Monday, July 21, 2014

Extraterrestrial Contact: Respecting Human Institutions


Direct First Contact, where representatives of an extraterrestrial civilization travel to our solar system, would provide many challenges. Security would likely be the first and foremost concern for humans.  A threat to security could come in the form of armed action. This is the scenario we most often dwell upon. But another threat is possible:  manipulation, and in dire circumstances, it could be just as harmful.

As we all know, the human civilization is really a conglomeration of cultures, nations and alliances. At best, it can be a complex system. And at worse, the divisions lead to conflict and war. The divisions could provide an opportunity for an outside agent to manipulate humans. An extraterrestrial with an agenda could side with one nation or group of nations to better accomplish their goals. That could create a dangerous situation on Earth, as countries or groups of countries compete for extraterrestrial favors. What would we give up if there were to be some sort of technological information bidding war? How much would a clean, renewable and robust energy source be worth? Would you give up your autonomy for it? Considering such technology could make a nation dominant on Earth, it might be a trade some leaders would consider.

But manipulation doesn’t have to be that drastic. It could also be done in a much more stealthy manner. An extraterrestrial representative could decide to throw humans into conflict, to weaken them. That could be done behind the scenes and without much notice. Divided humans would be much easier to control.

That’s why I think humans must demand and fight for control of any First Contact situation. Humans must make sure that our institutions are not manipulated. That means that we need to speak forcefully and with one voice. Setting ground rules, immediately in the aftermath of a First Contact event, would be essential. Those rules could be revised later, according to need. But at first we would need to be cautious and protective of our human institutions and our human way of doing things.

Am I suggesting that humans, left to their own devices, would be able to handle First Contact with aplomb and dignity? Well, probably not. While we cold hope for such a reaction, the reality would probably be messy and full of conflict. But that is how humans operate. Everything in our lives in complicated. We make plenty of mistakes on the road to progress.

Humans need to be human. We need to have the room for a debate about how to proceed After First Contact. That debate needs to be free from extraterrestrial influence. It is a human message that would need to be delivered with one voice. Always one united voice when speaking to outsiders. And then, here at home, we can splinter into our usual conflicted alliances.

Join the conversation on the Alien First Contact Facebook page.


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Extraterrestrial Contact: A Planetary Call to Action


We tend to imagine alien First Contact as a matter of what aliens will do to us. We usually ignore the bigger question: what will we do in response to the aliens? Aside from the Hollywood cliché war spectaculars, there is actually some thought that should be put into the subject. Why? The human reaction is the only thing we could control in an extraterrestrial First Contact event. 
 
I’ll avoid the hostile, self-defense scenarios and instead focus this piece on a particular scenario. What do we do if friendly aliens say hello? There are a myriad of possible ways that it could occur. But generally, let’s say it is high information, direct First Contact. That basically means we have the ability to have a conversation with the extraterrestrials. To do such, in the context of our current knowledge of science, would require that the aliens or a probe perhaps, be in our celestial neighborhood.


I’ve written plenty of blogs on this topic, but I now believe there is one important element that I have left out: the need for a planetary call to action. To prepare for such an event we need to recognize that each and every one of us would have some basic responsibilities in First Contact. You may say, no not me…that’s something for the scientists and politicians to worry about. As important as the role of scientists and world leaders would be in First Contact, your role, as a member of your society, is also quite important. Why? It comes down to the dynamics of reaction. I think that scientists, world leaders, military leaders, the news media, religious leaders, corporate leaders and institutional leaders will all have important roles. But technically, all of those people are supposed to represent you, in one way or another. They will certainly be following public reaction closely and taking cues. Mass hysteria will provoke certain reactions. A calm, thoughtful citizenry will bring about more measured responses.


Each human needs to realize that they would have a role to play in a First Contact event. What would we need to do? Here’s a short list:


Focus on facts: it would be easy for us to be scared and let our imaginations run wild in the initial hours, days and weeks after First Contact. We need to stick to the facts.


Beware of rumors and fiction: even if we can control our own imaginations, there will be those who will not be able to. They will take to the internet, and anywhere else they can spout off, to spread rumors and outright lies.


Beware of scare tactics by fringe groups: some people will spread rumors and fiction to further their own particular agenda.


