Cosmology—Science As Showbusiness
Published in Fortean Times No 75, June 1994
When science starts selling itself, ever more extravagant claims are made based on the flimsiest of evidence. Colin Bennett isn’t buying it.
First, catch your well-turned-out, white male American scientist. Make sure he is in apple-pie order and give this worthy son a grant for a dish aerial, radiation magnetometer, and its associated electronics. Have him take his apparatus to one of those really inaccessible areas of the earth such as Antarctica where the cosmic mysteries can be investigated, and note that such spaces are never near any conveniently localised areas which contain your gas-meter, your carpet slippers or your tea-pot (and also note that no successful magician is ever brightly lit). Let our hero now attempt to measure and analyse cosmic radiation patterns whose signal strength is hundreds of thousands of thousands of times smaller than the combined quiescent noise of his aerial, his calibrating system and his primitive power-supply, and you have the foundations of a new cosmology as exemplified by George Smoot’s Wrinkles in Time.
Now, back at the press conference, multiply the superlatives, the self-congratulations, hide the doubtful links in the correlation, the shaky technical set-up, and the absolutely appalling book, and see the fantastic, frost-bitten mess transform itself into, Lo! Tangible Gravity Waves! Now, liberally sprinkle with some embarrassing praise from a founding father of all these wonders, Stephen Hawking: “The scientific discovery of the century, if not all time.”
Now, having challenged Einstein, Aristotle, and Newton, go ahead and attach thousand-figure decimal points to systems which (like the measuring equipment chain) consists of only two or three such points at best, and see if the media, a large respectable publishing house, and even a respectable university will buy this ramshackle package. After such claims, mystics, never mind outrageous eccentrics, need ever worry again, the sincere assurances and solutions contained therein being solid and rational enough to satisfy even a Marxist social worker hunting for evidence of Satanic child abuse.
What is happening, here? Science is advertising itself, that’s what. Like the fallen systems of astrology, ghosts, resurrections, still struggling to become the new tyrannies of experience and recapture the high ground of metaphor, what Science wants is to retain power. It wants to do that just as much as any Caesar, salon brat or bimbo star, and it is prepared to do just as much to get it. It knows that there are many other hungry creatures yapping at its heels, and that it can only kick away the muzzles of the jackal-systems for so long.
Science is in trouble. Scientist Terence Kealey says that the recent Science Week was “…based on the false proposition that science is intrinsically good; it is not: it is now little more than a collection of facts important only to specialists.” 
The problem is far worse than that. The scientific “benefits to mankind” lie rusting all over the planet. The aerials strung across mountains, the accelerators, and the cyclotrons will undoubtedly become the henges of the future. The nuclear power policies, the mirror-fusion project, the Strategic Defence Initiative, the space programme, have all been either drastically reduced or shut down. The brilliant art of those original twentieth century heroes, the particle physicists, was lost long ago, buried alive in obscurities not worth a crayon-drawing by a chimpanzee.
Science has been scarred by scandal. Consider: cold fusion; thalidomide; breast-cancer; radiated food; AZT; genetic engineering; the deep confusions of the Artificial Intelligence debate; endless pollution; animal experimentation; uncontrollable radiation leaks; unbelievable financial scandals, and conspiracies galore concerning the military-industrial spectrum, which produced many graves which bear no names.
Thirty years ago, scientists who wrote books on their research which contained more than one or two slight cosmological gulps in 500 pages stood every chance of being professionally crucified. In Smoot’s Wrinkles in Time and Hawking’s A Brief History in Time, the rate of such gulps per clause is quite phenomenal.
Let there be no more accusations of fantasising. With these two authors, there are more bland assumptions of cosmic truth than in a Maharishi poster. Flip claims of phenomenal exactness are made with the same amount of responsible commitment as required in blowing the nose. In the past, Science, if it was about anything at all, was about precision and rigour. Faceless men, who had never heard of press conferences, created a myth of accuracy, and doled out “Factual Truth” grudgingly and sparingly, like gruel in workhouses.
Now let there be no more accusations of imprecision. For, towards the end of his book, Smoot describes a curious episode which Charles Fort would have loved. Some unaccountable and very strong quasi-periodic signals were detected by Smoot’s Antarctic dish-receiver.  In order to account for these quite coherent shapes on the monitoring scope, the team had to invent the combined signals of not one, but three hypothetical satellites, not one of whose existence they bothered to confirm. How neglectful of them.
Since Smoot tells us that none of these pseudo-satellites had the usual 100-minute period and were broadcasting on an internationally illegal wavelength, we might have had something more intriguing than the highly abstract and contentious ideas of gravity-waves. Did the author bother to visually record these effects? What about the thousand and one questions raised here? But typical of the loose style of the book, the author somehow loses his concentration, makes a joke about UFOs and aliens, and leaves the questions raised by this mysterious pulse unanswered.
I think there is no such thing as knowledge, just advertisements. I have a feeling that we will not hear from Mr Smoot and his gravity-waves again. He will probably fade away with his “wrinkles in time,” like Keely’s fuel-less motor, the Ether, Phlogiston, or the Angels of Mons. I think what we have here with the new cosmology is a whole series of genuine middle-class fantasies, like the writer’s café, an English intellectual, or Theatre as Truth.
