So you find aliens, then what?

The SETI Protocols were conceived in the 1980s as procedures for individuals or organizations to follow while performing radio searches for extraterrestrial intelligence. A subset of the protocols, the “Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence”, provides the guidelines that should be followed after the detection of extraterrestrial intelligence. It was initially adopted in 1989 and revised in 2010 (albeit, the SETI Institute only references the old protocols). As stated in the cover letter, the protocols were adopted by various institutions including:

the Board of Trustees of the Academy and also by the Board of Directors of the International Institute of Space Law […] it was endorsed by the Committee on Space Research, by the International Astronomical Union, by the members of Commission J of the Union Radio Scientifique Internationale, and by the International Astronautical Federation

This marked the first attempt to address the concern of what to do if SETI made an unambiguous detection of extraterrestrial intelligence. Gertz states, in his recent discussion of SETI protocols, the principles from the original protocol can be distilled to three broad tenets:

  1. SETI should be conducted transparently;
  2. a detection should be followed by observations and adhere to rigorous confirmatory procedures; and
  3. all parties must refrain from transmitting a response without authorization from a broadly representative body, such as the Security Council of the United Nations.

The revised protocol states SETI searches should be “conducted transparently, and its practitioners [may] present reports on activities and results in public and professional fora [and] be responsive to news organizations and other public communications media about their work”. This explicitly addresses the prevalence of the internet and social media in sharing information and fomenting misinformation. It is an attempt to mitigate the hijacking of the scientific narrative behind any SETI search. The other addition discusses how to handle evidence and confirm a detection. It makes a direct reference to the Rio Scale (SETI-ists have updated this, paper in preparation). The Rio Scale was developed as a suitable tool for assessing the plausibility of detection signal and gauge the impact such an announcement would have on the public. While the Rio Scale may be under debate (one of the original proponents of the Rio Scale now favors the London Scale and there are other blogs debating its use), it attempts to give scientists a tool to mitigate the subjective nature regarding plausibility. As NASA no longer funds SETI, the primary purpose of this protocol is to ensure the detection is real and mitigate misinformation.

The protocols are not perfect (see Tarter’s take in Movie 1) and have come under criticism. Some have argued social media have made the protocols useless. Others have sensationalized the topic. Gertz has questioned the feasibility of enforcement, noting that while “Western SETI scientists” laws protecting them, it might not be the case elsewhere. Gertz has a nihilistic view on treaties with no legal reparations against individuals or entities who do not adhere to the protocol. He contemplates the need to restrict access to information and would like to see the legal provisions backing future SETI protocols and a complete ban of METI. He is also unaware that publications mentioning restricted access to detections only fuel the conspiracy theorists that the government is trying to cover-up the existence of alien life. Gertz ignores the fact that his view of the protocols appears counterintuitive to his interest in SETI. If one truly does believe SETI/METI pose an imminent danger and warrant militant regulation, then why should anyone do SETI? This blogger views both SETI/METI as benign activities that can improve their scientific standing if the protocols are followed. If not, the age of social media will most likely make a spectacle of any detections and render moot what little credibility SETI/METI. The protocols are still lacking and should be revised to explicitly address the dangers of social media, but the attempt to maximize transparency is important in a field sullied with conspiracies, dubious claims, and distorted facts.

Movie 1. Jill Tarter on Post-detection Protocols
If the SETI Institute detects a signal from extraterrestrial life, what happens next? SETI director Jill Tarter explains the protocol for such a situation. She makes a passing reference to the protocols discussed in this blog.