Should we attempt to contact alien civilisations?

science-iconI note that SETI is considering whether or not now might be a good time to actively try to send a message to alien civilisations (

I have my doubts.

For starters, the radio transmissions we’ve been leaking out into space for the last 100 years or so don’t particularly get us off to a good start. I can’t imagine any alien civilisation thanking us for such nonsense as ‘Keeping Up With The Kardashians’ or ‘What Peter Andre Did Next’. If I was an alien I’d consider that sort of stuff an act of war.

Then there’s the problem of the human race itself. Our technological advances have far outstripped our social and moral advances. We may well have constructed particle accelerators, orbiting telescopes, moon rockets and toasters but we’re still running around killing one another in wars, letting members of our race starve to death and believing in imaginary gods. I just can’t imagine any reasonably advanced alien race thinking we’re ready to join the galactic community. At best they’d probably want to wait until we grow up a bit. At worst they might think we’re a bunch of dangerous no-hopers who need obliterating.

I certainly believe there are or have been alien civilisations out there. There are 100 billion stars in our galaxy and 100 billion known galaxies, and we now know that planets around those stars are commonplace. Simple probability suggests there are or have been many other civilisations and only misguided arrogance makes some people think the whole universe is here just for us. Intelligent life may be rare but the sheer vastness of the universe makes it likely elsewhere.

I think the biggest problem is finding intelligent life close by. The universe is about 13.5 billion years old and many civilisations may have risen and fallen in that time. What we need is a civilisation that’s existing when we are and close enough to make any sort of communication meaningful. It’s pointless transmitting a message to someone and having to wait half a million years for the reply. The chances are our civilisation won’t be around to receive the reply. So, whilst I think alien life has certainly existed in that vast expanse of space and time that is our universe, I think it much less likely that there’s any close by right now.

So, you might ask, what’s the problem with sending out a message?

Probably none in terms of danger to humans. The odds of finding a civilisation close by are small and the odds of any alien civilsation preparing a battle fleet and traversing the vast distances of space just to blow us up are even smaller. As crazy and immature as we are as a race, we’re simply not a threat.

No, my reason for not wanting to actively try to communicate with alien races at the moment is embarrassment. We’d be advertising a species that has been at war for about 6,000 years and still hasn’t come to the collective conclusion that it should stop. We’d be advertising a species that allows 80% of its planet’s wealth to remain in the hands of 1% of its population whilst other people die because they haven’t got clean drinking water. For sure, there are things we’ve done that we can be proud of. It’s not all bad. But, taking our civilisation as a whole over the last 6,000 years or so, it makes for a grim report.

I think we should get our own house in order a bit more before we start pestering alien civilisations. Let’s wait until we can broadcast ourselves as an evolved, peaceful, equitable species.

In the interim there’s no harm in listening to see what’s out there though. We just have to hope that if someone out there is listening to us they’re not sat there agog at the latest episode of ‘The Only Way Is Essex’.

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