On a humid summer’s day in 1996, President Bill Clinton appeared on the South Lawn of The White House and announced that NASA had discovered what looked to be fossilized bacteria on a Martian meteorite.
It was unprecedented for a President to publicly address potential evidence of alien life — and on television. But the American public didn’t react to the unexpected announcement with panic, fear, or social upheaval.
“You didn’t see droves of people abandoning their religion, spouses, or jobs,” said Michael Varnum, an assistant professor of psychology at Arizona State University, in an interview.
Scientists, however, have never been able to prove that these microbe-like forms on the meteorite, which was found in Antartica, were clear evidence of extraterrestrial life. Those telltale shapes could have simply been bacteria-like shapes on a space rock.
“I’m reminded of that quote: An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence,” said Rebecca Mickol, an astrobiologist at the Naval Research Laboratory’s Center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering, in an interview.
“We can’t just go off of what it looks like.”
But NASA’s search for extraterrestrial life continues — specifically with its Mars’ rovers and planned future missions. Varnum sought to understand how humanity might react to indisputable evidence of the discovery of alien life. This research, published in Frontiers in Psychology and presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting last week, reveals that we would likely respond positively to such a discovery.
“If we discover evidence of extra-terrestrial life, we’ll be fine with it — we’ll be happy,” said Varnum.
Varnum’s research team asked over 500 study participants to write responses to a hypothetical announcement of an extraterrestrial discovery. Separately, over 250 participants responded in writing to the front-page New York Times article from 1996, which reported President Clinton’s announcement of the potential finding of primitive Martian life. Additionally, the team also analyzed the way journalists wrote about 15 news stories involving potential discoveries of alien life or alien planets.
The team ran all of this language through the same text analysis software, and the results were “significantly” more positive than negative.
This study, however, focused on the discovery of microbial life — not intelligent lifeforms. Still, Varnum believes the reactions to more advanced, perhaps communicative life would probably be positive, too.
“My hunch is just as long as NASA doesn’t detect a hostile fleet of spaceships, it would be the same thing,” he said.
This research contradicts a somewhat similar study carried out by the U.S. government in 1953. The Robertson Panel, which was convened at the CIA’s recommendation, concluded that alien-piloted UFOs probably weren’t real. But, the report noted the potential of “mass hysteria” among the public after being exposed to reports of UFO activity.
But there has been no such hysteria despite all that’s happened since, including Clinton’s televised announcement, NASA’s multiple revelations of once habitable conditions on Mars (and beyond), and reports about the potential of alien life in other parts of the galaxy.
“If the Robertson Panel were right, then you would expect society to devolve into utter chaos,” said Varnum.
Mickol, like most astrobiologists, believes we’ll find primitive life before learning about or coming in contact with a more intelligent persuasion of extraterrestrial.
“With microbial life everyone might be more excited because it’s not threatening,” said Mickol.
But, she notes, public reaction to smarter life might not be so enthusiastic.
“If they’re presented with a technologically-advanced civilization that’s trying to contact us, they might have a different approach to that,” she said.
Under extreme circumstances — well beyond a Mars rover coming across dead microbes near a once briny Martian spring — Varnum agrees.
“More than likely, I would guess it would be more positive than negative,” he said. “Unless a spaceship lands on the White House lawn.”