Geocentrism at the Box Office

He [the pseudo-scientist] has strong compulsions to focus his attacks on the greatest scientists and the best-established theories. When Newton was the outstanding name in physics, eccentric works in that science were violently anti-Newton. Today, with Einstein the father-symbol of authority, a crank theory of physics is likely to attack Einstein in the name of Newton. This same defiance can be seen in a tendency to assert the diametrical opposite of well-established beliefs.

~ Martin Gardner, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1957)


The ancient belief that the Earth is located at the center of the universe is probably the most thoroughly discredited and demonstrably false idea in all of science today. But there are kooky people, here on our marginal and insignificant pebble of a planet, who think they know better than the entire scientific community. And some of these people have money to blow on their nonsense.

The public will soon be subjected to The Principle, an upcoming documentary film by Robert Sungenis that promotes the doctrine of geocentrism. The trailer of this slickly-produced film opens with the voice of Kate Mulgrew (best known for her role as Captain Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager) declaring, “Everything we think we know about our universe is wrong.”

Surprisingly, well-known physicists Lawrence Krauss and Michio Kaku appear in the trailer. We are treated only to brief clips of Krauss and Kaku talking on screen, so it is difficult to ascertain exactly what they are talking about, which is almost certainly the point.

Also appearing in the trailer is the filmmaker himself, letting us know the purpose of his ridiculous movie. Robert Sungenis is the author of the tome Galileo Was Wrong: The Church Was Right (consisting of three massive volumes in multiple editions) and the blog of the same title. A creationist, Holocaust-denying anti-Semite, and all-around horrible human being, Sungenis has invested a lot of money to the cause of convincing his viewers that the earth is located at the center of the universe. Sungenis’ geocentrism is not limited to solar system dynamics. He believes that everything, the universe as a whole, is rotating around our planet.

Shortly after the trailer for The Principle was released, Kate Mulgrew put most of her science-loving fans at ease with the following statement issued on her official Facebook page:

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.

Mulgrew goes on to state that she was simply “a voice for hire, and a misinformed one, at that.” This is plausible, given the deceptive and misleading tactics commonly employed by pseudoscientists and cranks to make their worthless product appear legitimate. The copy of what was to be narrated could have been written in such a way that Mulgrew would not be aware of the message being promoted. While it is difficult to misconstrue or disguise the idea that the universe and everything in it is revolving around Earth, the narrator’s lines could have been written to do little more than provide transitions between the talking heads, whose quotes provide the meat of the geocentric theme. I for one am willing to give Mulgrew the benefit of the doubt. We will not know what is contained in the script’s final draft until the movie is released. Until then, we should reserve judgment on Captain Janeway.

As mentioned by Mulgrew in her statement, physicist Lawrence Krauss has also renounced the film. On his Slate blog, Krauss writes,

I have no recollection of being interviewed for such a film, and of course had I known of its premise I would have refused. So, either the producers used clips of me that were in the public domain, or they bought them from other production companies that I may have given some rights to distribute my interviews to, or they may have interviewed me under false pretenses, in which case I probably signed some release. I simply don’t know.

Indeed, quote-mining is a favorite tactic of both pseudoscientists and science-deniers. When they cannot find support for their crazy views from any reputable scientists, people like Sungenis often resort to collecting out-of-context quotes from disparate clips and editing them together to create the illusion that the real scientist is saying something he or she never said or intended to convey. This is probably what happened to Michio Kaku, who also is no friend to geocentrism or any other form of creationism.

Thus, out of all the people featured in The Principle trailer, Robert Sungenis is one of only a very few who agrees with the film’s geocentric thesis. It is therefore not surprising that the film’s trailer pitches the premise as a conspiracy theory. At one point in the trailer, Sungenis states, “You can go on some websites of NASA and see that they’ve started to take down stuff that might hint to a geocentric universe.”

Based on the other nebulous quotes in the trailer about the strangeness of the universe, we can infer that the movie probably indulges in mystery-mongering to no small degree. “This is a common ploy,” writes Yale neurologist Steven Novella in a recent blog post on Sungenis’ documentary, “focus on what we do not currently know in order to make it seem like we don’t know anything.”

