In Which the Universe Revolves Around Robert Sungenis – Part 2

The following is a guest post from Flora, who can be found alongside Jusarious at the Subspecies blog. She recently attended a debate between Mr. Robert Sungenis, a Catholic geocentrist, and Mr. Adam Cousins, an undergraduate student at the University of Manitoba. This entry is cross-posted from Subspecies.

See Part 1, in which I discuss the lecture, here

Let me begin by apologizing for the delay in completing this analysis. Needless to say, it was a daunting task to dissect the debate in a comprehensive way. Although I cannot possibly encompass the extent of ridiculousness that occurred that evening, I humbly offer my very best attempt. 

“A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.”
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, often falsely (and ironically) attributed to Mark Twain

After “Dr.” Sungenis’ performance the previous evening, I must confess that I was quite excited by the prospect of having someone debate him. He clearly was an experienced orator, but it was hair-pullingly aggravating to have to sit through a solid hour of his verbal diarrhea. The prospect of someone calling him out on his insane conclusions delighted me, though I must admit that I had trepidations as well. I knew in advance that the individual who had stepped forward to debate Dr. Sungenis was not a professor of Astronomy, or even a graduate of that program. They had recruited, with a week’s notice, an undergraduate student. A knowledgable undergrad, but nonetheless, it hardly seemed fair.That none of the faculty stepped forward to open the can of proverbial whoop-ass was disappointing. I would have sorely loved to see him verbally eviscerated.

Nonetheless, the introductions began on a similar note as the night before. Mr. Adam Cousins, undergraduate. Dr. Robert Sungenis, doctorate! Again, the moderator emphasizes Dr. Sungenis’ penis thesis length, as if this should be impressive. I believe we have happened upon a new fallacy, my friends:

Argumentum ad book length-ium

Although, perhaps I should give some credit, as I confess that unlike the good doctor, I would probably not be able to vomit 700 pages worth of logically untenable text. I suspect I would be all tuckered out by page 40 and be ready for a nice cup of tea and a nap.

In any case, the statement to be debated was “A geocentric system is a false cosmological assumption.” Notice that this put Adam on the positive side of the debate – it was his job to defend reality, rather than to attack Dr. Sungenis’ argument. It was also worded in such a way that it could not be argued that geocentrism can be a useful cosmological assumption, as a frame of reference, say, in the orbit of the moon. Ultimately, the debate was asking Adam to prove Dr. Sungenis as wrong, rather than Dr. Sungenis having to prove himself correct. It is a subtle distinction, but utterly key in maintaining an unfair advantage. As long as Dr. Sungenis could plant some seed of a doubt, demonstrate that in some minute way that geocentrism was possible, the debate was his to win.

Adam opened the debate, reading from a written statement he prepared in advance. Although I understand why he did it, I do wish that he might have given himself talking points instead. When speaking off the cuff he was quite engaging and passionate about the science, but in reading he stumbled nervously and lost his intonation. It weakened his presentation, though not his science, in a partially hostile audience – a charismatic lecture would have served his case far better than a dry recitation. Still, he opened up admirably, and even brought along props! In order to explain how a stationary earth could not exist in a universe rotating around it, he floated a ping pong ball in a dish of water. He then got the water spinning as a demonstration of the ether (and universe) spinning around the world. As the water pulled on the ball and set it into motion despite being originally stationary, so would a rotating ether around the Earth. It was brilliantly simple.

He also pointed out that the infamous Michelson/Morley experiments failed to demonstrate the existence of the luminiferous ether and were repeated well into modern times – with consistent negative results. Furthermore, he argued that Newtonian physics is required for geocentrist theories to function, and yet those same Newtonian laws defy geocentrism. Overall, it was a solid start.

Dr. Sungenis’ opening statement was a well-formed mess (Katamari-style) of misquotation, appeal to authority, and “evidence.”

Direct quote: "A rose by any other name is still a rose." Really? Misquoting Shakespeare? Do I need to just play "Storm" by Tim Minchin on loop to rebut this guy?

