A physicist at École Centrale Paris posted a detailed photo of a distant world that had supposedly been captured through the world’s most powerful space telescope. After the image got thousands of likes and oohs and aahs, he admitted the image was not a celestial body but a slice of chorizo sausage. He claims he perpetrated this hoax to make a point about fake news and how easily things were misinterpreted. He wanted people to proceed with caution and to be wary of studies and experts that support a particular point of view.
It seems to me that if he really wanted people to be wary, it would have made more sense to simply tell people to be wary, but where’s the fun in that? This fellow seems to like practical jokes — apparently, he’d posted the same photo online four years ago, claiming it was the blood moon as seen in Spain. (It makes sense in a whimsical sort of way since a slice of chorizo is a full-moon shaped, blood-colored product from Spain.)
Whether this particular usage of the photo was an actual hoax that he tried to backtrack from, a joke, or a timely warning as he claims, what I found interesting was not that people fell for his trickery (because truly, there’s no way we ordinary folk can tell if a photo is of a distant world or is simply a piece of pork) but that people want to believe in something bigger than they are. Even more, they want to be awed.
According to the dictionary, science is “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” More simply, science is “the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of natural phenomena,” and “the discovery of general laws or truths that can be tested systematically.”
Despite science being a discipline of shared knowledge that is changed or refined as more observations are made and more experiments are done, many people look to “Science” (with a capital “S”) as an immutable authority, a secular replacement for religion as something both to believe in and to be awed about. Even worse, “Science Says” is often used as an excuse, a not-to-be-argued-with dogmatism, or a justification of one’s beliefs or actions, when in fact, “Science” says nothing. It has no voice. Scientists say things, and as shown above, what scientists say may not be the truth.
We certainly don’t need to turn our attention to scientists for something to believe in or something to “awe” over. We can go outside, look around, and see what we can see. After all, that’s how science as a discipline started, with people simply looking. Admittedly, we won’t see a piece of photo-shopped sausage, but we might see something even more intriguing.
Pat Bertram is the author of intriguing fiction and insightful works of grief.