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‘One funeral at a time’: Big Bang denial and the search for truth

We are living in an era of science denial. An era when well-established facts are disputed, fake experts are interviewed by the media and blog posts trump science papers. It’s an era of vaccine denial…

We now know far more about the universe’s violent beginnings than we did in the 1940s. matley0/Flickr

We are living in an era of science denial. An era when well-established facts are disputed, fake experts are interviewed by the media and blog posts trump science papers.

It’s an era of vaccine denial, evolution denial, and of course, climate change denial.

I’d also add Big Bang denial to that list. Sure, it might be more esoteric than climate change denial, but it’s attracting increasing amounts of attention, thanks to the efforts of people such as US congressman Paul Broun, who declared late last year:

All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell.

In living memory, the most vocal opposition to the Big Bang has gone from the realms of legitimate scientific debate to that of science denial.

The 100-inch (2.5 m) Hooker telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory that Edwin Hubble used to measure galaxy distances and a value for the rate of expansion of the universe. Wikimedia Commons

But how did this come to pass? What are the origins of Big Bang denial? And does it provides clues about the future of science denial generally?

Early debates

Today the Big Bang paradigm is supported by a plethora of observations:

  • the expansion of the universe measured with variable stars, supernovae and the distribution of galaxies
  • the faint microwave afterglow of the Big Bang fireball
  • the abundances of the light elements (such as hydrogen and helium), forged in the hot and dense furnace of the early universe
  • the young galaxies seen in the distant universe.

Even a tiny bit of the static seen on an analogue TV is from the afterglow of the Big Bang.

But in the 1940s there was far less to go on.

Einstein’s general theory of relativity was largely untested. Edwin Hubble had measured the expansion of the universe, but was grossly in error. Using Hubble’s data and the Big Bang theory, it seemed like the sun was older than the universe. And the original Big Bang paper was conceptually brilliant but technically flawed.

In this environment, other theories seemed equally plausible. Perhaps the universe was in a “steady state”, where new matter was created as the universe expanded. This seemed reasonable given the limited data available. Crucially, most theories made robust predictions about what astronomers might have observed in the coming decades.

Eureka! An image of the cosmic microwave background from WMAP. WMAP Science Team, NASA.

Breakthrough

In 1964 there was a Eureka moment. By accident, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered the microwave afterglow of the Big Bang. This afterglow simply hadn’t been predicted by other theories.

Edwin Hubble’s protege, Allan Sandage, improved measurements of the expanding universe, showing it was far older than Edwin Hubble supposed. And so the Big Bang theory was no longer conflicting with the age of the sun.

Most astronomers were increasingly convinced by the Big Bang theory, but a core of opposition remained.

Steady state theories were tweaked rather than abandoned. In the process some abandoned Ockham’s Razor, the idea that the simplest hypothesis that explains the data is the best. Often the tweaks were contrived, such as “iron whiskers” being spread across the universe by exploding stars.

Typically the tweaks came into conflict with data soon after their inception. For example, we can observe very distant galaxies and quasars at microwave wavelengths, but this would be impossible in a universe full of “iron whiskers”.

Some claimed the Big Bang theory could not explain “anomalies”, such as groups of quasars and galaxies that should have been at different distances. But the statistics were so poor that these “anomalies” could be explained via random alignments of nearby galaxies with distant quasars and gravitational lensing.

Extraordinary claims about the supposed failings of the Big Bang theory weren’t being backed by extraordinary evidence.

Repetition

Today, there is a wealth of data that is explained with the Big Bang paradigm. Astronomers and physicists still propose many new theories (e.g. quintessence), but most include an expanding universe with a Big Bang at its beginning.

The original Big Bang opponents are dead or old, but some persevere. Unfortunately, they often just repeat flawed theories and analyses from earlier decades, often ignoring well-established facts and newer research.

Astronomers have surveyed millions of galaxies and quasars, but many Big Bang opponents continue to focus on small samples with poor statistics. This is similar to the way vaccine opponents often rely on small studies and anecdotal evidence rather than large epidemiological studies which show the benefits of vaccines.

The inability of many Big Bang opponents to update their analyses and let go of disproved ideas now serves as a cautionary tale to younger scientists.

The distribution of galaxies in observations and simulations is remarkably similar, despite what Big Bang opponents claim. The Virgo Consortium

Denial

But now, a new generation of Big Bang opponents has risen. Often they have an amateur’s knowledge of astrophysics and strong ideological motivations, even if they have a background in science. They want the universe to conform with their preconceived ideas.

As a consequence, science denial can come from those at both extremes of the ideological spectrum. Young Earth creationists oppose the Big Bang because it makes the universe billions of years old. Even some atheists oppose the Big Bang because it has a creation event.

Big Bang opponents often ignore well-established evidence, and as a consequence they are publishing less and less in peer-reviewed science journals. Often the most vocal opposition to the Big Bang appears online in fringe journals and websites, where it can avoid astronomers' difficult facts and criticism. This is also true of those opposing anthropogenic climate change, who publish just a tiny fraction of all peer-reviewed papers on climate.

The amateur Big Bang opponents make amateur’s mistakes and straw-man arguments are common. There are claims, for instance, that the distribution of quasar and galaxy distances isn’t explained by the Big Bang paradigm.

However, Big Bang opponents have not compared observations with predictions from theory and simulations, so these claims are baseless. When astronomers compare observations with simulations, there is no discrepancy between the data and the Big Bang paradigm.

Astronomers point out these mistakes time and time again. However, many Big Bang opponents reframe the criticism as scientists defending orthodoxy, rather than acknowledging the errors made.

According to the Big Bang model, the universe expanded from an extremely dense and hot state and continues to expand today. The image above is an artist’s concept illustrating the expansion of a portion of a flat universe.

Australian physicist (and Big Bang opponent) John Hartnett has stated:

The standard model is assumed to be correct and when evidence questioning that conclusion is found … a special effort was immediately made to show how it could still be explained in the standard model.

“Special effort” is an unjustified and strange choice of phrase. What matters is the fact that observations and theory simply agree.

Perception

The public perception of the Big Bang debate has changed with its protagonists. When opposition to the Big Bang is discussed, it is framed in terms of ideology rather than scientific debate.

US presidential hopeful Marco Rubio recently sidestepped a question in an interview with GQ about the age of the Earth, perhaps in an effort to court young Earth creationists. The resulting controversy focused on politics and theology, and the science was rarely questioned. Eventually Rubio clarified his answer, stating that the Earth is at least 4.5 billion years old.

Perhaps this is the end result of science denial – the media and public largely stop debating the science. Decades ago the smoking debate in the media was focused on the validity of the science. The science is no longer disputed in the media, and the debate has moved on to the politics of individual choices versus public health.

So what does the current state of Big Bang denial mean for the future? There are interesting parallels with the climate debate.

The tiny minority of climate scientists who are vocal critics of anthropogenic climate change are mostly over 50. Younger climate change deniers are often amateurs, bloggers and ideologues. The number of scientists questioning anthropogenic climate change is going to decrease in the coming decades.

Perhaps this is the good news about science denial. While science denial can influence public debates, this influence wanes without the backing of scientists. As elderly scientists fade from view and aren’t replaced by credible alternatives, the public debate will stop questioning the science.

To quote German Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Planck:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

Or, to paraphrase ever so slightly: “Science advances one funeral at a time.”