Oumuamua was hypothesized by Avi Loeb to be an alien probe due to its apparent very flat shape and hyperbolic path through the solar system. It was almost certainly not an alien probe. The orbit indicates that it is an object that was never gravitationally bound to the Sun, and it is hard to imagine how a natural asteroid can appear to be quite so flat but while this makes it an odd ball it does not make it a space probe. How can you as a reader or producer of science know this? Occam’s razor, given competing explanations that fit the data equally well the simpler one is more likely to be true. What leads many non-scientists astray is blind “belief” in prestige and expertise. That said Avi Loeb is not wrong to bring up a challenging question, how would we even recognize a probe from an alien civilization?
Avi Loeb Was Not “Wrong”
There is a value to a thought experiment. His hypothesis has made us ask how would we know an alien space probe if we saw it? That is a very important thing. This is the very sort of thing that tenure exist to protect. The problem is that nonscientist think a prestigious tenured professor ship is given because one is rarely or never wrong. When the whole point is to protect them from being terminated for being wildly, spectacularly heretical if not out right wrong.
Avi Loeb was not wrong to hypothesize and is not wrong to continue to talk about this.
For me, the key would be if the object maneuvered in a way that indicates it is not just following a gravitationally defined path. It would have to go from a hyperbolic orbit to a circular orbit as if it is going to stay and observe our solar system. I would also want to know the result of it being monitored for any radio emissions. Is the probe trying to send a signal back to its creators? The ultimate would-be high-resolution imaging of the object, sending our own probe to rendezvous with it and take a good close look.
That is the kind of evidence it would take. Otherwise, Occam’s razor indicates it is just a thin shard of rock.
Given I am talking about him might as well hear Professor Loeb in his own words.
I view this as a challenge to think how we would really know if an extra solar object was an alien probe. I have indulged in that sort of a thought experiment regarding the planet Kepler 186-f and the odds that there is an intelligent civilization there. In doing so I came up with an easy way to think about the kinds of evidence we could observe for. Occam’s razor would indicate that the data I saw was more likely indicative of some sort of earth-bound source, even if it would have been broadcasting in a frequency we do not really use. We know 100% we are here, using broadband signals. Anything else is just a hypothesis.
The Reporting Was Wrong
The reporting on this was wrong. The reason being the motivation for giving this hypothesis which would be valid fare for classroom discussion or discussion at major conferences, mainstream page space and airtime was wrong. The reason being that Avi Loeb has a prestigious job, at a prestigious place. That many news reporters mistake prestige and authority for knowledge.
In most things a prestigious, powerful person does know the facts, indeed they create the facts. For example, if the President of the United States says we will invade Syria on Tuesday then guess what, that is a fact. The problem is science is fundamentally different. Scientific facts do not care who you are. An undergraduate student may make a fundamental observation no one else has just as well as a tenured faculty member.
The prestige of the “expert” is not what makes them correct.
How can reporters do better with stories that involve science, and new phenomena and how can a reader tell? Look for reporting that does the following. Reporters should use the word hypothesis or theory to describe what experts say unless they are speaking based on peer reviewed published observational studies. This applies to all science. This would apply for example to COVID-19. Do not state what Dr Fauci says as being a “fact” but as being his hypothesis unless he cites studies and then also cite and reference those studies. Maybe dig a bit deeper and see if there are any studies that contradict those studies. See if those studies have been cited in other publications. Lastly when it comes to evolving stories realize that scientific facts take time to establish, perhaps months or years. Ask yourselves does the reporting present the hypothesis or theory of one lone scientist, with no supporting data, as being a fact? If they do then be very wary of the story.
Remember Occam’s Razor and remember that the only real facts in science are observed data. Everything else is just a hypothesis, a theory, or at best a law that applies only in certain situations.