October 26, 2007

Brin's position on the METI issue clarified

Science fiction author and futurist David Brin recently contacted me about what he feels was my very poor interpretation of his stance on the METI issue.

David and I have since cleared things up via email, but for the sake of furthering this discussion I thought I'd reproduce parts of our conversation here.

From David,
[RE: Brin's article, "Shouting at the Cosmos: ...Or How SETI has Taken a Worrisome Turn Into Dangerous Territory."]

... you wrote:
"Brin is vehemently opposed to this idea, as he believes it could put humanity in great peril. For all we know, he argues, some malevolent ETI is lurking in the neighborhood waiting for less advanced civilizations to draw attention to themselves."

I would be very interested in the provenance of this lurid and somewhat demeaning quasi-quotation.

My position is simply that narrowly dogmatic communities should not plunge into activities that commit humanity down paths that have low probability but high potential impact outcomes, without at least first engaging the wider world scientific community in eclectic discussion.

The only "vehemence" has been to ask for open discussions, which should be enjoyable and illuminating to all.

There is a general principle here. It is simply wrong to arrogate peremptory moves that bet human posterity, based upon cult-like and unchallenged assumptions.
It appears, much to my surprise, that I made incorrect inferences about his particular position as it pertains to the Active SETI approach and his motives for wanting to generate discussion. In my response to Brin I asked him to be more explicit in the future about what he is and is not saying. To which he responded,
The Lifeboat article, I thought, was clear enough, never once mentioning alien badguys, in any way shape or form, and repeatedly stating the goal of open discussion -- something that the small and increasingly cult-like SETI/METI community has strenuously avoided.
Comments welcome. I'd be curious to know how my readers have interpreted Brin's writings on the subject.


Anonymous said...

Your interpretation of his article is justifiable, and perhaps the most reasonable.

Brin certainly does seem to be vehement, given his emotive language in the article.

Perhaps he's not vehemently opposed to METI as such, but to METI without a consensus.

He clearly raises the spectre of "alien bad guys", particularly in section three, and just look at the pictures accompanying the article: "A risk that a handful of individuals have decided to inflict on us" and "It is naive to assume there is no evil in the universe"!

For Brin to try and claim that he never mentioned hostile ETIs "in any way shape or form" is clearly an attempt to "spin" the article, and flies in the face of its content.

Seriously, what other possible danger could there be from METI other than hostile ETIs?

I'm not sure what his agenda is in repudiating your interpretation.

Perhaps the article is just a stump speech in a campaign to get himself invited to sit in on METI conferences?

In which case your characterisation of him as being vehemently opposed to METI would hinder his chances.

Rasmus said...

I don't really feel that he names any bad guys directly in his article. I think he implies the possibility...which supports his argument on broad discussion, since the existence of ANY possibilities of that scope should be broadly evaluated by humanity.

Not sure I agree - but that would be for pragmatic reasons more than ideological, since his basic goal is fair enough.

Unknown said...

I think that Brin was primarily addressing the need to go slow on METI, and used, in most part, temperate language. I think, though, that the article was diverted in its intent with the decidedly provocative illustrations (nasty looking fellow, arguing people, some kind of spacecraft invasion, screaming or maybe smelling-some-stinkin'-alien lady).

Rasmus said...

Yes, that background was totally out of sync with his serious tone.

I think his main concern is with the (geo-)political discourse that any "outward" action should be based upon.
The question of any concrete threat level is only of minor argumentative value - it's completely theoretical anyway.

David Brin said...

David Brin here. Thanks for the effort to be fair, George. Though frankly, turning my "vehemence" into a topic was also surprising and off-topic.

For the record, I did not choose the lurid illustrations that the Lifeboat Foundation web guys liked so much. I complained mildly, without vehemence, and shrugged when they insisted.

As for potential dangers other than slathering alien badguy meanies, well, anyone who cannot imagine other scenarios of regret from METI that do not involve instant attack are simply people who suffer from lack of scientific or morphological imagination What they illustrate is the same blithe eagerness to assume that their view of the horizon is the only view possible.

As someone who has scanned more horizons - and more scenarios, from plausible to weird - than most people, I can tell you that the salient fact is how LITTLE of that horizon we have covered, so far. All I've suggested is that we listen a while longer, as new kids in a strange forest, and get to know the lay of the land, before shouting our heads off.

Anonymous said...

I can think of several scenarios such as accidental or economic damage accidental introduction of deadly viruses to accidental disruption or destruction of our satellite communication systems by a AI.

Anonymous said...

Um. Isn't the whole context "ETs hearing METI", and therefore saying that "evil" might exist in the universe directly implies evil BY ETs that hear METI?

I don't see why Brin would *need* to deny this - even if that was ALL he meant, his point is perfectly valid, and needs to be taken at least as seriously as SETI and METI themselves.

If ET exists to listen, then we have to consider that ET might not be happy to share the universe with us.

In fact, one could build a case that - if there were one "evil" ET out there, highly motivated to seek out and destroy other ETs - that ET might well have spread much further than friendly ETs that may see little need to make the huge effort of spreading beyond their home system. So the probability of EET hearing METI and launching something nasty our way may be higher than Friendly ET hearing the message, let alone responding.

Obviously we don't really know - but shouldn't we at least think it over before yelling "Hey! Over here! We're chewy/crunchy and not very advanced - but may become dangerous in a few decades or centuries!"

Anonymous said...

I don't think this article has been linked to yet: