On March 29, 2011, Dr. Robert Sungenis descended on the puddled and pot-holed campus of that pinnacle of higher learning – the University of Manitoba. He provided a comprehensive lecture on why modern science is a large, looming monolith which suppresses reality, ostracizes non-believers and does some downright dirty things… which he, of course, kindly contrasted with the Catholic Church. He spoke (after a 20 minute technical delay) to
a packed lecture hall 29 people who were willing to take some time out of their Tuesday night to entertain the notion of geocentrism. That is, Dr. Sungenis argued that the entire universe, including the Sun, revolves around us.
Dr. Sungenis is one of the top names in geocentrism, having co-written the definitive, and, as near as I can tell, only, modern textbook on geocentrism. (Side note: He shamelessly promoted this book throughout the lecture, claiming to be holding back valuable evidence in support of his ideas. The thing itself could be used to hold down a helium balloon in a hurricane, though at the $80 price tag, I would suggest finding a moderately sized boulder instead.) He obtained his PhD. from an unaccredited distance education program, and is quite proud of the fact that his doctoral dissertation is over 700 pages long. By contrast, normal research-based theses are around 150-200 pages long. Not only does that indicate the sort of quality of education Dr. Sungenis received, it is a lovely demonstration of his complete inability to get to the point.
So, Dr. Sungenis began his talk with a long and drawn out discussion that hardly seems worth mentioning but for two points. The first is that he quote mined and then insulted Carl Sagan. Blasphemer! The second is that his logic seems to come down mistaking correlation for causation in the downfall of the Catholic Church. It is as follows: People use Galileo as an example of things that the Catholic church has gotten wrong in the past. Since Galileo’s time, the Church has fallen in prominence and atheism has gained in popularity. Ipso facto, heliocentrism leads to atheism. Later on in the lecture, he actually said verbatim that if you did not believe in a geocentric universe you were atheist. He mentioned nothing of the numerous rational individuals who manage to somehow synthesize heliocentirsm and Catholicism. Nor does he ever demonstrate how accepting his model would mean that the Church is and always has been right about everything.
Early in the lecture, I became acutely aware of the fact that Dr. Sungenis is a huge fan of quote mining. I was willing to forgive him for the Sagan misquote, as it is easy enough to unintentionally misconstrue Sagan’s literary devices and poetic language. However, one of his early quotes (and honestly, I don’t remember which, as there were plenty of them) contained so many ellipses that my only notes on the subject are “Ellipses seizure!!” This was a recurring theme over both days and descended from the precipices of “casual and appropriate reference to someone who had something thoughtful to say” to the dark depths of “dredging scientific papers for things that could be deliberately misrepresented.”
He then continued to say that current theories based on heliocentric models have not been proven. This is a familiar creationist claim that has been so thoroughly debunked that it’s almost tiresome to mention it. He, either deliberately or through some vast oversight in his research, fails to understand that theory cannot ever be 100% proven. The theory only works in every conceivable situation we have applied it to – and there are a great deal of those! Of course, what he asks scientists to provide him with are absolute certainties, and being good scientists, they give him assertions with qualifications. He interprets this as uncertainty and dissent, when in reality, it’s intellectual honesty.
Then, he moves onto a history lesson. He barely touches on Copernicus, except to say that he thought that the orbits should be perfect circles and that this was incorrect. He argues that the advancement of this knowledge proves that previous theory should have been utterly discarded when it was in fact refined (and simplified) to fit the observable evidence. Of Galileo, he has much to say. He argues that the Church was right to condemn his works, though fails to mention his imprisonment. Implicitly, he condones the censorship as the right call – the very censorship which he claims and opposes for today. He argued that the only reason that the Church (much later) allowed Galileo to be stricken from the blacklist was through “subterfuge.” Yes, it was a grand conspiracy, as Napolean had stolen the relevant records from the time, and someone else had argued that the Church objected to one particular aspect as opposed to the whole thing, but no one could prove anything, and so the church revoked the ban on publishing but did not condone heliocentrism.
Though interesting from a historical perspective, I was confused as to what this had to do with anything. Though he was pointing out numerous ad hominem arguments against a sun-centred solar system, he did not stop to consider that perhaps, jackasses can have good ideas too. Whether there was grand conspiracy or not, whether some heliocentrist killed a geocentrist in a duel or not, whether Galileo had a fun time poking dying people with a pointy stick – it’s all irrelevant to the quality of the theories which they supported. Although Dr. Sungenis never considers his critiques a fallacy, could we hardly expect more from someone who has clearly never learned how to critically dissect science.
