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Covid-19 and Premier Contact: a pandemic that prepares us to manage the impossible

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In a multidisciplinary study, the physicist Peter Hatfield and the specialist in public law, Leah Trueblood have highlighted several points in common between two events, the first, very real and the other hypothetical: the Covid-19 pandemic and a first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, reports the journal Astronomy . Both are characterized by a major involvement of the scientific community, whose work is subject to scrutiny by the general public, as well as by an ongoing interaction between scientists and political leaders.

For researchers, these similarities offer the opportunity to construct realistic scenarios if an unequivocal signal is received from another intelligent civilization. Since the early 1970s, thousands of messages have been sent into infinite space without eliciting particularly encouraging responses, so much so that these attempts at communication now take place in blasé indifference.

Until now, the content of communications sent into space has been the work of a small group of people, mostly scientists capable of crafting a CV of humanity that is not interpreted as a declaration of war. at the other end of the galaxy. But the situation would be very different in the case of a first contact where it would prove necessary to provide a response to an extraterrestrial message.

In this situation, where the entire planet would be concerned, who should get down to developing a response? Peter Hatfield and Leah Trueblood took this question to 2,000 Britons.

“Imagine a scenario in which scientists receive an unambiguous message from an alien life form on a distant planet. Which of the following five options would be your favorite for determining humanity’s response to this message. “

A panel of scientists: 39%
Elected representatives: 15%
By a world referendum: 11%
By a group of citizens drawn by lot: 11%
Do not vote: 23%

With almost 40%, British respondents favor a response defined by scientists. For the authors of the study, the two situations, Covid-19 and first contact, are “of a fundamentally scientific nature but with social, economic and political impacts.” Both affect every human on Earth and constitute or may represent an “external threat” that could bring humanity together on one side, unlike, for example, a world war.

In the case of contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, the main point of contention would be a basic question: “Should we answer?”

However, underline Peter Hatfield and Leah Trueblood, the pandemic has shown the limits of this politico-scientific response: even in a limited advisory role, the work of scientists has been scrutinized and criticized by public opinion in proportions never reached by the past. The researchers also recall that, while some of them advise governments, other scientists offer themselves as independent sources of information, sometimes in conflict with official recommendations.

Consequence: public opinion discovers, a little stunned, that not only scientists do not always agree with each other but that they can even tear each other apart in fierce battles where politics is not absent.

In the case of contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, the main subject of contention would relate to an elementary question: “Should we answer?”, Knowing that this contact could result in both the annihilation of humanity and by immense economic, social and cultural progress.

Faced with such an existential question, the authors conclude, the political and scientific system put in place to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic would be insufficient: “The decision-making should be the responsibility of a team of scientists appointed by different jurisdictions rather than by nation states and have a wide range of consultation opportunities. ” say the researchers. This areopagus should ideally be represented by a personality close to scientific circles but democratically elected.

Ultimately, the Oxford researchers’ proposal looks a lot like a transnational “government of experts” that does not encumber itself with democratic safeguards. Would this device have been more effective against the pandemic? We can doubt it. A fortiori, would it make it possible to define a response likely to be approved by all humanity in the event of first contact? The future will tell. Perhaps.

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