Much is made of how thoughtless our society has become, how we fail to help each other, ignore those in need, accept unkind behavior as simply how the world works. I've no doubt that this can be true. However, in some ways (and perhaps in reaction to the perception that we need to be nicer), we have become too accepting -- not of people, but of ideas. Through our conviction that all people deserve respect (which is true) we have decided that all ideas deserve respect (which is nonsense).
In the media, this often plays out as pussyfooting around the purveyors of crazy ideas, calling their silly claims "alternative" or "unorthodox" or "non-mainstream" instead of simply "wrong." It's why very seldom will you ever see creationism, astrology, or homeopathy flat-out labeled as false. In our desperation to treat every idea "fairly," we have gotten so far away from scientific induction as the gold standard for thinking that we've lost the ability to tell a reasonable idea from an unreasonable claim.
I think this is insidious, because it leads one to the erroneous conclusion that stating that an idea is wrong is discourteous, or downright mean. It robs us of clarity in that very realm where it is the most critical.
Let me illustrate what I mean by introducing you to the time-traveling lawyer of Seattle.
Last Friday, Huffington Post had an article about Andrew Basiago, a lawyer in Seattle who sounds to me like he could use some serious psychological help, or possibly horse tranquilizers. He claims that there is a government program, "Operation Pegasus," that allows select individuals to time travel, and that using a machine invented by Nikola Tesla, he's had more trips through space-time than Marty McFly.
"The machine consisted of two gray elliptical booms about eight feet
tall, separated by about ten feet, between which a shimmering curtain of
what Tesla called 'radiant energy' was broadcast," Basiago told HuffPost reporters.
"Radiant energy is a form of energy that Tesla discovered that is latent
and pervasive in the universe and has among its properties the capacity
to bend time-space." Travelers would then jump into the tunnel thus created, and "find themselves at their destination."
What evidence does Basiago have? Well, he says he was photographed in a crowd... while listening to Lincoln at Gettysburg:
Basiago is the one on the left. Yeah, the guy who conveniently has no recognizable facial features.
Basiago also claims to have been in Ford Theater when Lincoln was assassinated.
Time traveling, he says, does have its downsides. For one thing, you take the chance of running into yourself, something that has happened to him twice, and is "disorienting." Also, it can be difficult to stay put, rather like the problem that Christopher Reeve ran into in Somewhere in Time: "If we were in the hologram for 15 minutes or fewer," he explained, "the
hologram would collapse, and after about 60 seconds of standing in a
field of super-charged particles ... we would find ourselves back on the
stage ... in the present."
Right. Fields of super-charged particles. I bet they look just like the transporter sparkle in Star Trek.
Then, we get the appeal to authority kicking in. Basiago's claims are supported, the article says, by Alfred Lambremont Webre, a "lawyer who specializes in exopolitics." Webre is, throughout the article, treated as a credible witness -- and nowhere does it mention the truth, which is that he is a raving wingnut who has merited mention in Skeptophilia twice -- once for claiming that the Earth was going to be bombarded by "fourth dimensional energy" on November 11, 2011, causing the Earth's rotational axis to shift by 90 degrees (see the post here), and then to claim that he'd met President Obama while visiting Mars (here). So receiving support from this guy is not exactly going to earn you any validity points.
What gets me about this article is that except for the fact that it's filed under HuffPost's "Weird News" department, Basiago and his claims are treated with a fair degree of seriousness. Never once is an actual scientist allowed to weigh in on the subject -- although many respected physicists, notably Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene, and Neil de Grasse Tyson, have expounded upon the topic, and the general consensus is that if time travel is possible at all, it requires energy that is far beyond anything we currently have the capacity to create. Never once did anyone say, "What you're claiming seems to be impossible. Demonstrate, in some scientifically valid fashion, that you are telling the truth." No, all that happens is an interview, with a couple of people at the end saying, "Well, it's an odd claim, but there are weird things in this world!" as if that somehow means that his claim merits consideration.
I find this all dreadfully frustrating. For one thing, having this sort of thing show up in a respected news source lends it credibility it doesn't deserve. For another, it leaves you with the impression that just because Basiago has a wild idea, we have to for some reason treat it with kid gloves -- to sit there and nod, listening to him ramble on about his to-ing and fro-ing through time as if what he was saying actually made sense.
Well, I'm sorry. All claims are not created equal. And Mr. Basiago, if you want anyone with a skeptical bent to take you seriously, you'd better have something more than a fuzzy photograph of a kid with big shoes to support your claim. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, as Carl Sagan said. And as that esteemed critical thinker also said: "It is true that geniuses were often laughed at, but this does not mean that if they laugh at you, you must be a genius. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers... but they also laughed at Bozo the Clown."