The Consortium for Dark Sky Studies
The Human Heritage of Dark Skies
For many people, simply remembering the dark skies and starry nights of their youth and wanting that experience for their children and children’s children is the impetus behind their support of dark sky efforts. Until several generations ago, before urbanization and the widely available technological ability to overwhelm a landscape with lighting, the stars at night were part of the universal human experience; now an estimated 80% of the developed world is unable to see the Milky Way.
Dark Skies as Resources
A natural resource is anything that people can use which comes from nature, such as air, water, wood, oil, wind energy, iron, and coal.
Dark skies are a guilt-free natural resource: no extraction cost or risk of environmental damage by virtue of its use. And, with energy savings there is even payback for replenishing and preserving the dark skies, an unusual and distinctly virtuous cycle.
Cultural resources are, in the broadest sense, resources significant to human cultures - the ideas, customs, and social behavior of a society. Some are part of the universal human experience, like dark skies, some specific to a group of people at a particular time in history with various interpretations of the night skies. Ethno-astronomy is the study of some of these varieties of interpretation.
The human experience of a dark night is expressed in many ways, art, literature, philosophy, film, and others.
Economic resources are the factors used in providing services (like astro-tourism or dark-sky experiences) or producing goods. A dark sky is widely used as a way to develop sustainable destination economies for scenic gateway communities in the American West.
Dark Sky Consortium Studies Program Takes Shape
Written by Colter Dye
Bridging the borders of three great North American ecosystems: the Great Basin, the Colorado Plateau, and the Rocky Mountains, Salt Lake City is a popular destination for wildlife enthusiasts, outdoor adventurers, and those seeking to connect to the natural world. While snow-capped mountain peaks, vast red deserts, and tree-filled canyons are majestic, one of the most awe-inspiring views comes from glimpsing an arm of the Milky Way Galaxy against a deep blue night sky.
Maintaining a view of our dark skies has implications beyond the inspirational connection to the universe, it is also vital to the health and safety of humans and wildlife as well as our respective ecosystems, which often overlap. The new Consortium for Dark Sky Studies at the University of Utah hopes to preserve access to dark skies.
Formal recognition of the Consortium for Dark Sky Studies (CDSS) was made official by the University of Utah, a strategic location for the CDSS as Salt Lake City is central to what Stephen Goldsmith, co-director of the CDSS and associate professor of city and metropolitan planning calls the “Great Starry Way.”
“This portion of the West, basically Montana down to New Mexico, is what I would call the Great Starry Way. These are the darkest places left in the developed world – That’s on the planet, on the Earth!” remarked Goldsmith.
Many migratory birds, including thrushes, wrens, orioles, black birds, cuckoos, tanagers, and most species of sparrow, make the majority of their seasonal migrations during the nighttime hours. Species may migrate during the nighttime hours to avoid daytime predators, maximize foraging time during the day, navigate using the moon or constellations, or to prevent their bodies from overheating due to hours of wing flapping. These species now have to navigate new challenges in nighttime migration caused by the constant blaring lights emitted from human settlements.
Flocks of birds may mistake these glowing metropoles for the shining light of the moon or they may be unable to see the constellations they use to navigate because they are muted by the glowing artificial lights. Other birds seem to mistake gleaming glass windows for the surface of water reflecting moonlight. The fate of many of these birds ends with disorientation or confusion leading to missed navigational points, exhaustion, or a quick demise as they collide with buildings. Each year, in North America alone, anywhere between 365 million and 1 billion birds die from collisions with buildings.
Migrating birds are not the only wildlife affected. Many species of frogs wait for cues from the night sky and the moon to cue their breeding rituals of croaking and calling to find a mate. Nocturnal insects are fatally attracted to artificial lights, preventing them from breeding naturally and making them vulnerable to nighttime predators. On the warmer coasts of the world, baby sea turtles search for the twinkling lights of the moon and stars being reflected on the ocean, but are instead drawn toward the glowing lights of roads and cities, leading them to a certain death by car, dehydration, or predation.
Humans are also physiologically ruled by the regular pattern of night and day. Exposure to artificial light at night negatively affects the human circadian rhythm which not only affects sleep cycles but also the production of important hormones which regulate vital biological processes. These changes have been linked to depression, obesity, as well as breast and prostate cancers. While most cities have had ordinances in place for many years to regulate noise pollution, very few have paid any attention to the important consequences of light trespass and pollution.
The work of the CDSS will help to fill this gap. CDSS affiliates come from many departments of the University of Utah, as well as community, government, and industry partners. Tracy Aviary is an advisor for the CDSS.
Beginning in April of 2016, Tracy Aviary began implementing a strategic campaign to decrease light pollution in Salt Lake County, Utah, by holding a series of ‘migration moonwatch’ events to educate the public about the impact of light pollution on migrating birds. In 2017, the Aviary will expand the program to include strategic data collection on birds that strike buildings as a result of light pollution in Salt Lake’s urban core. Building off of strategies from other successful dark skies projects such as FLAP and “lights out,” the Aviary developed the Salt Lake Avian Collision Survey (SLACS), a citizen science project where volunteers will walk early morning survey routes during the migration season to search for and collect data on birds that had collided with lighted buildings overnight. Information collected by SLACS will help target photon reduction strategies and build public support for a “lights out for migration” initiative in Salt Lake.
