Avi Loeb and Interstellar Questions

Below is the frontispiece of The Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo), a 1632 Italian language book by Galileo Galilei,, the famed Italian astronomer. The book compared the Copernican system, in which the Earth and other planets orbit the Sun against the traditional Ptolemaic system of the day, in which the earth was believed to be at the center of the solar system. Is there a modern version of this book today?

In near-Socratic fashion, the book’s main points are presented in the form of a fictional conversation between two philosophers, and a layman, over the course of four days. The layman, being of relative ignorance in comparison with the two philosophers, is named Simplicio, which can be interpreted today as Simpleton or fool, argues that the earth was at the center of the solar system. As this was also the position of the Catholic church, the Pope took umbrage at the comparison with the position of a fool, and attacked Galileo to the point where he found himself facing an Inquisition whose judgment led to his lifelong confinement to house arrest. The danger with certain books is that sometimes even a great idea is attacked, and the author must suffer undue consequences borne out of the ignorance of his time.

Until now, I haven’t commented much on books (next to visual art, my favorite medium), as my aim is larger than any one text. To be sure, there are many single books whose influence on my own development has been crucial. Typically such books have been wide-ranging in depth but narrowly focused in subject matter down to one single “enormous idea.” I think of Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Structural Anthropology, or Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams in this context. In each of these marvelous books, the author launches on a spectacular journey in which he puts forward a theory of reality based on the logic of the world as interpreted through a rational perspective. Most any book does that, however, in these exceptional works, the perspective is itself challenged by an unforeseen uncanny element, something that emerges out of nowhere and plants itself on the horizon of reasonable expectation. This uncanny effect is in fact a kind of enzyme that ties an otherwise modernist way of thinking with an orientation to reality that does not emerge from expected histories, methods, or sequences of ideas, such as one might encounter in solving the various terms of a mathematical equation. Reality in these prodigious texts is therefore both rational and uncanny. And, since in my belief and personal experience, reality has proved itself to be inordinately slippery and idiosyncratic, these courageous writings are ones in which I find solace and sense.

We might expect a similar treatment of reality and the uncanny in science textbooks and carefully written monographs – reality being that which has already been explained by formulaic notions we know (such as how gravity operates around objects with mass), and the uncanny being that which science has not yet been able to explain or account for. Perhaps few science books give us as much to drink from in both reality and the uncanny as those which emerge from the pen of writers in two marvelously interesting fields: physics and astronomy.

I’ve read many books by physicists, most often in connection with the problems of quantum physics, a domain of inquiry that is both scientific and yet not rational in its many observably uncanny behaviors – a perfect blend of reality and the uncanny, captured in the behavior of as little as single particle or two. And as regards work by astronomers, astrophysicists and theoretical physicists, there is even greater space of wonder, because reality as such takes on its largest observable dimensions once we turn our curious gaze to the heavens and seek to look into the heart of the Universe. Astronomy is particularly exciting because we haven’t found the heart, yet are fully aware of a heartbeat.

Thus, perhaps you, like myself, await a book like those by Sartre, Lévi-Strauss, or Freud that can help us navigate deep into the terrain of the cosmos beyond the simplistic cartoon-like characterizations of many pop scientists whose day job is really to make television appearances rather than science itself,

And it was, while in this quest for such a book, that I encountered Avi Loeb’s Interstellar: The Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Our Future in the Stars, an amalgam of thoughts and findings straddling one big theory and many biographical anecdotes from the personal life of a Harvard astronomer. Avi Loeb, for the unfamiliar reader, has maintained an interest in celestial objects that are near or within the orbit of our solar system, and whose paths are not likely of natural origin.

By “not likely of natural origin,” I mean that the common feature of all such objects is the possibility that they may be of technical design, rather than organic nature, and thus potentially manufactured by some kind of non-human intelligence. And so, reading Interstellar, we learn of a strange object that entered our solar system in 2017, and left very quickly; it was not a comet, but rather potentially an alien spaceship.

