From Stephen Hawking Smoked My Socks by Hilton Ratcliffe (Muse Harbor Publishing, 2014)

Chapter 6: A Conspiracy of Theories

The Great Spin Doctor’s Revival Show
In the preceding chapters, we set the tone for an enquiry into the dizzying maze of belief. It hasn’t been easy. We are soaked in the stuff. We humans positively reek of belief. I don’t know, as you and I lounge in our subjective sandpit, if we could ever have a sensible discussion about objectivity, but I am surely going to try. So fasten your seat belt please….
Let us review, very briefly, what we have covered so far: Belief is an instinctive, subjective organisation of information coming at us from the natural world; none of us is free from belief; it separates us from pristine truth; we need to find a way to minimise the impact on our collective knowledge base. Before we proceed, I think it would be a jolly good idea to look at some examples of how belief has tainted the sacred cows of scientific endeavour.
Author Len Deighton once wrote, “Experience is a method of endorsing prejudice.” Dominant models rule our lives, and in doing so illustrate several facets of belief in practice—Ideological Momentum,[1] the Dialogic Process,[2] and what I call Faith Drag,[3] the moralistic clinging to the ashes of a defunct idea. This is not a critique of faith per se; merely an illustration, by example, of how easily it can lead one astray.
When Hawking gave up on Black Holes, it was momentous[4]. So too was Peter Woit’s denial of String Theory[5]. But their flocks would not deny it. They were captured by belief. “What a weak barrier truth is when it stands in the way of an hypothesis,” said Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley. Indeed.
The multifarious roles that belief systems play in our lives was put into hilarious perspective in the hit TV series “The Big Bang Theory.”[6] The scene takes place in the lounge of the flat theoretical physicist Dr Sheldon Cooper shares with experimental physicist Dr Leonard Hofstadter. Leonard is making out on the sofa with his new girlfriend, Dr Leslie Winkle, another theoretical physicist. Sheldon interrupts them, and a side-splitting kerfuffle ensues about the relative merits of String Theory (promoted by Sheldon) and Loop Quantum Gravity (of which Leslie is a great fan). It plays out like this:
Sheldon (in response to Leslie’s outburst about Loop Quantum Gravity): “I’m listening. Amuse me.”
Leslie: “Okay, for one thing, we expect quantum spacetime to manifest itself as minute differences in the speed of light for different colours…”
Sheldon: “Balderdash! Matter clearly consists of tiny strings.”
Leslie (turning indignantly to Leonard): “Are you going to let him talk to me like that?”
Leonard: “Okay, well, there’s a lot of merit in both theories…”
Leslie (raising her voice): “No there’s NOT! Only Loop Quantum Gravity calculates the entropy of Black Holes!”
Sheldon: (snort of derision).
Leslie (to Leonard): You agree with me, right? Loop Quantum Gravity IS the future of physics!”
Leonard: “Sorry, Leslie, I guess I prefer my space stringy and not loopy.”
Leslie (exasperated): “FINE! I’m glad I found out the truth about you before this went any further!”
Leonard: “Truth? What truth? We’re talking about untested hypotheses. Look, it’s no big deal…”
Leslie: “Oh, it isn’t? Really? Tell me Leonard, how will we raise the children?”
Leonard: “I guess we wait until they’re old enough and let them choose their theories…”
Leslie (storming out): “You can’t let them choose, Leonard! They’re CHILDREN!”
No wonder The Big Bang Theory is my favourite television series, despite a name that sticks in my craw. The dialogue almost casually hits the nerve of human frailty, episode after episode. Genius!
Belief invariably hardens when one is exposed to propaganda that disseminates an idea, provided of course that the idea being put forward harmonises with one’s predisposition. Once belief takes control, the evidence presented is subjectively censored without due diligence and doctrinal filters ensure that nothing contrary is granted validity. The dogma remains safe. My mother would often tell me, “Hilton, you can argue yourself into anything.” How right she was. The pursuit of objectivity in science eventually became a passion for me (and I reflect on how dangerous that can be). It has involved trying to put myself forward as some kind of professional agnostic, forever claiming that we can’t know absolutely, and that belief does not make our opinions divine.
I don’t think anyone could have fairly predicted just how enormous and far-reaching the effects of instant global communication would become, but the Internet is now one of the great wonders to emerge from the 20th century. The World Wide Web provides effective channels for the global spread of ideas and information that might otherwise never have gone much further than the writer’s desk. Along with the opening up of thoughts and ideals and discoveries, the Web also provides unprecedented opportunities for commerce and revenue. But more startling than any of its more glamorous achievements has been the incredibly efficient platform the Internet has turned out to be for the propagation of fraud and deception.
The need to proselytise is one of the most annoying aspects of belief-driven behaviour. We develop a belief, become proud of it and what it says about us, and then set about projecting our garnished self-image upon the hapless folk who fall into the sweep of our radar. The advent of mass-communication media riding on the Internet makes the task of evangelising our opinions that much easier. The World Wide Web, for all its magnificence, has a darker side.
A very interesting rule has emerged from the anarchy of Internet discussions. In 1990, while the pubescent World Wide Web was still rubbing the sleep from its eyes, a fellow named Mike Godwin identified a trend. It has since become known as Godwin’s Law, and he states it thus:
“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”
In plain language, Godwin says that any Internet discussion thread, given enough time and no matter what it’s about, invariably introduces a reference to Hitler or the Nazis. In 2012, “Godwin’s Law” became an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary.
What has this to do with what we are discussing here? Quite a lot, actually. As it became more widely used in Internet forums, Godwin’s Law took on a slightly different meaning. It is nowadays taken to indicate that the blogger invoking Hitler has run out of authentic arguments, and that the time has come to close the thread. References to Hitler in any arbitrary context are considered overtly inappropriate, often called “playing the Hitler card.” Hitler is a powerful metaphor, and should be used sparingly in civilised discussion; sadly, online discussions are seldom civilised. What Godwin’s Law illustrates for me is how easily people support their beliefs by loose analogy. Arguments are rarely, if ever, really supported by mentioning Hitler, and it shows a measure of desperation, in my opinion. It’s a form of fibbing, a blight on our quest for truth, but it remains nevertheless a pertinent sign of the times.
Up there on the Web, our cyber persona usurps our real blemished self, and we magically become younger, sexier, and infinitely cleverer. It’s rather like being drunk, with the ghastly caveat that we are at the same time quite untouchable. We can rant and froth and insult, and not a soul can punch us in the face. From the protected ivory tower of Internet platforms, we can spew and spam with impunity. And that brings us to another fascinating nuance of beliefiosity: Our knee-jerk participation in the dark art of forwarding.
Here I am in grave danger of succumbing to my own passion. I detest the exponentially exploding messages that clog our cyber conduits, almost as much as I abhor conspiracy theories and cruelty. It seems to me that they somehow offend my personal morality, and therefore immediately volunteer themselves as prime candidates for the analytical microscope being deployed in this book. The very existence of verification sites like Snopes and Hoax Slayer, and the thousand upon thousand pages of evidence they present, bear testimony to just how far this scourge has reached.
