A lot of people think there is a plan. A secret one. A recent survey indicated that 55 percent of the population figure that the discovery of extraterrestrials would be squelched — deep-sixed to prevent widespread panic. Only 19 percent believe the feds would fess up to E.T.’s existence.

Such a cover-up would be virtually impossible to pull off. There’s no policy of secrecy, and verifying the signal would involve teams of scientists around the world. But leaving that aside, the fact that so many folks believe it's in the works attests to a discouraging lack of trust in both science and the public’s ability to handle the news.

So what’s the truth about what would happen if we discovered intelligent aliens? Back in 1989, when a now-defunct NASA program to search for extraterrestrial intelligence was gaining steam, protocols were drafted to spell out best practices in case the search proved successful. These were later updated and streamlined by the International Academy of Astronautics SETI Permanent Committee.

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