Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Ignorance, evolution, and space weather

Self-awareness is tragically uncommon amongst humans.

There are lots of kinds of self-awareness, and I suspect that none of them are abundant; but here, I'm thinking in particular of the kind of self-awareness that involves an understanding of what you don't know.  Ignorance, per se, is not something to be ashamed of; it is simply something to correct.  Ignorance only becomes a problem when you are unaware that you are ignorant -- and then trumpet your views to the world as if they had the same relevance as those of someone who actually understands the topic being discussed.

I find this problem to be especially bad in the realm of politics, where everyone seems to feel the need to have an opinion about everything, despite the problem that many of those opinions are entirely unencumbered by facts.  But given that this is a touchy subject for many, and one that I myself am admittedly ignorant on, let's turn to a different and (hopefully) less controversial example.

A friend of mine sent me a link yesterday to the webpage of one Susan Joy Rennison.  Ms. Rennison begins her homepage thusly:
This website keeps online some of my research about the new phenomena of space weather driving massive evolutionary change. When I wrote my book Tuning the Diamonds: Electromagnetism & Spiritual Evolution, I was well ahead of the curve. I realised that Modern Mayan Elders were trying to point out that the citizens of planet Earth were entering a New Age dominated by aether or space, and the basic premise of my book was that the dramatic increase and impact of Space Weather was the predicted arrival.
We are put on notice that she is perhaps not a pinnacle of self-awareness a little further along, wherein she states:
Please note: I am NOT a New Ager and this is NOT a New Age website. Please read my Joyfire Philosophy webpage and my essay Spiritual Evolution in the Cultic Milieu, where I make it very clear that not every Seeker in the Cultic Milieu is a New Ager and thus steeped in certain New Age beliefs.
Ah.  So, you think that the Mayan Elders are ushering us into a "New Age dominated by aether or space," but you're not a New Ager.  Thanks, it all becomes clear, now.

Anyhow, Ms. Rennison's lack of awareness of her own ignorance is demonstrated fairly graphically when she starts blathering about solar weather, geomagnetic storms, and their significance to... evolution.  Yes, she seems to think that space weather is causing evolution.  No, I'm not making this up.  To wit (this is a bit of a long quote, but worth reading):
In September 2008, NASA announced that the inhabitants of Earth will be exposed to significantly more cosmic and galactic radiation, as part of a long term trend that started in the mid 1990s. The new phenomena of Space Weather, is the bombardment of Earth by solar, cosmic and galactic energy now causing concern to government agencies, satellite communication manufacturers and the power supply industry. Yet, the September 2008 announcement by NASA, that our planet is now being flooded by galactic cosmic rays as part of a long term trend that started in the mid 1990s, was even more startingly [sic], as scientists speculate that the shielding around our solar system might 'evaporate'.

On January 5th 2009, a press release about a NASA funded study stated that severe space weather will have “an impact” on humans, after years of only stressing the impact on technological systems. As galactic cosmic radiation floods our planet, this will most certainly cause an increase in DNA mutations and therefore generate evolutionary change. Certainly, environmental signals are now being affected by fluctuating geomagnetic signals, which humans use to maintain balance.

Whatever, as the shield around our solar system provided by the solar wind continues to drop, as the Earth's magnetic field also continues to drop, with the December 2008 announcements of recent evidence that current magnetic configurations are generating massive breaches that will permit stronger geomagnetic storms in the future and the ionosphere has also contracted permitting more radiation to reach the ground, there can be no denial that all life on Earth will be greatly influenced by new cosmic conditions. My book, Tuning the Diamonds: Electromagnetism & Spiritual Evolution explains the myriad of effects, including the spiritual and evolutionary implications of this high energy bombardment. The Human Genome Project that cost 2.7 billion dollars over 13 years revealed that our DNA is actually 'tuned' by the environment and our consciousness. Therefore, I hope the many recent announcements from the Space community will propel many in the alternative and mainstream world to consider how well placed they are to co-operate with this evolutionary impetus.
Well, now.  Where do I begin?  Here's a list of the errors I found in this passage, without even trying hard:

1.  "Space weather" is nothing new.  All of the indications we have are that solar storms, solar flares, and coronal mass ejections have been going on for millennia.  Yes, the incidence of such violent solar events waxes and wanes, for reasons that are poorly understood; but they seem to have relatively little effect on the Earth, causing minor problems for communications networks but otherwise not doing a hell of a lot except for creating impressive auroras.

