I have a friend who’s a medical professional, but is incredibly skeptical about a wide variety of scientific topics, physics in particular. He doesn’t believe a word I tell him about anything to do with physics, from the equivalence between mass and energy to the power output of the sun. He doesn’t believe, for instance, that light is composed of photons. When I press onward, trying to establish a baseline of mutual understanding between us, digging for a common denominator, he will eventually relent that “of course the moon causes the tides!” or “of course the sun burns hydrogen!”, then look at me as if I’m an idiot. Yet this same person will believe the most ridiculous fishing anecdotes that you can possibly imagine. He’s a self-described skeptic, and for the life of me, I can never isolate the boundaries of his skepticism. But it is fun trying. Sometimes it’s difficult to resist the obvious temptation: “no, the sun actually burns coal…”.

During the course of releasing my book, which contains a number of new physics ideas, clouds of skepticism have enfolded me like a weather pattern. Remarks such as “I’m too skeptical to read something like that” or “I’m skeptical about anything that the scientists don’t agree with” are common. I’m left with the nagging suspicion that most skeptics don’t really know what it means to be a skeptic. Or, to quote the wonderful movie The Princess Bride, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means…”. The ‘skeptics’ that I’ve met seem to treat it like fashion, where they are free to choose, for no apparent reason, the subjects to which their skepticism can be liberally applied.

I am guilty of this as well, but I like to think that I reserve it for extreme examples. If I get an email from someone claiming to have been Werner Heisenberg’s confident, and who has secret knowledge of the inner workings of Area 51, I tend to be a little skeptical. If, however, someone thinks that they can produce a photovoltaic cell with an efficiency of 30%, I’ll listen for a while, trying to determine if what they say makes sense, regardless of their background. Skepticism is a powerful tool, but only if you use it for the purpose for which it was originally intended. It is not a shield that protects ignorance; it is a looking glass that promotes introspection. If what you believe can’t survive a few playful, penetrating questions, perhaps there’s something wrong with it. If there are topics that are, because of their nature, simply beyond question, or if you think consensus constitutes evidence and won’t ask questions if other people seem convinced, you might not be a skeptic after all. If you’re the only one in the room asking questions, you probably are a skeptic. True skeptics are a definite minority.

It is with no small amusement or irony that, by releasing my book, I’ve incurred the gestalt wraith of thousands of would-be ‘skeptics’ across the globe. The reason I wrote the book, after all, is because I am a skeptic. If you tell me something that isn’t entirely evident or seems a little odd, I will be asking questions. In some cases, lots and lots of questions. If you tell me the universe came from a primordial fireball 13.7 billion years ago, I’m going to keep asking questions until this story makes sense, and your answers don’t carry more weight just because you are the world’s leading cosmologist and believe in them with all your heart. Regardless of how artfully and strenuously we try to dodge the universe’s inevitable and immutable nature; regardless of how heroic our mathematics or strained our interpretations, logical consistency continues to matter, because it is the glue from which comprehension emerges. A lie told a thousand times might seem more believable than the truth, but only if you’re not a skeptic, and repetition doesn’t make it any truer.

So when the physicists tell you that the universe “doesn’t need to be rational” or “has nothing to do with common sense” or “your question is meaningless”, little bells should be going off in your head. I’m not saying that you need to treat modern cosmology like a scam, but it helps.

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6 Responses to “Skepticism”

  1. Gary R. LoCascio Says:

    It is a most interesting concept, among many. Since I believe in God I believe He can do anything and creat anything any way He Chooses. And if He allows man to understand the nature of the universe that is His choice. If He chooses not to let man understand the makeup of the universe, then man never will. We shall see, I guess.

