Is Humanity Ready for the Discovery of Alien Life?

Most Americans would probably be thrilled to learn extraterrestrials (intelligent or not) exist. Other nationalities beg to differ
By Yasemin Saplakoglu

When ‘Oumuamua, a mysterious interstellar object, swept through our solar system last October, it elicited breathless news stories all asking the obvious question—is it a spaceship? There were no signs it was—although many people seemed to hope otherwise.

Throughout history most strange new cosmic phenomena have made us wonder: Could this be it, the moment we first face alien life? The expectation isn’t necessarily outlandish—many scientists can and do make elaborate, evidence-based arguments that we will eventually discover life beyond the bounds of our planet. To true believers, what may be more uncertain is whether or not such news would cause global panic—which depends on how our minds, so greatly influenced by our Earthly environment and society, would perceive the potential threat of something utterly outside our familiar context.

“There’s this feeling amongst the public—a very large fraction of the public—that the discovery of intelligent life at least would be kept secret by the government because otherwise everybody would just go bonkers,” says Seth Shostak, an astronomer at the SETI Institute who was not involved with the study. Perhaps it might make sense for our brains—tuned by millions of years of evolution to be wary of predators—to freak out over immensely powerful alien beings arriving on our cosmic doorstep from parts unknown.

But let’s say the situation hasn’t gone full “alien invasion” yet and malevolent starships aren’t sailing toward Earth, but rather we have read news of a definitive discovery of extraterrestrial life. How might we react then? Psychologists at Arizona State University (A.S.U.) used language-analyzing software to gauge feelings associated with 15 news articles about past discoveries that could have potentially been attributed to extraterrestrial life—reports covering items such as newfound Earth-like planets, mysterious astrophysical phenomena and possible life found on Mars. The articles used more positive and reward-oriented words than negative and risk-oriented ones, they report in a study published in January in Frontiers in Psychology. Although not in the paper, the team later similarly found articles about ‘Oumuamua skewed positive. They will report those results on Saturday in Austin, Texas, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Story Continues