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Extraterrestrial Contact: Astrosociology

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I’ve lamented for some time that there are not enough social scientists involved in the consideration of First Contact and life After First Contact. There is an effort to change that with the Journal of Astrosociology, founded by Dr. Jim Pass in 2015. The late Dr. Albert Harrison, who I have mentioned many times in this blog as a pioneering scientist in this area, was instrumental in the effort to examine public reaction to extraterrestrial life. He wrote an article in the inaugural issue of the journal and explains Astrosociology as:

“…the psychology of worldviews as a conceptual tool to further our understanding of people’s reactions to astrobiological discoveries. Worldviews are the cognitive frameworks and psychological processes that shape perceptions of reality, influence the kinds of evidence that people accept, and makes it possible to cope with unpredictable and potentially dangerous conditions.”

This would likely be an important area of study in the wake of Direct First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. Social scientists would need to track public reaction and provide insight. Some members of the public would be optimistically excited about First Contact and others would be scared. There would be a continuum of human response across that spectrum with potentially troubling reactions coming from groups at the fringes. The study of human response would likely involve Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology, Religion, Political Science, International Relations, and Economics, just to name a few.
Another pioneer in this area was the Canadian scientist, Dr. Allen Tough. Sadly, he too has passed on in recent years. I have read many of his articles. He established the online journal Contact in Context.

He also compiled what is perhaps the most comprehensive publication about social science and First Contact: “When SETI Succeeds: The Impact of High-InformationContact.”
I highlighted the publication in this blog back in 2011.

In one paper, titled “The Role of Social Science in SETI,” several authors suggest a simple scale showing, much in the same vein as hurricane warnings, the impact of First Contact.
Force One: Knowledge that we are not alone, primarily in discovery of some form of extraterrestrial communication.
Force Two: Humans gaining scientific or technical knowledge from communication with an extraterrestrial culture.
Force Three: Direct interaction with an extraterrestrial culture leading to a long-term dialog.

Perhaps the biggest insight that I gained from Dr. Tough is the idea that the human Internet would be an important tool for visiting extraterrestrials. He realized this in 1995, as the Internet was just coming into public perception. Many scientists propose that if extraterrestrial civilizations exist, they are far off, so far away that travel and communication would be quite difficult. Perhaps so, but given enough time and wherewithal, there is no doubt a probe could reach us from a far off civilization. Even with our limited technology we have already sent probes that are currently outside of our solar system. The best way to study human civilization would be through the Internet. Hopefully, aliens would spend some time doing that before they contacted humans. They could learn our languages and achieve a basic understanding of our biology, history and society. But even if visiting aliens did their homework, we human would not want to rely on those aliens to develop a plan for a relationship with humanity. That would be our responsibility. We would need to consider the impact of such a relationship on our current society and for future generations. That will require the work of academics who are not afraid to explore other disciplines beyond their focus. This will be an important need After First Contact- people who can consider human challenges from a variety of viewpoints, using information from multiple disciplines. It is not how scientists commonly work.

Social scientists help us to better understand who we are as humans and as a society. They will be on the front lines if Direct First Contact occurs someday.

Photo by Lucas Davies on Unsplash

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