Somehow I find this plausible, and don’t quite know why. However, given the widespread atheism expressed by many astronomers (they are, after all, people primarily of science rather than faith), we might believe that a scientist with such perplexing beliefs would expose himself to much greater criticism within the scientific community than may be common for most scientists. He might also receive more acceptance outside the astronomical fold than is normal.

Avi appears to have earned a larger share of acceptance from the public than proportional criticism from his community of scholars, which reflects his prodigious energy and of his skills at persuading those with more conventional scientific backgrounds to suspend belief in the face of radical ideas. If you don’t think that this persuasive quality is important, consider what happened to Galileo.

Outside of science, where standards for truth are so exacting, there are many writers of different kinds. These are what we might call private theorists who offer unsparing, radical, and bewildering views concerning the origins of the world, ancient races, or many other possibilities, and, perhaps because of the uncanniness of their ideas, these authors rarely receive positive reception from scientists, who generally ignore them.

But when an astronomer at Harvard University makes remarkable claims, the public is persuaded to accept the statements as having greater truth value; they come from a Harvard scientist than a private researcher. As I’ve mentioned, scientists have written many, many books for the public – and it seems that more are being published now than ever before – in order to promote their theories. These usually lay out an impressive blend of history, argument, and some humor along the way. In turn, the public rewards good writing with popular acclaim. However, in truth, the quality of the writing is all that the general reader can really judge: such a reader has no real basis by which to test or confirm the validity of any theory. Here we arrive at the difference between theory and argument – argument is really for the lay public; theory, which is more complex, more formulaic, and more complete, is for the trained scholar.

All of these distinctions provide us with an interpretive context as we turn back to the matter of Interstellar, and to Avi Loeb’s Galileo Project, whose mission is to search for evidence of alien visitation. We should remember that there is currently no evidence of alien visitation that scientists accept. This doesn’t mean that alien visitation hasn’t happened, but rather that it is in the domain of argument, rather than theory. Visitation concerning ancient aliens is commonly accepted by people who have followed the work of unconventional writers (one thinks of Erich von Däniken as among the first of these). And although many such unconventional writers have presented logical and plausible theories, scientists have not accepted them (at least not on the public record, where their reputations may suffer from such acceptance).

Numerous non-scientists have put forward carefully articulated theories, using significant evidence from historical records found in anthropological, archaeological, and scientific literature; this includes writers such as David Childress, Nick Redfern, Giorgio A. Tsoukalos, William Henry, Andrew Collins, David Wilcock, Robert Bauval, Michael Cremo, Philip Imbrogno, Whitley Strieber, Hartwig Hausdorf, Grant Cameron, David Icke, and others. Not all of the ancient alien theories that these writers have proposed are as simple to understand or as well-argued as they might have been, but they have tended to fall within one of four kinds of rhetorical model:

  1. Archaeological: Many arguments looking to the past are archaeological in nature — relics and remnants hundreds or thousands of years old show images and inscriptions, or are made to a level of precision of manufacture that exceeds human ability.
  2. Photographic: Other arguments for extraterrestrial evidence of visitation are more recent, and of a primarily photographic, filmic, or video nature.
  3. Governmental: There are the government conspiracy arguments, which claim that craft and beings of a non-earthy origin have been secretly recovered, and, by extension, reverse engineered. There are indeed many cases of public positions taken by the US government that were later found to be false fronts masquerading as official projects (e.g., Project Bluebook).
  4. Metaphysical: Large numbers of people have given highly consistent eyewitness testimony of personal experience of abduction by aliens or communication from such beings.

Any non-science-based theory that falls within this group seems perplexing to scientists, and therefore, the idea that an astronomer would join these marginal groups of writers with a new category of evidence, which we could call Physical/Forensic, is both exciting and puzzling. That, unlisted above, is category 5 evidence, something new. And this is where Avi’s work has fallen, aiming, therefore, to both educate the general public and to persuade scientists of the worth of the findings that he has made.

