Birth Of A Bad Blog Meme Or, Why Are Some People Laughing At “Green Aliens”?

It pays to read a scientific study before commenting on it.

A report in The Guardian has seemingly triggered a firestorm on the right-side of the blogosphere, and taught us a lesson in how one portion of a news report can suddenly become a meme that completely misses the point of the entire report. First, let’s deal with the story itself with deals with a scientific study speculating on various scenarios under which humanity could encounter extraterrestrial life:

Shawn Domagal-Goldman of Nasa’s Planetary Science Division and his colleagues compiled a list of plausible outcomes that could unfold in the aftermath of a close encounter, to help humanity “prepare for actual contact”.

In their report, Would Contact with Extraterrestrials Benefit or Harm Humanity? A Scenario Analysis, the researchers divide alien contacts into three broad categories: beneficial, neutral or harmful.

Beneficial encounters ranged from the mere detection of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI), for example through the interception of alien broadcasts, to contact with cooperative organisms that help us advance our knowledge and solve global problems such as hunger, poverty and disease.

Another beneficial outcome the authors entertain sees humanity triumph over a more powerful alien aggressor, or even being saved by a second group of ETs. “In these scenarios, humanity benefits not only from the major moral victory of having defeated a daunting rival, but also from the opportunity to reverse-engineer ETI technology,” the authors write.

Other kinds of close encounter may be less rewarding and leave much of human society feeling indifferent towards alien life. The extraterrestrials may be too different from us to communicate with usefully. They might invite humanity to join the “Galactic Club” only for the entry requirements to be too bureaucratic and tedious for humans to bother with. They could even become a nuisance, like the stranded, prawn-like creatures that are kept in a refugee camp in the 2009 South African movie, District 9, the report explains.

The most unappealing outcomes would arise if extraterrestrials caused harm to humanity, even if by accident. While aliens may arrive to eat, enslave or attack us, the report adds that people might also suffer from being physically crushed or by contracting diseases carried by the visitors. In especially unfortunate incidents, humanity could be wiped out when a more advanced civilisation accidentally unleashes an unfriendly artificial intelligence, or performs a catastrophic physics experiment that renders a portion of the galaxy uninhabitable.

It’s one scenario in particular, though, that caught the attention of many conservative bloggers today, for obvious reasons:

It may not rank as the most compelling reason to curb greenhouse gases, but reducing our emissions might just save humanity from a pre-emptive alien attack, scientists claim.Watching from afar, extraterrestrial beings might view changes in Earth’s atmosphere as symptomatic of a civilisation growing out of control – and take drastic action to keep us from becoming a more serious threat, the researchers explain.

(….)

The authors warn that extraterrestrials may be wary of civilisations that expand very rapidly, as these may be prone to destroy other life as they grow, just as humans have pushed species to extinction on Earth. In the most extreme scenario, aliens might choose to destroy humanity to protect other civilisations.

“A preemptive strike would be particularly likely in the early phases of our expansion because a civilisation may become increasingly difficult to destroy as it continues to expand. Humanity may just now be entering the period in which its rapid civilisational expansion could be detected by an ETI because our expansion is changing the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere, via greenhouse gas emissions,” the report states.

“Green” aliens might object to the environmental damage humans have caused on Earth and wipe us out to save the planet. “These scenarios give us reason to limit our growth and reduce our impact on global ecosystems. It would be particularly important for us to limit our emissions of greenhouse gases, since atmospheric composition can be observed from other planets,” the authors write.

It’s worth noting that it was this “environmentalist aliens” scenario that The Guardian chose to emphasize in the lede to its article (the first two paragraphs above are the first two paragraphs of the article itself), so it’s understandable why people would jump on it. Additionally, I tend to agree with Jonathan Adler that grafting contemporary political disputes onto an alien civilization is, in the end, rather silly. More likely than not, a civilization capable of interstellar travel would look upon our current condition and consider us the equivalent of ants, a minor species not really worthy of their attention.

If you actually look at the study itself (PDF), though, you’d see that the bit about environmentalism is an incredibly small part of the paper. What we’ve got here is a group of scientists engaging in speculation about possible contact between humanity and advanced civilizations., not some attempt to scare people into adopting the agenda of the Green Party in order fend off the impending Romulan attack. In fact, the entire “Green Aliens” concept takes about about 1 1/2 pargraphs in a 33 page study, which really had nothing at all to do with environmentalism.

