Think Before Talk

A New Scientist editorial:

Should we try to promote contact by broadcasting our presence to the heavens? If alien civilisations exist, they are likely to be so far away that our message will not arrive until after we are gone. In that case, what is there to lose? We might as well let them know that we used to be around.  If, by chance, there are intelligent aliens within a few tens of light years from Earth, their own SETI programmes might already have sniffed us out. … So let’s make some friendly overtures, rather than leave them to wonder why we’re not transmitting, and what we’ve got to hide.

David Brin’s reply:

There is an arrogance in the transmission of these messages by small groups who have claimed the right to shout on behalf of Earth without consulting anybody else.  Many SETI researchers and others, including the editorial board of Nature, have asked for there to be a moratorium on these messages until broad international discussions can take place. …

That doesn’t seem much to ask, given the importance of the matter and our ignorance of the cosmos. … The message zealots label as paranoid anybody who wants open discussion. With their peremptory broadcasts, they bet our future on the assumption that all technological alien species will be altruistic. …

They deploy a host of blithe excuses, such as “aliens have already picked up our radio leakage” and “harm cannot span interstellar distances”, but they do not hold up under scientific scrutiny. … The history of first contacts between human cultures, and between previously isolated Earthly biomes, … make a sad litany that suggests patience, caution and lengthy discussion are in order before we make our presence known to the cosmos at large.

Brin seems obviously right here.  There may well be little chance anyone will hear our signals, but the main benefits of such signals are conditional on someone hearing, and so we should be concerned about large costs that also show up under exactly the same conditions.

There is clearly a real risk of market failure here; each broadcaster can enjoy the glory of hoping to be the special one to make first alien contact, while our whole planet suffers most of the consequences of that choice.  This sort of situation is exactly what global governance should be for.

Furthermore, the sort of complications that bedevil coordination on global warming, estimating each nation’s costs of warming and contribution to cooling, are avoided here – this conflict is just the one broadcaster vs. the rest of the world.  (Regulations to limit unintentional signals, as in telecom or planetary radar science, move more in that bedeviling direction.)  Our failure to actually achieve any global coordination here shows just how weak are such abilities —  a slight air of “silly topic” is all it takes to completely block coordination.

As Brin notes, many would-be broadcasters come from an academic area where for decades the standard assumption has been that aliens are peaceful zero-population-growth no-nuke greens, since we all know that any other sort quickly destroy themselves.  This seems to me an instructive example of how badly a supposed “deep theory” inside-view of the future can fail, relative to closest-related-track-record outside-view.  As Brin says, the track record of contact between cultures, species, and biomes is not especially encouraging, and it is far too easy for far-view minds to overestimate the reliability of theoretical arguments to the contrary.

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  • bock

    i dunno. im not too worried what crazy people say when they talk to ghosts, even though if it turns out they aren’t crazy what they say may be of the utmost imprtance.

    • Matt

      Agreed. It seems that the probability of actual contact is so low it’s not worth the trouble of collectivizing our message.

      Also, the example of humans abusing isolated human cultures is flawed. Interstellar travel is so costly I can’t imagine any benefit malevolent aliens may get from harming humans nor any resource Earth could supply for them that would be worth the trip, I’d think we’d even make crappy slaves for any species that is capable of light-year sized exploration. It seems that the only benefit advanced aliens could get from us would be the enjoyment of cultural exchange. This does not assume advanced aliens are zero-pop greens but that only alien anthropologists would be at all interested in us. These anthropologists would have to conduct themselves peacefully or risk adding violent conflict to the already high cost of travel here.

      That is, unless we discover unobtanium here.

      • http://lesswrong.com/ CannibalSmith

        It seems that the only benefit advanced aliens could get from us would be the enjoyment of cultural exchange.

        What if they send us a deadly meme?

  • Michael

    Doesn’t the argument apply to prayer as well? The odds of their being a deity out there to respond to prayer seem remote, but many people try to communicate with it/Him/Her anyway. People tend to assume God’s benevolent, but say the wrong thing to God and it could lead to a Great Flood type response. Do we need a international system for regulating prayer?

  • Jayson Virissimo

    With their peremptory broadcasts, they bet our future on the assumption that all technological alien species will be altruistic. …

    This is a non sequitur; even if the aliens are not altruistic they still might not harm us. Perhaps they are perfectly self-interested and would like to trade with us like the butcher and brewer from Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Non-altruism does not entail harming or even non-cooperation.

