We hope you enjoyed February’s Skepticism Month here on AiPT! Comics, where we took a look at critical thinkers and thinking in pop culture, and used some critical thinking ON pop culture itself.
If you know me, there’s one subject you probably expected to see tackled that wasn’t – Neal Adams’ “growing Earth” idea. As both a geophysicist AND a guy who writes about comics, it only seems natural that, eventually, I’d have to go after the legendary artist’s bonkers notion that the creation of matter inside the Earth is causing the planet (and the universe?) to continually expand, contrary to all data (and sense?) that we as a species have accumulated over the last several hundred years.
I didn’t do that because it’s been done, by people much smarter than I am. Way back in 2012, geologist Donald Prothero listed a litany of things wrong with the “growing Earth” idea, including use of paleomagnetic data, how we know plate tectonics is real, the simple fact that satellites designed to measure the tiniest movements of the planet haven’t detected what Adams claims and more.
(The only thing I’d add to the above is that anyone can use seismic velocity data to calculate the locations of earthquakes on the other side of the world. That wouldn’t be possible if we were so grossly wrong about the planet’s interior. Like, I did this in grad school — unless, of course, I’m also part of the conspiracy?!)
We tackled a lot of different topics during Skepticism Month, but most weird beliefs happen for more or less the same reasons. Skeptics end up playing a game of whack-a-mole — “Down goes phrenology; s--t where did that homeopathy come from?!” So I think it’s more instructive, in this case, to attack the disease instead of the symptoms.
Neal Adams will never stop believing what he does. Facts don’t change people’s minds. But if we can figure out WHY he believes these things in the first place, maybe we can help keep others from falling into the same trap, before it’s too late.
Know the Signs
Even longer ago, back in 2007, Adams had a written “debate” (presumably through email) with neurologist and host of the immensely popular Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast, Steven Novella. The whole thing took up four separate blog posts and got quite circular, as you might imagine, but I think Adams’ own words can teach us some lessons about how thinking goes wrong, so we can recognize “pseudosciencey” tendencies as they develop.
- The lone genius. Right off the bat, in part 1, Adams compares himself to Charles Darwin, the naturalist who first published the theory of evolution, as someone who’d observed something other titans of the field hadn’t.
I reckon Darwin must have known that his views differed from all brilliant thinkers of his day.
Trouble there is that for every Darwin or Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein, there about a million guys like Immanuel Velikovsky. He’s the one who thought Venus was a comet that burst out of Jupiter, and that the planets bounced off each other like billiard balls. Hey, Adams might be sympathetic to that idea.
- Disrespect for expertise. You see this in a lot of conspiracy theories, from anti-vaxxers to the only-slightly-weirder-than-Adams’-ideas “flat Earth” crowd. “My uninformed observations are equal to or better than those of people who have dedicated their lives to this.”
For me, I’m not quite as impressed by formal education. I can read and there are no books forbidden to me in the end.
We’ve probably all had the experience of not understanding something in a textbook, then asking the teacher/professor to fill in the gaps of our knowledge. Some people instead say, “I don’t understand this, the book must be wrong.” There’s no shame in asking for expert opinion to help clear up a question. It’s probably the first thing you should do.
- Invoking “paradigm shift.” Going straight to the quote —
All science that we know now will be overthrown eventually.
This is a misunderstanding of the classic tenet of philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn. Yes, scientific revolutions occur when great thinkers or unforeseen experimental results throw shade on old ideas. But contrary to what the term implies, the baby isn’t thrown out with the bathwater. Einstein showed that Newton’s mechanics did indeed hold up — under a very particular set of circumstances. He didn’t throw out all physical knowledge and start from scratch, as we’d have to do for “growing Earth.”
- Confirmation bias. When you’re committed to something being true, you tend to find evidence for it everywhere. That’s why, in science, you try to do everything you can to disprove your own ideas. If a hypothesis can survive that, then hey, you might be on to something.
Can it be wrong? It’s possible that I didn’t think of something, sure. I doubt it. Too much is right.
- The second installment is a lot of Adams accusing Novella of not giving evidence for his claims even though Novella cites several papers and Adams provides nothing. Specifically, when Novella patiently explains that tidal forces from the Moon are what have lengthened the Earth’s day over time, and if Adams wants to instead say it’s because of the Earth’s growth, he has to address that, Adams responds:
Actually, no I don’t. If you think the tidal forces brings a drag to Earth ,…..well good. I don’t! You think it’s like the moon is dragging a plow across Earth, slowing it ! I simply think the moon is walking across the Earth – no drag.
Come on, man. There’s math on this. You can’t just handwave it away. I don’t know if there’s a fancy name for this brand of stubbornness. Argument from incredulity? “I don’t see how this can be true so it isn’t”? Even if it’s not overt, there’s a lot of that hiding in much of Adams’ writing.
- Part three, strangely enough, is dominated by argument from authority — his own.
If I give you something as a fact you can pretty much sure it is a fact.
“So don’t bother checking! Forget all those deluded experts, I’ve got the real goods.”
- A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. A lot of times when we know something about a topic, we have a tendency to think we know everything. Even if we’ve only just scratched the surface. Adams boasts of his knowledge of anatomy, required to be a realistic-style comics artist, but that probably doesn’t qualify him to comment on the tendon insertion points on Tyrannosaurus fossils, and how that might somehow mean the Earth had less gravity 70 million years ago.
- Shifting the burden of proof. We all know this one, right? The burden of proof is on the person making the claim, especially an extraordinary one.
I challenge anyone to provide accurate evidence that VERIFIABLY SHOWS Earth remained the same size for even 10 years.
You usually can’t prove something HASN’T happened, but yeah, there is all that satellite data, in this case. But Adams dismisses any (even overwhelming) evidence he doesn’t like, while focusing on whatever small anomalies he can uncover. Cherry-picking is a hallmark of conspiracy theory.
- Ignoring the consequences. Adams claims that nuclear fusion, the same process that powers the Sun (and atomic bombs), is producing matter within the Earth. Wouldn’t there be GIANT FREAKING EXPLOSIONS going off all the time, then? If the Earth continually becomes more massive, and gravity is always increasing, wouldn’t life have to adapt to this? Adams claims that’s why animals aren’t as big as they used to be, but that doesn’t account for crocodiles, which haven’t changed much for hundreds of millions of years.
In part four, Adams goes full Noachian and claims normal geologic processes can’t produce canyons. You never go full Noachian.
Okay, that’s a lot to take in. I didn’t think we’d tick that many boxes when I started compiling this. Obviously, not every weird idea is going to hit every one of these, and some will have other logical flaws not seen here. And it’s important to not use these concepts as bludgeons — just because someone has a distorted view of his expertise in a subject, for example, it doesn’t mean he can’t ALSO be right — by coincidence or otherwise.
Every idea deserves to be considered on its merits, but when you start to see these kinds of missteps piling up, it’s a pretty good guess things are heading in the wrong direction. The earlier we can identify the warning signs, in others as well as in ourselves, the better chance there is to right the ship before going full Neal Adams.