Episode 7: Geocentrism and Biblical Cosmology

Episode 7: Geocentrism and Biblical Cosmology

In this episode of Life, the Universe, & Everything Else, Richelle McCullough, Javier Hernandez-Melgar, and Gem Newman discuss how we know that the Earth is not stationary at the centre of the universe, and why the Bible is not a good source of knowledge about cosmology.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: In Which the World Revolves Around Robert Sungenis (Part 1, Part 2) | The Scriptural Basis for a Geocentric Cosmology | What is Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation? | How Do We Understand the Coriolis Force? | Michelson-Morley Experiment (Wikipedia) | Sean Carroll’s Cosmology Primer | Sean Carroll on Geocentrism | Phil Plait on Geocentrism

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Correction: On this episode, I made an offhand reference to the fact that a 200C homeopathic dilution of Oscillococcinum is “like diluting a jug of milk in the Milky Way galaxy”. When I listened to the episode after it aired, I realised that I’d made an error. What I had described is actually much closer to the standard 30C homeopathic dilution (it’s about 33C). So what would a 200C dilution look like? Well, it’s impossible to describe a 200C dilution in these terms, because there are insufficient atoms in the universe (by about 320 orders of magnitude, I might add). This is why homeopaths need to use serial dilution to make their potions.

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

In Which the Universe Revolves Around Robert Sungenis – Part 1

The following is a guest post from Flora, who can be found alongside Jusarious at the Subspecies blog. She recently attended a presentation by Mr. Robert Sungenis, a Catholic geocentrist, and was kind enough to share her thoughts. This entry is cross-posted from Subspecies.


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.

Pictured: "Totally not a diploma mill" PhD education in Theology, Homeopathy or Energy Healing. Not pictured: PhD education in Website Design

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.

Ray Comfort - Prominent atheist?

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.”

Dr. Sungenis, hard at work.

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.

That shifty jerk probably spat on orphans, too.

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!”

Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation

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.

She could totally send your house flying with that paddle.

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:

And there you have it. Geocentrism is fact, ladies and gentlemen.

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.

Na na na boo boo!

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.

Look, we're at the centre of the observable universe!! ... Wait a minute...

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.