Stephen Hawking Has Warned Against Contact with Aliens – but I’m More Worried by the Rise of Non-Experts Like Him

Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist and cosmologist, has come forward this week with a warning for humanity. Our attempts to contact extra-terrestrial beings by broadcasting messages into space may be unwise, he thinks, as said aliens may turn out to be hostile.

Article by Barbara Speed

The warning has made headlines, no doubt because Hawking is regarded as one of the great scientific minds of our time. But on closer inspection, his advice seems to stem from careful analysis of a Year Three history lesson.

Things “didn’t turn out so well” for the Native Americans when they encountered Christopher Columbus, he argues in new online film Stephen Hawking’s Favourite Places, and it is on this basis that he advises us to halt our hunt for life beyond our planet.

Bolting the stable?

The advice was, understandably, met with frustration from those more directly involved with this field of science.

Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (Seti), one of the projects which Hawking so blithely suggests we shut down, pointed out in the Guardian that television, radio and radar waves have leaked into space since the Second World War and are still trundling towards far galaxies to be intercepted, or not, by extraterrestrial beings. It would take further centuries for hostile aliens to reach us with weapons  – and it therefore seems unlikely that they’d bother.

Rent-an-expert

I don’t blame him for having his say. I can imagine doing the same after a re-watch of Independence Day. The concerning part, though, is that we listen to his advice so raptly. “Experts” are fast losing credence among the general public, yet we give certain figures almost limitless licence to comment. David Starkey, say – whose knowledge of history apparently qualified him to say on Newsnight at the time of the London riots that “the whites have become black”. (Jeremy Corbyn, then a little-known MP, blasted the broadcast: “Why was racist analysis of Starkey unchallenged? What exactly are you trying to prove?”)

Big names

Perhaps then, rather than the demise of experts, we’re seeing the rise of a kind of “big name” expertise: people (often men) who we’ll listen to, no matter the topic. Meanwhile, if you’re the kind of top-of-your field astronomer who doesn’t happen to have BBC One programme or best-selling book, you’re unlikely to be heard. Oddly, even celebrities, with their enormous platforms, can find it difficult to be taken seriously. Sun columnist Rod Liddle mocked the actress Emma Watson (or “Hermione”, as he repeatedly called her) for her UN speech on sexism in higher education. Watson, a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador may not have a degree in theoretical physics, but she commissioned and presented a full report on the topic. Amal Clooney is an immensely qualified human rights lawyer, but was undermined by the Daily Mail this week based on the price of her outfits.

On another planet

Meanwhile, in the past couple of years alone, Hawking has advised us to abandon Planet Earth altogether, and said that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race”.

I don’t mean to denigrate Hawking’s many achievements, but unless you’d heed similar warnings from Brad Pitt or a pre-eminent geologist – both similarly successful in their fields – then I’d take them from Hawking with a generous pinch of moon dust.

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