Updates to the Prime Directive, I mean the First Protocol

In 1989 then later in 2010, a group of SETI-ists agreed to a list of protocols for how a detection should be handled. The list is nicely summarized by Gertz 2017 as:

(a) SETI shall be conducted transparently; (b) a detection should be followed by rigorous confirmatory procedues and follow up observations; and (c) everyone must refrain from transmitting a response without authorization from a broadly representative body

Forgan & Schulz 2016 found this document a bit lacking, and made suggestions for updates. Their main complaint was that this document did not really take into consideration the current methods for spreading information, mainly social media. Before ~2008, news spread via word of mouth, newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. There were a few chain emails going around, but these channels were basically all there was. Then came the launching of facebook, twitter, instagram. The world now communicates in a different way and at a faster pace than it did ten years ago. Forgan & Schulz were correct to suggest updates to the document. Although the First Protocol isn’t outdated per se, it is missing information that is now critical.

The authors keep to the original protocols summarized above, but expand to include social media and microblogging. In actuality, they suggest that scientists keep the public updated via whatever medium is popular at the time. For example, they suggest that scientists maintain an online account of news and updates in the form or a blog, tweets, and video blogging. They continue with the thought of transparency by saying that these updates should be detailed and include everything about the experiment and any criteria for detections. To avoid looking like fools, scientists should develop and maintain communication and media skills and establish “competence and trustworthiness” before any detection is announced. They should also be leery of their online footprint to keep themselves safe from any backlash.

If scientists believe they have found a detection, it should be published in a peer-review journal, and their data should be hosted online somewhere easy to find. The publication should be clearly worded, transparent, as to the authors’ confidence in their signal, and “an acknowledgement that until proved otherwise, the tentative signal should be assumed to be caused by natural or human-made phenomena.” (although Tabby’s star showed us that even such statements can simply be ignored when aliens are involved). The authors should then become and remain active in a global conversation regarding this potential discovery that goes beyond their colleagues and includes multiple disciplines.

Forgan & Schulz close their paper by saying that, if the detection is confirmed, the scientists should be committed to talk about this detection for the rest of their lives. Before they discuss this, though, they mention that, if the detection cannot be confirmed, the test “must publish a statement clearly stating that the signal cannot be confirmed to be of ETI origin.” While I generally agree with all of the statements the authors make, I completely and whole-heartedly agree with this one. I feel a lot of people are scared of losing face, and some might not want to give the world this update, that the signal cannot be confirmed. But it is a very important part of science, to acknowledge any short-comings of a discovery, and should be pursued even if there is potential backlash.

Before reading this paper (and then Gertz’s paper and then the First Protocol), I had never thought about what protocol SETI scientists or scientists in general should follow, and any thoughts I might have had probably would not have included such a public online footprint. But I agree with the authors that transparency (which requires being public and clear about everything) is key to any announcement related to SETI, a field that has been disregarded as psuedo-science for the last few decades but a field in which any positive discovery would change the world.