2.  Humans do not use "geomagnetic signals" to maintain balance.  Balance is maintained by the fluid pressure in the semicircular canals, a structure in our inner ears that works a little like a carpenter's level.

3.  The shielding around our solar system is not "evaporating."  To be honest, I don't even know what the hell that means.  I can only think that she's referring to the heliopause, the point outside the solar system where the solar wind finally is slowed to zero by contact with interstellar material.  But this point is not some kind of Star Trek-style "shield" that's keeping cosmic bad stuff from hitting us, and there's no evidence whatsoever that it's somehow contracting.

4.  Evolution is not speeding up because of "galactic cosmic rays."  Yes, cosmic rays do cause mutations, but so do naturally-occurring radiation from radioactive minerals, and chemical mutagens (both natural and artificial) in the environment.  The speed of evolution is far more sensitive to the amount of selective pressure than it is to the amount of mutations in any case; and since most mutations are deleterious, an increased mutation rate (should it occur) would cause more cases of cancer than it would some kind of burst of evolution.

5.  The Human Genome Project said nothing about DNA being "tuned by the environment and our consciousness."  This statement makes me wonder if Ms. Rennison actually has any background in science at all, or, perhaps, is simply incapable of reading a press release.

Okay, so I guess I've hacked enough at the poor woman's webpage for now.  My point in going through all of this is not simply to poke at another New Ager -- heaven knows, those are a dime-a-dozen, and if I started to analyze every one of them I'd never be done.  My main point here is that it is as critical to be aware of what you don't understand as it is to be aware of what you do.  There are many areas in which my knowledge is significantly lacking, but I try my hardest not to pontificate on those topics as if I actually knew what I was talking about.  And if it's an area in which I feel that I should be more knowledgeable, I work to rectify that gap -- because, after all, ignorance is correctable.

It puts me in mind of a conversation I had with my dad when I was perhaps ten years old.  He was talking about a man we knew, and he said the man was ignorant, and then amended his comment to state that the man was actually stupid.  I asked my dad what the difference was.

"Stupidity is willful ignorance," he said.  I said I still didn't understand.

My dad looked thoughtful for a moment.  "Ignorance is only skin deep," he finally said.  "Stupidity goes all the way to the bone."


  1. Stupidity and ignorance aren't the only factors with which we must contend.

    -Those who know they are full of shit, but their BS puts food on the table and provides socially standing. (Must be rough to live your life on top of a house of cards... To each their own).

    -There is no shortage of people who feel socially inept, outcast, or without a "group". In order to gain acceptance, people subscribe themselves to all sorts of silly modalities. Once they've lied in the bed they've made, they refuse to get out and instead pull the covers up more and more until they are enveloped. Once they go off the deep end they are too afraid to admit that they had a lapse in judgement, and instead double down on their brand of crazy. Fast forward into the future and they've quintuple-downed and it's now "their thing."

    People are capable of deciding they like something (exclusive from actually liking something). There are plenty of decisive people who, once they've made their minds up that "crystal energy" exists, can't be told otherwise. Not necessarily because they actually believe it, but because they've made up their mind that they believe it.

    This woman doubled down on space weather having a profound effect on life on Earth. If she merely liked this idea because of preconceived notions or an incomplete data set, it should be easy to correct... but we can make some pretty good bets that she wouldn't change course in spite of overwhelming evidence.

    "Too late to turn back now, I'm all in" people say to themselves. If people weren't so afraid of fall-out, I think we'd see a lot more people abandoning ill-conceived notions.

    That's what makes science so great. Advanced schooling goes along way to help people to remain objective as they explore the unknown for answers. Sure, scientists put their time, effort, and a bit of themselves into their work. But they are also acutely aware that a peer review will find out whether they just like a concept... or whether it's actually true.

  2. The irony of Gordon criticising SJR is a beautiful, if disturbing, thing. His accusations reveal that he has neither read the relevant sections of "Tuning the Diamonds", nor followed the copious links that Susan Joy provides when referencing her work.

    Susan Joy Rennison deserves careful attention from anyone capable of careful attention.