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Mike Rowe's Denial of Science

During my hiatus, How the Universe Works host Mike Rowe got into a verbal spat with a fan over controversial remarks he made on his show.

The complainant, one Rebecca Bright, said in part

I love the show How the Universe Works, but I’m lost on how the producers and the Science Channel can allow anti-education, science doubting, ultra-right wing conservative Mike Rowe to narrate the show.

Bright suggested that Rowe be fired and replaced with a scientist—or an actor with a good voice "that would sound great narrating the show, example: Morgan Freeman."

The catalyst for Bright's complaint was the episode titled "Are Black Holes Real?" in which Rowe repeatedly suggested that black holes may not exist. Rowe interspersed this claim several times between interviews with a number of scientists describing the physical evidence they have found for the existence of black holes.

Before we look at that evidence, it's important to define the term "black hole". One informal definition, given in Rowe's show by astrophysicist Paul Sutter, would be an object in which "the flow of gravity is so strong that nothing can escape, not even light."

If light can't escape a black hole, we can't see it. So how could we possibly know they are out there? That's the question Rowe latched onto—and repeatedly returned to—as he explored the topic.

One of the scientists tried to answer Rowe's question by using wind as an analogy. We can't see the wind, but we can see the effect it has on other objects, and feel it on our skin. Similarly, we can observe black holes by the effects they have on objects in their vicinity.

Astronomer Michelle Thaller helpfully explained, "While they emit no light themselves, black holes are tremendous sources of X-rays. And that's because as things get close to a black hole, they're accelerated by the gravity, and they can heat up to millions of degrees. Million degree gas gives you lots of X-rays."

The X-rays, as well as the movement of nearby objects being pulled toward the black hole, can indicate the presence of an object dense enough to match the definition of a black hole.

What's more, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is scanning the universe for large-scale gravitational waves, such as might be created when two extremely massive objects collide with each other. LIGO first detected gravitational waves in 2015. Waves of the strength that were detected could have been produced only by the collision of two objects as massive and as dense as black holes.

But none of this evidence was enough for Rowe. He continued to question whether black holes exist, asking scientists for other possible explanations—accepting neutron stars and gravastars as reasonable alternatives. In doing so, Rowe demonstrated a failure to understand what the scientists were telling him.

Neutron stars are similar to black holes, but are less dense and many can be seen and heard by the best telescopes. Black holes are more massive than any neutron star, by definition. What makes one object a black hole and another a neutron star is the mass of the original star that collapsed to form it. To say that neutron stars exist but black holes don't is to say that stars above a certain mass can't collapse.

The gravastar hypothesis is an attempt to describe black holes from the perspective of quantum physics rather than relativity theory. In this framework, there is a minimum possible size, known to physicists as Planck length, for the collapsed star. This gets around one of the uncomfortable implications of black holes—that as the star continues to collapse, the core of the black hole could reach zero volume and infinite mass.

But even if the gravastar hypothesis is correct, it's inaccurate to claim that black holes don't exist. Instead, the most we could say is they are maybe not quite as black as we thought. Regardless, the tiny but very massive objects we've discovered are still there, whether we call them black holes, gravastars, or cosmic weasels. To say we don't know whether they exist is to completely misrepresent the observational evidence. Though Rowe makes a big show of presenting different points of view and competing hypotheses, he refuses to take the logical next step of comparing the hypotheses to the physical evidence to determine which idea best describes the observed universe.

This is particularly disturbing because Rowe lets it slip in his response to Bright that the real focus of his skepticism is not astrophysics.

If I said I was skeptical that a supernatural being put us here on Earth, you’d be justified in calling me a “doubter of religion.” But if I said I was skeptical that manmade global warming was going to melt the icecaps, that doesn’t make me a “doubter of science.” Once upon a time, the best minds in science told us the Sun revolved around the Earth. They also told us the Earth was flat, and that a really bad fever could be cured by blood-letting.

By continually focusing on hypotheticals and uncertainties, and reminding us of discredited ideas from the distant past, Rowe is attempting to discredit mainstream science in order to justify his denial of climate science.

This is a common tactic among propagandists. From cigarette manufacturers to creationists to 9/11 truthers to climate deniers like Rowe, sowing of doubt and confusion is the primary tool for those who have the science aligned against them but refuse to acknowledge it. By emphasizing that science is never fully settled, propagandists hope to create the illusion that differences of opinion can never be resolved in the world of facts.

Maybe Bright goes too far in calling for Rowe to be fired. But she does remind us of the importance of being aware of the biases of our sources. And that's why Bright's characterization of Rowe as "science denying" is fair.

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