Forget Brexit - public referendum 'would support alien contact'

10 September 2019, 13:14 | Updated: 10 September 2019, 17:41

We were split on leaving the EU, but how would we vote on the prospect of an alien encounter?

Researchers from the University of Oxford sent out a survey to explore the use of referendums for scientific issues in general, using the hypothetical scenario of whether to respond to alien communication.

The poll of 2,000 people in the UK showed that if it was left up to the public, 53.6% would choose to initiate contact, with men were more likely to welcome an extra-terrestrial than women.

Just under two-fifths (39.3%) of those surveyed chose a team of scientists to be in charge of the decision-making, roughly three times more than those who would pick elected representatives (14.8%).

Some 11% of people said there should be a planet-wide referendum, 12.3% preferred a citizen's assembly of randomly selected adults, and the remaining 22.6% did not know which system to select.

The survey showed that if a referendum was used, 56.3% would choose to initiate contact with the alien species, 20.5% did not know, 14% would vote to not initiate contact and 9.2% who would not even vote.

Men were more likely to make contact than women, at 65% and 47%, and those who voted for Remain in the EU referendum were more likely to vote to initiate contact than Leave voters, at 66% and 54%.

Dr Peter Hatfield from the University of Oxford explained why it is important to understand who should decide the ultimate fate of our planet - and the general science we undertake.

"Around 20 Earth-like planets have been discovered and we are trying to detect bio-signatures and messages, including the Voyager probes and radio waves," he told Sky News.

"Some hostile species could travel, so we have looked at the ethics of who should decide the science we do, whether we communicate with potential aliens for example, and who has the authority to make these decisions."

From scientists making the decision to a public referendum, there are many potential routes.

The research aimed to understand which techniques the public would like to see used in scientific decision making in general, as well as specifically what to do when dealing with aliens if they contacted Earth.

The public referendum option has been used in many countries already over scientific issues such as fracking. There is much debate over whether expert views are more informed than public decisions.

Dr Leah Trueblood, also of Oxford, said: "We are working across languages, cultures and other barriers. People who might be impacted by the vote may be the youngest and future generations, so there needs to be a process of buy-in and the role of young people would be important."

"There would likely be differences in our results if people in other countries were asked, but we have yet to undertake that research. Our data did not appear to show regional differences within the UK, though. Would there need to be international sanctions on countries who broke agreements?"

There are no official international protocols or policies about what would happen and how decisions would be made if extra-terrestrial life communicated with us - only guidance and suggestions.

Dr Hatfield said: "No-one knows if or when we will receive a message from extra-terrestrials, but astronomers are listening - and it could happen any time.

"If we do receive a message, it is encouraging to know that the public seem to have confidence in scientists having a key role in the decision-making process of potentially replying.

"More generally these results are interesting for understanding the connection between science and democracy - what role should scientists play in future referendums and decision-making processes?"

When asked his opinion on whether we would communicate with life outside of Earth, Dr Hatfield suggested most astrophysicists think the chance of contact in the next decade is in the region of a 10% because "we are probing so much of the universe for other life and planets".

Dr Leah Trueblood said it was "fascinating" that most people were in favour of contacting aliens, adding: "Those surveyed are clearly much braver than me!"