People Prefer a Softened Reality

  • A Big Think piece about over-hyped science and astronomy claims from this past year;
  • Adam Lee on Benjamin Franklin’s “noble lie”: that people need religion in order to behave;
  • And an Endpiece about current holiday activities.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t actually follow “science news” very closely, because true developments in science tend to be incremental, not revolutionary, while journalism of any kind, even the most responsible journalism, tends to focus on some kind of newsworthy ‘angle.’ Thus the media tends to exaggerate the significance of what are actually tentative findings, or at best provisional conclusions, likely needing further study or verification.

Here’s a bunch of examples from this past year.

Big Think, Ethan Siegel, 18 Dec 2023: The 10 most overhyped physics and astronomy claims from 2023, subtitled “Misinformation was extremely popular in 2023, as bad science often made global headlines. Learn the truth behind these 10 dubious stories.”

The article opens in the standard Big Think way:

Key Takeaways
• While there have been huge scientific advances in a wide variety of aspects of physics and astronomy, there have also been wild headlines that do not reflect at all what’s true in this Universe. • No, we haven’t found a room-temperature superconductor, overturned the expanding Universe or Big Bang, discovered that the cosmos is twice as old as we thought, or discovered alien technology on the seafloor. • There has been a lot of fiction permeating science news this year, and the frustrating thing is that these untrue stories are posing as actual facts. Here are 10 lies you may want to learn the actual truth behind.

Again, I think “lies” may be overstating it; I think it’s just the tendency of journalism to over-hype for the sake of a story, especially when they know their readers may not be scientifically literate. (Though this has to link somehow with the item yesterday where I discussed basic scientific literacy.) Lies are deliberate falsehoods, like those spread shamelessly by a certain American political party.

I’ll just list his 10 items, the way he lists them. See article for details.

10.) Astronomers found the Universe’s first stars.
9.) Dark matter is wave-like in nature.
8.) JWST’s distant galaxies disprove the Big Bang.
7.) The expanding Universe is a mirage.
6.) The Universe is actually 26.7 billion years old.
5.) LK-99 is a room-temperature superconductor.
4.) Exoplanet K2-18b is an inhabited ocean world.
3.) Time ran slower in the cosmic past.
2.) Binary stars prove (or disprove) MOND.
1.) We’ve found alien technology on the ocean floor.

Each items is followed by a graphic or two, and then a concluding “Truth” statement, e.g. for #1:

Truth: it was industrial pollution, and a charlatan fooling himself.

Which is a dig at “Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb” as the link makes clear. You can be a Harvard astronomer and still make outlandish (wish-fulfillment) claims; the proof in the pudding, so to speak, is whether colleagues agree with your interpretations of your observations. And most of Loeb’s don’t.


Following up on an item I noted at the bottom of my post of the 17th.

OnlySky, Adam Lee, 11 Dec 2023: Ben Franklin’s noble lie

In his published works, Benjamin Franklin expressed the misanthropic view that most people can’t behave without religion to keep them in line. What does the evidence say about this noble lie?

This is a continuing conundrum. Some thinkers say that, yes, part of the function of religion is to discipline people with the “fear of God,” the idea the God is always watching you, that God will judge you when you die. (I have a couple books on this theme.) And this seems to work! It’s the entry-level stage of morality — see my Hierarchy of Morality.

Other thinkers say this is condescending; it presumes that some people are feeble-minded and wouldn’t know right from wrong without some list of commandments from a Bible, or other religious text.

Both might be true to some extent. Evolutionary psychology says, nonsense, humans do have an innate sense of morality, built into us by evolution, because without it we would not have survived as a social species. That’s how evolution works. And yet there are people who think posting the Ten Commandments on courthouse walls is needed to enforce morality. (They are wrong.)

Lee boils down the issue:

When do we need to deceive people for their own good?

Philosophers have debated this question for ages. The optimistic viewpoint holds that there’s never a conflict between truth and goodness. It’s only ignorance that gives rise to evil actions. The smarter and more informed people are, the better they’ll behave.

If this is true, that would be convenient, because it would spare us from having to make unsavory choices. However, some famous historical figures have argued that some truths are too dangerous to spread around. For people’s own good and the good of society, they say, the masses need to be taught falsehoods that keep them in line and make them behave.

The most famous expression of this idea is in Plato’s Republic, where he discusses the noble lie: a mythology taught by elites to make the common people virtuous. What’s shocking is that it was also the view of an American founding father renowned for his wisdom.

I haven’t absorbed this entire article. But I will quote Lee’s conclusion. Which seems obvious to me.

To the extent that humanity still believes in cruelty, oppression and prejudice, it’s clearer than ever that religion is to blame for that. Religion sows the seeds of prejudice, inspiring xenophobia and bigotry. It promotes closed-mindedness and hostility to science, to progress, and to new and different ideas. It justifies war and violence in the name of God.

The decline of religion, rather than making us worse, has made us better. We’ve scrapped many of the mystical dogmas that never had any reason behind them. The rules with a genuine connection to human well-being have survived. We’ve also crafted some new ones as social reformers brought to light injustices that had previously been overlooked.

Benjamin Franklin got it wrong. There was never any tiger, no growling, slavering beast ready to pounce on its liberators. Human beings aren’t so vicious as that. It turns out, without that choking chain of religion, we’re more like peaceful lap cats.



Did some Christmas shopping today. It’s rained for the past couple days, and this morning, but it ended by about 1pm, so I set off at 1:30 to Fourth Street in Berkeley, and the Emeryville Mall, to finish up some Christmas shopping for my partner and my (what is it?) step-grandchild, Nicholas, who has too many toys but perhaps would like some books that I… could pick out for him.

Our plans are to drive to LA Saturday morning, to visit Michael and Honey and their extended family for about three days. Then, since my partner has been pining for a trip somewhere, such trips having been proscribed in recent years given my transplants and medications, we’re driving to Las Vegas for at least a couple nights. Dinners, maybe a show.

So I’ve been busy recently making reservations in LV, and setting up a cat-sitter to visit our house every day while we’re gone. I’m getting close.

And I am getting close with finishing a long, 20-year, planned expansion of

And today I got a Christmas card from my brother Kevin, in Tennessee, who defriended me on Facebook at the beginning of the Covid crisis, and stopped answering my emails. I wish I understood him and his family; all I can do is presume.

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