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Honey I shrunk my mind…or the unusual joy of pseudo-science. August 31, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in H.P. Lovecraft, Pseudo-Science, Science, Science Fiction, Skepticism, Uncategorized.

Put something about pseudo-science in front of me and I’ll read it avidly. UFO’s, ancient civilisations, paranormal phenomena, I love ’em all and believe not a word. Partly it’s because it would be great if there were real evidence of contact with aliens, partly because there’s a sort of allure about ancient knowledge, partly because it’s always interesting to discover what people believe in and why. The psychology of belief and (seeming) experience is remarkable. Maybe it’s also because science is at its best when it’s tested . No methodological framework is beyond testing, but it has to be said science seems to hold up fairly well.

Anyhow I like to flatter myself that I’ve heard it all, evidence that the moon landings were a hoax, evidence of alien activities on the moon and Mars, alien landings, the Nephilim as progenitors of civilisation (actually that one is great because if you have even a nodding acquaintance to the Fields of the Nephilim you can use them as the soundtrack to your browsing – ignoring the Lovecraftian nonsense on the second and third albums, like you base your lyrics on an invented mythos by a writer of early 20th century horror, natch!).

But no. I was wrong, I really haven’t heard it all.

Ever heard of the Expanding Earth hypothesis? I hadn’t until about a week ago. That’s the one where people have looked at the shape of the continents and decided that while they interlock quite well, it requires an Earth some 40% smaller in order for them to interlock perfectly. And the added bonus is an even more intriguing theory. That gravity was once much lesser than it is now and that was what allowed the dinosaurs to grow to such great sizes because as any fule kno’s they couldn’t possibly have stood upright under the prevailing gravity.

Exciting stuff I think you’ll agree. There are unfortunately problems of course. Foremost amongst them is the slight inconvenience that there is no evidence that the Earth has expanded. For example such expansion would have seriously impacted on the orbit of the Moon and so we could hope to see some evidence there. The motive force behind such an expansion doesn’t appear to exist. Nor do we see any evidence that other planets expand in such a fashion.

The gravity problem is even greater. A better argument could be made that for the gravity to be lower in the past the Earth would need to be larger and therefore we live on a shrinking Earth! I won’t even go into the biology of just why most scientists in the field are reasonably content that dinosaurs could stand up on their own (usually) four feet.

Earlier this year I was at a talk about themes in science fiction and fantasy where a guy called James P Hogan who has had a career as a fairly successful writer of mainstream SF, was part of a panel talking about mythological creatures. He brought it around to his favourite issue which is that of ‘catastrophist’ theory, basically the idea that there have been cataclysmic events on Earth and in the Solar System within historical time. Some of these are attributed to Venus being a sort of comet expelled by Saturn or Jupiter in the last 3000 years or so (much of this was first suggested by Immanuel Velikovsky, a Russian emigre in the US) which blundered about the inner solar system causing amongst other events, the Biblical plagues, floods, earthquakes, and sundry other unpleasant events. For more see here.
He too believes in the lower gravity/bigger dinosaur hypothesis. But wait…that’s not all. He believes that science is trammelled by adherence to an orthodoxy perpetuated by scientists too blinkered to look outside their own narrow disciplines and afraid of fitting the facts to their theories.
My problem with all of this is that, as with the expanding earth concept, it’s very much a case of look at the facts then attempt to find the most extreme, albeit (and this is significant) entertaining and conceptually extravagant, possible cause to explain them.

Hogan is a pleasant character and clearly extremely intelligent, so it’s difficult to understand quite why he believes this stuff. However a visit to his website suggests that he’s shifting into darker territory since he now proclaims his belief in the ‘theories’ of those who cast doubt on the veracity of the Holocaust such as Arthur Butz and Mark Weber and he says that ‘…I find their case more scholarly, scientific, and convincing than what the history written by the victors says. So I suppose that expressing such skepticism makes me a guilty party too.’

Hogan, who is basically a libertarian and absolutely not an anti-semite, is presumably coming at this from the position of a free-thinking slayer of scientific shibboleths and perhaps a belief in freedom of speech. Well and good, or no, not so well and good. It’s hard not to feel that too great a detachment from the tedious old mainstream can lead intellectually to some very unusual places indeed.

Unfortunately there’s more than a trace of the old GK Chesterton saw ‘When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing—they believe in anything.’

Substitute a sensible scepticism for God…and – well – you get the idea.

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