Discovering Alien Life: How Would We Really React?

By Kyle Munkittrick | March 7, 2011 3:08 pm

A couple days ago, Fox News broke a story with the unbelievable headline, “Exclusive: NASA Scientist Claims Evidence of Alien Life on Meteorite.” The claims are obvious bunk, but if you don’t believe me, here is PZ Myers with an entertaining demolition of the paper and its credibility. Myers’ main argument is that if the paper was real, it would probably have shown up in Nature or Science, been better written and argued, and received more than a blurb on Fox News’ website. Discover’s own Bad Astronomer Phil Plait has a wonderful summary of other opinions, and gives an excellent conclusion of how a real scientist thinks about an astounding announcement in a field that isn’t his own. Myers’ and Plait’s respective posts are exemplary demonstrations of scientific skepticism.

True to form, Plait ends with this interesting little notation:

As a scientist and a skeptic I have to leave some room, no matter how small, for the idea that this might be correct.

Though the announcement that alien bacteria was found on a meteor is almost certainly false, eventually a scientist may in fact discover real evidence of alien life. I grant Myers’ point about a prestigious journal publishing the direct evidence would probably be the first place we would hear about such a discovery.

But then that evidence would be challenged by every reputable scientist breathing. There is a simple rule in science: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I thank Bill Nye for teaching me that little tidbit when I was a youngster. It has done me well. But if the evidence is legit, other scientists will analyze, test, and, ultimately, verify the evidence. There would be proof that Earth wasn’t the only place in the universe where life came to be. Which begs the question: How would the evidence of extraterrestrial life be broken to the public? How would the President react? The pope? How would you react?

How would the real discovery of alien life happen? Let’s do a thought experiment.

My suspicion is that even if the alleged discovery of meteor bacteria had been published in Nature by respected and trusted scientists, it would be met with almost an equal degree of skepticism. Imagine your friend emailing you a link to the Nature article saying that a meteor contained evidence of bacteria from outer space. Your reaction wouldn’t be to sit down, head in hands, overwhelmed by the colossal existential weight of the discovery that Earth is not the sole originator of life. You probably wouldn’t even read the article. Life would carry on as usual. Why? Because you would expect the results to be an error, or a misrepresentation, or contamination of the sample. Except, this time, you would be wrong.

The important point here is that a raised eyebrow and dismissal is the appropriate reaction to the claim that extraterrestrial life has been proven to exist. Because it is among the most extraordinary claims a person can make. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and extraordinary evidence requires extraordinary scrutiny.

If the evidence was legit, it wouldn’t just go away. It would invite and demand further scrutiny. Over the next few years, scientific journals would publish responses and further verifications. Corroborative evidence would begin to emerge, counter-theories and more plausible terrestrial-bound explanations would be published. The counter-theories and explanations would fail to explain the evidence and be rejected. You might see an article in a respected news paper or your favorite science magazine (ahem) that summarizes the current theories and scientific debates surrounding the alleged evidence of extraterrestrial life. Despite all attempts to remain objective, the articles would have an undercurrent of electric excitement.

Yet the veracity of the evidence would remain in question. Most of us would still believe, in the back of our collective mind, that Earth is life’s only home.

And then, one day, maybe a decade after the initial discovery, after years of research and verification and testing and challenges and re-testing and debate and consideration, after more scrutiny and attempts at falsification than any single set of observable phenomena has ever faced, a press conference would be announced. Every major scientific organization from around the globe would be represented in some form. Every major media outlet would be present. World leaders would be either in the audience or preparing to address their respective nations. The original team that published the initial data would be seated on the dais. Their team leader would take her place at the podium, and make the announcement:

“Based on the evidence discovered by our team over a decade ago, thousands of researchers and scientists from around the world have come to a conclusion. Of the hundreds of hypotheses posited to explain the data, only one is supported: We are not alone. The origins of the bacterium on the meteor are extraterrestrial.”