This kind of period of decreased artificial light benefits human communities as well as birds and other wildlife. It reduces the consumption of fossil fuels that are used to power unnecessary lights, potentially saving billions of dollars and reducing pollutant emissions by many tons. It also allows humans living in urban areas to reconnect with the night sky and enjoy the Milky Way, which some people may not have seen for many years and some children may have never seen in their lives. Many communities are even using these lights out periods to host festivals celebrating the night sky, uniting divided populations, and teaching citizens about the wonders of astronomy.
With its placement on the foothills of the Wasatch Mountain Range, University of Utah’s campus is one of the only college campuses in the United States that provides a direct connection to wild, undeveloped land and the opportunity for encounters with the natural world. Our special connection to and awareness of the natural world makes our campus the ideal place to continue research on the values of reducing light pollution and implementing practices to restore dark skies to our campus and Salt Lake City.
Colter Dye is an undergraduate student pursuing a degree in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation through the Bachelor of University Studies program at the University of Utah. He is a Sustainability Ambassador for the Sustainability Office at the University of Utah. He is also a Conservation Science Intern at Tracy Aviary and an affiliate of the Consortium for Dark Sky Studies at the University of Utah.
UTAH'S DARK SKY PLANNING GUIDE
Community Development Office
Being designated as a Dark Sky Park requires “active participation in ongoing efforts to garner robust community support for dark sky protection” and that “participants serve as a beacon in their community for stewardship and passionate advocacy for the night sky.” After decades of non-protection, the Goldendale Observatory State Park is in even greater need of “passionate advocacy” for the safeguarding of its increasingly vulnerable night sky vistas. Washington State Parks has shown it is not up to the task.
As an amateur astronomer I thought I’d made a prudent choice to live near the small town of Goldendale, in Klickitat County, Washington. Home to a famous observatory, it had some of the country’s first lighting codes to protect the night sky, and was the sixth International Dark Sky Park awarded this prestigious designation by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA). Where better in the Pacific Northwest to pursue an interest in astronomy? Unfortunately, after becoming involved with the Goldendale Observatory State Park, I learned too late about the reality of small town politics and bureaucratic mismanagement.
To persuade the amateur astronomers who built the massive telescope – and the community college that paid for it – to locate it in Goldendale, the city promised to build an Observatory to house the telescope, and adopt lighting regulations to protect it. These regulations were enacted by Goldendale and Klickitat County in 1979, but have remained largely unknown to the public, and are rarely enforced. The promise to protect the telescope’s night sky seems to have amounted to little more than a “bait and switch” to acquire the prized telescope in order to lure tourists to an economically challenged rural area.
Washington taxpayers, who purchased the Observatory in 1980, are about to spend 5.8 million dollars on the Goldendale Observatory State Park for building expansion and more parking. Although a worthy endeavor given the facility’s age, the status of the acclaimed International Dark Sky Park has been under the radar since being suspended by the IDA in late 2016. Thanks to public disclosure requests made to Washington State Parks by a local radio station, the final result of that suspension is now known.
The Goldendale Observatory was decertified by the IDA as a Dark Sky Park in September 2017 – the first and only such revocation to ever take place – and a true “black eye” for Goldendale, Klickitat County, and Washington State. Given decades of delinquency in lighting code enforcement, there has been little evidence of real dark sky protection efforts in the local community. More disturbing, the IDA found that current Goldendale Observatory State Park personnel showed virtually no appreciation for, or interest in maintaining, this coveted status, and failed to advocate for protection of the Observatory’s starry night sky. This would be surprising for a nature park or preserve which also highlights a beautiful night sky. For a publicly owned astronomical telescope that requires a dark night sky, as well as an observatory promoting itself as “famous for its dark skies,” it’s unbelievable.
Goldendale and Klickitat County promised to protect the Observatory’s night sky, but for decades neglected to implement such protection. Washington State Parks promises to provide stewardship for the State’s natural heritage for future generations, yet an observatory needing protection of its dark sky “vulnerable natural resource” – apparently doesn’t merit such stewardship. Concern for protecting increasingly rare star-filled skies – and associated ecotourism – has grown worldwide in recent years. However, given the choice between advocating for protecting the Observatory’s night sky or remaining silent, Washington State Parks, in alliance with the Goldendale Chamber of Commerce, appears completely uninterested in protecting the taxpayer’s substantial investment in an observatory of “international importance” if it means even a minor inconvenience for some in the local community who only wish to see the Observatory exploited for tourism. Just keep spending millions of taxpayer dollars directly benefiting these interests – which they seem to believe they’re entitled to without obligation – and they’ll happily allow the continued despoiling of the Observatory’s night sky.
A Dark Sky Park designation is an ongoing privilege that needs to be earned. The longstanding lack of genuine concern for the Observatory’s night sky by Goldendale and Klickitat County, combined with the Observatory’s newfound lack of real interest in protecting its “perfect for stargazing” night sky, shows they were not deserving of the prestigious honor of being home to an International Dark Sky Park. The astronomy community as well as those who truly care about protecting our increasingly threatened pristine views of the cosmos for future generations can be thankful the IDA appropriately defended the credibility of its highly esteemed Dark-Sky Places program by decertifying the Goldendale Observatory as an International Dark Sky Park.
Lessons to be learned from this about Washington State Parks:
Revealing details here.
An accomplished scientist, Carl Sagan was an outspoken and inquisitive astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astro-biologist, and environmental activist. He earned more than three degrees, was a Harvard lecturer, Cornell University professor and founder of the International Planetary Society, to list only a few of his credentials. He is remembered for his contributions to Mariner 2, the world’s first successful interplanetary spacecraft, NASA’s Viking explorations of Mars, Voyager explorations of the outer planets, and authoring hundreds of scientific papers and popular books on science and astronomy.
