Mysterious things lurking in the rocky crevices and subterranean seas of distant moons and planets? Whatever. Just so long as they’re not intelligent enough to plot intergalactic domination.
If you ask Arizona State University psychologist Michael Varnum, who is also involved in ASU’s Interplanetary Initiative, most of us are cool with the idea of aliens being out there and doing whatever they do, unless they really are building starships to blast us with lasers and seize Earth as part of their empire. Then there are those diehard believers who are convinced that there are extraterrestrial civilizations somewhere out there (paging Seth Shostak) and even swear aliens have already touched down on our planet; so even something with enough brains to build a spacecraft and zoom over here is unlikely to send them into a panic.
“Most speculations regarding humanity’s reactions to extraterrestrial life, both in fiction and otherwise, have focused on discovering evidence of intelligent life from elsewhere,” Varum said, with movies like War of the Worlds and Independence Day in mind. "Less consideration has been given to how we may react to the discovery of extraterrestrial life that is not intelligent, even though we are more likely to encounter microbial life in our solar system.”
Varnum’s recent paper -- on how our species would feel about front-page news that we really aren’t alone in the universe -- showed that the concept of microbial aliens doesn’t give most people nightmares.
Even extraterrestrial intelligence doesn’t always beam down visions of tentacled things with eight eyes abducting humans for unspeakable lab experiments. More than half of Americans already believe in intelligent aliens, and 30 percent are suspicious that any attempted contact has been classified by the government. The X-Files and its fandom would have never existed if there wasn’t a popular belief about alien encounters being the territory of the FBI or CIA.
After studying language used by the media in past announcements of supposed micro-alien discoveries, Varnum and his team used the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) software, to carry out three studies to gauge subjects’ psychological reactions to a discovery of extraterrestrial life invisible to the naked eye. Some of the test subjects were asked to write about how they and broader society would react if there were to be microbes discovered somewhere other than Earth, while others were asked to read and respond to a newspaper article claiming that fossilized microbes had been found in a meteorite from Mars. The team found most reactions were surprisingly positive. People even responded more favorably to the possibility of alien microorganisms than the prospect of genetically engineered mutants on Earth.
“Our reactions to a future confirmed discovery of microbial extraterrestrial life are likely to be fairly positive,” Varney concluded based on his results.
Now let’s hope we find some microbe out there that could be the flu's worst enemy.