In 2017, an extraordinary object zipped through the solar system, made a U-turn around the sun, and then left us, disappearing into the great black yonder. The object was definitely mysterious, there’re no two ways about it. Most notably, its speed was far too great to have come from within the Solar System, and it had some more features that still puzzle astronomers. Its obviously extrasolar origin has fascinated the general public as well, including the editors of the New Yorker magazine, who ran two stories about it. Both prominently featured Prof. Avi Loeb, an expatriate Israeli now at Harvard University who claims that a plausible, even likely explanation for the object, named ‘Oumuamua by its discoverers (that’s “scout” in Hawaiian), is that was launched by an extraterrestrial civilization.
Loeb first made this claim in an October 2018 paper (written with another Israeli ex-pat, Shmuel Bialy), and the New Yorker hastened to interview him. The result was printed in January 2019 under the title “Have Aliens Found Us? A Harvard Astronomer on the Mysterious Interstellar Object ‘Oumuamua”.
(The interviewer, Isaac Chotiner, gave Loeb a serious grilling, but the astronomer stuck to his guns: having listed six strange facts about ‘Oumuamua, and having written off all explanations and speculations about its nature as have been made by other scientists, Loeb stated firmly (and very boldly): “It is much more likely that it is [a light sail] being made by artificial means, by a technological civilization.”
One year later, following the publication of several scholarly papers and a popular book by Loeb in which he reaffirmed his suggestion, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, the New Yorker revisited the issue, this time in a bizarre article by an award-winning staff writer, Elizabeth Kolbert. This time ‘round, the question in the story’s title was even more outlandish, pardon the pun: “Have We Already Been Visited by Aliens?”
This is a quaint tour d’horizon of the extraterrestrial life question that has moved me to produce this rejoinder. The quaintest feature of this story, as I see it, is the number of logical fallacies strewn throughout it. Not to mention the ones I found in the earlier story. Or actually, why not mention one of them? In the interview, Avi Loeb talked of how “I walk on the beach with my daughter and look at the seashells that are swept ashore. Every now and then we find an object of artificial origin.” The interviewer immediately recognized this as the “watchmaker argument,” famously made by Bishop William Paley in his 1802 Natural Theology. So Chotiner put it to Loeb that “if you find a watch on the beach, you know it must be man-made, and, since our eyes are as complex as a watch, we must also be designed by a creator.” Loeb was undeterred by the fact that the watchmaker argument, most frequently hurled against the theory of evolution, has been thoroughly debunked meanwhile: “for a caveperson, the technologies we have today would have been magic,” he said, not hearing Arthur C. Clarke turning in his grave.
But let’s return to Kolbert’s story. Her series of blunders starts off with one of the most notorious fallacies known to science, namely, the Galileo Gambit. She quotes Loeb as echoing Galileo’s apocryphal defiance, “Eppur si muove,” with a rejoinder of his own: “And yet it [‘Oumuamua] deviated.” The Galileo Gambit goes like this: because Galileo was mocked and persecuted for his views by a majority at his time but later proved to be right, all minority views on any scientific subject, that are being criticized today, will also be proven right in the future. This is an obvious non sequitur: some views that are pronounced wrong today will remain wrong in the future too, simply because they are wrong.
From this fascinating piece of logic Kolbert moves on to discuss how ET should look like, quoting yet another Israeli ex-pat, Cambridge zoologist Arik Kershenbaum, whom she quotes as arguing that given the advantages that intelligence confers, natural selection all across the galaxy will favor its emergence. As it did for the peanut-size brained dinosaurs, for instance? But never mind intelligence, a quality we can’t even define. Kershenbaum wrote, and Kolbert quotes, that “[l]ife on alien planets is very likely to have legs” – never mind the fact that most species of complex organisms on Earth are not equipped with locomotive appendages of this ilk – all the fishes, worms, snakes and many others, let alone all plants (barring the Ents).
Then come the inevitable twins, Fermi’s paradox and Drake’s equation. Fermi’s is not really a paradox, of course. It’s a simple question, “Where are they?” – the answer to which is, it’s a huge galaxy, so why should we expect to see them? They may very well be out there without bothering to come visiting our little neck of the woods.
And Drake’s equation, which purports to estimate the number of communicative galactic civilizations whose broadcasts we may expect to receive, includes seven factors, only one of which was known at the time it was originally proposed (1961). Another one can reasonably be estimated nowadays, but the remaining five are pure guesswork. Basing any scientific view on this equation makes little sense.
What do other experts think about Loeb’s suggestion? Kolbert wisely turned to the greatest among them – her childhood hero Erich von Däniken. She listed some of his accomplishments, neglecting however to mention that he has served a jail sentence for fraud. My own first encounter with this gentleman was quite different from Kolbert’s: it took me little time to realize von Däniken was a fraud – just halfway through his 1968 Chariots of the Gods? This was when I got to the part in which he explained that the Easter Island’s gigantic statues, known as Moai, must have been made by visiting ETs, since the islanders themselves were just too primitive to have produced them.
