Exposing PseudoAstronomy

June 23, 2015

Podcast Episode 134: Big Bang Denial

The Big Bang theory:
Tot’ly explains the cosmos?
Or, is it a dud?

This episode follows a big from the Black Hole Denial episode, but this time with another aspect of cosmology: The Big Bang. I was able to use a few old blog posts, too, that I wrote practically 7 years ago.

As mentioned, I’m now on a weird – though backdating – release schedule due to the piling on of work as the New Horizons craft nears Pluto. But I’m still trying to do 2 episodes/month, at least.


December 5, 2014

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


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.

December 1, 2014

Podcast Episode 121: James McCanney’s Views on Other Stuff in the Universe, Part 2

Some random claims based on
Electric Universe thinking
By James McCanney.

The long-awaited sequel to the critically-acclaimed (ha!) first part on James McCanney’s ideas about stuff. As I said last time, I’ve wanted to talk about James McCanney’s ideas ever since I heard him on Coast to Coast AM, and doing so isn’t hard — he’s been on the show dozens of times over the last two decades. I’ve heard him talk about a lot of things, but I mostly remembered him sounding like a broken record talking about how comets “discharge the solar capacitor.” This episode gets at many of his other ideas, though there are still many others and I reserve the right to do a Part 3 in the future.

Because this episode runs nearly 55 minutes, the only additional segment is two New News items (one sent in by Graham and the other by Callum (@ApproxPurified). Also, I plan on the next episode to be about conspiracies surrounding the Rosetta mission and its now host comet, so if you happen to see something relevant, please let me know before December 12, 2014.

P.S. My internet connection is being flaky — please let me know if you have issues downloading this episode or getting it to show up in iTunes or another RSS reader.

September 4, 2010

Stephen Hawking, God, and Design, and the Universe


I know I haven’t written for awhile, and unfortunately, you can expect more of the same sporadic posts probably for the next several months. I apologize. Just keep this in your RSS reader and you’ll get ’em when they come out. Blog’s not dead, just me. 🙂

Anyway, if you had to pick one topic this week that’s in the news other than politics, it would probably be Stephen Hawking and the conjecture that the universe does not need a god to have come about or be as it is. I know folks are probably tired about this, but I thought I would give a few brief observations, hopefully ones that aren’t actually in most news outlets.

My Thoughts

First, I agree. I do not think there’s any hard, scientific evidence that you need a god to create the universe or to have it turn out as it is. You’ll note I wrote “think,” not “believe.” This particular word choice is one that I’ll hopefully address in another short, future post.

Anyway, what really brought on this post was I was yet again listening to an episode of Coast to Coast AM where the host, George Noory, brought on a theologian to react. Only, in a very C2C twist, this particular theologian, Dr. Barry Downing, thinks that the Bible is the inspired word of space aliens who talked to Moses through maybe some sort of hologram of the burning bush.

Moving on … George stated effectively, “I don’t see how you can look at the universe and all that it contains and think that there wasn’t some sort of designer or planner or plan.”

That got me thinking: Well, what would a universe look like if it hadn’t been planned? How would we know? What would the difference(s) be?

I think what George and many people forget is that we have a sample size of 1. If you think the universe did not have a creator nor planner nor plan, then this is what it looks like without one and hence we don’t need one to explain it. If you believe that the universe did have a creator or planner or plan, then this is what it looks like with one and hence we do need one to explain it.

Very circular reasoning here. Perhaps an argument from ignorance, perhaps a tautology. Or begging the question / unstated major premise. So many logical fallacies to choose from!

Final Thoughts

I the end, I think this debate is a bit silly. I think the reactions of condemnation from world religious leaders was a “necessary” response to a statement by someone as famous as Stephen Hawking. And Hawking does have a book he’s trying to sell.

I think this is a fairly futile argument because neither side is going to be able to convince the other for the simple reasons I stated above: Those who believe this universe’s form could only arise from a guiding hand or noodly appendage are always going to cling to that design argument. Those who think this arises from random chance or underlying physical laws that we do not yet know will continue to think that.

But it does make for headlines and gives people something to talk about other than the latest Paris Hilton snafu.