On that day, and that day alone, will anyone truly believe it. There have been three great traumas to the psyche: the Copernican, the Darwinian, and the Freudian. I suspect the remaining trauma is that of the Alien. I cannot begin to guess how humanity will cope with that knowledge.

I admit, I might be fantasizing that any scientific announcement could garner that much attention. Then again, the discovery of alien life isn’t just an issue for science, but for humanity. Whatever the magnitude of the discovery’s final announcement, do not pretend we will believe it when we first hear it. I certainly won’t.

Follow Kyle on his personal blog and on twitter.

Awesome image of our pale blue dot by FlyingSinger via Flickr Creative Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Aliens, Philosophy

Comments (35)

  1. Part of the process for reversing decades of misinformation is a drip feed of stories such as the FOX news article. The real challenge is that things are not stranger than we suppose but stranger than we can suppose. An inability to appreciate this is evident in the article. But that will change.

  2. Skrim

    I doubt the general public will bother that much about extraterrestrial microbes, no matter how well proven. Most of ‘em would shrug it off like just another headline and go about their day-to-day lives unaffected. Not enough people are scientifically minded enough to care. The religions would be unaffected – they’d either deny it (as they can so conveniently do) if they found it threatening, or else they’d sit smug in their perceived god-given superiority over the extraterrestrials (being big complex multicellular thingums and all) and not give a damn. The economy would be unchanged – people would keep consuming as usual. The governments may have some cursory interest about whether the things are potentially dangerous or potentially useful in some way.

    But not many people would actually consider the immense weight of us terragens being the only life in the Universe being lifted as an event that will change things forever, the knowledge that we are not alone even if our cosmic compatriots are microbes. Most of humanity, I’m pretty sure, just wouldn’t care.

  3. Andy

    I think, as an non-scientist, that microbial life isn’t really going to be that big of a deal to everyday people. I think intelligent extraterrestrial life would have a bigger impact.

  4. I don’t believe that governments would immediately release the information – or they would do their best to suppress it. A fair response may also be – how would media/governments try to discredit the discovery of extra-terrestrial life?

    Barring any religious fallout – I doubt people would change at all. Human nature is human nature. We would still consume and act selfishly.

  5. Eneasz

    This seems very hyperbolic. Most people simply won’t care. 99+% of the population will react the same way 99+% of the population reacted to the other three traumas listed – indifference. How does this actually effect anyone’s life? Nearly everyone would be traumatized orders of magnitude more by losing the family pet, or losing a job. You simply can’t compare abstract knowledge to actual life events.

    Furthermore, this doesn’t really seem like an extra-ordinary claim to me. Everyone knowledgeable in the subject already believes that it’s nearly guaranteed that alien life in some form exists somewhere in the galaxy. The claim that we may have found evidence of the most primitive such life? Not surprising. Almost expected, really.

  6. danR

    As an alternative hypothesis, roughly outlined, I would suggest a dendritic/filamentary process from the mineral, representing the core distribution of chemical elements, followed by carbonaceous deposition on the outside from more volatile endogenous, or even exogenous sources.

    I wonder also if they haven’t cherry-picked their photos. The procedure will have to be replicated. There may be all manner of random distribution of filamentary, near-filamentary, blobby, sort-of-stringy, angular, wtf-y, rubbish all over a freshly broken surface. And yes, contamination. A surface may ‘break’ simply because it failed at the very faults that would have been giving access to terrestrial contamination.

  7. Actually, I’ve got to disagree with your assessment that most people believe Earth is the only home of life in the back of their mind. Science fiction and the concept itself of aliens are so mainstreamed, I think the assumption is the opposite. The big questions would be more like “what would alien life be like?” and “how similar would it be to us?” and “how rare is alien life?” and “for that matter, how rare is self-aware intelligence and civilization?”

    Just look at how quickly everyone is jumping with excitement over even the slightest vague hint of the existance alien life. Gliese581g, the whole arsenic fiasco, now this deal with funny squiggly images on a meteorite. People direly want every shred of evidence that it exists because they believe in their hearts that it already does, and want to see it for themselves before it’s too late.