  • http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb Barkley Rosser

    Is this “ET” versus “Independence Day”? Of course, if it is the latter, I don’t think it matters what we say, all that matters is that we say it, and indeed our radio and TV “leakage” will be saying it no matter what.

  • Newerspeak

    I agree generally, but this part isn’t right:

    each broadcaster can enjoy the glory of hoping to be the special one to make first alien contact, while our whole planet suffers most of the consequences

    Messages will be years in transit, hard to decipher, and chosen by arbitrarily weird aliens. Sending these messages is no way to get famous. And even if alien radio conversation works just like email, it’s the listeners who will get the credit for “proving” the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence.

    On the other hand, a lot of science fiction (Star Trek) suggests that future humanity is virtuous and that the discovery of aliens provided the impetus for us to clean up our act. Maybe sending the radio messages is an advertisement to showcase SETI folks’ beliefs that (sic) aliens are “peaceful zero-population-growth no-nuke greens” because human beings should be “peaceful zero-population-growth no-nuke greens”.

    Prominent SETI researchers have been prominent advocates of those other causes in the past.

    • Newerspeak

      Oh dear. That first line should have ended “… doesn’t seem right:”

      Apologies.

  • Dylan

    I’m with Bock and Matt. The idea behind this (and much moaning about NASA’s “abandonment” of manned spaceflight) depends on magical thinking that faster-than-light space travel will someday be invented. That’s as likely as ghosts starting to talk back.

    • http://lesswrong.com/ CannibalSmith

      Interstellar travel would still be feasible without FTL if only we overcame our nuke phobia. Then again, that too seems as likely as ghosts.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Michael, yes this argument could apply to prayer. If many people actually believed (vs. pretending to believe) a God listened to prayer, yet did also not know everything we thought if we didn’t pray, and if it were feasible to regulate prayer, we should consider doing so.

    Newerspeak, people do get glory from the hope of contact, even if they can never prove their talk was heard. Yes, broadcasters can signal their allegiance to the political belief that our descendants will be peaceful zero-pop-growth no-nuke greens.

    Dylan, faster-than-light travel isn’t required for alien contact to have consequences for our distant descendants.

    Matt, global governance decisions shouldn’t depend on any one person’s inability to imagine harms.Matt global governance decisions shouldn’t depend on any one person’s inability to imagine harms.

    • http://torontopm.wordpress.com Paul Hewitt

      Michael, yes this argument could apply to prayer. If many people actually believed (vs. pretending to believe) a God listened to prayer, yet did also not know everything we thought if we didn’t pray, and if it were feasible to regulate prayer, we should consider doing so.

      A libertarian advocating regulation? Which God did you have in mind? Do you think He/She/It is that vindictive?

      • Matthew C.

        Robin is not a libertarian.

    • Grant

      Is Robin a “Masonomist”? That is, is he saying “Markets in interstellar signaling fail, so use global government” or “Markets in interstellar signaling fail, so use different market institutions to fix them”?

      It seems to me that making good decisions on either approach would be hugely expensive. It may be that the coordination costs are so high its simply not worth worrying about.

  • http://michaelnielsen.org/blog Michael Nielsen

    How odd. We have been broadcasting our presence, for well over 100 years. I’ve heard it said (but haven’t checked the numbers myself) that our solar system is essentially a double star in the radio spectrum.

    • Jack

      My understanding is that our regular broadcasting signal diffuses and is indistinguishable from background radiation once it gets 3 lightyears out. That is why the METI people want to start pointing giant lasers at distant stars.

  • komponisto

    I have to reserve the possibility of disagreeing on this one. We might well do far better by leaving these sorts of decisions to the small group of people who were actually thoughtful and foresighted enough to be thinking about them already, rather than turning them over to regulation by large committees or governments which will represent conflicting, short-term, and largely signaling-driven interests.

    (Cf. SIAI.)

  • CJ

    Regarding the radio and television transmissions leaving earth since the 1930s, some scientists believe that these will all have diffused into random noise by the time they get to other stars. Let’s hope so. Why do we assume that other intelligences will be like us at all? Might they not be so different that they would lack any empathy with man? Perhaps our planet would be a great resource for them if only it weren’t so infested with us.

    And excuse me for doing the geezer thing here, but this is not a new controversy. Fred Hoyle criticized the Voyager transmissions (brainchild of the ultraliberal Carl Sagan) broadcasting the presence and nature of humanity in the 1970s. I found Hoyle’s arguments that we had no good reason to assume the benign nature of other life forms persuasive then, and they still make sense today.