What concerns us as behavioural scientists is not so much the motivation of the shadowy authors of Internet spam (although that is interesting in itself) but the reasons why we so impulsively hit the forward button. If we did not pass electronic chain letters on to our friends, one of the great plagues of the 21st century would simply die out. It seems to me that we are belief automatons.
As with all belief, the overwhelming majority of electronically forwarded broadcasts (in effect, chain letters) are hoaxes, and even worse, frauds. They range from mildly misleading to downright dangerous, from Tweets to BBM broadcasts to lavishly illustrated emails. As the world’s most famous humanitarian Nelson Mandela lay in his hospital, kept with us still by life support machines, the Tweets came flooding in pronouncing him by some privileged insight or prophetic ability already dead. The Tweets were picked up on media web pages, where they gained the respectability of a masthead and photographs, and before we knew it, the lies were going viral on Facebook and Windows Mail. If those messages keep going out daily, then it stands to reason that sooner or later they will coincide with the truth, and the false prophets will no doubt be canonised by their disciples.
We need to be careful. It’s all too easy for us to become a monkey on the back of organised religion, but that would be missing the point rather badly. Religion, by my rustic definition, is a philosophical framework in which one can respectably claim the absurd. In my view, that gives it a charming honesty that overshadows the inherent irrationality of proclaiming knowledge of a realm governed by terrifyingly omnipotent, largely grumpy deities. We, the enlightened, free-thinking readers of a book like this, may well be more interested in objectivity’s Yin than in religion’s Yang, but they are both important; like conservative and liberal in political sociology, they form an essential polarity, unavoidably part of the pairings that anchor our understanding of the world. Belief, let me say it again, is ubiquitous and impartial; it affects all of us in more or less equal measure. I’d like to illustrate this disquieting truth by looking past the ceremonial cloaks of some famous secular theories. Before we get down to specifics, let us digress just a tad to get a more microscopic handle on the social form of belief when it organises as a survival mechanism.
The buy-in to the most influential beliefs of our time has been lubricated and reinforced by an attitude best described as righteous indignation. It has to do with the perception of exclusive, privileged insight. We are stimulated by the idea that we have the vision to see past the veil of stupidity that smothers global opinions other than our own, and we consequently claim for ourselves the victory of truth. There is almost always some hint at conspiracy, which we, the moral victors, have identified in the war we wage on behalf of humanity.
Believers in man-made global warming see capitalism as the global ogre, and they bravely face up to that particular threat in the costume of David before the awful Goliath. Believers in 9/11 conspiracy latch onto the uttering of those claiming to have an inside track on what actually bombed the WTC, be it the US government, Jews, aliens, whatever. Believers in alternative medicine decry the sinister choke-hold that conventional medicine has on research and clinical practice. Deniers of the Apollo landings see NASA as an agency of the Illuminati. There is broad commonality between these revolutionary believers. All see the promotion of their belief as a duty to mankind. All manufacture evidence in support. All believe they hold the moral high ground. All pay homage to the prophets of their belief, and even more earnestly vilify those that oppose them. All defend their positions with righteous indignation. It is thus supremely ironical that those sucked into conspiracy theories at whatever level have in fact been duped into believing that they are being duped.
There are things—great big cloudy things—so compelling to contemplate that we easily consider them vital to the survival of our species. They are not, as it turns out, but that we make them so. Theoretical physicists spend their whole careers trying to model the entire universe, when it should be clear to common sense that such an achievement, in the unlikely event that it could be properly framed, would be quite impossible to test unambiguously against reality. Bertrand Russell pondered upon his navel with such dedication that he produced, together with mathematical idealist Alfred North Whitehead, the densely abstruse volume Principia Mathematica (what persuaded them to mimic the title of Isaac Newton’s classic, I shall never know). It was an attempt to ground mathematics, such as the art had become, in logic; as far as I can tell, it failed to achieve that goal.
I am the first to admit that I don’t quite get the gist of Russell’s magnum opus, because mathematics at its roots and in the glory days of Euclid was simply a symbolic expression of logic, a clever way to derive quantities by recognising and simplifying patterns and relationships. That Russell and Whitehead should have produced a Britannica of philosophical gymnastics in order to attempt to relate mathematics to logic should immediately inform us that what they were dealing with was beyond the bound of pure mathematics, and had entered another, altogether more arcane realm. Call it what you will, mathematical syntax that is subverted and manipulated so that it can frame philosophical arguments is no longer mathematics. It is meta-mathematics.
The mathematical conception of the universe depends strictly upon one’s skill and ability in mathematical techniques. The implication is that without the requisite fluency and understanding of mathematics, one is barred from forming a realistic conception of the world about us. It is shocking that these people, whose sole qualification for their position of power is advanced knowledge of an arcane, esoteric symbolic language that few in the world can understand, elevate themselves to the podium of all science. They become self-appointed, self-regulating high priests, immune to external challenge. Unless we are completely fluent in their chosen language (whether it is Sanskrit or Latin or Ancient Hebrew or hieroglyphics or differential geometry) we are denied access to real understanding. They decide. No one else.
I find the notion of mathematical exclusivity absurd. It locks science into a modus that protects the fundamentals from independent investigators, no matter how deep their non-mathematical knowledge may be. In effect, reality is not defined by mathematics per se, but by our ability with the language. Reality in that scheme becomes truly user-defined and observer-dependent. This is totally unacceptable to me.
The notion of Black Holes[7] is one of the clearest examples of this type of thinking in action. My own analysis of the Black Hole model suggests that it is not only completely absurd to a rational mind, but also mathematically untenable. In their haste to make magic, theorists building the model have made some fundamental errors in the formal flow of the equations they derive; their theory gains solutions where none truly exist. Faith Drag ignores the errors. Now that the magi have mastered the trick, they simply cannot present their show without it.
My point is this: It’s not so much what they were imagining that was the problem as the way they were doing it, and ultimately, by what means they confirmed for themselves that their musings were indubitably true and real. There are two books to which I devoted special energy in a quest to find what made them so compelling to their followers: Russell and Whitehead’s aforementioned Principia Mathematica, and Moses et al’s Christian Bible. In both cases I failed miserably, yet in an unexpected way I garnered great profit from my labours. The means of expression was in both cases frustratingly obscure, and this was the key. It became clear to me that the meanings taken from those books (meanings which, it must be said, vary considerably amongst scholars) depend almost entirely upon the belief structures of the readers at the outset. This was, if you’ll pardon the pun, a godsend, and led ultimately to the book you’re reading now. The question I had to ask myself was the $64,000 question that frames the ultimate chapter of this work: What can be done about it?
In a nutshell, I concluded that while we ought not to constrain the conclusions that investigators reach after considering the data, we can and should improve considerably on the method employed to collect and present the primary evidence.
Whenever one buys into someone’s theory or model, it is inevitable that a degree of hero-worship creeps in. The author of the theory is in effect canonised, and becomes a preferred, infallible authority. Glazed adulation eventually forms a defensive perimeter that resists any form of critical analysis or falsification. I’m sure we all have friends or acquaintances who present these symptoms. The canonisation of an individual transforms the acolyte’s thinking in a substantial way, with the result that in a surprisingly short time, theory is converted into full-blown doctrine.
