one of the best shows ever.
    vongehr
    unlike the incurious/insipid fool who followed you.
    Oh my - who could that be?
    These dopes are not only playing dice with our kids ... denying us that grand Debate, which would have been one of the best shows ever
    Could the insipid fool be the one who insists on not falling for pretend caring about our grandkids to dismiss the real issues people suffer today? Enjoy the "grand Debate" show with certain people in the spotlight, oh yeah, how could the guys at METI have just taken such a great show from us? We want a great show, don't we? The METI guys saw the pretentious objections and they thus rightly concluded: Heck, why should we share our show? Perhaps if insipid fools like me talked to them, actually a message that makes sense here on earth could have been developed, but since only show-guys showed up, why should they care? METI is 100% correct not to care about you just as much as the LHC is correct to dismiss the danger of micro black holes, since these issues are nothing but people trying to get attention for their own show.
    Gerhard Adam
    What I find disconcerting in all this, is that it seems we're sweeping our individual assumptions aside without really examining them.

    Consider ... what would we be doing if we believed that contact was imminent?  Would we be quite so casual about it, or are we being casual because we don't really believe it's going to happen?

    It seems that those aspects of our decision-making should be considered, because my concern is that many people are complacent only because they believe that nothing will happen, so effectively they're simply letting them "play with their toys" because they don't believe any real harm can come from it.

    However, as I said, it would be interesting to ask people's opinion if we prefaced the question with the assumption that we have, in fact, gotten a signal from a reasonably close civilization.  I suspect this would raise more secondary concerns.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    I think that you and Sascha have made some very good points here. OK Sascha wasn't being very diplomatic like you but what he said about the message we send, if we do end up sending a message, is also very important. I think we shouldn't be allowed to send a message until there is majority agreement in the world about what the message should be and as there isn't really majority agreement in the world's 7,123,295,000 people about anything, that's not likely to happen for a long time :)
    My latest forum article 'Australian Researchers Discover Potential Blue Green Algae Cause & Treatment of Motor Neuron Disease (MND)&(ALS)' Parkinsons's and Alzheimer's can be found at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    vongehr
    Wait a sec. there Helen - how many people did you ask about what to say to Athlon?
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Only you :) Another good point, mea culpa!
    My latest forum article 'Australian Researchers Discover Potential Blue Green Algae Cause & Treatment of Motor Neuron Disease (MND)&(ALS)' Parkinsons's and Alzheimer's can be found at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    DavidBrin
    Riiiiiiight. "Only care about what *I* think we should care about!  Your brain cannot handle two things at once!  Or MINE can't so I assume yours cannot as well! Care only about what I care about !  I insist!"

    Go away, you silly, silly person.

    vongehr
    Now if you could hit the "Reply to This" button for once, not only would commentators be notified of a reaction (common courtesy), but everybody else would know who you are addressing.
    Is there any way of way of obscuring earth as the source of such a transmission? Like a signal revealing only our general direction or stellar neighborhood? Or give the impression that the broadcast emanates from some solar system other than our own (leveraging misdirection as a first line of defense)?

    Also, one would think the possible dangers/benefits/consequences of first contact would vary greatly with (and depend heavily upon) the actual distance between us and them, right? I'd be interested to know how contact scenarios grade out in that light. Could a beacon be constructed accordingly? (Obviously the extraordinary time scales invoked make assessing METI exponentially difficult!)

    One response to the question of, "What would contact be good for, beyond the novelty of knowing we're not alone?" I'd strongly suggest that inter-civilization trade in knowledge/information could prove hugely productive for both of the parties.

    Hank
    Well, sure. We know someone like us is not within 400 years of getting here - obviously the concern would instead be someone not like us.  There is a big gaping hole in our understanding of energy/mass - when I wrote on this I mentioned Arecibo and being fired at a place 25,000 light years away. It was the best choice because it was the best choice and because it was so far away presumably we would be ready for any answer we get.

    18 light years is a little more worrisome, in that regard. If modern policy holds up, in 18 years we will will not have even gone back to the moon, much less anywhere else - Obama arbitrarily canceled the Bush space program so there is no reason to argue the next president can't cancel Obama's and create a new one with his name on it. In 18 years we could be announcing a mission to Jupiter - but still noting it will take 15 years to plan it. So we are certainly not ready for any contact beyond a message in a bottle.
    MikeCrow
    Well, sure. We know someone like us is not within 400 years of getting here

    I'm curious, how do we know this?
    Never is a long time.
    Hank
    Life like us would have emissions like us - we would have detected them if they were close, diverse telescopes look quite far today - and while light can travel to the edge of the solar system in 1/2 a day, we cannot. We have just reached the edge of the solar system after 36 years but even if we go much faster, Alpha Centauri, for example, is still 3,000 times farther away. That is why I said in my piece on Lone Signal that they would have to know supernatural physics to be a threat.  We can call internationally and talk to friends in other countries with no trouble today but it is no faster to walk than it was a hundred years ago.  So I think first contact would be a lot of long distance phone calls. 
    MikeCrow
    Hmmm, I'm not sure. The first question I'd ask is how far from us would SETI detect us (I don't know the answer to this question)? I know they have to remove terrestrial sources, but our receivers are much closers that theirs would be. Beyond that, it would imply they still used radio, for instance if their star generated more RF than ours, they might have skipped radio. The other point is they might be much older than we are and switched to either much higher frequencies, or optical, or??