  2. Benoit Richard Says:

    Dear Blogger
    I just want to point at an intuition that is growing truer than ever. I was always skeptic about the Big Bang, I did some reading… and when I heard that the very expression comes from a joke by Fred Hoyle it made me laughed hard. I went deeper and began to read about Lemaître, a priest (hum!) who forged the primal idea but and this is where it is becoming interesting, he had to censored his first intuition with the constraint of the 2nd law of thermodynamic. So, as a good school boy I went even deeper and had a look at the second law. Wow! are we going to look like a bunch of fools, the next generation (if we make it) will regard this era as the sheep science. Sorry folks but the second law is flawed , there is no such thing as an isolated system in nature. We will have to do our homework again. “Give me movement I will give you a difference of temperature, give me a difference of temperature I will give you movement “. Sadi Carnot (the father of thermodynamics’ ideas). This simple little sentence speak of it all, put the solid, liquid and gaz phase of the Greek thinkers in this ever moving universe and your geometrical universe has a truer sensuality than with the static universe that we think it is there to be described. We live in a growing universe that is becoming more complex as more possibilities is allowed (the solid phase is a recent emerging phase in the universe and its anchorage properties has triggered new possibilities) not simpler as the 2nd law would have us believed. I leave it to your intuition to accept that doubt is the primal flexible force behind science and when convince (rigid) people happen to have access to the podium we should all be aware that it is not because they are so sure of themselves that they must be right. History told us how we can easily fall in pits of beliefs and have a hard time coming out.

  3. ralfcis Says:

    I don’t think god is that dumb that he would have waited til now to draw the line on how much we are allowed to know. It would have been in his best interests to leave us in the Dark Ages then we’d all be equally blind. Each belief system has it’s own logical boundaries and it’s just rude to argue points outside of those boundaries. I’m sure if I argued woodland fairy beliefs on a Muslim website or science on a Christian website I’d be rightfully told to go peddle my ignorance elsewhere as should you, Gary. I’m not saying you can’t be religious and a scientist, I’m just saying scientists have the good sense to separate what they know from what they believe.

  4. jorl bort Says:

    Null Physics = provocative & inspirational.
    Looking forward to the journey … but have a simple little question … from whence comes Growth … if not from expansion ?

  5. ralfcis Says:

    Oh my god, I ‘m going to continue in on Gary (and religion in general) even though it’s just plain wrong to do so in this forum.
    So the image I get from Gary is that god is some sort of zookeeper that stuffs meat into tubes to keep us bears occupied and challenged. Hence he wraps everything in mystery and controls how much we are allowed to know. In fact, from a religious perspective, we don’t need to know that much because it’s really the next world we should be concerned about. I mean this one’s kind of a wreck so even though god created it we should move on because there’s nothing to see here. I mean god would have provided more info on the physical world if it had been important. At least he could have told us the basics that we’re hurtling through space on a planet revolving around the sun. That’s why the Church was kind of worried when Copernicus came around because they thought that’s kind of a tidbit they should have been informed about. I mean the only science that even appears in the Bible is on page one. Strangely enough it looks pretty accurate.
    If you believe the universe is a physical medium to store information and that information and the math required to deploy it existed before the physical medium then indeed, “In the beginning was the Word.” The void, separation of light from dark, it’s all there. Then comes the creation of man and animals. I’m surprised Christians don’t embrace evolution as the tool of creation since god tends to wrap information in mystery to keep us occupied. I mean, there’s all kinds of animals appearing and disappearing, spontaneous mutation, and it seems to contradict the 2nd law of thermodynamics, one of the pillars of science itself. God has to keep some things working on a clockwork mechanism in order that he has time to answer our prayers for chocolate brownies or getting that next promotion.
    The next few pages prove Gary’s hypothesis 67%. He told man not to eat from the tree of knowledge but we did anyway so he couldn’t stop us there. This made him really afraid we’d eat from the tree of life and be like him so one point for god. But we kept coming back with the tower of babel which again he feared so the score is so far 2 to 1 for god. If the score had been 3 nothing I’d say yeah, he decides what we can know but that is clearly false.

  6. ralfcis Says:

    I stand corrected. I just found out that no matter how much energy we use to see beyond 10 to the -33 cm, a black hole will form from which no information can escape. It’s a mathematical fact. Hence much of string theory and big bang inception is beyond our reach. I guess cherubim with flaming swords do exist.

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