Many might remember him as the host of the PBS Cosmos TV series, the author of Contact, or the man who said “We’re made of star stuff.” But for some he is most notably remembered for his gift for translating scientific endeavors into the language of human emotion, and his humanitarianism and philosophical perspectives on the human condition. Sagan constantly reminded us that at the heart of technical and scientific innovation is the notion that we are all connected in our shared journey through the vast and infinite Universe.
The visible universe including planets, stars, asteroids, comets, and galaxies; is made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons (“Normal Matter”) bundled as different kinds of atoms. One of the great discoveries of the twentieth centuries was to find out that all this visible matter was only 5% all matter in space. This led to the discovery of dark matter and dark energy as the other 95% of the universe.
The problem of Dark Matter was first discovered in 1937 when the astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky working at the California Institute of Technology made an argument that the universe was missing mass. While working on observations of the coma cluster (a cluster of 1000 galaxies), he was surprised to find that the average velocity of these galaxies was higher than expected. Now the speed of galaxies is supposed to mathematically predict the mass. But when Zwicky and compatriots measured the mass of the galaxies it did not equate to the high speeds. In other words, some mass was missing in these galaxies to account for the speeds measured.
Astrophysicists have continued to measure the speed of other galaxies and they too have found missing mass. Over the decades nobody has come up with an answer. But the astrophysicists began to think there is some invisible mass holding the galaxies together but in some invisible form. In recent decades science gave this invisible mass the name, “dark matter”. The implication was that a new type of matter must exist, and we just haven’t discovered or defined it yet.
In 1976 the astrophysicist Vera Rubin found that in spiral galaxies the stars out on the edge of the galaxy move faster than the closer-in stars. She found that the empty regions of space have too little visible matter to produce these high star speeds. Rubin concluded that some form of dark matter must lie in these remote regions of the galaxy to produce high star speeds. Science then concluded that “across the universe, the discrepancy averages to a factor of 6: cosmic dark matter has about six times the total gravity of all matter.”
Dark matter also exerts gravity like all ordinary matter. We know that dark matter isn’t just ordinary matter that is dark – it is something else altogether. Science has no clue about what dark matter really is, but they know from their mathematical calculations to arrive at a good description of a galaxy they must take into consideration dark matter. And from these calculations we know that dark matter must make up about 26% of the mass-energy of the universe.
Particle physicists think that dark matter consists of a yet undiscovered particle that interacts with both gravity and matter. So, it is possible that we will eventually find these particles in the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland as they continue to increase the energy in the collider for particle collisions. Using collider technology, we have found neutrinos and recently the Higgs Boson. So, it is possible they might find a dark matter particle as they continue to ramp up the energy.
Dark matter does not interact with the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, or the electromagnetic force. But we do know it does exert gravity like ordinary matter. But, so far, that is all we know about dark matter.
Dark matter is displayed by its gravitational effects. Here, ‘gravitational lensing’ is revealed via the Hubble Space Telescope. It shows a distant region of space with a large amount of dark matter in a cluster of galaxies. The Dark Matter in the cluster is bending the light and distorting the image of a galaxy much further away, creating multiple images of the galaxy which are stretched out into arcs surrounding the foreground galaxy cluster.
Dark energy is even more mysterious than dark matter. In the first half of the twentieth century most scientists believed that the universe was static and that gravity would eventually slow down the expansion of the universe. In the 1990s, two different teams found that the expansion of the universe was actually speeding up. This discovery threw a wrench into the cosmic calculations and caused a shock in astrophysics.
Unlike dark matter, scientists have no good explanation of dark energy. Some scientists think it may be the fifth force in the universe in addition to gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force. They also call it quintessence.
The history of dark energy’s discovery goes back to o1916 when Einstein published his general relativity theory. To make his equations fit a static universe he added a cosmological constant to the theory of gravity. According to Einstein his constant would be some kind of repulsive force that countered gravity.
But in 1929 the world was rocked by the discovery by Edwin Hubble that the universe was not static – it was expanding. Einstein than said his cosmological constant was the biggest blunder in his life. But, as it turns out, his cosmological constant was correct. It explained later in the century how space-time is being stretched apart and that dark energy is actually 69% of the mass-energy of the universe. But this doesn’t explain why this new force exists in the first place. It might be a part of space-time itself, or it might be due to a misunderstanding of how gravity itself works over cosmological distances.
The idea that we live in multiple universes is an old concept whose time might have come, although it is still being debated vigorously by physicists. Physicists have struggled for years to develop a working description of what they call Quantum Gravity and what Einstein called the unified field theory. This is the marriage between Einstein’s theory of gravity and quantum mechanics. There have been many attempts to combine the two but the most practical may be string theory, which changes the micro world from small particles to very tiny energy strings. These are strings of energy that look like tiny rubber bands that are much smaller than an electron. String theory looked like an attractive solution but it failed in a world with only 3 space dimensions. To make it work String theorists needed 10 dimensions, which made the multiverse a possible reality. The multiple universe theory is supported by some of the assumptions of quantum theory.
Schrodinger Wave Equation - About the same time as Einstein’s great discovery, a man named Schrodinger invented a mathematical Wave Equation that measured possibilities in an experiment. It is not worth explaining here how the wave equation works except that it leads to a statistical probability. This is a big deal in Quantum mechanics because things at the sub atomic level cannot be measured accurately – they can only be measured in terms of probability. For instance, scientists might say where a particle might land in 4 different quadrants, which can only be summarized as a 75% probability that it will land in Quadrant A.