Beware of inaccuracies. And remember that the most dangerous inaccuracies are the ones that have a grain of truth.


Think critically, act thoughtfully: evaluate the source of whatever information you are receiving. Just because it’s a relative or someone you usually trust, doesn’t mean that they are correct.


Listen to scientists, but realize that scientists have opinions as well. Trust research based opinions.


We owe this to future generations. This is a tremendous responsibility for those of us in this bridge generation…those who knew life before first contact, those who witnessed first contact and helped to set the path forward. That path would be critical for the human race in the wake of First Contact.


I also suggest a call to action for the media, scientists, civic leaders, corporations and institutions. It’s quite similar:


Don’t allow speculation to run rampant.


Don’t chase rumors just because it will boost your ratings. This is one of those times that the media will need to realize a role so much more important than the daily competition. It’s a media reaction we often see in the United States in the immediate wake of disaster. We need the sober, cautious and thoughtful media that we saw in the days after the 9/11 attacks in the United States. And in extended First Contact scenario we would need that media for some time.


Explain and provide perspective.


Calm the public and provide reassurances.


Be cautious.


Be thoughtful.


Listen to scientists, but realize that scientists have opinions as well. Trust research based opinions.


Don’t try to control first contact for national or other self-interest.


Am I expecting too much out of humans? I don’t think so. We’re extraordinarily adaptable. If we pull together and use our heads, First Contact could be an amazing experience. If we don’t, the aliens may be the least of our worries.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Extraterrestrial Contact: A Nudge for Humanity

 
I have presented many reasons for why an extraterrestrial civilization may not want to contact humans. One of them is an old idea, made popular in TV show Star Trek: the Prime Directive. The concept is simple: don’t use your advanced technology to influence a developing civilization. Any alien civilization capable of traveling to our solar system would have technology far more advanced than ours. If they introduced us to alien science, religion and philosophy, we would not develop in the same way as we would if we made our own scientific discoveries and had our own cultural evolutions. Even worse, with our scientific muscles taken out of action, we would not truly be developing our own science. At some point, without alien assistance, we could be helpless.

Visiting aliens with a concern for such matters would have a few options when coming to our solar system. They could avoid us entirely, or perhaps just watch from afar. If they did decide to make contact with humans they could simply say hello and very little else. They may also be able to share their own history, without giving up scientific principles. There are risks involved for the aliens. If you can’t share much with humans, you could just end up making us mad.

Why would aliens even bother? The best reason to say hello could be to give us a nudge in the right direction. The human civilization is fragile. There are many ways we could falter and die-off. Some of those ways are natural disasters, such as a massive meteorite hitting the Earth or a gigantic volcanic eruption. Global warming is our own doing. Scientists have shown that through fossil fuel emissions we are creating greenhouse gases. Those gases are altering our atmosphere and the effects could be dramatic in coming years. And yet we have done little to act. There is still a great debate. It’s hard to ask people to sacrifice now for a problem that won’t fully impact us for another few decades.

We could really use a nudge.

I know that’s a lot to ask of extraterrestrials. But it could be a unifying moment for humanity. If outsiders viewed our situation as dire, then perhaps we would finally take action. Is that interference that would violate the Prime Directive? Perhaps. The best solution for solving global warming will be our own. But a nudge doesn’t have to give us the solution. It could merely point out the problem. Could we handle such a thing? Would we be incensed to know that critical aliens have the knowledge to solve our problems, but refuse to do so for our own good? Perhaps. But a kick in the pants can sometimes go a long way. I think we would eventually be able to understand the alien reasoning and be at peace with the decision, and hopefully with a better atmospheric outlook to show for it.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Extraterrestrial Contact: Are We Educated Enough?


It’s a central question when it comes to extraterrestrial contact: are humans ready for such an event? Dr. Gabriel de la Torre of the University of Cadiz in Spain is one of a handful of researchers who have attempted to answer the question through research. His answer is simple: no. 
 
De la Torre did a survey of 166 university students in America, Italy and Spain. They were asked general questions about their religious beliefs and their knowledge of cosmology. They were also asked about their beliefs in regards to First Contact. De la Torre has published the results in his paper “Toward a new cosmic consciousness: Psychoeducational aspects of contact with extraterrestrial civilizations.”


