I’m using the new headline writing technique of writing something ridiculous and controversial and then putting a question mark in so I can get away with it. No Stephen Hawking isn’t an idiot. But he’s doing something that I disagree with, so I’m going to call him one. That’s how the Internet works.
Hawking intends to jump back in the popular science book arena in early 2008 with a new book on his favourite subject: the origin of the universe. Hawking is certainly qualified to write such a book, and his previous successes lead me to expect that it will do quite well. So why is he an idiot?
He’s only gone and called his new book "The Grand Design"! Let me be clear here. Stephen Hawking is clearly and evidently not a theist in any meaningful sense. Yes, he uses God as a convenient metaphor throughout his writing for a popular audience (at least; I haven’t read any of his academic writings so I can’t comment on them). But it should be clear to anyone familiar with his work that he is, at worst (or best, if that’s your perspective) a deist and most probably an atheist.
So why muddy people’s thoughts by using as a metaphor an idea that many people take to be literal truth? Even moderate religious people will no doubt interpret this title to mean that Hawking literally believes that the universe was consciously designed by some self-aware entity. Which will of course fuel the popular perception that there are a great many educated and influential scientists who hold such parochial views. They don’t.
Albert Einstein is often trotted out as a key figure in such an appeal to authority. While the argument from authority, familiar as it is to many believers, is fallacious, in this case it’s based on a faulty premise to boot. Like Hawking, Einstein used the metaphor of God extensively. But in his case it’s even clearer what his true views were. Citations and quotes abound that demonstrate beyond all doubt that Einstein did not believe in a personal god. But, like Hawking after him, he failed to realise the damaging effect of facilitating this misconception.
Metaphor is a powerful literary tool. And it is often based on myth. But surely it is prudent to wait for a myth to die before resurrecting it to spruce up book titles?
Finally, on a slight aside inspired by comments I have read about this story, when is someone going to write a book addressing the really difficult question: why do people have such trouble with Hawking’s name? It is Hawking, with a G. Not Hawkins. This has been a public service digression.