I think that the ideas of the hopelessly pretentious all-interpretive cosmological industry are created by a Publicity Agency like that of Max Clifford, supplier of bimbo-ideas to the elite. Glamourise the possibilities. Create intellectual pornography. Insist on Accuracy—how about Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos: The Story of the Scientific Quest for the Secret of the Universe by Dennis Overbye, or The First Three Minutes of the Universe by Stephen Weinberg? Oh, you would like more, sir? Well how about this little hard-core number: James Trefil’s Big Bang Physics from before the First Milisecond to the Present Universe. No? Sorry, can’t go beyond the first millisecond, sir, we don’t do anything involving children and animals. If you really want blatant subversive filth, then go down that alley over there and pay through the nose for The Big Bang Never Happened by Eric Learner, the subversive rat who doesn’t believe a single word of it. Wait a minute, sir. Don’t go yet. Something right up your street has just arrived. Now, how about this:
By a ten-billionth of a trillionth of a second inflation had expanded the universe (at an accelerating rate) a million trillion trillion times, and the temperature had fallen to below a billion billion billion degrees. 
You like that, sir? Makes The Green Humanoid of Bradford I sold you last week look fairly respectable, what? Thank you. £11.50, paperback, from Little, Brown and Company. Enjoy your orgasm!
None of these scientists restrict themselves to the scratchy little areas of good old Crick and Watson. And forget the masterpieces of Gleik (Chaos), Hodges (The Enigma of Intelligence), Watson (Supernature), Taylor (The Natural History of the Mind), and Rose (The Making of Memory). The New Cosmology is scientific writing as showbusiness. The bigger the concept, the bigger the take. Anything is permitted that will arouse an eager audience. Making you feel awed is almost the most effective political game in town, and a little bit of correlation goes a long way.
The wagging of such neat little tails as Bubbles, Voids and Bumps in Time: The New Cosmology (James Cornell), The Omega Point: The Search for the Missing Mass and the Ultimate Fate of the Universe (John Gribbin), and The Fifth Essence, The Search for Dark Matter in the Universe (Lawrence Krauss), is irresistible, especially when last flings before the cultural menopause are contemplated, but actually all these titles are whores, not worth a portrait of Terry Wogan.
By comparison other lantern-jawed systems, such as the mildly depressing solidities of Penrose or Sheldrake, look like maiden aunts in a Miss Wet T-Shirt Competition—although with the lights out they are probably much better in bed than the schlock-nymphs, more faithful and better company. At least they avoid the blushing schoolboyish phrases of the dotty Hawking (ill-served by his editors), the Berkeley Jewish-American of Smoot, and the homespun approach of Bart Kosko in Fuzzy Thinking, a man who frequently sounds like Jimmy Durante singing, “I’m the Guy Who Found The Lost Chord”—“One night in a hot tub I found an answer: the whole in the part.” 
Later, Bart becomes even more homely: “Touch your mother’s toe. Is that incest or not incest? Touch her ankle, her shin, her knee. Is that incest? And so on up.” 
But Smoot takes the biscuit, leaving the creation of space itself to twenty-one words between brackets, which sound like an instruction on the back of a can of fly spray: “(Remember, the universe did not expand into existing space after the big bang: its expansion created space-time as it went.)”
As it went. You got that?
The new cosmologies are aspects of an intellectual consumerism in which knowledge is transformed by the electronic village into continuously created advertisements, the naturally selected camouflage of prestige-hungry scientific endeavours, at the side of which the Amazonian river-bank looks like an old City Limits editorial. Such interest-groups create and move into their own space, filling it with such intellectual confectionery as massive dish aerials, control-panels, and microwave magnetometers, massive and dramatically impressing bonbons, aglow with their success at establishing intimidating superiority.
What does the Victorious system want? Both Goebbels and Pavlov showed many years ago that social groups could be precisely controlled by a programmed information and image frequency, making them behave just like a computer-generated cartoon or soap aerial, a shuffled pack of standard doll-responses. Human beings are, of course, already sufficiently robotised. They can no more control their hair-growth, tooth decay, or natural functions than fly. And when a master signal goes out from the paradigm that happens to be the Darwinian victor, for a time, all minds and bodies goose-step together.
Facts? Reality? How factual is Princess Di? How real is Angela Rippon? How meaningful is 10 to the 100th power? How objective is the myth of what Arthur Eddington called the “pointer-readings” of aerial or control panel, or indeed any device? In the “objective philosophy” which has thankfully just died in Russia, not a single peasant got a single tractor. As Charles Fort might have put it—you can be sure of one thing, and that is that, in the information explosion, you won’t get any information.
Scientific views are no more true or false than any other views. In the struggles of ideo-anthropology, scientific views just happened to win. Taking a tip from Fuzzy Thinking, perhaps we shouldn’t ask ourselves what is true or false anymore. Perhaps a new paradigm should be based on the question: what shall we allow ourselves to experience? Scientific thinking depends on one thing—an acceptance that the new experiments in the new laboratories will be better than the old experiments in the old laboratories.
As the man said while dispensing the coloured bottles full of facts and objectivities and experiments from the back of the covered wagon: believe that and you’ll believe anything.
- The Sunday Telegraph, 20 March 1994.
- Note: this aerial was much abused. Not only did it receive weird signals, it also shared a viciously bucking power supply with another experiment close by. It fell off its stand several times, nearly killing a worker. These are serious matters and the slap-happy Mr Smoot doesn’t tell us if they were ever properly sorted out. God only knows what the crash did to the delicate aerial’s alignment or response. Radiations from the shaky supply might have reached the aerial, or spikes might have penetrated the smoothing capacitors of the stabilised DC lines of the aerial’s preamplifiers. In such conditions, the bias voltages of all the component boards concerned could have varied. One might therefore suggest that this apparatus was hardly suitable to amplify and measure signals whose radiating field-strength was so small as to be near the molecular noise of the receiving transistors, whose gain, linearity, and frequency-response would have to be somewhat unadulterated to demonstrate “gravity waves,” at the least!
- Smoot, George and Davidson, Keay, Wrinkles In Time. New York: William Morrow, 1994, p 284.
- Kosko, Bart, Fuzzy Thinking. London: HarperCollins, p 44.
- Ibid, p. 93.