Extraordinary claims with flimsy evidence
In 2017, an interstellar object by the name of Oumuamua passed into our solar system. Scientists were baffled by its characteristics: thin and flat with a rotation. It didn’t quite fit the expectations of an interstellar object (e.g. a comet like object), and as with everything in science, it garnered a lot of interest. One paper (Bialy and Loeb, 2018) studied it to understand what may be the cause of some of its more unusual aspects. The paper focuses on completely natural origins, but in the second to last paragraph, Loeb posits that it may be of extraterrestrial origins.
The discussion feels largely out of place. We have a completely reasonable set of science that suddenly pivots to make extraordinary claims it never tested. It is entirely possible that this was ET technology, but the evidence is no where near the level necessary to take it seriously. The fact that this paper got published is mind boggling. The conclusion is based largely on argument from ignorance (e.g. a god of the gaps). I’m not proposing it isn’t something worth investigating. Hell, maybe it is worth mentioning that it could be something more fantastical, but you would need to add that we would have to invest a great deal more to get the evidence needed to prove such a claim. That is not the direction he takes it, and when challenged, he only doubles down. He has even gone so far as to write an entire book on the topic.
He is using his position as a Harvard professor to bolster these pseudoscientific ideas that we have been visited by aliens. He has defended this believing he has a right to talk about it. Scientists can’t always control how the media will represent our work, but we do have a say in how we do it. He dismisses this responsibility, driven by his own desire to believe he’s made this amazing discovery. He ends up warping the publics perception of the field and energizes fringe perspectives. It hurts the scientific search for ET life, the cause he claims to be pursuing.
A fundamentally flawed perspective
With the release of his new book, Loeb has been doing a great deal of publicity. He claims the goal isn’t to sell books (which it is selling) but to educate the public. I do want to read this book, but it is more out of a desire to debunk his arguments (or be convinced if his argument is sufficient). I don’t want to give money to a man who is doing a great deal of harm to the search for ET life. For now, I decided to start with listening to his arguments in a few of his publicity appearances, such as the one here. He presents the topics in his book for an hour and follows by answering questions from the public and other experts in the field. I highly recommend you watch it. It reveals the flaws in his argument and reflects on his own character in other ways.
I want to break down some of the key arguments he made in the presentation and discussion because it is built on non sequiturs, strawman arguments, and false dichotomies.
He spent at least a third of his time talking about how likely it is that there is life, and he calls the mainstream community arrogant for requiring extraordinary evidence because of it. He acknowledges the very real arrogance that is needed to think we are alone. That, however, is a non sequitur because the likelihood of there being other life in the universe has no bearing on whether there is sufficient evidence that Oumuamua is itself life.
The real arrogance is in his attempt to present his findings as revolutionary. Just a year or so before Oumuamua, Loeb entered the field of SETI by participating in a new project to send a light sail to a nearby star. Here he is entering the field convinced he found unprecedented evidence that all the other scientists, who’ve spent their lives on SETI, failed to find. He dismisses scientist bloggers and other amateur astronomers in what is fundamentally an argument from authority. He dismisses everyone who disagrees with him, and they’re the ones who are arrogant. How many times did he talk about how amazing an accomplish this is (from identifying Oumuamua to the number of books sold, that he insists he doesn’t care about)? It reeks of Donald Trumpism but with Intellectualism to back it up. The irony is that he dismisses those he doesn’t deem on his level despite himself not really being a a part of the SETI community.
Let’s go back to how he dismisses requirements for extraordinary evidence. He talks about how these scientists are against investing in interstellar investigations (the false dichotomy of requiring more evidence means we can’t consider it worth investigating). The requirement of evidence does not mean we don’t want to find evidence (strawman argument). If anything, our belief that we will (and our desire to) find evidence is all the more reason to have a high standard of evidence. After all, we are motivated to find evidence we want to see, and it is our recognition of the unlikelihood of such a find that makes us recognize that such a find would require a great deal of evidence.
Several of the scientists on this panel have spent their lives advocating for the search for ET life. He is only getting pushback for making extraordinary claims with flimsy evidence, but he tries to paint these scientists as afraid, sheep, or against SETI (ad hominin). He insists he is just following the evidence, that he is open to listening to other ideas and new evidence. However, it is not the responsibility of the bloggers or fellow scientists to prove it isn’t aliens. He made the claim, and he has the burden of proof. He posits that we have to advocate for SETI to increase funding, but again, this is a fundamental false dichotomy: that we should have to lower our standards of evidence for SETI to be worth investing in. The fact that it could be aliens and we would never know is just as compelling as wildly claiming this was aliens. Sadly the fact remains, we don’t have the evidence needed to say this is actually aliens. It is worth changing that in the future, but we shouldn’t have to spread pseudoscience in the processes.
The arrogance of Avi Loeb
I mentioned above that his arguments revealed flaws in his logic and character. I have alluded (or overtly acknowledged) his own arrogance and sense of self importance. In that same webinar, Loeb is confronted by Dr. Tarter about the basic need for extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims, and he proceeds to get extremely emotional, talking over her and mansplaining the basic need for SETI. Frankly, he made a fool of himself (that’s putting it kindly). If he had taken a moment of self reflection, he would see he’s being challenged by one of the few people who has advocated for SETI funding and research for her entire career. Except, he can’t. He is so deep in his own need to be right, that he ignores everything she says and projects his own strawman argument over it. It was demeaning. Of course, it is consistent with his entire presentation, where he attacks scientist bloggers like Dr. Tarter.
The article linked in the image shares Loeb’s apology to Dr. Tarter after he rightfully received criticism.
“As many of you may know, I gave the Golden Webinar on the late afternoon of Friday, February 12, 2021. The webinar, which will be posted shortly on YouTube, lasted 75 minutes and in the Q&A portion I spoke in a manner that was inappropriate to a colleague, Jill Tarter. I apologized to Jill Tarter afterwards and we had a friendly exchange subsequently. My apology to her is attached below.
I am sorry that this Q&A exchange offended some of you. That was not my intention. As many of you know, I am deeply committed to support the SETI work pioneered by Jill, and to the promotion of women and minorities in science.”Avi Loeb, sent to Harvard Center for Astronomy mailing list
This sort of non-apology does not take responsibility for his actions. He apologized if it offended you; he doesn’t acknowledge the blatantly sexist way he acted.
I realize that I was too quick in my response to your excellent comment today and I apologize for it. After reflecting about it, I realize that I should have said that I greatly appreciate your past contributions to promoting this cause and I am delighted to join forces with you and push the envelope further. My criticism is, of course, focused on the limited support that SETI is receiving from federal funding, which should be increased considerably to reflect the public interest in the subject.Avi Loeb, sent to Harvard Center for Astronomy mailing list
I am sure this is the “company line”, but under pressure, the flaws in his logic and approach shine through.