November 11, 2009

Logical Fallacies: Argument from Final Consequences


Continuing my series on logical fallacies, this post will address the fallacy of the Argument from Final Consequences.

What is the “Argument from Final Consequences?”

The “Argument from Final Consequences” fallacy can effectively be stated as: “Something exists, therefore [this] caused it.” In other words, it confuses cause and effect, starting with an effect and then assuming a cause.

Main Example from Creationism

One of the best astronomy/physics-related examples of this logical fallacy from Creationism (and Intelligent Design) proponents is the apparent fine-tuning of the universe. Since I have addressed this argument in detail in a previous post, the very short argument goes as follows: “In order for us to exist, the universe has to be very fine-tuned in order for that to happen, therefore God (or an “Intelligence”) was the one that created it.”

If we deconstruct that argument, we have an observation and conclusion of an effect — the universe must be fine-tuned for us to exist here — and then we have the cause — God did it. In other words, we have the effect placed before the cause in the argument, or an Argument from Final Consequences logical fallacy.

A more honest ay of addressing this situation is to observe that we exist the way we do because of the way the universe is. We have the cause — the universe is the way it is — and the effect — we exist as we do to take advantage of the physical laws of the universe that we inhabit. Saying that we could not exist if the universe were different is probably true, but that does not mean that no type nor form of life could exist, just our particular kind of life.

Final Thoughts

The Argument from Final Consequences is a little harder to spot in discussions because you generally have to pause, deconstruct the argument, and really look at what they’re claiming to be the cause and effect to determine if they are using the effect to justify the cause.

November 9, 2009

Logical Fallacies: God of the Gaps


I’ve wanted to do a series on logical fallacies for quite awhile. In general, I am going to use young-Earth creationist (YEC) arguments because, well, they commit a lot of them, despite Jason Lisle’s recent series on the Answers in Genesis website about fallacious arguing.

What is “God of the Gaps?”

The “God of the Gaps” argument is really just what it sounds like: It is a way to fill a gap in our knowledge with God.

Young-Earth Creationist Astronomy Example

Probably the most prolific use of the God of the Gaps fallacy in YEC arguments is that of the universe’s “first cause.” The YEC claim goes as follows: “Something must have caused the Big Bang. Astronomers don’t know what that was. It was God.” Or, substitute for that last sentence, “Why couldn’t it have been God?”

The answer is simple — it could have been. But it also may not have been. We now know what causes lightning. Three thousand years ago, the ancient Greeks did not, and they created an elaborate pantheon of gods where the King of the Gods, Zeus, was the one who threw lightning bolts to earth after they were made by his son, the god Hephaestus. They literally stuck not one, but two gods into that gap. Now that we know what causes lightning, I don’t think I’ve met any modern religious person who still claims that it is caused by a god.

Similarly, Apollo was once thought to draw the sun across the sky each day, since the ancient Greeks could not explain naturally why the sun seemed to cross the sky every day, only to return back where it was for the next. Today, we know why – because Earth rotates on its axis. That gap in human knowledge is no longer there.

The same could happen for the origin of the universe. Right now, we don’t know what happened to originate it. Many Christians – if not people from most religions around the world – use the God of the Gaps to fill that void in our knowledge with a divine creation. But we may in the future know what natural means caused the Big Bang. We may not. Regardless, to jump to the conclusion that God did it and we cannot know the mind of god or find a natural cause is to invoke this logical fallacy.

God of the Gaps: The Science-Stopper

Scientists, rational thinkers, and skeptics will often argue that the God of the Gaps fallacy is a “science-stopper.” I have seen Intelligent Design proponents and YECers argue that it is not, though I remain fairly unconvinced by their arguments.

The reason that this fallacy is a science-stopper is that once you say “God Did It,” you don’t have to go any further. If Benjamin Franklin followed the Greek pantheon and believed that lightning was simply Zeus throwing things ’cause he was mad, then what impetus would he have had to find out its true nature?

Using God as an answer simply gives you a supernatural answer. It doesn’t cause you to look for a deeper, natural explanation, but leaves you satisfied that it is beyond our understanding ’cause God Did It.

