Close Encounters of the Civic Kind

"The U.S. government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet, or that an extraterrestrial presence has contacted or engaged any member of the human race," the Obama Administration boldly stated Monday.

There is also "no credible information to suggest that any evidence [about extraterrestrials] is being hidden from the public's eye," said Phil Larson who works on space policy in the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Larson's statement came in response to two petitions on the White House's We the People online petition site demanding the administration "immediately disclose the government's knowledge of and communications with extraterrestrial beings" and "formally acknowledge an extraterrestrial presence engaging the human race."

We the People was generally praised as an innovation in citizen participation when it was launched, but has taken some flak since it first started issuing petition responses -- which it guaranteed for any petitions that topped 25,000 signatures. [The alien petitions received about 5,000 and 12,000 signatures each but were guaranteed a response under an earlier, lower threshold].

Some disappointed petitioners complained the responses weren't the thoughtful considerations from administration officials they'd been promised but rote restatements of government policy. Many analysts, though, have encouraged petitioners to let the administration rack up more responses -- and responses to some less hot button issues -- before passing judgment.

The extraterrestrial petitions -- and the imminent response -- have been something of an elephant in the room, brought up in most high profile articles about the petition site, often as an example of the drawbacks of direct democracy.

Larson handled Monday's response artfully by most measures, denying a government conspiracy in just two short sentences before moving on to a measured and interesting discussion of the possibilities of life on other planets. A question that's being actively investigated by the NASA-launched but now privately funded Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence project and the Kepler NASA spacecraft, he said.

"Many scientists and mathematicians have looked with a statistical mindset at the question of whether life likely exists beyond Earth," Larson wrote, "and have come to the conclusion that the odds are pretty high that somewhere among the trillions and trillions of stars in the universe there is a planet other than ours that is home to life."

However, he wrote, "many have also noted...that the odds of us making contact with any of them -- especially any intelligent ones -- are extremely small, given the distances involved."

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