Cults always form in the ambience of a particularly charismatic central character. The charisma exuded by cult leaders is not necessarily of the centre-stage, showbiz variety. In fact, it is very seldom overt. It really is an extraordinary talent, granting them the ability to completely remove rational filters from the minds of those who follow them. People drawn to cults very often come from families in crisis, and are consequently emotionally vulnerable. Cults very easily form surrogate families for these unfortunate individuals, “families with benefits” if you will.
Even more astounding to the student of belief is that this grip on the minds of disciples remains vigorously active long after the guru has died. Religious subjugation is a heinous form of slavery, given that it creates pawns that will defend their slavery and insist that they prefer it to other, less restrictive ways of living. I have spoken to cult members who can readily recognise the bondage of members of other cults, but are quite incapable of recognising or admitting their own.
That there is untruth in every orthodox version of events is a virtual certainty, as we have come to see thus far. But instead of exposing those elements of deception for what they are and leaving the skeleton of veracity for our further inspection, conspiracy theorists attempt to replace the whole model with one of even more insidiousness. They conjure up alternatives from the shadows of depravity for the most despicable of reasons: Conspiracy theorists are charlatans and scoundrels, and the damage they do to the quest for truth is incalculable.
It’s an ill wind, however, that blows no good at all, and conspiracy theories provide the student of belief systems with rich turf for his studies. Not every belief is morally bad; and indeed, many are beneficial to society and leave people measurably better off while doing no substantial harm. On the other hand, conspiracy theories—if measured against their ability to bring us closer to truth and enlightenment—are a sociopathic blight.
The strange thing about belief is this—believing something makes one feel special. No matter what we believe in, we take an almost creepy delight in it. Perhaps that ineluctable, inordinately zealous, usually irrational defence of belief we so often find is a consequence of not wanting to lose the rewards it endows? Do we hear echoes of a smoker defending cigarettes, or the child frantically swaddling itself in a security blanket? Believing and instinct reward us in precisely the same ways. Taste makes eating a pleasure, and sexual thrills make the whole messy business of procreation a preferred destination; likewise, believing makes survival an exercise in gratification. Reality is not always palatable, but the sweetener of faith in a personal deity of whatever shape, size or form certainly helps to make it rosy. That’s why I stipulate that belief is an instinctual imperative. The writer Flannery O’Connor told us that truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it. I would add that truth does not improve by our propensity to believe a preferred version of it.
I’d like us to pause here for a moment and reflect. Here’s the thing—belief doesn’t wander around aimlessly, nor do we carriers of the germ all quietly retreat to mull over our beliefs in solitude for the rest of our days. Belief tends to organise itself, inside and out.
Cults provide the most focussed examples of organised belief—but there’s a caveat. If we study cults to determine the truth about them generally, we need for the purposes of our initial study to ignore the one we might be part of ourselves. To achieve that, we should first and foremost learn with sufficient clarity just what a cult is, so that we can recognise the framework surrounding our thinking. As with gangs and tribes, I have defined cults somewhat more broadly than the standard view allows, conscious always not to depart from the spirit of the popular conception of these groups. I have done this in the interests of parsimony; rather than invent a new word, I have commandeered one from the lexicon, and adapted it to suit my purpose. I should hope the effectiveness of this approach will soon become apparent.
There is a thread that links gangs to mobs, cults and sects, and even to the broader mass of religious groups. We can track the connection if we look first at gangs and work our way backwards to religion. Gangs are theatres of debauchery. They set up social islands wherein base urges are legitimate and encouraged as a sign of membership and rank within the group. In other words, they allow instincts to rule behaviour to the detriment of civilised constraint. A gang is an expression of protest and defiance that exaggerates the level of aggression required by instinct. Gangs and mobs seek the pleasurable rewards of instinct out of all proportion to their design. Sex, mating rituals, violence, turf warfare, territorial displays, and pack frenzy are all subverted to the worship of unconstrained hedonism.
Gang members live for the thrill of being an outlaw. There are other bonding threads in gangs linked to survival in an inhospitable and forbidding social environment, but the ultimate raison d’être of gangs, and equally of cults and sects, is to seek some modicum of purpose in life. It’s a longing that can become quite desperate; and the greater the desperation, the more extreme the pack behaviour becomes. In gangs, the pleasure-taking is general to the membership, whereas in cults and sects, members are subverted more to the dark pleasures of their leaders. Polygamy and sexual control are examples of how base instincts are expressed in cults. Of course, some cults exhibit group behaviour that is decent and beyond reproach, but they nevertheless commit themselves to satisfying the will and desires of their leadership. It’s all just a question of scale, reflecting the degree to which packs of people throw off the constraints of social mores.
In the most general terms, a cult is a group of people who share a dogmatically held common purpose or belief. The word first appeared in the 17th century, and is derived from the Latin root cultus (meaning to worship). The term thus implied a religious grouping in its original form, making the description unexpectedly appropriate. There is a strong link between cults and worship, even in non-religious groups. The leaders of cults are invariably worshipped; and hero-worship reveals an oddly self-deprecating human reaction to charisma.
Sadly, this sort of blind adulation often has tragic consequences.
The concept of cults was embraced by sociology in the 1930s, and separated from the notion of sects, which differ in that they are born from ideological differences with a progenitor religious body. Sects form part of a lineage, creating continuity with mainstream ideas, whereas cults form quite spontaneously around the novel and unprecedented revelations of a particular individual. The primary difference between my definition of cults and the more usual one lies in the size or scope of the cult. They are generally held to be relatively small, fringe groups of disaffected individuals, but I have found that the glue that gives cults their cohesion is surprisingly independent of their size.
There is something sinister about cults. Viewed from the outside, they just don’t seem kosher. Much as I try to remain objective, I must admit to a level of prejudice. The label “cult” is usually a pejorative term, and I wish I could free myself from that preconception. But—and this is a big but—I do not apologise for having ethical standards. Cults have only themselves to blame for the negative light in which they are often viewed. This has less to do with internal rites or doctrine—it is far easier to abhor Satanists than it is to dislike the relatively decent principles that drive Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example—than it has with the modus operandi employed by cults to psychologically imprison their flocks. I think this is where I hit the nerve, for it is here that we find we can include the cults operating in the world of science.
Sociologists Stark and Brainbridge have given us the currently accepted definition of a cult: “A deviant religious organization with novel beliefs and practices.”[8] Contingent upon the arguments raised in this book, I drop the word “religious” and see where that takes us. I should imagine that this is quite acceptable, because making cults inherently religious immediately excludes secular cults, of which there are many. They include the Shining Path guerrilla group, the 9/11 Truth movement, the Charles Manson Family, the Roswell UFO conspiracy theorists, the Y2K and Mayan doomsday cults, and the fans of James Dean, to name but a few.
Mary Ann Sieghart provides a useful précis of the qualities that admit a social group to the ranks of cultism:
“It indoctrinates its members; it forms a closed, totalitarian society; it has a self-appointed, messianic and charismatic leader; and it believes that the ends justify the means.”[9]
However, the choice of words is easily taken to be demeaning, and that carries an onerous overhead when we interview members in the course of studying cults. Let’s be frank; from a sociological point of view, cults are not a good thing, no matter how deliriously happy its members may appear to be from time to time. Cults are a manifestation of belief, and as such (if I am to be trusted), they do objective truth a grave disservice. The fact remains that the five characteristics listed by Sieghart really do apply to cults, and we must deal with the negativity that comes with the bundle.