The Shrinking Role of God

Philosophically, if I were a believer in the divine, I don’t think I would care to use this fallacy, and that’s because of the ever-shrinking role of God. Each time someone uses the fallacy – that God is used to explain something – and then we are able to explain it in a purely naturalistic method, then God’s role has suddenly diminished, shrinking away from that claim.

Final Thoughts

The God of the Gaps fallacy is usually a pretty easy one to spot.

April 27, 2009

Defending the Big Bang: Young-Earth Creationist Claims


After a long, work-related hiatus, I’m getting back to my 4-part series on the Big Bang. The purpose of this post is to look at the problems that Young-Earth Creationists (YECs) have with it, and the ways they try to get around it. I’ll give a quick hint as to the main reason: It’s not what the Bible literally says happened.

What Does the Bible Say?

In the Christian Bible, in Genesis 1, there is a clear progression of how we were formed:

  1. God created heaven and earth.
  2. God created light.
  3. God separated water from land
  4. God created plants.
  5. God created stars.
  6. God created the sun and moon.
  7. God created ocean life, then birds. God continued to make animals.
  8. God created humans. Well, he created man first, then woman. Then awhile later on in the bible they make more humans.

This all happened in the first 6 literal 24-hr days of existence. So yes, I am referring to biblical literalists for this post — it is my understanding that most who are not biblical literalists are more able to are generally able to reconcile more easily with the science.

Now, to be fair, Genesis 2 does imply a slightly different progression. However, my understanding is that most YECs tend to ignore that part, and so I will, too, for purposes of explaining their problems with the Big Bang.

What Do the Big Bang Theory … and Star-Formation Theory … and Solar System Formation Theory … and Evolutionary Theory Say?

The reason I didn’t leave this section heading at just the “Big Bang Theory” is because there is no one massive THEORY that explains how we get from the formation of the cosmos to people. However, for purposes of laying out a similar progression as elucidated in the bible, I will provide a synthesis to cover the comparable points:

  1. After the universe began, atomic nuclei were the first thing to form that most people would recognize. This happened in the first few minutes.
  2. Light was not able to stream freely until the universe had cooled sufficiently, about 370,000 years after the Big Bang.
  3. Possibly as early as several tens to hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang, the first stars formed from gravitationally collapsed clouds of hydrogen and helium.
  4. It took to at least the second generation of stars before planets could form because heavier atoms did not exist (they are formed in the violent supernovae events that massive stars undergo when they run out of fuel).
  5. Planets formed much like stars, by collapsing clouds of atoms and molecules. Moons either formed around them just as planets formed around stars, or they were captured.
  6. After the planet formed, life formed.
  7. The first life on Earth can be traced back nearly to its formation, with about a 400 million-year gap (to about 4.1 billion years ago).
  8. The first life was single-celled and they were the only form for about 2 billion years.
  9. After multi-cellular life arose, it was able to become more complex more quickly because of the amount of variation that could arise.
  10. Sea animals were likely the first, then land, then air.
  11. Sometime around 1-4 million years ago, the first human-like ancestors evolved from a common ancestor of modern chips.

Now, you can see that this progression is quite different from that presented in the bible. Besides just the timescales involved, the progression is completely different from a literal reading of Genesis. For example, Genesis states that the sun and moon were (a) made at the same time, and (b) made well after Earth. The scientific consensus says something very different.

An Example of YEC Problems with the Big Bang Theory

There are so many places on the internet that I could draw material for this section of quotes or articles where YECs espouse their problems with the Big Bang. Answers in Genesis is an obvious one, as is the Institute for Creation Research.

For my examples, I will be using an episode of ICR’s radio show, narrated by Chris O’Brian, that originally aired on June 7, 2003, entitled, “Progressive Creationism #2 – The Big Bang.” I’m addressing this one instead of their, “Myth that the Big Bang Has Been Proven” episode because I have already addressed it in my post last year, “What Does it Mean to “Prove” the Big Bang? – De-Mything the “Myth” that It Has Not Been “Proven.”