The Many Worlds Theory: In addition, the Schrodinger Wave Equation generates an endlessly proliferating number of possibilities. This can be interpreted by physicists as also generating an endlessly proliferating number of different branches of reality. This theory is called the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. For instance, how can science explain the fact that a photon could be measured as landing in 2 places at the same time? Quantum Theory says that it can be in both places because of the “many worlds theory of reality.”
This is the beginning of further experiments that prove multiple dimensions of reality. “The Many Worlds theory defines any particular branch of reality which might actualize to us as a result of an interaction of an observed system with an observing system as merely one way of decomposing the wave function which represents them both. According to this theory, all of the other states which “could have” resulted from the same interaction did happen, but in other branches of reality. Each of these branches of reality is real, and, together they constitute all the different ways in which we can decompose the universal wave function. If this is just a bunch of mumbo jumbo to the reader then it can be better explained by a simple thought experiment.
Schrodinger is also famous for an experiment he did called the Schrödinger’s Cat. The experiment was to put a cat in a box with poison gas triggered by the decay of a radioactive substance, which is based on a probability. Classical physics says when you open the lid; the cat will either be dead or alive. Quantum Mechanics says the fate of the cat is not determined until we observe it. Many Worlds interpretation says that reality splits into 2 worlds where in one reality you find the cat alive and in another reality, you find it dead. It says different editions of us live in many worlds simultaneously and all of the worlds are real.
Another way of expanding multiverses is by using the big bang when the universe was expanding very fast in a period science calls inflation. During this period called inflation, the universe expanded from a small speck to an entity as large as the solar system in a fraction of a second. At the end of inflation, the energy driving the expansion erupts into a fireball of particles and radiation. And, in this fireball there are microscopic bubbles that were also expanding. These bubbles are actually universes and we live in one of them but cannot see the others.
This picture of the universe is called the multiverse and it suggests there are other universes and dimensions in space-time. For the theoretical multiverse to work there must be some kind of pressure energy density in the vacuum of space. This pressure is called dark energy.
To confirm that dark energy and dark matter exist, science has recently measured both of them accurately in the European space craft called Plank. The measurements accurately fit the expected magnitude of the equations, and proved that the concept of the multiverse is probably correct. In fact, the Plank space craft measured dark matter as 26.8% and dark energy at 68.3 % of the mass of the universe. Adam Riess, a Nobel Winning physicist, says “I have no clue what dark energy is. Dark energy appears to be enough to push the entire universe – yet its source is unknown, its location is unknown, and its physics are highly speculative.” But dark energy appears to be the only force capable of forcing the universe 20 % faster than 5 billion years ago.
However, to date, there is no experimental evidence that exists that proves that a multiverse exists, even though the mathematics shows that both dark energy and a multiverse must exist.
Testing the theory
In an article in The Conversation in September 2015, the author Eugene Lim said, “The universes predicted by string theory and inflation live in the same physical space (unlike the many universes of quantum mechanics which live in a mathematical space), they can overlap or collide. Indeed, they inevitably must collide, leaving possible signatures in the cosmic sky which we can try to search for.”
The exact details of the signatures depend intimately on the models – ranging from cold or hot spots in the cosmic microwave background to anomalous voids in the distribution of galaxies. Nevertheless, since collisions with other universes must occur in a particular direction, a general expectation is that any signatures will break the uniformity of our observable universe.
These signatures are actively being pursued by scientists. Some are looking for it directly through imprints in the cosmic microwave background, the afterglow of the Big Bang. However, no such signatures are yet to be seen. Others are looking for indirect support such as gravitational waves, which are ripples in space-time as massive objects pass through. Such waves could directly prove the existence of inflation, which ultimately strengthens the support for the multiverse theory. In the summer of 2017 actual gravity waves were measured by the new LIGO system at Hanford. WA and in Louisiana.
Multiple universes have been hypothesized in cosmology, physics, astronomy, religion, philosophy, transpersonal psychology and literature. In religion, the proof of multiple universes might enhance religion’s claim there is a heaven. Proof might also help physicists unify relativity and quantum mechanics.
From a personal point of view, I kind of lean toward eventual proof of dark energy and a multiverse because it is supported by the “many world’s theory” of quantum mechanics which so far has never been proven wrong. All of this study of multiverse theory has reminded me of a science fiction story I read when I was 15 years old called “BEYOND THE STARS” by Ray Cummings. The story tells of a crew on a rocket that goes beyond light speed and eventually passes atoms and then molecules to emerge on a glass slide under a microscope in a parallel universe. It seems that the idea of multiple universes has something for everybody.
Wikipedia defines pseudoscience as consisting of "statements, beliefs, or practices that are claimed to be both scientific and factual, but are incompatible with the scientific method. Pseudoscience is often characterized by contradictory, exaggerated or unfalsifiable claims; reliance on confirmation bias rather than rigorous attempts at refutation; lack of openness to evaluation by other experts; and absence of systematic practices when developing theories."
Pseudoscience ignores the scientific method. It makes conclusions and then looks for facts to support the conclusions. In pseudoscience there is no healthy skepticism about fantastic claims, in fact there is an enthusiasm to accept untested personal testimony as a public truth (as in the stories about UFO’s). It is more about what someone feels than facts. The elevation of individual testimony or sensation over logic and verifiable fact is not only popular; it has always been linked to religion, spirituality, popular psychology, and cults. In fact many New Age cults consider reason the enemy of knowledge and consider emotion as the only authentic source of knowledge.
