Is Active SETI Really Dangerous?

In general, when we think about scientific inquiry, much of its power rests in the idea that everything is open to question. Turning a scientific gaze upon the world enlightens us and opens our potential to understand more deeply, while often challenging us to reconsider previously held beliefs and ideas. But science is not an unambiguously moral good.

Einstein questioned the ethics of building the atomic bomb. We know that research like the Tuskegee study of syphilis in African Americans has deep moral problems related to racism and informed consent. More recently, Stephen Hawking and others have raised ethical questions about whether or not we should engage in sending messages to the stars–the risks of letting ET know we’re here may outweigh the benefits of making contact if ET happens to be in a particularly foul mood when they answer our interstellar phone call.

Those opposing Active SETI or METI (messaging extraterrestrial intelligence) have a point. There could be some risk involved with alerting ET to our presence in the universe, although if ET has knowledge of physics allowing them to visit our corner of the galaxy, hiding probably won’t do us much good anyway. If the extraterrestrials want to vaporize us, they’ll go ahead and do it. More likely the extreme distances between Earth and possible other civilizations will mitigate against any real threat–if we send a message out to a star in the Orion constellation today, it will take over 1,000 years to get there…

Perhaps a more important question is not about the risks of transmitting, but the dangers in receiving. Many in the SETI community have shown commitment to the belief that a technologically advanced civilization will be altruistic, despite the lack of evidence —> Read More