It’s Not Rocket Science

It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring. – Carl Sagan.

Crater 308 viewed from orbit (NASA Photo AS11-44-6611)

A generation ago, science was on the ascendancy and the USA landed men on the Moon; today a significant proportion of its population don’t believe that this even happened.

Welcome to the 21st century, where people have access to the largest repository of knowledge in history but lack the skills to rationally process this data into wisdom.

Pseudosciences and conspiracy theories flourish, often explained away through the misuse of scientific (or other plausible sounding) words. Thus we hear religious people describe god as ‘energy’, scientific laws are discounted as ‘only a theory’, astronomy is equated with astrology, and in the name of ‘balance’ everyone’s opinion is regarded as equal regardless of whether or not they are an informed world expert or an uninformed armchair critic. People talk about ‘creation science’, about planets or earthquakes or constellations as cosmic portents, and ‘life force’ can mean anything from ghosts to evolution or Star Wars. Karma as a superstitious concept is rationalised as being ’cause and effect’. The double-speak is ubiquitous: ‘natural’ things such as certain foods, unfluoridated water, alternative medicine or even diseases are asserted as being good by default; whereas ‘unnatural’ products such as certain other foods, vaccines, blood transfusions and homosexuality might be asserted as being bad. Facts that disagree with your ignorance or ideological prejudice are asserted to be ‘fake news’.

Launch of Apollo 11, 16 July 1969 (NASA Photo)

Perhaps this modern social phenomenon was foreshadowed when former Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who helped to build the Saturn V rockets that took the US Apollo missions to the Moon, supported a creationist publication by writing a foreword in which he stated:

“For me the idea of a creation is inconceivable without God. One cannot be exposed to the law and order of the universe without concluding that there must be a divine intent behind it all.” – Wernher von Braun, p. xi.

While it may seem surprising that the world’s leading rocket scientist of the 20th century supported the idea of creator/creation, there can be no doubt that this watchmaker fallacy (or argument from design) is popular because it promotes superstition under the guise of science. For von Braun, it undoubtedly held an appeal because he himself was a designer.

In turn, we must be vigilant in demanding more rigorous scientific standards – but do so in ways that build up rather than tear down. Rather than mocking people for their mistaken beliefs, we should encourage them to use evidence to find wonder and awe within the real world. That’s part of what makes us gloriously sentient.

See also:

Wernher von Braun, ‘Foreword’, in Harold Hill, How Did It All Begin? From Goo to You by Way of the Zoo, New Jersey: Logos International Books, 1976.

© 2022 Geoff Allshorn

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