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Nov 26 2011

Cosmology is the new mythology … really?

The Hubble Deep Field View courtesy of NASA/JPL

As someone who has picked a lousy title on many occasions, I sympathize with the author of this piece at IFPpress. Nevertheless, I can think of a great many differences between the most profound mysteries in cosmology and supernatural cosmogonies the world over. The first mythology-cosmology item given in the article looks somewhat defensible:

String theory, the most promising theory of physics of the past thirty years, since it was meant to explain everything, cannot be tested or proven.

False. String theory, like any scientific theory, makes testable predictions. The primary obstacle is those tests cannot be performed at the energies our current technology cannot produce. The author continues:

Similarly, at the largest level, Goldberg told us astrophysicists have “no clue what the universe is expanding into, why there is more matter than antimatter, or why there is anything at all.” They also have no idea what “dark matter” and “dark energy” are, even though scientists know they make up 95% of the universe. Only 5% of the universe is visible. … For example, scientists have no idea why there was 380,000 years of complete darkness after the Big Bang, but they called the first appearance of photons “First Dawn” and that calmed everyone down.

No idea what the universe is expanding into — true; no idea what dark matter is — false. There are ideas and the leading idea, WIMPs, is consistent with a large body of observational and theoretical work; no idea what dark energy is — true to an extent. The nature of dark energy is not nearly as well known as the nature of dark matter, but there are certainly ideas about what the former might be and more are hypothesis are being formulated and researched; no idea why there was complete darkness for a period after the Big Bang — completely false. The production and absorption of primeval photons as the first stable nuclei formed can be accurately modeled using well established theories of quantum and atomic physics.

Aside from the corrections noted above, the primary flaw in the title thesis is two-fold. Mystery does not mean mythology. That’s a conflation made by everyone form creationists to climate change skeptics, which also happens to be a logical fallacy so basic it was known to the ancient Greeks. Secondly, mythologies tend to be be untestable even in principle. Undefined magic can explain away anything, and thus it explains nothing.

For me the most glaring difference in our day-to-day lives between magic and science, religion vs observation, whatever you want to call it, has to do with the consequences drawn by followers of magic and foisted onto the rest of us. There is no decree in cosmology that one has to believe in the Big Bang, no sectarian violence between followers of Steady State or Inflation, no curse in life or eternal damnation in an afterlife managed by deities. And certainly no church of cosmology where everyday people are guilted into donating a chunk of their ever shrinking hard-earned money to the scientists-priest.

10 comments

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  1. 1
    ogremk5

    I’m discussing the Big Bang right now with a guy. His claim is that because scientists say it was an explosion that it can only cause disorder.

    I’ve promised to discuss his appalling views on entropy later, but I keep asking him if there was an explosion, then what exploded.

    He initially said it was a nuclear explosion… then I explained to him the observable history of the early universe and the knowledge of physics that allows us to works backwards and the very simple proposition that atoms didn’t even exist until well after the Big Bang.

  2. 2
    New England Bob

    Mystery does not mean mythology.

    This is the key. Too many people do not understand this and it’s cousin “Mystery does not mean supernatural/god”.

  3. 3
    Stephen "DarkSyde" Andrew

    Haha, Good luck with that Ogrem!

  4. 4
    mechanoid

    No idea what the universe is expanding into — true;

    Umm… not true at all. My understanding is that the premise itself is nonsensical.

    This statement reminds me of the common question “what happened before the big bang?” Nothing came before as the big bang was an explosion (poor metaphor) of time and space.

    Asking what the universe is expanding into presupposes some kind of external space to expand into. Spacetime itself is expanding.

    As a poor analogy, consider that the container itself is expanding, rather than the stuff that fills it.

    I’ve found Ethan’s blog “Starts With A Bang” extremely helpful in trying to grok this stuff:
    What Makes the Universe Expand?

  5. 5
    Stephen "DarkSyde" Andrew

    While it’s correct that space-time is expanding and there is some reason to believe in other island universes, the fact is there’s no consensus on how those universe are arranged, what kind of structure it is all embedded in, or if there’s a structure of any kind. Ergo I think it’s fair to call that one true.

  6. 6
    RW Ahrens

    The worst thing I see in his argument is that, somehow, not knowing is bad.

    Quite the contrary, not knowing is good, since it gives us something to examine, theorize about, argue over, and continue to observe.

    Whether he is right or wrong as to what we know or don’t know doesn’t give him any ammunition towards proving anything at all.

  7. 7
    Robert B.

    I have some troubles with the testability of string theory. Though it can be tested, it can’t be tested yet, or indeed anytime soon, despite having been around for a while now and having quite a lot of people work on it. That’s a lot of thinking without much data. And there’s so many string theories, and such a huge parameter space, that it could potentially take a huge amount of data to debunk it if it’s wrong. Both of those make it epistemologically dubious, by the standards of science.

    As suspicious as that is, though, it would be a staggering misrepresentation (or hyperbole, depending on context) to describe string theory as being like mythology. First of all, string theory is consistent with everything we already know, which mythology isn’t. Second, string theory is testable in principle, as opposed to mythology which is “untestable” in the way where we’ve agreed not to count all the bazillions of tests we know it has failed or would fail. Thirdly, string theory was invented with mathematics and reasoning from evidence, while mythology was invented by making up cool stories. The latter, while a vital human pursuit, is not a way to get at the truth of factual matters.

  8. 8
    sunsangnim

    Wow. These guys are getting lazy. “There are things scientists don’t know, therefore Goddidit” doesn’t even begin to advance an actual argument, but rather shut down the debate before it even starts. But then again, I guess that’s the point. I think it’s the same tactic taken by climate deniers. Rather than counter any scientific argument, it’s easier to exploit any unknowns in the theory (or exaggerate any internal disagreements among scientists) to suggest scientists don’t know what they’re talking about, thus the whole theory is wrong.

  9. 9
    scenario

    Is string theory really at the stage where we can call it a theory? Isn’t it really the string hypothesis until we get more evidence? People already don’t understand what the word theory means in science. Is string theory a good use for the word theory?

  10. 10
    New England Bob

    String theory is a theory. Something does not have to be proven true to be a theory. Creationism is a theory and it has been falsified.

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