Trending Science: What if we’re not alone? New study suggests how humanity could respond to the discovery of alien life

A new study has shown that if we human beings discovered that we’re not alone in the universe, we would probably take this earth-shattering news actually rather well.

Your writer is a huge science-fiction fan, lapping up everything from Isaac Asimov’s ‘Foundation’ series, to ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Star Wars’, and even that seminal overly-patriotic 1990s alien invasion disaster masterpiece (author’s word choice) ‘Independence Day’. So if it was announced today, tomorrow, or next week that we’re not alone in the universe, he thinks he would take it rather well.

Of course, this is rather a subjective belief and the response to alien life would be dictated by the circumstances in which alien life was discovered – finding out that there are alien microbes living on one of Jupiter’s moons or a far-off exoplanet (by far the most likely scenario for discovering extraterrestrial life) is a completely different kettle of fish from one of our telescopes discovering an advanced alien fleet speeding towards Earth to conquer and/or exterminate us.

However, a new study published in the journal ‘Frontiers in Psychology’ and conducted by psychologists at Arizona State University (A.S.U.) has used language-analysing 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 exoplanets, mysterious astrophysical phenomena and possible life found on Mars. Their conclusion? Actually, the public at large would be rather upbeat if confronted by breaking news confirming the existence of extraterrestrial life.

The researchers started with a preliminary contextual analysis, measuring the reactions to news that extraterrestrial life might exist. They included five primary ‘discovery’ events: the 1967 discovery of pulsars, the 1977 “Wow!” signal, the 1996 discovery of fossilised microbes on Mars, the 2015 discovery of Tabby’s star, and the 2017 discovery of exoplanets in the habitable zone of a star.

They analysed news coverage, government memos and press releases of the event to determine the percentage of words in each article that were positive, negative, reward or risk. Words describing positive effect were more prevalent that those describing negative effect. Their preliminary findings suggested that society’s overall reaction to news about alien life was positive, and more reward-oriented. No mass panic anywhere to be found it seems.

They then asked 504 people to respond to a hypothetical situation: Imagine scientists just discovered microbial life outside of Earth. They were told to describe their reactions, as well as the reactions of other people. Again, people tended to be more positive. They repeated the experiment with a more concrete example: ‘New York Times’ coverage of Bill Clinton’s 1996 announcement about Martian life, or Craig Venter’s 2010 announcement about synthetic life. Once again, alien life was viewed in a positive light, in fact in a more positive light than news about the creation of synthetic life.

Of course, contextual analysis of hypothetical situations and past events can’t necessarily predict what will actually happen if we confirm life off the planet. But President Clinton’s announcement 22 years ago is about as good of a test case as any, and its ultimate effect on the world was a relatively ‘meh’ response. “It didn’t cause a radical shift in the way people lived their lives. It didn’t cause people to abandon anything,” commented team leader Prof Michael Varnum. “Human beings have been through pretty powerful paradigm shifts, from not being at the centre of the universe to Darwin’s evolution. In the past, people would be afraid of them. But the notion that a discovery like this will destabilise anything, as it turns out, is kind of silly.”

Varnum’s study only focused on American participants, so it’s reasonable to say that if alien life is discovered, other nationalities may not take the news quite so lightly. Our brains are wired with ancient circuits to defend us against predators. But as we navigate through the world, experience can also shape what we come to accept or to fear and how open we are to novelty. “If you look at societies that are much less open and much more xenophobic and so on, they might perceive [finding extraterrestrial life] as much more negative and unsettling,” says Israel Liberzon, a professor of psychiatry, psychology and neuroscience at the University of Michigan who was not part of the study.

Indeed, whilst Varnum’s study is illuminating, we cannot assume that an American, a Frenchman, a Russian and a Chinese person would react in the same manner when confronted with many everyday situations here on Earth, let alone the discovery of extraterrestrial life. Cultural, social and historical factors would certainly be crucial in how each separate Earth society would take, absorb and process the news.

Would it be a collective ‘meh’ from humanity or a response substantially more society-shaking? For now, this question is still mostly for science-fiction authors to address.

But in the meantime, the search continues…

last modification: 2018-03-01

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