  8. Brian Too

    For simple single-celled life, I bet the answer is that the impact would be near zero! For complex multi-celled organisms, the impact would be greater but only modestly so. It would take a creature with some real intelligence to register with society at large.

    Hey, what happened when European explorers discovered North America and realized that there were native human beings living here? The short answer is that society adapted to the knowledge and moved on. Jerusalem took one step farther away from being the center of the world.

    Only the discovery of a species that was an actual or potential threat to us, or an actual or potential major benefit to us, would change things in any substantial way.

  9. Boy

    I believe people already know deep down that we are not alone in this vast, creative, and (may I say again) HUGE universe.

    Are humans really that arrogant and self-absorbed to believe we are the only ones in this place?

    Intelligent life would be interesting, but in my opinion, extremely rare. Just remember we are one planet amongst one solar system amongst one sun, amongst one galaxy, amongst one universe…

  10. Larry

    The beauty of science is that it is not politics. I don’t care what journal published it.
    Truth and Nature has no regard for human titles.

    I do however care if other scientists can reproduce the findings. Read the paper, a
    clever approach is taken to deal with the contamination issue. People instantly say
    “contamination” but couldn’t be bothered to respond to the claim made in the paper
    in regards to ruling it out.

  11. Kyle, extraordinary ignorance requires extraordinary knowledge. Skepticism is good when you are without knowledge of the subject, so forget about alien bacteria found on a meteor. Megalithic ruins at Puma Punku Peru are made up of granite, and diorite, and the only stone that is harder that those two, is the diamond. One of these stone ruins weighs in at about 800 tons! The nearest quarry is at least 10 miles away. With the technology that we currently have today, it would be extremely difficult to recreate the site of these ruins All of the blocks are cut so that they interlock, and fit together like a puzzle. There is no mortar. There are stones that once fit together creating a structure some four levels high. Older than the the great pyramids in Egypt. How was this accomplished? With the help of knowledge by E.T. visitors humans called Gods…. millennium ago.

  12. Aaron

    As the events (and comments) of these past few days have shown, there is no shortage of people who are willing to believe in the existence of extraterrestrial life, whether there be scant evidence, false evidence, or no evidence whatsoever. To them I say that things are not proven to be true by simply thinking that they should be true.

    As for everyone else, I believe that the previous commenters have laid it out quite nicely when they say that should the discovery be made, most people will not care. (In fact, some people might not even be aware!) The rest of us, however, will eventually (and in some cases eagerly) come to terms with the discovery and then move on to the questions that follow from it: what is the nature of these lifeforms, where did they come from, how common are they throughout the galaxy, etc.

  13. ‘Alien life’ found on meteorites | World | News | Toronto Sun

    Journal of Cosmology

    It’s time we catch a comet by the tail, and Settle this Once and for all .

    Life is Everywhere! ..We(‘re) Here..Came from SomeWhere , Over and Out There…ElseWhere..Grew Here..:So many Earthly Aliens..?

    Over and Out There From Here…

  14. There is a lot of data in that paper that you are debunking so positively. I mean there is a lot of information in that report, seems like a long way to go to hoax. Im not a scientist but still. We are not alone in the Universe and without getting conspiracy crazy its been known by the elite military of the USA for a long time. The Air Force launched their version of the space shuttle for a 7 month orbit of Earth recently. What do you think the robot space shuttle designed for better maneuverability is seeing up there? I like to think the governments who are in space see alien life and still have no idea what is really going on.

  15. Skrim

    @ BluntedKid

    I don’t think the authors of the paper are hoaxing. There’s no deliberate agenda of malice, they’re just posting up their hypothesis and other people are responding to it with healthy scientific skepticism. There is no hoax.

    And cut it with the conspiracy theories. As Hawking once said, “if the governments are hiding evidence of the aliens, they’re doing a much better job at it than they ever do at anything else”.