1. Ross Humphreys: (4:30 into episode) ~ “There’s absolutely no biblical case for the big bang. The order of events is all wrong. For example, you have in Genesis ch. 1 v. 1 you have ‘darkness,’ the Big Bang starts off with light. The first element that’s formed in the Big Bang is hydrogen, the first material that’s mentioned in Genesis 1:2 is water. … So the order is all wrong, not to mention the time scale.”

2. Henry Morris: (6:00 into episode) ~ “Cosmologists don’t all hold to the Big Bang theory. … Maybe the most prominent cosmologists and astronomers don’t believe it; not only Fred Hoyle, who’s well known, but many many others. I listed, if I recall, about 15 prominent astronomers who rejected the Big Bang theory.”

3. Morris: (7:00 into the episode) ~ “Most [astronomers] go to the evolution of something out of nothing – a quantum fluctuation of nothing into something. Alan Guth who invented that theory of inflation and the big Bang theory just ‘happened.’ In fact, a couple of authors have written something to the effect that you don’t have to have a cause to have the big bang, it just ‘happened.’ Nothing caused it at all.”

4. Humphreys: (9:00 into the episode) ~ “One of the things wrong with the big bang is that the Hubble Space Telescope is showing lots of facts that are discordant with it. And one of those facts is the fact that the Hubble Space Telescope is showing evidence of elements, atoms, of oxygen, carbon, nitrogen – such things like that – very far out, and the problem is that the Big Bang cannot explain those elements that far away. And that’s only one of many problems. In other words, as we’re finding out more and more data, we’re finding the Big Bang theory is not capable of explaining these data.”

5. Humphreys: (11:30 into the episode) ~ “Scripture’s quite clear about the fact that the universe has a center and we’re fairly close to it on a cosmological scale of things is good evidence that the Big Bang is wrong.”

6. John Morris: (12:00 into the episode) ~ “We can’t see this thing [the Big Bang] happenin’, we didn’t see it happen in the past — we’re trying to explain the past with what we see in the present. This whole idea is all mathematics, the Big Bang is really a mathematical solution to Einstein’s equations and … that’s what evolutionists have come up with.”

Responding to those YEC Claims

1. This illustrates one of the main lines of attack of YECs – it doesn’t agree with the bible. This is a simple argument from authority, where the authority is a book that was compiled over decades to hundreds of years, by many different people, and has many internal inconsistencies. It is also a book that refuses to be updated based upon new information — very different from science.

2. This is another argument from authority. “15 prominent astronomers” a consensus does not make. This is very similar to what the Discovery Institute does with their “Dissent from Darwin” list. They claim to have over 500 names on a list of Ph.D. scientists who supposedly “dissent from Darwin.” (I say “supposedly” because I watched a video recently where a person actually examined the list – only a small percentage actually worked in the relevant field of biology, and most of those people had no idea they were on the list or had asked Discovery Institute to take them off.) This is contrasted with the National Center for Science Education and their “Steve” list of over 1000 Ph.D. biologists who “support” Darwinian evolution … and are only allowed on the list if their name is Steve (or Stephanie). There is a big difference between a scientific consensus and being able to claim authority from a few dissenters.

In addition, the name Fred Hoyle is thrown out frequently by ICR. You can read about him here. In particular, Hoyle did reject the notion of the Big Bang. However, he was not in favor of what the YECs propagate … though the YECs leave that part out. Hoyle believed in the “steady-state” cosmology, which holds that the universe has always existed, and forces conspire to always make it look the same throughout time.

3. This is possible. However, it’s unsatisfactory to many, and there are various people working on models to explain how the universe may have been birthed. However, as I point out in another post, the Big Bang does not claim nor try to claim to describe how the universe formed. It just describes what happened AFTER it formed. So this is a straw man.

4. This is wrong. Yes, we find elements and molecules “very far away,” but none farther back than a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. This is entirely consistent with the Big Bang theory, for – as I said earlier in this post – it took the first generation of stars to produce the heavier elements.

5. This is also not correct. There is no “center” to the universe, but that also has nothing to do with the Big Bang. The overall geometry of the universe is a completely separate issue from Big Bang theory. So, this claim is a combination of both incorrect information AND a non sequitur.

