Is there life beyond Earth? And how will the human race — specifically our media — react if there is? Civilizations Beyond Earth: Extraterrestrial Life and Society, which will be released as a paperback this month, is a collection of essays that address the (plausible) possibility that we are not alone in the universe. If that is true, and if we do one day make contact — wonders contributor Morris Jones — how will news outlets portray such an event? And will that lead to worldwide awe or global panic?
Let’s assume that evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial life is discovered tomorrow.
It would be one of the greatest events in human history. Most people would regard it as good news. But there’s a potential problem. Even if the extraterrestrials can communicate with us, can our own Earthbound media effectively communicate the discovery to the human race?
There’s a paradox within our high-tech information society. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is getting stronger and smarter at a rapid pace. New equipment, computers, algorithms, and scientific practices have transformed SETI from a tiny niche project into a mature and exciting frontier of contemporary science. SETI scientists have eagerly anticipated the day when they can release news of their discovery to the world, but in recent years, the mass media has undergone a catastrophic transformation. Economic problems and technological revolutions have eroded serious journalism for the past decade, producing a strange media environment that cannot accurately report on the world immediately around it.
Expecting clear, accurate and fair reporting on worlds beyond would be even more challenging.
The mass media has gutted its capabilities in science reporting, to the extent that some media outlets cannot distinguish between science and quackery. Surveys have revealed that the general public is noticing the overall decline in news media and is switching off, thereby reducing audiences and revenue even further. Thus perpetuates a vicious cycle.
How far will it go?
Every year, more journalists are fired and more cutbacks are made to news delivery. The news media grows weaker and more susceptible to mistakes and outright trickery. The potential for misreporting on SETI, or just about anything else, is increasing. The rise of social media, which is largely unedited and almost anarchic, adds to the potential for bad stories, or damaging rumours, to go “viral.”
A whole industry has built up around public relations and media strategies for companies and individuals. This is hard enough when the state of the media is adequately known, but an analyst who dares to comment on media strategies for a SETI discovery faces greater challenges. We don’t know when a discovery will be made. Given the rapid changes taking place in the media, we don’t even know what the media will be like when the great event finally happens. We are trying to plot a course on terrain that shifts and cannot be mapped.
Members of the SETI community spend a lot of time wondering how the human race will react to a SETI discovery. This is vital work. It’s also important to factor the actions of the media into these predictions, as the media will be the main provider of information about a discovery to almost everyone who will learn of it.
Would a SETI discovery be good or bad news? To a large extent, it will depend on how our increasingly dysfunctional media outlets choose to present it.
Morris Jones, PhD, is an Australian space analyst and writer, whose work ranges from advanced technical reports on SETI to children’s books. He is the author of several books on astrobiology and space exploration, including Is There Life beyond Earth?, Out of This World, The Adventure of Mars, The New Moon Race, and When Men Walked on the Moon. His articles have been published in The Bulletin, SpaceDaily.com, and Novosti Kosmonautikii.
Civilizations Beyond Earth was first published in September 2011. The collection was edited by Douglas A. Vakoch and Albert Harrison.
Douglas A. Vakoch is Professor in the Department of Clinical Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, as well as Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute. He serves as Chair of both the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) Study Group on Interstellar Message Construction and the IAA Study Group on Active SETI: Scientific, Technical, Societal, and Legal Dimensions. His books include Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (CETI), Psychology of Space Exploration: Contemporary Research in Historical Perspective, and Ecofeminism and Rhetoric: Critical Perspectives on Sex, Technology, and Discourse.
Albert A. Harrison is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Davis. In addition to researching the societal dimensions of astrobiology and SETI, he studies human adaptation to spaceflight and spaceflight-analogous environments. His books include After Contact: The Human Response to Extraterrestrial Life; Starstruck: Cosmic Visions in Science, Religion, and Folklore; Spacefaring: The Human Dimension; Living Aloft: Human Requirements for Extended Spaceflight; and From Antarctica to Outer Space: Life in Isolation and Confinement.
Download Douglas Vakoch’s talk “How Do We Explain Aesthetics to Extraterrestrial Civilizations” from The Main Public Broadcasting Network.