    And the “robot space shuttle”, the X-37 I presume you’re referring to, is an aerodynamics tech demonstrator. It isn’t seeing anything, and at least, nothing that thousands of other spacecraft, robotic and manned, aren’t seeing. If there’s extraterrestrial intelligence out there, the first people to see it will be SETI, since, y’know, that’s their raison d’etre. And I don’t think they’re the kind of folks who keep anything secret.

  16. Dutch

    “On that day, and that day alone, will anyone truly believe it.”

    Really? Like evolution? Fact is that there are billions of people already convinced of some invisible out-of-this-world alien interfering with their lives since ages. So how would the world really react? First, a large group will reject anything and call it another attack. Even if intelligent visitors from outer space were coming over it would still be rejected. Some would say that those intelligent aliens are ghosts or demons, some would say they are fabricated in Hollywood as part as a conspiracy, and others will tell you “sure, it’s all in the book”.

    Discovering weird bacteria in meteorites by itself won’t tell us life on earth originated in space. We’ve got pieces of Mars here and it’s likely there are pieces of Earth on Mars right now. Primitive life can survive in harsh environments, so ‘alien’ bacteria may come from early earth.

    In Solar System alike planet systems it’s a matter of time before life emerges. How long it takes, the level of complexity and the time needed to reach that complexity is another question, but given the age and vastness of the universe primitive lifeforms are most probably quite common. And even if complex life is extremely rare there would be countless systems with intelligent life. Then there is also exchange of material. Wait long enough and primitive lifeforms migrate from their hot spots, i.e. to big moons. Wait a ‘bit’ longer and material is exchanged throughout galaxies. Most probably. If it can happen it will happen.

    My best bet is that we will discover chemical fingerprints of might-be extraterrestrial life in exoplanet atmospheres. Expect some more ‘breaking news’ in the next decades.

  17. Jillinthebox

    I agree with Sean T. Most people believe that alien life exists. It seems that the odds are stacked in ETs favor based on the vastness of the Universe alone. IF i had heard the story on Fox News I would have only doubted the validity of the reporting… come on, Fox News? This is where you get your information?Are you kidding me?
    I remember a decade or more back when scientists hypothesized that there could be water on Mars. Then a few years ago the martian rovers determined that there is water/ice. At the time it seemed like earth shattering (pardon the pun) news to me. But not much changed in the world- life went on. Further, I remember my grade school science book stating that the extinction of the dinosaurs was a mystery. Meteors hitting the earth and causing massive climate change? Outrageous!
    Perhaps early theories prepare society for inevitable and sometimes fantastic truths. The mysteries of the Universe are unpeeled gradually for us like an onion. Earthlings can take information in little pieces and thus “hold it together” and prepare their little minds for the next big thing.
    I find the discovery of bacteria on a comet completely believable (minus the Fox News source)

  18. Erik

    I was with this thought-experiment up to a point. There’s no way that there will be any type of press conference by any government. I don’t believe there will be any kind of uproar or even acknowledgement of the issue. It’ll just be a gradual change to where everyone just kind of says oh by the way, aliens exist now. (This is of course not including pretty much any religion, but they’re hopeless anyway).

  19. Jillinthebox

    I agree with Sean T. Most people believe that alien life exists. It seems that the odds are stacked in ETs favor based on the vastness of the Universe alone. IF i had heard the story on Fox News I would have only doubted the validity of the reporting… come on, Fox News? This is where you get your information?Are you kidding me Kyle?
    I remember a decade or more back when scientists hypothesized that there could be water on Mars. Then a few years ago the Martian rovers determined that there is water/ice. At the time it seemed like earth shattering (pardon the pun) news to me. But not much changed in the world- life went on. Further, I remember my grade school science book stating that the extinction of the dinosaurs was a mystery. Meteors hitting the earth and causing massive climate change? Outrageous!
    Perhaps early theories prepare society for inevitable and sometimes fantastic truths. The mysteries of the Universe are unpeeled gradually for us like an onion. Earthlings can take information in little pieces and thus “hold it together” and prepare their little minds for the next big thing. I agree with Erik, there will be no uproar.
    I find the discovery of bacteria on a comet completely believable (minus the Fox News source)

  20. Jillinthebox

    Hey all- Sorry for the double post, my connection keeps fading.