6. It always amazes me when YECs make this claim, in the generic form of: “Scientists say this happened, but no one was there to see it or we can’t observe it, therefore it didn’t happen.” Absolutely amazes me. Why? Because no one was there to see God do what they claim he did. But, anyway …

It’s true that we try to discern the past from the present. That’s what science is. Plain and simple in this case. Also, the whole idea may have started with solving Einstein’s equations, but as I explained in the second part of this 3-part series, there is actual observational evidence that backs it up, that fits with the Big Bang theory, and is currently best-explained by the Big Bang Theory over any other model – including Fred Hoyle’s steady-state.

Final Thoughts

I know I haven’t addressed every YEC issue with the Big Bang. That’s because it’s simply not possible. Even if I could address every single one that’s presently out there, they would come up with more, or simply refer back to biblical authority and its infallibility. At that point, it is simply not possible to argue any further. And I don’t try to.

What I try to address – and I have stated this numerous times when dealing with religious matters here – is not any religious faith-based aspect. It’s when the religion makes specific scientific claims that are NOT supported by real science, are distortions of real science, or are just plain wrong based on the science that I will address them.

November 12, 2008

Misconception: Big Bang Describes the Formation of the Universe


One argument that many creationists use to say that God exists is that something must have started the Big Bang (if they even accept that the Big Bang occurred). Or, they claim that the Big Bang is too unlikely to have occurred.

But, besides creationists, many people have the misconception that the Big Bang is what astronomers and physicists say started the Universe, forming it and bringing it to what it is today.

Most of that is a misconception.

What’s The Deal?

What’s really going on is that the Big Bang is a theory (theory in the same sense that gravity is a theory) that mathematically describes what happened almost immediately after the Universe came into existence. It is the best theory that fits with observational evidence.

That “almost immediately” is known as the “Planck Time,” which is equivalent to about 5×10-44 seconds. This is the time it takes light to travel a “Planck Length,” which is equivalent to about 2×10-35 meters. In other words, this is a very small amount of time, but due to some very complicated mathematics that gives me a headache, our current understanding of physics says that we cannot know what happened before the universe was 1 Planck Time old.

And, the Big Bang does not try to describe that. What the Big Bang describes is how the the Universe grew and changed after 1 Planck Time, such as the separation of the four fundamental forces of nature, the creation of matter, and so-forth — you know, the little things.

It is generally believed that, based on what we can describe after 1 Planck Time, that the Universe was, at time=0, an infinitesimal point of infinite density that was an explosion of space and time into our present-day Universe. But, that extrapolation is not a formal part of the Big Bang Theory.

So What?

You may ask why I’ve decided to devote a post to this – admittedly – seemingly minor point. The reason is that, first off, it’s a misconception that’s out there and I want to set the record straight.

But the second reason is that it means that creationist arguments that say the Big Bang doesn’t say what started the Universe, or how it started the Universe means that scientists just don’t know and they’re afraid to say, “God Did It.” They also attack the Big Bang because it seems to take God out of the picture.

What they’re actually doing is making a Straw Man fallacy – they are setting up a false argument and tearing that down rather than focus on what science really says. This is similar to the following situation: I decide to throw a ball up in the air. It goes up, following a parabolic arc, and comes back down to my hand. Physics has an exact description of the shape of that trajectory and the time it takes. But, physics says nothing about why I decided to throw the ball up in the air.

Creationists, in this analogy, would try to argue that physics doesn’t properly describe how I threw the ball in the air, or why I threw it. They are simply arguing against something that that particular theory never set out to describe.

This is much like evolution: Creationists claim that evolution can’t explain the origin of life. But evolution doesn’t try to explain the origin of life, merely what happened to that life once it formed. Same types of arguments, same fallacy.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully you readers who are at least dedicated to learning about science now have a little more understanding about the nature of the Big Bang Theory, what it actually does describe, and what it does not. The next time you hear someone equate “formation of the Universe” with “Big Bang,” you will know that actually they are not quite the same thing.

