Space Ice: Lessons From Loebism (Once Again)
I owe my (five) readers part two of my review of the annual AAPC organized and sponsored by the SCU; but in the meantime, there are a few things on my mind that I can offer before we get to the last part of that review. And what is right now in my mind is more from the annals of Loebism.
This recent Medium article (of 18 July this year) dealing with the Loeb/‘Oumuamua controversy, which the historian Greg Eghigian altered us to on Facebook, pretty much settles the debate. At least for now: Loeb has offered, as the authors of this piece show, no detailed model of an artificial “light sail” (or something answering to that description) that is consistent with the observational facts – or any convincingly detailed model that proposes that the object was a manufactured artifact rather than a natural space rock. And those observational facts – which aren’t being disputed, crucially – are in fact consistent with the behavior of known natural phenomena, as the authors of this article go on to explain at some length (Loeb’s protestations notwithstanding). The article is crafted to be not only detailed and thorough, but as free of polemical dramatics as is possible, given how much attention the Loeb nonnatural origins hypothesis has received. (This attention is partly due to Loeb himself, of course: his book detailing his views became a Times bestseller, and he’s appeared on numerous podcasts, morning coffee news clutches, lecture circuits, and has taken the theory to a number of academic conferences. Here is a recent New York Times Magazine portrait of the man and the theory.)
So, unless Loeb et al. can come up with a better (and detailed) model than the ones on the table which take the object to be purely natural (that the object is a chunk of tumbling interstellar nitrogen ice seems to so far be the best model, according to the authors – i.e., the one consistent with all the facts), or else offer new evidence that discounts either the specific nitrogen ice model that has been proposed or (more generally) the assumption that the object is purely natural (a tumbling rock of no intelligent design), then there’s really nothing more to say. Well, besides that the best explanation is the “natural” one: that this object like so many other space-bound objects is one whose behavior can be well explained without the intervention of intelligent design or artifice.
What’s really surprising (maybe shocking) to learn, I thought, is that the authors point out that Loeb et al. didn’t try to provide a detailed alternative, non-natural model that fits all the data. And that when such a model was tried, it failed. What Loeb et al. did do, rather, was to poke holes in the natural models that were proposed for the object’s peculiar behavior. But of course, arguing that some class of theories is flawed doesn’t count as evidence for an alternative – especially as novel as that the object was the product of nonhuman intelligent design (i.e., that the object was a kind of “light sail” whose observed non-gravitational acceleration could be accounted for by the intentional engineering of the surface of the object/sail: the photonic pressure from nearby starlight gives it an extra boost beyond a local star’s gravitational demands). You must instead follow up the negative criticism with an actual worked-out alternative and show it’s either as good as or (ideally) better than those on the table. And that’s what the authors of this rather detailed Medium piece say Loeb et al. never actually did. That’s surprising, since you’d think that something like that should accompany the rather vocal and attention-grabbing criticisms Loeb has become famous for. (Now psychologically at least, the guy is somewhat trapped by his convictions – a very dangerous spot to get yourself in as a practicing scientist of some reputation. After all, maybe he’s right…)It shouldn’t be that hard to produce a suitable class of non-natural alternative models consistent with the data (and Loeb and his team are more than capable of delivering); what is hard is to do this convincingly in relation to observation – especially when the natural models work reasonably well, as the authors convincingly explain. (How “reasonably” is of course where there’s going to be some dispute and some wiggle-room.) But since the object can no longer be observed, the observational data used to weigh the relative merits of the various hypotheses will remain highly constrained: what was seen is what you get. Much like with UAP, by the way: “research” here has mostly amounted to exercises (more or less futile, depending) in historical forensics. (At least, for classical “ufology”.)
So, it looks like here with Loeb we have a classic case of rushing to judgment before all the detailed analytical work could be done which could exhaust the reasonable possibilities within accepted parameters of “natural” science (i.e., of a science which presupposes that the characteristics of objects observed beyond Earth can all be explained by appealing to non-engineered, non-intelligently-designed structures and blind, mechanical forces – in short the usual physics stuff, as problematic as this all might be for other, much more philosophical but no less important or interesting reasons). Only when you’ve actually (as opposed to suggestively) exhausted the natural explanations do we then start to contemplate more radical alternatives as being the ones we should actively pursue. Sound familiar?
