In one sentence, you could simply say that I am a skeptic. Its true. I don’t believe what I’m told. I’m skeptic of authorities, and I’m skeptic of conspiracies as well. Sometimes simply saying “I don’t know” can get you into trouble. If I say I’m unsure about the affects humans have on climate change, you may think I align with some particular political affiliation.
Recently, one of my most controversial skepticisms is The Big Bang Theory. People’s understanding of science goes like this. There are experts, they accept the theory; I’m not an expert, therefor I accept what the experts say. I don’t really have a problem with this line of reasoning, its usually correct, except when its not.
Before 1920 the established scientific community around the world had plenty of theories that are now know to have been wrong. Edwin Hubble for instance, was the first to observe that some of the nebulous clouds within the milky way were actually, in fact galaxies of their own. Before that moment, the milky way galaxy was considered to be the entire universe. We now know that there are billions of galaxies and we are in just one of them.
So here was a case where the established physics of the day turned out to be wrong. Dead wrong. But lets please take another second to appreciate just how wrong they were. There are plenty of galaxies just like The Milky Way, many of them bigger. The established understanding of the entire universe was off by more than a few percent, not only a few factors, not even just a couple orders of magnitude. No, We were all wrong by a factor of millions about the fundamental size of our world.
The point being that science is often wrong, but that’s how it grows. I just try to point out the overreach in places I suspect it. We know newtonian physics simply work. We’ve been building bridges and buildings with them for hundreds of years. You can slam yourself into a brick wall if you’d like a first hand understanding that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. You’ll get some very conclusive data points. The equations of Maxwell have been used over and over to build our electrical systems throughout the world, and regardless of how strange time dilation seems, Einstein’s contributions to relativity can be shown over and over in labs with great predictability. But other areas of physics, some currently seen as cutting edge, maybe string theory, or multiverse, will one day be usurped by something more provable.
The difficulty is determining how ‘sure’ experts really are. Let me use a more contrived example. Let’s say I put a dollar down at roulette table on black. Roulette has 38 numbered spots that you can land on. They are: 0, 00, and 1 through 36. If the marble lands on 00 or 0, the house will win. While the payout is double, the chance of winning is only 9/19 (slightly less than 50%).
If I ask a statistician who should win, they would tell me “the house should win”. There odds here are 11/19, a bit more than mine. Now here is the problem. What if I ask another statistician who should win? They will say again that it’s the house. If I poll 1000 statisticians at least 999 will agree that the house should win. The issue is that my poll showing 99.9% of experts agree, does not accurately reflect to the degree of certainty of the result. Nearly every ‘expert’ opinion we take as status quo, has a statistical element of how sure we really are about it. However the degree of certainty is usually lost by the time a message get to the general public. After all, the media can’t be expected to dive into a tangent on Descartes, to explain how one can never truly ‘know’ anything.
So getting to The Big Bang Theory specifically: Why don’t I believe in it, and how sure am I. My issue is that it reeks of knowledge overreach, and that in its attempt to rather intuitively explain a single observation, it requires breaking many other laws of physics.
Many years ago it was observed, that the further into the universe one looked, the ‘redder’ things got. The wavelengths of light were stretched. This known as the doppler effect, and it happens when things are moving relative to you. It happens with sound waves too, and is very well understood. The deeper into the universe astronomers look, the faster things seem to be moving away. This implies the same physical nature as an explosion. The outermost pieces move the fastest, everything moves away from everything else.
Everything from the above paragraph is just observable fact, but using the this doppler effect, physicists went on to calculate speeds, and decided to back-date our universe (15 billion years?), to when all these particles would have initially started the explosion from a point. Its a great theory, it’s simple and slowly mainstream science began to overwhelmingly accept it.
Now that the scientists know it’s fact, they went on to calculate the details. This is where an interesting type of exercise takes place. How can we design an equation to yield our known results. The math showed that particles had to have traveled faster than the speed of light. Now this already should be enough to throw away your idea, and move forward, but the big bang was already accepted. Now we are just drawing mathematical conclusions from it. In order to describe the observation about stretched light hitting us, we’ve decided to break Einstein’s law of relativity (something that can be experimentally reproduced in any lab and is wildly more provable).
It goes further. More recently astrophysicists have observed that each galaxy is not only moving away from us, but that this movement is accelerating. This observation is counterintuitive to the big bang theory. It shows that the outward movement does not reflect that of an explosion at all. Something else is going on here. The current explanation involves something to do with the idea that ‘space itself is growing between them’ (whatever that means). I tend to doubt, that if this was discovered at the same time as the doppler shift, we would have even ended up with The Big Bang Theory as accepted science at all.
Someday the skeptics will live and breath with the rest of us, and reveal out loud their criticisms without succumbing to academic and political pressure to conform. Until then I’ll quietly disagree.