April 26, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Cosmologist Suffers Paranoid Delusions: Media Promotes His Views

“They’re coming to get us, and I’m sure of it, because I know everything.”  What would you think of someone who talked like that?  What if he were one of the most famous cosmologists alive today?  The man is Stephen Hawking – that wheelchair-bound math wizard who talks with a speech synthesizer and once fell into a black hole in The Simpsons.  Now, the Discovery Channel is poised to air his views on SETI and alien life, and the science media, as usual, can’t get enough of his opinions.
    The BBC News reported that Hawking considers it “perfectly rational” to believe that aliens exist, but he also believes we should do everything possible to avoid making contact.  He said, “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”  Normally, scientists do not try to build a universal principle from a sample size of one, nor make such generalities castigating all sentient beings in the universe because of the sins of some.*  PhysOrg briefly parroted these opinions without comment, as did Jessica Griggs at New Scientist.  Clara Moskowitz gave Hawking the most paranoid-sounding headline, though, on Space.com: “If Aliens Exist,They May Come to Get Us, Stephen Hawking Says.”
    Along with Hawking’s evidence-challenged delusions that they’re out to get us, he believes he has an inside scoop on the secrets of the universe.  The next episode of his Discovery Channel series, Moskowitz revealed, is titled, “The Story of Everything.”

*  This is the “Hollywood Fallacy.”  Consider two filmmakers making documentaries about Los Angeles.  One shows off all the glamour and glitz: Hollywood movie stars, Rodeo Drive, Disneyland, beaches with gorgeous girls, all the best.  Filmmaker #2 makes a film about gangs, drugs, riots, fires and earthquakes.  Which is the truth?
    Hawking is undoubtedly thinking of the downside of European conquest of the Americas, and perhaps other instances of conquest, but such broad-brush depictions are not useful without specifics.  The Portuguese were interested primarily in trade, for instance, whereas their neighbors, the Spaniards, sailed to conquer.  And not all the conquered people were worse off after conquest (though many were).  Before the 16th century, the Mayans were throwing girls to volcano gods and committing ritual human sacrifice in ways that shock archaeologists today.  Tribal warfare in some lands before Europeans arrived was brutal and vicious.  It was often replaced by colonization that was also brutal in different ways, but not always.  And we must ask, what peoples did the well-known tribes conquer before them?
    Many of the early mountain men were respectful to the Native Americans; trade was welcome, and developed into a mutually beneficial relationship.  Is it their fault if later generations took advantage of the doors they had opened?  Some of the mountain men were appalled at treatment of the Indians and intervened on their behalf.  Sometimes the immigrants tried to be peaceful and introduce trade, only to be massacred for their kindness.  We all know the bad cases (slavery, genocide, epidemics); colonization and empire are often synonymous with greed and avarice.  But some colonizers attempted to be peaceful and benevolent and establish mutually attractive relationships with natives, and some native peoples accepted the terms.  Once in awhile colonization brought new blessings and opportunities.
    There’s another more major problem with Hawking’s fear of aliens.  Can he really compare what happened on Earth, where all the parties involved belong to Homo sapiens, with what might happen between people and aliens?  When you talk specifics, you can have a meaningful conversation and bring clarity.  Generalities often serve only to reinforce stereotypes.

With all due respect to Hawking’s struggle with ALS and the courage he has exhibited in his many years proving that a life is valuable despite physical disabilities, these factors are no excuse for saying dumb things.  The men in blue suits tried to cure this madman of his delusions by subjecting him to shock treatment in NASA’s “Vomit Comet” in 2007 (picture on Engadget.com), but it obviously didn’t work.  But then, would you expect evolutionary psychologists (02/16/2010, 02/28/2010) to cure paranoia brought on by evolutionary cosmology?  The Discovery Channel should look for more rational content at the Discovery Institute.  We had a little fun here at Hawking’s expense, the poor, good-natured genius.  Now read what physicist Rob Sheldon thinks of all this.

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Categories: Cosmology, Dumb Ideas, Media, SETI

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