The Sound and the Fury about Stephen Hawking’s Alien Warning

May 11th, 2010

Last night I caught the much discussed Discovery Channel episode of Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking dealing with aliens. The initial clip on the website is “Fear the Aliens” which is the controversial bit.   Hawking, unlike Carl Sagan, apparently thinks that we would have much to fear from technologically advanced aliens and that we should be careful about announcing our presence lest they come here and exploit us the way Europeans exploited Native Americans.   Hawking…who lives in a culture that cares and reveres him despite the disease that has left him all but paralyzed.   He is so revered that almost everything he says is much discussed.   More so even when he is likely wrong.

“If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans,” he said.

Prof Hawking thinks that, rather than actively trying to communicate with extra-terrestrials, humans should do everything possible to avoid contact.

He explained: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”

The show is up in its entirety on youtube.   I’ll embed it here, although I don’t know if it will stay up.   Some companies don’t bother youtube much, and some are ruthless about getting shows removed.   If you want to cut to the “fear the aliens” part, start at about 7 minutes in on part four.

It’s really a light documentary for general public consumption with lots of speculation and little science.   I had planned to write something about this a couple of weeks ago, but it was a busy time and I didn’t get around to it.   Everyone else did, however.   I haven’t even read all the commentary.   Some are at least as qualified as me, given that I am an astronomer and science fiction writer, but who is to say what is qualified when the only data we have is that there is essentially no data when it comes to aliens.   We haven’t found them some places we’ve looked, and they’re not here enslaving/eating/mating/toying with us.   Probably.

I wanted to compile some of the responses from some people I respect and from some other sources, too (not that I necessarily disrespect some of these, but I don’t know the authors so well).   So when it comes to Hawking’s views on aliens…

Sean Carroll mostly agrees.

Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, disagrees.

David Brin thinks no one has a clue and should stop making assertions about things they’re clueless about.   I wanted to quote a few paragraphs from Brin on a tangential point that I think deserves a spotlight:

Finally, some of the researchers in this field have expressed deep contempt for science fiction. This ready dismissal of the entire field of gedankenexperimentation by thoughtful and scientifically deep authors is nothing but flat out – and proud – ignorance.   Such people dismiss – without having ever read them – mind-blowingly original thought experiments by the likes of Bear and Banks and Vinge (and me), which make up the only real library of what-if extrapolations that our committees could quickly turn to, in the event of a post-contact situation!

To call such explorations “simpleminded” and unimaginative and based solely on copying the human experience is to declare openly “I am satisfied that B-Movies typify ‘science fiction.’ I have never cracked the spine of a grownup science fiction contact scenario… nor will I, ever.”

That’s just dunderheaded and closeminded and especially unworthy of people who have earned great merit in other fields. People who now propose to represent us, if and when we meet the alien.

Paul Davies thinks that Hawking is wrong.

George Dvorsky thinks that not only is Hawking wrong, everyone else is, too.

Neil deGrasse Tyson on CNN doesn’t seem so fearful, attributes Hawking’s ideas to fears that aliens will be like humans, which is pure speculation:

PZ Meyers sort of disagrees, thinking blind biowarfare more likely than Independence Day scenarios.   He also thinks the other episode of the documentary series he saw was crap.

Ethan Siegel disagrees a lot.

A whole bunch more posts from scienceblogs on the subject.

A bunch of articles in a recent Journal of Cosmology with more responses.   (Scroll down partway, past the Panspermia section to the Hawking on Aliens section).

LA Times article reporting the opinion of some other scientists.

I tend to agree with Carl Sagan and see Hawking’s view as bad science fiction.   Let me explain why.   Any alien civilization that possesses the technology to visit Earth and exploit/enslave/destroy us can already find us whether or not we start shouting at the stars.   Our planets will be totally detectable.   They can see that we have oxygen and hence life in our atmosphere.   They will likely be able to see the lights from our cities, if not more, and have a good clue about our technology level with or without listening for our radio broadcasts (with lightspeed delaying the report according to how far away they are).   Furthermore, they will be so much more advanced than us that we literally will have little to exploit.   They’ll have the time and energy to terraform if they care to actually live on planets and need not search out an Earth.   Comets are a lot handier water sources than oceans deep in gravity wells, and we’d not be likely to be edible or tasty to them either.   If they’re out there, can come here, and want to fuck us over, we’re screwed and being careful, quiet, and fearful will not save our asses.   There’s also the case to be made that being quiet is not being neighborly and would make us be viewed with suspicion and concern, so we might as well talk.   If talking gets us judged, well, so be it.   I just wish Rush Limbaugh won’t be on the radio when the aliens listen.


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