The most aggravating part of his arguments was that they simply were wrong. On a base level, he did not or refused to understand. He argued that the mass of the universe isn’t accounted for by heliocentrism, due to some twist of logic about gravity and saying that scientists have added dark matter ad hoc to make equations work. He argued that if the Big Bang is true, the universe must be homogenous, and yet did not explain why that should be true. If anything, Newtonian physics – the law of universal gravitation – says that things should form in clumps as larger masses attracted smaller masses into them. And then the ether. Again, again with the ether. I did take debate in junior high, and one of the first rules of good debating is to not introduce a term without a definition. To this moment I still have no idea what it is or why it would be there, and I find it aggravating that Dr. Sungenis could not deign to define it for us lowly audience members. Still, he insisted that ether does exist with the sort of adamant tone that the Little Engine That Could would take: it does exist it does exist it does it does it does! The null results, he proclaimed, were because science was working under a heliocentric assumption. Of course, that old stand-by of pseudoscience, “quantum” came up. Watch out Deepak Chopra. Somehow, quantum fluctuations are the covert name for ether. It’s the same thing, but with a fancy new sciencey name.

He tried to rebut Adam’s ping pong ball experiment by saying that well, of course that’s not how it works. The ether rotates backwards while the universe rotates forwards. There is no explanation for the forces necessary to sustain such a situation. I imagine that such an illogical situation could only be explained by the hand of some sort of magical being.

Then the evidence! Don’t worry, it’s “substantial.” For a moment, I might have been worried. Happily, the most recent “evidence” dates back to 1929 with Hubble’s Law. Hubble’s law is somehow proof of… something? Because the Doppler shift shows… something? George Ares in 1871 said something as well, but he talked about it too quickly for me to write down, and Google is no help. Of course, Michelson/Morley found nothing but error bars, and those error bars are evidence!

Pictured: EVIDENCE!!!

I suppose I’m breaking my own rules in bringing in a term without defining it. For those who are unfamiliar with statistical significance in a scientific perspective, error bars are representative of the variability of your data. Although simple standard deviation will do for most medical settings (showing the range of data), most other situations call for standard error of the mean. This means you take the average of your data points (the mean). Then, you calculate the standard deviation of those data points. However, as you do more experiments, more replicates, more “n,” you become more confident in your data, and you can be more sure of the real mean outside of the noise. Thus, you divide your standard deviation by the square root of the “n” or number of replicates. So, while we can be rather unsure about a data point with high variability over 5 replicates, we can be quite certain of something which occurs around a particular data point 500 times. I’m sure a statistician could correct me on the details (I don’t know why we do the square root of n, for example) but the principle remains the same. When I look at the Michelson Morley data, I see data points fluxing around zero with relatively massive error bars. The only way in which this could be considered data is in that it is negative data.

He also appealed to the scientific authority of Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss – prominent physicists. He assured us that these two juggernauts offer two explanations for current evidence from cosmology, one of which is (according to Sungenis) a geocentrist viewpoint. Not only am I utterly certain that he was quoting them out of context, he once again failed to provide any reason why should they interpret data that way, or even offer the alternate explanation. With that, the opening arguments were over.

In his rebuttal, Adam did an admirable job of pointing out some of the flaws in Dr. Sungenis’ opening. He also brought forward Doppler shift – the changing in the spectrum of light received from stars as they move away from or towards us. Much like Doppler effect in sound, the shift is only seen when stars move towards or away from us. If a given object was indeed in orbit around us, a perfect orbit would result in no shift, while an ellipse would result in an unstable Doppler shift: redshift as it moved further away in the orbit and blueshift when it came back around. In other words, the stable Doppler shifts observed are evidence of an expanding universe moving mostly away from us, directly opposing a geocentric universe.

Dr. Sungenis countered the Doppler shift data by citing data from 1932 and citing his book. Note that he was not actually providing the evidence from his book, merely promising answers which only could be obtained by purchasing and reading it. Given that he wrote it, I am sadly disappointed that he was incapable of providing the direct evidence verbatim. Another gem: “Mathematics cannot prove anything.” Ironic, considering that mathematics is the only science that can deal in literal proofs!

