I am going to try and deal with some potentially realistic scenarios. Keep in mind the government plans for the worst case scenario but hopes for the best. So these describe the worst case scenarios of the public finding out. Any worst-case scenario that is impossible to tame or deal with would indicate it might be best to keep the info hidden until they need to tell us.
Also, we should remember any species that is capable of surviving for the hundreds of years it would take to get here under less than light speed or any species capable of faster than light travel would also be hundreds and hundreds of years more advanced than us. Both long distance slow travel and faster than light travel are so incredibly difficult that it would far exceed our science. So much so that their technology would seem almost like magic to us. It would be like showing someone from the middle ages tv’s, jet planes and open heart surgery. They might have active nanotech, the ability to manipulate gravitons, antimatter, and magnetic monopoles or some other exotic technologies we haven’t even dreamed of yet.
To be very clear: These are hypothetical scenarios based on the question. Personally, I know of no evidence that leads any direct credence to any of these. While each might be possible there is no known evidence of any of these scenarios.
- Aliens are suspected to have visited but only a very long time ago and there is no evidence of hostility. It would not make sense to get the public up in arms over something that happened hundreds or thousands of years ago. Such a revelation would create a host of issues from religious to political as well as boldening fringe groups, militants, and wackos. Why create an alarm if it was so long ago, there is no evidence they are harmful and we don’t even know if they would come back?
- Aliens visited but only a few times and there is either no evidence of hostility or not enough to make a determination of if they are potentially friend or foe. In this scenario, the aliens might be peaceful or might not but if you get the whole world and the internet talking about it. You will eventually have high-profile and visible people making stupid or dangerous statements that could be misinterpreted by the aliens. Our movies are bad enough in how we depict aliens but if we have talking heads talking about how we need to put killer satellites in space to defend against what may, in fact, be peaceful aliens we risk creating a more tense situation than is necessary. When the aliens do return they will see us going crazy over aliens.That is probably not the way the government wants to make first contact.
- Aliens have visited us could be hostile and they have technology that we cannot hope to compete with. This is the worst of all possible scenarios. They seem to be potentially hostile and they have weapons that would make it near impossible to beat them in a conflict. Widespread panic would engulf the world including doomsday cults and those that want to worship the aliens.Religious leaders would have to explain how aliens fit into systems that are inherently human biased.Speculation and talk of how to defend or fight such aliens in the media and public would make a potentially bad situation against a superior enemy worse. It might even move them to make a preemptive strike as opposed to accepting some kind of surrender or treaty.
- The aliens are friendly, social and responsible. They are working with the government to quietly and slowly acclimate us to the idea of there being aliens without admitting it until we are ready to reduce panic and social unrest. Even if the aliens were good-natured they could easily see how exposing themselves to us could disrupt our societies. Thus they would tell the government to deny any existence but they would encourage us to explore the concepts in movies, TV and books and plays. Occasional leaks would happen because such a coverup cannot be perfect but those only help to seed the idea that aliens might exist.In this scenario, they are actually keeping it quiet so they can do a slow and phased exposure to this idea. First, they would show life on Mars and other planets in a simple and harmless form, and might even fake such results (if these planets are barren) just to get the dialogue going. Once we have accepted life can exist on other planets other revelations would come at a very slow pace maybe once every 5 or 10 years such as receiving a strange but brief broadcast signal. Eventually, these kinds of events and experiences would ramp up until we get to the point of actually trying to send messages to the aliens. The aliens which might very well already be here would pretend to be sending the messages from very far away and thus replies take 10 or more years. Eventually, they would plan for our first public first contact. Using a scenario like this most of the threats from the above scenarios could be avoided.
- We know that they exist but we only know from receiving very distant and very faint communications. In this scenario, the government would want to tread very lightly and take it very slowly. They might not want to communicate back and confirm we are here until they know more about the aliens. There is no evidence the aliens have ever visited us and based on the source of the communications any trip or message would take a very long time to arrive. They would likely want to wait and learn more as well as ramp up our space spending so we can try to have sufficient technology to deal with any political or hostile situations that might arise.
- There is evidence of aliens and it points to them either interfering directly with human development or the genetics of all life on our planet. The potential questions and issues surrounding alien-initiated are too many to name.It would throw most religions into a tailspin because it would mean life was created by aliens and not by some deity. Many religions would fracture and either declare such evidence to be false and demonic or might even move to start embracing the aliens as gods and worshipping them. Others would leave the churches and yet others might join them seeking some kind of help as they fear the implications of such a revelation. Socially this would mean a great deal of upheaval given the numbers of religious people worldwide.Scientifically it would validate some science and throw others out the window. We would then have to begin looking at how this alien abiogenesis was accomplished and how much of the development of life was altered and how much was from natural evolution. All data on evolution would need to be carefully scrutinized.On top of all of that, the question would be if they are still here or not and how much they have continued to interfere with human development. Are we just a big experiment to them?
No matter how you look at it, although proof of extraterrestrial life in any form especially a sentient form would be both a big boon and a big strife to our society. It would likely be a transformative event on the scale of nuclear bombs. Using nuclear weapons as an example, governments were researching and developing the technology for them for decades and denied any knowledge of their existence until the USA actually dropped the first ones. Such things that shake up a society you do not take lightly. I trust the government would take finding aliens very carefully too.
Much thought has gone into what might be the. These include many additional scenarios to the ones above including loss of identity as a species, being forced to remove weapons of mass destruction, risks from technology we do not yet know how to use, legal issues over personhood and rights of aliens and so much more.
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