Confidence or Silence

When prestigious academics evaluate the vita (i.e., publication list) of another academic, they want to see only top journals listed there.  A vita with five top journal articles and ten medium journal articles looks worse to them than a vita with just five top articles; if you can’t publish in the very top journals, they’d rather you didn’t publish at all.

Paul Davies is chair of the SETI Post-Detection Taskgroup.

Paul Davies, chair of the group that decides what SETI scientists will do if evidence of aliens is ever found, thinks similarly about science news: until scientists can say something to the public with great (~99%) confidence, they should say nothing.  (Quotes below.)  You see, frequent public updates on science issues of great popular interest, like evidence of aliens or asteroids headed toward Earth, would result in reporters bothering scientists at work with “mayhem”, disrupting their “lines of communication,” and disturbing their “dispassionate analysis.”  The fact that most early low-probability signs would end up being false alarms is “damaging to the credibility of science.”  So until scientists can confidently say that an asteroid will hit us or that we see aliens, they should just whisper to each other.

In the extreme case of receiving an actual alien message directed at us, Davies prefers scientists to kept quiet for the many years it would likely take to decode it fully.  And he prefers aliens to not send us any useful tech info, as then we would fight over who could decode it first.  How disruptive!

One might justify this confidence-or-silence policy by arguing either that non-scientists are biased to overreact to low confidence news, or that reporters are biased to present low probability news as if it were high probability, and non-scientists gullibly believe them.  I have not seen any systematic evidence presented in support of these claims, however.

Within academia, the bias against non-top articles seems like signaling.  Since folks confident they are great would not admit they’d ever done work that could not meet the highest standards, medium journal publications reveal a lack of confidence.  Similarly, I suspect signaling is behind the confidence-or-silence policy.  Since it is harder to credibly say something with great confidence than with low confidence, saying something with low confidence sends a bad signal about your abilities.  Keeping info secret is also a status move; info gives control and control marks status.

Quotes from Eerie Silence:

The fact that it may take days to be sure that a [SETI] signal is not manmade raises a very serious problem for managing the post-detection agenda. … Any hint of a positive result from a SETI project could immediately trigger media frenzy, and events might soon spiral out of control. … In the case of the SOHO satellite detection, the press got hold of the story even before the identification was made.  Fortunately the reporter concerned acted responsibly and waited for more data before rushing into print.  But not all members of the media can be relied upon to be so restrained. …

Because SETI astronomers are professional scientists, rigorous checking is an essential part of their training, and they want to be sure of their ground before making a definitive statement. History has shown that when scientists run to the press with sensational claims that haven’t been properly checked, the outcome is very damaging to the credibility of science itself, not to mention the reputations of the scientists involved.  A salutary lesson in how not to handle the media comes from the now largely discredited claim for cold nuclear fusion … They held a hasty press conference, and the media understandably had a field day. … It took many months for laboratories around the world to test the claim, and find it wanting. …

The lesson from that debacle is that it is wise to exercise restraint when dealing with the media about discoveries that carry sweeping implications for society. In the case of SETI, … once word got out, mayhem could ensue.  The astronomers might show up for work only to find their observatory besieged by journalists, … hardly an environment conducive to dispassionate analysis.  Even normal modes of communication are likely to be disrupted as lines become jammed by callers eager to check the rumors. …

It is in the nature of this type of investigation that false alarms greatly outnumber the real thing, so the above scenario might be played out many times, with the hullabaloo eventually subsiding as the story evaporates. A close analogy is the all too frequent announcement that civilization is menaced by an oncoming asteroid or comet. … When a new asteroid or comet seems to be moving on an Earth-crossing trajectory, … carefully checking takes time.  In the early days following the discovery, the projected orbits are uncertain because of normal measurement errors.  After the object has been followed for several days or weeks, the errors shrink enough that the astronomers can then work out whether it will or won’t hit Earth.  The most sensible strategy is to wait until the orbit has been properly determined, and only then, if there is still a clear and present danger, ‘wake the President’.  But … more often than not, the press get wind that a new object has been found that might strike our planet on the next orbital pass. It makes a wonderful scare story: ‘Killer asteroid may wipe out life as we know it!’  Headlines like that attract a lot of readers. … The known uncertainty in the measurements lets astronomers work out the probability of a collision – typically it is about one in 10,00 when the object is first identified. …

I personally believe the public does have a right to know, even if the news is bad – as soon as the situation is properly understood. I have yet to meet with a SETI scientist who doesn’t agree with this basic principle. There is no ‘code of secrecy’ in SETI. … Suppose the … discovery holds up at, say 99 per cent confidence level. …  If an astronomer were to spot something weird, which on closer inspection bore all the hallmarks of artificiality, then I believe it should be announced just like any other major astronomical discovery. … If an alien civilization were to send us a customized message, … I personally feel that the implications of simply  receiving such a message would be so startling and so disruptive that, all though eventual disclosure is essential, every effort should be made to delay a public announcement until a thorough evaluation of the content had been conducted, and the full consequences of  releasing the news carefully assessed in light of the Taskgroup’s recommendations. …

Information about the astronomical coordinates of the transmitter should be restricted to the astronomers involved … Even governments … no doubt would also want to take charge.  In my view, however, the less government involvement at the evaluation stage, the better. … Decoding it could take a very long time, perhaps involving years of meticulous work before we had any idea of what we were dealing with. … Most worring of all would be [a message] that merely handed us on a plate a revolutionary item of technology, e.g. a new source of energy, or a technique for engineering designier life forms reliably.  The problem here is that the gorup that possessed the knowledge first would be in a position of incomparable power. … Outright warfare might follow the scamble to grab the information. One can only hope that the aliens would recongnize the dangers and refrain from handing out scientific secretes like sweets.  [pp172-184]

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