Preparing for Contact, by George Michael


Preparing for Contact is much, much broader in subject matter than I anticipated based on the title and what little I read about the book in advance.

I expected it would be about the procedure that has been decided on by the U.S. government in the event of evidence of intelligent aliens coming to this planet or communicating with us—the process by which it was established, any changes in policy there have been since it was first determined, the factors taken into account in deciding on the policy, criticisms raised by those who disagree with the policy, maybe what policies other countries have decided on or whether any world body like the United Nations also has established a policy, etc.

In fact, there’s really not very much at all on just that specifically. Instead, Preparing for Contact is a general overview and history of the ideas, speculation, evidence, etc. regarding extraterrestrial intelligent life, space travel, UFOs, and related matters.

I think I would have preferred the narrower focus. Most of this other material is certainly interesting stuff, but it’s also ground I’ve been over many times in previous reading, in books like Where is Everybody? by Stephen Webb, Captured By Aliens by Joel Achenbach, several decades of Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic, and much, much more.

A few general points/criticisms about the book, to start:

One, it has significantly more typos than the average professionally published book. I was hoping the typo in the very first sentence of the Acknowledgements to start the book was a fluke and not a sign of things to come. That hope was not fulfilled.

Two, there is much repetition. Often the same point is made in almost the identical words in multiple contexts, sometimes just a page or two apart. This is a book that needed more careful copy editing and proofreading.

Three, author George Michael probably bends over backwards a little too much in trying to be fair to all the various opinions and theories that have been put forth, UFO sighting claims, etc. Granted, he generally points out when the consensus of those who have assessed such matters rationally and scientifically is on the side of skepticism, so I wouldn’t say he’s ridiculously credulous about little green (or I guess nowadays gray) men and conspiracy theories and the like, but I think if someone new to the subject matter read only this book they would come away from it thinking that certain genuinely crackpot stuff is a much closer call that reasonable people can disagree about than it really is.

But the strengths of the book outweigh its flaws.

So, are intelligent aliens likely to ever come here, and if so, should we welcome or fear that possibility?

As Michael points out, insofar as we have any analogous precedents, there is reason to be highly pessimistic. What has happened, after all, in human history whenever a more technologically advanced bunch of people has happened upon a technologically more backward bunch of people (and if aliens can travel all the way here from another solar system, they would have to be somewhere between moderately and unimaginably ahead of us technologically)? Answer: Genocide, slavery, imperialism, etc., and if you go back to pre-humans like Neanderthals, quite possibly extinction.

But there are also reasons to think the risk is infinitesimal. First of all, how would they even get here? All proposed means of interstellar travel are extremely speculative at this point; there’s a very real possibility it’s literally impossible, meaning that it would require violating the laws of nature and not simply that it’s beyond our present technological capabilities or imagination.

But even if they are capable of coming to Earth, why would they do so? Specifically, would it be for some nefarious purpose that we need to be concerned about?

At least as far as the nightmare scenarios familiar from science fiction, probably not. Would they come because their planet ran out of some key material—oil, gold, water, uranium, whatever—that Earth has, so they can take all of ours? Highly unlikely. There’s just no way to make the math work; any interstellar trip would use way, way too much energy (and time and other resources) for them to come out ahead no matter how much of Earth they stripped and took back with them.

Think of Kramer and Newman scheming futilely to come up with some way to make a trip to another state to return deposit bottles and cans profitable. Now imagine that instead of getting 5 or 10 cents per item, they stood to get a billionth of a cent per item.

What about the idea that the aliens come to eat us, or other animals and plants on Earth? That’s even less likely. Not only are they traveling an extraordinary distance for a modest food supply, but the chances that some species that evolved in a totally different environment from Earth could biologically digest Earth organisms is very low. (The idea—often put forth by the “abductee” folks—that they’re here to breed with us is silly for the same reason.)

Maybe they’d come to kidnap us into slavery or to put us into zoos or something, but again there’s that problem of distance: It’s hard to come up with any way that coming here for such a purpose would be an efficient use of their resources.

Michael notes that if there ever were interstellar travel, by us or by whoever, it’s a lot more likely to be done by non-biological entities. That is, either robots or some kind of machines like that, or living things with so many artificial parts as to be more cyborg than anything. (Indeed, some futurists contend that we—the species in general, not just those of us destined to travel in space—will be far more cyborg than human surprisingly soon. Think decades or at most centuries rather than millennia.) That would solve some—but far from all—of the problems of space travel, as people, or people-like aliens, require way more in terms of supplies and such, plus they have the inconvenient tendency to get horribly bored and/or go crazy, not to mention die of old age, on journeys of thousands of years or however long an interstellar trip would take.

Another topic that comes up in Preparing for Contact is this common conspiracy notion that the government knows all about aliens visiting Earth but is covering it up.

Frankly I’ve never found that the slightest bit plausible. What would be the motive? Michael mentions the claim that the government is scared to let people know that it is not capable of preventing aliens from landing, observing us, abducting people, whatever, that it would cause the citizenry to lose faith in the government if they knew.

Really? Arguably the biggest news in human history, and the government would be worried about losing its (nonexistent anyway) reputation for omnipotence? It’s afraid we’ll get mad at it for not being able to protect us from beings from some other solar system?

But aside from the problem of motive, how in the world would such a secret be kept? So, all the people in government, the military, scientists, etc. who might be in the right place at the right time to find out about the aliens are in unanimous agreement to not reveal what they know? Are the governments of all the other countries in the world where UFOs might land also in on the conspiracy? How about whatever random members of the general population just happen to be around when UFOs fly by or land and could easily take a more definitive photo, or better yet video, than has thus far come to light? Are they in on it too?

I’m not saying no one ever is inclined to cover up this stuff—Michael even cites the occasional memo or other communication in government or in the military advocating being less forthcoming with the general public about UFOs and related matters until what exactly is going on can be ascertained, but everybody?

For people interested in the prospects of extraterrestrial intelligent life and of all things UFO and such, Preparing for Contact goes into many intriguing areas. I would have preferred less about Von Daniken’s ancient astronauts and alien abductions and the like—and more frank skepticism when such subjects do come up—and more on what we plan to do and what we should do in the event that there is unambiguous contact of some kind with an intelligent extraterrestrial species, but I still thought the book was worthwhile.


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