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Musings on Stephen Hawking, E.T., celebrity and blogging

April 27, 2010 9 comments

I. Stephen Hawking and the aliens
I have heard mentioned in the past that Stephen Hawking is one of that motley crew of believers in extra-terrestrials. And it was confirmed for me this morning, on BBC radio 4, that he has made a documentary in which he speculates not merely that alien lifeforms exist, but that they may be dangerous and we should steer clear. This got me thinking.

Obviously Prof. Hawking is an extremely able, gifted man – and his work in attempting to popularise physics is something to respect. I would not presume to challenge him, nor the other eminent scientists like Prof. Brian Cox, that alien life may indeed exist – that it may be microbial etc.

But where does the science come into speculating as to how dangerous it might be?

Even assuming one surpasses the problem of relativistic physics when it comes to the sheer distances involved between two near stars, never mind distant ones, there’s the question of time. Human civilisation has existed for, say, ten thousand years but that’s only ~ 7.3e-7% of the time that the universe has existed, during which entire solar systems have been wiped out.

So, mathematically speaking, not only is the problem simply one of a vast number of planets where eventually variables like distance from sun, the right type of sun, the size of planet etc come into line, but where we have to be in the right time-frame as well – and bearing in mind the age of the universe, that’s not an easy thing.

On the basis of such calculations it seems a bit sensationalist to speculate that aliens may be dangerous. We may never know. Reading one rather fascinating approach, bearing in mind the geophysical forces which shape our planet, 250 million years from now, when Pangaea re-forms, there may not even be a trace of humans left on Earth’s surface.

II. Media and authority
All of this is where the newspapers step in, of course. “Don’t talk to aliens, warns Stephen Hawking” is the Times title. “Stephen Hawking warns over making contact with aliens” says the BBC. No doubt the Sun’s page 3 will have quote Rebecca, 19, from Bournemouth, who finds the thought of aliens arriving on earth just so exciting.

These are the realms into which we are taken by a lot of television – the realms of celebrity. A well-known face is sponsored to feature in a programme that is by and large well meaning, but if it concentrated on those things which can be empirically verified by science, would be thought to bore the socks off the average punter.

Thus we have Stephen Hawking talking about, of all things, aliens.

It reminds me of George Bernard Shaw’s objections to a great deal of scientific discovery – evolution, germ theory and vaccination, for example, and the attention this was given at the time. Now Shaw was not a scientist and spoke from no scientific authority. In point of fact, many of his anti-scientific rants, usefully available in his Collected Prefaces, railed against scientists rather than abstract theory – but the theory caught it hot from GBS’ pen too.

National newspapers reported this stuff all the time, not just as the rants of an eccentric but as if a blow had been struck by one side in a debate against the other. As with Stephen Hawking, this was a departure from the world of science, towards the world of celebrity. Well-known figures expostulating on things they can’t possibly know.

III. Media and celebrity
These days we have Ross Kemp running round battlefields pretending to have a clue. For current affairs programming, Christine Bleakley on the One Show is a happy-clappy joke (I haven’t seen Chris Evans’ slot so I’ll hold judgment). And so on through any number of people who are complete twits, evident non-specialists in the field they are speaking about, and who are elevated by a centralised media to semi-stardom.

There was the blissful moment when nauseating ex-teen, Daniel Radcliffe, was asked about his opinion on the leadership debates, combining pre-existent celebrity, non-specialism and complete gormlessness in one package. All featured in the Sun, unsurprisingly.

Even for specialists the dangers are the same. Watch literally anything presented by ‘historian’ Bettany Hughes, a graduate of St. Hilda’s College, Oxford.

Certain people are elevated over the rest of us to educate us, and not through any great learning but simply because of the nature of a centralised media. There must be sources of authority to ask about things, otherwise newspapers aren’t reporting the opinions of a celebrated personage – merely the opinion of the much less illustrious opinion of a staff writer, and that doesn’t really count as news, apparently.

Even where those sources of authority can reasonably be expected to hazard an educated guess about the stuff they’re presenting, the danger can lie in the method of presentation – speculation independent of a balancing fact, or independent of a sense of proportion. Like aliens being dangerous.

As an avid sci-fi fan, I’m as curious as anyone else about the principles and technologies that would shape a human-alien first contact – and with Stephen Hawking it may be just as honest. We should be aware, however, that this frivolity, like the rantings of George Bernard Shaw, exists in a great pool of pseudo-science, mysticism and other views that serve different social functions.

To take a topical example, the conspiracy theory in the Arab world that Israeli Mossad was responsible for the 9/11 attacks finds its voices of authority in engineers who’ll speculate that aeroplanes alone couldn’t bring down the towers and serves the social function of relieving people from having to challenge the Islamist demons on their shoulder.

Compared to this, of course, the examples of Christine Bleakley and co are less spectacular. I doubt she’ll ever feed a conspiracy theory. But neither are we likely to get piercing analysis. So people can sit back and consider themselves informed, without ever having to actually be informed, one of the most important personal responsibilities in a democracy.

