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  (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Controversy ignited after quote was taken out of context

While it went largely unnoticed at its time of publication back in 2012, a book published and edited by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) created a stir this week. Various news outlets discovered that the book includes third-party commentaries seemingly endorsing the idea that strange ancient rock art drawings could be the work of extraterrestrials visiting Earth in the early days of man.  Suddenly "Archaeology Anthropology and Interstellar Communication" [PDF] was a hot topic.
 
I. The Accurate Bit -- Yes, Book Was Published by NASA
 
As we'll explain it turns out those commentaries are inaccurate, diluting a far more fascinating, yet scientifically sound commentary.
 
One part of the coverage that has been largely correct is the book's strong ties to NASA.  It was indeed published by NASA's History Program Office.

Douglas Vakoch
Douglas Vakoch -- a SETI/NASA scientist -- edited the book in question. [Image Source: SETI]

The book was also edited by NASA's Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the Seti InstituteDouglas Vakoch.  In his preface, he writes:

If a radio signal is detected in a modern Seti experiment, we could well know that another intelligence exists, but not know what they are saying.
...
Even if we detect a civilisation circling one of our nearest stellar neighbours, its signals will have traversed trillions of miles, reaching Earth after travelling for years.

To move beyond the mere detection of such intelligence, and to have any realistic chance of comprehending it, we can gain much from the lessons learned by researchers facing similar challenges on Earth.

Like archaeologists who reconstruct temporally distant civilisations from fragmentary evidence, Seti researchers will be expected to reconstruct distant civilisations separated from us by vast expanses of space as well as time.

As we attempt to decode and interpret extraterrestrial messages, we will be required to comprehend the mindset of a species that is radically Other.

The rest of the 330-page book contains a number of chapters written by various experts.  Some chapters discuss the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Project's hunt for signs of alien life in more universally accepted scientific terms.
 
aliens
The SETI project aims to find signs of intelligent alien life, if they're out there.
[Image Source: Corbis]

Other parts of the book wander close to highly speculative and controversial territory, the kind that's typically associated with so-called conspiracy theorists.  Or they do, if you misread them, at least.

II. The Specious Bit -- Expert Quote on Rock Art was Misrepresented

The media hoopla has been focused on Chapter 15 of the book "Constraints on Message Construction for Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence", which is written by Professor William H. Edmondson [ResearchGate] from the University of Birmingham, UK.  

William H. Edmondson
Professor William H. Edmondson examines pulsar activity in telescope logs. [Image Source: SETI]

Professor Edmondson's background is in speech recognition, but over the past decade he became very passionate about lending his technical expertise to the quest to find alien life on our own world or on other worlds.

His first formal research collaboration came via a 2003 paper in collaboration with a physic professor at the Univ. of Birmingham.  In the paper -- published in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Astrobiology -- he suggests that pulsars could one day be exploited by mankind as beacons to contact alien lifeforms.  Alternatively, he proposed that alien lifeforms might be sending such a message to Earth.

In Chapter 15 of the NASA-published book on SETI he comments:

Consider again, therefore, the desirability of establishing symbolic/linguistic communication with ETI. It is helpful to review some parallels from human existence that pose problems for us today. One of these is "rock art," which consists of patterns or shapes cut into rock many thousands of years ago.

Such ancient stone carvings can be found in many countries, and the example in Figure 15.1 is from Doddington Moor, Northumbria, England.  We can say little, if anything, about what these patterns signify, why they were cut into rocks, or who created them. For all intents and purposes, they might have been made by aliens.  Unless we find a readable exegesis of them produced at the time they were made, we will never be able to say with certainty what the patterns mean.

Jesus Diaz of Sploid/Gizmodo was the first to comment on the passage in an article entitled "NASA is getting ready to communicate with aliens using a new strategy".  Technically his article is the most correct as it does not clearly misrepresent Professor Edmondson's commentary.  Still it leaves things ambiguous enough so as to create confusion.  Later pieces would seize on the false premise that NASA's book somehow contained a commentary suggesting that aliens created rock art.

