Physics, Earth & Space Icon Physics, Earth & Space

My Concern About Avi Loeb’s Work in Relation to Intelligent Design

Eric H. Anderson
alien life
Image: ʻOumuamua, by ESO/M. Kornmesser. Derivative: nagualdesign [CC BY-SA 4.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons.

Thank you to Paul Nelson for his update and detailed summary about Avi Loeb’s work and the potential connection to intelligent design thinking. I agree that Loeb seems to make a thoughtful case — certainly more so than we might have expected when we first heard the claim of ‘Oumuamua possibly being of alien origin.

I do, however, think the specifics of Loeb’s case are important. It is nice to see that he is making a “risky” argument, but is the argument sound?  What I’d be concerned about would be a promotion of Loeb’s approach as an “ID” approach, only to find out later that his case failed. I don’t presume you are advocating such promotion — just flagging the issue for everyone. A false positive would be quite unhelpful to the cause of design detection, and for years great pains have been taken to ensure that the design inference is rigorous enough to avoid false positives.

The Evidence Seems Light

Loeb notes a few interesting features of ‘Oumuamua that he argues are not consistent with naturally occurring phenomena.  That’s great, as far as it goes. I’d welcome solid evidence of extraterrestrials and would be happy to see him continue this research. But the evidence seems pretty light, at least compared to what we normally expect for a design inference. His analysis of ‘Oumuamua (if I recall the interview correctly) is based heavily on a few pixels of optical resolution and a few spectral lines.  Nothing even approaching the functionally coherent and integrated complexity of molecular machines or the symbolic code-based sequences found throughout biology, which allow us to infer design with great confidence. Thus, his design prediction in this case, while worthy of further investigation, seems to merit a huge grain of salt at least at present.

That said, he seems to be a bit of a maverick, willing to shake up that stale “herd tendency,” and is taking an interesting and thoughtful approach, so that is great. I hope you’re right that his work can help open the door to design thinking generally, and (I trust) to more rigorous application of the design inference in specific cases. So I’ll continue to watch Loeb’s work in this area with cautious interest.