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How Consensus Can Blind Science


The ruins of Mayan civilization impress anyone who visits. For Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb, they spoke to him about the philosophy of science then and now. Recounting his experience for Nature, he describes the questions that came to his mind:

This summer, I visited the Mayan city of Chichén Itzá in the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. It has an ancient observatory where priest-astronomers made detailed astronomical observations around AD 600-1200. The ruins — stepped pyramids, temples, columned arcades and other stone structures — reveal that astronomy was at the heart of this sophisticated society.

The Mayans accurately tracked changes in the positions and relative brightness of the Sun, Moon, planets and stars. They documented their astronomical data in folding books called codices, with many more quantitative details than other civilizations at the time. The priest-astronomers used observations and advanced mathematical calculations to predict eclipses, and devised a 365-day solar calendar that was off by just one month every 100 years.

So why, I wondered, didn’t the Mayans go further and infer aspects of our modern understanding of astronomy? They determined the orbital periods of Venus, Mars and Mercury around the Sun, but Earth was at the centre of their Universe. [Emphasis added.]

Dr. Loeb knows he is a leading figure in today’s consensus views in astronomy and cosmology. But unlike some others in his profession, he did not merely dismiss the Mayan achievements as works of a backward people lost in religious superstition. Turning his contemplations inward, he asked, “Have we learned our lesson, or is today’s science similarly trapped by cultural and societal forces?”

Loeb pondered how the Mayans’ detailed calculations were used to support a civilization that engaged in human sacrifice and planned warfare by the stars. “I came to appreciate how limiting prevailing world views can be,” he says. In their day, Mayan astronomers were held in high social esteem. So are today’s astronomers. Loeb thought about how “Cosmologists today collect vast amounts of exquisite data in surveys of large parts of the sky, costing billions of dollars.” But Good data are not enough, he realized.

What might have helped the Mayans break out of the box of their prevailing world view? He hit upon a solution that should be of great interest to the intelligent design community.

The consequences of a closed scientific culture are wasted resources and misguided ‘progress’ — witness the dead end that was Soviet evolutionary biology. To truly move forward, free thought must be encouraged outside the mainstream. Multiple interpretations of existing data and alternative motivations for collecting new data must be supported.

We hasten to clarify that so far as we know, Dr. Loeb is not an advocate of intelligent design, even though he has proposed a design inference for SETI. His advice, though, harks back to Darwin’s own admonition: “A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.” The question in Darwin’s day was design v. naturalism, as it is today. When it comes to origins, there aren’t any other options. Either the universe is designed, or it is not. Would it not be limiting to the prevailing world view to assert that naturalism is the only side of the question?

Loeb gives a brief catalog of massive projects being funded by NASA and ESA. But then he gives a Kuhnian view of these efforts. Today’s astronomers and cosmologists work within a paradigm as members of a guild who cannot see outside their project. Anomalies do not alarm them, as they should. Instead, they focus their attention of puzzle-solving to establish the paradigm — not to overthrow it.

Such projects have a narrow aim — pinning down the parameters of one theoretical model. The model comprises an expanding Universe composed of dark matter, dark energy and normal matter (from which stars, planets and people are made), with initial conditions dictated by an early phase of rapid expansion called cosmic inflation. The data are reduced to a few numbers. Surprises in the rest are tossed away.

I noticed this bias recently while assessing a PhD thesis. The student was asked to test whether a data set from a large cosmological survey was in line with the standard cosmological model. But when a discrepancy was found, the student’s goal shifted to explaining why the data set was incomplete. In such a culture, the current model can never be ruled out, even though everyone knows that its major constituents (dark matter, dark energy and inflation) are not understood at a fundamental level.

He’s absolutely right; in recent news reports, dark matter remains as mysterious as ever. Astronomers have leapfrogged from WIMPs to MACHOs to axions, finding no evidence for any of them, despite expensive searches with super-sensitive detectors. Perhaps a candidate particle will turn up some day, but without empirical evidence, have physicists improved on Mayan divination? Dark energy is even more mysterious. Nobody has any idea what that is. And there’s more darkness:

How each culture views the Universe is guided by its beliefs in, for example, mathematical beauty or the structure of reality. If these ideas are deeply rooted, people tend to interpret all data as supportive of them — adding parameters or performing mathematical gymnastics to force the fit. Recall how the belief that the Sun moves around Earth led to the mathematically beautiful (and incorrect) theory of epicycles advocated by the ancient Greek philosopher Ptolemy.

