In the event that aliens ever contact Earth, the British public is clear on one thing: do not hold a referendum to decide what to do next.

The option to hold a planetary vote on how to respond to inquiring extraterrestrials ranked bottom in a poll of 2,000 Britons asked how humanity's reaction should be determined.

In a survey commissioned by researchers at Oxford University, only 11% of respondents thought such a referendum was a good way to agree on Earth's cosmic communications. No other option scored lower.

Those who did support a worldwide vote were equally split between leavers and remainers, suggesting no one side of the Brexit debate was any more disillusioned with the voting instrument than the other.

Leah Trueblood, a lawyer, and Peter Hatfield, an astrophysicist, teamed up for the research after wondering who had the moral authority to decide how humanity should respond if an alien civilisation ever dropped Earth a line. While researchers have issued a number of declarations that demand a global discussion before answering, who actually decides has been left open.

One of the earliest statements of how to respond came in 1996 from the International Academy of Astronautics. It said no response should be sent "until appropriate international consultations have taken place". The line was echoed by Seti researchers in 2015 who declared that a worldwide scientific, political and humanitarian discussion must occur before any message is sent.

In work presented at the British science festival at Warwick University on Tuesday, Hatfield and Trueblood declared that the most popular option, with 39% of the vote in the poll, was to leave the decision on how to respond to scientists.

"It's a small poll but it's reassuring that people feel they can trust scientists to make these big decisions," Hatfield said.

Other options put to the public hardly fared well. Handing the response to elected representatives won 15% of the vote, while a citizen's assembly of randomly selected adults polled as badly as a global referendum. Nearly a quarter of people who took part, or 23%, confessed they did not know which option was best.

Leaving scientists in charge of Earth's official response would not be a straightforward matter. Despite the speculative nature of the question, whether and how to engage with little green men, or even a genderless conscious goo, has vexed researchers for decades.

The late Stephen Hawking warned that contact with aliens would be disastrous for humans given how less advanced societies have fared on Earth. But others believe human society could make dramatic advances if we learn from an advanced civilisation.

It may be too late to keep our heads down. Since the second world war, television broadcasts have poured into space to be picked up by anyone with a big enough dish. In 2008, Nasa beamed the Beatles song Across the Universe to the North star, a trip that will take four centuries. Then there is the Pioneer plaque bearing bare humans into space, and the Voyager probes' golden discs with greetings in 55 languages, not to mention Chuck Berry's Johnny B Goode.

If alien civilisations are beaming their own greetings into the void, they are not in our cosmic neighbourhood. In June the Breakthrough Listen project, which has commandeered some of the most powerful radio telescopes on Earth to eavesdrop on more than a thousand star systems, reported a clear and deafening silence.

Despite the turmoil unleashed on Britain by the EU vote, the researchers did not expect the global referendum option to go down so badly in the poll. "It is a bit surprising the option that nominally gives the average voter the most influence in the process was one of the least popular," Trueblood said.

Asked how they would vote in a global referendum on talking to ET, 56% were in favour of making contact, with only 13% voting against.

"Referendums are of course particularly controversial in the UK right now," Hatfield said. "It would be interesting to try this in other countries to see if the results are about the same."

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on The Guardian

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