I just spent several hours down a rabbit hole. The topic was the “electric universe,” an unconventional cosmological theory that emphasizes electromagnetism rather than gravity as the primary structuring force of the universe. It offers alternative explanations of redshift, cosmic background radiation, cosmogenesis, star formation, galaxy formation, solar physics, and more.
After re-familiarizing myself with the theory (it has been ten years since I first explored it) I proceeded to read a number of its critics (most of whom used the term “debunking”). What a fool I’d been for giving such a theory, “popular on the Internet,” any credence! The critics pointed out elementary errors that proponents of the Electric Universe (EU) commit, revealing them as little more than cranks and crackpots. Case settled, right?
Not quite. Next, I read some responses to the debunkers, which refuted the criticisms point by point in considerable depth. Whom am I to believe? I don’t have a Ph.D. in physics, and even if I did it apparently would be of little use, since many of these experts who so violently disagree with each other have Ph.D.’s themselves.
Although I, as a layperson, have difficulty evaluating the claims and counterclaims on their own merits, I did notice a disturbing asymmetry in the debate that has ramifications far beyond cosmology. The situation I describe below has parallels across science, medicine, education, economics, and really any of our institutions that produce and legitimize knowledge.
One aspect to this asymmetry is that one of the two sides can invoke the authority of the scientific establishment, while the other consists largely of marginalized heretics. These dissidents complain about the difficulty they have obtaining research funding, getting published in journals, and getting their arguments taken seriously. Meanwhile, the defenders of orthodoxy cite the self-same lack of peer-reviewed