The Humor of Michael Shermer
Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic Magazine and columnist for Scientific American, represents the best and worst of modern science. On the plus side, he writes well, typically picks interesting topics, and gives me a lot material to write about. On the negative, he displays the sort of overly-confident, “it is true because I said it is” attitude that is all too prevalent in modern science. One of his favorite topics, which he writes about in the October 2015 issue of Scientific American, is the distinction between science and pseudoscience. This time he pokes fun at the Electric Universe conference at which he was recently asked to speak. The Electric Universe community apparently believes that electricity, instead of gravity, is the dominant force in the universe. And so Shermer, of course, ridicules this group for straying from mainstream science. He points out that because the Electric Universe community has no peers it cannot have peer review, and without peer review, “how are we to know the difference between mainstream and alternative theories?” But as Lee Smolin points out in his book, The Trouble with Physics, the flaw of peer review is that new ideas often have little hope of receiving a favorable review, particularly if they challenge the theories — and professions — of the reviewers.
But this is not the worst part of Shermer’s recent column. He begins the piece by making fun of the Electric Universe group because they believe the big bang never happened and dark matter and dark energy are unsubstantiated conjectures. In other words, unless someone accepts these theories as gospel truth, they can never be true scientists.
This is all very odd to an objective viewer of the facts. For example, although everyone is supposed to believe in the big bang because it is the creation myth of the day, it is riddled with so many problems that folks like Shermer should at least demonstrate a bit more humility when criticizing those who do not accept the big bang on the mere word of science. Let me summarize some of the problems: (1) no one know how something came from nothing, much less enough matter to create 100 billion galaxies each with 100 billion stars; therefore, the whole theory is fraught with a fundamental gap at the beginning; (2) Roger Penrose, in this book The Emperor’s New Mind, calculated the odds that the big bang would have led to our universe instead of a big black hole: he got odds of 10 to 10th to the 60th power; (3) in evaluating the original big bang, scientists found that it required extremely precise fine-tuning to allow for the balanced universe we now find ourselves in; therefore, certain physicists came up with the inflationary big bang in which the universe somehow inflated 10 to the 45th power in the blink of an eye, all for the purpose of creating our finely tuned universe. Interestingly, some physicists, such as Roger Penrose and Paul Steinhardt, point out that the inflationary big bang actually requires more fine-tuning than the original big bang: it seems the crazy hyper-drive expansion must occur in an extremely precise way to lead to the ordered universe in which we find ourselves. And, by the way, no one knows where the energy came from to propel the inflationary big bang. Then, the big bang was suppose to create equal parts matter and anti-matter, meaning that these two matter-types would have cancelled out leaving us with no world. But somehow matter predominates over anti-matter; no one knows how. Hard-lined materialists such as Shermer, of course, cannot allow a mind or intelligence to guide the course of creation; Paul Davies, on that note, estimates that it would take 10 to the 10th to the 80th power of years of random motions to produce our universe. And these are just some of the fundamental problems with the big bang.
But of course Michael Shermer is practicing science, not pseudoscience and what he says is absolutely and unalterably true because that is what science says.
No, the hallmark of science is testing and critiquing every idea, even those held by mainstream scientists the peer reviewers. When we accept any idea without questioning, whether the source is the corner barber or Albert Einstein, we are giving up our most powerful weapon: the ability to think for ourselves. Writers like Shermer make this all the more difficult because, part of the ruling class, they don’t have time for those with different –and perhaps true — opinions.