Social Implications of a SETI Success

Would the detection of another intelligent society disrupt our own? Would it provoke hope, or fear?

If Project Phoenix succeeds, the public would be confronted with a monumental discovery. Would there be apprehension or defensiveness? Could we expect a harmonizing effect on our own society? How would religions deal with the confirmed existence of non-human intelligence light-years away?

In the past two decades, considerable thought has been given to both the near-term and long-term effects of a signal detection. Both historical analogs and contemporary social science have been used to infer how humankind might react.

Regarding the immediate consequences of success, it's worth pointing out that there will be no hiding of the discovery. If any signal is unambiguously verified as being extraterrestrial, it will be openly announced.

There have been frequent predictions that this announcement would be the most spectacular news story of all time. Polls suggest that the majority of Americans already believe in the existence of extraterrestrial beings. However, conditioned by the media's emphasis on UFO's, the public might expect a "message". This expectation might not be immediately fulfilled. The primary goal of Project Phoenix is to find the signal; to uncover and possibly decipher a message could require the development of additional telescope and receiving equipment.

Sociological studies suggest that announcement of a signal would lead to confusion and excitement, with a desire by individuals to "know more", but little panic or hysteria. While some religious groups are expected to reject the idea that we are not alone, most would not, and some would embrace the discovery as reinforcing their own beliefs.

The long-term effects are difficult to predict. Analogy is often made to Copernicus' dramatic new cosmology, which deposed Earth from its throne at the center of the universe. Another oft-cited historical analog is Charles Darwin's celebrated hypothesis on biological evolution. To the extent that such analogies are applicable, they suggest more of a gradual change in world view than a dramatic upset in the day-to-day conduct of society.