Stephen Hawking and the Big Brain fallacy

Posted by Daniel Pendick
on Friday, April 25, 2008

StarChild learning center/NASA.govYesterday on the Daily Galaxy blog, I read something about renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking that reminded me of the bewitching power of scientific expertise. Just check this out:

At an event marking the 50th anniversary of NASA on Monday, Stephen Hawking, Newton's heir as the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, answered the question, “Are we alone?” His answer is short and simple: probably not!

Next question: How does Hawking know that and why should I care what he thinks about it?

Last time I checked, Hawking is a physicist who has made important contributions to the understanding of black holes. He is not an expert in astrobiology.

But he does have one important asset: a big brain. Having a big brain must mean he knows, well, everything.

Albert Einstein, upon whose tall shoulders Hawking’s career rests, was put in a similar position by the press early in the 20th century. Being unable to fathom what Einstein’s scientific papers meant, reporters simply asked for his opinion on things — world peace, for example. This isn’t a bad thing, because celebrity’s can use their notoriety to do good in the world.

But in Hawking’s case, I’m a little dubious. Astrobiology is highly developed, with a  rich body of literature by organic chemists and REAL experts on DNA who could have provided a much more authoritative opinion on whether we are alone in the universe.

Here is where the lack of expertise, despite the big brain, may be showing a little:

Alien abductions, in Hawking’s view, are nothing more than claims made by “weirdos,” but we should be careful if we ever happen upon an alien. Because alien life may not have DNA like ours, Hawking warns "Watch out if you would meet an alien. You could be infected with a disease with which you have no resistance."

I’m no expert in DNA either, but I do wonder how shaking hands with an alien could give you a bad case of the astro-flu. Pathogens and parasites evolve to be compatible with their hosts. The odds seem astronomically low that an alien would just happen to harbor a pathogen that could survive in the human body.

But I’m not saying that’s the case, because what do I know about diseases and evolution? If I were a theoretical physicist, I would still know as little as I do now about diseases and evolution.

No disrespect to Hawking, but I would be much more interested in his views on astrophysics than astrobiology.

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