Most Americans would welcome a microbial E.T.

U.S. volunteers were pretty upbeat about the idea of finding space aliens, study finds

rocky microbeSpace rocks, such as asteroids, might transport the first extraterrestrials that reach Earth: tiny microbes. ZINCO79/ISTOCKPHOTO

 

AUSTIN, Texas — Earthlings may offer a warm welcome to microbes from space.

That was the conclusion of scientists at a news conference on February 16. They had asked Americans how they would react to a finding of extraterrestrial life. And generally, they found, people had said they would respond positively. The researchers shared their findings, here, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The researchers had not suggested an alien humanoid might turn up. They asked people instead about how they would feel about microbes from space.

The responses suggest that if microbes are found on Mars, Saturn’s moon Enceladus or elsewhere, “we’ll take the news rather well,” said Michael Varnum. He is a social psychologist on the project. He works at Arizona State University in Tempe. What’s more, he added, the tone of news reports on potential evidence for intelligent aliens suggests people would welcome that news, too.

Varnum was part of a team that surveyed some 500 online volunteers, all in the United States. Each was asked to describe how they would react to learning scientists had just turned up germ-size E.T.’s. Varnum’s team analyzed each response using a computer program. It looked for words indicating positive feelings (such as “nice”) and negative ones (such as “worried”). The program also scanned for reward- and risk-focused words, such as “benefit” or “danger.”

People generally used more positive and reward-oriented words than negative and risk-oriented ones to describe their expected reactions. The same held true when they were asked how they expected everyone else to take such news.

In a second study, Varnum’s team asked about 500 U.S.-based volunteers to read one of two newspaper stories. One from 1996 reported evidence of fossilized microbes in a Martian meteorite. The second, from 2010, said researchers had created a synthetic bacterial cell in the lab.

Both groups responded favorably to what they had read. Those who had read about Martian microbes, though, had shown a more positive reaction. This suggests that people are particularly keen on finding aliens, Varnum says.

He cautions, however, that “any finding that comes from one population — like Americans — you have to take with a grain of salt.” His group now hopes to gather responses from people elsewhere across the globe.

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