SETI, Education, News, and Entertainment

Schools, libraries, museums and universities are able and likely to respond quickly with detailed accurate information on SETI, both in the short term if deluged with requests following a detection and in the long term via education programs. One weakness in this network is identified, a disproportionate availability of materials on UFO's and pseudoscientific aspects of extraterrestrial life in libraries alongside reliable SETI material. How educational institutions themselves would be changed by an ETI detection is not easy to predict. Studies of ways in which the somewhat analogous Sputnik launch or Percival Lowell's conjectures about intelligent life on Mars affected schools and texts may provide insights.

News media will be the source of information for most people during a detection event. Reliable reporting and minimization of sensational mistaken misrepresentations are assured if SETI researchers follow procedures used during the Viking (and similar) missions; however some misrepresentation is inevitable given the lack of training in science of most reporters. One worrisome dimension of reportage is the likelihood that "candidate signals" -- promising but unconfirmed radio bursts -- will be prematurely or mistakenly reported as genuine signals from ETI's. These repeated "false alarms" can negatively affect public perceptions of science and the Microwave Survey project.

Entertainment media delve into the fantastic and do not necessarily convey accurate SETI-related imagery to the public. For example, films and novels have created a widespread public impression that interstellar travel is easy, and that physical encounters between humanity and ETI's could become commonplace. The responses of the entertainment media to an ETI detection are not easy to predict; controversy or widespread perception of "reality" following a detection might unexpectedly mute, rather than stimulate, their treatment of ETI-related subjects. Tabloid media will certainly misrepresent all stories and cannot be persuaded to do otherwise. Regular reporting of "no detection" is required, in part to forestall tabloid (and other) stories about "suppression of a discovery."

Both entertainment and news media reflect and shape the emotional backdrop of nations and the world, which in turn is likely to tilt public reactions to a detection in "anxious" or "enthusiastic" directions.

Recommendations: Educational Institutions.

  1. SETI researchers should identify a way in which information that would be useful to school teachers for presenting and displaying SETI information in their classrooms can be made available to them. (This could include identification or even publication of appropriate books, which would also be recommended to librarians; see 5 below);
  2. SETI researchers should make updated lists of reliable SETI books and materials available to librarians (possibly through their professional associations and networks);
  3. NASA should establish a formal line of communication between the SETI community and leading professional organizations of teachers (such as the National Science Teachers Association), for routine updates about SETI and for use in the event of a detection.
  4. SETI researchers should identify ways of informing the public that scientific disagreement and debate over the nature of a candidate signal is a normal and expected feature of scientific dialog;
  5. Elementary school teachers should be surveyed to learn what information about SETI (and the forms in which it should be made available) would be most useful to them;
  6. SETI researchers should study ways in which several dramatic events -- the Sputnik launch, the discovery of Pluto, Lowell's conjectures about Mars -- influenced textbooks and educational institutions.

Recommendations: News Media.

  1. Prior to a possible detection, NASA researchers should find a timely and routine way of keeping news media (and through them, the public) informed about any candidate signals checked and discarded, or checked and still under scrutiny;
  2. During the pre-detection interval, Microwave Survey news releases should regularly remind the public that dispute and debate among scientists is a normal feature of science, and that such should be expected if an ETI detection in announced;
  3. NASA should devise a formal mechanism for release of information to the media, drawing heavily upon the Viking experience;
  4. Studies of historic science stories that have resemblance to an ETI announcement should be conducted for insights on which communications and reports were effective, which were not, and how the public responded. (Examples are listed in the chapter.)
  5. Microwave Survey researchers should devise a way of regularly reporting the absence of detected signals for the part of the search that precedes a genuine detection, and of reporting other (unanticipated) astronomical discoveries resulting from the project;
  6. NASA should designate a standby team of scientists, journalists, and others who will respond to exaggerated or erroneous reports, where the latter appear to be confusing the public;
  7. NASA researchers should devise a way of regularly reminding the public that "false alarms" (detections of transient radio noise or "signals" from human sources) will be a frequent and ongoing result of the HRMS research.

Recommendations: Entertainment Media.

  1. Microwave Survey researchers should establish liaison with the entertainment industry, both to educate key media artists and producers and for staff to learn about communicating through popular forms. Briefing materials made available to news and information media should also be made available to entertainment media people. HRMS/NASA technical assistance might be made available during film and television productions of relevance to SETI.
  2. HRMS researchers should consider encouraging a filmmaker to develop a major feature about SETI and receipt of an ETI signal in a responsible dramatic way.
  3. Microwave Survey researchers should consider offering a non-technical seminar for producers, screenwriters, television executives and programmers to demonstrate how the HRMS works and what actual detection scenarios might be like.
  4. NASA should regularly invite science fiction writers to briefings for the press and VIP's, as JPL started to do with later Voyager flyby's.
  5. NASA should invite representatives from major entertainment media to serve on committees that plan the HRMS's public relations/public information efforts.
  6. A summary should be compiled of scenarios to ETI detection as envisioned by works of science fiction.