Next time, I’d suggest that the editors at The Guardian or any other news outlet, and those commenting on their material, read scientific studies a little more closely before writing about them. That way, we can avoid silly mistakes like this.,

In the meantime, for anyone actually interested in the topic of the paper, I’d recommend reading the paper. It’s actually pretty interesting.

 

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Science & Technology
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Ron Beasley says:

    People read an article and see what they want to see and ignore what doesn’t fit “their reality”. That might be an even better reason to consider us a threat and wipe us out.

  2. Vast Variety says:

    Romulans are not green… just green blooded. =)

    Anything to stir the pot.

  3. John Burgess says:

    One bad paragraph-and-a-half spoils the whole study.

    As an example of blue-sky thinking, the study is okay. But if you’re going to go out on a limb, you have to anticipate that the limb may not bear much weight, as that paragraph-and-a-half did not. It did, however, attract the attention of those jaundiced by previous extrapolations from sketchy data.

  4. Drew says:

    This essay was a parody, a joke, right?

  5. mantis says:

    It pays to read a scientific study before commenting on it.

    Reading just gets in the way of knee-jerking.

  6. john personna says:

    Burgess’ response was a parody, a joke, right?

    In an effort to name as many scenarios as possible, no, one doesn’t ruin it. The lack of one might though.

    How about red aliens? They don’t give a crap about our environment, but are so concerned about competitors that they watch CO2 emissions to see who even develops low-tech industry. When they see it … they send a rock.

  7. john personna says:

    BTW, though the Queen of Outer Space scenario is now out of favor, it remains my favorite,

  8. Ron Beasley says:

    Since humans from one culture can’t figure out what motivates another human culture it’s absurd to think we could anticipate what would motivate a non human culture.

  9. john personna says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    They would probably look at what motivations span not just cultures, but species, on earth. They’d probably look for “biological universality.”

    Why does a surprised bear attack a hiker? Is bear culture to blame? 😉

  10. mantis says:

    I hear the bear Culture Wars are heating up again.

  11. Richard Gardner says:

    This “plot” reminds me of the Sci-Fi Classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still. Actually this whole study reminds me of a summary of SciFi” First Contact” stories. Little new.

  12. NickNot says:

    “And the aliens arrived in their super re-engineered Chevy Volts….”

  13. doubter4444 says:

    @Richard Gardner:
    The Day the Earth Stood Still is a great example of Liberal media elites trying to push their agenda.
    (sarc, though it’s a bummer that these days, my comment could be easily taken seriously)

  14. Franklin says:

    While Al Gore may welcome our new alien overlords, Paul Krugman wants us to resist them which will benefit the economy.

    If only Glenn Beck was still on the air, I would know what to really think.

  15. john personna says:

    They say The Day the Earth Stood Still was about using SciFi to explore our own angst about nuclear proliferation and the risk of annihilation. Avatar would be the modern, green, parallel.

  16. JKB says:

    You could read the paper or just get the sci fi package for your cable which would be more entertaining. Get a theater to run the b-movies of the 1950s as Saturday matinees and you can enjoy the study as it was originally conceived.

    Really, does NASA do science anymore or just watch old movies and outreach to Muslims?

  17. Alasdair says:

    Folks – this the the Grauniad about which you are talking/typing … the Grauniad is renowned for being correct less times per day than a broken clock …

    As for the study/paper itself, yup, it is interesting …

  18. Drew says:

    Well, let’s look at the bright side. An alien invasion, and 100% of the people on food stamps, Krugman will be in 7th heaven, what with 100% employment, 10% GDP growth and all.

    Oh, and pass the bong, wouldya?

  19. Brett says:

    I think it’s just likely that intelligent life (and complex, social, tool-using life in particular) is extremely rare. PZ Myers did a good presentation on aliens where he talked about the rarity of intelligence.

    If ten such civilizations develop, and only one of them actually gets to radio communication and space travel, they could more or less be permanently isolated. Especially if the one space-faring civilization doesn’t really care about off-world colonization even when they have the capability to do it, like here on Earth.

    On top of that, interstellar travel is really difficult from a technical perspective, and the travel times long for anything beyond the nearest stars. The colonies 20 light-years from the home system might as well be different civilizations.

  20. Rock says:

    What if the Green Aliens are gay and want Barny Frank to be their earthly liaison coordinator.

  21. John Burgess says:

    Soylent Green is starting to make sense. Let us, though, avoid the 30-ft ants, slugs, grasshoppers, and the like. Carnivorous carrots in the Arctic, 50-Foot Women, and the various Pod People can stay home, too.

