Exposing PseudoAstronomy

December 5, 2014

How to Not Understand Science and Use that to Say Science Is Wrong


Introduction

Given the large amount of work I spent on my two-part 1.75-hr podcast episodes on James McCanney’s “science,” I thought it appropriate to get a Swift blog post out of the effort. This post was geared more towards a general audience and so I used one of McCanney’s quotes to discuss a common problem that we face as scientists, we face as science communicators, and we face as skeptics (where “we” is a different group in those three instances, and I consider myself a member of each).

This is reproduced from what I originally sent the editor on the JREF Swift blog.

Swift Blog Post #3

As a scientist and attempted science communicator (and skeptic in my copious free time), one of the difficulties I face is that science is not other-people-friendly. In fact, most of us work on tasks so specific that we often face difficulties explaining what we do to colleagues, much less people who are not scientists, so it’s rarely even other-scientists-slightly-outside-our-field-friendly.

Since I also play a skeptic on the internet, I have the added issue that terms, phrases, and analogies I may try to use to explain a concept could very easily be misconstrued by a pseudoscientist to support their pet idea. For example, if I talk about an “image anomaly,” to other scientists, this means something like a spot of dust on the lens (usually appears as a darker doughnut shape on the image) or a cosmic ray that makes a bright spot or streak. To a pseudoscientist, it could mean an apartment complex on Mars or an alien space ship near the sun.

This especially becomes an issue when people use those misconceptions to turn around and say that some well established model in science is wrong, and spread those views.

For example, I recently completed a two-part podcast series (episode part 1, part 2) on the ideas and misconceptions of “Professor” James McCanney (I place “Professor” in quotes because he is introduced as such, but he has not taught for over 30 years after he was fired from two teaching jobs, and he does not have a doctorate). Mr. McCanney has many misconceptions about the universe, but one that struck me was this, stated on the Coast to Coast AM radio program on 30 August, 2007:

“When astronomers take their picture of the universe, and they start looking back, and they say, uh– ‘We’re looking back in time,’ and now scientists say they’ve seen objects that are only 500 million years after the Big Bang. But the only problem is they’re in all directions, when we look out in all directions. So if you actually were seeing objects that were only 500 million years after the Big Bang, they would have to be consolidating in some location in the sky near where the original Big Bang had to be. But that’s not the case, they’re all over the sky.”

This was one of his primary stated reasons for saying the Big Bang was wrong, doesn’t make sense, and observations do not support it.

The problem is that this is a gross misunderstanding of the science, and because of that misunderstanding, he concludes that the science is wrong. This example is, in part, a manifestation of an issue we scientists face: Trying to explain a geometrically and spatially complicated idea that goes against your every-day experience.

The analogy in common culture for the Big Bang is that it’s an explosion. In our every-day experience, explosions happen at a specific place. Therefore, if the Big Bang was an explosion, shouldn’t it have happened in a certain place? Ergo, shouldn’t what Mr. McCanney said – that we should see stuff only get younger towards the original spot of that explosion – be correct? And if the evidence doesn’t show that, doesn’t it mean the Big Bang is wrong?

Herein lies the problem with your every-day experience: The Big Bang model holds that the universe did not “start somewhere,” but rather it “started the somewhere.” You cannot have the event that created the universe – all of space and time as we know it – happen within the universe itself. It’s like saying that you, yourself, started in your big toe, or your ear, and grew out from that. But you didn’t: Your entire physical self started with your entire physical self (a single cell) – you cannot point to a specific part of yourself where you started.

The same is the case with the universe. The reason why there is no center of the universe, or no specific spot where we can look towards where the Big Bang occurred, is that it was an explosion of space, not in space.

Another common analogy that’s used is to think of a balloon. The surface of that balloon is a 2D representation of the 3D universe. That 2D representation is warped in 3D, just as our 3D universe is likely warped in 4D or higher spatial dimensions. If you think of a squished, completely deflated balloon, you could say that it’s just a tiny speck and that surface (our universe) doesn’t yet exist. Now, blow air into the balloon, and the surface exists and expands. If you were on that surface and you looked in any direction, you would see the surface. If light travelled really slowly, then you would see that surface as it appeared further back in time.

