When Reporting News About Aliens, Caution Is Advised

Astronomers struggle with how to handle announcements (or non-announcements) about extraterrestrial contact.

spacex launch.jpg
Visiting spaceship? Nope, just a SpaceX rocket launch over California.

Speculation about extraterrestrials seems to be everywhere these days. Last week it was “Tabby’s Star” (more officially known as KIC 8462852), whose mysterious dimming and brightening, according to the latest analysis, is likely due to dust blocking different wavelengths of light rather than “alien megastructures.” Before that came reports of an interstellar asteroid—not a spacecraft—entering our solar system and a UFO monitoring program conducted by the Department of Defense.

The attention given to such stories has some scientists worried, especially as social media amplifies claims of alien contact over other, more prosaic explanations.

“Currently, most SETI-related news seems to be interfering with conventional scientific discoveries, stealing the limelight—without following basic rules of science,” wrote Dutch exoplanet researcher Ignas Snellen of Leiden Observatory, on a Facebook exoplanets discussion group for professional astronomers.

Although he has “great respect for SETI scientists,” Leiden wrote, “there is no place for alien civilizations in a scientific discussion on new astrophysical phenomena, in the same way as there is no place for divine intervention as a possible solution. One may view it as harmless fun, but I see parallels in athletes taking banned substances. It may lead to short-term fame and medals, but in the long run it harms the sport. Same for astronomy: we should be very careful not to be ridiculed. I really hope we can stop mentioning SETI for every unexplained phenomenon.”

Such worries aren’t new. Nearly 20 years ago researchers in the field came up with the Rio Scale to guide them in reporting the significance of any candidate SETI signal. Modeled after the Richter Scale for earthquakes, it assigns a value between 0—no significance—and 10—extraordinary significance—to any detected signal. The method was first proposed by Ivan Almar and Jill Tarter at the 51st International Astronautical Congress in Rio de Janeiro, in 2000. Although the International Academy of Astronautics’ SETI Permanent Committee adopted the scale two years later, it hasn’t seen widespread use.

Meanwhile, the news business has changed drastically since 2000. Today much of the public doesn’t get its information from TV and newspapers, but from Facebook updates and Twitter posts, which move—and change—at a much faster pace. In recognition of the altered media landscape, a new paper submitted to the International Journal of Astrobiology proposes streamlining the Rio Scale and having scientists take a short quiz (available in beta version here) to answer a few questions about their discovery. Journalists and other news providers could use the answers in their stories.

“You can go through the steps and ask yourself, do I believe the instrumentation is working properly? Do I believe I am looking at it objectively? Do I have enough people who looked at the signal with different instruments? Has there been a lot of scientific discussion? Have there been alternative explanations? Is it a hoax?” says the paper’s lead author, Duncan Forgan, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of St Andrews’ School of Physics and Astronomy in Scotland, whose work includes problems related to astrobiology and SETI.

Forgan says that although it can be difficult to convey uncertainty about a particular result to the public, the revised Rio Scale would make that job easier. Some scientific speculation can be “a bit wibbly-wobbly,” he says, “and those wibbly-wobbly bits end up in the press.” He agrees that spurious SETI claims can sometimes distract from more legitimate science.

In recognition of the sensitivity around alien signal detection, SETI has a voluntary list of protocols to follow when something interesting is found. The first principle urges researchers to “verify that the most plausible explanation for the evidence is the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, rather than some other natural phenomenon or anthropogenic phenomenon, before making any public announcement.”

Morris Jones, an Australian space observer with both scientific and journalistic training, says we should label “fringe SETI” claims for what they are. “The media is under pressure to deliver attention-grabbing news, but it’s hard to expect them to judge fringe SETI as spurious when it comes from reputable institutions and qualified researchers. The best way to reduce these reports is to stop the production of questionable scientific papers in the first place.”