    I fear it’s too late about the Pod People, though. I read there’s a Krugman husk hanging in a closet somewhere in NYC.

  22. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Drew: When was the last time you contributed to a conversation, Drew?

    As to the article in the Guardian, after the 1st paragraph I did not read any more. Maybe I should read the study…. Nah. The chances of contact with an alien civilization with in my lifetime are something along the lines of 10 to the power of 77. While I am quite sure alien civilizations exist, I am also quite sure they are as constrained by the laws of nature as we are.

    In other words, how does one travel faster than the speed of light, without ever actually traveling AT the speed of light? It takes a really vivid imagination to envision that….

  23. Trumwill says:

    I have to confess, for once my response was the same as Drew’s. So much so that half-way through I went back up to the top of the page to make sure I hadn’t accidentally stumbled on Scrappleface or some like site. Then, when I finished, I checked the URL to make sure it wasn’t some mock-up.

    The Guardian is deserving of most of the mockery, but it seems to me that either the writers of the paper exceeded their scope by making policy recommendations in what should have been an assessment or the scope itself went beyond absurd (suggesting that we should tailor our policies based on what aliens might think of us). So they’re not blameless here.

  24. john personna says:

    @Trumwill:

    In all that, did you look at the actual paper?

    To me you have to be mixed up, and have to put too high a value on the paper to start with, in order to think there is something terribly wrong with it.

    So it is a wide ranging blue-sky paper on human-alien relations. It follows other blue-sky scenarios, like Hawking’s “hide.”

    It is harmless to me that someone took the time to compile these diverse ideas, and especially harmless that “green aliens” merit a short mention after “red aliens” and others.

    If you don’t like it, write your own.

  25. john personna says:

    The Two-Step:

    1) puff up this mention into something you can get agitated about
    2) get agitated

  26. john personna says:

    (I agree with Brett that our odds of meeting actual aliens are impossibly small, which is probably why I’m not too upset by the suggestion that some, but not all, of them might be greens.)

  27. A voice from another precinct says:

    @Richard Gardner: The thing that troubles me the most is that a synopsis of most of the available archtypical “stories” cast into alien encounter format passes for “scientific research” in Doug’s mind–and at NASA.

  28. john personna says:

    @A voice from another precinct:

    Right, NASA should never, ever, think about aliens. That’s like totally outside their turf.

  29. Trumwill says:

    @john personna: Have not read the paper (I scanned a few paragraphs surrounding one of the quotes in the article, however). I consider the exploration of different scenarios to be interesting, but the suggestion that we should even consider these possibilities when it comes to our domestic policy, whether it’s Earthian policy I agree with or not for Earthian reasons, to be absurd.

    I’m not arguing that the paper is without merit. I am saying that they invited criticism by even suggesting that these scenarios should have any sort of immediate effect on policy. If that wasn’t the point of the paper, they shouldn’t have put that in there. If that was the point of the paper, they should have limited its scope to simply explore the scenarios, as opposed to making immediate recommendations on present policy.

  30. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @john personna: I repeat:

    While I am quite sure alien civilizations exist, I am also quite sure they are as constrained by the laws of nature as we are.

  31. john personna says:

    @Trumwill:

    In context the line is no big. As Doug observes it was the external context that gave it focus.

    It is an invented controversy.

  32. john personna says:

    (I’m pretty sure the purpose of the paper was to show a wide range of possibilities, and to leave readers with the message that you can’t just “pick one.” And that is perhaps a media message following Hawking’s “pick one.” The big message is that should (against long odds) aliens arrive, it could go a lotta ways.

    So the Guardian and the blogs get people hopped up that “oh no, that one can’t be in there.”

    What a spectacular way to miss the point, while riding their own political hot buttons.)

  33. KipEsquire says:

    Original “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is the most libertarian movie I have ever seen — and I have seen “Atlas Shrugged.”

    http://movieclips.com/5wok-the-day-the-earth-stood-still-movie-klaatus-speech/

  34. Trumwill says:

    @john personna: I don’t consider it a controversy. I consider it absurd. Pointing out that the media is focusing on the silly part doesn’t make the silly part less silly.

    You say it makes more sense in context. Okay, give me the context in which suggesting that gearing our greenhouse policy towards what aliens might think of us or that aliens might discover us through it makes sense. Reading the entirety of section 7 doesn’t seem to help.