The philosophy of science lessons learned here do directly transfer to the situation we face with UAP today. The complication is that not only are we having to deal with anomalous instrumented observations, but also the reported observations of human witnesses. Additionally, unlike with Loeb’s object of astronomical fascination, with UAP observations we’re not dealing with objects putatively behaving anomalously as detected by a community of observers actively doing known science (astronomy, astrophysics, etc.); rather we’re getting reports of observations done in another (non-scientific) context which suggests but by no means proves anomaly. The added complication for UAP, then, is that we’re constantly doubting and questioning the data themselves: whether witnesses succumbed to erroneous judgement based on limited perceptual information; whether the instrumented observations were flawed; or a combo deal: whether the instruments worked well, but were mistakenly interpreted (good data, bad human judgment). No one doubts that Loeb’s object is interstellar, or that its trajectory displayed non-gravitational acceleration, etc. Indeed: no one doubts it was actually observed with seemingly odd or otherwise interesting characteristics. Rather, what is doubted (by Loeb et al. that is) is whether a purely natural explanation can account for that (undisputed) observational data.When we turn to a classic UAP case – and we like Nimitz, with Kevin Day’s or Gary Voorhis’ or Dave Fravor’s reported observations of data and objects – we’re dealing with a whole different context: a forensic, not a strictly scientific, one. The import of these observations – which do admittedly constitute anecdotal evidence, because of the adventitious nature of most of it – is to raise the likelihood that there is indeed something unconventional and perhaps even nonnatural occurring in the atmosphere and on Earth, as radical and fringy as that sounds. Attempts to explain Fravor’s direct observations as psy-ops, or Day’s radar observations as malfunction/radar echoes (and so on), or misremembering/misinterpretation, are attempts to dispute the observations themselves – to call the instruments (and their readings) or the witnesses’ testimony into question. We should do this, and we can argue about it too. But when multiple witnesses give similar accounts of objects seen at relatively close range, for longer than a few seconds, and when the associated (if not exactly correlated) radar evidence and other reports suggests speeds and flight characteristics well beyond the performance envelope of known human craft, then while this is not inconsistent with some perfectly natural or even technological explanation, the kinds of explanations that plausibly remain challenge both science and technology as we know it.
But this is all just suggestive of the sorts of scientific infrastructure and apparatus that needs to be put in place in order for this anecdotal evidence to become strict scientific data – just like popular accounts of bizarre diseases and bodily ailments of one kind or another can count as solid (but anecdotal) leads in medicine for where and how to look for potential new medical discoveries: the forensics guides the science, after which the science can return to the forensic evidence (some of them cold cases) and reconstruct what was “really” going on with a more detailed (and hopefully well-confirmed) model of what has happening. This epistemic circulation, hopefully, will go some way in helping us derive and describe some relevant ontological structure – a theoretical picture of where the myth, mystery and reality of UAP converge or coincide (and there are going to be important psychoanalytic, sociological and even semiotic complications here), and where the three part company. (And yes, as with any theoretical endeavor that has ontological pretensions: there will always be a normative not merely descriptive dimension to this procedure.)
The problem we’ve faced thus far, as Kevin Knuth, Matthew Szydagis and many others well know, is that the overused Sagan dictum, cited in this Medium article to good effect, becomes – at the sociological rather than at the strictly cognitive/rational level – an inhibiting factor to actually setting up the robust scientific research programs that could produce the “extraordinary” evidence of sound and convincing provenance. I mean, those usually citing it seem to assume that the science has been tried but that it failed, yet few offer details here – other than maybe making reference to those justifiably dubious projects figures like Bigelow orchestrated and got government funding for, as Kloor and others are right to crinkle eyebrows over. (But do these kinds of endeavors count as the best cases of the science that has been attempted? One smells a straw man lurking about.) Or else, the dictum is employed as a rhetorical tactic to shift the burden of proof onto the UFO enthusiast: well, give us the extraordinary evidence, why don’t you?! And of course, extra-ordinary evidence of the kind requested doesn’t exist. Why doesn’t it exist? Well, if no university or credible scientific foundation is willing to support and do the science needed to produce the “extraordinary evidence” always demanded in the rational UFO debates (which just turns out to be evidence plain and simple – I mean, why “extraordinary”?); if because of stigma no one sets up the infrastructure, makes the observations and records the data, and is actually consistently well-paid to do it, like anyone else doing institutionally-supported scientific research; ... well, then: no evidence (extraordinary or otherwise) can or will be produced. We will just persist in the cul-du-sac of (dogmatic) dismissal and denial, and have to entertain fruitless debates between so-called believers and the denialist-skeptics fighting the good fight for science & reason. And on and on without foreseeable end. (One imaginatively hopes that at least some dim awareness of this tautologous situation was recognized by NASA as they formed the study panel whose report was promised for the month of July.)
It’s the Szydagis Paradox again, which I named after physics professor Matthew Szydagis who in a 2022 SCU conference put it so well: UAP aren’t taken seriously because scientists won’t study them seriously, but scientists won’t study them seriously because UAP aren’t taken seriously! So, journalists or academics can take their easy shots against the low-hanging critical thinking fruit (and there’s plenty rotting on the ufological vines from which to choose); but they do so without appreciating the paradoxical situation the study of these phenomena has faced for almost nine decades. Instead, the preference in mainstream discussions is still to foreground UAP as fringe, reference the X-Files, conversationally discrediting the topic (and those who want to seriously study these phenomena), and to proceed to label UAP/UFO study as pseudoscientific – when there’s never been science! (Some in the UFO world opine that we’re at the “pre-science” stage, thinking here of the philosophy of science of Thomas Kuhn; but that’s another story we can and should take up in detail later.)
In any case, we continue to draw useful lessons from the annals of Loebism, and so we should really keep one ear to the ground here. However, we suspect that, if Loeb’s way of thinking is driving the analysis of these allegedly interstellar “spherules” (the things being used to demonstrate the nonnatural origins of a meteor that came crashing down into the Pacific about a decade ago), then we should be worried that the same kinds of epistemic gaps and leaps in analysis, as chronicled by Wright, Desch and Raymond for the ‘Oumuamua case with which this post began, will also show up here for the “spherules”. I mean, human beings are nothing if not consistent in their foibles – philosophical or otherwise.
We shall see.