Michael Shermer’s ‘Skeptic’ column in Scientific American is billed as “Viewing the world with a rational eye”. In his latest piece ‘The Myth of the Evil Aliens’ (June, 2011) Shermer starts by noting that with new technology such as the Allen Telescope Array, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) may soon bear fruit. So what happens then?

Shermer is relentlessly optimistic. Those who might be wary of alien contact (you know who you are, Stephen Hawking!) have entirely misread the evidence. Any aliens we discover will have progressed far beyond ‘colonialism’ and ‘unsustainable energy sources’. His source for this Polyannaish view? His reading of human history over the last 500 years.

We don’t have to dwell on twentieth century genocides and more recent cruelties to see the shortcomings of this approach. In fact as Shermer well knows, the correct paradigm for analysing potential conflict is game theory, where we consider the options open to each ‘player’ and the consequences of their choices, written out in a ‘payoff matrix’.

So let’s consider human meets alien. The choices are: cooperate or fight, and the resulting payoff matrix has four options: fight-fight, fight-cooperate, cooperate-fight, cooperate-cooperate. Let’s see how they stack up.

The combination of one side fights and the other side cooperates is evidently unstable. If the aliens come in fighting and we persist in trying to cooperate with them we are clearly toast. Forget Gandhi – the aliens will have an empathy-deficit where we’re concerned.

Cooperate-cooperate is a quasi-stable outcome. It unfolds in time like a game of chess with diplomatic, legal, commercial, cultural and military moves. To cooperate is to accept constraints on your own freedom of action in return for the benefits that transactions with the alien can provide. It is the always-preferred option of liberal-minded people.

Each side’s assessment of the benefits vs. risks of continued cooperation is continually being recalculated. If either party comes to decides that the threat posed by the existence of the other outweighs the benefit of transacting with them, then this outcome becomes unstable and we end up with one or both sides employing force (the iterated prisoner’s dilemma is relevant here although the more salient issue is the drift of the payoff matrix values).

Fight-fight is a preferred outcome if one side can (or believes it can) win and the expected value of winning beats the expected value of cooperating. Typically even in cooperate-cooperate, both sides will be secretly contemplating whether they can get themselves to a superior military position (‘Just insurance, you understand’) which they can, in any case, then leverage for advantage.

Hobbes argued in ‘The Leviathan’ (1651) that given the tendency for personal interests to diverge, durable cooperation in any society could only be achieved through a dominant state power, (the state being the leviathan of the title) which could quench the value of the individual fight-fight option. In today’s language, if one side can easily beat all the others, and everyone knows it, then cooperation in the shadow of power is the only game in town.

There are plenty of examples of the dominance of real or implicit force in today’s diplomacy but how would it work with aliens? An alien species meets us in Michael Shermer’s ‘near future’ and rationally conducts a risk analysis. Is there any way humans could pose a threat to any alien objectives? Since we live in a spatial universe with limited planetary resources there is potentially a zero-sum game for control of stellar systems. It’s therefore rational for militarily-superior aliens to quarantine humans to planet earth (a no-fly policy) and to monitor human science and technology for any ‘weapons of mass destruction’ which might effectively challenge such a policy.*

Having established complete and sustainable military superiority, the aliens could then see whether there were any opportunities for cooperation at the margins. Probably after a while we would laud the proffered velvet glove and delude ourselves there was no iron fist hiding inside it.

And if, in our interstellar future, we were the superior aliens, we would be crazy to act any differently.

* Adopting Stalin’s famous maxim: ‘No man, no problem’, they could of course just wipe us out.