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.

Rio 2.0

The Rio scale first introduced in 2010 by Almár & Tarter to quantify the significance of a potential ET detection. It was named so (Rio) since it was first presented at a conference in Rio de Janeiro. The scale “…was designed for communicating with the public as to ‘how excited’ they should be regarding a signal.” With the initial version (v1.0) of the scale being bound between 0 and 15, v1.1 and the version proposed by Duncan Forgan v2.0 scale between 0 and 10.

With Rio v2.0, the authors of this article seek to provide a quick and objective way to quantify a potential ‘detection’. This calculation examines the ET significance of the signal and if there is a possibility to establish 2 – way communication. Further, this value is convolved with the authenticity of the signal – basically whether the signal can have a potential anthropocentric or instrumental source, if it can be studied / observed again, and potential sources of bias in the detection.

They also provide a web based interface to calculate the score for a discovery by answering a handful of questions (here). I believe such a framework is useful to weed out news of detections which are better to not be proclaimed (example: the Face on Mars). This also helps since any news regarding this field can get sensationalized really easily and hence needs to be ‘curated’ better.


An effort to keep the press from yelling aliens

In Forgan (2018, submitted), an updated version of the Rio scale is proposed and justified.

The Rio scale is a tool for communicating the significance of a signal to the general public. It works by assigning a score from 0-10 to possible SETI discoveries and attaching qualitative descriptions to each of these scores, ranging from insignificant (R=1) to extraordinary (R=10). The score is based on what the scientific and societal consequences of a signal being true would be and the probability the signal real. The authors feel that this scale could do with a revision to make sure its results are more accurate and transparent, especially to the public.

The new (an old) version is split into terms that are calculated by following a decision tree that is presented in the paper. The first (Q) is concerned with the type, distance, possible contents of a potential signal. This term is directly linked to how societally impactful the signal would be. The second term (δ) is concerned with how investigatable the phenomena is and whether the signal is extraterrestrial in origin. δ is calculated using an intermediate J factor. The context for the Q and J values is presented, similar to the manner of the qualitative descriptions for R. A web-based calculator has been coded up for anyone who wants to toy around with it.

It is suggested that these scores be calculated throughout the process of signal analysis, both by the original group and by other groups so that the public can understand the status of the detection as time goes on.

I don’t know if it is because SETI experiments are inherently harder or if it is just much cheaper to work on these “If I were to work on a SETI experiment, I would do it this way” type papers, but this subfield of astronomy seems to spend an inordinate amount of time on this type of material (see search conduction and post-detection protocol papers by Gertz and Forgan). I understand that if a SETI result is found, it will be incredibly impactful, but it hard for me to see a field with such a dearth of experimentation spend its limited time and resources meticulously documenting the few experiments that are being done. I find it more likely that experimenters would work on producing more analysis results than making sure they have updated Rio scores for each step of their experiment.

Gertz really doesn’t like METI

I feel the need to write about Gertz since I didn’t last time, even though his 2016 paper is still my favourite from this class, due to its excessive amounts of sass.  This paper is (unfortunately) less sassy, but still fairly well written. Gertz is arguing for adding and improving regulations to METI. He goes through the current legislation that technically bans or limits METI, and also motivates his call with current events.

For the most part, I agree with Gertz, especially his line “Actions undertaken post-detection, apart from confirmatory observations, are not science, but matters of vital public policy,” because it is completely true and well worded. I would also go to extend this, as Gertz does, that preemptive communication efforts are also policy. I agree that since there is risk to it, and essentially no risk to SETI, that METI should not be done in general, and certainly should not be done without the consent of everyone who can be affected, which is all of mankind. While it is idealist in thinking that we could get everyone in the UN into agreeing to even talk about METI, it should still be put in place that random groups of people with money shouldn’t just be allowed to spew words into space, especially since these words (unfortunately) represent mankind.

What I don’t agree with about Gertz’s paper is his cited motivation for this paper. He mentions numerous times that China has just entered the field of SETI, and that they might not share any information with the world, but instead keep it secret. He states that Russia or the US, upon receiving a signal, might also mark it as Top Secret and refuse to share it with their nation or other nations. He also numerous times mentions Kim Jong Un and adds in ISIS and “religious groups” as individuals that should not be allowed to represent humanity by sending messages. While I agree with this, I think that these examples are too specific and finger-pointy (for lack of a better phrase). They not only date his paper, but also make it seem fairly whiny, conspiratorial, and just yellow the legitimacy of his claims and this call for action. He could have made the same points by saying “countries,” “groups,” or “leaders,” that would have made the paper still relevant in a few years time.

Humanity’s Problem Child: The Internet

Before we dissect the recent craze over aliens in the news, it is important to understand there exist strange phenomena that have not been properly explained. Such events require scrutiny and the application of the scientific method to validate. Lee Billings recently published an article in Scientific American discussing sensational events in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and serves to caution the reader about spurious conclusions with specious data. In the article, Billings has a few sentences that capture the sentiments of this blogger:

Far from being close-minded killjoys, most scientists in the “never aliens” camp desperately want to be convinced otherwise. Their default skeptical stance is a prophylactic against the wiles of wishful thinking, a dare to true believers to provide extraordinary evidence in support of extraordinary claims. What is really extraordinary, the skeptics say, is not so much the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence but rather the notion that its existence nearby or visitation of Earth could be something easily unnoticed or overlooked. If aliens are out there—or even right here—in abundance, particularly ones wildly advanced beyond our state, why would incontrovertible proof of that reality be so annoyingly elusive?