It’s always a disappointment not to have access to the full paper. But as usual, it’s an Acta Astronautica publication and there is no free view available. I found out about the study via the Universe Today. 
It’s an interesting topic for a neuro-psychologist to explore. De la Torre concludes that due to a poor understanding of the science of the cosmos, the university students would end up relying on political and religious figures to mediate their response to First Contact. The report recommends that we do not attempt to contact extraterrestrials, because we are not ready. De la Torre concludes that education is the key to preparation.

I can understand the concern that Dr. De la Torre has in regards to mediators. An uneducated public could be easily swayed by fear messaging. Given the human condition, it does seem likely that politicians, religious groups and other organizations might spin First Contact in a way that gives them more power.


I think the only antidote to this problem would be an active and aggressive news media. If First Contact does indeed happen someday, the media will be critical in relaying information and providing perspective. Now, many folks involved in this subject matter have worries about how the media might handle First Contact. Those are legitimate concerns. One need only look to the CNN coverage of the search for Malaysian Flight 370. The speculation and hyperbole have been excessive and quite frankly, rather stupid. But it brings up an important point. The most dangerous situation in any media event is a lack of information. Speculation comes about when there is a mystery. The longer the mystery, the worse the speculation can become. I have called this phenomenon an information vacuum. It’s a big part of crisis communications. A crisis communicator must work quickly to provide facts, so that people don’t fill in the gaps with speculation.


How would this work in First Contact? I think the key is to have a well-considered plan for contact. And this is where it gets complicated. I don’t mean a plan for humans, but rather for aliens wishing to make contact with us. They would have to consider human crisis communication issues and have a plan to respond in a way that obviates the dangers inherent in high-stress situations. People assume that aliens would be so different from us that such considerations would be impossible. I think this is a naïve view. One would imagine that an extraterrestrial civilization with the technology needed to contact humans would also have the ability to study us, perhaps via the internet, if they had a probe of some sort. That research would be critical. But everything needed to plan a thoughtful, and hopefully successful, First Contact event is available on the internet. Would it take time to learn our languages, examine human psychology and understand sociology? Certainly. But if you are an alien civilization with advanced technology, you are used to doing the hard work, in whatever context that means for your particular extraterrestrial perspective. There would be no advantage in a hasty and poorly-prepared First Contact with humans, no matter what the agenda. I think aliens interested in contacting humans would likely prepare well.


How best to approach humans and how to make sure such a First Contact event is successful is a matter that could be studied today, using research and knowledge that humans have already collected. The human response has nothing to do with aliens. It has everything to do with human behavior.


Ultimately, I don’t agree with Dr. De la Torre, if his comments in the popular media are in fact representative of his paper. I think humans are ready. But the process is the key. Scientists must be front and center in the media, providing perspective and calming fears. Attempts by politicians and religious leaders to spin the situation for their own interests must be called out by the media, scientists and more enlightened leaders. In the end, the type of First Contact would be what could decide human reaction. All of these factors must be considered and unfortunately for us, it’s up to the aliens to do the work on the front end. Once the ball is rolling we will need to be ready, but I don’t think education will get us there. Now, I agree with Dr. De la Torre that an educated human population would be best. But we have everything in human society that we need to accomplish a positive First Contact right now. Those components just need to be used properly.

Join the conversation on the Alien First Contact Facebook page.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Extraterrestrial: Human Social Dynamics Post-First Contact

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Humans join together in a variety of ways. The interactions and inevitable conflicts between those groups are the provenance of sociology. Social structure and individual agency are the principles of the study. While this may seem like a stretch now for consideration in the area of interaction with extraterrestrial intelligence, I think it could become one of the most important areas for study should alien First Contact ever occur.

There are very few social scientists considering such human social ramifications in the wake of First Contact. Douglas Vakoch of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California has written and edited a number of works on the subject of human interaction with extraterrestrials. While much of his work is centered on the concept of human messaging, he has gone further afield to consider the consequences of alien interaction on human society.