This is incidental to the point, but nonetheless an excellent time to say that calculus blows.

Adam next questioned how something as large as a galaxy could move towards the earth in a geocentric theory, and why the universe does not wobble in its rotation given its non-uniform density. In return, he was given an assertion that blue shifts are possible, but no mechanism or evidence. Wobbles were acknowledged but why individual systems wobbled but not the entire universe was left unanswered. Dr. Sungenis further gleefully asserted that Newton was wrong – there is a centrifugal force, and that’s what maintains the orbits of the universe. It came up several times that it must exist because if you twirl a ball on a string and then let it go, it will go flying off! He kept asking what the name of the force that causes that is… it’s a tangental force due to momentum, you fool. What do you think it would do, just stop dead and fall straight down?

The debate finished with perhaps the most entertaining part of the evening – the cross-examination. Adam really excelled in this area. He asked Dr. Sungenis to define standard error, since he refused to acknowledge the negative data of Michelson-Morley. Dr. Sungenis stumbled through. He also returned to the wobble question with this delightful (paraphrased) exchange:

Adam: Is the universe homogeneous?

Sungenis: No.

Adam: Then how is it balanced?

Sungenis: I don’t understand.

Adam: If the universe rotates around the earth as a focal point with very little wobble, it must be balanced. How is a non-homogenous universe balanced?

Sungenis: Matter is proportionally balanced.

Adam: Can you prove it?

Sungenis: No, but I don’t have to!

He's special, you see.

Sungenis’ hard-hitting questions, by contrast, fell to the now-predictable appeal to authority – starting by asking if Adam would accept what Stephen Hawking says about the Michelson-Morely experiments. Adam, wisely, said that he couldn’t without knowing what he said and why he said it. Quote mining thwarted!

There were quite a few interesting moments in the question period as well. An astrophysics postdoctoral student asked Dr. Sungenis to define the dipole, quadripole and octipole – something he couldn’t do. She also rightly pointed out that of course we are at the centre of the observable universe, by sheer definition, since we can see a specific radius around us. Dr. Sungenis countered, utterly failing to appreciate the irony of his statement, that of course she might think that, since she had been indoctrinated over the course of her PhD.

And in what was perhaps the  most stunning moment of the night, one of the geocentrists in the audience (who had very rudely interrupted my questioning of Dr. Sungenis five minutes before) had the gall to ask Adam if he wasn’t being academically dishonest. I wish I could say I was grossly exaggerating his accusation. He asked Adam, ad verbatim, if it was academically dishonest for him [Adam] to debate Dr. Sungenis without first having read his book. Never mind that the burden of proof is on Dr. Sungenis if he wants to make extraordinary claims, never mind that the two-volume book is massive, never mind that Adam agreed to this debate with a week’s notice, never mind the fact that academic dishonesty consists of plagiarism, cheating ,deception, bribery or sabotage. Apparently, engaging in a discussion with someone about their academics without having already read the entirety of their work is a new class of academic dishonesty. Ultimately, I believe this flabbergasting accusation comes from a theological background, where it would be academically untenable to criticize a religious text without having read it first. It is unfortunate that some believe that such reverence is required for all printed text. I suppose someone should inform them that they are obligated to read the entirety of the political platforms as well as memoirs, newspaper articles and personal blogs of all the party leaders by May 2nd – otherwise they are being electorally dishonest.

They'd better get started – Elizabeth May alone has 6 books.

The final poll of the audience after this two hour gong show was 24 for the resolution – 18 against. Of course, as a consequence, the Earth immediately stopped in its tracks and commanded the universe to start moving around it, and all life on Earth was sent hurtling off into outer space. Sarcasm aside, it is indeed fortunate that scientific law has rarely been decided by democratic election. Dr. Sungenis’ arrogance, snideness and verbosity has left a horrible taste my mouth that I have not been able to get rid of, even a month later. If it can be said that all heliocentrists are atheists, then certainly we can generalize that all geocentrists are dickwads.

Thanks for the recap, Flora! —Gem

About Gem Newman
Gem Newman is a Canadian skeptic, software developer, and beard advocate.

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