If a verified message from aliens is ever received, would the public be told about it? SETI – the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence - does have an international protocol that if an alien signal is ever received, it would be disseminated among the astronomical community and made public. And of course, says Mac Tonnies at the SETI Blog, “international cooperation might be necessary in order to distinguish a legitimate alien signal from any number of phenomena capable of generating false alarms.” But what if the signal is more than just extra-terrestrials saying hello? Tonnies believes SETI's plans for full disclosure only makes sense if the message is fairly benign. If the signal was a notice of impending doom from a black hole, supernova, or alien invasion – something we on Earth had little power to do anything about – Tonnies questions whether governments would choose to make such information public. But could something of this magnitude really be kept under wraps?
Frankly, I hadn’t really considered this scenario. When I think about SETI and the possibility of communication with an alien species, I envision, perhaps naively, what Tonnies calls the “lofty, abstract dialogue immortalized by Carl Sagan.” But of course, we have no idea of what any alien intelligence would like to say to us. If it was bad news, would governments of the world elect to withhold the information from the public?
Intrigued by Tonnies’ blog post, I contacted him to ask that question.
“I think it's a very real possibility that generally goes unspoken,” said Tonnies, an author, essayist and blogger. “In the event of a bona fide signal, the public may only be made privy to part of it. It depends on the content and context of the message.”