I daresay that none of the points made by Sieghart would be readily accepted by even a single member of any cult that I can think of, but it is also true that they would vehemently disagree with scholars of the phenomenon that their grouping is indeed a cult. And that brings us to another important property of this type of social group: It is in the nature of cults, as with belief generally, that we consider our own as exclusively beyond criticism. It is something that affects social scientists studying cults as much as it does the subjects they are examining. We need to be very strict about this, or we shall end up guilty of producing blatant propaganda for whatever team we happen to bat for. If I were, say, a Scientologist, my scholarly investigation of cults would be overtly biased if I included Scientology as a case study. Furthermore, I would surely not use the term cult to describe my own group, preferring instead to insist that it is a glowing exception. That Scientology is a cult, embodying all the negatives that characterise cults, would be perfectly obvious to all but believing Scientologists. As a scholar, I need first to study other cults to determine the principles, and then, finally, apply them to my own situation as an exercise in self-realisation that might usefully follow scientific investigation..
One of the identifying markers put forward by Dr Sieghart is that cults form closed, totalitarian societies. Not all do, but it certainly applies to the majority of cults, enough to make it a strong pointer. Let’s see if it fits a scientific group. The operators of the Large Hadron Collider, famous for their alleged “discovery” of the fabled Higgs boson, fit the bill rather nicely. The group is both closed and totalitarian. No one outside of the elite, almost invisible band of particle physicists admitted to the inner sanctum has any say on what goes on there. They do their work in secret and speak in a language few can understand, surfacing only occasionally to make selective announcements about the outcome of their rites. Completely self-regulating, they answer to no one but themselves.[10]
Yes, they fit our definition of a cult quite comfortably.
Doctrinal oligarchs have two strings to their bow: Consensus and authority. They succeed in their nefarious plots by creating the perception that they are, or exclusively represent, a privileged authority. It doesn’t matter whether the authority being served may itself be at some considerable remoteness and probably unavailable for any sort of material personal interaction with most of us—for example, God, NASA, aliens—there is no shortage of self-appointed agents out there to bring us the good news. We are made to cower, almost literally, before these dominant authorities, as much in awe of their elevation in the hierarchy as we are fearful of their wrath. Then, in a coup de grace, the whole thing is wrapped in a blanket of consensus and fraternal bonding, and voila! A cult is born.
There are several things we need to add to our understanding of cults, and they correlate neatly with what we shall soon reveal in our discussion of conspiracy theories. Firstly, we shall see (to our astonishment, no doubt) that this sort of behaviour is by no means limited to religionists. The halls of science are replete with cults, flying flags of every colour in the rainbow. Secondly, consensus is an internal term; it does not imply the aligned views of a majority in society, as it might in national politics, but instead describes consensus within the cult itself. Thirdly, cults are gangs, just with moral arrogance thrown into the mix. This sense of moral high ground felt by the protagonists of a particular model draws them quickly into the club, and before long they too are fighting for it. It certainly explains why cult members tend to ignore or denigrate criticism.
Thus, we get a ruling class of physicists who call upon the irrefutable authority of Albert Einstein, and who jointly defend that position from the security of internal consensus. We get passionate Christians who invoke the infallible authority of the Pope as the sole agent of God on Earth, and who stand shoulder-to-shoulder against dissent. The 2012 Doomsday cult believed without question in the authority of the Mayans as they saw it expressed in the notorious long-cycle calendar. There are many more examples: Groups like Scientologists, Mormons, and al-Qaeda—that is to say, fanatical followers of L. Ron Hubbard, Joseph Smith, and Osama bin Laden respectively—as well as the flocks of Jim Jones, Charles Manson, David Koresh, Shoko Asahara, and Marshall Applewhite. In general, cult members seem to prostrate and abandon their common sense and rational minds before the outrageous and unverifiable claims of figures of authority.
Cults certainly provide very neat models of structured belief and illustrate quite usefully the behavioural nuances spawned by convictions. But for an even more eye-watering view of the unbridled licentiousness with which belief rewards its soldiers, we need look no further than conspiracy theories. Are they any more absurd than common or garden religious sects? No, I don’t think they are. What makes conspiracy theories especially negative to objective science—they are unsurpassed in this regard—is that they claim to a large extent to be based on science. That is what makes them so distasteful to rational people generally, and to scientists in particular.
Before I set out on the journey that would bring this book to fruition, I had been seriously peeved by conspiracy misinformation (I’m being polite) that affected me and my colleagues in space science directly, principally the Moon Landing and Chemtrail cults. The HAARP ionospheric research programme is sponsored mutually by the US military and the University of Alaska. It’s just the thing that conspiracy theorists love to feast on, and they went nuts over it. It has all the elements—space-age technology, covert military involvement, Star Wars force fields; it’s a real Spy-vs-Spy omnibus.
The theories they came up with are, to anyone in the know, absolute nonsense (and, to be honest, extremely offensive), but that doesn’t mean a row of beans to these fellows. I have met some of them, and they matched their sociological profiles perfectly. There is a strong environmental component to the HAARP conspiracy, and it wasn’t long before I realised that many of these groups are quite incestuous. Close cousins in their war against civilisation are the erstwhile Chemtrail gang. I tried hard to reconnect them with the truth of the matter, but it was hopeless. Their typical response was that I must be part of the conspiracy.
Religions follow upon the conversion of theological models into political movements, with all that the term “political” implies. Concern for their own immortality is something that seems to affect politicians and religionists in equal measure. Both employ precisely the same method to ensure that their doctrine flourishes in the minds of generations to come. Without exception, religious methodology relies upon indoctrination; it’s their most important activity. For that reason, global groups like the Roman Catholic Church and Jehova’s Witnesses are by my definition cults. They simply could not continue to exist without indoctrination.
Let’s review. Mary Ann Sieghart lists the defining qualities of cults as follows:
· It indoctrinates its members;
· It forms a closed, totalitarian society;
· It has a self-appointed, messianic, and charismatic leader;
· It believes that the ends justify the means.
For the purposes of this book, I have been liberal with my definition of cults, in order to apply the above principles more broadly. The essential parameters defining a cult can be used to illuminate the workings of more nebulous groupings, provided they meet some or all of the points on Dr Sieghart’s list. In my view, a great deal of overlap exists between cults and conspiracy theories,.