Is Pseudoscience popular?
A recent Time/Yankelvich poll found that 80% of Americans feel that the government is covering up information about extraterrestrials. In 1990 a Gallup poll found that 50% of Catholics believe in ESP (extra sensory perception) and 53% believe in UFO’s. Pseudoscience is very popular today and certainly more popular than real science in the minds of most citizens. In fact one can say that the less a person knows about real science the more they will be interested in the para-normal, pseudoscience, and the supernatural.
The danger is that new discoveries in science are going to dominate the 21st century and people need to understand science basics to simply keep up and make good decisions. Believing or relying on pseudoscience can cloud people’s understanding of real problems. Wendy Kaminer in her book Sleeping with Extra Terrestrials states “My point is obvious but often overlooked, partly because the celebration of subjective perceptions, feelings, and faith that permeates culture, high and low, has discredited efforts to discern objective realities.” She is saying that the influence of pseudoscience theories and assumptions is much more popular, and often discredits efforts to understand real problems.
There is no harm in pseudoscience as long as it remains in the realm which doesn’t require reason, critical decisions, or affect other people. But when it prevents rational decisions such as the parents who are devoted to New Age healing or the power of magnets to heal their sick kid and avoid going to a real doctor, and then the child dies, they will be in both personal and legal trouble.
Looking up your astrology guide in the daily paper may be a form of entertainment for many people. Or there is probably nothing wrong with believing that magnets can heal various ailments and placing them under your pillow every night (as long as the magnet therapy doesn’t cost very much or is used as a replacement for chemotherapy.) But, pseudoscience can lead to blind antipathy to reason and lead people away from making good decisions or understanding the true nature of the world we live in and the problems we must solve. It makes people gullible to fantastic claims taken at face value without investigation. Claims such as people believing:
Pseudoscience comes in the form of books, products, seminars, newspapers, magazines, TV shows, pop psychology, and religion. Here are some examples:
Back in the 1700’s, Franz Mesmer took advantage of the new science of electromagnetism by theorizing that a universal force or fluid in our bodies got out of balance and caused illness. He devised a solution using magnets that was supposed to bring the body back into balance. Magnets and electromagnetism are still used by New Age philosophers today. Napoleon Hill in his book “Think and Grow Rich” said that the human need to be rich is based on mental vibrations and magnetic force. Trance channelers refer to electromagnetic spectrum's as part of their science.
Books like The Celestine Prophecy written by James Redfield were extremely popular and spent years on the New York Times best seller list. This is a weak adventure story about a man who goes to Peru and finds a lost manuscript that contains nine insights that will save mankind. Like many other New Age authors, Redfield tries to make a case against empiricism and skepticism as being obstacles to the truth. Over and over again these pseudoscience authors preach faith over facts. Redfield says that truth is what you are feeling in your heart, not what is in your head. In the preface readers are warned that, “those who take a strictly intellectual approach to this subject will be the last to get it. To change the world we must break through the habits of skepticism and denial."
This book and many others like it have sold millions of copies because they tell people what they want to hear. It implies that there is no need to worry about the planet’s problems in the new Eden (or heaven, etc.) He says after reading the book the reader will be able to intuit the solutions to complex problems. The book claims that we will evolve into a spiritually enlightened culture of peace and harmony in the next millennium. Author’s note: We are now 18 years into the millennium, and it doesn’t look like very many people have been spiritually enlightened or that we are heading for peace and harmony any time soon. Perhaps we should rush copies of the Celestine Prophecy to members of Congress. They need to be enlightened more than anybody else.
All of these books and New Age philosophies tend to rely on some mysterious force that is not measurable. The Celestine Prophecy describes a non-material world (or dimension) that relies on interpersonal energy or vibrations as the mysterious force. Redfield says, “as we evolve to higher vibrating levels, we become invisible to the less evolved amongst us. As distilled spiritual energy, I think we achieve immortality.” If this quote doesn’t register on your bologna meter, then probably nothing in pseudoscience will.
To get their message across these authors argue against reason, fact, reality and science, which motivated me to write this essay. However many of the newer books and theories are now trying to get more credibility by actually using scientific theories and concepts to explain their pseudoscience. I have always thought that the pseudoscience people would find out enough about Quantum Theory to use it as a platform to launch their own theories. Quantum Theory is an explanation of what goes on at the sub-atomic level of nature. One of the difficulties understanding Quantum Mechanics is that as you get down to the particle levels where everything becomes uncertain. You cannot measure the position of an electron; you can only say what the probability is of the particle being in a certain position. When you get down to even smaller particles which are called strings and are a trillion times smaller then an electron, science at this level is explained by complex mathematical equations and so there is much speculation.
The author Deepak Chopra has seized on to the Quantum Theory in physics and applies it to everyday (macroscopic) living. He says man is not composed of matter, only energy and information “which are outcroppings of infinite fields of energy and information spanning the universe.” In his book Ageless Beauty, Timeless Mind, Chopra uses Quantum Physics to explain quantum healing and the prevention of aging. He says “with the right attitude and awareness you can program your body to enjoy good health and astonishingly long life." He goes on to say, “Study your hand, as if you were examining it through a microscope. Soon you will have arrived at the boundary between matter and energy….Here your hand exists before the Big Bang and after the universe’s end in the heat death of absolute zero. You have arrived at the womb of the universe, the pre quantum region that has no dimensions or ALL DIMENSIONS.”
