The Big Bang and other “theories”

It’s tempting to draw pleasure from the dismissal of George Deutsch, the 24-year-old presidential appointee who made a short career terrorizing scientists at NASA. Deutsch’s resignation came about not as a result of his gross overreaching as a NASA public affairs officer, but instead because of the false claim on his resume that he had graduated college. An oddly fitting end for a person who finds truth to be such a slippery notion.

Deutsch, you may recall, was the one who instructed scientists at the agency to append the word “theory” everywhere next to the phrase “Big Bang.” The Big Bang is “not proven fact; it is opinion,” he lectured colleagues who, unlike Deutsch, had actually received degrees from accredited universities. “I would hate to think that young people would only be getting one-half of this debate from NASA.”

Unwittingly, Deutsch provided a crisp distillation of what has become a worrying trend: the devaluation of the scientific process itself in the popular discourse. Increasingly, we see scientific results being treated as one more partisan club, and the scientific community regarded as just another special interest group whose views on technical matters hold no more objective validity than, say, the industry or religious groups those views might offend.

According to Deutsch’s worldview, society is engaged in a “debate” over the validity of the Big Bang. There are two “halves” to this debate, and in the interest of fairness or intellectual honesty we must equally weight the “opinions” of these various factions. Deutsch is explicit about his meaning. “This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue.”

Taken by itself, the kerfuffle over the Big Bang might seem to be no big deal. After all, Deutsch got his comeuppance, and presumably the public affairs office will be that much more wary of dictating to the academic community. And this really is an academic issue. Most of us don’t lose much sleep over cosmological events that took place over 10 billion years ago.

But the Big Bang memos only came to light after one of NASA’s top climate scientists went public with the claim that the agency was trying to silence him. His offense? Calling for a reduction in greenhouse gases linked to global warming.

The point, of course, is not that we should simply accept what scientists tell us on the strength of their own authority. After all, there is still plenty of basic research to be done on the essential mechanisms of climate change, plenty of arguments to be hashed out, plenty of need for skepticism and disagreement. And even when the scientific community does establish a consensus, as eventually it will, we can still respectfully disagree about the policy implications of that consensus.

But we should never quibble with the facts. Unfortunately, we increasingly see people with eccentric worldviews wrapping themselves in the banner of open debate and demanding that their opinions receive equal attention.

Unfortunately, many who practice this technique aren’t as hamhanded as Deutsch. They get the attention they seek. When the public discourse is corrupted in this fashion, science itself is the loser. And so are we all.

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