Loebism: Conjectures and Refutaions
I’m beginning to wonder whether Prof. Loeb is actually aware of the curious details of the history of actual science—as opposed to the hagiographical stories we like to congratulate science with as we daydream about what science must or ought to be like.
Whenever scientists wax reflexive or “philosophical”, we really should start to get the jitters—especially in today’s post-1960s world of Feynmanian “shut up and calculate”, where (from my personal experience) most scientists, even the savants, have a very unsubtle (and idealistic) grasp of real history of science, let alone the philosophy that both guides and underwrites it.
So I want to talk about “Loebism”. I am not sure that I can provide a general account of Loebism yet, but I can begin to discern the outlines of it. And it’s not particularly promising. Not for UAP study, and not for science, either. (But maybe that’s just me being cranky yet again…)
Let’s begin with the latest outpourings from his ever-active “Medium” blog (which is essentially what it is: a clever retooling of what we do here on the old-fashioned Google or Wordpress platforms). Let’s start with his recent piece, entitled with one of those awkward titles Loebism is good at spinning: “Separating Science From Fiction”. (Although I say recent—this one is dated 5 March—but he serves them up faster than the UAP flapjacks at the Roswell Waffle House.)
Let’s just start with the image he chose, probably at random, not knowing exactly what was going on in it. It’s a scene from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, as Kirk and his skeleton crew book it after Scotty disabled the Excelsior’s “trans-warp” drive (Scotty was of course assigned to the Excelsior, much to his chagrin). What was Three all about? Well, if you’ll recall, in Two Spock dies saving the Enterprise as Khan (that “product of late twentieth century genetic engineering” to quote Cmdr. Chekhov, who gets captured by Khan, along with his then-captain, Cpt. Terrell) attempts to blow up everyone by detonating the “Genesis Device”. But as all of us nerds know, just as Spock tries to enter the “mains” thingy (he’s tying to “bring the mains back online”), which is presumably related to the warp core for the warp drive, Spock is stopped by Bones: “you can’t go in there!”. It’s apparently filled with lethal amounts of ionizing radiation (due to their use of matter/anti-matter reactions I guess). Spock seems to agree, but then does the Vulcan nerve pinch thing on Bones and as Bones falls unconscious onto the floor, he says into his ear, quietly: “Remember”. Spock had, as we learn in Three when Spock’s dad Sarek confronts Kirk, transferred his “katra” to Bones, who now carries it around: a second spirit possessing Bones, looking for its proper repository, which, of course, is the dead body of Spock himself—shot out into the nascent “Genesis” planet in a photon torpedo.
It’s a wonderfully imaginative set of episodes whose culmination is the “save the whales” time-travel extravaganza that I actually watched in the theater in the Spring or Summer of 1986 (in the opening credits, it was dedicated to the Challenger, which had exploded the previous January—which I also remember seeing on TV when I came home to my grandmother’s house for lunch that fateful winter afternoon).
Why do I go on at length about this image? Well, because curiously it puts us right within a sci-fi series that, as we all know, runs through the complete gamut of UAP questions, issues, problems, speculations … you name it, it’s all here. But it is, we’re told in order to bring our minds back to Earth, all pure fantasy. It’s not real. It’s all “pure imagination” (can you hear Gene Wilder singing on the boat in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory?). And none of that has any place in science, right? Well, if it does, it is just not like it is in the movies (and I suppose that’s fair enough). If there is imagination, it’s oh-so-tame, domesticated, put in place only with the Imprimatur of evidence. Well, maybe.
When I was a kid, I used to walk out of those wonderful old Star Trek films really dreading returning back to the boring old world of the 1980s or 1990s, with its distinct lack of transporters, warp drives, phasers and repressed ultra-logical alien species. Then, yes, I started to get curious about actual science, and realized that, if we were to match the world of Star Trek, we had a lot of homework and creative thinking to do. But I was only interested to know the foundations of science—its history, its philosophical origins—not in the working out of those homework problems. I wanted to try to push against the limits of science (theoretical physics) by learning what those limits were—or at least getting as good a sense as I could, with the intellectual resources available to me (I’m neither a physicist nor mathematician by any stretch of the imagination, but I have a decent-enough imagination and intellectual background to be able to have a good conversation with them.)