This is mostly a bunch of double talk couched in pseudo-physics to make it sound like science or some undiscovered truth. But in reality Chopra’s theories are simply another variation of the positive thinking movement which says if you change your attitude and experience it will change your body and the world
Another popular book that is a great example of how pseudoscience can capture the imagination of the general public is Erik von Daniken's CHARIOT OF THE GODS. His hypothesis is that the existence of structures and artifacts around the world represent higher technological knowledge than is presumed to have existed at the times they were manufactured. Däniken maintains that these artifacts were produced either by extraterrestrial visitors or by humans who learned the necessary knowledge from them. Such artifacts include the Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge, and the Moai of Easter Island. Further examples include a medieval map known as the Piri Reis Map, allegedly showing the Earth as it is seen from space, and the Nazca lines in Peru, which he explains as landing strips for an airfield. Instead of using science to explain them von Daniken came up with a story that captured the public’s interest in both UFO’s and aliens. Amongst other things he theorized that some of the long, straight lines could be airports where ancient aliens landed their vehicles. He did not waste time supporting this hypothesis with testable facts or a peer review, but he did sell a lot of books.
The new-agers also compete with Christianity by offering their own mysterious forces to create enlightenment, a life of bliss and even the keys to heaven. In other words: a happy destiny where a person cannot not be saved. They say there is no death – just a form of energy transformation to a new dimension. This is pretty appealing stuff. Who wouldn’t want a world without evil, fear, loneliness, pain and a guaranteed immortality? And you don’t even have to commit to Jesus; you just need to buy their books.
Scientology is a belief system or religion that teaches that people are immortal beings who have forgotten the true story of nature, based on a story of Xenu. Its focus is spiritual rehabilitation by doing counseling sessions called “audits.” In Scientology a person who is trying to achieve spiritual awareness must successfully achieve different levels known as Pre-clear, Clear, Operating, and Thetan levels.
Scientologists have a long record of breaking the law by stealing, forging, break-ins, and harassment of people they consider their enemies They have also gotten into trouble with their claim that mental illness is a spiritual problem. They have attacked anti-depressants like Prozac, and have advised mentally ill people to undergo their counseling sessions rather then go to a psychiatrist. They claim to have an “e-meter” that can measure stress in a body. Scientology has been sued many times in many different countries but in the U.S. it has a tax exempt status just like other mainstream religions.
Another New Age phenomenon is the fascination with angels. There are many angel books and even TV shows and the gist of most stories is that angels watch over each and everyone of us. In fact, some books say that each of us has a personal angel watching over us 24 hours a day and they give us unconditional and unsolicited love. The author of Ask Your Angel describes angels as the “social workers of the universe” most of this is fairly harmless unless the person begins waiting for signs from his angel every time he or she has to make a decision.
In 1989 two scientists, Martin Fleischman and Stanley Pons, announced they had discovered a way to create cold nuclear fusion. In our Sun when hydrogen combines with other hydrogen atoms to form helium at very high temperatures, tremendous amounts of energy are given off. These scientists were trying to emulate the fusion process in a tabletop experiment (e.g. at room temperature) involving electrolysis of heavy water on a palladium (Pd) electrode. Martin Fleischmann, then one of the world's leading electro-chemists, and Stanley Pons reported anomalous heat production ("excess heat") of a magnitude they asserted would defy explanation except in terms of nuclear processes. NBC picked up the story and without any corroboration they announced the successful experiment over national news. Cold fusion, if it could be accomplished, would produce cheap and infinite energy. As it turned out they did not evaluate their data very well and did not wait for other scientists to duplicate the experiment. Achieving cold fusion at room temperatures is still just a dream.
Another popular pseudoscience concept is dowsing or water witching which has been around since the 15th century. A L or Y shaped branch or rod is held in ones hands and is supposed to point to water or metals. The dowsing rod dips or twitches when a discovery is made. Dowsing is supposedly based on human sensitiveness to small magnetic force field changes (yep it is another mysterious force.) Several empirical tests of water witching have been done in Munich and Kassel Germany. The results showed that the water dowser’s ability to find water were no better then chance. In an empirical test nobody has proved that dowsing works or that the magnetic field theory behind the concept is valid.
Before explaining the pseudoscience in religions I want to say that I am a supporter of freedom of religion and citizens worshiping anything they want. I understand that organized religions offer people psychic comfort and community, and that faith in God can be benevolent and nurture courage, compassion, and the capacity to endure.
But I have trouble with religion’s continuous assault on secular government and on public education. I am particularly non-supportive of creation science and the intelligent design movement. The people involved in this religious movement are not satisfied with just promoting their religion and theories – they are trying to prove science wrong to make their religious stories more believable. They have changed the names of their religion to creation science and intelligent design to give them more credibility and to make their pseudoscientific claims look more like science. The real problem is not that they want to spread their ideas and build up their memberships; they also want to put their own version of a high school biology book into the public schools. Their book is pseudoscience and if adopted would lower the science literacy of our citizens.
