Category: Pseudoscience

Stephen Hawking RIP

Stephen Hawking is dead. Far be it from the likes of me to write him an obituary. You can see several of these elsewhere, many of them heartfelt and insightful.

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.


“Are psychics the new psychologists?”

The Sunday Independent ran a short piece on psychics the other week, in which I was quoted as referring to “unreliable forces” when I had actually said “unreliable sources.” My bad, I’m sure.

The writer had interviewed me for this piece many months ago. I guess the obvious joke here would somehow refer to the fact that I had no idea when it was going to be published. But I try not to make obvious jokes.

Here’s a taster:

With modern life comes instant gratification; people want immediate resolutions to their problems, but does the power of a psychic rest with personality type? Are you more likely to believe because you want to? Brian Hughes, Professor of Psychology at NUI Galway, doesn’t think so. “Human beings thrive on certainty and we are all prone to being convinced to some degree by authority figures; most of the information we get is from someone else. It’s not an individual character flaw that leads someone to trust unreliable forces.”

i.e., sources.

See what you make of the entire article by clicking here.




World tour continues


An announcement from the Irish Skeptics Society, just circulated:

Dear all,

On Wednesday next, May 11th, we are very happy to welcome back Professor Brian Hughes, School of Psychology, NUIG, who will speak on the topic of his recently published radical and challenging book ‘Rethinking Psychology-Good Science, Bad Science, Pseudoscience’

Date and Time: Wednesday May 11th at 8.00pm
Location: Wynn’s Hotel, Abbey St., Dublin 1
Speaker: Professor Brian Hughes, School of Psychology, NUIG
Title: ‘Rethinking Psychology-Good science, Bad science, Pseudoscience’
Admission: €3 (Members and concessions); €6 (Non-members)

Brian has outlined his presentation as follows:

Psychology is a science that impinges on mental health, education, industry, public health, applied social policy, and social attitudes. Unsurprisingly, it is one of the most popular science subjects in universities around the world. Nonetheless, psychology regularly attracts practitioners — and academics — who hold negative views about science or who lack scientific rigour. This lecture examines the various technical risks, biases, and scientific shortcomings that undermine the capacity of psychology to assert its claim to be a rigorous scientific discipline. It will be argued that psychology is marred from within by widespread tolerance for pseudoscientific attitudes amongst psychologists. Such problems afflict all areas of psychology, including those typically identified as the ‘most scientific’. It will also be argued that bad science in psychology impedes the general public’s understanding of all science, and undermines the dignity with which we humans – as a self-conscious species – view our own behaviour.

* * *

In due course, details of the talk will be posted here.

Wynn’s Hotel is a classy joint in Dublin city centre. For those interested, it was badly damaged during the 1916 Easter Rising — so allow me to gratuitously now claim a connection with the centenarian zeitgeist, just like everyone else seems to be doing these days. It is said that the guests at Wynn’s sat at their dining tables watching the mayhem unfold on the streets as if they were an audience watching a theatrical performance. That was until the hotel itself was bombed, at which point the guests fled, using a table-cloth as a makeshift white flag. What began as apparent entertainment ended as a life-threatening crisis that undermined the very fabric of society. But don’t worry, I am pretty sure that we won’t have anything like that next Wednesday.

Pretty sure.


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