In a most basic sense, we can go back to Social Network Analysis to see how the power of relationships joins humans together. That web of group affiliations can grow larger and larger, eventually impacting politics, governance, economy and science. Group behavior would be extremely important in the wake of First Contact, because different groups will react to alien contact, well, differently. For some groups First Contact could pose a threat. Other groups could see opportunity. We can try to imagine some of these scenarios. Some religious groups could feel that First Contact is a threat to their religious beliefs or a sign of apocalypse. Business networks could see a potential for new scientific information that could lead to new technology and thus economic opportunity. Institutions could feel threatened in terms of their involvement in alien contact. The leaders of smaller nations may feel like they will be left out, as the super powers move in to control alien contact.

Such possibilities consider what we already know of our society. In plain fact, because we have nothing to compare to the impact of First Contact, there may be the development of new social groups and networks that arise from the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence. How great these changes could be seems to depend on the amount of information traded between humans and extraterrestrials. A large amount of information trading could bring great change. While little information, or much more likely, slow information trading (especially if we are communicating across the vastness of space) would bring lesser change.

No matter what the case, the impact of extraterrestrial contact to human social networks is important, because it will decide how humans react to First Contact and what actions humans take. Do we react in fear and try to hide from extraterrestrial intelligence? Do we react with great joy and attempt as much interaction as possible? It seems likely this will be a significant conflict.

Why worry about this now, since we have absolutely no evidence that extraterrestrial intelligence exists and that such alien societies would have the technology needed to communicate with us? Speculation about what conflicts might arise in the wake of First Contact provide a road map that can be used to help develop a cohesive plan of reaction. If we have considered what conflicts might exist and how to better mediate those conflicts, we will have taken an important step to ensuring that humans get the best possible result from alien contact.

It’s time that we move beyond the shallow special effects of Hollywood depictions of alien contact and begin to consider more pertinent matters. What will we do and how will we do it? These matters may decide the fate of humanity for hundreds of years after First Contact.

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Monday, March 10, 2014

Extraterrestrial Contact: Now

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--> Okay, extraterrestrials, let’s go for it. Here’s my argument for First Contact with humans occurring now and not later.


One: We could use the help. I’m not talking about humans acquiring alien technology or great knowledge. Those things could easily undermine our society. As I have argued in the past, the best work is difficult. Difficult scientific advancement yields all sorts of benefits. By help, in regard to First Contact, I’m simply talking about a change in perspective. Some of us are pretty damn comfortable down here. We’re fine with tootling around in our inefficient and environmentally damaging cars. We don’t mind piling up dangerous waste or contaminating the oceans. We’re okay with having one-eighth of humans living chronically under-nourished. And the people who are the most comfortable are the ones who are making the decisions.



I’m not suggesting that we would want to change our civilization to meet alien expectations. We could simply use the reminder that it’s a big universe out there and we need to take care of home. That means caring for our planet and for other humans. We need to view our civilization from the outside and then decide how we want to proceed. It may sound strange, but I think knowing that an extraterrestrial intelligence is out there would help us better understand ourselves.

Two: We can handle it. There are many scientific studies that show how humans might react to First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. For the most part, people seem to be up to the challenge. Surveys show that people would view such an event with wonder and not much fear. Clearly, that depends on the event being peaceful and well-planned. Our religions have already begun a process of assimilating ideas of extraterrestrial intelligence into their framework.


Three: Our institutions can handle it. Governments work together in ways not imaginable even thirty years ago. Sure, there is still plenty of conflict in the world. But we have linkages now that could help us handle an alien First Contact event. The United Nations is probably the one that comes to mind first. However, scientific associations, world economic groups and even religions are robust and international in our modern world. Individual governments are relatively stable. There are certainly disturbing trouble spots across the world. But the largest nations are working together economically, diplomatically and culturally.



Four: We have the scientific foundation. This is a real leap on my part. Not knowing anything about extraterrestrial intelligence (and that includes whether it even exists) makes it tough to assert that humans could handle interaction with aliens from a scientific standpoint. Still, we have come a long way in recent decades. Theoretical physics and astrophysics have made great achievements in recent years. Our understanding of the biological world grows daily. Most importantly, we have begun to consider extraterrestrial life in a scientific way through astrobiology. Even social scientists have jumped into the fray with studies of human response to extraterrestrial contact.


