Dealing with Pseudoskepticism in Astronomy
by Dave Smith
October 22, 2010
Whilst a degree of well-informed skepticism is essential in the
assessment of any scientific theory, pseudoskepticism
has become rife on the internet, and in the popular media. It is
practiced by many who pass themselves off as the voice of
authority on a given topic, when in fact they are self-appointed 'debunkers'
of anything which challenges their own, often limited, views.
The recent explosion of blogs on the internet now gives a voice to
many who would otherwise be 'nobodys'. A superficially impressive
website can be built almost overnight and populated with some self-published
papers and a few choice quotes, which can then be used in an attempt
to gain notoriety or attention whilst attacking the views of others with
whom the author, posing as a well-informed skeptic, disagrees.
One of the many signs of a pseudoskeptic is that they will often attack
the person(s) holding a particular view (ad hominem), rather than the view
itself. Another tactic frequently employed is to misrepresent the views of
their opponents, known as building a 'strawman', and then to tear those
views down, thus 'burning the strawman'.
One site of note to this author is the blog of one W. T. (Tom) Bridgman, titled
With Creationism in Astronomy". Whilst the title seems self-evident,
one has to ask why it is that Bridgman has taken it upon himself to attack
Electric Universe (EU) theory with such gusto as has recently been displayed
on his blog, when his stated "mission" is to debunk creationism.
EU theory has nothing at all to say about Creationism, Intelligent Design,
Atheism or Calethumpianism! Bridgman's most common response to the question
is that some "creationists" cite some EU materials in support of
their position even though 'Big Bang' theory, to which Bridgman subscribes,
has more to offer creationists than the EU does.
Essentially, the big bang has it that everything currently in the universe
once occupied a point in space of zero volume and incredible density, and
then suddenly it exploded and expanded into what we see today. The parallel
with creationism is obvious.
The EU states that the universe is of unknown age and size and that a big
bang event is unnecessary and not supported by empirical evidence.
The EU position that the Earth's surface is relatively
new (due to electrical scarring, which has nothing to do with the age of the
planet) is used by some Young-Earth Creationists to support their own theory
that the Earth is only x
years old. So what? No one in the sciences can veto the right to cite their
research in support of some other position on some other topic.
Bridgman's other common assertion is that EU theorists use the same tactics as
creationists, an assertion which is an attempt at "guilt by association".
A look over his site will reveal numerous accounts of him likening EU theorists to
creationists. Serious researchers would do well to assess EU claims on their merits
rather than dismissing them due to some alleged yet non-existent association.
Getting back to the topic of pseudoskepticism, allow me to respond to one of
Bridgman's attacks on EU theory, to see how it stacks up. The original post
bears the headline
"Electric Universe: Real Plasma Physicists Use Mathematical Models!"
The all too simple response to that would surely be “yes, we do!”
The pertinent points to which this author offered a response are
repeated and addressed below. Here I have added the abbreviations [S] (for strawman)
and [A] (for ad hominem) to indicate which tactic is used in his quoted phrases.
Not true. The mathematics is all there, in the appropriate books and papers to
which EU theorists frequently refer. Physics of a Plasma Universe by Anthony L.
Peratt, Cosmical Electrodynamics and Cosmic Plasma by Hannes
Alfvén, Gaseous Conductors by J.D. Cobine and many more besides.
Bridgman conveniently ignores this fact.
One of the problems with Electric Universe (EU) claims is they seem incapable of
producing mathematical models that can be used by other researchers to compare
the predictions of their theories to other observations and experiments. ...
The predictable response to such references is frequently that they are "too old" or irrelevant
to today's physics, and this from those who seem to have an unshakeable faith in the
work of Einstein. The irony is palpable.
Not true. EU theorists have never said this. Such modeling is difficult,
but certainly not impossible. EU theorists are not alone in this opinion:
... The common EU excuse is that plasma behavior is too complex to be
modeled mathematically. ...
Most theoretical physicists looked down on this field [electrical discharges
in gases] which was complicated and awkward. The plasma exhibited striations,
double layers, and an assortment of oscillations and instabilities. The electron
temperature was often found to be one or two orders of magnitude larger than the
gas temperature, with the ion temperature intermediate. In short, it was a
field which was not well suited for mathematically elegant theories.
The [kinetic theories of ordinary gases] were mathematically elegant
and claimed to derive all of the properties of a plasma from first principles.
In reality, this was not true. Because of the complexity of the problem, a number
of approximations were necessary which were not always appropriate. The
theories had very little contact with experimental plasma physics; all
awkward and complicated phenomena which had been observed in the study of
discharges in gases were simply neglected.
The development of the theories [as opposed to
laboratory experimentation] continued
because they largely dealt with phenomena in regions of space where no real check was
possible. The fact that the basis of several of the theories had been proved to be false
in the laboratory had very little effect. One said that this did not necessarily prove
that they must also be false in the cosmos! Much work was done in developing these
theories, leading to a gigantic structure of speculative theories which had no empirical support.
... The plasma in space turned out to be just as complicated as laboratory plasmas and
to follow the same basic laws. ..."
