I use a book I'm reading as an example of the more general issue. There are minor spoilers here.

In John Sanford's Saturn Run, near-future American astronomers get lucky when their instruments just happen to be pointing in the right direction, and they detect alien activity near Saturn. The government gets involved, immediately locks the information down, and rushes to get people there first. The pressure is on because the Chinese have an edge.

When the detection is first made, no one even mentions the possibility of being open about it, which strikes me as unlikely. The pros seem to be something like

  • Good will
  • Meeting the aliens as a united body
  • Leaving a very positive legacy
  • Getting the international community involved, which should help keep everyone honest, I would think
  • Any new tech to be had probably won't help much across a billion miles if you get bombed to dust for cheating in the meantime


  • Someone might cheat anyway.
  • If it goes bad, history frowns on the ones in charge.

Pros for being paranoid:

  • If everything goes well, you get a decisive geopolitical advantage


  • You piss people off and increase the risk of global war.
  • The tech will eventually leak anyway -- if not due to spying, then because an Assange or Snowden thinks it's ethically wrong to keep the playing field uneven.
  • History frowns on the ones in charge because they acted like jerks.

Question: What's wrong with my analysis?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ If you can get your hands on it, I suggest reading The Big TV Blackout by Jan K. Möller. (ISBN-10 0-7596-7446-9.) In it, the author basically has the aliens make the choice of who to contact first, thus completely avoiding the issue you bring up. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Jul 24, 2016 at 8:29

4 Answers 4


I like where the top two answers are going with their points, but I'd like to add my own to the mix.

I'm sorry to say that your bullet points are rather naive and simplistic. A quote that is rather well suited to the situation is this:

There are no eternal friends, or perpetual enemies, only eternal interests.

This is always important to remember, even when reading day to day news, because in big business, or big government nothing is ever done without it serving someone at the top. Global war is severely unlikely, and going down in history as "mean people", or meeting them "as a united body" is laughable. History is written by the victor, and mankind is never going to get along to the point where we are "a united body".

Let's analyze the two scenarios and see if we can make some sense of the situation:

Leaking the Info

If the information was made public there would be no world-shattering consequences. Some people might panic, others might turn to religion, a few might build bunkers in remote areas - nothing major as far as world stability is concerned. We're already fairly certain that we are not alone in the universe.

However, I still can't see it playing into anyone's hands that the information be made public.

Some panic and general confusion are a certainty, and this will ultimately cause economic fluctuations - something that governments, banks, etc. typically try to avoid at all costs. But this is secondary to the issue of who gets to speak to the aliens first.

Now this is something that might offer significant advantages to the people who hold the information of the alien's existence, coupled with the fact that if whomever approaches the aliens first and makes a negative first impression that might have disastrous consequences for the human race.


If more than one government is aware of their existence, it makes sense that those governments that are "in the know" would work together to contact the aliens.

A pact would be made to keep the information secret, and resources would be pooled to get the job done.

What is "The Job"?

And here's another major issue. What exactly is humanity's objective? To go out to Saturn? Good luck, we can't even send people to Mars right now.

Contacting the aliens, however, does not require a human be present, only that a communication's channel be established. We have satellites capable of making the trip, and they can establish communications easily enough.

More importantly than that, however, is whether we want to make contact. Observing the aliens and trying to learn more about them might be a better first step.

  • $\begingroup$ Note that there is a heading format on the editing toolbar. Don't fake it with an all bold paragraph, which doesn’t match on the new CSS. Yiu also have available multiple header levels. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jul 24, 2016 at 3:29
  • $\begingroup$ "We're already fairly certain that we are not alone in the universe." For the whole universe I can't dispute that. But for this galaxy, I dispute it. As Enrico Fermi put it, "Where are they?" It would only take a few million years to send robot probes over the galaxy; why has nobody done it? Absence of interspecies rivalry? $\endgroup$ Jul 24, 2016 at 6:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Lostinfrance the Fermi Paradox is so full of holes that it constitutes nothing more than an opinion. One of many. We look at space travel through purely human eyes. We see space as this grand, romantic adventure or challenge. Aliens might view it as utterly boring and not worthy of their attention -how might we assume to understand their psychology or motivations? Essays could be written about the various reasons we have not been contacted by an alien race. And, funny enough, some say we have been. All in all, the Fermi Paradox is basically one man's skepticism, nothing more. $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Jul 26, 2016 at 4:05

Your analysis is not coherent

You asked: "What's wrong with my analysis?"

The answer is that your "analysis" as such is not coherent. You have only gathered a loose bunch of unconnected bullet points without putting them into any kind of context, nor have you looked at the driving motivations for the different power factions.

People do not do stuff "just 'cause". Governments, companies, groups, individuals have goals and interests that drive their actions. Sure, as a knee-jerk reaction when finding aliens, one might think "Oh, we gotta go over there!". But as an immediate response, someone will ask "Why?". "Well.... just 'cause!" will not fly you any manned rockets to Saturn in a hurry.

So your "analysis" needs to start at asking the question: "What are we trying to achieve here? What kind of action is in our best interest?". No bullet points in the world will do you any good unless you figure out why people are doing things.


What is wrong with your analysis is that a list of pros and cons, besides stating the obvious, does not really enable you to make a decision. Let's take a different point of view: you are a decider, you're either the President of the United States or leader or dictator of either Russia or China.

With such an information in your hands, you know there is gonna be a leak sooner or later, and that once it is public, you will have almost completely lost any control on the outcome - a news such as this will likely inspire either global chaos and almost certainly one or more military coups in either one of the countries which have space exploration capabilities and maybe could serve as ambassadors to the aliens.

So, being open means you'll stop being a decider. However, if you're a decider, its almost certainly because you have a high self-esteem, and you certainly think you are a better decider than others, who might become deciders at your place.

Now, this puts you under pressure: since the info is gonna leak, and once it leaks the outcome will be very negative - loss of control, you know that you have to be not only very secretive about it, but hurry in the making of any decision towards first contact before it leaks.

Remember, that after all, what is at stakes is not whether you or your country have a nice legacy, what is at stakes is whether humanity performs and then survives first contact.

So, provided you're not incompetent, secrecy is the only way to the go.

Now, you will be right and comforted in your decision, if you're the ruler of a dictatorship: by definition, no one there is more confident nor competent than you - for the good of humanity, you must act, and quickly. Does such a reasoning apply to democracies ?

While the leader of a democracy can trust that there are almost certainly people better prepared to take the decisions to first contact, again, the pressure that those people will loose any capability to perform should seriously worry you. Therefore, all your decisions must be oriented towards enabling those people, astronauts and the most humane scientists, to perform first contact before the leak.

And that means, to stay in charge and be secretive about your objectives, even while threatening your democracy, à la 2012. As in that movie, I would certainly tell the news to the leaders of those nations that have the means to perform first contact, and be secretive about it - again, whether first contact happens or not under my watch is irrelevant, the only thing that matters is that the best possible outcome happens under the best possible choices.

And under that point of view, being open is almost null in terms of benefits, while acting quickly under secrecy remains the unique way of anticipating any sort of any possible future.


Nothing, really, but it's an equally valid point of view to emphasize the potential benefits of secrecy much more.

  • You could get exclusive trading agreements
  • Try to get the aliens to agree to your world view, supply them with propaganda
  • just try to be the first because of nationalist pride
  • at least be better than those Russians/Chinese/whatever
  • fear that the other ones might do all of the above if they get there first

Stuff like this.


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