Conspiracy theories trade upon the fundamental premise that there is an elaborate and painstaking official cover-up, and perhaps inadvertently expose the Achilles’ heel of the scientific method. Belief skews our priorities and hog-ties our objective scepticism. The conspiracy theorist can say just about anything, no matter how outlandish, and it will be swallowed hook, line, and sinker—all it needs to do is make government look sufficiently sinister. The intense scrutiny being torqued onto the official version of events is entirely absent from self-examination by protagonists of a conspiracy theory. Conspiracists make absolutely no attempt to falsify their conspiratorial hypothesis, in the scientific tradition. That alone makes their efforts non-science. Evidence rebutting the conspiracy idea doesn’t get checked out. Not even a little bit. Conspiracy theorists are notoriously blinkered by their dogma, and admit no errors. Michael Shermer poses the essential question:
Why do people believe in highly improbable conspiracies? I contend that it is because their pattern-detection filters are wide open, thereby letting in any and all patterns as real, with little or no screening of potential false patterns. Conspiracy theorists connect the dots of random events into meaningful patterns, and then infuse those patterns with intentional agency. Add to those propensities the confirmation bias and the hindsight bias (in which we tailor after-the-fact explanations to what we already know happened), and we have the foundation for conspiratorial cognition. [11]
Conspiracy theories go wrong where religions go wrong—instead of confining their scepticism to criticism of a particular version of events, they take the next step. They concoct a replacement theory, in great and comprehensive detail, as if they have some exclusive connection to the hidden truth. So consumed are they by their own grand beliefs that they paint a picture in vivid colours and fine resolution, as if that confirms their intimate relationship with some higher power. There is a clear analogy with religion.
Belief overwhelms our faculties for reason and intelligent discrimination, and nowhere is this more evident than in the 9/11 conspiracy theory. I chose that particular conspiracy group from a list of hundreds because it serves so well as an example of internally legitimised craziness. The collective face of alternative theories about the destruction of the World Trade Centre and the events that surrounded it on 11th September 2001 has an interesting name. It’s called the Truth Movement. What brilliant irony.
We don’t have time to explore in depth the social backdrop to the notion that a privileged elite, or several such oligarchies, control many aspects of our daily lives by means of incredibly secretive conspiracies. For serious students of conspiracy theories, such background is essential, and I would urge those individuals to read at least two of my references on the subject, namely Michael Shermer’s much-quoted The Believing Brain, and Arthur Goldwag’s Cults, Conspiracies, & Secret Societies[12]. Both provide excellent insight to the phenomenon by meticulous and even-handed scholars, and go into detail beyond the reach of this work.
For our purposes here, all we need concern ourselves with is that the emergence of an entrepreneurial class after the 19th century industrial revolution created an elite social stratum of powerful capitalists whose battlefield is the global marketplace. These business leaders are essentially independent individuals with no discernible inclination to share the spoils with their competition, and by their nature they tend to avoid any form of leadership by committee. While some industrial and commercial corporations are immensely influential, the idea of a truly global conspiracy is far-fetched, and without testable support.
So hungry are latent conspiracists for a conspiratorial cause in which to immerse themselves that they will take up the cudgel for almost anything. What they promote seems to depend largely on how well presented the propaganda is, in other words, on the skill of spin doctors. Some conspiracy theories are so bizarre that no one even bothers trying to debunk them. Taking the cake is British journalist David Icke, who has built up a sizeable following of devoted fans and a full schedule of lucrative international speaking engagements based upon a fantastic conspiracy he has allegedly exposed.
You see, David Icke tells us with a straight face that he believes that humanity is being governed by alien reptiles with shapeshifting abilities. Yes, you did read that correctly. Our government officials are not human at all; in reality, they are form-changing alien lizards. It all started when Christine Fitzgerald, a former close friend of Princess Diana, alleged that the princess once told her that the British royal family were actually well-disguised reptiles from a distant galaxy. Icke’s subsequent investigations uncovered even more horrifying facts: This alien control conspiracy goes far beyond the British royals. Arthur Goldwag describes this cult in his book Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies:
“When seeking to understand the conspiratorial mind, the focus of its obsession is less important than the obsession itself. Jim Marrs has published a string of best-sellers on everything from the Kennedy assassinations and the role played by space aliens in Biblical history to the complicity of US intelligence agencies in the events of 9/11. David Icke, a retired British soccer player and sports announcer turned writer and lecturer, has discerned a conspiracy of shape-shifting reptiles of extraterrestrial origin—among them the British royal family, the Bushes, Gorbachev, and Henry Kissinger—who are striving to subjugate the human race.”[13]
The conspiracy theorists of more recent times have tended to be more focussed in their conjecture, preferring to pick on governments and their agencies as the manifestations of Big Brother. There is indeed some merit in this point of view, and governments have only themselves to blame. As more and more whistleblowers expose covert activities, it lead one to wonder just how much secret manipulation is actually going on. It is without doubt more than we know. This pool of suspicion has become the breeding place of wildly imaginative exaggerations of the status quo, and leads directly to the formulation of conspiracy theories. Almost any publicised event, from roadside bombs to the cutest wisps of fluffy white cloud, is tailed before long by those who claim to have uncovered the real story. To these individuals, everything, no matter how superficially innocent, is at its heart sinister, a dolled-up campaign by a diabolical government. Acts of terrorism are custom made for these folk, grist to their ravenous mill.
As we have seen time and again, belief is an immodest precursor to the contriving of supporting evidence. Zealous conspiracists see conspiracy where more sober analysts find the very suggestion ludicrous. Nowhere in the nearly 50 conspiracy theories that I examined for the purposes of this book is this propensity more obvious than with the 9/11 Truth Movement. I’ll leave it to the psychologists to figure out the mindset that spawns that sort of thing.
The terror attacks of 11 September 2001 were manna from heaven for the conspiracists idling in the wings for a fresh cause to subvert. Based on journalistic investigation, eyewitness reports, and photographic evidence, the events of the day appeared to roll out like this:
After careful, detailed planning lasting years, al-Qaeda launched the most comprehensive and devastating terror attack in history on the morning of Tuesday, 11 September, 2001. Nineteen al-Qaeda operatives hijacked four heavily-fuelled long-haul airliners, took control of the flight decks, and diverted the aircraft towards four selected targets—the Pentagon (HQ of the US Defence Department); one aircraft each for the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York City; while the fourth headed for Washington DC but failed to reach its intended target following heroic intervention by the passengers.
The effects were catastrophic. There was serious structural damage to the Pentagon, resulting in a partial collapse on the western side, but it was the spectacular assault on the World Trade Centre that remains forever fixed in memory. Captured on video, the impacts and subsequent fireballs were horrifying, and the damage so extensive, that al-Qaeda commanders later admitted that it far exceeded their expectations. So much so, they saw the hand of Allah itself fanning the flames. Within two hours, both towers had collapsed, taking all the buildings of the WTC complex down with them. A storm of debris and fire caused significant damage to ten other large buildings in the proximity. All in all, nearly 3000 people perished in the attack, including 227 passengers and crew, and 19 hijackers (all positively identified) in the four jetliners. In 2004, Osama bin Laden claimed responsibility for the attacks. Subsequent investigation has revealed comprehensive details of the planning and commissioning of the entire operation from beginning to end.
One of the most incredible aspects of the conspiracy theory phenomenon is how quickly those who embrace these theories will bring themselves to bear upon an event. There is no doubt that the Internet assists them enormously in their endeavours, and in the case of 9/11, it was particularly effective.
I’d be interested to discover just why it was that some individuals felt the need to conjure up a conspiracy theory in the case of the 9/11 catastrophe. The pivotal argument raised by conspiracy theories is that officials have intentionally falsified the record of events, and as a result the wrong people are being blamed. What was it about the official 9/11 story that raised the conspiracists’ eyebrows at the outset? Why was my own suspicion not piqued when I heard about the attack? The answers to these questions are telling.