- Hannes Alfvén, Cosmic Plasma (1981).
Such statements are totally out of place within scientific discourse, a fact of which
any scientist should already be aware.
But that excuse [above] reveals an almost
schizophrenic mindset of the EU community.
Again, this is not appropriate in scientific discourse. Supporters
are just that, supporters. Bridgman uses the term "supporters"
frequently without making clear that he is usually referring to lay people on the
thunderbolts forum or other fora, rather than the published EU materials.
One of the heroes of the EU supporters is Hannes Alfven ...
If EU proponents were to use the same tactics, we could highlight the many
inane comments posted by anonymous users on the BAUT forum and in the
Universe Today comment threads, or indeed on many of the news outlet comments
threads. We could then offer them up as “Supporters of
However, integrity demands a more mature and accurate approach to the material
we discuss, and misrepresentation of opposing views is a classic pseudoskeptic
tactic avoided by serious researchers.
Acknowledging a Nobel prize is a matter of professional courtesy and respect when citing
the contributions of a Laureate in support of your work. No EU theorist I know of has
EVER stated that that (alone) gives him more credibility than other researchers. The
fixation of pseudoskeptics on credentials is highly selective and largely irrelevant
in a pioneering field where everyone is, in a sense, a 'beginner.' The arrogance of
the peudoskeptic in judging Alfvén's contribution knows no bounds.
... They rarely mention Alfven without mentioning that he was a winner of the Nobel
Prize in Physics in 1970 and that this gives him more credibility than other researchers. ...
Alfvén's credibility is firmly established;
Professor of Theoretical Electrodynamics at the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm
(1940 - 1945); Professor of Electronics (1945 - 1964); Professor of Plasma Physics (1964 -
1973); Professor at the University of California, San Diego, since 1967.
- and his hundreds
of peer-reviewed papers.
Author of Cosmical Electrodynamics (Oxford, 1950); Cosmical Electrodynamics (2nd ed.)
(with C.-G. Fälthammar, oxford, 1963; Evolution of the Solar System (with G. Arrhenius;
NASA, 1976); Cosmic Plasma (Riedel, 1981) and several popular science books.
Member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Akademia NAUK (USSR), the Yugoslavian
Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of
Sciences, the Royal Society and Life Fellow of the Institute of Electronic and Electrical
Awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1967), the Nobel Prize in
Physics (1970), the Gold Medal of the Franklin Institute (1971), the Lomonosov Medal
of the USSR Academy of Sciences (1971), and the Bowie Medal of the American Geophysical
- Editorial note (paraphrased) from:
Hannes Alfvén, Cosmology in the Plasma Universe: An Introductory Exposition.
IEEE Transactions on Plasma Science, Vol. 18, No. 1, February 1990.
One of his books, Cosmic Plasma, was also essentially peer-reviewed. It was published
in the Astrophysics and Space Science Library Volume 82. “A
series of books on the recent developments of space science and of general geophysics and
astrophysics published in connection to the journal Space Science Reviews”
(with an editorial board of 11 scientists from 10 world-wide institutions) and was supported by
NASA and the NSF, among others.
... So what makes Alfven's claims about plasma cosmology more valid when he was given the
award for the development of magnetohydrodynamics (MHD), NOT his work on plasma cosmology?
Apart from the many accolades already mentioned above, MHD IS plasma physics (in part), usually
relating to the dense plasma of the Sun (in addition to the laboratory) etc. Our solar
system being part of the cosmos, MHD IS involved in plasma cosmology. The distinction between MHD
and the intergalactic currents which Alfvén also wrote about, is mostly a matter
of DENSITY of the plasma concerned. Sparse (or less-dense) plasma requires different
equations than does dense plasma. Considering that MHD IS about space plasmas (in part), Bridgman's
misunderstanding invalidates his comment.
Nobelprize.org has this to say:
A plasma is a gaseous state of matter in which the atoms or molecules are strongly ionized.
Mutual electromagnetic forces, both between the positive ions themselves and between the
ions and the free electrons, are then playing dominant roles, which adds to the complexity
as compared to the situation in neutral atomic or molecular gases. Hannes Alfvén demonstrated
in the 1940s that a new type of collective motion, called "magneto-hydrodynamical waves"
can arise in such systems. These waves play a crucial role for the behavior of plasmas,
in the laboratory as well as in the earth's atmosphere and in
Some Wikipedia editors (Bridgman links to Wikipedia a lot, something I've not seen from other scientists)
seem to have a certain level of contempt for plasma cosmology. Wikipedia is not considered a
scholarly source in any educational institution of which I am aware, and researchers and students would do well to
procure their science knowledge from more reliable sources.
Yet another display of a lack of understanding (or perhaps a deliberate misrepresentation?) of what EU theorists actually claim.
Alfvén was not ignored outright by the astrophysical community. However, his Nobel
lecture was essentially a plea for astrophysicists not to allow theoretical physics to override
empirical evidence, which in part equates to not using MHD calculations with regard to the less-dense
plasmas of the broader cosmos. It is this plea that has fallen on deaf ears.
