Reality Conditions

Sunday, February 05, 2006

On the Manifold Stupidity of Mr. George Deutsch

If you read some of the blogs on my sidebar, such as Cosmic Variance, Pharyngula or Bad Astronomy Blog, you will already know by now of the most recent attack on science by the Bush Administration, which is at least an order of magnitude more egregious than previous ones. George Deutsch, who has been given the position of NASA public relations officer at the young age of 24 and after an experience record large on pro-Republican propaganda and short on science, issued a memo to a Web designer hired by the NASA saying that the word "theory" should be added before every mention of the Big Bang. Now of course the Big Bang theory is a theory, so there should not be cause for quarreling there, except for the reasons given for the recommendation:

'The Big Bang is "not proven fact; it is opinion," Mr. Deutsch wrote, adding, "It is not NASA's place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator." '

There are so many stupid things in this couple of sentences that I don't know where to start. Let's try to give them in order:

1) "Theory" in science does not mean "opinion"; in fact they are almost opposites. A theory is a wide-ranging system of propositions that explains some features of the world, making testable predictions. Theories that are accepted by the scientific community are so because they have a large body of evidence supporting them and no serious competing theory for explaining the same evidence. A theory can be also a fact, and Big Bang is both (as well as evolution, relativity, and even the non-flatness of the Earth). Scientists have been saying this for decades to creationists that tirelessly parrot "Evolution is just a theory!", so ignoring this marks Mr. Deutsch as a first-class ignoramus already.

2) In science (outside of mathematics and logic) there are no "proven facts". There are theories well-supported by the evidence, and if the evidence is huge and there is no competitor theory, we are justified in considering the theory true and equating it with a fact. Big Bang, just as non-flatness of the Earth, satisfies this.

3) The Big Bang theory asserts that the Universe was much hotter and dense in the past, and it expanded and cooled to its present state. It does not conflict at all with the existence of a creator. In fact the ironic thing is that it is more consistent with a creator than what was its main competitor during decades, the "Steady State theory", in which the universe is eternal and the same at all times. This theory has been refuted, and if one extrapolates the conventional Big Bang theory to its logical conclusion one arrives at a single instant of creation of the universe, in which it was infinitely hot and dense (a singularity). Most cosmologists believe that once quantum effects are properly taken into account it will be shown that there is no singularity, and most speculative models to extend the theory "beyond the singularity" do not contain a moment of creation but some form of an infinite past. But in absence of a reliable theory of quantum gravity, the conventional theory which ignores quantum effects does include a "moment of creation", and so is very compatible with (although of course does not entail) the existence of a creator.

4) So, the only way the Big Bang theory can be in any conflict with religion is if the religion is a literalist reading of Scripture in which the universe was created in six days a few thousand years ago. That someone with this kind of belief (which flatly contradicts the evidence amassed by history, archeology, geology, paleontology, biology, astrophysics, astronomy and cosmology, among other sciences) could be appointed to any position within a scientific organization such as the NASA leaves one speechless.

5) The "Intelligent Design" movement is officially based on the proposition that mechanistic evolution is insufficient for bringing about the appearance of complex biological forms, and that a "Designer" needs to be posited to account for this. Of course they are wrong, but that is not the issue today. The issue is that ID per se has no quarrel with the Big Bang theory. ID is supposed not to be Biblical literalism, but a "scientific" theory based on "biological evidence". Of course the great mass of ID supporters defend it because they interpret it as revindicating the Bible against Darwin, and very likely that is the intention of the leaders of the movement as well; but officially ID proclaims to be independent of any kind of Creationism. So given that as we saw Big Bang denial can only mean biblical literalism, by using the words "intelligent design" as the alternative Deutsch has shown that he does not understand even what ID tries to appear to be, and that he is helping to give the show away.

The scientific blogosphere has been unanimous in its condemnation of Deutsch's words (you go to the linked post at Cosmic Variance to find links to more comments). I am intrigued to see if Lubos Motl, one of the few science bloggers who is an outspoken Bush supporter, will have any comments on the subject.

UPDATE: Here is comprehensive list of blogs commenting on this subject.


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