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.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

The perimeter of ignorance

In the past week, I watched two things that were interesting in juxtaposition.

One of them came my way because for my holiday gift my wife got me a subscription to Master Class, which has hundreds of online video classes on everything from political science to cooking.  I signed up for and watched a series of lectures by the eminent astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York City's Hayden Planetarium, on the scientific endeavor and how to think effectively about science and how to talk about it to others.

In his class, Dr. Tyson says the following:
The frontier of discovery is a messy place.  You don't know what the next step is, sometimes you don't even know what question to ask.  As the area of our knowledge grows, so too does the perimeter of our ignorance.  It's thrilling and scary at the same time...  The scientific method is whatever it takes to not fool yourself into thinking something is true that is not, or into thinking something is not true that is.  That pathway, it's not straight; it's curved, it has off-ramps to nowhere, and you don't know which of the paths in front of you are going to lead to the right place...  The cool thing about it is that nature is the ultimate judge, jury, and executioner.  You can argue all you want, but if nature disagrees with you, you're wrong.  If you care about critical thinking and science literacy, the degree to which you believe something is true should be proportional to the evidence that supports it.  If after all the experiments are done, there is convergence in a result, you have successfully winnowed out the effects of bias on that result.  No one is without bias -- just be ready to get your stuff checked.  And be ready to abandon your cherished thoughts and ideas in the face of conflicting evidence.
The other is the trailer to a video called Gods Among Us that was sent to me by a friend who is evidently trying to cause my brain to explode.  Here are a sampling of quotes (you can watch the trailer yourself if you dare, and want to know more about the context and sources, but I can promise you these were not cherry-picked to make the video sound ridiculous -- they all sound like this):
  • There are quite a few extraterrestrials walking around, humanoid ones, so we've got them walking amongst us.  You may just think they look like nice people, or they may feel a bit different to you, but they're there and you see them every day. 
  • How is it that these higher-dimensional energies can be brought down, can be downloaded, into our ordinary four-dimensional space-time experience?
  • There are thousands, possibility millions, out there leading these double lives.  They will lead us into telepathic abilities, they will lead us into being able to heal ourselves, even to being able to change our bodies.
  • The DNA in us can exist as a toroid.  It can be used as a tool to bring higher-dimensional energy into our physical bodies, convert it into electromagnetic fields that can then be used to convert the physiological and biochemical processes in us.
  • I was contacted by a being who said he was from the constellation of Orion.
  • You want to know what your DNA is?  It's 34% human, 28% tall white Zeta, and 38% Annunaki.  
The people interviewed seemed to fall into three categories: (1) researchers, all of whom seem somehow to have earned Ph.D.s; (2) people who claim to have been contacted by aliens; (3) people who claim to be human/alien hybrids themselves.  The whole thing was accompanied by music that sounds like it was rejected from Music From the Hearts of Space on the basis of being too ethereal.

Okay, I'm scoffing, but there's a serious point to be made here.  A number of claims in Gods Among Us are empirically testable.  I'm not referring to the eyewitness testimony of things like alien contact; as Dr. Tyson also points out, eyewitness testimony may be the highest standard of evidence in the court of law, but it's the lowest form of evidence in science.  "I saw it with my own eyes" is simply not enough in science.  We have far too many ways of getting it wrong to trust one person's word for something.

But there are many other kinds of statement in this video that could be tested.  DNA can become a toroid that funnels energy from outside of us into our bodies and changes our biochemistry?  Fine, demonstrate it in the lab.  There are beings who can communicate with you telepathically?  Set up a situation where they tell you something you couldn't have otherwise known, and have it verified by an independent researcher.  Over half of our DNA is extraterrestrial?  Sequence it and show me that it doesn't overlap, gene for gene, with 99% of the DNA from our nearest primate relatives (and in the 70-80% range with all other mammal species).

Oh, and you can't "be from a constellation."  A constellation is a random assemblage of stars sitting at wildly varying distances from the Earth that only appear to be near each other from our perspective.  Saying you're "from a constellation" makes about as much sense as someone asking you how to find your house, and your answering them, "You'll find it on the horizon."

One example of how a constellation would look from an altered perspective; the Big Dipper as seen after a ninety-degree rotation around the entire group

However, the most insidious problem with the people who make claims like these is their belief that mainstream science rejects their conclusions out of hand not because there's insufficient evidence, but because the claims contradict scientific orthodoxy.  They seem to think that scientists are sitting in this never-changing edifice they've built, and they'll fight you tooth and nail if you try to change one thing about it.  Contrast this to Dr. Tyson's statement about the scientific frontier; in science, you are always on the boundary between what is known and what is unknown.  Scientific orthodoxy changes every time we get a new body of evidence, which is all the time.  In fact, that's how scientific careers are made.  If there really was evidence of all the stuff Gods Among Us claims, the scientists would be trampling each other to death to be the first to publish it in a peer-reviewed journal.

Consider, as only one of many illustrative examples, how the theory of plate tectonics arose.  The belief -- the "scientific orthodoxy," if you will -- was that the Earth was static.  The continents stayed put.  Even if there were periodic events like earthquakes and volcanoes to shake things up, everything was more or less in the same place as it always had been.

Why, in fact, would you think the opposite?  A static Earth seemed common sense.  How could continents move in solid rock?

But in the 50s and 60s, the evidence from a variety of sources -- where exactly volcanoes and earthquakes took place, the position and age of hotspot island chains like Hawaii, the contours of Africa and South America, the fossil record, and (most importantly) the evidence from magnetometer readings near the Mid-Atlantic Ridge -- had piled up to the extent that there was no choice but to overturn our understanding of how geology worked.  In other words, faced with hard, verifiable, repeatable scientific research, the "scientific orthodoxy" had to change drastically.  And far from being suppressed by the scientific establishment, this put rocket fuel into the careers of the first geologists who wrote a paper about it -- Frederick Vine and Drummond Matthews -- and today, they're in every introduction-to-geology textbook written.

So if there was demonstrable evidence that over 50% of our DNA came from a non-terrestrial source?  That's Nobel-Prize-material, right there.

Could the people in Gods Among Us be right?  I suppose so.  But thus far they have not met the minimum threshold of evidence that it would take to convince anyone who wasn't already convinced.  I'll end with a quote from another physicist, Richard Feynman, which seems particularly apposite here: "The first principle of science is that you must not fool yourself.  And you are the easiest person to fool."


Neil deGrasse Tyson has become deservedly famous for his efforts to bring the latest findings of astronomers and astrophysicists to laypeople.  Not only has he given hundreds of public talks on everything from the Big Bang to UFOs, a couple of years ago he launched (and hosted) an updated reboot of Carl Sagan's wildly successful 1980 series Cosmos.

He has also communicated his vision through his writing, and this week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week is his 2019 Letters From an Astrophysicist.  A public figure like Tyson gets inundated with correspondence, and Tyson's drive to teach and inspire has impelled him to answer many of them personally (however arduous it may seem to those of us who struggle to keep up with a dozen emails!).  In Letters, he has selected 101 of his most intriguing pieces of correspondence, along with his answers to each -- in the process creating a book that is a testimony to his intelligence, his sense of humor, his passion as a scientist, and his commitment to inquiry.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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