To reiterate, Avi’s theory (and several kinds of quantitative evidence to support it appear in various peer-reviewed scientific journals) is that what appears to have been a comet speeding into, and quickly out of, our solar system in 2017 is not a natural comet, but rather a ship flying under its own power, given that its velocity and trajectory do not seem to conform to normal expectations for a comet moving through our solar system. Scientific evidence that could be gathered on the event was limited in this case, given that this object, called ‘Oumuamua (the Hawaiian term for “a messenger from afar arriving first”), moved too quickly, arrived too unexpectedly, and stayed too briefly within our solar system to be carefully measured.

Was ‘Oumuamua a comet or an alien ship? Indeed, ‘Oumuamua moved in a manner that was rather strange – its velocity was not constant and was not greatly affected by the gravity of any body in our solar system. That’s one point for the ship hypothesis. However, comets will typically heat up and expel gas as they approach the sun, which alters their speed and trajectory noticeably. That’s one point for the comet hypothesis. However, as they heat up, comets will leave a trail of gas that many of our orbital sensors can normally detect – and in this case, no trails were observed. That’s one point for the ship hypothesis. This theory became energetically debated in scientific circles, and is currently far from being universally accepted by scientists, who continue to believe that the object captured by sensors was a comet.

I did read the book carefully, and took note of one peculiarity. A general public reader who knows nothing about the (many) subtleties of comet telemetry will be persuaded by Avi’s text, because parameters like the shininess of an object can have multiple causes, which unfortunately, Avi glosses over. Additionally, the book denies equal time to differential diagnoses – the ways in which the same data can be interpreted differently. By now, it’s likely that no general reader will be able to infer a fair sense of what ‘Oumuamua really was by reading any book or journal article. There is not enough evidence to make either case – comet or ship – overwhelmingly strong.

However, this limitation is different from a one-sided argument, which is a warning sign in science and fields that want to be seen as scientific, such as psychology or archaeology. Science relies on the scientific method, a truly demanding diagnostic model of epistemology that does not apply to other fields in the humanities, for example, because they don’t rely on the accuracy of causes like science does. An abstract Pollock painting can be about anything, or many things, and still be exciting and enjoyable; it makes no sense to speak of right or wrong hypotheses in abstract art.

And so, as a scientist, Avi Loeb might have understood the importance of distinguishing claims with and without evidence for the reader. He might have walked the reader around the fine line between them. Science should not accept one hypothesis until it has fully eliminated all others. In pursuit of this goal, science makes claims to truth that go beyond what other fields have made. By contrast, the notion of a speculative thesis, in which an author argues a belief, and the argument (rather than a scientific test) is the verdict, is natural in philosophy and religion, for example. But in science, speculation by itself is not fact. For this reason, science developed the experimental method as a means to weigh one hypothesis against another by testing one variable at a time. This radical approach is promising as a way to determine what is, and isn’t, the real cause of observed phenomena in the natural world.

In this regard, science has seen fit to dismiss the arguments of other fields, often quite brutally, exclusively on the basis that they do not present experimentally consistent evidence. Actually, consistency of evidence isn’t itself the criterion by which science accepts or rejects the value of certain fields. Rather, science looks favorably upon fields of study that apply a somewhat scientific approach, and to the extent that they do so, they are considered friends of science. Therefore, biology is scientific; psychology less so; anthropology even less so than psychology; and astrology lies at the bottom as public enemy number one of science. Using mathematics, physics, and chemistry is a great boost in “scientizing” a general field of study and turning it into a scientific discipline. Of course, the standard of merit in a field shouldn’t be the method, it should be the results. Phrenology, which used systematic methods to infer personality traits from bumps and indentations on people’s heads, was considered extremely scientific until it was found to be pressed into the service of racist values when it was employed by the Nazi regime to sort out Aryan from non-Aryan (primarily Jewish) people. The field seemed systematic, and had many proponents who believed in its aim, namely, that there exists an objective method by which good people can be separated from bad based on physiological marks.

