I am absolutely fed up with pseudoscience.
It frustrates me no matter what direction it comes from, and it frustrates me even more when a spade of pseudoscience isn’t called a spade.
The latest example of “scientific” pseudoscience comes from, unfortunately, one of the most brilliant minds of our age – Stephen Hawking. I admire Stephen Hawking for his perseverance and pure brilliance. However, I am not a fan of his recent stage mongering pseudoscience and shameless masquerading of theories with little to no observable basis.
Hawking, by your own rules, that isn’t science and you are coming off like it is.
Pseudoscience is defined as “claims presented so that they appear [to be] scientific even though they lack supporting evidence” (Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.1997, p. 33). In direct contrast, science is presented as “a set of methods designed to describe and interpret observed and inferred phenomena, past or present, and aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation” (Shermer 1997, p. 17). Examples of pseudoscience, purported by the scientific community, include UFO’s, ESP, faith healing, voodoo magic and Creationism etc.
There is even a recent YouTube video from Michael Shermer himself (founder of Skeptic magazine) where he outlines “Baloney Detection.” He points out various examples of pseudoscience and encourages individuals to question claims and to subject such claims to tests such as asking whether or not the claim is observable and repeatable (flashbacks of eighth grade science…shudder).
Oddly enough, it seems the people at the Discovery Channel, and now at MSNBC, don’t know a thing about pseudoscience baloney detection since they are all promoting and promulgating Hawking’s pseudoscience in regards to time travel and aliens.
On Sunday night the Discovery channel premiered “Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking” a new TV program showcasing the brilliant quantum physicist’s theories on time travel, aliens and other space anomalies, phenomena and mysteries.
Although a good majority of the show covers verifiable physical evidence and observable phenomena in the universe there are some large portions that venture beyond science and into the realm of the woobly-goobly.
MSNBC picked up on the curb-side pseudoscience because it sells to the susceptible John/Jill Q. Public and printed two articles recently on Hawking’s thoughts in regards to time travel and alien life forms.
Now, some of the stuff in Hawking’s work on time travel makes perfect sense and is solidly scientific (for example the mathematical reasoning and physics understanding of time/space based on the theory of general relativity).
However, statements like this get my hackles up:
“The truth is wormholes are all around us, only they’re too small to see. They occur in nooks and crannies in space and time,” Hawking writes. “Nothing is flat or solid. If you look closely enough at anything you’ll find holes and wrinkles in it. It’s a basic physical principle, and it even applies to time. Even something as smooth as a pool ball has tiny crevices, wrinkles and voids.
“Down at the smallest of scales, smaller even than molecules, smaller than atoms, we get to a place called the quantum foam. This is where wormholes exist. Tiny tunnels or shortcuts through space and time constantly form, disappear, and reform within this quantum world. And they actually link two separate places and two different times.”
Notice some key words – “truth” “too small to see” “this is…exist”
Hawking (and Discovery and MSNBC) would have us believe that wormholes are observable fact. In truth, they aren’t. THEORETICALLY wormholes are out there. Yet, to date there is no solid evidence to say that wormholes exist, there are only several theoretical models, of which, one is promoted by Stephen Hawking (quantum foam) and none are open to testable rejection or verification.
Someday there might be evidence for wormholes, but as of today there is not. So why are we allowing a scientist to say “The truth is, wormholes are all around us, only they’re too small to see.” This should burn just as bad in a scientist’s ears as someone saying, “The truth is, aliens come and visit our planet all the time, they are just too sneaky to catch.” or “Invisible pink unicorns exist, they just go invisible every time we try to observe them in the wild.”
Granted, the theory of relativity proposes that these wormholes may exist, but these are a priori conclusions and not scientific at all.
Hawking takes it even further when he goes off and starts sounding more like George Lucas than Albert Einstein as he proposes violent aliens out in the universe, destroying their home planet and looking for a new place to dominate.
The article in question at MSNBC presents Hawking’s alien conclusions where he shares, “”To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational….The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like.”
No, the real challenge is to find them in the first place. Mathematical probability or not, it does not mean they necessarily exist.
Proponents of Intelligent Design (like William Dembski) quote mathematical improbability as evidence against the mechanisms of Darwinian evolution and they are immediately shot down for their methods and told by the likes of Richard Dawkins that their probability models don’t mean a thing in the realm of science.
Double standards much?
Now, let’s talk about his “mathematical mind.” Assuming that he is talking about probability of life existing on other planets as it is relative to the number of stars in the universe and planets attached to said stars, we will do some mathematics.
Astronomers estimate that there are 10^21 stars in the universe with a conservative estimation of three planets per star. This gives us millions of billions of planets; or at least this many 1,000,000,000,000,000. Given the anthropic principle’s requirements for life existing on earth (to date 128 requirements have been identified) the odds that life would exist on other planets in the universe come to something like one in one trillion billion – or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. Thus, there just aren’t enough planets to allow for extraterrestrial life that fit this mathematical mind-think that Hawking’s proposes, but never backs up. Dawkins did the same thing in his book The God Delusion when he quite unscientifically states, “Suppose [life] was so improbable as to occur on only one in a billion planets…we are talking about odds of one in a billion.” (p. 165) Where the “one in a billion” probability comes from, I don’t know, nor does Dawkins state, but he would have you believe this is how we can assume that intelligent life exists elsewhere and experiments like SETI are warranted (p. 166).
Unfortunately, MSNBC makes Hawking’s claims seem reliable as they quote at the end of this article (where, by the way, there’s been no evidence presented) that Stephen Hawking is “one of the world’s best-known scientists.” (READ: what he says above must be true, because he is a scientist.)
With that said, I am not denying that there is life on other planets or that SETI is a worthwhile venture or that either Dawkins or Hawking are idiots.
What I am saying is that these folks are parading pseudoscience as science and getting away Scot free.
If the pseudo scientific standards held for ESP proponents, psychics and Intelligent Design scientists aren’t enforced on the scientific community then we might as well yell, “Olli olli oxen free!” to any and all so-called pseudo scientific hypotheses and theories.
If we are going to allow respected scientists to dabble in a priori pseudo science, promote it and have the general public believe it than we might as well allow everything else.
To come to a conclusion, I am disturbed whenever I see pseudoscience masquerading as science in the public sphere, and you should be too; no matter the source.
*This may be the most “attacking” of my blog posts and to me doesn’t quite fit the “ubuntu” ideal, but what I am going for is an engagement of ideas with fellow ngabantu (persons). I stand to be disproved and don’t want an argument to start here. What I am afraid of, and present in this blog post, is that as science (and scientism) advances it will do so unchecked. Specials like Discovery’s are early precursors to such advancement.
*As a small update (9/2/2010) I want to share that Stephen Hawking is coming out with a new book aimed at showing how physics leaves no room for a God-hypothesis. I am hoping this is not more pseudoscience from the man, but according to a CNN article he is invoking multi-verse theory and the like to support his claim. Furthermore, it seems he attaches great weight to the idea that gravity can get things going in the universe…I am waiting to see what evidence he presents that is not circumstantial and purely theoretical. Although I am currently withholding judgment I wait for his book (releasing September 7th) with a heavy does of skepticism.