Exopolitics: political implications of the extra-terrestrial presence

Scientists endorse study of societal consequences of extraterrestrial life

January 10, 2011. Michael E. Salla, Ph.D.

The discovery of exoplanets is stimulating scientific discussion of extraterrestrial life and its scientific and societal implications

The proceedings of a scientific conference that studied the societal consequences of extraterrestrial life has just been released. Organized and hosted by the Royal Society in October 2010, the conference was titled, "The detection of extra-terrestrial life and the consequences for science and society." The conference received wide international attention when one of the participants, Dr Mazlan Othman, was wrongly described as being on the verge of being appointed by the UN to become Earth's official liaison to extraterrestrial life. In the published proceedings, Othman sets the record straight. She believes that the UN already has a mechanism in place to deal with the detection and contact with extraterrestrial life, but work needs to be done in formalizing this by UN member states. Other conference participants endorse Othman's recommendation, and further believe that the time has come to study the societal consequences of extraterrestrial life.

The continuing discovery of exoplanets - over 500 have been discovered by December 10, 2010 - has emboldened many scientists to come out publicly with recommendations concerning the existence of extraterrestrial life. Beginning with the premise that extraterrestrial life is almost certain to exist, Professor Stephen Hawking raised scientific eyebrows with claims in his 2010 television series that extraterrestrials are likely to be resource predators. The existence of exoplanets is opening the floodgates to scientific speculation about extraterrestrial life, and programs in astrobiology are becoming increasingly popular. Princeton University, for example, just launched its first astrobiology program and took an interdisciplinary path. However, Princeton's program is only focused on a strictly scientific study of the consequences of extraterrestrial life, and eschews any social science or societal component.

Such an approach is wrong, according to the two scientists that organized the Royal Society conference. In their introduction to the conference proceedings, Dr Martin Dominik and Prof John C. Zarnecki endorsed studying the societal aspects of any discovery of extraterrestrial life. They stressed the importance of determining the possible motivations of extraterrestrial life and any search for such life:

The detection and further study of extra-terrestrial life will fundamentally challenge our view of nature, including ourselves, and therefore the field of astrobiology can hardly be isolated from its societal context, including philosophical, ethical and theological perspectives. With the detection of extra-terrestrial life being technically feasible, one needs to address whether perceived societal benefits command us to search for it, or whether such an endeavor may rather turn out to be a threat to our own existence

Dr Dominik and Prof Zarnecki went on to point out the importance of having in place the political mechanism by which humanity can responsibly deal with the future detection of extraterrestrial life:

While scientists are obliged to assess benefits and risks that relate to their research, the political responsibility for decisions arising following the detection of extra-terrestrial life cannot and should not rest with them. Any such decision will require a broad societal dialogue and a proper political mandate. If extra-terrestrial life happens to be detected, a coordinated response that takes into account all the related sensitivities should already be in place.

Their view was supported by the current head of UN's Office for Outer Space Affairs, Dr Mazlan Othman who said:

The continued search for extra-terrestrial communication, by several entities, sustains the hope that someday humankind will receive signals from extra-terrestrials. When we do, we should have in place a coordinated response that takes into account all the sensitivities related to the subject. The United Nations forums are a ready-made mechanism for such coordination.

So where to from here? The Royal Society and like-minded scientific bodies such as the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, are likely to continue hosting meetings discussing extraterrestrial life and its societal consequences - an endeavor some believe falls under the rubric of exopolitics. More universities are likely to follow the path of Princeton and offer interdisciplinary astrobiology programs that use methods from the natural sciences for discussing extraterrestrial life; and perhaps, in the near future, open the door to formal discussion of its societal consequences. But what about those interested in a comprehensive study of the societal implications of extraterrestrial life, and evidence that such life is currently visiting Earth in the here and now?

One solution is offered by a small but pioneering program hosted by the Exopolitics Institute (a 501(c)3 educational organization based in Hawaii) that offers a Certificate/Diploma program for those interested in exopolitics. Students can enroll and complete online up to six university level courses that examine various aspects of the societal and political implications of extraterrestrial life. While the Exopolitics Institute's program is not yet accredited with any tertiary organization, this is expected to change as it expands in size and offerings over the next 18 months. The Spring 2011 semester, which features two courses, "Introduction to Exopolitics" and "Developing the Road to Disclosure", begins next week on January 17.

The future is bright for those interested in studying the societal aspects of extraterrestrial life, and some organizations such as the Royal Society are pioneering efforts to do so. Together with ad hoc programs and courses offered by the Exopolitics, Institute and other educational bodies, the general public can begin comprehensively studying the consequences of extraterrestrial life in all its aspects, scientific, societal, religious and political.

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© Copyright 2011. Michael E. Salla. Exopolitics.org

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