Finding Aliens Could Trigger Global Conflict With Dire Consequences: Study

The discovery of alien civilizations might have disastrous effects on Earth, but as a result of geopolitical conflict rather than an interstellar war.

There has been much discussion between scientists about the dangers of sending out signals into space and listening for replies, with concerns that any contact with aliens would be inevitably bad news for humankind, and could result in humans fighting among ourselves.

However, according to a paper published in the journal Space Policy, which is a critique of a previous study discussing the geopolitical dangers of detecting extra-terrestrial life, these fears are unfounded.

man in space with ufos
A file photo of a human looking up at alien spacecraft. Scientists are disagreeing on whether or not detecting alien life would cause geopolitical chaos on Earth. iStock / Getty Images Plus

"In their 2022 paper for Space Policy, Wright et al. criticize the contention that was made by Wisian and Traphagan in their 2020 paper in Space Policy that suggested that there was a measurable risk of conflict being induced by one party merely detecting an alien signal in a passive SETI search – and then trying to maintain exclusive access to that signal," John Rummel, a former SETI program scientist and senior astrobiologist at NASA, told Newsweek.

Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), and Messaging Extra-terrestrial Intelligence (METI) are organizations dedicated to finding and communicating, respectively, with potential alien life out in the universe.

The observable universe, which is the area of the universe from which light has had time to reach our solar system, is approximately 93 billion light-years in diameter, with around 100 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy alone. Scientists hope that this sheer number makes it statistically likely that intelligent life like our own has evolved on at least a few other planets within communicable range of Earth.

"There are billions of stars in our own Milky Way galaxy, and the vast majority are orbited by planets. And there are billions of galaxies in the universe. It would be a miracle if Earth is the only planet in the entire cosmos that has life, and I don't believe in miracles. So life is almost certainly out there," Douglas Vakoch, president of METI International, told Newsweek.

However, not everyone loves the idea of us sending out our location into the stars for anyone or anything to hear. The fears raised by many scientists include the dangers of a more advanced alien civilization detecting our signals and attempting to destroy the planet, but also that of a single country or state detecting a reply from aliens and using that information for their own gain. However, this is unlikely due to the nature of interstellar communication.

"In our paper, we argue that the specific scenario many people imagine, that the signal will contain "advanced" physics and engineering that we can use to build new technologies, perhaps even military technologies, is pretty unlikely, and that even if it happens, there's not much governments could do to get a monopoly on that information," the author of the space policy paper and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the Penn State Extra-terrestrial Intelligence Center, Jason T. Wright, told Newsweek. "A signal from space will be available to anyone on Earth with a satellite dish, so there's not much point in, for instance, sending the army in to take over a radio telescope facility."

"The issues raised [in 2020] represent a problem in international cooperation that might be applied to any technological advance (e.g., atomic weapons, quantum entanglement, etc.), rather than something exclusive to SETI or METI searches," Rummel added.

According to Wright, the ways people would react to that information are hard to predict, meaning that governments might mistakenly think sending in the army is a good idea.

"We argue to prevent that we need to make sure policymakers and government officials are aware of what SETI is, and understand the nature of any signal that gets detected early. There are some protocols in place that SETI practitioners know and generally try to follow, and these include widely sharing the details of any detected signal to make sure there are no misunderstandings."

Sending Out Signals

While we have had no indication of alien life yet, we have been sending radio signals out into the abyss since the dawn of wireless communication on Earth.

"Some people are afraid that if we send intentional radio messages into space, we'll reveal our existence for the first time, and we might open ourselves to an onslaught of hostile aliens," Vakoch said. "But for Earthlings, it's too late to hide. We've been making ourselves known in the cosmos for a century through the accidental radio and television signals that have been speeding into space at the speed of light."

The fact that we have had no reply yet doesn't necessarily mean that we are alone in the universe, however.

"A lot of those ideas come from the misperception that we've been working hard to detect alien life for decades, and that the lack of success so far must mean they either don't exist or are hiding," said Wright. "In fact, the radio search for alien life has only really scratched the surface, and it's only recently we've conducted thorough radio searches of the nearest stars across much of the radio spectrum, thanks to the Breakthrough Listen project. So there's no reason to think anyone's hiding; they might all be out in the open and we just haven't checked the right stars or frequencies yet."