Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


26.2  Public Reaction and the Press

There are many reasons why confirmation of the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence may bring a more muted public response than might otherwise be expected. To some extent, a great deal of cultural preconditioning has already taken place.1938 Science fiction and other speculative literature have already introduced people to the possibility, and the success of the television series "The Invaders" a decade ago and the recent box office hit "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" are testimony to considerable popular interest in and acceptance of the notion of alien life. Reports of UFOs and radiotelescope listening projects conducted by SETI investigators also have been much in the news.

In the case of a Remote Contact an alien message may take months or even years to verify, let alone translate and comprehend. The necessary compactness and complexity of such communications will require much time and effort to unravel, resulting in a slow trickle, rather than a raging torrent, of information about the aliens and their culture. Since radio signals between distant stars must creep along at the speed of light, decades or centuries may pass between receipt and response to an extraterrestrial transmission. This considerable time lag after the initial discovery is apt to dampen public and media enthusiasm for the story.

In a Direct Contact scenario the press will play a more critical role in shaping public reaction to the encounter event. The accuracy and tone of the initial media coverage during the first few days and weeks will direct and fix public perceptions and attitudes towards the ETs for years to come. The possibility of "yellow journalism" cannot be ruled out. Traditionally the news media lose interest in any story that fails to build, to provide new and ever more exciting details leading to a conclusion or climax.695 The attention span of the general public is quite brief. At least one science fiction writer has suggested that, in the face of a dearth of sensational newsworthy events, newsmen might fake their own headlline-grabbing stories:

The Des Moines stereocasting station sent mobile units in for spotcast. The pictures they sent out were all long shots, taken from the air. They showed nothing but a disk-shaped object [on the ground]. Then, for about two hours, no pictures and no news, followed later by close-ups and a new news slant: The thing was a hoax. The "spaceship" was a sheet-metal-and-plastic fraud, built by two farmboys in the woods near their home. The fake reports originated with an announcer who had put the boys up to it to make a story. He has been fired.2640

Science editor and reporter Kendrick Frazier, however, remains cautiously sanguine:

My hope is that from the very beginning there would be accurate and restrained news reports, complete with all the facts available at the moment and including the comments, insights, and perspectives of all the scientists and other persons informed and knowledgeable on the subject.1938

The strong desire among scientists and journalists for full, immediate and accurate disclosure must be balanced against the requirements of military security and the current global political climate. There may be valid reasons for holding back certain inflammatory or unverified information from public scrutiny, on a temporary basis. The immediate hazards of contact may be seriously aggravated if the Direct Contact occurs in a country having "no tradition of openness and candor in the release of news information." While it might be difficult to keep secret for long the fact of contact, details could easily be suppressed. Unfortunately any brief, distorted, or incomplete report, followed by a moratorium on further information, could lead to mistaken ideas, wild rumors, international outrage, mass hysteria, and serious political misunderstandings.

Frazier has pointed out that even if reasonably full disclosure is obtained from a nation without a tradition of a free press Western scientists might still experience great difficulties securing enough data about the event to make a reasoned analysis of the situation. There may be a kind of "dog in the manger" reaction:

Already there have been a few claims coming out of the Soviet Union of receipt of radio signals that were initially attributed to extraterrestrial intelligence. (They turned out not to be.) The difficulty that both the science press and scientists in the United States faced in getting further information from the Soviet Union in the days immediately following the initial news reports has not made me especially confident.1938

How should the news be released to the public? Jill Tarter of the NASA SETI Program team at Ames Research Center has revealed that many scientists have spent some time considering this very question. "Assuming the people who are involved in this field," she says, "we have this cocktail party game that we play: Compose your press release, knowing that you'll probably only get one shot at it. How do you get out all the information you want to, and be sure that it will get a lot of coverage? It is a touchy subject." Kendrick Frazier has the following suggestion:

Wherever the discovery of the first evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence is made, I do hope that the scientific leaders involved will be wise enough to prepare their public announcement with a certain amount of care and with careful attention to the need to supply accurate information and perspective. This would justify a delay of several days to make preparations. In the United States a joint news conference in Washington, with scientists and officers of the discovering observatory, the National Science Foundation, the National Academy of Sciences, and the White House, would perhaps be the preferable method of announcing the discovery. The international scientific community would be brought into the matter as rapidly as possible.1938

Still, when the time comes to announce that mankind is no longer alone, "those who prepare and issue the statement will have a truly terrifying responsibility." Says Arthur C. Clarke: "Though they will certainly try to sound reassuring, they will know that they are whistling in the dark."81


Last updated on 6 December 2008