November 10, 2008

What Does it Mean to “Prove” the Big Bang? – De-Mything the “Myth” that It Has Not Been “Proven”


The Big Bang is one of the fundamental theories (and I do mean “theory” in a scientific sense) of modern cosmology. It describes what happened just after the universe formed, how primordial matter was made, and the growth of structures like galaxies and superclusters of galaxies.

Being so fundamental in nature, it is not surprising that people who want to try to use astronomy to support a religious creation mythology try to mythify it, or at least cast enough doubt and suspicion on its plausibility that their adherents will take their word for it. (This is not a straw man on my part, but it is discussed in the broadcast (below) for several minutes towards the end.)

This entry is based on refuting the “Myth that the Big Bang Has Been Proven” Institute for Creation Research radio broadcast, originally aired on December 11, 1999, and re-aired on June 22, 2002.

Background Information

I don’t really have enough room here (and you likely don’t want to read) to go into the whole theory of Big Bang Cosmology, nor to really discuss in-depth the Three Pillars of evidence for the Big Bang theory (expanding universe, cosmic microwave background radiation, amounts of the light elements; sometimes the growth of large-scale structures is tossed in as a Fourth). Rather, as is generally the case when I discuss an ICR radio episode, I will address the claims as they come.

Individual Claims

Claim: “It seems like every time we turn on the TV, read the newspaper, or listen to the news, we hear about the big bang.” (at the beginning of the broadcast, by the narrator).

Response: Right off the bat, here, we have a straw man argument – they’re arguing against something that simply isn’t true. Honestly, think about it: When was the last time you picked up a newspaper or turned on the TV (unless it was a sci-fi show) and they were discussing the Big Bang?

Claim: “8 to 20 billion years ago, the date is not quite certain, the universe began suddenly.” (about 1 min 5 sec, Danny Faulkner).

Response: I’ll begrudge them this that when the show was originally recorded 10 years ago, the date wasn’t really certain, and estimates ranged from about 10-20 billion years for the formation of the universe. However, the latest data from the WMAP satellite places the age at about 14.1 billion years for the age of the cosmos.

Claim: “One of the misconceptions of the Big Bang theory is that, since the universe is expanding, the theory must be true.” (~1:30, Narrator). Immediately following, “It turns out this isn’t true at all, it turns out the expansion of the universe was discovered before the Big Bang model was developed. In fact, the Big Bang model was developed to explain why the universe was expanding.” (Danny Faulkner)

Response: I’m trying to find the logical fallacy that is effectively, “you’re either ignorant of the field, or you’re lying.” I think I can again politely refer to this as a straw man fallacy because he’s arguing against something that we astronomers don’t actually say. It is true that the expanding universe is one of the Three Pillars of the Big Bang. In general, logically, if something is getting larger today, it must have been smaller in the past. Unless something happened further in the past to change this, then the logical assumption is that it would continue to shrink the further in the past you go, until it was an infinitesimally small thing. But, this is not the only line of evidence, as I very briefly mentioned in my Background Information above.

The second sentence of this claim is, to my knowledge, mostly correct. But that’s how science works: We think something operates one way (originally, the “Steady-State” model saying that the universe has pretty much always been like it is today). But, new evidence (expansion) shows that our thinking was incorrect. Hence, we need to revise our models, or come up with new ones. I’m honestly not sure why they emphasize this except in the sense that it’s a subtle ad hominem attack (effectively, “You crazy ‘evolutionary’ astronomers don’t know what you’re doing, you have to keep changing your theories”) as well as a small tu quoque fallacy (effectively, “My evidence may not be valid, but neither is yours.”).

Claim: “One scientific problem with the Big Bang is that no like process has ever been observed so, science is supposed to deal with observation … yet no one has ever seen an explosion like a Big Bang. So right away, that places the Big Bang outside the realm of science.” (~2:00, Jonathan Henry)

Response: Ah, my first use of the False Continuum fallacy by attempting to argue that astronomers are guilty of the Inconsistency logical fallacy. In other words, he is implying that astronomers are being inconsistent in that we can’t have seen a Big Bang, therefore it’s faith, just like we’re claiming religion is faith because we can’t see (a) G/god(s). But the false continuum is that there really isn’t a fuzzy line of “scientific faith” in the Big Bang – there are real consequences and real predictions that come from it.