We were told that al-Qaeda was responsible for those overt acts of terror on September 11th. What is it that might encourage one to take the view that it al-Qaeda was an unlikely perpetrator? I can’t think of anything that would trigger the suspicion that they were not to blame. I find it extremely plausible, without any further investigation, that a well-funded, well-organised, ideologically extreme international terror organisation like al-Qaeda, which had made explicit threats against the USA, and which had a robust track record in terrorism, would commission the operation. They had both the motive and the means. I certainly wouldn’t rule them out a priori.
On the other hand, is it reasonable to suggest that the US government itself is a more likely perpetrator, or—in alternative versions of the conspiracy—the state of Israel? On balance of probability, one would have to lean strongly towards al-Qaeda. But for some reason not quite clear to the rest of us, the conspiracists chose from the beginning to remove al-Qaeda from the suspect list. Ignoring the most obvious perpetrators from the outset demonstrates the stupefying effect of a pre-existing mindset. The latent conspiracy theorist wants a conspiracy. All the “evidence” supporting conspiracy is therefore obtained by reverse engineering from a pre-ordained conclusion.
The March, 2005 edition of Popular Mechanics carried a well reasoned and intensively researched rebuttal of 16 of the most vehement claims of the Truth Movement. They introduce their analysis as follows:
“Healthy skepticism, it seems, has curdled into paranoia. Wild conspiracy tales are peddled daily on the Internet, talk radio and in other media. Blurry photos, quotes taken out of context and sketchy eyewitness accounts have inspired a slew of elaborate theories: The Pentagon was struck by a missile; the World Trade Center was razed by demolition-style bombs; Flight 93 was shot down by a mysterious white jet. As outlandish as these claims may sound, they are increasingly accepted abroad and among extremists here in the United States.
“To investigate 16 of the most prevalent claims made by conspiracy theorists, POPULAR MECHANICS assembled a team of nine researchers and reporters who, together with PM editors, consulted more than 70 professionals in fields that form the core content of this magazine, including aviation, engineering and the military.
“In the end, we were able to debunk each of these assertions with hard evidence and a healthy dose of common sense. We learned that a few theories are based on something as innocent as a reporting error on that chaotic day. Others are the byproducts of cynical imaginations that aim to inject suspicion and animosity into public debate. Only by confronting such poisonous claims with irrefutable facts can we understand what really happened on a day that is forever seared into world history.”[14]
The Truth Movement follows the well-worn evolutionary path of gangs, and with time it too has become divided in power struggles and ideological fragmentation. We can nonethless still find some fairly representative articles of conspiracy that have been put forward by the movement as a whole. I shall present a handful of these examples for us to consider. The number of folks on this conspiracy bandwagon is rather daunting, and includes such superficially impressive subsets as Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth, Pilots for 9/11 Truth, Scholars for 9/11 Truth, and so on, ad nauseum. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if in one of my Internet searches I were to find a group going under the banner “Terrorists for 9/11 Truth.” These attempts to attract public sympathy by projecting an aura of “expert testimony” surrounding the conspiracy idea are patently brittle however, as further investigation quickly shows.
In the interests of brevity, I have chosen one conspiracy site to exemplify the Truth Movement generally. It is called 911 Truth.org, and was selected purely because it was top of the list in my Google search for “9/11 truth”. It seems fairly representative of the broader movement, and contains a schedule of their points of departure from the orthodox version of events (quoted verbatim):
· the unprecedented failure of the US air defense system on the morning of the attacks;
· the evidence that Flight 93 was shot down;
· contradictions and dubious evidence in the official claims about the alleged hijackers and masterminds, and doubts about their real identities;
· signs that the alleged hijackers enjoyed high-level protection against discovery by honest investigators;
· evidence that the alleged hijackers were financed by states allied with US intelligence;
· widespread signs of official foreknowledge and, in fact, advance preparation for the 9/11 attack scenario;
· the long-running links between Islamist fundamentalist terror cells and US covert operations, dating back to CIA support for the anti-Soviet mujahedeen and Osama Bin Ladin (sic) himself;
· the demolition-like collapse of the Twin Towers and of a third skyscraper, WTC 7;
· and questions concerning who could have logically expected to derive benefit in the aftermath of a massive attack on the United States.
There are many more strings to the conspiracists’ bow than just these; I show the list simply to illustrate conspiratorial thinking. If one is to evaluate initiatives like 911 Truth.org, one must of course look at the counterarguments and explanations coming from the opposing camp. There are several, but I would suggest www.debunking911.com. It seems to me the most cohesive and comprehensive rebuttal site for the 9/11 conspiracies. Reference is also made to the official, peer-reviewed National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) report on the entire 9/11 incident. Of crucial specific interest is the NIST Engineering Laboratory’s Questions and Answers about the NIST WTC Towers Investigation, which is a concise and incisive list of 34 popular questions being posed by those inferring government collusion and conspiracy in the 9/11 attack.[15] It concerns itself only with those questions relating to the structural engineering aspects of the catastrophe. If any single document is cited as reference for the conventional view, it should be this one in my opinion.
The NIST Q&A report answers inter alia the following crucial questions, which should clear up most of the scepticism regarding the destruction of the World Trade Centre:
· What caused the collapses of WTC 1 and WTC 2?
· Why didn’t NIST consider a “controlled demolition” hypothesis with matching computer modelling and explanation like it did for the “pancake theory” hypothesis?
· Weren’t the puffs of smoke that were seen, as the collapse of each WTC tower starts, evidence of controlled demolition explosions?
· How could the WTC towers collapse in only 11 seconds (WTC 1) and 9 seconds (WTC 2)—speeds that approximate that of a ball dropped from similar height in a vacuum (with no air resistance)?
· Since the melting point of steel is about 1,500 degrees Celsius (2,800 degrees Fahrenheit) and the temperature of a jet fuel fire does not exceed 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,800 degrees Fahrenheit), how could fires have impacted the steel enough to bring down the WTC towers?
· Did the NIST investigation look for evidence of the WTC towers being brought down by controlled demolition? Was the steel tested for explosives or thermite residues?
My aim here is not to list every question and give the answers contained in the report; that would take a chapter on its own. I would hope that those sincerely seeking the truth of the matter will use the provided links to investigate the issue for themselves. I wish merely to illustrate that every single one of the assertions of the 9/11 Truth Movement has been cogently rebutted by independent professionals, using the highest standards of physical science. Most of the material in the literature is naturally centred on the WTC, because that was the most catastrophic point of attack. There is in addition equally compelling evidence showing that the damage to the Pentagon was indeed caused by American Airlines flight 77; that the US Air Force response was as expected under the circumstances; that the crash site of United Airlines flight 93 was consistent with the scenario deduced from the Black Box, the Cockpit Flight Recorder, and civilian cellphone conversations with passengers, and showed no evidence of having been shot down; and that the assertions concerning the supposed intentional demolition of WTC building 7 are baseless, contrived, and without any credible physical evidence.
What strikes me is that the Truth Movement has not rescinded a single claim in the face of counter evidence. The assertion seems to be that every single one of their points about 9/11 is beyond reasonable doubt, thus above the reach of rational criticism. That smacks strongly of undiluted belief and the defence of convictions, and militates against the notion that their hypotheses are based upon science and objective data. That they claim to be perfectly right in all respects should in itself give the lie to their appeal to scientific reason.