And that’s what we see when we look out into the universe: As we look farther and farther away, we look further and further back in time, and we see a much younger universe. In all directions. Including the cosmic microwave background radiation, which if what the universe “looked like” just about 380,000 years after the Big Bang.

This observation is what one should and would predict if the Big Bang is the correct model for the initial stages of the universe’s existence.

To bring this full-circle, this kind of observation – the very one Mr. McCanney says contradicts the Big Bang and that’s one reason why he doesn’t believe it – is actually an observation that supports the Big Bang.

But, trying to grasp why this is what you should predict from the Big Bang model is not easy. It goes against what you normally think of when you think “explosion.” Or of really anything happening in the universe, which, by definition, is everything we’ve ever observed or experienced. It is a common misunderstanding, but it’s one that comes from an attempt to simplify the science in a way to easily explain it to non-scientists.

That’s why, as skeptics, we always need to be aware of simplifications and analogies used by science communicators: While it may be done with the best of intentions to try to convey a complex concept, it can introduce further misunderstandings. And, given the right person (or wrong person, depending on your point of view), that misunderstanding can be used to promote pseudoscience.

9 Comments »

  1. I really like your analogy of the origin of a human being as a single cell. Very good science communication, Stuart.

    Comment by Expat — December 5, 2014 @ 3:07 pm | Reply

    • Thanks, I tried. I already have blocked one comment that clearly didn’t read this and appreciate my attempt to avoid anything religious/spiritual by stating it’s the physical body in my analogy.

      This also drives home the point that it doesn’t matter how hard you try, or how clear you are: There will always be people who simply choose to misinterpret/misrepresent the argument.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — December 5, 2014 @ 3:11 pm | Reply

  2. I have never seen it put clearer that there can’t be a place inside the universe that the universe was created from.

    Well done sir.

    Comment by Bruce — December 5, 2014 @ 4:30 pm | Reply

  3. Great episode and explanations. Though I think Mr McCanney’s problem is not that he misinterpreted the science. From hearing him talk it sounds like he simply believes he is smarter than everyone else, and anything that he doesn’t understand must be un-understandable, and therefore wrong.

    Comment by Rj — December 5, 2014 @ 5:14 pm | Reply

  4. Nicely done, of course there are still going to be people to who look at the explanatory diagrams, such as the one used for the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe below and interpret that as the true picture of the universe.

    Worse is when material from late night radio programs like Coast-2-Coast AM is picked up by online news outlets and run as a ‘filler’ story. In the case below someone called up and claimed to have in 1979, watched the ‘live feed’ from the ‘Viking Rover’ as two men in spacesuits approached the rover.

    https://metro.co.uk/2014/11/25/nasa-worker-claims-to-have-seen-humans-walking-on-mars-in-1979-4961608/

    First up, the Viking landers were not rovers, second, the Viking cameras were not designed to produce a ‘live stream’ of image data and even if they had been the technology did not exist then, nor does it exist now to transmit streaming video from Mars to Earth.

    Comment by Graham — December 5, 2014 @ 9:22 pm | Reply

    • I heard about that being on a recent C2C, but wasn’t sure which night it was. So, was this on the Nov 24 show? Or maybe Knapp’s Nov. 23 show on Area 51?

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — December 5, 2014 @ 9:25 pm | Reply

      • I’ve never actually listened to Coast-2-Coast AM, but the YoutTube video linked to the article is dated September 16, 2014 (See below), so it must predate that. Looks like many of the most recent commenters on that video pointed out the flaws (Viking was a static lander, cameras were not designed to continuous feed, etc) that I mentioned above.

        The video preserves the audio from the call.

        Comment by Graham — December 6, 2014 @ 12:06 am

      • Wow, so the guest was John Lear. Meaning that the most recent it could be was March 1, according to the C2C website. Talk about digging.

        Comment by Stuart Robbins — December 6, 2014 @ 12:16 am

      • Oh I’ll agree the person who wrote the Metro article must have done some digging, but why on Earth would the unsupported statements of an unknown person be considered newsworthy. Unless of course like the scriptwriter of “Star Trek: Into Darkness” (Who fulfilled the dreams of 9/11 Truthers everywhere by filling the film with 9/11 ‘Truth’.) the person is a conspiracy believer who took the chance to expose the ‘truth’ to the Sheeple.

        Comment by Graham — December 6, 2014 @ 5:07 am


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