Flat White

Stephen Hawking and the limits of knowledge

22 March 2018

7:45 AM

22 March 2018

7:45 AM

Stephen Hawking, the physicist and cosmologist who died last week, is now set to have his ashes interred alongside those of Sir Issac Newton in Westminister Abbey. He was famous for his acute intelligence, his courage living with motor neuron disease, his strange, disembodied, robot voice, and for being the author of the book, A Brief History of Time, which, according to the conventional wisdom, everybody bought but nobody read.

Stephen Hawking was a brilliant man, with an extraordinary mind, and his positive legacy far outweighs anything negative that can be said about him. He represents, though, an ideal that has caused mischief through the ages: the idea that genius in one area confers authority to talk on subjects of which you have no expertise. Einstein changed the world when he revolutionised physics, yet he was ignorant when he talked about politics. The same can be said about other exemplars of iconic genius. Heidegger was a brilliant philosopher, Picasso an innovative artist, Oscar Wilde a great writer, yet they often spoke nonsense outside their areas of expertise. Each of them believed, incredible as it may sound, in some form of socialism. Hawking was the same, he was brilliant in one area, cosmology, and absolutely witless when he talked about politics or economics.

Before motor neurone disease confined Hawking to a wheelchair, he marched against the Vietnam War. Being anti-war is a platitude, no less annoying than approving of motherhood and apple pie. War deserves serious consideration, especially its aftermath. Pacifism is not a perfect good, it can cause more harm than violence. Millions of people were murdered and enslaved after the American withdrawal from Vietnam. These victims should be on the conscience of everyone who marched against the war. But they are forgotten because they were killed in communist countries without a free press.

After changing American public opinion about the war, the anti-Vietnam War movement was indifferent to the carnage that engulfed Southeast Asia when the Americans withdrew their military forces from the region. The anti-war movement, in other words, was not, like it is portrayed in popular culture, an unadulterated good. Hawking, like millions of other people, did not consider the consequences of his actions.

Hawking was a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. The BDS movement is inherently anti-Semitic, because it demands of Israel, the only Jewish state in the world, behaviour that it doesn’t expect of any other country. This is classic anti-Semitism, especially when the entire Middle East, apart from Israel, is a cauldron of political dysfunction. Hawking’s support of the BDS movement was shameless because the technology that allowed him to speak was invented in Israel. Boycott for thee but not for me is a hypocritical principle on which to stake your reputation.

The economist Murray Rothbard said: “It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all, a specialised discipline and one that most people consider to be a ‘dismal science.’ But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance.” It’s when we get to Hawking’s profound ignorance of economics that we see where his views caused most damage.

Everyone has an opinion on economics – and most everyone is wrong. Hawking was no different. He talked about economics as if the Malthusian fallacy had not been discredited a century ago. It’s equivalent to a flat-earther talking at a physics’ conference. The world will not run out of resources and technology will not create a mass of the unemployable poor, as Hawking claimed, because economics is the study of scarcity and prices determine how much of a resource we use. When a good is scarce, the price increases, thus limiting its use. There is a small supply of diamonds in the world, but, as we can see, not everyone owns diamonds. Neither have we run out of diamonds, because the high price of diamonds limit their use to where they are most necessary. It’s the same with every other resource. Technology is a resource. And where technology ends, human needs begin. The human imagination is always ahead of technology.

Stephen Hawking’s brilliant mind has left us with a deeper understanding of the mysteries of the universe. His extraordinary courage in the face of extreme adversity was a wonder to behold. The world is a better place because of him. But he was, just like the rest of us lesser mortals, bereft of the mysteries and contradictions of his own mind. He talked with authority about things of which he knew nothing. The following quotation of Hawking is relevant. “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge”. Even the best of us are blind to ourselves.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Show comments