Five: We have the technology. Communication technology connects the great majority of humanity. A dramatic First Contact event (as I have proposed here) would be able to reach most of humanity in a matter of minutes. The only thing holding back such news would be human editorial gatekeepers. The technology itself is simply the flick of a switch and the push of a button. This would allow all of humanity to be involved in First Contact. It would also allow aliens the ability to frame their own message, without a reliance on individual governments of institutions.

Speculation is grand and I could go on for some time. I’m not suggesting that aliens are out there waiting to say hello. There is certainly no evidence of such. But if aliens do decide to make contact, I think we’re as ready as we will ever be. There would be plenty of problems and challenges along the way. Human fringe groups could cause significant short-term issues. But in the long-term, I think that peaceful and well-considered extraterrestrial contact would be beneficial to humans and to the future of our civilization.


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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Extraterrestrial Contact: The Outsider Perspective

I think there’s something to be gained from thinking outside the human box. It’s tough to do- everything we know is from the human perspective. At the very least, though, I think we can try to view our current society from an outsider perspective. It may provide some small insight into how extraterrestrials might view us if we ever make alien contact. By taking a critical view of our own society, essentially an outsider’s view, we might get a better indication of how an extraterrestrial civilization may view us.

I recently watched the movie “12 Years a Slave.” It is an unflinching view of American slavery that is in equal measures powerful and horrifying. The audience during my viewing, many of them African-American, gasped and cried out. A few folks even had to walk out during some of the more brutal scenes. Slavery is reviled in most segments of human society now. It still exists in some nations and underground on the black market. Still, much has changed in the last 150 years.

Every generation has something to regret: WW II atrocities for the Germans and Japanese, segregation, and apartheid, to name just a few. These, as with slavery, were supported widely throughout society at the time and ingrained institutionally. That begs the question: what do we support as a society currently that might be viewed negatively in future generations? Perhaps the inequitable treatment of women; homophobia; the poor treatment of animals; the use of environmentally damaging machines and technology; or our refusal to respond to global warming evidence? Clearly, this list is from my perspective. Your perspective could be very different. An extraterrestrial perspective would likely be very, very different. One would imagine that extraterrestrials would find many things flawed about our society. They may also see strengths that we might not even recognize as such.

Some of these concepts are easier for us to understand now than others. Environmental damage, while a matter of debate, is a concern for many on the planet. The treatment of animals interests me because it takes us out of the anthropocentric human perspective. Aliens could view dolphins and whales as equal with humans. We may be the dominate species, but that doesn’t mean aliens would necessarily side with us. The documentary "Blackfish" is a pointed message. The primary goal of the movie is to show how humans are doing animals a great injustice. It follows the SeaWorld capture and confinement of killer whales. I dare anyone to watch the documentary and not feel a sense of wrong when the whales are initially separated from their pod in the wild. What would aliens think of this? How would they view the slaughter of cows and pigs? Sure, this is just speculation, so you could argue that they might think such activities were great. I think there is value, though, in taking a critical look at who we are and what we do as a society, certainly for our own sake, but also to consider how outsiders might view us. It’s better to have pondered such things than to be blindsided if First Contact with extraterrestrials does occur someday.

What do you think? Join me on the Alien First Contact Facebook page.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Extraterrestrial Contact: The Argument Against Common Extraterrestrial Intelligence


Many of us are excited by the planetary discoveries in other star systems that have become so frequent recently, thanks to the hard work of dedicated researchers and some amazing technology.  These discoveries have led to an increasing number of possibly habitable planets. Even more exciting- what about the chances of intelligent life existing elsewhere in the universe? We would like to extrapolate the number of possibly habitable planets to support an argument that it increases the chances of intelligent life in the universe.

There are those who would like to throw cold water on this speculation and they often provide very good reasons for skepticism. One of the more interesting arguments recently ties a popular social theory to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. 

Dr. Michael West is the director of the Maria Mitchell Observatory in Massachusetts. He points out, in a recent USA Today column, that the Peter Principle might apply to the chances of extraterrestrial life occurring in the universe. The Peter Principle, as originally put forth by author Laurence Peter, says that humans rise to the level of their incompetence. If this is taken to an evolutionary level, could humans be at the apex of our competence and soon to fall due to our incompetence, in areas such as environment and warfare?

