The Electric Universe Theory
Today we're going to head into space, into a realm at once both familiar and unfamiliar. For according to one group of alternative theoreticians on the Internet, everything we thought we knew about space and the cosmos is wrong. Thus we are headed not out into a void of quantum fluctuations and solar wind, but into a vast electrical field of highly charged plasma that controls everything everywhere. If that sounds not-quite-right to you, then congratulations — you've just discovered the Electric Universe.
Electric Universe theory, also called plasma cosmology, is impossible to describe comprehensively within a short Skeptoid episode — one must sit through tens of hours of YouTube videos or read hundreds of web pages devoted to its verbal gymnastics — but we can touch on a few basics to give the general idea. Its central point holds that conventional physics and cosmology are all wrong; adherents' favorite scapegoats are Einstein and Newton. While proponents acknowledge that gravity exists, they dismiss that it plays any significant role in the universe, and claim instead that electricity is responsible for virtually everything. The orbits of the planets around the Sun are not due to gravity, they say, but to electromagnetic attraction. Stars, they claim, are not powered by nuclear fusion under extreme gravitational confinement, but rather are great balls of electrical discharge, so hot and energetic that the thermonuclear explosions at their periphery are merely incidental and triggered by the extreme electrical heat. Comets are not dirty snowballs that sublimate ice and dust when exposed to solar heating, but rather they are dead rocks which experience electrical arcing when close to a star, and this arcing blasts away bits of dust and rock to form the comet's tail. Similarly, all planetary features like mountains and weather and volcanos are the result of massive electrical arcing — primordial in the case of Earth's geological features, and active today in the case of dust devils on Mars. Electric Universe theory also dismisses neutron stars and black holes as purely theoretical, unnecessary to cosmology, and nonexistent in their reality.
Fundamentally, the Electric Universe is indistinguishable from virtually all other "alternative science" beliefs. It is promoted exclusively by people uneducated in the relevant sciences and who developed it in isolation from relevant experts, so we don't expect to see it very well informed by actual physics or cosmology. It is tightly tied in with conspiracy mongering, and its writings brim with words like "orthodoxy" and "dogma" used to dismiss mainstream physics. Electric Universe adherents generally view themselves as brave mavericks who dare to uncover the real truth about the universe, while traditionalists guard their faith-based physics to protect their grant money. We hear this same tired old claim time and time again throughout pseudoscience — be it in perpetual motion machines, quack alternative medicine, pyramid schemes, and the flat Earth.
However, let us not make an ad-hominem attack against the Electric Universe. It is not wrong because it is an alternative science. It is wrong because it is wrong. We'll go into this, but first we should talk a little bit about the red flags that compel us to apply the Skeptoid treatment to it. Let's harken all the way back to Skeptoid #37 where we presented a checklist to help us spot pseudoscience, and apply some of those points to the Electric Universe:
Is the claim promoted through mass media, or through scientific channels?
Nothing about the Electric Universe has been published in scientific journals, because it can't pass peer review. So its promoters publish it themselves, on the Internet and in self-published books. It's a big red flag when science journals all reject your stuff.
Do the claimants state that their claim is being suppressed by authorities?
Absolutely they do. Claims of suppression by the scientific elite is a core of the Electric Universe. Insisting that you're the victim of a conspiracy is easier than admitting your idea is wrong.
Does the claim pass the Occam's Razor test?
Occam's Razor tells us that the option requiring the fewest new assumptions is probably the true one. The Electric Universe would require us to abandon virtually all of astrophysics and other sciences; massive, massive changes to the foundations of our knowledge of the world. So by Occam's Razor, it is almost certainly wrong.
Does the claim come from a source dedicated to supporting it?
We often see that the promoters of fringe pseudosciences are dedicated to their pet belief; they do not also write and publish on conventional or non-controversial topics. Good science papers present as much information as they can that is critical of their idea, which is a good sign, and it's almost always lacking in papers about the Electric Universe.
Do the claimants have legitimate credentials?
If someone has not spent a career learning what all their predecessors have discovered, and developed an intimate familiarity with how we know what we know in a field, then they are among the least likely people to correctly find a hole in that knowledge. That no credentialed astrophysicists are supporters of the Electric Universe should be a huge red flag warning it diverges widely from what we know.
This is something I see all the time: a person will email me their alternate theory of the universe, expecting me to promote it as factually true with a Skeptoid episode, and they always say they've proven Einstein wrong. My favorite reply is to ask what fault they found with the discoveries of Kip Thorne, Art McDonald, Brian Schmidt. Guess what: invariably, they've never heard of them. If you've never even heard of a few most recent Nobel Prize winners in physics, you're probably not the person best qualified to claim you've overturned their life's work, all of which is nearly a century newer than Einstein's. The explanation, of course, is that this person is so grossly unfamiliar with physics that Einstein is often the only physicist whose name they know.
