Today one of my students told me about an astronomical discovery I had not heard about; the perfect hexagon at the north pole of Saturn. (For some nifty photos both of the feature itself, and of its scientific explanation, go here.) Regular polygons are rather uncommon in nature, and this one has been a mystery for some time; it was finally explained this year. The long and the short of it is, the hexagon is a pattern generated by turbulent fluid flow in a rotating system, as has been demonstrated by elegant experiments using fluorescent green dye in a spinning cylinder of water. Yet another example of how beautiful, and how ultimately understandable, the patterns of nature are.
Of course, you can predict how little this explanation would appeal to the more woo-woo-minded among us. In particular, someone whose name will be familiar to regular readers of this blog has weighed in on the Saturn hexagon, and found it to be attributable to...
... wait for it...
... the same phenomenon that generates crop circles.
At this point, the name "Richard C. Hoagland" should be jumping to mind. Yes, the same guy who thinks that an ancient civilization on Mars constructed the "giant Martian face" (a minor problem with this theory is that the face doesn't actually exist). Yes, the same guy who thinks that there's something special about 19.5 degrees north and south latitude because "that is the point of intersection between a tetrahedron and a sphere." Yes, the same guy who started the whole NASA-faked-the-moon-landing thing. Yes, the same guy who apparently has three quarters of a pound of LaffyTaffy where most of us have a brain.
I find it doubly appalling that people actually believe his theories. First, because they generate sites like this (and I give the link only only on the condition that you'll solemnly swear not to believe anything on the website). As an aside, however, I must say that I do enjoy the website's name: "Hyperdimensional Physics in English Crop Pictures: Extra-terrestrial Support for Quantum Gravity and the Theories of Richard C. Hoagland?" I suspect that this name was chosen by narrowly edging out the next most sensible title that the authors came up with, which was "Woogie Woogie Woogie Pfththtptptptptppt."
So, problem one is that Hoagland's theories are misleading people, somehow giving them a false idea of how the world works. True, it's hard to see how anyone whose IQ exceeds his shoe size would be convinced by Hoagland and his ilk, but the fact remains that although he is claiming knowledge on a subject about which he clearly knows nothing, and advocating a theory for which the evidential support is nonexistent, there are evidently folks who buy his ideas. But this is not the only reason that people like him get under my skin.
Problem two is that they are peddling a worldview that belittles science, which remains our finest tool for understanding the universe. They make claims to a wonderful, secret understanding, that science cannot reach, or (worse still) deliberately hides from us. They create a mystical schema, in which we are either mindless sheep or courageous rebels, either swallowing the narrow, restrictive view of science, or expanding our minds into the ethereal realms of crystals, auras, crop circles, and the like.
The worst part of all this is that they are, fundamentally, hypocrites. Hoagland et al. have no qualms about trusting medical science with their care when they fall ill and trusting engineering with their lives when they fly. But they cynically accuse the scientific establishment of hiding the truth, or of outright falsification, when what science says conflicts with their crazy concept of how the universe works.
I shouldn't let it bother me, and should console myself with the surmise that there probably aren't that many people who believe Hoagland. But then I start thinking about all of the other nutty things that people believe, and I start to despair again.
A skeptophile's job, it would seem, is never done.