Unlike creationism, from where there can be no scientific evidence, “proof,” nor predictions from, models of the Big Bang predicted the existence of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR, or sometimes CMB) – the discovery of which resulted in a 3-way Nobel Prize – as well as predictions about the relative abundance of hydrogen to helium, lithium, and beryllium, which have so far been observed to be consistent with the Big Bang model.

It’s true, we can’t “see” the Big Bang, nor can we see another Big Bang simply by definition. But we can observe its effects and check for their consistency with that model. And so far, they support the Big Bang.

Claim: “One of the … predictions … has been that all matter in the universe aught to be distributed evenly everywhere.” (~3:00, Jonathan Henry)

Response: Again, ignorance, a lie, or politely a straw man. No one argues this to be the case because it’s OBVIOUSLY not the case (the fact that you sit separate from your chair, the air, the planet, and the solar system is proof that this is not the case). It may have initially been that when the theory was first developed that this was a consequence. But, that was quickly modified because, as I said, it obviously is not the case. We explain the non-uniform distribution as being caused by tiny fluctuations in the universe at the earliest times. Over hundreds of thousands of years, these grew into much larger variations in density, which led to the large-scale structures that we see today.

Claim: Paraphrasing this claim from Russ Humphreys (~4:15) – The Hubble Space Telescope has observed galaxies that formed about 700,000 years after the Big Bang, but this can’t be because galaxies take longer than that to form.

Response: This is actually a pretty neat science result (NASA Press Release, a more recent one than the show was referring to). What it shows is that galaxies were actually already being formed earlier than had been previously assumed, but that was only under one model of galaxy formation – a “Top-Down” approach where larger galaxies form first. What this is evidence for is more of a “Bottom-Up” mechanism, where smaller things formed first, in this case dwarf galaxies. So this is another case where there is a “distortion” of the facts. (Another related article.)

Claim: “Dark matter is the brain child of the fertile imagination of the Big Bang theorist who, not seeing the amount of matter that their theory requires invent other matter that we can’t see. … Dark matter … is pure speculation.” (~4:45, Russ Humphreys)

Response: Again, ignorance, a lie, or politely a straw man. To my knowledge, the ideas behind dark matter originally had nothing to do with the Big Bang. The problem was that stars in the outer parts of spiral galaxies were moving too quickly. In order to get them to move as fast as they were, our current understanding of physics required that there be much more mass, otherwise the stars would escape the gravitational pull of the galaxy because there wasn’t enough material that we could see to hold them all in. The alternative – which still have many proponents – is that our Newtonian theories of gravity need to be revised, that they work on the scales of humans, planets, and solar systems, but there may be a small term in the equations that only becomes noticeable on the scale of galaxies. You may ask, “What does this have to do with the Big Bang?” Good question. I’d like to know that, too, since the original Big Bang theories have nothing to do with dark matter.

Now, we can look at the CMBR and determine that there is a significant mass component to the universe that we can’t see, which we refer to as dark matter. WMAP results put it at about 23% of all the energy-mass of the universe being composed of dark matter. To to very quickly re-cap, the idea of dark matter originated because stars were moving too quickly for galaxies to be only composed of matter we could see, and this was later verified to be a “dark matter” by observations of the CMBR … it is not required for the Big Bang theory, nor would its existence or lack of existence have anything to do with whether or not the Big Bang model is correct.

Claim: “According to evolutionary theory, huge gas clouds were produced by the Big Bang. Soon these gas clouds collapsed into stars, planets, and galaxies, which emitted microwave radiation. Because of the pockets and clumps of these galaxies, there should be corresponding pockets of radiation. Therefore the Big Bang theory would predict that cosmic radiation would be uneven throughout the universe.” (~5:30, Narrator)

Response: I honestly don’t know what to say to this. What the narrator stated is equivalent to saying, “Water is dry.” It’s just wrong. One would think that if they have any sense of intellectual honesty, they would at least check on their facts.