Back to Prof. Loeb’s Medium piece, crushing our imagination and our sci-fi fantasies. Part of my intellectual training involved taking a close look at the actual—as opposed to the idealized version of the—history of science. And by close look I mean philosophically-informed—a critical as opposed to hagiographical look at it. And as I had come to learn, it’s not nearly so cut-and-dry as Professor Loeb wants it to be. So, the first “fantasy” we have to be aware of is the fantasy of the history of science in Loeb’s (and your typical scientist’s) understanding of it.
Indeed: What I learned quickly was that you can’t really rely on scientists themselves for an accurate understanding of the history of their own profession. Probably because they’re “interested parties” to the max: they want it to be a certain way, so in their minds, naturally, it will be: a bastion of “reason” or “rationalism”; a land where fact always rules over fantasy; and where the wilds of human imagination are always carefully domesticated by the sobriety of experiment and the dictates of the evidence, which acts ever to counteract, dispel or temper it. Or somesuch story. In any case, probably Avi, when pressed, would say “sure imagination is part of science, but it’s got to be disciplined by experiments, evidence, fact…” which is surely reasonable, as far as it goes. But then what about that imagination in science—especially when it challenges received wisdom? That’s where Avi gets it wrong (though he can’t entirely be faulted, since the role he’s given himself to play, as a relatively establishment figure, is, from a larger perspective, just as it should be: he puts up the good fight as the “radicals”—which sometimes he thinks of himself as, or at least a mitigated radical, using “arguments and data”—try to argue for their tendentious hypotheses with little or no “good data” to go on).
What got me worked up of late, which was the immediate inspiration for this post, was the posting of this Loeb piece on the SCU’s Facebook page. One person highlighted a bit of the Medium article for us, asking the group to take note:
The burden of proof is on those who claim new physics. Progress in our scientific knowledge is not advanced by our imagination but by indisputable supporting evidence. Without accurate distance measurements, UAP observations cannot be used to suggest new physics. (Loeb 2023, Medium, 5 March.)
Of course, that’s Loeb’s pot-shot against (I suppose) the UAP “believer” who wants to argue that the apparently extraordinary UAP kinematics (their observed velocities and accelerations) is evidence of new physics. But surely not “[w]ithout accurate distance measurements…”. He has just put up a (now controversial) pre-print that got co-authored with the AARO chief Dr. Kirkpatrick, which attempts to work out what supposedly known physics has to say about the dance of UAP kinematics, but it is not entirely clear to me that he realizes that all they are doing in that paper is setting up the rough logic of confirmation for anomalies: if UAP are conventional, then under the following conditions, here is how they must behave according to known physics (and this is what their pre-print wants to establish very clearly); so, if they do not so behave, well then, the conclusion is as inevitable as it is elementary: they are not obeying conventional physics. The logic is basic: if A implies B, but B is false, well then, it follows that A is false too. Period. What everyone in the Twitter-sphere and in the media don’t seem to understand is that Loeb & Kirkpatrick just don’t think the second premise obtains: there is no good evidence, they want to maintain, that UAP have violated physical expectations because the data is, so far, poor (not because they don’t think we can obtain it, or that it’s not possible, etc.). They are exactly right that no instrumented observations of known and verifiable (and readily analyzable) provenance have been produced which is acceptable for the scientific mainstream; even the best UAP cases are lacking in key, independently verifiable, datasets (like military sensor data, which remain and likely will forever remain classified). I still think that we have very good inductive evidence that we are in fact dealing with objects violating conventional science, but that is an entirely different debate (and one I will table for now).
(But oh this pre-print thing, and all the press surrounding it, including a Military Times piece click-batingly claiming that “Pentagon UFO chief says alien mothership in our solar system possible”, deserves a whole commentary all on its own, which I will hopefully get to in the midst of my upcoming travels, both domestic and foreign.)