Debunking Geocentric Apologetics

But what real physicists and astronomers have learned about the universe in which we find ourselves is more than sufficient to definitively rule out the validity of geocentrism. As Novella goes on to write in his article, “That the sun is at the center of our solar system, the earth revolves about the center of gravity between the earth and sun . . . and that the universe itself has no center, are all well-established scientific ideas. Most people take these conclusions for granted and may not know the lines of evidence that support them.” Like most other pseudoscientists, Sungenis is eager and willing to take advantage of this ignorance to bolster his position.

If everything in the universe is revolving about a stationary earth, how do we account for our observations of how centers of gravity work? Sungenis tries to explain this by pointing out, correctly, that the sun and the earth both revolve around their respective centers of gravity. But he goes on to make the fallacious argument that the earth is positioned, via divine fine-tuning, at the universe’s center of gravity, around which said universe is revolving.

This solution fails because of the inverse square law of gravity. Individual bodies are much more affected by the gravity of nearby objects than that of any object billions of light-years away, even if that far distant object is located at the “center of the universe” (which besides is nonexistent). In order for Sungenis’ argument to work, the most distant stars would have to move faster than the speed of light in order to make their way around the center, which of course is impossible.

This leads us to consider the problem of stellar parallax, another insurmountable difficulty confronting geocentrism. Stellar parallax is the phenomenon of nearby stars apparently moving and changing position in relation to relatively distant stars, the latter forming a comparatively steady background. This observation is due to the fact that the earth is revolving around the sun, making a complete circuit once per year, and confirms our model of a sun-centered solar system beyond any reasonable doubt.

How does Sungenis manage to get around this? He tries to rationalize stellar parallax by admitting that the sun revolves around the earth, but then positing that the universe as a whole is revolving around the sun, resulting in the observed parallax between distant and nearby stars. But in this scenario, earth is not at the center of the universe, and Sungenis has destroyed his own case for geocentrism with his ridiculous rationalizations. Sungenis’ strained apologetics are reminiscent of the “epicycles within epicycles” theory contrived by medieval astronomers in order to defend the Church’s geocentric cosmology from the pesky observation that celestial bodies did not move in perfectly circular patterns.

On the Filmmaker’s Religious Motivation

Like the medieval geocentrists of old, Sungenis’ motivation in making his expensive pseudoscientific documentary is clearly religious in nature, not scientific. Sungenis is a devout Catholic who has emotionally wedded himself to astronomical creationism. He wants to believe that the earth is at the center of the universe, because if such a belief were true, this centrality could not be mere coincidence. It would point to the existence of a god, which Sungenis of course identifies as his particular deity. On his “Bad Astronomy” online column for Slate, astronomer and science popularizer Phil Plait has this to say about what appears to be the movie’s broader message:

The trailer does seem to be making a case for Geocentrism (it’s mentioned specifically), but given the title, I would guess they’re going to try to make a broader point that the Universe itself was made—created, if you will—purposely for us. This idea (broadly speaking) is called the strong anthropic principle (hence the doco title), and as a philosophy it’s not terribly informative. It’s fun to think about in a limited sense, but in the end it always boils down to “God did it,” which is slamming a door in the face of exploration and inquiry. I’m not a big fan of that.

Robert Sungenis fits the textbook definition of a crank, and he has nothing to add to anyone’s understanding of cosmology. This is why The Principle is not worth anyone’s time. I encourage anyone reading this not to squander 90 minutes that you will never get back and which could be spent learning real science, even if you are a glutton for punishment whose purpose in seeing the movie is to get a laugh or to debunk the claims. Sungenis’ brand of anti-science is humorless, and geocentrism has been definitively falsified many times over already. In the wonderful words of Phil Plait, “Of all the wrongiest wrongs that ever wronged wrongness, Geocentrism is way up on the list. . . . It might be edged out by people who think the Earth is flat, but just barely.”

More importantly, let’s not contribute any money to Sungenis’ cause. Let’s make sure that all the money Sungenis poured into this stupid project leaves a hole in his wallet. The last thing any science-loving and reasonable person wants is to encourage other enterprising filmmakers to invest in “documentaries” supporting flat-earth geology, hollow-earth geology, or young-earth creationism that are aimed at mainstream audiences.

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