It is interesting also to note that up to the time of this book’s publication, some 13 years after the event, not a single person has owned up to taking part in the cover-up conspiracy. Nor has any perpetrator been found by forensic investigation and brought before the courts. The extent of the required effort, and the sheer numbers of people and organisations that would have had to be involved, are the strongest indicator that the 9/11 Truth Movement is in fact the 9/11 Untruth Movement.
Clearly, to say that conspiracy theories are unconvincing is a towering understatement; one has to be possessed by an obsessive predilection for sinister plots (and probably an overripe contempt for authority) to entertain the wild reasoning of conspiracists. Conspiracy theories depend critically on one thing: A complete absence of any objective test of any of the contentious points they raise. I have many times encountered this first hand. Along with my friends at NASA, I tried with great patience to explain to Apollo landing deniers that every anomaly they imagine can be quite easily put to rest with just a basic grasp of the science involved. Most often, all that a reasonable doubter needs is an elementary physics lesson to illuminate the holes in his pet theories. Unfortunately, reasonably objective conspiracists seem not to exist on Planet Earth. In my experience, they just glaze over when you’re trying to explain how the mission was actually achieved.
And yet, conspiracies of the kind they describe are unlikely to work in reality for precisely the same reason they were concocted in the first place—human nature. Human beings cannot keep a secret. If there ever were such a conspiracy, sooner or later at least one of the conspirators would blab—be it for ten minutes of fame, revenge, money, pressure, or simply a desire for salacious scandal. Michael Shermer tells of Gordon Liddy’s experience:
“But as G. Gordon Liddy once told me, the problem with government conspiracies is that bureaucrats are incompetent and people can’t keep their mouths shut. Liddy should know as he was an aide to President Nixon and one of the masterminds behind the break-in of the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate Hotel. Complex conspiracies are difficult to pull off—in this case even something as simple as a hotel burglary was foiled by a security guard, and under pressure of congressional hearings and journalistic investigations many of the conspiracists cracked and talked. So many people want their quarter hour of fame that even the men in black couldn’t squelch the squealers from spilling the beans. Once again, there’s a good chance that the more elaborate a conspiracy is, and the more people that would need to be involved to pull it off, the less likely it is true.”[16]
No one denies that people in powerful positions behave rather strangely most of the time. They seem to be too secretive for their own good, and they invite suspicion by their lack of transparency. But to automatically read conspiracy into their shyness with the truth is an overreaction. Sometimes, puzzling behaviour on the part of those in command of influential processes is driven by political savvy rather than by some sinister, covert drive for global domination.
Secrets are more often than not kept to simply protect the favoured ideology, but it must be said that the whole business of covert behaviour is overdone, as we’ve seen time and again with the “ -gates”—just ask Nixon about Watergate and Phil Jones about Climategate. Keeping secrets from the paying public is a dangerous game. But there is a world of difference between a hidden political agenda and conspiracy. Not all attempts at aligning with a favoured political position are sinister. Very often it’s no more than a desire to appear politically correct. The Nobel Prize is a case in point. Once a grand award for excellence in scientific research, the Nobel Prize has regressed to an iconic symbol now favouring scientists who play the political game for reward, instead of the hardy few pursuing the unadorned truth. The list of physics laureates tells the story.
The rewarding of closed-loop, model-aligned empirical results in the scientific field has become blatant over time, culminating with the 2013 physics prize going to Francois Englert and Peter Higgs “for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.” In 1978, Penzias and Wilson were rewarded for discovering the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation; in 2006, Mather and Smoot received the prize for revealing the blackbody nature and anisotropy in the CMBR; and in 2011, Riess, Perlmutter, and Schmidt were recognised for discovering in supernova data that universal expansion is speeding up. None of these conclusions could have been reached without selectively filtering the data through the standard models. Analysis absent a preconceived theoretical paradigm would have produced results starkly at odds with those that received the Nobel accolade.
In science, the process of canonisation is relatively easy to see, and we begin to get a glimmer of understanding of why we cannot resist falling in love with theoretical models. Ideally, the process should be:
· observation à measured data à conjecture à
· hypothesis à prediction à multiple independent tests à
· confirmation or falsification à hypothesis becomes theory or is abandoned à
· theory is tested à theory becomes law or is abandoned à
· laws are used to build models.
In practice, however, the process these days is far from that ideal. The pure form of the scientific method starts with observation or experience of something in nature that requires elucidation. What we have nowadays is conjecture (mathematical brainstorming) leading to hypotheses, which are built into a hypo-stack containing multiple tuneable parameters, which leads in turn to adjustable predictions, and the eventual creation of a fail-proof model of some or other aspect of existence. This type of model has a built-in, dogmatic defence against falsification. If the preferred conclusion to the logical processes within the model’s formalism is glorious enough, or awesome enough, then the model is inevitably canonised, no matter what anomalies it throws up.
A couple of years ago my friend and advisor Professor Paul Jackson emailed me from his redoubt Voelvlei, in the lee of South Africa’s Karkloof mountains. He attached an article from the September issue of American Scientist written by University of Cardiff astronomer Dr Mike Disney. It is entitled, “Modern Cosmology: Science or Folktale?” It struck a chord with me; resonated with ideas that were tumbling about in my mind. I met Dr Disney at the first Crisis in Cosmology Conference in 2005, where he presented a paper comparing the free parameters (aka tuning knobs) of Big Bang Theory with actual measurements. Mike Disney showed that with this type of modelling, one can adjust parameters without shame to achieve a perfect match between hypothesis and observation. The correlation between model and harsh reality becomes more tenuous with each twiddle, but that matters not a whit. The glory of the idea triumphs over practical considerations, and the disingenuous perpetrators of these things are smothered in Nobel Prizes. Cosmology is a barely-disguised fairy tale.
We will not successfully bring the matter of cosmology to a useable conclusion unless we first rid the whole affair of an effect I have named Investment Bias[17]. Nobel Laureate Robert Laughlin tells amusingly in his book A Different Universe[18] of the “First Theorem of Science”, attributed to his colleague George Chapline: “It is impossible to convince a person of any true thing that will cost him money.”
No, it is not a sinister, political conspiracy; it is simply economics, and the currency is the dollar, plus, more significantly, exposure of individuals to the diabolical possibility that after so much effort, they might just have been wrong.
In the wake of the 19th century industrial revolution in Britain, technology boomed and science became a new god. The laws of thermodynamics—including the notion of entropy—came directly from the invention of steam engines (and not the other way around). For the first time in recorded history, engineers led social revolution. At the same time, astronomy flourished at dazzling speed. The technical excellence of optical instruments advanced in leaps and bounds, driven not by greed or territorial ambition, but by our innate exploratory drive. Our awe increased, and with it, our reverence for the new elders of the faith—scientists that pushed the frontiers of knowledge by dragging them ever outwards with an engine called imagination. Humankind’s adulation was reaching the threshold of fan hysteria.