Where shall we begin with this recent Loeb Medium article? As I said, let’s table a discussion of the paucity of the data that can be extracted from your run-of-the-mill UAP incident. The point is granted. (But we ought to return to that issue at some point soon.)
Let’s just start with the first couple of claims in that snippet cited above. Well, they’re all over the place. Copernicus had no “evidence” in the sense we’d accept, or which could be accepted in his time. He had a simplified model that contradicted everything the Aristotelian one (Ptolemy’s) demanded—and the Copernican model wasn’t even any more empirically adequate as compared with the Ptolemaic model! In fact, the one was just as good as the other at predicting what it had to predict: the locations of planets in the sky over time. Perhaps the dirty little secret that we conveniently like to forget in our hagiographies of science is that the Ptolemaic geocentric model, while more complex, was consistent with the metaphysical requirement of the time, given by Aristotle’s demand that the Earth must be centrally located—something taken by the “scientists” of the time to be observationally confirmed. Copernicus’ model was indeed simpler—it had less complicated planetary motions—but so what? It required something that didn’t make sense and which contradicted the evidence: an Earth in motion. So, not only did Copernicus’ model have no more evidence to support it than did the dominant Ptolemaic model with which it contended, but it also contradicted the fundamentals of the scientific paradigm of the day. If you add up the balance sheet, Ptolemaic geocentrism would, rationally, win every argument c. 1543. And a post-facto argument that, well, Copernicus had the right mechanics or dynamics in principle (which was lacking for the Ptolemaic model) won’t stand, since that was a subsequent realization had decades and centuries later. Truth and reasoning do not work with the benefit of hindsight when you’re in the historical thick of things (and this is a deeper philosophical point worth examining further). We can only safely show the profound errors of geocentrism (or any rejected or discarded science) after the paradigm shift occurs and we get a whole new set of foundations—which typically means that even the very concept of what does/doesn’t count as “evidence” changes. The significance of this meta-theoretic (historical-philosophical) realization cannot be overstated, especially as it pertains to the whole UAP quagmire now afoot as the mainstream tries to jump into the game.
Second, progress is often (therefore) made by a leap of scientific imagination, often one that flies in the face of the evidence—or gets us to look at that “evidence” in an entirely new light. Loeb is, then, dead wrong. Or rather, he has a very confused (and unexamined) view of actual science. Recall to mind the birth of relativity theory in the early twentieth century: Einstein posited—that is, helped himself to a seemingly contradictory assumption—that light’s speed was a constant. This was an imaginative leap based on nothing more than evidence for the null hypothesis, which was the upshot of all those experiments throughout the nineteenth century trying to find out whether the speed of light was different in different reference frames. Nobody could detect a difference, but yet this difference was required by the Newtonian paradigm under which the physics of the time operated. Even Einstein himself would later famously recognize the (nonrational, or “para-rational”) role imagination plays in the history of science—without which we’d have (I would argue) nothing but a chaotic assortment of facts with no theoretical cohesion. Theory, I claim, is imagination—and accepted theory is just those imaginative assumptions and hypotheses for which we can build a case for their coherence with the evidence of experiment and observation. What happened in the birth of relativity theory was that a crazy, speculative postulate (that the speed of light was the same for all observers and in all frames of reference), which was just an assumption, was added together with a relatively reasonable one Newtonians (the mainstream) might accept: that the laws of physics are the same in every reference frame (which is a principle of absolute invariance). In his 1905 paper, Einstein inverted the logic of the evidence of the time: he said that rather than puzzling over why nobody is able to discern a difference in the speed of light when there should be (according to the then-current Newtonian paradigm), let’s just take the absence of the observation of a difference—the null hypothesis—as an indication of a new fact. He flipped the reasoning on its head, and upended the interpretation of the evidence of the time. This, we must realize, is an interpretive leap of Einstein’s imagination: It takes the “evidence” in a new (theoretical) light.
In fact, if I may be so bold: Einstein took the old evidence as evidence for new theory! Now, if we return to Loeb’s final comment, we might chuckle a bit at the professor’s clear lapse of historical understanding: “… UAP observations cannot be used to suggest new physics”.