    The other thing is the distance issue, it's only really a problem if we presume we know all there is to physic's as it relates to traversing large distances. Maybe we do, maybe we don't. History has told us time and again, we have more to learn, especially when we think we have everything all figured out. We already have hints of mathematics/physics that imply bending space could be possible, just because we can't do it doesn't make me 100% sure another race hasn't figured out how to do it.

    Basically humans would not survive an encounter with a space faring race if they can get here, and they want to destroy us. I'd at least like to wait until we have developed space capability to the extent we can mine the asteroid belt, and deflect a rock aimed at our planet, before we going yelling at everyone.
    Never is a long time.
    Hank
    , it would imply they still used radio, for instance if their star generated more RF than ours, they might have skipped radio. The other point is they might be much older than we are and switched to either much higher frequencies, or optical, or??
    I said "like us" a few times and you went and described a whole bunch of ways they won't get the signal at all if they are not like us and could kill us with supernatural technology they could have if they are not like us.

    In the instances of supernatural science and technology and hostile intent, they would have killed us already. We have been emitting radio for a hundred years so some new message would not be provocative, it would just get us in a spam filter.
    MikeCrow
    I take "Like us" as being at a comparable technology level. "Like us" isn't making the trip. But that seems to me to be leaving open a lot of other possible visitors. And part of my point is I can think of reason we might not be using radio technology, at our level of technology.
    I saw a paper, news on a paper that said our radio/tv signals would not be readily detected in interstellar noise very far outside the solar systems. Some signals would go further, but most of those are not continuous. TV in this chart is much further than what I remember.

    So maybe a malevolent race would have heard us by now.
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    Why assume malevolence?  Our social history indicates that most "primitive" societies were decimated just as readily without our being hostile.
    Mundus vult decipi
    MikeCrow
    While true, at least they wouldn't be trying to send us back to the dinosaur age.
    Have you read Foot Fall? They wouldn't even need bombs.
    Never is a long time.
    John Duffield
    Good article, David. Keep up the good work.
     
    I am reminded of the movie "Battleship". That's the sort of thing that maybe conveys the potential risks of sending out messages. But it was rather gung-ho heroic. Perhaps a movie along the lines of "Skyline" would get the message across better. If you hear of any alien-invasion movies in the pipeline, it might be worth putting out feelers. If you can get "they're here because we sent a message" into the script, you'd be getting the message across. 

       
    Your protocol links don't work.
    I just get a 404.

    I think yours is a well reasoned and articulated opinion, David.
    However, and perhaps this has already been asked and answered, but- I think the very premise of SETI is flawed. It doesn't stand to reason that any civilization technologically advanced enough to communicate across _light years_ of space would be using the same spectra that we would consider. Microwaves? Really?

    We're just beginning to flirt with Quant phenomena (entanglement, ect.) that could facilitate near instant exchange, no matter how vast the distance. The universe may well be roaring with the signals of advanced entities, yet we squabble around issues that are tantamount to Morse-code or Semaphore.

    It's true, it can't hurt to listen. But, maybe we should try to grow new ears. And like the relative children that we are, once we've learned to hear we should listen to what the "grown-ups" in this rather large oom have to say before speaking.

    An interesting article. I'd say that if beings can travel between stars they would send self propagating automated missions across the galaxy and they would be in the dust of our livingrooms studying us to see what the critters are doing. If they don't like what they see, a big rock from the skies is enough give the planet a hard reset and see what evolves next. All of this assuming that advanced technological civ. can exist for a long time which so far seems doubtful, looking at the only example we have.

    ET's broadcasting across the e-m spectrum seems logical, and probably ought to be taken a look at. But I have a couple hang-ups that prevent me from taking it very seriously:

    1. Intrinsic time-space limitations using the em spectrum are profound, and subject all sorts of (probably un-filterable) noise problems. Such problems carry a patina of listening for drum beats as a test of whether anyone's out there. Seems more likely ET's have found q-m or relativity (or whatever) loop-holes that would permit immediate, distance independent communications (and perhaps travel). We may be awash in those communications and not know it. After all, we're only a few hundred years past long-range communications by drums. What will communications look like in 10,000 years, or 1 million years (assuming civilization is stable at those time scales)? It doesn’t take too great a leap of faith to suspect it will be profoundly different.

    2. Is it curiosity, arrogance or fear that drives our search for ET's? Dr. Manhattan had a great line in the Watchman movie. Something about a comparison between the world's smartest human with the world's smartest termite. Sagan had a similar 'ant' metaphor. Why would communicating with us in any recognizable fashion be of the slightest interest to ET’s? Given the vastness of time, particularly when compared to the time at which technology evolves, it seems likely the lesser motivations may be prevailing here.

    On a more positive (perhaps pollyannish) note, I can’t help visualize “Dr. Arroway” siting on that hillside, listening to em static, and then stumbling on ET’s signal. What a loss it would be to miss that signal. It’ll probably never come (in that fashion), but what harm can it do (being reasonably frugal), and she may stumble onto some serendipitous discovery. Weirder things have happened.