This is especially true in the age of social media where it is easy to scour the underbelly of the internet for a place to validate any claim. For proponents of SETI, who wish to see this field fully embraced by science, any publications and announcements must be well managed. The first topic Billings discusses is KIC 8462852, the star at the center of an “alien megastructure” theory the media latched onto (see Movie 1). The scientists involved began a successful Kickstarter project to raise funds for observations which ultimately revealed the dips most likely due to clouds of submicron-scale dust. This star was first published in 2015 and the possibility of alien megastructures, inadvertently attributed to Jason Wright, was allowed to gain much traction despite its low probability. Wright states that the unwanted sensationalism lured astronomers to study this object “precisely because all the ‘aliens’ talk annoyed them, and they wanted to find a natural explanation”. The second example was of ‘Oumuamua, which was speculated to be a spaceship but later confirmed to be the first detected interstellar asteroid. Billings uses these to show that the media coverage, while perhaps hysterical, was able to mitigate much damage to SETI due to careful guiding of the narrative by the astronomy community.

Movie 1. Alien Megastructures (KIC 8462852)
Nat Geo describes the various scenarios for alien megastructures that have been considered for Tabby’s star.
Movie 2. The Truth Twitch of Conspiracies
Roger is hosting Conspiracy Con for those individuals who want the “truth”. Unfortunately, in the real world conspiracy conventions exist and people believe the government is intentionally hiding information about alien life.

Billings then dives into the lion’s den – unidentified flying objects (UFOs). Conspiracy theories regarding UFOs are rampant and even make cameos on shows (see Movie 2). In fact, conspiracies themselves have long since gained traction on the internet because of the wealth of data on the web itself allows people to draw links between anything (see Movie 3). This particular story was recently published by the New York Times (the Times), a reputable newspaper, and infused ufology with unneeded attention. The Times discussed a formerly classified program run by the Department of Defense to study reports from the armed services about encounters with UFOs. The program was officially canceled in 2012 and included videos of separate UFO encounters (see Movie 4). This article generated over one thousand comments ranging from support to criticism (one scoffed at money going into looking at UFOs but little to no money going into climate change). Perhaps the most pernicious things are the following points a general reader may take from the article, as pointed out by Scientific American:

  1. many high-ranking people in the federal government believe aliens have visited planet Earth;
  2. military pilots have recorded videos of UFOs with capabilities that seem to outstrip all known human aircraft, changing direction and accelerating in ways no fighter jet or helicopter could ever accomplish; and
  3. in a group of buildings in Las Vegas, the government stockpiles alloys and other materials believed to be associated with UFOs.
Movie 3. The Double-Edge of the Internet
The Internet can fuel paranoid thinking. In this video, example include 9/11, lizard people, and aliens. It can be dangerous for science to let conspiracies gain and hold traction, such as in the Times article about UFOs.
Movie 4. The Pentagon and UFOs
Above is a video the Times released in its article showing the purported UFOs. These objects, while unexplained, should not readily be attributed to aliens. They, like all UFOs, must be analyzed from a scientific perspective. The videos from the Times have served to foment more conspiracy theories.

This is pouring lighter fluid on conspiracy theories. To a layperson, this may seem as concrete evidence UFOs exist. The government has spent millions to search this phenomenon and has been secretive in releasing information, only fomenting ideas that the government knows “the truth” but is hiding it. The release was so sensational it wormed its way to the OVNI section on Univision and other reputable news sources. The rate at which this spread caused immediate backlash with some trying to make sense of the information and to mitigate conspiracies. Billings himself argues one should be careful with these extraordinary claims showing a dearth of high-quality evidence. Aliens and UFOs should never be the first conclusion to unexplained phenomena until all other natural phenomena can be thoroughly excluded. A quote from Bruce Macintosh makes a great point on UFOs:

UFO detections have remained marginal for decades; they’ve just gone from being blurry shapes on film cameras to blurry shapes on the digital infrared sensors of fighter jet gun cameras. This, in spite of the fact that the world’s total imaging capacity has expanded by several orders of magnitude in the past 20 years.

Movie 5. Scientist Fending off Conspiracies
Above is a video from the Washington Post where David Morrison, from the NASA Ames Research Center, strives to debunk the conspiracy theory of Nibiru. Even this blogger was asked questions about this object last year while apartment hunting. The person asking was under the impression I was hiding information. It is important for scientists to publicly fight disinformation!

This blogger agrees that to assume aliens are the answer to UFOs and adamantly cling to that conclusion is not science and warrants intense scrutiny from scientists. Astronomy itself is no stranger to conspiracy theories about many things, such as Armageddon. It is incumbent on scientists, particularly proponents of SETI, to get their narratives out to the public and fend off conspiracies (see Movie 5). This may place a heavy burden on scientists, but it is necessary to fend of disinformation and ridicule that has plagued SETI. While we know UFOs exist, even as chicken coops (see Movie 6), it is important to be able to draw the line between science and fiction that can set back research endeavors.

Movie 6. The Real UFOs
Real UFOs have chickens! Above is a video showing modifications done to a chicken coop to add lights and sounds in the name of sensationalism.