Pseudoscience can also be found in products being promoted for sale. Some of these are very humorous. But the problem with many of these products is that they are often promoted by scammers trying to make a buck out of the non-scientific public. Good examples are:
My last example is perhaps the most popular of all of the pseudosciences – the belief that UFO’s (unidentified flying objects) are alien spacecraft. The study and belief in UFO’s has been going on since 1947 when Kenneth Arnold saw a formation of flying discs near Mt. Rainier while flying a private plane to Yakima Washington. UFO’s are so popular with society and the media that it has been given a scientific sounding name UFOLOGY and the serious researchers call themselves UFOLOGISTS.
The name UNIDENTIFIED FLYING OBJECT explains the phenomena very well and is the truth of the subject. There are sightings all over the world and they are unidentified flying objects. But where the UFO enthusiasts go off the tracks is claiming that they are interstellar spacecraft, piloted by aliens, and from alien worlds. Unidentified flying objects includes meteors, satellites, birds, aircraft, lights, planets, and weather phenomena. Yes, there are unidentified flying objects but none of these UFO’s for the last 63 years has been positively identified as an alien spacecraft or a craft from outside the earth’s atmosphere.
From a scientific point of view sightings and individual testimony is not acceptable evidence to scientifically confirm that there has been a flyby or landing of a UFO. To be accepted by the scientific community as something more then an unidentifiable object requires physical evidence and a testable or reoccurring identical UFO experience. UFOLOGISTS and their supporters make several errors in logic when arguing for the alien craft theory. First they claim that a skeptic cannot prove that the sighting of an alien craft is not true. In logic, a claim does not become true if a contrary claim cannot be proved to be true. A second problem is that UFOLOGISTS say that absence of evidence proves the possibility of an alien craft. But in terms of science, the only reason we cannot explain UFO’s by conventional means is because we do not have enough evidence.
UFOLOGISTS also say that pilots and scientists say that they cannot think of any logical explanation for a UFO sighting, therefore it must be real. But, again, not being able to think of a logical explanation is not proof that the object is an alien spacecraft. Perhaps the best explanation was by Edward Condon a scientist who was contracted to study the UFO phenomenon in the late 1980’s. He said “nothing has come from the study of UFO’s in the past 21 years that has added to scientific knowledge….further study of UFO’s probably cannot be justified in the expectation that science will be advanced thereby.”
However none of these studies have dissuaded UFOLOGISTS to back away from their claims. In fact, they have fostered the belief that the government has been lying and covering up alien landings, etc. There is no evidence that any government agency has lied, distorted the truth, or has covered up the facts, unless the investigation focuses on a top secret project such as spy satellites or advanced aircraft. Conspiracy theorists tend to capitalize on the public’s general distrust of government, particularly if they are selling a book or continuing their research. Conspiracy theories give these people more breathing room to work their pseudoscience, and an acceptable alternative when they cannot find any evidence. Whether it is flying saucers, Big Foot, the Aurora advanced aircraft project, alien abductions, the assassination of John Kennedy, or the 4 foot tall Roswell bodies, conspiracies by the government to hide the truth seem to be a convenient explanation that is always acceptable to the public when there is absence of real evidence. In fact, conspiracy theories seem to naturally evolve from these kinds of problems.
I have often wondered why conspiracies are so popular with the public. I found a good answer in a Scientific American article written by Thomas Gruter. He says: “One basic answer is that theories promote a simple message. Whatever has happened, there is a single force - usually an evil one – behind it. Humans tend to drastically simplify complicated issues, reducing them to a lone cause whenever possible. This exercise brings order out of chaos; it makes the complex world intelligible and once a person believes he understands how something works, he holds fast the belief. Trust in a secret master plan created by a powerful organization offers simple cause and effect relationships that build along linear chain of events. Chance and ambiguity have no role, which is comforting even in the face of sinister forces. Conspiracies are especially likely to become popular when they feed existing prejudices and superstitions. Belief in the conspiracy reinforces these positions. In this vicious cycle any connection to reality is lost.” (Secret Powers EVERYWHERE, Scientific American, Thomas Gruter, page 68, 2004.)
All of these examples make it very clear that pseudoscience is a lot more popular with the public then real science, which I believe is a real danger for the future of the country. But before any attempt at making a case for science literacy, it is important to understand why people like pseudoscience.
First of all I think people like comforting beliefs. If someone comes up with a science or a philosophy that suggests it is possible to go through life without pain or loneliness, and there is a way to attain immortality by simply believing in mysterious vibrations or forces – why not believe if it makes you feel better?
Some scientists argue that some of the social motives come from the need to comprehend ourselves and the world. Other motives include people’s needs to have a sense of control over outcomes, to belong, to find the world benevolent and to maintain ones self-esteem. These needs are complex and are often fulfilled by pseudo science better then scientific information.
Pseudoscience is also very appealing to people who like black and white or fundamentalist thinking such as creationists and New Agers. People attracted to fundamentalist solutions are also attracted to reductionist approaches which offer simple solutions to very complex problems. Believing in a literal interpretation of Genesis or that the world was created less then 10,000 years ago just as it is today, is much easier to comprehend then to study geology, paleontology, biology and all of the sciences that explain the evolution of the Earth and life. And some people are simply too lazy to learn scientific realities. For many people there is an indifference to the criteria of valid evidence and meaningful, controlled scientific experiments.
Inventors of cults and pseudoscience theories always criticize rational analysis, fact, and reason. They always seem to ask their followers to suspend belief in reasoning and open themselves up to their feelings. They know that many people are troubled in their lives and can be influenced by their emotions. Instead of reason they promote their ideas as experiential or from the heart not the head. The experiential explanations are more personal and offer views of the world that are simpler and do not require a lot of intellectual work to understand.