Similarly, modern cosmology is augmented by unsubstantiated, mathematically sophisticated ideas — of the multiverse, anthropic reasoning and string theory. The multiverse idea postulates the existence of numerous other regions of space-time, to which we have no access and in which the cosmological parameters have different values.

We can become “blinded by beauty” that keeps us attracted to our own beliefs. Loeb mentions some paradoxes in cosmology that hint the consensus is on the wrong track. Modern cosmology is not knowledge, he says; it is organized ignorance! Only openness to other approaches can help reveal the extent of it.

Cultivating other approaches avoids stalling progress by investing only in chasing what might turn out to be ‘epicycles’. After all, the standard model of cosmology is merely a precise account of our ignorance: we do not understand the nature of inflation, dark matter or dark energy. The model has difficulties accounting for the luminous gas and stars that we can see in galaxies, while leaving invisible what we can easily calculate (dark matter and dark energy). This state of affairs is clearly unsatisfactory.

The only way to work out whether we are on the wrong path is to encourage competing interpretations of the known data.

ID proponents might take advantage of Loeb’s appeal in a way Paul Nelson relates in the new film Origin:

Often, when I’m reading the origin-of-life literature, considering some proposal for the formation, let’s say, of RNA or proteins — and even the author admits it’s chemically implausible — and I ask myself, How did he get himself into this jam?…

And at that impasse I want to say to the author, Look you know it’s implausible, I know it’s implausible, the reason that you ended up here standing at the edge of this cliff staring at implausibility is because way back down the road you decided that only a materialist explanation would work.

Dr. Timothy Standish adds:

How many different explanations that fail within the materialistic box do we have to have before we decide, maybe we need to move outside of that box. Maybe we need another kind of explanation.

When it comes to cosmology, Dr. Loeb is painfully aware of implausibilities in the naturalistic box: dark matter, dark energy, inflation, the multiverse, and the Anthropic Principle. But he is not just standing at the cliff, staring at implausibility; he is welcoming new thinking outside the box. It’s an opportunity for a meaningful discussion of alternatives. And it was published in Nature, the world’s leading science journal.

A healthy dialogue between different points of view should be fostered through multidisciplinary conferences that discuss conceptual issues, not just experimental results and phenomenology. A diversity of views fosters healthy progress and prevents stagnation. In September, I had the privilege of founding an interdisciplinary centre, the Black Hole Initiative at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which brings together astronomers, physicists, mathematicians and philosophers. Our experience is that a mix of scholars with different vocabularies and comfort zones can cultivate innovation and research outside the box. Already the centre has prompted exciting insights on the reality of naked singularities in space-time, the prospects for imaging black-hole silhouettes and the information paradox.

The “information paradox” refers to the conservation of information in the case of black holes. Think about what ID has to offer the admittedly stagnant field of consensus cosmology:

  • Theory of information: its source and conservation
  • A cause to explain the fine-tuning of the universe (e.g., see New Scientist) without the “cop-out” of the Anthropic Principle (New Scientist)
  • Mathematics, as seen in Origin‘s probability calculations for the origin of life, the Universal Probability Bound, and the “No Free Lunch” theorems
  • Philosophy of science unlimited by naturalism
  • A different vocabulary and comfort zone
  • Research outside the box

Loeb concludes, “Such simple, off-the-shelf remedies [i.e., multidisciplinary conferences] could help us to avoid the scientific fate of the otherwise admirable Mayan civilization.” Would he extend his hand far enough to consider design? Perhaps not. But while the rise and fall of Mayan civilization is on his mind, leading him to ponder modern cosmology’s potential for worldview blindness, the time seems right to engage the discussion.

Photo: Observatory temple, Chichén Itzá, by Daniel Schwen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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