Image: James Vaughn/Flickr
Historically, meeting a new “other” has been hard for people; Europeans began abusing the indigenous peoples of the Americas pretty much as soon as they realized there was someone there to be abused. So it probably shouldn't come as a surprise that the first really critical look at whether people are ready to meet extra-terrestrials found that we aren't.
Neuro-psychologist Gabriel G. de la Torre, a professor at Spain's University of Cádiz, sent a questionnaire to 116 American, Italian and Spanish university students that assessed their knowledge of astronomy, their level of perception of the physical environment, their opinion on the place that things occupy in the cosmos, and religious questions, such as “do you believe that God created the universe?” The results, published in Acta Astronautica lead De la Torre to conclude that people aren't ready for extraterrestrial relationships.
“This pilot study demonstrates that the knowledge of the general public of a certain education level about the cosmos and our place within it is still poor.” De la Torre said in a statement.
The study was, at least in part, inspired by the SETI Active program, which is trying to send an easily decoded message to extraterrestrial intelligent life.
“Can such a decision be taken on behalf of the whole planet?” asked De la Torre. “What would happen if it was successful and ‘someone’ received our signal? Are we prepared for this type of contact?”
Judging from our science fiction, and the results of De la Torre's study, it seems like we aren't.
With the exception of E.T., and maybe Suburban Commando—a lesser Shelley Duvall film but one of the better Hulk Hogan flicks—our encounters with visitors are best described as tense. Like, everyone's blowing everyone else up, cooking them, punching them, and so on. So, yeah, we could probably stand to prepare better.
Of course, one has to wonder what exactly does prepare people to meet extraterrestrials? And how indicative of our preparedness is a survey with a bunch of Western college students?
In spite of De la Torre writing that the decision to meet alien life should not be limited to handful of scientists, since it “is a global matter with a strong ethical component in which we must all participate,” his sample is already pretty biased—coincidentally to Columbus's country of origin, country of patronage, and the country that was eventually formed as a result of his travels.
But answers to the survey questions, especially pertaining to religion, are going to be skewed by this sample. The US, Spain and Italy might be religious holdouts by the standards of countries of comparable wealth, but worldwide, they're relatively godless. Also, sampling only college students skews the results to the wealthier, and therefore typically less religious as well.
De la Torre says that education is key to better prepare humanity for alien encounters, which is a fairly familiar panacea for the world's ills.
“A cosmic awareness must be further promoted—where our mind is increasingly conscious of the global reality that surrounds us—using the best tool available to us: education,” he wrote.
A little bit of learning never hurts, I guess. How do you teach “cosmic awareness?” My biggest takeaway from all this is that it seems like someone could've stood to learn a little bit more about representative sampling.