Of course, Newton was the next to come up. Although Physics, as a discipline, is a mysterious entity that my brain simply refuses to fully grasp, I could see the basic flaws in his critique of Newton’s Laws. “F = ma!” he stated as if he had struck upon something significant. The same slide espoused Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation. “Look,” he opined, “The force is the same no matter which object is rotating around the other! Geocentrism is just as valid as heliocentrism and Newton proved it!”
As Tim Minchin says in Storm, “Hm that’s a good point, let me think for a bit; Oh wait, my mistake, it’s absolute bullshit.” Dr. Sungenis defeats his very own point by referring to F = ma, which means that acceleration = Force/mass. Therefore, acceleration will decrease proportionally with the mass of the object, and the sun, which is far more massive, will accelerate less than a much smaller Earth. This point was never questioned, but I am truly curious as to how Dr. Sungenis fails to comprehend this basic observation about reality. You don’t need Newtonian physics to understand that the same force applied to a ping pong ball and a cement truck will have a lot more affect in accelerating a ping pong ball.
Perhaps anticipating that argument, he asserted that the earth was the central mass of the universe, and yet did not show how we could possibly exist on a planet, which, being more massive than anything else in existence, would not crush us into a fine dust by that same gravitational law. Ultimately, I believe that such confounding arguments were part of his strategy – if you get everything so utterly wrong, it’s nearly impossible to refute him without going back to the beginning and giving an hour long Grade 10 level lecture on Newtonian physics.
Ultimately, he asserted that Newton and Einstein should be made pariahs on the basis that they took a theory (heliocentrism) and modified it to fit the evidence. This was the proof, at last, that the whole system should crumble. Those nasty scientists had the gall to observe the universe and find a way to improve our model of it! I’m not sure what he would rather have – since Dr. Sungenis repeatedly attacked science for being stuck in a paradigm, does he want change, or doesn’t he? He seems to misunderstand that scientists don’t treat theories like antique vases. Nobody says, “Look, we’ve got a theory now, so put it on a shelf and for God’s sake, don’t break it.” Science takes that vase and throws it against the wall for the express purpose of breaking it. Usually, it doesn’t, but where the real science happens is when everyone bends down to pick up the pieces.
One set of those pieces that scientists are currently trying to put back together is the so-called “Axis of Evil.” The hullabaloo is that the axes seem to point to the plane of our elliptical around the sun. This is consistent in the dipole, quadrupole and octopole. Here it is:
If you’re confused, so was I. I have no idea what these diagrams mean aside from something to do with cosmic background radiation. He referred to these images over and over again as proof of… something? Honestly, he made no effort to explain what we were looking at or what it meant. He did take this out of a Science editorial in 2007 by Adrian Cho (subscription required), who summarizes the controversy nicely.
Some suspect that the axis may be an illusion produced by an unaccounted bias in how the satellite works. And even those who have studied the alignments note that exactly how unlikely they appear depends on which mathematical tools researchers use to analyze them. Still, many are taking it seriously. “I would say that with a bit more than 99% confidence you can say there’s something strange,” Schwarz [of the University of Bielefeld, head of one of two teams who discovered the findings] says.
So, we found something we can’t explain. And, because we’ve not got another universe to compare this one against, we have no idea if this interesting phenomena is a statistical fluke, or something else entirely. We have no control group. It’s an observable thing, but, so far, it’s just a thing. The fact that I had spend 20 minutes reading about this phenomena to even have a cursory understanding of what he was talking about shows just how poorly he explained the concepts involved. It was a “Look!! Science!! I’m smarter than you so you couldn’t possibly understand this, but trust me, this is science!” kind of moment. He threw around words like “quasar” “isotropic” and “anisotropic” without definition or explanation. I was annoyed.
Other “evidence” was the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which showed all the galaxies in the observable universe, with us at the centre. By definition, if we can see a specific distance all the way around us, we will be in the centre.
The diagram which Dr. Sungenis showed had a much larger “void” in the middle where there were no galaxies, likely due to a logarithmic scale, but I can’t be sure as he did not tell us what the scale was or what it meant. The galaxies also seem to occur in specific periods around the Earth, which he pointed out, but again, this proves nothing, as there could be a repeating period, and we are in the one across the middle which includes the Milky Way (not shown, because the Milky Way obscures our view of the universe)
Finally, he came to his piece de resistance, luminiferious ether. Not only has this concept been thoroughly debunked, he didn’t bother to explain what ether was, or why it had any sort of relevance to his theory. Honestly, I just don’t get it.
Ultimately, Dr. Sungenis’ arguments fell into one of many fallacies: ad hominem attacks, nirvana fallacy, negative proof fallacy, appeal to authority, cherry picking… it goes on and on. Dr. Sungenis’ talk was heavy on just that – talk – but it came up several furlongs short of anything a rational mind could call evidence.