  21. Paul

    We are debating if alien bacteria exists or not? Well, at least they are only hitching a ride and not steering a ship, which leads to the other alien debate.

  22. Chris W

    I agree with those commenters who say the public reaction to the discovery of primitive extraterrestrial life will be utterly minimal.

    Most people will react with complete indifference.

    Those of us who are interested in science, and space, and the prospects of life elsewhere will of course be fascinated, and given the echo chamber effect we might be forgiven for thinking the whole world is talking about it. I can’t imagine why any of us will have our minds blown.

    How religions react… well, who knows. In cases where cosmology and evolution haven’t made an impact, I can’t imagine why a microbe will.

    There will be a journalistic feeding frenzy lasting a few weeks (most of it wrong), very few people will give it any thought, and then it’ll be off the news. People just don’t care about this sort of thing. Besides, the concept of alien life is already widespread in film and television – people are already exposed to the idea. Intelligent life would probably shock people. Microbes won’t even register.

  23. Christopher Kandrat

    Different groups of people would act differently, especially those within religion groups. The general populous would have a huge reaction I believe.

  24. Ian

    What does the pope think? This from Wired …

    “A few quick observations: Christians, and the Catholic church in particular, have given quite a bit of thought to this; of people predicting that extraterrestrial contact would destroy Earthly religions, nearly all are atheists; there’s broad consensus among theologians that Christianity would adapt to contact, though opinion about the nature of that adaptation varies.” (Brandon Keim, June 9, 2008)

  25. Tom (H. Type)

    I agree with (22. Chris) “people are already exposed to the idea. Intelligent life would probably shock people. Microbes won’t even register” Or resister only to a few.

    Depending on the kind of news day it is, it may make it to the front page.
    After the initial announcement, I believe the adage “How much money can I make off this” will be the big determining factor.
    Hollywood will undoubtedly re-release Andromeda Strain and the like, “Killer Microbes From Space”.
    Holistic medicine with “Actual alien bacteria” found by major university to be proven successful in the treatment of…(fill in the blank).
    Scare tactic to immunize yourself and your loved ones against this syndrome or that alien disease, or all of them for that matter.
    Alien Microbe games with first person shooter destroying microbes or asteroids (with bad alien microbes on them).
    In the end it will be very commercialized and only a few will realize that actual significance of this discovery.

    Sad, but predictability human.

  26. I don’t know how to react when I hear about witnessing aliens, evidences of micro organisms and hundreds pf youtube videos which claim to have captured UFO’s but only few seem to be convincing.

    And the point which you made in your article

    “If the evidence was legit, it wouldn’t just go away. It would invite and demand further scrutiny. Over the next few years, scientific journals would publish responses and further verifications. Corroborative evidence would begin to emerge, counter-theories and more plausible terrestrial-bound explanations would be published. ”

    Whenever a convincing news story about UFO’s or aliens breaks out, very shortly it goes into cold storage, as if the higher authorities do not want people to know anything about these kinds of events and these events are discarded as pranks and hoax.

  27. Dale Headley

    I don’t think I’ll hold my breath waiting to find out.

  28. Tommy

    “Most of us would still believe, in the back of our collective mind, that Earth is life’s only home.”

    Most of who? Most people? Or most Americans? Or most planetary physicist?

    I would have guessed that most people (at least in the educated part of the world) believe that there’s some sort of life out there.

  29. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Nice article, even accounting for the caveats in the comments (on what we believe).

    But “three great traumas to the psyche: the Copernican, the Darwinian, and the Freudian”? Is that how old Fraud was shown to be just that, or rather bad science?

