Saturday, December 15, 2007

First, do no harm

Whether active SETI is a danger (via Slashdot) is something that has long been debated inside the SETI community, but late last year the debate boiled over into the public arena after the Nature published an editorial scolding the SETI community for failing to conduct an open discussion on the risks of actively transmitting high powered signals.

Image curtsey of Seed Magazine.
The Interstellar Rosetta Stone

Of course one of the reasons the SETI community has been avoiding the debate is that, through long and bitter experience, they know they need to keep their heads down. With the Proxmire era well and truely behind them, the past few years have almost been a golden age for the SETI community, with public perception of SETI very much changed, they still feel the cold wind of unrespectability on their necks.

The arrival of major private funding, notably the Allen Telescope Array paid for by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, has lent an air of respectability that perhaps has been lacking in the past. However the notions of Active SETI is, in popular perception at least, still intertwined with the notions of UFOs and the main-stream SETI community really doesn't want to get sucked into that quagmire. They just don't want to be seen as cranks.

But despite the poor reputation the field has had in the past, it's always been viewed as basically harmless. Low capital and operational costs, along with some fringe benefits such as detailed microwave maps of the sky, mean that the field was fairly inoffensive. After all, it can't hurt just to listen, can it?

Of course the the SETI community have been listening for a long time, and they haven't found anything yet. Perhaps because of the increased funding and the improvement of the public perception of the field, the amount of frustration at that lack has increased to match. Because of this frustration perhaps, METI, or active SETI, is starting to be viewed more favourably especially in the former Soviet Republics.

METI pursues not a local, but a more global purpose – to overcome the Great Silence in the Universe, bringing to our extraterrestrial neighbors the long-expected annunciation “You are not alone!” - Alexander Zaitsev

Of course the roots of active SETI go back a long way, all the way back to the Frank Drake, most famous for the Drake equation, and the Arecibo message in 1974.

The main arguement against active SETI is that its proponents are no longer doing science, they're playing with politics,

Let’s be clear about this. Active SETI is not scientific research. It is a deliberate attempt to provoke a response by an alien civilization whose capabilities, intentions, and distance are not known to us. That makes it a policy issue. - Michael Michaud, SETI League

Carl Sagan, one of the greatest SETI supporters and a deep believer in the notion of altruistic alien civilizations, called such a move deeply unwise and immature. - David Brin

If aliens are so advanced and altruistic... and yet are choosing to remain silent... should we not consider following their example and doing likewise? At least for a little while? Is it possible that they are silent because they know something we don't know? - David Brin

Which seems, at least to me, to be a telling blow. In the long term being silent and listening hard for the next fifty years or so won't make a lot of difference. But the increasing strident cries of the birth of our civilisation are equivalent to us shouting into the darkness "Here we are, look at us...", and that seems a dangerous course of action. All the more so because the proponents of Active SETI refuse to consult with either the astronomical or diplomatic communities. Instead they take it upon themselves to speak for humanity.

First, do no harm...