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How will humanity react to alien life? Psychologists have some predictions

Germs stuck to the outside of the International Space Station are not from around here, cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov said in an interview last week with Russian state-owned news service Tass. Microbes “have come from outer space and settled along the external surface,” Shkaplerov said. “They are being studied so far, and it seems that they pose no danger.” Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, has not weighed in on this extraordinary claim. The odds are not on the side of aliens. If microorganisms are tucked away within the space station hull's crannies, as Shkaplerov says, they probably hitchhiked the 250 miles from our planet's surface. But imagine if scientists found alien microbes. How would humanity react to the news? Michael Varnum, a psychologist at Arizona State University and a member of its new Interplanetary Initiative, is trying to anticipate this response. “One of the initial questions that we're curious about is how might we respond if we discover evidence of extraterrestrial life,” he said. The moment when humans meet E.T. is a staple of fiction and speculation, as well as armchair science and conspiracy on YouTube. No one has predicted the psychological reactions to extraterrestrial microorganisms in a “systematic, careful way,” Varnum said. Varnum teamed up with planetary scientists and conducted three experiments. The study, published online in November on a preprint server, is still under review, Varnum said. Two psychologists not involved with this research told The Washington Post that the study's methods were robust. The psychologist and his co-authors “make a critical distinction between reactions to the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence and finding evidence for microbial life beyond Earth,” said Douglas Vakoch, president of the nonprofit group Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence, who was not part of the study. This work is unusual, he said, as studies past have focused on intelligent life. In the first experiment in the study, Varnum and his co-authors analyzed how the media covers extraterrestrial discoveries. They looked at five events: the discovery of pulsars in 1967, which were not immediately recognized as natural; Ohio astronomer Jerry Ehman's detection of the “Wow!” radio signal in 1977 (the signal's source remains disputed); the 1996 announcement of fossilized microbes in a Martian meteorite; the strange behavior of Tabby's Star reported in 2015; and 2017's discoveries of exoplanets that exist within distant habitable zones. The psychologists fed 15 articles — by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Post and others — through a program that analyzes written content for positive or negative words. Journalists described these events using words with “positive affect” significantly more frequently. Read More: The Washington Post

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