    • Justin

      To receive the Voyager message, wouldn’t the aliens have to physically locate the spacecraft itself? I think there is more grounds to be critical in that the message is likely to never be found… Outside of floating around in space forever, I think the mostly likely fate of Voyager is to be returned to the Earth by spacefaring humans in the future. That said, I believe Sagan was also involved with the ARICEBO message, to which Hoyle’s argument would apply.

  • http://www.rationalmechanisms.com Richard Silliker

    They are already here and i have been told we taste delicious. First boil the fat off much like you would do with a duck then cook at 350F at 6 minutes a lb.

    • http://www.rationalmechanisms.com Richard Silliker

      a lb should read per lb sorry about that. for all you budding chefs.

  • http://akinokure.blogspot.com agnostic

    The greatest threat they pose to us, and vice versa, has nothing to do with altruism, nukes, slavery, etc. — it is pathogens. If there are extra-terrestrial lifeforms, that creates a niche that will be exploited by extra-terrestrial parasites.

    See what happened to the Americas when Europeans and Africans showed up with their bugs. Ditto what happened when Europeans tried to venture into the tropical parts of Africa. For fictional accounts, see the Alien movies.

    • Matthew C.

      Agnostic,

      We don’t catch diseases from fish, jellyfish, sea sponges and the like who all evolved here on the earth. What are the chances any of their pathogens will be able to live inside an entirely alien life form / metabolism?

      • djw

        Probably really small, but just in case, you shake hands with them first…

      • http://akinokure.blogspot.com agnostic

        We catch all sorts of pathogens that started out in other species — google “zoonotic diseases.” In fact, the list of modern devastating diseases is overwhelmingly zoonotic.

        Also wrong in the phrasing of your second question — it ignores adaptation by natural selection. Species are not static. They could adapt to us just as all those other zoonotic diseases have.

        Remember that pathogens have incredibly short generation lengths, so adaptation happens much more rapidly among them than among humans, say. Look at how quickly antibiotic-resistant strains of bugs have evolved.

      • Matthew C.

        Agnostic,

        I ask again, how many human pathogens come from diseases infecting other phyla, versus our own phyla?

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        I don’t often say this, but Matthew C is right. For pathogen to thrive on different species, there must be sufficient similarities. Enough diversity exists on this planet to make it improbable that aliens from who knows where are that similar.

      • http://akinokure.blogspot.com agnostic

        I say again — read what zoonotic diseases are. You can start with the Wikipedia entry. I’m not going to count how many there are because there are lots. Cholera and bubonic plague for starters, likely measles, smallpox, influenza, HIV, and other crowd diseases.

        Still wrong in framing the question, as it is the financial and health burden on humans from such diseases that matters, not the count of such diseases.

      • http://akinokure.blogspot.com agnostic

        “For pathogen to thrive on different species, there must be sufficient similarities.”

        Not true at all. Again take cholera. From Wikipedia:

        “Cholera is rarely spread directly from person to person. V. cholerae harbors naturally in the zooplankton of fresh, brackish, and salt water, attached primarily to their chitinous exoskeleton. […] Coastal cholera outbreaks typically follow zooplankton blooms, thus making cholera a zoonotic disease.”

        You don’t get much more different thank humans and zooplankton!

        Maybe people are confused about what “pathogens” means — just parasites, not necessarily ones that wipe you out right away. I’m sure that whatever ET pathogens they’d bring would generally be not so much of a bother to them, since they’ve co-evolved in an arms race with their ET bugs. But we haven’t.

        Similarly, Europeans didn’t find influenza any fun, but they were somewhat adapted to it, unlike the American natives — who were wiped out to about 10% of their pre-Columbian levels by various Old World germs. Also, bubonic plague doesn’t devastate the flea, nor malaria the mosquito, nor sleeping sickness the tsetse fly.

      • Microbiologist

        Agnostic is right.

        It’s not entirely clear to me that microbes from a whole different genesis of life could infect humans. However, I suspect it is plausible that some could. I don’t want to bother pondering it too deeply, because there is definitely a chance that there is life out there from the same genesis, anyway — from panspermia or at least “trans-spermia.”

        …And it is clearly conceivable that alien microbes from the same genesis could infect us. In addition to the above examples, here is a whole review by the well-respected Didier Raoult on bacterial taxa that can infect both man and unicellular amebae; he names 6 or 8 genera of them: http://cmr.asm.org/cgi/content/abstract/17/2/413

        I’ve never thought about it before or heard of such an idea, but I wonder whether there is any chance that trans-spermic events could have ever figured in mass extinction events on earth. Or figured in major changes like the shift to an O2-emitting metabolism. This is certainly conceivable and I’d be surprised if no one has ever written anything about it.