How do we know that “… UAP observations cannot be used to suggest new physics” unless someone comes along and pulls an Einstein, using their imagination? It is surely a possibility that there is new physics with some UAP, and given the history of science, it is not unreasonable to suspect this given what good evidence there already is (for example, in the Nimitz and Aguadilla cases, which we have discussed on this blog elsewhere: and no, Mick West has not debunked them, despite the relative cogency of his narrowly-focused video analyses). Surely we need more data to build a more convincing case, but if we adopt Loebism, we would be trapped by an unimaginative loop of “well, it can’t be, so it isn’t”. Trapped by evidence which we are not allowed to interpret imaginatively. Would it be any worse than the visions that inspired the discovery of benzene to use pretty good UAP reports, with pretty good testimony from which decent estimations can be extracted (as in Knuth et al. 2019)?
Are the outlines of Loebism becoming clear...?
(Now, in a subsequent post, we might take up the profound irony with the image Loeb used in making his seemingly sound, rational cut-down to the imaginative in science, an irony we’ve suggested but not exactly clarified…)
Note & Belated Postscript (30 March 2023): this article has been modified slightly to tone down my reflexive crankiness. It should be noted that the present author in fact holds Loeb in very high regard, and has defended his work against the various confusions, confabulations and other misreadings that have been found percolating within the UAP community. Loeb’s efforts are to be lauded before they are to be criticized—but of course, criticism (if one can overlook an author’s idiosyncrasies) is part of the driving dynamic of all authentic science. It should therefore be read as an effort to improve upon the conceptual foundations of our attempt to study such a complex puzzle as UAP clearly are.
When it comes to Avi Loeb on UAP, he can't get smacked down and/or upside the head, enough. Especially egregious is his weak grasp of the history and practice of his own discipline that you sketch here. I understand he has made contributions in his field of astrophysics, an index of competence that stands as a warning to all of us who would dare too far afield with too much confidence...ReplyDelete
Hi Michael, astrophysics grad. and particle physics postgrad. here! From a while back.ReplyDelete
If we look at the arxiv.org, the Cornell University repository for physics in all forms, inc. fundamental, there's everything there at the highest levels. Not undergrad. physics of course!
Key theory are General Relativity and Quantum Cosmology, High Energy Physics and Quantum physics.
Linking possibly with Richard Feynman (who you mentioned), this has always stuck with me from his Lectures 41 (the full is relevant and all Lectures are now online)...
"The next great era of awakening of human intellect may well produce a method of understanding the qualitative content of equations. Today we cannot. Today we cannot see that the water flow equations contain such things as the barber pole structure of turbulence that one sees between rotating cylinders. Today we cannot see whether Schrödinger’s equation contains frogs, musical composers, or morality—or whether it does not. We cannot say whether something beyond it like God is needed, or not. And so we can all hold strong opinions either way."
So even staying with all that's currently 1. known theoretically/confirmed experimentally and 2. hypothesised in all theoretical forms as recognised expertise in the theory fields above, shouldn't we *firstly* aim to see the observed UAP dynamics through these lenses? Re Feynman, so much observationally could be in "the qualitative content of equations."
Avi Loeb has set, in my view, the required high bar that needs to be overcome because how can we presently know some UAP observations do not come within the physics known? A challenge to theory physicists to get involved? As to observations carried out by dedicated instruments and operated by scientists in an open setting, we have none.
So when these remarkable observations come in (and they surely will), even then so called "new physics" may not be necessary - although of course it might be!
As an aside, I too am fascinated by the history of relativity and how essentially the new physics was forced from the observations. Sometimes I wonder if Newton himself could have worked towards special relativity! His statement that mass is the quantity of matter in a body (in that it is fixed) fits with E = m(0)c^2, i.e it's a relativistic statement. Well, he knew the KE formula, he needed to guess that v would need to be replaced by some natural constant and the 1/2 would have to go. But that would have been a big step. Yet I knew he was puzzled as to seemingly infinite interaction speeds (gravity at least). Best, Alan.