Beware the popularizers of modern cosmology

Charles Darwin was no media whore. For decades after devising his theory of evolution, he kept silent about it, for fear of the upheaval it would cause.

Even so, media whores would soon flock to Darwinism. Herbert Spencer was one. Some would say that Richard Dawkins was (and still is) another.

Dawkins strikes me as one of the better science popularizers of our time. But it has always bothered me that he has pursued celebrity status and all that comes with it by ridiculing people’s (presumably long-evolved and deep-rooted) need to believe in something transcendent, something that gives their lives a higher “meaning.”

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference. (from River Out of Eden)

Dawkins claims that this pitiless universe is a thing of beauty.

The world and the universe is an extremely beautiful place, and the more we understand about it the more beautiful does it appear.


There’s real poetry in the real world. Science is the poetry of reality.

But these are not summations of evidence. They are marketing slogans—spoonfuls of sugar to help the medicine go down. I can imagine Darwin, who nearly became an Anglican priest, finding them preposterous.

Mechanisms of “blind pitiless indifference” such as evolution may be elegant in a narrow, technical sense. Evolution certainly is streamlined; it has a neatly minimal set of core rules. But its results in the wild usually are the opposite of what we would call “humane.” Darwin, observing the extermination of South American aboriginals by Spanish settlers during his Beagle voyage, sensed that this was a sad and brutal instance of evolutionary selection.

Nietzsche perceived an analogous process of extermination taking place in the world of ideas. Darwinism and other new scientific revelations, he saw, were going to destroy one traditional religious or human-centric notion after another, ultimately leaving people little or nothing to believe in.

This worried him. Perhaps not just coincidentally, he went crazy.

And greater shocks to the old model of the universe were still to come, from physics and cosmology.

Einstein, with his two theories of Relativity, was the first to shake things up in the 20th century. But his impact on popular cosmology—our sense of the universe, its essential mechanisms, its expanse—was not all that great. His notions that time is sort of relative and space can sort of curve didn’t collide head-on with anyone’s religion. Einstein also compensated by seeming somehow spiritual himself, writing, for example, of a God (“the Old One”) who does not play dice.

Then came quantum mechanics, and its Copenhagen Interpretation, which was very weird. But even Heisenberg and Bohr (and definitely Bohm) seemed to want to put a mystical, sort of Buddhist spin on it all. By contrast, Feynman, a rough-edged geek, didn’t care to add any sweetener to his physics when he popularized it; but at least he didn’t really have anything new and existentially noxious to say.

Then in 1980 a Double-Big-Bang of cosmology popularization ignited: First Carl Sagan did the Cosmos TV series, and eight years later Stephen Hawking wrote his deca-mega-bestseller, A Brief History of Time. I suspect that both men, as a result, became neurochemically dependent upon a certain degree and frequency of media exposure. Perhaps after a time that exposure could hardly be helped, as the media kept going back to them—there being few other Authoritative Cosmologists left after those two had, so to speak, sucked the air from the room. In any case, Sagan and Hawking quickly became overexposed. I’m sure I’m not the only one who found them irritatingly shallow.

Worse, their runaway successes as popularizers inspired a new generation of media-oriented cosmologists—the most irritating yet.

These new fellows seem to spend more time fame-seeking with popular books (about other scientists’ work, mostly) than teaching, supervising students and advancing science themselves, i.e., earning their university salaries, which are already generous. What bothers me more is that they do not seem to care much, or even to have thought much, about the implications of the theories they promote.

Columbia University’s Brian Greene, for example, has gone to great lengths recently, in books and lectures (and in a rehash he just wrote for Newsweek—presumably with some sort of book-marketing tie-in) to impress the harsh new cosmology on a popular audience. His writings are based on the work of other scientists such as Hawking and Hugh Everett, and cover much of the same ground as other popularizers’ books of the past two decades. His current theme is that the universe probably has an infinite (or practically infinite) extent—not just in terms of the ordinary space-time that we humans experience but in terms of multiple dimensions and even multiple whole universes.

Again, this will not come as news to anyone who has been paying attention to cosmology since the 1980s. But I note that, if it were true, it would render human reality utterly infinitesimal, local, “relative,” and meaningless in the grand scheme of things. We have already been heading in that direction; this would take us all the way.

If we humans could truly grasp such a reality—in which everything that can happen does happen, and no thing has more than a fleeting significance—we would surely despair.

Greene, however, does not despair, perhaps because he has no deeper grasp of this stuff than his audience does:

We’ve been compelled to relinquish sacred belief in our own centrality, but with such cosmic demotion we’ve demonstrated the capacity of the human intellect to reach far beyond the confines of ordinary experience to reveal extraordinary truth. The multiverse proposal might be wrong. But it might also be the next step in this journey, unveiling a breathtaking panorama of universes populating a vast cosmic landscape. For some scientists, including me, that possibility makes the risk well worth taking. [source]

Then again, do Greene and his ilk even buy this b.s. about “a breathtaking panorama of universes”—any more than Dawkins buys his own pretty slogans about evolution’s charms?

As I get older and more cynical, I find it easier to believe that such people are not principally interested in unveiling and communicating a breathtaking panorama of reality. First and foremost, I’d say, they want to enjoy the breathtaking panorama of fame, which encompasses bestsellers, globetrotting lectures, TV specials, starry-eyed science groupies, etc., etc.

And if, to get these goodies, they have to sell ontological poison and label it “candy,” well, then, so be it. After all, the universe is pitiless—and someone has to end up on top.


Originally published May 28, 2012