  • tim

    It strikes me as far more arrogant to suggest people should not be allowed to send messages into space without the approval of scientists or governments. It certainly strikes me as paranoid to worry about unfriendly aliens. If extraterrestrials should happen upon our weak little world we will have very little say in how they treat us. What are we going to do, anyhow? Turn out the lights and spend the next million years hoping nobody noticed we were here? I think Brin’s science fantasies about faster-than-light travel have afflicted his judgment.

    • Jack

      “If extraterrestrials should happen upon our weak little world we will have very little say in how they treat us.”

      Uh yeah, which is why we should hold off on shining a flashlight around and screaming “Anyone out there?”. Obviously we can’t just shut off the lights (and wouldn’t want to) but that doesn’t mean we should try to be found.

    • Chris T

      We absolutely have a right to prevent actions that we believe may may cause us harm.

  • http://t-a-w.blogspot.com/ Tomasz Wegrzanowski

    You want to compare P(evil aliens harm us) and P(good aliens help us) by presuming that
    P(evil aliens harm us) = P(aliens exist and can communicate with us) P(aliens are evil)
    P(good aliens help us) = P(aliens exist and can communicate with us) P(aliens are good)

    If this model was right, P(aliens exist and can communicate with us) would be irrelevant, and you would be correct.

    On the other hand, good is much easier to spread than evil over interstellar scales – you can send information very easily, but any sort of colonization or warfare is very very hard, so:

    P(evil aliens harm us) = P(aliens exist and can communicate with us) P(aliens are evil) P(aliens who want to harm us can)
    P(good aliens help us) = P(aliens exist and can communicate with us) P(aliens are good) P(aliens who want to help us can)

    If P(aliens who want to help us can) >> P(aliens who want to harm us can), then even mild assumptions about P(aliens are good) and P(aliens are evil) are enough to make good aliens vastly more likely.

    And P(aliens exist and can communicate with us) is relevant, as high values of P(aliens who want to harm us can) depends on it much more strongly than P(aliens who want to help us can).

    (of course I’d take an intrade bet that we won’t find aliens at any rate worth my transaction costs)

  • http://brazil84.wordpress.com brazil84

    I agree that it’s pretty much harmless, but I’m a bit annoyed at the weakness of the arguments put forth by those who wish to broadcast.

    First, if the “we’re already broadcasting so there’s no harm in it” argument is legitimate, then these folks should be content making a normal television program including whatever message they want to send and broadcasting it with normal television or radio transmitters.

    The fact that they wish to use special transmission equipment shows that they themselves believe such a special transmission has a much better chance of reaching extra-terrestrials.

    Second, the Carl Saganesque xenophillic assumption that all advanced civilizations must be liberal is unfounded and unsupported by history.

    I was particularly amused by the message sent along with the Voyager spacecraft which was, as I recall, that the people of Earth wished to join the Galactic version of the United Nations. Haha, what a joke.

    But as noted above, it doesn’t really matter because the obvious way to find and communicate with extraterrestrials is with Von Neumann probes. And if the hypothetical extraterrestrials have Von Neumann probes, there’s no need to “shout,” since they can hear us perfectly fine if we whisper.

  • Carl Shulman

    They deploy a host of blithe excuses, such as “aliens have already picked up our radio leakage” and “harm cannot span interstellar distances”, but they do not hold up under scientific scrutiny.

    I find it interesting that despite this content in the main post, both points were raised again in the comments as though new.

  • http://infiniteinjury.org Peter Gerdes

    Wow the arguments here are so misguided I don’t know where to start.

    While I tend to think that attempts to broadcast messages to aliens are a waste of money and time there are very good reasons to think that absent the costs to send the signal the expectation is positive.

    It has nothing to do with good or evil aliens and everything to do with the sheer difficulty involved in doing us harm and small motivation to do so. The speed of light means conventional resource competition is simply impractical and we don’t live on a quasar or other giant energy source. Since we have good evidence the majority of stars lack civilizations as advanced as ours (and probably lack any) we should assign an exceptionally low probability to the situation where we just happen to occupy some highly desierable resource. Now sure we could find ourselves the victim of some Eliezer style punitive AI encoded in a transmission but it seems reasonable to assign a much higher probability to being ignored or aided with an exchanged of information than being the victim of some massively wasteful attack.