This great pool, as I have called it, is fed into by what GBS would have called ‘vested interests’ – e.g. the corporations who sponsor the cultural programmes of the religious right. We all know just how anti-scientific those are. These interests simply utilise the same form as more mainstream media – hence Christian broadcasting like the 700 Club. While more secular versions may deal with ‘facts’, that’s not to say that it’s better in principle.

When the debate is focused around secular issues, say MMR vaccines, animal testing or immigration, we get the same thing. In one corner a speaker from Immigration Watch or whatever the preposterous anti-science anti-vivisection group of the hour is, and in the other corner, some academic, commentator, journalist or politician. And this is presented as a method for reasoned exposition of key issues that afflict us – which it need not be.

Regardless of ‘fairness’ or ‘popularity’, some of those present may simply not have a clue what they are talking about. And, conversely, there may be issues that go un-discussed as a result.

IV. Arguments to authority and the blogosphere
Elevation by celebrity is deadly, just as much when we are too respectful of genuine specialists as when we permit interlopers of other specialisms and none to take over that role. We can let ourselves be guided by what is being said, especially when presented to us in a shiny format, or from such an august personage. This is despite the fact that both pretenders and personages can very often be full of it.

One only has to read Polly Toynbee columns over an extended period to realise her political expertise is the greatest exercise in political charlatanry since the Divine Right of Kings. It’s little different for the pretenders, hoping through sheer dint of effort to one day be regarded as a specialist in their chosen field. This is often what Tory blogger Iain Dale is accused of – self publicising etc. Well, he’s no better or worse than anyone else.

This danger of an appeal to authority, argumentum ad verecundiam, was eloquently rejected by John Locke in Concerning Human Understanding*, and it is completely undemocratic.

When men are established in any kind of dignity, it is thought a breach of modesty for others to derogate any way from [the opinion of men of established authority], and question the authority of men who are in possession of it.

This is apt to be censured, as carrying with it too much pride, when a man does not readily yield to the determination of approved authors, which is wont to be received with respect and submission by others: and it is looked upon as insolence, for a man to set up and adhere to his own opinion against the current stream of antiquity; or to put it in the balance against that of some learned doctor, or otherwise approved writer.

Whoever backs his tenets with such authorities, thinks he ought thereby to carry the cause, and is ready to style it impudence in any one who shall stand out against them. (Book 4, XVII.19.i)

From the point of view of the Marxist, there also exists the clear danger that Capital, having control of celebrated institutions, also controls and disseminates ‘expert’ opinion to suit itself. Recently, this process was documented by David Harvey when it came to things like the Powell Memo or the sea-change in acadaemia from a preference for ‘embedded liberalism’, which even included a strong Marxist Left flank, to ‘neoliberalism’.

One of the key successes of the blogosphere, in my view, has been the ability to rubbish appeals to authority by challenging the very basis of that authority. Now that many of us can write and opine, the narrow group that do it professionally seem a little less important. Not to denigrate the very real differences between the two – professional journalism is read far more widely than blogging, no doubt, and given much more weight to.

Nor would I challenge the view that quality control is important on blogs, and is sometimes neglected or made irrelevant, the latter in the case of blogs with more than one purpose – e.g. personal musical tastes and politics, where one element is based on argumentation and the other on simply showcasing a preference. Yet overall, I think our contribution is still a net positive.

V. And back to Stephen Hawking…
Beyond the self-congratulatory aspect to all this, there is a wider point. I am not qualified to comment upon Hawking Radiation for example, and this I’ll freely admit. I could pretend to be, but in the absence of any formal qualifications in quantum physics, my views would likely only gain currency if they fulfilled some social function, e.g. as ideology. Yet this doesn’t mean that nobody is qualified to comment, even if they lack formal qualifications.

While above I rail against those who have little or no background in what they talk about, it’s mostly from seeing the effects of this lack of background rather than being because they lack such a background. It would be a mistake to extrapolate from this that only those formally qualified are worthy of having an opinion. I have only qualifications in ancient history but I feel myself quite qualified to talk about politics, music, the arts and so on.

Even if I’m not.

If celebrity elevates people – irrespective of their learning – to preside over us, that is bad. Yet it is equally bad to suppress others simply because they lack formal qualifications that denote learning. What I look forward to is the day when there is some equivalent of the blogosphere for all media – a genuine participatory journalism in which ‘experts’ jockey with amateurs who have access to the same range of experimental data or learned journals.

Which, today, we don’t, nor would we have the time to use them if we did. If the realm of freedom begins after the realm of necessity ends, to speak undialectically for a moment, for most of us, that’s still nowhere near enough free time to establish hobbies that might prove to be intellectually fruitful not just for us but for the entire human race.** Even deprived of such time, however, the contribution of the average moron is still the equal of any expert.

It can be just as tainted with conceits or humility, it can be just as frankly expressed or couched in terms more amenable to socially acceptable proposals and ideals. It can be complete tosh or not. And there’s no reason under the sun such people shouldn’t have the right to be heard, why on matters like aliens, Stephen Hawking’s voice should be heard above the din, or on matters like evolution, GBS’ voice, but others should be condemned to obscurity.

Celebrity is what we call this exclusion and it is toxic.

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