Home » Science » Another Christmas tale: The canals that just had to exist on Mars

Another Christmas tale: The canals that just had to exist on Mars

If you got money for Christmas, 10 Books That Screwed Up the World: and 5 Others That Didn’t Help would be a good use of your dime. Therein, Ben Wiker, senior fellow at St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, relates – among many other useful stories – the curious case of the canals on Mars.

Canals on Mars?

A number of prominent scientists, beginning in 1877 with Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, were convinced that they saw through their telescopes an intricate system of canals on Mars. These canals were all very geometrical and hence obviously carried water for the great Martian civilization. The certainty of intelligent life on Mars was trumpeted (with the aid of businessman and amateur astronomer Percival Lowell). Books were published. Major newspapers declared the evident certainty to the astounded (and gullible) public. Helping to whip the public into a frenzy was alien enthusiast H. G. Wells, whose War of the Worlds seared into people’s minds the dire fate that awaited Earth once the Martians stopped boating around their canals and launched their inevitable attack.

By 1930, this certainty was exploded by another astronomer, E. M. Antoniadi, who pointed out that the “canals” weren’t canals; they weren’t nice geometrically drawn lines of precision traced on the surface of mars, but just fuzzy shapes.

The lesson is simple enough. Schiaparelli, Lowell, Wells, and a host of other scientists and popularizers wanted to see life on Mars. The alien enthusiasts just wanted to see what was fuzzy as straight and geometrical because they wanted Mars to be populated with aliens. It is often our desire to have something be true that makes us clearly and distinctly see the false as true, the imagined as real. This is as true in the history of science as it is in our everyday life. In either case, reality is the appropriate test of our everyday beliefs and scientific theories. (pp. 25-26)

In describing this story, I would have used terms like “design inference” (in this case, no), inference to the best explanation, and following the evidence wherever it leads. Qualities absent from the Big (materialist) Science of the day.

Antoniadi was lucky, I suppose, to live when he did. He could have been a Guillermo Gonzalez, exiled to a Christian college for speaking the truth about Earth’s location and qualities, in relation to the solar system. Remember that Gonzalez’s key point is that Earth is an unusual planet, but the materialist agenda needs to show that there are zillions of Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dots” out there.

And just now Call Display is asking me to accept a call from a planet orbiting the Alpha Centauri star system, from an alien who knows there is no mind or free will and thinks that everyone should be genetically planned and … hey, wait a minute, buddy! Aren’t you just a fundraiser for Ivy League U’s? Get offa my line and get ME offa yer list!!! you people will go bankrupt before you smarten up, but you are just so not my problem!

See also: Alfred Russel Wallace on why Mars is not habitable

Also just up at Colliding Universes, my blog about competing theories of our universe:

Nuclear weapons: Certainties we are safer without

Astronomer vs. pop science TV

Coffee break: From Dolly the embraceable ewe to a fully downloadable you?

Origin of life: Alien origin taken seriously? Ghost of Francis Crick smiles wanly

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7 Responses to Another Christmas tale: The canals that just had to exist on Mars

  1. 1
    EndoplasmicMessenger

    Hi Denyse,

    This Christmas season I am finally working through Wiker’s A Meaningful World: How the Arts And Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature. This is a wonderful book and I think a great intro to ID for those who are willing to think a little bit about why we are where we are.

  2. Carl Sagin is still a patron saint of the materialists till they ask you what little green man did the designing. When one did that to me I suggested they go to Cornell and ask the disciples of Sagin who postulated zillions of such people. They even made a movie to celebrate the idea so when we are asked who did the designing, just say the people/life forms from “Contact.”

  3. It might be a mistake to cite the perceptual illusion promoted by Shiaparelli, supposedly because he wanted to find life on Mars. Opponents of ID could cite it as an example of a desire-based perceptual illusion that there is real design in life. They would say that the closer the examination the more it looks like tinkering. Of course we disagree, but the analogy can be used both ways.

  4. I agree with magnan. One could draw an entirely different lesson from this episode. Giovanni Schiaparelli and Percival Lowel saw features on Mars that were apparently geometrically regular because of the indistinct images provided by the technology available at their time. They were receptive to the idea that Mars might be inhabited and therefore postulated that the features must be intelligently designed. E.M. Antoniadi, with the aid of improved technology, realised that the appearance of design was false – the “canals” were fuzzy shapes and thus natural features. Unfortunately, while it may be a good example of mindset biasing views, it is hardly a ringing endorsement for those wishing to see Intelligent Design in nature!

  5. Of course the analogy can be used both ways.

    But, for the record, proposed intelligent beings on other planets have not usually been treated as an argument for design in nature – usually the opposite. The idea seems to be “That just shows how easily intelligent life can arise purely by chance.”

    Wiker aims against blowhard popular science publicists who claim – in the teeth of massive evidence – that establishment science is “objective” in its handling of evidence.

  6. Unfortunately, while it may be a good example of mindset biasing views, it is hardly a ringing endorsement for those wishing to see Intelligent Design in nature!

    Not at all, if lines of a mathematical type of order which could not be reduced to the natural processes of geology but which also seemed to be linked to a specified form defined by a function were actually there it would have been valid to argue that as empirical evidence of a Martian civilization. The problem was that the empirical evidence the claim was being based on was not valid, not that such a claim is inherently invalid.

    But that’s the general pattern, claims of intelligent design are generally open to empirical falsification. Openness to falsification and progress in knowledge is a good thing as falsification is logically linked to verification. Critics of ID are often illogical in that they want to falsify ID based on the empirical evidence yet also claim that ID is not “scientific” and has nothing to do with the empirical evidence. ID cannot be falsified with scientific evidence if it has nothing to do with science in the first place.

    On the other hand it’s hard to see exactly how the hypothetical goo typical to theories of evolution could ever be falsified. What biological observation would not comport with “evolution”? To the extent that evolution has actually been specified it has typically been falsified. The same holds true in this case as “evolution” was generally believed to predict that extraterrestrial life was abundant, as well it should be if primordial mud puddles are capable of conceiving it.

    People forget that scientists thought it very likely that they would find life on Mars until quite recently as a result of the hypothetical goo typical to theories of evolution. Hypotheses of evolution tend to comport with all observations so whether or not intelligent life is ever observed on another planet actually matters little. The hypothetical goo typical to evolution supposedly predicts that there will be life on other planets but it does not really matter if it turns out that there is not. The unfalsifiable will never be falsified but in the meantime the illusion of a “prediction” typical to evolutionary creation myths can be reported to the public as the epistemic equivalent of scientific facts.

    Ever since Professor Percival Lowell in the Nineties discovered the ‘canals’ on Mars, and other celestial observers caught signs of atmosphere and clouds, the world has been looking for messages from the ruddy faced neighbor…
    [...]
    The fantastic, but realistically sounding ‘gas raid from Mars’ adapted for broadcasting from H.G. Wells’s story, ‘War of the Worlds,’ written in 1897, just when Lowell was seeing the ‘canals’ and Marconi was stirring up the ether, sent an unprecedented wave of public hysteria across the country last Sunday night. It has been a topic of conversation in and out of radio circles ever since.
    ….the names of New Jersey towns were used instead of foreign places mentioned in the H.G. Wells story. Such names brought the play all too close to home to sound like fantasy. Then, too, the listeners were in the mood to believe it could happen here.
    (Message From Mars
    by Orrine E. Dunlap Jr.
    The New York Times; Nov. 6, 1938 pg. 184) (Emphasis added)

  7. Canals? What canals?

    Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli:

    His observations of canali, mistranslated as canals…

    (from the link Denyse provided)

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