Nov 17, 2014 I Tom Head

How Should We Talk to Extraterrestrials?

Seth Shostak, director of the Center for SETI Research, wants us to answer a very important question: assuming we can overcome the logistic and technological obstacles and get a message to extraterrestrials, how can we be sure that message will be comprehensible to them? He writes:

[W]hat's the best way to make a message understandable to minds that might be organized in ways far different than our own? Some argued that any society with the kit necessary for detecting broadcasts from Earth will have mastered mathematics and chemistry. We should use these as touchstones to encode our messages. But try writing an essay about love or local government using only mathematical symbols, and you'll quickly discover that this isn't easy (and seldom poetic) ...

But a linguist precipitated on this parade by noting that — given the uncertainties about why Homo sapiens even has language (is it merely a talent conferred by a random genetic mutation that hit our species 150,000 years ago?), there's no guarantee that the extraterrestrials will be blessed with the gift of gab. They might not have language any more than we have a great sense of smell.

These are the kinds of questions a wide range of interdisciplinary scholars explored at this week’s Communicating Across the Cosmos conference. You might remember that SETI has been doing a lot of this sort of interdisciplinary work lately—earlier this year, they published a volume that brought the perspectives of archaeologists and anthropologists into the world of exobiology—but this is maybe the most urgent question, as our SETI work may be entirely wasted if we’re sending the sorts of messages nobody can receive, or looking for the sorts of messages nobody would send.


There are about 12 hours of streaming video from the conference, but the bit that does the best job of summarizing the crux of the linguistic problem is Sheri Wells-Jensen’s lecture on extraterrestrial linguistics (above). Wells-Jensen, who runs Bowling State University’s TESOL program, is well aware of the practical limits of self-contained linguistic systems even when we’re dealing with terrestrial languages—and does an excellent job of distinguishing the limitations we’re stuck with from the limitations we might be able to overcome, or at least help compensate for.


But even if we could somehow overcome the linguistic problem, and there’s no guarantee that we can, we still have the hermeneutic problem to overcome. Given that language is socially constructed, what can we say that’s actually worth saying if we completely remove context from the equation? University of Hawaii AI theorist Kim Binsted (above) has some ideas on how we might be able to approach that problem, using Twitter as an example, but at this stage it’s just a starting point and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. 

As you might have guessed, SETI conferences are better at raising questions that they are at definitively answering them—which is part of the charm. Even if extraterrestrials turn out to be culturally and technologically advanced to the point where they can make sense of anything we send them, what we learn about ourselves by removing humanity from its ordinary context may lead to some profoundly helpful innovations in a more traditional, terrestrial social sciences context. SETI aside, we are alien enough to each other; thinking about how we might present ourselves to observers outside of this world may help us behave better towards our neighbors on it.


Tom Head

Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.

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