    Moreover, the Fermi paradox provides even stronger reason to believe sending such signals isn’t harmful. Either we just aren’t where the action is or the risk of civilization collapse is quite high and the higher the risk of self-destruction the greater potential benefit to learning about the risks. Besides if there are crazy aliens dedicated merely to the elimination of other species they are probably quite good at tracking down civilizations like ours while broadcasts might at least elicit a warning from some other victim.

    Could these suppositions be wrong? Of course. But then again CERN could destroy the universe. Ultimately one simply needs to use one’s best judgment to maximize desired outcomes. It’s only our cognitive biases that make it seem like not acting (keeping quite) is somehow necessarily safer (we are less likely to be tipped off to potential dangers).

    However, what is most disturbing about the argument here is the idea that somehow it’s wrong to broadcast because it’s anti-democratic or something. Ultimately the question is simply whether it’s favored by the arguments or not. I mean heck there are lots of scientific endeavors the public and even the respected establishment would oppose that are nonetheless good ideas.

    • Jess Riedel

      I think previous comments have already explained why the fermi paradox is not very relevant to the argument. All benefits and harms associated with broadcasting to aliens are contingent on the aliens existing. The only reason to bring up the low probability for their existance is when you are discussing the cost of transmission or regulation, which are not so contingent.

      • Jack

        One thing Fermi’s paradox suggests is that if there are aliens they are being very, very quiet. Their reasons may well apply to us and thus it would be advisable to take the hint.

  • Consumatopia

    There’s plenty of incentive for aliens to harm us. Interstellar distances are, as others say, too great for pillaging or even trade of physical resources to be particularly fruitful. But they are *not* too great for colonization. We can send Von Neumann probes to build homes for our descendants and spread our memes and genes across the galaxy.

    Other aliens might want to do the same thing and see us as competition.

    If we were actually worried about that, we could consider holding off on first contact until we built interstellar colonies. Assuming that aliens across interstellar distances would have difficultly figuring out where all of our colonies are, these colonies would offer second-strike capabilities much like nuclear submarines do in the present. If the colonies were constantly spreading, aliens stuck with the same speed-of-light restriction we’re stuck with might have difficulty tracking them down.

  • Robert Koslover

    As an aximoatic libertarian (heh), I believe the danger of granting any government on Earth the power to regulate transmissions into outer space almost certainly exceeds the danger from space aliens coming to destroy us. An exception to this rule is if the government (i.e., taxpayers) are paying for such transmissions; then they should get to decide. But if I want to do so *at my own expense*, and if I’m not violating FCC broadcasting regulations (which have reasons other than restricting SETI), or interfering with our satellites, spacecraft, etc, then the Government should stay out of my way. I.e., let’s default to freedom. After all, by the time any aliens actually arrive here, we will likely have had centuries (or more) to prepare for them and will have likely been in communication with them during that time, right?

    • Jack

      How about if someone starts broadcasting a declaration of war? Complete with imagery.

      “After all, by the time any aliens actually arrive here, we will likely have had centuries (or more) to prepare for them and will have likely been in communication with them during that time, right?”

      There is no reason to think centuries is even close to the necessary time needed to prepared. They could be several millenia ahead of us. How much conversing we could do with them depends on how fast their ships go and how far away they are. Hell, if they were really out to get us why would the respond to let us know they were coming? Better to just show up and wipe us out.

  • http://brazil84.wordpress.com brazil84

    “Other aliens might want to do the same thing and see us as competition.”

    I agree. In addition, they might worry that we will eventually see them as competition and figure that the prudent thing to do is to wipe us out.

  • lxm

    This seems to me an instructive example of how badly a supposed “deep theory” inside-view of the future can fail, relative to closest-related-track-record outside-view.

    I suggest that the motives you attribute to the ‘academics’ are incorrect or, at least, incomplete.

    I suggest that the academics’ motives are more basic: to do what humans have always done: to explore beyond our current limits, consequences be damned.

    I applaud their efforts. Let the future get here faster!

  • DBThomas

    Your transmissions destroyed our crops.

    There are 5 of us left.

    Only 1 of us needs to survive the trip…

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  • http://www.yohami.com yohami

    if it was otherwise, and humans picked up alien transmission from, say, venus, and we found a weaker specie and a less advaced subculture there, plus a planet with resources, we would colonize and destroy them, like it happened so many times with our own kind in our own planet.

    and for an alien civilization that could pick our signals and perform light / worm travels, the costs of a colonization couldnt be *that* huge

    the indians in america didnt send smoke signals to europe before the colonization, yet it happened, no need to speed that up

    keeping it quiet sounds good for now.