The chronic EU claim that Alfven was ignored by the astrophysical community doesn't
hold up to the facts. ...
The cosmical plasma physics of today  is far less advanced than the thermonuclear
research physics. It is to some extent the playground of theoreticians who have never seen
a plasma in a laboratory. Many of them still believe in formulae which we know from
laboratory experiments to be wrong. The astrophysical correspondence to the thermonuclear
crisis has not yet come. I think it is evident now that in certain respects the first
approach to the physics of cosmical plasmas has been a failure. It turns out that in several
important cases this approach has not given even a first approximation to truth but led
into dead-end streets from which we now have to turn back.
Table 1 in that paper, includes the following observations:
The reason for this is that several of the basic concepts on which the theories are founded,
are not applicable to the condition prevailing in cosmos. They are «generally accepted»
by most theoreticians, they are developed with the most sophisticated mathematical methods and
it is only the plasma itself which does not «understand», how beautiful the theories are
and absolutely refuses to obey them. It is now obvious that we have to start a second approach
from widely different starting points.
- Plasma physics, space research and the origin of the solar system.
Nobel Lecture (1970)
Frozen-in picture [of magnetic field lines in plasma] often completely misleading.
It is equally important to draw the current lines [in addition to magnetic field lines] and discuss the electric circuit.
Electrostatic double layers are of decisive importance in low density plasmas.
... Like all scientists, Alfven had ideas that worked and ideas that didn't. His ideas that
actually worked were clearly adopted and appreciated by the astrophysical community.
Considering the plethora of work mentioned above, much of which is peer-reviewed and involved
plasma in the cosmos, this personal opinion of Alfvén's "failures" is clearly
at odds with the evidence and a baseless argument.
Most of the negative things about Alfven seem to focus around a tendency to cling too much
to ideas such as Plasma cosmology that were clearly failures. ...
I thought quantification was the demand of the mathematician by which all 'legitimate research'
should be judged. The quantification given by Alfvén is exactly the same quantification which
pseudoskeptics, and Bridgman, allege doesn't exist within EU theory. It is interesting to note that
after Bridgman alleges EU theorists incapable of quantification, he himself finds this aspect of
Alfvén's work "very difficult" and thus dismisses it.
... One of the greatest problems I've had with Alfven's papers was his focus on quantities
such as the total current in a system. While this quantity is useful for exploring constraints
such as the energy budget (matching of energy inflows to outflows), it is otherwise a quantity
very difficult to tie back to what an observation or instrument might actually measure such as
a flux density, etc.
Bridgman offered no references to where Alfvén's papers were focused on the total
current in a system. In fact, he offered no references at all in support of this comment nor for any other of
his hand-waving dismissals of the often complicated and groundbreaking work of plasma pioneers.
An objective reading of Alfvén's work indicates that he had no such narrow focus, but rather had
both a broad and exemplary understanding of the behavior of plasmas both in the laboratory and in the cosmos.
... Anthony Peratt's galaxy model, received some examination because it was presented
in a form that facilitated mathematical analysis. The problem is that all the evidence
is that Nature didn't see fit to actually build galaxies that way ...
"All the evidence" in this case, consists of dark matter, dark energy, dark flow,
black holes ... none of these invocations has been observed nor replicated in any form in
laboratory experiments. There is NO empirical evidence that these things have anything to
do with reality, hence nature.
simulations reproduced galaxy formation accurately using the principles learned in the
laboratory of plasma physics. Interacting Birkeland currents, combined with the gravitational
force of only the particles within the simulation, worked admirably without the need for dark
matter or any of it's cousins.
Irving Langmuir, who coined the term 'plasma' ... on the plasma flow.
Langmuir is also acknowledged by EU theorists in the context of the history of the
theory. I don't see the relevance of this paragraph in Bridgman's post, except perhaps to
display his efficiency in researching via Wikipedia.
Yet again, this statement indicates a complete lack of knowledge of EU theory. Such plasma modeling as
done by Peratt and Alfvén mentioned above, is exactly the material we refer people
to when they ask for mathematical support for the theory.
Considering the number of 'heroes' of the EU supporters were pioneers and strong advocates
of mathematical modeling of plasma, EU's denial of plasma modeling could best be described
as hypocritical or schizophrenic.
One of the paramount requirements of
assessing any theory which challenges another, is to learn as much as you can about both
theories. Before people launch a criticism of Electric Universe theory, it would be wise
for them to first acquaint themselves with what the actual theorists write, and with the behavior of
plasmas both in the laboratory and in the cosmos, rather than what they may find on forums, in
comment threads, or in Wikipedia.
The discerning reader will notice that Bridgman begins with the strawmen and the
ad hominems. After having set the scene that his opponents are incapable
schizophrenics who make outlandish claims, he then intersperses his comments with
seemingly relevant statements, most commonly referenced to Wikipedia. These
statements normally address the strawman he has erected in the first place,
thus not addressing the actual claims of his opponents.
This is typical of pseudoskeptics, and is the same tactic employed by many of
those who seem to spend most of their waking hours editing Wikipedia, ensuring
that nothing which challenges established theory sees the light of day.
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