Well, I’d already read Aku Aku, a fascinating account by ethnologist-cum-explorer Thor Heyerdahl. Following on his well-known Kon Tiki voyage, he undertook to solve the Moai mystery that had puzzled researchers for nearly 250 years, using a research method that had not occurred to any of his predecessors: he befriended the islanders (his reputation as “Señor Kon Tiki” helped a lot), gained their trust, and asked them if they knew how the statues were made and erected in their places. As it turned out, they not only knew the answers to his questions, but could also demonstrate how it had been done. With no extraterrestrial intervention, needless to say. My point is this: Aku Aku was included in the Further Reading list of the Chariots of the Gods? Having seen it there, I recognized von Däniken for what he was, and dropped the book.
But Elizabeth Kolbert saw fit to consult him. And of course, he had only praise for Avi Loeb: “He needs courage and obviously he had courage,” von Däniken said. With friends like this…
I could go on, but let me get right down to the most glaring fallacy of all. Kolbert quotes Loeb as having written the following in a blog post for Scientific American: “In contemplating the possibility of an artificial origin, we should keep in mind what Sherlock Holmes said: ‘when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’”
Where to begin? First off, Sherlock Holmes never said these words, because Sherlock Holmes has never existed. He’s a fictional character created by a doctor-turned-author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For all his well-deserved fame as the author of some of the most entertaining mystery books I’ve ever read, I must point out that pure logic was not Doyle’s strongest suit. He was an ardent spiritualist; need I say more? I think I have to.
For instance, let me quote Wikipedia: “Doyle was friends for a time with the American magician Harry Houdini. Even though Houdini explained that his feats were based on illusion and trickery, Doyle was convinced that Houdini had supernatural powers, and said as much in his work, The Edge of the Unknown.” Doyle also believed that the infamous Cottingley Fairies were genuine, for instance. Eventually, he left the Society for Psychic Research in protest, because it had exposed too many persons who’d claimed to have supernatural powers as frauds, whereas he himself believed in them. Now, perhaps it’s only me, but were I to look for a tutor in logic, Sir Arthur would not have been my first choice. Nor should he have been Loeb’s.
Let us leave Doyle to rest in peace and turn to his quote. When Holmes said, as it were, “when you have excluded the impossible,” the hidden assumption is that you have exhausted the entire gamut of possibilities but one, the “improbable” one. But how can you be sure that the whole range of possibilities is known to you? If you’re an arrogant know-it-all like Sherlock Holmes, perhaps you can. But if you’re a scientist, you most definitely cannot. You must always leave open the possibility that there is something else, unknown to you, that is the true explanation. Herein, pace von Däniken, lies real courage: in saying, as does most of the astronomical community with regard to ‘Oumuamua, “we do not know.” But this is not the position taken by Loeb, of whom Kolbert writes that “the best evidence he marshals for his theory that ‘Oumuamua is an alien craft is that the alternative theories are unconvincing.”
It is a common truism that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, even though Avi Loeb disagrees: “It is not obvious to me why extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” quoth he. Let’s be lenient on this point. Let’s suppose that extraordinary claims only require some evidence. Does Loeb have any positive evidence that ‘Oumuamua could be an alien craft? In the 2019 interview, Loeb made a fairly unusual statement: “we follow the evidence, and the evidence in this particular case is that there are six peculiar facts.” It’s as if “facts” and “evidence” are synonymous, which they are not. The Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines “evidence” as “something that furnishes or tends to furnish proof : means of making proof : medium of proof”. If so, what is Loeb’s “evidence” proof of? Where’s the beef?
In both New Yorker pieces, Avi Loeb is quoted as using words such as “likely” or “plausible” regarding an alien origin for ‘Oumuamua. Had he said that this was just a notion that mustn’t be disqualified out of hand, perhaps I wouldn’t have written all this, much as I tend to rile against anyone who relies on the Sherlock Holmes quote in any context. But Loeb seems to be doing more than “putting this on the table.” He is sitting down to dine on it.
Unlike Avi Loeb, who told Chotiner that he doesn’t like science fiction, I am an avid fan of the genre. As such, I enjoy stories about alien spacecraft that are based on the common understanding, by both writer and readers, that they are fiction. I also like to believe in the existence of extraterrestrial sentient life; this belief is based on the so-called “principle of mediocrity” – there is nothing unique about Planet Earth, so there’s no reason to think that sentient beings appeared only here and not anywhere else. I hope they will make themselves known to us in my lifetime, either by broadcast or by a visit.
But I do not believe that ‘Oumuamua answers Fermi’s question, because no one has seen or shown any evidence to this effect.
Written by: Emanuel Lottem