The idea behind the CMBR can really be summed up in about 3 sentences: After the universe formed, it was very hot, and light (photons) could not move without being absorbed and re-emitted by atoms, which meant that the universe was opaque (kinda like a star). As the universe continued to expand, it cooled down, and eventually light was finally able to stream freely without interacting with the atoms. This first light, from when the universe became transparent, is what we see as the CMBR.

Now, what the CMBR reflects are the fluctuations in density in the universe at that time. Hotter regions of the CMBR indicate denser regions, and cooler indicates more rarified regions. The reason that it is in the microwave has nothing to do with galaxies, stars, and planets emitting microwave radiation, it’s because the radiation comes from so far away (back in time) that the light has been stretched into the microwave wavelengths. If we existed billions of years ago, it would be higher-energy light, even to the point of visible, and the entire sky would literally glow with it.

For more information on the CMBR, visit the WMAP Overview.

Claim: Paraphrasing this claim from Russ Humphreys (~6:00) – The variations in the CMBR are 10x smaller than what scientists predicted, but this is now claimed as proof of the Big Bang.

Response: As I said above, this is the nature of science. I honestly don’t know if this claim is correct, but even if it is, it does not take away from the idea that the CMBR was directly predicted from the Big Bang theory. Different perturbations of that theory can be used when it’s not well-constrained by other data. Based upon the best available data at the time, astronomers may have predicted the variations would be larger than they found them to be.

That they were discovered to be smaller meant that they had new constraints on their models and could go back and revise them to better fit the data, which can then be used to make future predictions. This has nothing to do with showing that the Big Bang is wrong, just with revising the specifics, which is how science works. Creationism, on the other hand, hasn’t changed in hundreds of years because there is only one piece of “evidence,” the Bible.

Claim: Paraphrasing this claim from Otto Berg (~7:30) – The biggest problem with the Big Bang is how to account for the formation of life? How could life evolve from a dead cluster?

Response: This is a straw man. The origin of life has absolutely positively NOTHING to do with the Big Bang (nor, for that matter, does it have anything to do with evolution).

Claim: “All life has carbon in it … [but] it’s an extreme improbability that carbon would have formed … since [the universe] was only 25% helium. [For carbon] to form, it would require two helium atoms to combine at exactly the right velocity with enough energy but not too much energy, it would collide and form a beryllium atom, and that beryllium atom would combine with another helium atom – with the right velocity, not too much not too little – to form the carbon atom. If you think about the improbability about that carbon atom — it’s very improbable. All life has carbon.” (~8:30, Otto Berg)

Response: I’m not sure why a particle physicist doesn’t know this, but Big Bang Nucleosynthesis (the third pillar) does not produce carbon, or if it does, it’s very very little. The early universe was pretty much like a star – except the whole universe was a star. Protons and neutrons fused to hydrogen, or deuterium, and deuterium could fuse into helium. But these conditions did not last very long, and they only had time to really fuse about 23-24% into helium-3 and helium-4. A very little bit of lithium-7 was created, but only a negligible amount (if any) of carbon. So if nothing else, he’s actually correct, but it’s a non sequitur.

Today’s carbon formed in stars. Massive stars, generally more massive than the sun, can easily reach the temperatures and pressures required to make forming carbon not a statistical improbability. We’ve known this for decades, as it’s relatively basic nuclear physics. Where did the carbon in life today come from? Past generations of stars. Carl Sagan put it well: “We are star stuff.”

For more on the fusion processes in stars, you can see the Fusion beta page of my revised astronomy website (please note that the bulk of the site is not yet finished, but that page is reasonably complete and fairly extensive).

Final Thoughts

The Big Bang is far from a myth that young-Earth creationists may have you believe. Is it “Proven?” Or is it a “Fact?” No. But really nothing in science is. A “Fact” means that it is TRUTH, that it is known beyond all doubt. As I discussed in my LHC particle two months ago, that’s not how science works. It only takes one verified and inexplicable observation to destroy a theory.

But from a scientific standpoint, a “Theory” is as close to a “Fact” as we can get. The Big Bang Theory has been tested and revised over almost the last 100 years. It has withstood efforts to disprove it, and it still remains the foundation of modern cosmology.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.