How will humanity react to the discovery of alien life?

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(ORDO NEWS) — For over 1500 years, mankind believed that the Earth was the center of the solar system. After all, the Bible – which was the scientific authority at the time – said it was. Then came Nicolaus Copernicus, who in the 16th century dared to challenge the church and mathematically described the solar system with the sun at its center. After his death, Galileo Galilei observations of celestial bodies further confirmed the Copernican model. The Catholic Church, fearing that such a find would undermine the highest authority of the Bible, accused him of heresy. Galileo was sentenced to life imprisonment, but allowed to serve his sentence at home due to deteriorating health. Institutions with tremendous power often oppose paradigm shifts that can undermine their authority. Now, let’s imagine that scientists have finally discovered extraterrestrial life.

Are we alone in the universe?

The answer to the question of whether we are alone in this infinite universe today does not exist. But the discovery of extraterrestrial life would finally put an end to the controversy on this score. In other words, it would be a major paradigm shift. So if we eventually come to the conclusion that we are not alone, how will the world react to this discovery?

In fact, humanity could have accepted this news with open arms. At least that’s the conclusion made by Michael Varnum, professor of psychology at the University of Arizona. He is also a member of a research group that is working on creating a social foundation for a future extraterrestrial society. Varnum took over one of the group’s projects, which had to answer one difficult question: how will humanity react to the discovery of life outside the Earth?

In 1953, researchers believed that if alien life was discovered, mass hysteria would begin.

And according to a recent survey by Discover, 25% of Americans think people will panic when scientists discover extraterrestrial life. But according to Varnum’s work, the reality is likely to be much more mundane. First, our robotic spacecraft are likely to find on the surfaces of other worlds or in their subglacial oceans traces of “unreasonable” extraterrestrial life, such as microbes or bacteria. Therefore, Varnum limited the scope of research to the human reaction to the news that scientists had confirmed the existence of microbial alien life.

The authors of the paper, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, began with a preliminary analysis, assessing the reaction of subjects to news of the possible existence of extraterrestrial life. The news covered five major astronomical discoveries: the discovery of pulsars in 1967, the “Wow!” in 1977 (on August 15, 1977, the first and so far the only radio signal that could be an extraterrestrial message to mankind was caught), the discovery of fossilized microbes on Mars in 1996, the discovery of the Tabby star in 2015 and the discovery of exoplanets in the habitable zone of the star in 2017.

The researchers analyzed news coverage, government announcements, and press releases to determine the percentage of words in each article that were positive, negative, rewarding, or risk-taking. It turned out that words describing a positive effect were more common than words describing a negative effect. The paper’s preliminary findings suggested that the overall public response to news of alien life would be positive and more reward-oriented.

In the second part of the study, 504 Amazon subjects were asked to answer a hypothetical situation: “Imagine scientists have just discovered microbial life outside of Earth.” The scientists asked the study participants to describe their reactions, as well as the reactions of other people. Again, it turned out that people tend to be more positive. The results of subsequent research also showed that a positive attitude towards extraterrestrial microbial life is more positive than towards synthetic life.

We are calm about alien life

Of course, contextual analysis of hypothetical situations and past events may not necessarily predict what will actually happen if scientists finally find life beyond Earth. But most likely the reaction will really be positive.

As the authors of the scientific work write, “the discovery of microbial alien life did not cause any radical changes in everyday life.” Indeed, during our entire existence, we have come a long way and several paradigm shifts at once. According to Varnum, in the past, people would have been frightened by news of life on other planets.


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