Our Biggest Existential Risk is Superficiality

Avi Loeb
5 min readApr 26, 2024

In my TED talk last week, I admitted that I don’t have any footprint on social media. No account, no post, nada. Call me old-fashioned, Thoreau-style advocate for escaping the modern addiction to digital screens. But the truth is that I actually love technological advances and am doing my best to escape superficiality.

What does it mean to reach the “superficiality escape velocity”? It means to be weaned from “likes” on social media. It means to avoid the act of virtue signaling without committing to the work required for promoting the cause; or in other words, to avoid fierce protests on university campuses, within a protected bubble removed from the real world. It means to stay away from propaganda slogans of the type envisioned by George Orwell in his book `1984’: “War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.” It is by now 2024, forty years after 1984, and ignorance is indeed strength on social media. Superficiality trends also in science journalism, when even the New-York Times reports without fact-checking that an interstellar meteor’s fireball, identified by U.S. Government satellites, is a truck.

Fact-based education and journalism is supposed to offer informed knowledge about the world. But when ignoramuses resist nuanced knowledge because it contradicts simple-minded narratives, the study of historical facts is treated as “oppression” and our society regresses to the mean. Under these circumstances, the superficial nature of mediocracy wins over professional excellence in scholarship on university campuses.

There is no way out of conflict for those who refuse to be educated about other opinions. The ignoramuses reject classrooms which require more work than a superficial narrative on social media. By tolerating free speech of any kind, our society carries the existential risk for its demise, because it welcomes frontal attacks on its foundations. We can only hope that common sense will ultimately prevail, but survival of the knowledgeable is not guaranteed by any means.

Why am I losing sleep over this issue? Because when social media promotes ignorance that negates dialogues with evidence-based opinions, we could lose the only feedback loop that corrects misguided notions.

Virtual realities are popular not only among those who purchase goggles from Meta or consume recreational drugs or argue that we live in a simulation, but also among theoretical physicists who assumed for half a century that extra dimensions exist without experimental verification. However, I am not worried about these particular virtual realities because they are harmless to society. Those who subscribe to them do not use megaphones or camp on university campuses to disrupt scholarship and education of evidence-based ideas. But when superficial narratives on social media translate into a disruptive blockade on open-minded learning, I view them as an existential risk to our future among the stars.

The existential threat will increase by orders of magnitude in the coming years, as artificial intelligence (AI) will master the art of manipulating people on social media. With fake references, images or quotes, virtual realities will dominate human existence more than ever.

At the latest meeting of my research group, I asked my students and postdocs what is the concern that they lose most sleep about: a devastation of the scholarly fabric of universities by protestors and opinionated critics, a nuclear war carried by ballistic missiles similar to those launched by Iran this month, a leak of a virus more deadly than Covid-19 from a bio-weapon laboratory engaged in gain-of-function experiments, or the manipulation of society to the brink of political insanity by AI?

Any of the above could explain Fermi’s paradox: “where is everybody?”, since extraterrestrial technological civilization with these traits might have been short-lived. Surely, we must do our best to improve society on our home planet, but as Plan B — I am also seeking a more intelligent civilization in interstellar space that could serve as a better role model than our politicians.

Our biggest existential risk is superficiality because it carries an easy-to-push button for self-destruction. The most aggressive acts in human history were motivated by superficial narratives, such as the antisemitic portrayal of the Jews by Adolf Hitler, an Austrian-born orator fueled by jealousy for the success of the Jews in Vienna. The more ego-flattering a virtual reality is, the more uninhibited are its consequences. By flattering the ego of the Germans after World-War I, a politician as ugly as Hitler could have created an efficient societal machine for burning six-million jews in concentration camps. The Nazi regime inspired the youth to burn books in 1933, six years before it started to gas and burn Jews. There is no better indicator for superficiality than the desire to burn the knowledge encapsulated in books. Born to a family of assimilated Jews, the German poet, Heinrich Heine, insightfully noted a century earlier in 1821: “Wherever they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.” We must keep this quote in mind concerning any social trend which rests on anti-education sentiments.

65 members of my father’s family were killed during the holocaust. This is the reason for my enhanced sensitivity to the risk from superficial slogans in today’s culture.

Paraphrasing (in parenthesis) the words of Aleksander Solzhenitsyn: “Hastiness and superficiality are the psychic diseases of the 20th (and 21st) century, and more than anything else this disease is reflected in the press (and social media).” The antidote to this existential risk is simple: let us all focus on evidence-based knowledge and acquire a nuanced view of multiple opinions.

The plumber who comes annually to clean the sewer at my home from invasive tree roots told me this morning that he follows my research and is eager to know what we might find in our next Pacific Ocean expedition to retrieve large pieces of the interstellar meteor, IM1. Metaphorically, I can only wish that the roots of social media will not clog the flow of knowledge through academia. As Oscar Wilde noted: “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.”


Image credit: Chris Michel (October 2023)

Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021. His new book, titled “Interstellar”, was published in August 2023.



Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb is the Baird Professor of Science and Institute director at Harvard University and the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial” and "Interstellar".