Michael Shermer (2002) outlines 25 fallacies of thought that can influence how investigators approach their research and interpret the outcomes. These fallacies can be used to help us to understand where the data ends and the human factor begins. With new claims challenging the scope and breadth of Einstein’s general and special theories of relativity, it would be appropriate to examine these claims with a couple of Shermer’s fallacies.
The furtherance of cosmology and astrophysics is heavily reliant on our understanding of gravity, as it plays an integral role in the movements of and relationships between celestial bodies. As of this writing, it is the revolutionary theories of Newton and Einstein that guide the sciences. Though these theories do well to explain gravity within our solar system, as technological growth enables us to study more of the cosmos, we find that the matter distribution throughout the universe becomes problematic to the accepted theory. This has been referred to as the “missing mass problem” (Skordis, 2009, p. 2). To answer this problem, researchers have adopted and tested gravitational theories which build on Newton’s and Einstein’s theories. Unfortunately for these researchers, the scientific community is skeptical about any claims aimed at possibly discrediting the long-held conventions of gravitational theory, especially in light of the scientific growth that has resulted over the years. This creates a scientific controversy which will eventually be settled by continuing to form and adapt theories and testing their mettle against the scrutiny of scientists (Herstein, 2009).
Claims need to be accepted as valid or significant before the scientific community will consider them as competitive with current science. Certainly, there is no time to argue against every claim made, so only those claims that have the characteristics of good science should be entertained. This is where Shermer’s fallacies can be of value. Shermer attempts to provide a tool with which to measure the inadequacies of research and researcher. With his fallacies of thought, he attempts to reveal the pseudo-science among the good science. Two of his fallacies are useful to measure the claims against Einstein.
“Theory influences observations” (Shermer, 2002, p. 46). This truism certainly impacts astronomical and cosmological research. The study of universal gravity is difficult because we observe the effects from Earth. It is impossible to directly study the gravity of planets and stars from here. We must form theories and use calculations to approximate and legitimize our observations. These calculations must, then, have predictive value. If not, the theory is not valid (or, has limitations). With the distance from our subjects, we are forced to speculate about the observations, limited by our understanding of the physics involved.
“Equipment constructs results” (Shermer, 2002, p. 47). This statement has probably never been more true. We are truly limited by our location, as mentioned previously, and rely on remote data collection when studying the universe. To add, we are studying effects throughout time. Given two separate sets of data collected at the same time, the actual events observed could have a difference in age of millions of years. The distances of the various bodies are directly proportional to the age of the observation. This creates unique issues that we have never had to face studying our own solar system, as the differences, locally, are only hours at most.
It is important for scientists to consider all of the viable options when reaching a consensus, but it is just as important that the scientific community does not become overburdened by a multitude of spurious claims resulting from flawed, misguided, and unfounded research. Shermer (2002) provides an apparatus to immediately identify suspect logic.
Herstein, G. (2009, July 23). What does a real scientific controversy look like? [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.scientificblogging.com/inquiry_inquiry/ what_does_real_scientific_controversy_look
Shermer, M. (2002). Why people believe weird things. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
Skordis, C. (2009, March 21). The Tensor-Vector-Scalar theory and its cosmology. Manuscript submitted for publication. Retrieved from http://arxiv.org/abs/0903.3602