• Wed. Jun 23rd, 2021


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When Scientific Orthodoxy Resembles Religious Dogma

When my Harvard colleague Stephen Greenblatt saw my book Extraterrestrial featured on the cover of the Orthodox Jewish magazine Ami, he commented “It is interesting that the Orthodox evidently do not consider their faith threatened by the possibility of other inhabited worlds.” To which I replied: “They appear to be less orthodox than my colleagues in the scientific community.” This was in reference to the pushback that my book received regarding the possibility that the interstellar object ‘Oumuamua might have been manufactured by another civilization.

Innovation blossoms in a culture willing to acquire new knowledge rather than being trapped in its past belief system. A mainstream astronomer who worked on rocks in the solar system for decades commented grudgingly: “‘Oumuamua is so strange…. I wish it never existed.” Such a sentiment is not the trademark of an intellectual culture that fosters discovery. In the weeks following the publication of my book I received numerous e-mails from astronomers, some tenured, who confessed that they agree with me but are afraid to speak out because of the potential repercussions to their careers.

Resistance to innovation is not a new phenomenon. When the astronomer Otto Struve suggested in a 1952 paper to search for hot Jupiters—massive, gaseous planets like our own Jupiter orbiting very close to their stars—his proposal was ignored until Didier Queloz and Michel Mayor found 51 Pegasi b. Prior to this discovery, astronomers argued that telescope time should not be “wasted” on this search because a Jupiter-like planet is unlikely to form so close to a sunlike star. Many even doubted whether exoplanets are common in the first place. The fact that this predictive “baby” was born four decades after it was conceived implies that there must be more “babies” that have never born because their existence is still in doubt. Placing blinders on our telescopes keeps us in our comfort zone at the expense of prolonging our ignorance. But reality does not abide by our prejudice; the existence of exoplanets or neighboring civilizations does not depend on whether we search for them.

Finding extraordinary evidence requires a commitment of extraordinary funds. This was true in the successful searches for the Higgs boson or gravitational waves, and it is definitely true in the so-far unsuccessful search for the nature of dark matter. Lack of evidence can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, the result of not investing enough in the search. All four proposals for explaining the anomalies of ‘Oumuamua in the context of a natural origin contemplated objects that we had never seen before in the solar system, including a hydrogen iceberg, a nitrogen iceberg, a tidal disruption fragment or a dust bunny. Therefore, by taking a close-up photograph of an ‘Oumuamua-like object in the future, we will learn something new about the nurseries that give birth to objects that we never imagined before ‘Oumuamua’s discovery. Our scientific knowledge will benefit irrespective of whether these objects are natural or artificial in origin. Only one scenario will maintain our ignorance—that of “business as usual” and lack of interest in ‘Oumuamua’s anomalies.

The culture of ignoring testable ideas because of prejudice coexists comfortably with a more extreme culture that embraces other ideas without requiring any test. The only requirement is for ideas to be popular within a large community that finds them legitimate. There is a benefit to not putting “skin in the game” with notions like the multiverse or the string theory landscape, which cannot be proven wrong by experimental tests and hence offer an ideal backdrop for demonstrating mathematical virtuosity. As the rabbinical saying goes: “The one who wants to lie, keeps the testimony far away.”

A data-free culture, reminiscent of other undisputable belief systems, gained popularity in theoretical physics after the cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider in 1993. The resulting data famine gave rise to a new theoretical framework that omits any obligation for falsifiability. At the first annual conference of Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative, a philosopher argued that if physicists agree on a notion for a decade it must be valid. But history teaches us otherwise: without bothering to look through Galileo Galilei’s telescope, philosophers overwhelmingly agreed on the incorrect notion that the sun moves around the Earth.

At the same time, we should also keep in mind that good data alone are not enough to bring us closer to the truth. Even when data are collected, they can be ignored or misinterpreted due to prejudice. Images of giant arcs of light around clusters of galaxies were published in the Astrophysical Journal long before they were properly interpreted in the 1980s as the result of gravitational lensing of more distant background galaxies. In another example, Mayan astronomy assembled exquisite data about the motions of planets and stars on the sky but used these by orthodox fiat to forecast the outcome of wars instead of discovering Newton’s law of gravity. At a recent book event I had with science writers, examples were mentioned of cases where evidence was dismissed by the mainstream in various scientific disciplines because it did not comply with the prevailing paradigm.

All these rivers of wrongdoings in the form of organized science or religion flow from the sea of authority—the interpretation of evidence or lack thereof to protect groupthink from doubts by ridiculing alternatives. As Galileo stated: “In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.” When a book titled A Hundred Authors against Einstein was published in 1931, Albert Einstein responded that if he was wrong then one author would have been enough. A contemporary way of paraphrasing Galileo and Einstein is that truth is not decided by the number of likes on Twitter.

Given this perspective, the pushback to my book is by no means an experience I regret. Instead, as Robert Frost noted: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” This personal adventure is dwarfed by the broader implications of finding whether humanity is actually the “smartest kid on the interstellar block.” Throughout life we resemble actors who are handed scripts imposed by orthodox traditions. The most important task before us as a civilization is to find freethinking actors from exoplanets and learn whether they have a better sense of what the play is all about. Here’s hoping that their answer will not be anchored in millennia of orthodoxy, but rather humbled by eons of open-minded interpretation of evidence.

This is an opinion and analysis article.