The danger of civilizations collapsing due to technology (or rather, a lack of control of technology) has been suggested for years. Given our dire set of circumstances (global warming and nuclear weaponry) it is quite possible that there is some sort of technology ceiling, that when reached, leads to catastrophic collapse of that civilization, and thus preventing the civilization from becoming more technologically advanced than humans.

This argument comes down to one big question: will humans be able to solve our current technological problems, create new technology to fix our mistakes and continue to move forward, perhaps one day turning into a space-faring civilization.

Human resilience is an amazing thing. Humans overcome all sorts of challenges in life. It’s something we notice individually and resilience can be seen on a larger level. Think how quickly Europe and Japan came back from the devastation of World War Two.  Of course, there are many instances of civilizations disappearing, for one reason or another.

Does the Peter Principle imply that humans are headed for catastrophe? I suppose that will be up to future generations to decide.

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Monday, January 13, 2014

Extraterrestrial First Contact: Science Pushes Us Forward

The primary difference between speculation and science is that the scientific process is systematic. Science requires research, experimentation, analysis and communication. The communication part is critical, because it is the step that allows others to review the findings and attempt to replicate the results. In a nutshell- speculation is easy and science is not.

This blog is entirely speculation. I may refer to scientific research, but in the end it is just ideas and ideas are only a starting place. Science pushes and pulls us forward as a species. And it is science that is driving the study of possible extraterrestrial life and intelligence.
It is a much slower process than many of us would hope. The funding is tough to come by, often requiring private donations to sustain the work. Still, brave astrophysicists, astronomers and astrobiologists are getting the work done. They risk professional ridicule and the constant threat of de-funding.

Recently, astrobiologists testified before the U.S House Science Committee. They included Mary Voytek, the NASA Senior Scientist for Astrobiology, Sara Seager, professor of physics and planetary science at M.I.T., and Steven J. Dick,  from the Library of Congress. They agreed on one important point: that life does exist elsewhere in the universe. News that members of Congress are at least willing to hear from scientists about the possibilities of extraterrestrial life is refreshing. Scientists at the SETI Institute in California are carrying out the search for possible intelligent life in the universe. Their work has encountered a number of funding issues over the years. It is Congress that cut the most significant funding in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. It does not seem likely that Congress will restore that government funding any time soon.

Speculation and science fiction are important for engaging our imaginations. But it is science that will move us forward. If you believe in this effort, please support the scientists doing this work. Encourage proper funding for the important work of NASA. Consider a donation to the SETI Institute.

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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Extraterrestrial Contact: More Thoughts on Confusing First Contact

When it comes to extraterrestrial contact speculation there is a disturbing middle ground between the negative First Contact scenarios of alien invasion and the positive scenarios of a welcome into a larger universe. First contact could leave us confused, full of questions and worried.

Confused: Aliens would likely be far different from us. They may have an indecipherable language and an agenda that we could not understand. Unless they were willing to teach us, First Contact could be one confusing set of actions after another.

Full of questions: A lack of explanation about their civilization and intentions would dash our hopes for First Contact. When we speak of contact we are really talking about information. We hope that aliens would teach us new things about the universe. If the aliens can’t communicate or choose not to communicate, we could be left with only questions.

Worried: Any extraterrestrial civilization with the ability for significant space travel would be a threat to humanity. Such ability would show a higher level of technology than ours, and that would suggest that they have the skills needed to build weaponry that we might not be able to match. If we don’t know the intentions of the aliens we would be left with only the possibility of threat.

SETI researchers often warn of this disturbing middle ground in part because most things that humans experience are at first confusing and worrisome. We would like life to be black and white, but as we well know, life is seldom so. Our hopes for a warm and fuzzy First Contact experience and our concern about alien invasion each seem rather unlikely. What is much more likely would be a murky mess that may take years of study to unravel. And even then, there may be very few definitive answers.

Can we handle such uncertainty? Would we spend our time and money building space defenses? Would we become a more cynical society out of constant worry? Perhaps the most important step in the maturity of the human race is not some sweeping step into a wider universe, but merely the ability to handle radical ambiguity? It’s not all sad. Such events could leave us even stronger as a civilization in the long run and perhaps better able to handle the next murky moment.

What do you think? Is this cynicism on my part or a strong possibility should First Contact ever occur. Chime in on the Alien FirstContact Facebook page.