I have no problem with science trying to debunk astrology. It’s looking at the way that astrology apparently works and finds too hallucinoid this idea that somehow cosmic aspects at a given birthday have come to affect the way that humans behave. But science might consider that it does not ask the question the right way, for as long as it sees astrology from a scientific perspective, it will not find correlations. And there are cavalier dismissals everywhere, such as here https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/unique-everybody-else/202206/the-final-word-astrology-and-personality, a study based on the responses of people who self reported as being astrologically knowledgeable. It turns out that this “self knowledge” was never tested and so, what any student of astrology could instantly tell is that the survey’s subjects were not versed in any real understanding of astrological processes, which made their claims easy to disprove. For his own part, the administrator of the study, a psychologist, knew even less about the subject than they did, as we can see from these cartoonishly reductive portraits:

For example, Aries is considered impulsive, Taurus conservative, and so on. Participants were considered to have astrological knowledge if they knew their own sun sign and at least three traits associated with it. Indeed, astrologically knowledgeable participants were found to be more likely to apply the relevant traits to themselves than those without such knowledge.

One immutable truth behind science is that scientists are humans and no less vulnerable to impressions than anyone else. The record on what science has accomplished is impressive in fields like aeronautics, through whose progress it became possible for humans to go from basic flight to landing on the moon in 70 years. In other fields, such as cancer research, the record is nothing if not inconsistent, and in the development of certain drugs, the number of side effects and deaths has been severely underreported for many years. What this speaks to is the excessive influence of power and money on science and the willingness of scientists to be critical of other scientists’ work, which is minimal. This, to me, is the biggest imbalance in modernity.

It doesn’t ultimately matter whether science believes in astrology any more than whether it believes in biology. We all must ourselves be the field of empirical research, rather than expect that some publication is going to confirm what truth is. But because of the inconsistent behavior and bias of certain scientists against certain fields, many otherwise serious researchers and scholars have had to endure unfair and simplistic biases and dismissals. I’ve always studied and loved computer science because of its ability to reduce ambiguity in the shortest number of steps possible. The term “garbage in, garbage out” comes from computer science, and applies as much to the design of scientific studies as to anything else.

An inordinately high number of times, I have no problem identifying people’s birth signs the moment that I meet them, as some people who know me are astounded to find. Spend an hour with me and find out – but I’m not the only one with this skill. However, even if a scientific study were done on my abilities, the cause could remain elusive, and scientists would have a good time dismissing that “skill.”  If a cause cannot be found, it provides a big strike against a field’s claim to being scientific. However, this does not apply everywhere; astronomy is full of causal mysteries, and no one attacks it in the way that certain social science fields have been dismissed for the same reason.

Another challenge to science is the hero syndrome. Certain individuals who have solved longstanding problems, made lasting contributions, or achieved fame and recognition through any other acceptable form have come to be seen as authorities on areas beyond their immediate scope of competence, and their claims are not questioned in the same way as those made by others. These heroes also receive press attention when they make even the thinnest commentary, or offer conjectures based on poor scholarship, simply because there is a general faith in a community of discourse that what they are saying must be true on its face.

When a sociologist or anthropologist writes, let us say, an ethnographic study in a given community, he or she is by convention required to write an introduction in which personal biases or biographical points with relevance to the issues and values of the community being studied, are laid out for the reader. It is of great importance for the reader to be able to locate the author, as it were, in terms of his or her values when we read their scholarship. A study of native American cosmology will inevitably read very differently when it is written by an anthropologist from an elite university as opposed to a native American who grew up among the tribe, the ways, and the myths. The scholar cannot pretend to have intimacy with concepts so different from his or her Aristotelian education any more than someone from the same tribe can pretend to have distance from experiences that were formative to his or her own upbringing. One thing humanistic study knows is that ambiguity and incompleteness is always with us. Science may not find this compromise with reality acceptable.

In any case, Sartre, Lévi-Strauss, and Freud were attacked for their ideas, which, although imperfect, were greater than the reasoning of their critics. Avi Loeb has not been attacked, but his ideas have encountered resistance from many scientists. Naturally, their view is different from that of the lay public. At the end of the day, we can only look back, rueing the lack of evidence on what ‘Oumuamua was, and to the future, in hopes that more will be known about it. Until then, if a public view accepts the idea of a ship, or the scientific view rejects it, it should be presented with science, as a theory more than with the argument that a public can believe.

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