    I don’t really object to the notion that we might be destroyed because we’re perceived as a threat or even because we aren’t proper stewards of the earth (or because we’re savages that abort our unborn or savages that eat meat or have a nuclear arsenal or whatever). I find laughable the notion that our speculation to the motivations of alien life forms that will probably never find their way here to begin with should influence our policies even in the slightest.

  35. Senator Marco Rubio was unavailable for comment as his head had exploded trying to come up with a comment condemning NASA for the “green aliens” report while saying that NASA should suffer no budget cuts.

  36. Murray says:

    As you pointed out it all started with a misleading title from The Guardian.

    This story shows that the problem lies as much if not more in catchy “journalism” as in sloppy blogging.

  37. john personna says:

    @Trumwill:

    Way to stubbornly miss the point. The paper concludes:

    A final recommendation is that preparations for ETI encounter, whether through METI, SETI, human explorations of space, or any other form, should consider the full breadth of possible 26 encounter scenarios. Indeed, perhaps the central conclusion of the analysis presented here is that ETI contact could proceed in a wide range of ways. It is inappropriate and inadequate to blindly assume that any one specific scenario would result from contact. Until such contact occurs, we simply do not know what would happen. Given the uncertainty, the broad scenario analysis presented here is an important step towards helping us think through and prepare for possible contact.

    That Guardian set-up did you in, right? Now you can’t even think about the broad set of 26 scenarios (and the implication that there are really many more). You are hooked, that no, not even as 1 random example of 26, could aliens possibly be ‘green.”

  38. JohnMcC says:

    Do they have aircraft carriers? Jay Tea could tell us what to do!

  39. Rock says:

    From the time of the first UFO reports, we’ve all speculated about whether or not Little Green Aliens from Mars or elsewhere will be friendly or hostile. This is a very old story with a different spin. We’ve seen the movies and read the books. The only unanswered question is who will have exclusive coverage of their arrival – I say CNN.

  40. Trumwill says:

    @john personna:

    Here is what I said:

    I don’t really object to the notion that we might be destroyed because we’re perceived as a threat or even because we aren’t proper stewards of the earth.

    Here is what you read:

    You are hooked, that no, not even as 1 random example of 26, could aliens possibly be ‘green.”

    ???? Does it matter what I am actually saying?

    In case it does, It’s really not the suggestion that the aliens might be green that I have a problem with. I have a problem suggesting that this scenario (or any of the others given) should influence policy. That we should reduce our emissions in part because of this “1 random example of 26”.

  41. john personna says:

    @Trumwill:

    Huh? I just explained that the answer was that it could go any way!

    Why are you going on about any one if them should influence policy?

    Still don’t get it?

  42. john personna says:

    I quote (AGAIN):

    It is inappropriate and inadequate to blindly assume that any one specific scenario would result from contact. Until such contact occurs, we simply do not know what would happen.

  43. Trumwill says:

    @john personna: I am going on about any one of them influencing policy because they suggest that the possibility should influence policy.

    The fact that they admit that we do not know what would happen, that these are only some of the scenarios, and so on, does not appear to stop them from making suggestions based on their speculation.

    I keep going back to that part of the paper because that is the part of the paper I am criticizing. That’s the part that is absurd. I am aware that’s only a little part of the paper. I focus on that part of the paper because that’s the part of the paper where I believe the authors screwed up.

  44. john personna says:

    @Trumwill:

    I think they expected most readers to understand the difference between body, scenario spinning, and conclusion:

    The outcome of contact between humanity and ETI depends on many factors that cannot be fully known at this time. The scenario analysis presented in this paper therefore serves as a means of training our minds to recognize patterns and analyze outcomes before contact with ETI ever occurs. Actual contact may not precisely follow the scenarios considered here, but any amount of analysis to prepare ourselves for contact will increase the likelihood of a positive outcome. Therefore, the analysis presented here serves as a step toward developing a comprehensive strategy for responding to contact with ETI.

    But let’s ignore that right, and pretend it is a serious call to change human civilization!

  45. Trumwill says:

    The recommendations appear in the same conclusion as that paragraph. Two paragraphs later…

    “Our analysis suggests some immediate practical recommendations for humanity.”

  46. john personna says:

    @Trumwill:

    As far as I’m concerned they completely diluted that with this line:

    We acknowledge that the pursuit of emissions reductions and other ecological projects may have much stronger justifications than those that derive from ETI encounter, but that does not render ETI encounter scenarios insignificant or irrelevant.

    They did actually show them insignificant and irrelevant, given their complete uncertainty in their result.