Welteislehre: The Cosmic Ice Theory

Woo never ends. It seems like everyday I'm confronted with some new of woo I've never even heard of before. Today, it happens to be Welteislehre (e.g. see Science Gone Wrong: Welteislehre), the theory that "ice was the basic substance of all cosmic processes and that ice moons, ice planets and the "global ether" (also made of ice) determined the entire development of the universe." This theory was invented in 1894 and soon became very popular after its publication in 1913. The question is - why?

It's not too hard to understand how Hans Hörbiger arrived at his theory, especially given that he was an Austrian refrigeration engineer. To him, light strongly reflecting off the moon and a very shiny Milky Way was evidence that these were composed of ice or ice bodies. As far as comets and Saturn's rings go, he was not too far off the mark. However, the essential element of the theory is that some great glowing mass collided with a smaller mass of ice, giving rise to the universe and an endless struggle between fire and ice. Welteislehre became a mainstay of the new scientific age arising in Germany at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Again, why so popular?

I think the reason boils down to two things: 1) scientific illiteracy among the general public, and 2) the people's preference for a good story. According to Dr. Christina Wessley (ref) at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science,
...the popularity of the Welteislehre was to a large extent the result of its subversive attraction based on an unsettling and fascinating amalgam of scientific terminology and methodology with popular images and clichés.
Treating astronomical and geological processes as conflicts in a grand fantasy world, paralleling Norse mythology, is more palatable to an adventurous public than having to prove your point through abstract equations and the cold, hard steel of logic. The theory gained further support when it was adopted by the National Socialists of Germany as their de facto response to the "Jewish" Theory of Relativity.

Today, science as a discipline is more specialized than ever. It is hopeless for even the brightest PhD candidate to know the intricacies of much of science outside her own area of expertise. What hope, then, is there for the rest of us to command any semblance of intelligence over the subject? And I don't have to remind you that most people still prefer a good story over great science.

So - are we really any different today than the Germans of the early nineteenth century? Give Peter Jackson or Steven Spielberg a few hundred million dollars and, within a few years, they can have the majority of us believing once more in Welteislehre.

1 comment:

Jay Crawford said...

Well written, sir...especially your last point about the attractiveness of a good story. It was the latter factor which enabled the BS-powered guesswork of Erik von Daniken to grab the public imagination in the early 1970s with demonstrably WRONG theories.
You did well; please accept my encouragement.
(Minor side note: 1894 was in the 19th Century and 1913 was in the 20th Century. Horbigger's ideas therefore gained popularity in the 20th Century, not the 19th.)