Why is pseudoscience bad?
As many of these examples show, people without some basic understanding of science can get hurt in the pocket book by quacks, gurus, and scammers. In some cases belief in pseudoscience over health science can endanger a patient or cause serious damage. If it doesn’t bankrupt you or cause serious problems, and if it makes you feel better about life, it might be “harmless entertainment.”
However, the big problem is substituting pseudoscience beliefs for real science facts. We are in a century where there will be many changes to the planet and environment. In our new century, science will permeate all industries and most of our major problems. With so few citizens really understanding science there will be big problems. Carl Sagan summed up this problem in his book the Demon Haunted World: “We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our face.”
People need to understand that the goal of cult leaders and authors of spiritual guides is to only look for facts that support their prophecies, and to sell their books. These people view science and facts, or anything else that would disprove their theories, as the enemy. They want to appeal to your heart instead of your head and are looking for suckers, not critical thinkers.
Of all of the interesting and fascinating subjects in science today, the scientific method of analysis is probably the most important lesson that can be learned. It is simply a way of looking at the world as it is, rather then how we would wish it to be. The scientific method is a disciplined way of digging out facts and using a healthy skepticism in the analysis. In the scientific approach to analysis, people create a hypothesis, describe the facts that support the hypothesis, and then publish their findings as conclusions. Science has a built in system of checking for errors, by letting any one on the planet try to find errors in the facts or conclusions. Your conclusions will not be accepted until a majority of the critics accept your conclusions.
In comparison the pseudoscience approach begins with conclusions and then an effort to find the facts and examples that will support the conclusions. The process ends at this point and testing, peer reviews, and negative criticisms are largely ignored. In fact many of the pseudoscience gurus have declared reason and the scientific method as the enemy of the truth.
Despite the rigors of proving a hypothesis, science is really open to new ideas. There are really no questions that can’t be asked, no sacred truths, and no subjects too sensitive to discuss or debate. But once you develop a hypothesis you must prove it in the face of expert criticism.
People must also know that it is OK to question fantastic claims and ask for more evidence, and it is OK to not accept a claim that doesn’t make sense – that is how science works. You don’t just prove something by one or two experiments. It requires ongoing testing by your peers until the concept is accepted by the majority of the scientific community.
In our new century with all of the problems and the inevitable natural disasters it will be very tempting for people to be attracted to superstition, cult theories, and pseudoscience for answers. To even have a chance to understand these problems or perhaps how to react, people are going to have to learn more about basic science and the scientific method of proving a hypothesis. Unless we can make a lot more headway in the understanding of basic science we will continue to move towards a society where irrationalism will prevail. I fear that the popularity of pseudoscience could lead to a new Dark Age for America where irrationalism reigns supreme.
The Roman’s built an empire that had a growing economy, a good education system, and their engineering built an infrastructure that gave people drinking water, bath houses, sewage systems, and a network of modern roads. After the fall of the empire in the 6th century AD the economy collapsed, the infrastructure collapsed, education deteriorated and there were plagues, religious persecution, and the rise of local lords and fiefdoms. But the worst part of the dark ages was that within 100 years of the collapse most people resorted to supernaturalism, spirits, demons, and irrationalism as the everyday belief system and basis for behavior. Society sank below a critical mass of understanding the reality of everyday life and European society would not emerge from this dark period for more than 1000 years, because society no longer had the facility for critical thinking.
Today in America our education system is not working, and our infrastructure is crumbling. We are now faced with big problems such as climate change, the loss of manufacturing and innovation, declining living standards of the middle class, potential plagues, and slow decline of our economy. We are also faced with a growing popularity of pseudoscience explanations and a host of people who want to make money from ignorance. Abandoning science as an explanation will simply fuel popularity of irrationalism and insure that the charlatans will always have a big audience and market for their goods and messages. Not being able to face the realities of our 21st century problems is a road back to poverty and economic decline. The only real path through the problems is to pursue truth, face reality, and look for the facts. If we fail to meet the challenges of the 21st century and face the reality of our problems, we too may fall into our own dark ages.
Pseudoscience is leading our citizens away from critical thinking and away from any chance of understanding the natural world and all of the problems that are coming at us in the future. We must find a way to increase science literacy. Citizens need to learn to be more skeptical and how to question every fantastic claim they hear about. They need to understand that fantastic claims require fantastic evidence. Rather then accept a claim that appeals to them emotionally, people need to learn enough about science’s empirical method of explaining problems based on experimentation, observation and testing. I have a belief that has worked pretty well over the years in understanding or examining fantastic claims. It goes like this: There is no such thing as certainty. There are only varying degrees of uncertainty. And, we must continuously search for the highest probability of truth.
There is no question that a lot of science is hard to understand and many academicians don’t seem to know how to make it interesting. Academic explanations tend to be written in academic language as if one professor is debating another. This can make a fairly interesting subject incredibly boring.
I have written the Thinking Man’s Guide to Science as an effort to interest people in simply “taking a look” at science concepts. I have tried to make the essays interesting. I have also tried to emphasize some of the facts that I found fantastic after my formal education. Some of the stories behind the facts really hooked me and I hope they hook the reader. I have also tried to speculate on how science might be able to solve problems in the future that at this time appear unsolvable. My goal is to help find ways to get the average person to examine science, the scientific method, and critical thinking so they can apply it to the complex problems of the twenty first century.
Member of REASON (Rabble-rousing Earthlings Association of Scientists Or Naturalist) in the Columbia Gorge