Skip to main content

Impossible Predictions of the Unprecedented: Analogy, History, and the Work of Prognostication

Part of the Advances in Astrobiology and Biogeophysics book series (ASTROBIO)

Abstract

At the beginning of exobiology and SETI as research programs circa 1960, it was reasonable and responsible for scientists and others to consider the potential effects of a detection of other life, or contact with it, upon humanity. It is no coincidence that this was a time of reckoning with the power of science and technology. The Cold War was settling in, space programs were beginning, and the technologies of war and those of discovery were then, as now, intertwined, in a way that made Carl Sagan, Philip Morrison, Joshua Lederberg, and others, concerned for humanity’s future, and the future of life. Those concerns are as well-founded as ever. However, 50 years on, after half a century of predictions and untested hypotheses, we still only know that a detection of extraterrestrial life could come tomorrow, in the next century, or never. Many potential scenarios have been identified and explored, planetary protection protocols have been implemented for astrobiology, policy concerning SETI detections has been created and debated, and some valuable empirical work has been done concerning potential cultural reactions. We might now reasonably ask: what are our real goals here? And do they match what we are actually accomplishing? Are these exercises still beneficial, or are they reaching the point of diminishing returns? Might there be undesirable effects of prognostications about detection and contact? Elsewhere, I have discussed at some length what I think can sensibly be done to prepare for a detection. This leaves me with a further argument to make here: first, that the use of historical analogies of intercultural contact on Earth to predict or explore the potential consequences of contact with ETI may now be essentially useless or perhaps worse than useless; second, that the longstanding practice of prediction about contact now also invites scrutiny in terms of its utility; and third, that turning our attention to pressing topics at the intersection of astrobiology, SETI, and society, could be worthwhile for scholars of humanity.

Keywords

  • Historical Analogy
  • SETI Contact
  • Extraterrestrial Life
  • Stephen Hawking
  • Faint Trace

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Buying options

Chapter
USD   29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-642-35983-5_16
  • Chapter length: 12 pages
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
eBook
USD   129.00
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • ISBN: 978-3-642-35983-5
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
Softcover Book
USD   169.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Hardcover Book
USD   179.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)

Notes

  1. 1.

    As David Clarke famously said, archaeology is “the discipline with the theory and practice for the recovery of unobservable hominid behavior patterns from indirect traces in bad samples” (1973, 17). This both produces and explains the eccentricity of many archaeologists.

References

  • Billingham, John, Roger Heyns, and David Milne, et al. 1999. Social Implications of the Detection of an Extraterrestrial Civilization. Mountain View, CA: SETI Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Chomsky, Noam. 1993. Year 501: The Conquest Continues. Montreal: Black Rose Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Grier, Peter. 2010. “Stephen Hawking Aliens Warning: Should We Hide?” Christian Science Monitor, April 26. www.csmonitor.com/Science/2010/0426/Stephen-Hawking-aliens-warning-Should-we-hide.

  • Clarke, David. 1973. “Archaeology: The Loss of Innocence.” Antiquity 47 (185): 6–18.

    Google Scholar 

  • Davis, Wade. 2009. The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in a Modern World. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Denning, Kathryn. 2011. “Is Life What We Make of It?” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 369 (1936): 669–678. DOI:10.1098/rsta.2010.0230.

    Google Scholar 

  • Denning, Kathryn. 2010a. “Social Evolution: State of the Field.” In Cosmos and Culture: Cultural Evolution in a Cosmic Context, ed. Steven J. Dick and Mark L. Lupisella, 63–124. Washington, DC: NASA. NASA SP-2009-4802. Available online:http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4802.pdf.

  • Denning, Kathryn. 2010b. “Unpacking the Great Transmission Debate.” Acta Astronautica 67: 1399–1405. doi:10.1016/j.actaastro.2010.02.024. Reprinted as “Unpacking the Great Transmission Debate.” 2011. Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence, ed. Douglas A. Vakoch, 237–252. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Denning, Kathryn. 2010c. “The History of Contact on Earth: Analogies, Myths, Misconceptions.” IAC-10-A4.2.2. On conference DVD and in IAC online archives. 61st International Astronautical Congress. Prague, Czech Republic, September.

    Google Scholar 

  • Finney, Ben. 1990. “The Impact of Contact.” Acta Astronautica 21 (2): 117–121.

    Google Scholar 

  • Finney, Ben, and Jerry Bentley. 1998. “A Tale of Two Analogues: Learning at a Distance from the Ancient Greeks and Maya and the Problem of Deciphering Extraterrestrial Radio Transmissions.” Acta Astronautica 42 (10–12): 691–696.

    Google Scholar 

  • Harrison, Albert. 2007. Starstruck: Cosmic Visions in Science, Religion, and Folklore. New York: Berghahn Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Heilbron, John L., Jill Conway, D. Kent Cullers, Steven J. Dick, Ben Finney, Karl S. Guthke, and Kenneth Kenniston. 1999. “History and SETI.” In Social Implications of the Detection of an Extraterrestrial Civilization, ed. John Billingham et al. Mountain View: SETI Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kehoe, Alice Beck. 2002. America before the European Invasions. London: Longman.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mann, Charles. 2005. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. New York: Vintage Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Michaud, Michael. 2007. Contact with Alien Civilizations: Our Hopes and Fears about Encountering Extraterrestrials. New York: Springer Science.

    Google Scholar 

  • Saul, John Ralston. 2008. A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada. Toronto: Penguin.

    Google Scholar 

  • Scarre, Christopher. 1990. “The Western World View in Archaeological Atlases.” In The Politics of the Past, ed. Peter Gathercole and David Lowenthal, 11–17. London: Unwin Hyman.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wolf, Eric. 1982. Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wright, Ronald. 1992. Stolen Continents: The “New World” Through Indian Eyes. London: Penguin Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wright, Ronald. 2008. What Is America? Toronto: Vintage Canada.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wylie, Alison. 2002. Thinking from Things: Essays in the Philosophy of Archaeology. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Zamora, Margarita. 1999. “‘If Cahonaboa Learns to Speak …’: Amerindian Voice in the Discourse of Discovery.” Colonial Latin American Review 8 (2): 191–205. DOI:10.1080/10609169984629.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kathryn Denning .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 2013 Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg

About this chapter

Cite this chapter

Denning, K. (2013). Impossible Predictions of the Unprecedented: Analogy, History, and the Work of Prognostication. In: Vakoch, D. (eds) Astrobiology, History, and Society. Advances in Astrobiology and Biogeophysics. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-35983-5_16

Download citation