    @ #11: This is OT the meteorite science, but Pumapunku is built of sandstone and clay, and dated to some 1500 years ago from known quarry within 10 km (more like 5 miles). Several possible methods of transportation suggested.

    The oldest egyptian pyramids were build ~ 4 600 years ago.

  30. André Khan

    ” My suspicion is that even if the alleged discovery of meteor bacteria had been published in Nature by respected and trusted scientists, it would be met with almost an equal degree of skepticism. Imagine your friend emailing you a link to the Nature article saying that a meteor contained evidence of bacteria from outer space. Your reaction wouldn’t be to sit down, head in hands, overwhelmed by the colossal existential weight of the discovery that Earth is not the sole originator of life. You probably wouldn’t even read the article. Life would carry on as usual. Why? Because you would expect the results to be an error, or a misrepresentation, or contamination of the sample. Except, this time, you would be wrong.”

    Alternatively the reason could be that when polled the vast majority of people already believe in the existance of extraterrestrial life. Outside of the scientific community, people just don’t care about bacteria. They might be interested if they were presented with evidence of walking, talking, intelligent alien life, but bacterial alien life interests them about as much as terrestrial bacterial life. People are expecting disclosure from governments about alien visitation, and would quite probably rather watch paint dry than read an article proofing a bacteria came from off world.

  31. Elainya

    I THINK THAT EVERYBODY WOULD FREAK OUT! THE SUICIDE RATES WOULD RISE AND ALIENS WOULD TAKE OVER EARTH. IF THEY HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY TO COME DOWN TO EARTH, THEN THEY WOULD HAVE THE POWER TO TAKE OVER EARTH AND THE GOVERMENTS ARE SO UP THEIR OWN [BUTTS] THAT THEY’D RUSH TO FIND A WAY TO DEFEAT THEM INSTEAD OF TAKEN THEIR TIME WHICH COULD SAVE OUR LIVES

  32. CapsAreCool

    @Elainya: ALL CAPS + STUPID COMMENT! YAY!

  33. Paul

    “one day, […] a press conference would be announced. Every major scientific organization from around the globe would be represented in some form. “[…]thousands of researchers and scientists from around the world have come to a conclusion. […] We are not alone. The origins of the bacterium on the meteor are extraterrestrial.” On that day, and that day alone, will anyone truly believe it.”

    [Laughs] Science By Proclamation? Seriously? That is not how it works. And you only need to look at controversial ideas in the past to see that. Heliocentrism, evolution in general (ie, as understood in Darwin’s day), natural selection specifically, the big bang, etc.

    Someone has controversial idea, or makes controversial discovery. Bunch of scientists like it, bunch of them attack it. Attacks are rebutted, experiments are enlarged, evidence mounts. A few of the milder attackers are convinced, the rest won’t accept the new science, the supporters won’t let it go.

    If the idea is valid, it enriches the field and opens new areas of research. Those who refuse to accept it, stagnate. Their preferred alternative explanations produce no new insights, no new developments, and no new students. Eventually they die.

    If the idea is invalid, it contributes little to the field. It stagnates while the rest of the field moves on. Eventually it’s proponents die.

    There’s no magic moment where the Grand Priests of Science gather to Pronounce to all Good Citizens that a Scientific Finding or Theory is True. Science just treats bad science as stalled and leaves it behind. Individual beliefs are almost irrelevant.

    (The exceptions, like the Copenhagen conference, or IPCC reports, are rare enough to prove the rule.)

  34. Ruth

    It would make me happy beyond belief.

  35. Soulnova

    What’s with all this “religions will deny it”? Haven’t you read the news for the last 3 years? At least with the Catholic church that won’t be a problem.

    “The Vatican’s chief astronomer says that believing in aliens does not contradict faith in God.” May 2008

    Then there was a study week on astrobiology sponsored by the Vatican Observatory and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on 2009 to check the probabilities of alien life. Again saying they are cool with it, it’s almost a given and that aliens would be our “spiritual brothers”.

    They have been making such conferences for a while back.

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