Two thoughts come to mind at this time. Firstly, Hawking is to be greatly admired for being both a highly regarded theorist and researcher, and a genuine celebrity scientist. In this he joins very few who have managed to achieve fame in their own lifetimes by changing the way we understand the fundamentals of our universe.
These days, it often seems that celebrity scientists are not really leaders in their fields, and that leaders in their fields seldom become real celebrities.
Secondly, Hawking — at least to me — exemplified someone who practiced the role of scientist in its totality. He not only talked scientific talk, he walked a scientific walk.
By this I mean Stephen Hawking can be thanked not just for his theoretical and empirical contributions to physics, but also for the way he promoted scientific skepticism and critical acuity among the general public. Many scientists purport to do this by role-modelling rigour in their work. Hawking went further. He frequently set aside time to actively promote the cause of scientific thinking in the general population, and to advocate against bunkum and pseudoscience in the public square.
Most of us will permanently struggle to appreciate the true impact of Stephen Hawking’s work on cosmology and theoretical physics. However, we can all applaud his advocacy in the promotion of reason, balance, rigour, empiricism, logic, and evidence.
Hawking railed against the dangers of ‘fake news’ decades before the term ever became fashionable.
As such, it is somewhat ironic that this quote is so often attributed to him:
The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.
The statement teaches us something important about science and pseudoscience — namely, that the bravado of assumption is more treacherous than the caution of self-aware naivete. It is consistent with Hawking’s many messages about the importance of scientific rigour. The phrase ‘illusion of knowledge‘ encapsulates the warning in an eloquent and powerful way.
The problem — wonderfully — is that, while Hawking conveyed this view many times, the quote in question was never actually his own.
Nobody has identified any record of Hawking ever making the statement as phrased above. The exact source of the quotation is unclear, but it has been doing the rounds in one form or another for a very long time:
- 1861: ‘the great enemy of knowledge is not error, but inertness‘ — Henry Thomas Buckle, historian
It was used several times by author, educator, and librarian Daniel J. Boorstin.
All we can say is that the claim Stephen Hawking authored this quote is itself an illusion of knowledge.
Stephen Hawking did more than most scientists to warn humanity against the perils of seduction by charismatic ignorance. It is because of people like him that more of us are willing to question the flim-flam, propaganda, and pseudo-knowledge that threatens to overwhelm public and civic debate.
He will be fondly remembered as a true cultural icon of our times.
Rest in peace, Professor Hawking.
Brian Hughes is an academic psychologist and university professor in Galway, Ireland, specialising in stress, health, and the application of psychology to social issues. He writes widely on the psychology of empiricism and of empirically disputable claims, especially as they pertain to science, health, medicine, and politics.