Peter Hess's picture

The Sun Revolves Around You? Narcissism on a Cosmic Scale

The center of the universe might be closer than you think—in fact, it might be right under your feet. A conservative Catholic crank, Robert Sungenis, is now resurrecting the long-discredited geocentric model in a bizarre movie called The Principle.

Geocentrism is the idea that the Earth is at the center of a sphere of stars and galaxies and that everything in the universe revolves around us every twenty-four hours. It’s a toddler's perspective, the kind of self-centered conclusion you might draw if you didn't know anything about how the world works. But even a smidgeon of exposure to science shows this naïve observation to be incorrect. Indeed, it’s been centuries since scientific and religious institutions accepted the falseness of the geocentric model.

But even hundreds of years after the career and trial of Galileo—and long after the gradual acceptance of heliocentrism even by the Catholic Church—Sungenis argues that Galileo was fundamentally wrong. He is also a holocaust denier, but I’ll leave a discussion about Sungenis' anti-Semitism for another day.

It boggles my mind that the anthropocentric narcissism of geocentrism exists anywhere but in books on the history of science. Astronomer Phil Plait roguishly echoes my thoughts in noting that

Of all the wrongiest wrongs that ever wronged wrongness, Geocentrism is way up on the list. The idea that the Earth is the center of the Universe makes creationism look positively scientific in comparison. It might be edged out by people who think the Earth is flat, but just barely.

On the other hand, garden-variety geocentrists might be much more common than you realize. At this moment a geocentrist might be changing your tire, or steaming your latte, or cleaning your teeth, or teaching your children. Polls shows that one in four Americans clearly falls into Robert Sungenis’ camp. On the 2012 edition of the National Science Foundation's "Factual Knowledge Quiz," only 74% of adults correctly answered this question: "Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?" Now I wonder, are these sixty million Americans really geocentrists, or are they just profoundly ignorant of how the world is actually structured?

Sungenis proclaims on his website that his 90-minute documentary The Principle challenges the foundation of modernity. (A view that supposedly says that “neither are we on Earth special nor do we occupy a special place in the universe.”) This is revealing. Much as some creationists reject evolution because they reject the concept that humans are animals, Sungenis seems to think astronomy has taken away the “specialness” of our place in the universe. It’s the same kind of juvenile complaint an older child might make when a new baby sibling joins the family.

Sungenis also proudly tells us that the film is narrated by Kate Mulgrew, who played Captain Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager. (The idea that narration by an imaginary space ship captain on a fictional show lends scientific credibility to his movie makes about as much sense as does anything in geocentrism.) But last week Mulgrew vigorously denounced any implication that she endorses the film:

I understand there has been some controversy about my participation in a documentary called THE PRINCIPLE. Let me assure everyone that I completely agree with the eminent physicist Lawrence Krauss, who was himself misrepresented in the film, and who has written a succinct rebuttal in SLATE. I am not a geocentrist, nor am I in any way a proponent of geocentrism. More importantly, I do not subscribe to anything Robert Sungenis has written regarding science and history and, had I known of his involvement, would most certainly have avoided this documentary. I was a voice for hire, and a misinformed one, at that. I apologize for any confusion that my voice on this trailer may have caused. Kate Mulgrew

Lawrence Krauss, a cosmologist at Arizona State university who directs the “Origins” project, discovered that some public-domain video clips of himself had been co-opted for the film.  He was less tactful in describing Sungenis’ geocentrism and holocaust denial: “It is tempting to say that both claims are obscene nonsense, but I believe that does a disservice to the word 'nonsense'.” Krauss’s approach to Sungenis' fraudulent film is consonant with NCSE's response to science denial for the past three decades:

It is, after all, impossible in the modern world to shield everyone from nonsense and stupidity. What we can do is provide the tools, through our educational system, for people to be able to tell sense from nonsense. These tools include the scientific method, skeptical questioning, empirical evidence, verifying sources, etc.

For most of us, the very premise of the movie The Principle is so incoherent that it isn’t even wrong; dealing with it is simply a waste of valuable time.   Watching an interview with Sungenis and Bennett  is like trying to make sense of a Stockhausen symphony in an amusement park while tripping out with Timothy Leary. After watching it I was tempted to respond as Alvie Singer did to Dwayne in Annie Hall: “Right. Well, I have to - I have to go now, Duane, because I, I'm due back on the planet Earth.”

For those with a taste for the bizarre world of reality denial, the captain of Geocentric Airlines has turned off the seatbelt sign; in fact, you may abandon your seatbelts altogether because the captain has discovered that we were never in motion at all.  Here is the blurb from the website "Galileo was Wrong and the Church was Right."

Your world will be rocked, literally and figuratively...modern science has documented for us in bold fashion that the Earth is motionless in space and occupies the center of the universe (yet has done an equally remarkable job in keeping these important facts out of our educational system).

Sungenis' denial of astronomical truth will appeal to only a narrow segment of the most fundamentalist Protestant or Catholic population.  And don’t be surprised if even Young Earthers quickly try to put as much real estate as possible between themselves and Robert Sungenis. One hopes that a geocentrist might one day wake up to the fact that if even YECs are giving you the cold shoulder, your world view must really be lost in space!