The great danger in theoretical modelling lies in the seductiveness of having one’s personal opinions raised to the level of universal relevance. Before long, theorists start to believe that what they imagine is actually real, and that the novel products of their conjecture may legitimately be termed “discoveries”. In more arcane realms of science, this sort of delusion is rampant, and syncopated thoughts are called discoveries without embarrassment or shame. A recent announcement by the science forum Phys.org[19] is a pertinent example of what we talking about. The press release was greeted with enthusiasm in world of theoretical astronomy. Cosmologists were happy. Here is an excerpt:
“Writing in the journal Nature, Hendrik Schatz and colleagues describe a newly discovered process that happens within the star’s crust, located just below the surface. Until now, scientists thought that nuclear reactions within the crust contributed to the heating of the star’s surface.
“’We previously thought that these reactions were strong enough to heat up the crust,’ said Schatz, an MSU professor of physics and astronomy. ’But that’s not the case.’
“What the team of scientists found is that in the star’s crust near the surface there is a layer where nuclear reactions cause rapid neutrino cooling. Neutrinos are very elementary particles that are created through radioactive decay and pass very quickly through matter.”
Reading the quoted passage, I am given the strong impression that these gentlemen have actually discovered something in the crust of a neutron star. They are talking as if they have studied an event on an actual neutron star, and that it increases our understanding of these mysteriously fascinating cosmological objects. As an astrophysicist intensely interested in neutron stars and with privileged access to the literature surrounding them, I know that the assertion being put forward by the authors of the quoted study is patently false, and it tweaks the word discovery in a terribly misleading way.
It is crucially important to emphasise that the “discovery” of nuclear cooling in a neutron star is not an empirical event, but merely a nuance of the developing model, seen nowhere but on a computer screen. I think the issue is that the discovery was not made on a neutron star. No discoveries have ever been made on a neutron star. Apart from an ambiguous spectral signature assigned to them by the developers of the model, they have never been observed, much less studied in detail. It is just a model, with arbitrarily tuneable parameters. That’s fine, but they should make it clear in their announcement.
I would suggest that theorists would serve us better if they referred to observational data in developing models of hypothesised entities. The Sun is potentially a candidate progenitor of a neutron star, and what happens on the Sun can guide us in trying to imagine what would remain after the end game of a normal star.
Evidence of faith is yet more faith. I cannot say with certainty that Black Holes do not exist, any more than I could legitimately assert without any doubt whatsoever that God does not exist. Both would be physically impossible in terms of my grasp of physics, but then again, I’m still engaged in a life-long struggle to properly explain what I see and experience directly, stuff that I can in principle measure and put under my microscope. I see no useful purpose in incorporating into my understanding those flimsy ghosts of human superstition.
My rule of thumb is that patently irrational things are excluded from the body of knowledge I carry with me; my library of opinions should reflect those things that I am reasonably certain of, and which I can confidently build into my understanding of the cosmos. I become certain not from the degree of comfort that I derive from my beliefs, but from rational, testable evidence emanating from objective enquiry. Clearly, the evidence I am speaking of should not have come from filtering experimental or observational data through the sieve of a preferred model.
Make no mistake; this will be no easy task. The requirement of objectivity may well be one of the most difficult things one could ever expect of our eternally hapless human creature. But if we do not try, we are condemned by our desire for comfort to remain unto death imprisoned in the quicksand of our beliefs.
My friend Harry Rose made a comment on Facebook about the function of Planck’s constant h that I feel puts the erring of science into clear focus:
“…And this immaterial nonsense … is the basis of Quantum physics… it’s pseudo science (magical thinking, to be precise) and has become a religion (a philosophy accepted as truth). What you need to understand is this: in physics matter serves as the agent of objectivity…remove it and there is nothing by which theories of physics can be falsified, the consequences of which we can see high and wide. Physics has become a zoo of concepts that can’t be verified. The physics of ‘h’ is a road to nirvana, spiritually pleasing, but unscientific.”
I suppose, in the cold light of day, we’ll eventually come to realise that Black Holes (and Dark Matter, Dark Energy), like conspiracy theories and indeed religion, are just shadows in the minds of people inclined to think like that.
Congratulations. We have now come face-to-face with those foxy things that all this hullaballoo is about: Belief and instinct. As we shall see in the next chapter, they are irrevocably bound together in eternal conflict. It is that fiery battle that creates and hones our personalities, so I guess we ought to get a handle on it if we want to get anywhere.
“The road to hell isn’t paved with gold, it’s paved with faith.”
― Jarod Kintz, This Book is Not for Sale
[1] Ideological Momentum: The impetus of collective opinion; the tendency for supportive results to emerge and grow artificially from prior consensus or authority; also called “the snowball effect”; a synthetic trend in which we impute meaning in things just because we want meaning to be there for whatever deeply held reason, and then take that meaning forward even when it has been objectively falsified.
[2] Dialogic Process: The predisposition of devoted disciples to see miracles. (Max Mueller).
[3] Faith Drag: aka Ideological Inertia; a consequence of the power of belief over reason: The tendency of reason to trail belief; articles of faith that remain popularly in place despite the objective overturning of previously accepted supporting evidence; the time lag between a paradigm shift in science and a modification of belief to accommodate it.
[4] Hawking S.W., Information Preservation and Weather Forecasting for Black Holes(arxiv: 1401.5761).
[5] Woit, Peter. Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory And the Search for Unity in Physical Law New York: Basic Books, 2006.
[6] The Big Bang Theory TV comedy series, created by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady. The three characters mentioned here were played by Jim Parsons (Sheldon), Johnny Galecki (Leonard), and Sara Gilbert (Leslie) respectively.
[7] Cosmological Black Holes are controversial theoretical constructs emanating from Einstein’s general Relativity Theory. They are said to be so dense that their gravitation does not allow even light to escape, and consequently they cannot be directly seen. However, even indirect observations (like a silhouette or spherical light-sink) have never been achieved. I must emphasise her that I do not know that Black Holes exist, or that they do not exist. Let’s just say that I have not been convinced by the evidence.
[8] Stark, Rodney, and Brainbridge, William (1996): A Theory of Religion. Rutgers University Press. p. 124.
[9] Sieghart, Mary Ann (The Times, October 26, 2001). “The cult figure we could do without”.
[10] Eminent physicist Dr Alexander Unzicker blew the whistle on the Large Hadron Collider cult in his highly recommended book The Higgs Fake – How Particle Physicists Fooled the Nobel Committee (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013)
[11] Shermer, Michael The Believing Brain (New York: Times Books, 2011).
[12] Goldwag, Arthur Cults, Conspiracies, & Secret Societies(New York: Vintage Books, 2009).
[13] Goldwag, Arthur, ibid.
[14] Popular Mechanics Debunking the 9/11 Myths: Special Report, March 2005.
[16] Shermer, Michael The Believing Brain (New York: Times Books, 2011).
[17] Investment Bias—the subjective prejudice applied to scientific endeavour in order to align results with the outcome mooted in motivation for funding, and thereafter the pressures felt by scientists to maintain that position—is an extraordinarily powerful influence on scientific results, and needs to be clearly defined, recognised, and incorporated both into the literature and into data analysis, along with whichever other biases might skew the results.
[18] Robert B. Laughlin, A Different Universe (Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down) (Cambridge MA: Basic Books, 2005).

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