Separating Science from Fiction

Avi Loeb
5 min readJun 20, 2024


Painting titled “Discovery on the Moon” (Credit: Richard Bizley).

Most of my friends agree that science is better than politics. But the most creative among them would still argue that fiction can be better than science. This explains why the idea of a recent paper that aliens are among us, garnered public attention without providing supporting evidence. When I pointed out this shortfall in a recent interview on NBC, I was attacked by “believers” who were personally offended by the scientific imperative of supporting evidence.

To balance the scene, an actual anomaly in real data, like an Unidentified Anomalous Phenomenon (UAP), is often brushed under the carpet by mainstream scientists as a result of their cognitive dissonance. Experts whose stature rests on past knowledge tend to raise up dust and claim that they do not see any anomaly.

Scientific integrity was role modeled by Nicolaus Copernicus — a priest who deviated from the dogma of the church based on the anomaly in the planetary data that he studied. Replace Copernicus by most mainstream scientists today and you will find them arguing that new parameters or planetary data uncertainties allow for a geocentric worldview, as advocated by the church. Such a choice would suggest that for most people politics is more important than science.

Nevertheless, the appropriate response to anomalies is to collect better evidence and figure them out based on raw curiosity. This display of common sense is often attacked by both believers and skeptics. In particular, Galileo Galilei who was born 21 years after the death of Copernicus, realized that the moons of Jupiter are not revolving around the Earth as expected by the prevailing dogma. In celebration of his legacy, this is also the approach taken by the Galileo Project under my leadership regarding UAPs.

The landscape of polarization is familiar in politics, where the opposing extremes make little sense. Their extreme views feed one another and leave no oxygen for the sensible middle ground. But a less well-known fact is that this “regression to the extremes” is evident in science as much as in politics. During a podcast interview on artificial intelligence (AI) today, Mike Mataluni asked me whether AI will moderate or enhance polarization in the future. I responded that if AI is trained on human content, it will likely enhance polarization because the middle ground is almost not populated and there is little training material to use there.

In science, the sensible middle ground is less popular because collecting new evidence requires much more work than having opinions. For example, it took the Galileo Project team a year to plan an expedition to the impact site of the interstellar meteor IM1 in the Pacific Ocean. This was followed by two weeks to retrieve the materials and nine months to analyze them and report the results in a peer-reviewed paper. But it took much less time for critics to express their opinions without access to these materials. The news cycle was energized by controversy rather than evidence. After the New-York Times reported that the meteor was possibly a truck, I told the editor: “if your newspaper ignores the fact that the meteor was localized based on the light from its fireball, how can we trust anything you say about politics?”

Putting aside the pitfalls of polarization and science journalism, science is inspiring for creative artists. Today I received the following email from the artist Richard Bizley:

Dear Avi

You often discuss not forgetting to ‘look down’ as well as ‘up’ for alien artefacts, i.e. they could be on our “doorstep” so to speak … I thought about your recent “Black Swan events”, it is difficult to paint an artefact so utterly alien, without it being too alien that the viewers won’t “get it”. I was sorely tempted to paint a red button with symbols radiating towards it — sort of “Press this button” to open a stargate or something!

This painting wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for you… notice the initials A.L. on the left astronaut’s chest. This is a nod towards you as you inspired me to do the painting, and I am sure you’d wish you were the astronaut making the discovery(!).

This is what I wrote about the painting:

Title: “Discovery on the Moon”

This was a challenging, time consuming, but fun painting to do. It is a scene in the near future, billions of dollars spent on building telescopes on the Moon to search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Two astronauts are taking a break and are about to make a momentous and ironic discovery, an alien artefact lurking within some rocks. The message of this painting is that it is good to “look up”, but we mustn’t forget there could be alien artefacts scattered around the moons and planets of the Solar System. After all, some surfaces including the Moon are billions of years old…

Painting is 20” x 14” acrylic on the illustration board.

I think it is wonderful for me as an artist to get inspiration from scientists such as yourself. I like to think of myself as a visual translator between scientists and the general public.


Richard’s email suggests that evidence-based science is inspiring, as long as we are guided by our imagination to explore the unknown and not limited by the politics of past knowledge.


(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".