Newspaper Rock
"Newspaper Rock", a famous piece of Native American rock art found in Utah.
[Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

This led to articles like "Have aliens already visited Earth? Nasa book suggests that ancient rock art could have been created by extraterrestrials" (Mail Online (UK)), "Book Published by NASA Actually Suggests Ancient Rock Art ‘Might Have Been Made by Aliens’" (The Blaze), and "Nasa: Strange Markings Across The Globe 'Might Have Been Made By Aliens'" (Huffington Post UK).
 
Notice that all of these titles -- including the original one by Mr. Diaz -- clearly mislead and misquote NASA.  Aside from the Mail Online piece, each presents the quote with the sentence clarifying the author meant the passage as a parallel, not a conspiracy theory (as the titles of the blog articles suggest).  The Mail Online piece is one of two more egregious interpretations as it paraphrases the quote even further to:

We can say little, if anything, about what these patterns signify, why they were cut into rocks, or who created them... For all intents and purposes, they might have been made by aliens.

None of the articles clarify or note that Professor Edmondson was clearly talking about manmade pictorial communicative art forms.  
 
III. Following Paragraphs Would Have Added Further Context -- But no One Bothered to Post Them
 
Furthermore, none of the articles include the paragraphs that followed the passage on rock art.  In those lines Professor Edmondson fleshes out the previous theme, writing:

The Voynich manuscript offers another parallel that may be helpful in understanding the diffculties with symbolic CETI. This 240-page vellum codex probably dates from the early 15th century and remains undeciphered despite many efforts
to identify the script.

Whether or not the "writing" (see Figure 15.2) is in fact genuinely linguistic is still unclear; there are no convincing reasons to suppose the document is not a hoax. Intriguingly, one is under the impression that one can say some things about its context and possible content—the proposed date and format of the manuscript suggest the ravings of a secretive alchemist, but even the illustrations are not readily interpretable. 

The Voynich manuscript illustrates how linguistic, or serial, organization of symbols can present an intractable problem for interpretation because of their arbitrariness and semiotic opacity. It would be unfortunate and counterproductive if CETI were to become some sort of galactic encryption/decipherment exercise or challenge (or even game? how would we ever know?).

Indeed, the situation might be even worse—a signaling system devoted to conveying arbitrary symbols could confuse would-be interlocutors by making it diffcult for them to know whether they had accurately sorted out the protocol (content cannot be obviously distinguished from medium when both are essentially arbitrary). Furthermore, ETI's intention in sending messages must be understood for messaging to work. ETI and Earthlings both know this, and that the intention cannot successfully be communicated.

 
Voynich manuscript
The Voynich Manuscript is clearly the work of human hands, but remains an undeciphered codex.
[Image Source: The New Yorker]

It almost seems deliberate that this portion of his commentary was left out.  Because clearly far fewer people think a vellum illustrated book was made by alien hands, versus cryptic ancient rock art -- a popular talking point among so-called "UFOlogists".
 
Taken together the two passages clearly illustrate how Professor Edmondson is comparing works of man to potential future art forms employed by possible alien lifeforms for communication.  That's a scientifically valid and sound way of discussing things.  The problem is when you play telephone and pass along an increasingly paraphrased message, which by the second article seemingly misrepresents this expert's views as an endorsement of conspiracy theorists.

SETI Telescopes
Radio telescopes are used by the SETI project to hunt for possible signs of alien life.
[Image Source: CSIRO]

It's good that the book -- and SETI Project in general -- are getting deserved attention.  But it's unfortunate that so many articles would mischaracterize NASA's work in such a way as to seemingly implicate it with conspiracy theorists that have no scientific evidence.  The actual commentary is factual, scientific, and intriguing, in its own right, by an expert in the field.
 
Then again, maybe this is some sort of cosmic comeuppance to the SETI project for shafting Star Trek fans who won the campaign to name a new moon of Pluto "Vulcan", only to see their victory invalidated.
 
Unfortunately the book -- which was hosted for free by NASA -- was taken down [broken link] after the publicity/misunderstanding hit. Fortunately you can still find a copy in the Wayback Machine here.

Sources: Archaeology Anthropology and Interstellar Communication [Wayback Machine backup copy; PDF], Sploid (Gizmodo), Mail Online, The Huffington Post (UK)





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