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What Should We Tell the World?
by Douglas A. Vakoch, Ph.D. (vakoch @

Prof. Carol Oliver of the SETI Australia Centre recently posted the following thought to a SETI email discussion group:
"If a SETI experiment confirms we are not alone, undoubtedly it will change perceptions of ourselves and our place in the universe not just for today or tomorrow, or even next year, but forever. There are both scientific and cultural implications. Therefore SETI researchers have a moral responsibility to communicate their work and its implications to the general public."
I think it's true that receiving a signal would radically and permanently change our view of ourselves and our place in the universe. The impact of such news would probably vary over the course of time. Upon first receipt of a message, we would need to deal with the fact that we are not alone. But after that, the impact depends a lot on how readily we could understand the message. I would imagine that the differences between us and an extraterrestrial civilization would initially prevent us from understanding the world as ETI do. But if, gradually, we are better able to understand their experience of the universe and of themselves, and if we can begin to make meaningful comparisons between their civilization and our own, then we might begin calling into question some of our assumptions about the way our own society must be. And although this may not be easy, at least at first, ultimately it may be very liberating for us to start to perceive the universe as members of another civilization do.

This same sort of change can be seen when different ideologies make contact with one another on earth. Initially, the ideology of a different culture or group may be seen as quite alien and even as evil or dangerous. But for those who honestly try to understand an alternative way of life in its own terms, an expansion of world views can occur. If, on the other hand, we attempt to fit an alien world view into our own prior preconceptions, then we lose a tremendous opportunity for growth.

One of the greatest challenges of truly entering into a dialogue with an alien world is that it can be very disorienting. To call into question our habitual ways of life may leave us wondering WHAT is true and constant. There are limits, however, to how much new material any individual and any generation can assimilate. These limits to new perspectives are seen throughout the history of science, insofar as the scientists most open to revolutionary ways of viewing the universe have tended to be younger people, for whom the traditional view is not as deeply entrenched. Thus, at a cultural level, we only gradually incorporate new experiences. And at a personal level, if we make contact with ETI, basic psychological mechanisms for maintaining our personal equilibrium would help protect us from complete relativization of our beliefs and values.

Do SETI scientists have ethical obligations to communicate to the public the potential impact of a search? In my opinion, we do. And in addition, one of our responsibilities is to communicate to the general public the importance of fostering the exploratory spirit. There may well be some people who would, at least initially, prefer not to hear that there is intelligent life beyond earth. But as I look back on our history as a species and as a civilization, it seems that one central characteristic of being human is to attempt to understand ourselves and our world around us. To me, this is one of the core values that motivates SETI. And I would hope that we would not shrink back from that goal, and that we would not avoid a few growing pains as we attempt to understand better our place in the universe.

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