Electric Universe believers, on the other hand, often know the name of one other physicist. It's a man who is the de facto Patron Saint of the Electric Universe theory, and whose name graces virtually every video and article on the subject. Swedish plasma physicist Hannes Alfvén won the 1970 Nobel Prize in Physics in magnetohydrodynamics. The Alfvén wave is named for him, an important phenomenon related to space weather such as sunspots and aurorae. Although Alfvén never proposed any of the ideas now central to Electric Universe theory, its proponents consider his work in plasma physics as sort of "close enough" that they regard it as a legitimate scientific foundation for their belief. Just as Nikola Tesla's name has been co-opted by believers in various alternative sciences who regard him as an almost messianic figure, so has the name of Hannes Alfvén been hijacked and used to lend credibility to the Electric Universe.
Alfvén, who died in 2005, also has a personal story that bears many of the "maverick scientist" marks so attractive to the alternative science believer. His proposal of Alfvén waves in 1942 was initially rejected by almost everyone else in the field; but a few years later, the famous Enrico Fermi attended a talk by Alfvén at the University of Chicago and immediately lent his support to it, and it became generally accepted. Alfvén waves were verified in laboratory experiments in 1949. But as much time as he spent on the leading edge, Alfvén also went too far. His tendency to break from the scientific consensus caused him to go terminally astray in some cases; notably, he rejected the Standard Model and the Big Bang in favor of a model in which the universe contains equal amounts of matter and anti-matter, called the Alfvén-Klein model. He established a prize for whomever can prove whether the star Alpha Centauri consists of matter or anti-matter. Today's believers in the Electric Universe describe their plasma cosmology as being founded upon this Alfvén-Klein model. Yet while the believers regard Alfvén as the father of their concept, they don't seem to have any explanations for why Alfvén never made any statements that resemble their claims about how stars work, how planetary features are caused by arcing, and the other basics of their system.
Alfvén was indeed a contrarian to mainstream science-based cosmology, but even he was never as far gone as the Electric Universe.
One thing that I wanted to do with this episode was to lay out a number of the basic claims of the Electric Universe, and then give the science-based responses to each. As I started to put this together, it soon became clear that this task alone could consume twenty full episodes of the show. We would have to give the physics-based explanation for virtually everything in the universe, laying out the basic fundamentals for each, and the process that ultimately led to how we know what we know. And much of it would be pretty old-hat: most of us generally understand these basics — how gravity holds solar systems together, how meteors make craters, how tornados form, how black holes work. If you want the rebuttals to the Electric Universe, they're on the web, far more comprehensively laid out than I would have been able to do here. But you may be surprised that direct rebuttals are not as easy to find as you might think. The reason, says astronomer Phil Plait, is that there is:
But when challenged with the contradicting facts, Electric Universe theorists often raise the Galileo Gambit, which points out that Galileo was persecuted for his revolutionary discoveries and he turned out to be right — therefore the Electric Universe theory (which is also persecuted) must also be right. Of course, the Galileo Gambit is logically invalid; the overwhelming majority of revolutionary and fringe claims throughout history have simply been wrong. (It's also worth pointing out that the base assumption of the Galileo Gambit is historically wrong: most other scientists were in agreement with Galileo; his only persecution came from the Church, for heresy.)
So how does a fringe idea like this one, for which disproving information is so easily available, rise and grow into a vibrant community of smart, curious, knowledgeable, intelligent people? When such people encounter a fascinating system like the universe, they typically want to understand it. Some, who lack a deep exposure to physics (as do most of us), come up with their own explanation that seems to make sense to them. Others may follow the familiar argument from ignorance, which holds that I don't understand something, therefore nobody understands it, therefore anything I suggest is just as valid as anything else. Those inclined toward conspiracy theories are attracted by the idea that here is another mainstream dogma that brave outsiders are finally disassembling to reveal a hidden truth. Together, such psychological processes lead to a diverse group of people who have formed their own alternative field of science. They feed on one another's ideas and develop the concept into the deep, comprehensive, and richly detailed narrative that is the Electric Universe theory. The more actual astronomers continue to ignore them, the firmer grows their belief that they're right, that their movement is growing, and that soon it will become widely accepted.
When seeking answers to complicated questions, going it on our own is certainly one way to proceed. But hearing out those who have already found the answers is usually going to be a better strategy. Skip that step, and you might just get shocked by misinformation.
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