Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Cargo cult science: sociology of science

Barack Hussein Obama and his wife

A new issue of New Yorker includes a story (see online abstract) about Garrett Lisi written by Benjamin Wallace-Wells. I was also asked several questions by this guy but convinced him to ask senior yet conventional physicists instead. He did it - but surprisingly, he has also asked some non-physicists. And he included a few words from your humble correspondent, too.

In the article, people generally agree that Lisi's text doesn't contain any working theory or a promising idea.

Steven Weinberg explains that string theory is being studied because it is the most attractive approach without alternatives. Well, there exist alternatives but they are worse, he says. Spencer Weart, a hard core global warming alarmist and a historian of science who believes that we live in an unprecedented era of a catastrophic warming (see his book about the "discovery" of global warming), is quoted as saying that we also live in the "slowest period" of physics in 200 years. Note that the two pieces of nonsense he likes to say are very similar. It's not shocking that the people who want to undermine the very basics of our free, capitalist, science-based, modern civilization usually like to say that our era is exceptional - exceptionally bad - and their leadership is therefore needed.

Well, we certainly don't live in any unprecedented epoch of climate change and we certainly don't live in the slowest period of physics in the last 200 years. Have you ever heard of 1810s, 1890s, 1940s and many other decades? ;-) Theoretical physics is arguably slower than in 1905 (relativity, Brownian motion, photoelectric effect), the 1920s (quantum mechanics), the 1960s (electroweak theory etc.), the early 1970s (QCD), mid 1980s (first string revolution), and mid 1990s (second string revolution), but it is still damn fast in comparison with the slowest periods.

And even if the present era were the slowest period of physics in the last two centuries, it shouldn't be a reason to abandon the scientific method. If a society decided that this would be a sufficient reason, the life expectancy of the scientific method in this society would be close to two centuries. ;-)

Most importantly, Andreas Albrecht (UC Davis), the No. 4 co-father of cosmic inflation (among other things), accurately describes the broader physics blogosphere - various types of Peter Woit, Nigel Cook, Capitalist Imperialist Pig, etc. - as follows:
... The blogs had opened physics to a new sort of populism, one that the academic establishment has to figure out how to manage. It just pushes those buttons. There's some really good stuff, but a lot of really sloppy stuff. What you have, in other words, is the erosion of the referee and the rise of a scientific underclass.
The underclass, also known as the lumpenproletariat, is defined as follows:
This scum of the depraved elements of all classes ... decayed roués, vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, brothel keepers, tinkers, beggars, the dangerous class, the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society.
If you are afraid that the quote above was written by an angry far-right ideologue, you should calm down because this definition comes from the angry Karl Marx himself. ;-) He actually hated the underclass - in his optics, it was sharply separated from the working class - not because it was mostly scum but because the underclass had helped to bourgeoisie and Napoleon, the real villains! ;-) As a result, his description sounds as accurate as if he had visited the threads at Not Even Wrong.

Of course, Albrecht is quite correct that the underclass is fundamentally incompatible with the traditionally organized scientific process because it wants to circumvent any kind of quality control - including the conventional, meticulous referees etc. - and turn to the "heat bath" of loud low-quality mobs for guidance. Instead of referees who are very careful about their scientific "credit score", they want lumpenproletarian critics who have nothing (no credit) to lose but their chains. ;-)

What is being planned by the scientific underclass is a new counterpart of a communist revolution, even though its impact should be limited to the realm of science.

Here I discuss an annoyingly serious topic but the video above is the most entertaining physics populist video I have ever seen. You can't avoid laughter because this crackpot with his youstupidrelativist.com website is so perfectly honest. He simply can't even pretend that his IQ is above 70 but nevertheless, he has literally nailed Leonard Susskind down (using my picture, too)! :-) And there are at least 7 parts of Einstein's idiots. Enjoy.

It remains to be seen whether the underclass will pose a threat to the whole system - much like it has been an extremely harmful threat for your humble correspondent. Believe me, if you don't live in your ivory tower, isolated from the real world, it is a risk for your life to even suggest that the underclass is fundamentally misguided. Maybe the underclass will threaten the towers, maybe it won't.

The traditional underclasses have ceased to be a threat for the developed nations because the functioning capitalism has made almost everyone richer - something that Karl Marx wasn't able to predict. Let's hope that the scientific underclass will become equally harmless because virtually everyone will get educated in the future and sloppy, stupid, superficial, hateful, populist blogs such as Not Even Wrong will simply lose all of their audiences (we are on the right track - Woit currently runs at 40% of the TRF capacity or so - but we are not quite there yet). Meanwhile, one third of the world may be controlled by the scientific proletariat for one century, before this regime is shown to be unviable.

Let me give you a superficially innocent example of the dramatic incompatibility of the scientific underclass and the conventional scientific process.

Sabine Hossenfelder wrote another activist text promoting the idea that science - the very selection of correct and promising ideas and research programs - should be controlled by social criteria and by the bureaucrats.

She promotes her favorite ideology that the markets, especially the markets of ideas, are imperfect - and even the advertisements (a tool to spread the information about products whose fairness increases with the frequency and the related consumers' ability to evaluate the information rationally) make the markets break down - but concerning her attitude to the quality control in the scientific process, this quote is particularly telling:
I am just a physicist who has had too much time thinking how the academic system sucks, wondering why nobody in it seems to listen to what the sociologists say, and why said sociologists don't come up with practical advices (interdisciplinary research, anybody?).
Well, it sucks but exactly for the opposite reason than she proposes: the Academia is beginning to be driven not by merit but by the social goals of the scientific lumpenproletariat. Concerning her question: if she's wondering about it so much, why hasn't she simply asked it?

The answer is obvious. Scientists don't listen to sociologists not only because sociologists' IQ is lower by 15 points in average - one full standard deviation - but, more importantly, because sociology as a tool to choose scientific ideas and research programs is a pseudoscience. Galileo Galilei was one of the first men - but probably not the very first man - who understood that the scientific ideas should not be selected if they look nice to the Pope or to the underclass but if they imply, directly or indirectly, predictions that happen to be confirmed by observations - or at least, if they're closer to this goal than the competing ideas.

Even her very title, "We have only ourselves to judge on each other", shows how flagrantly incompatible with the essence of the scientific method her thinking really is. In science, not only we have other things besides "ourselves" to judge: I mean Nature, the ultimate objective judge. Nature is, in fact, the only player who can really judge the scientists' ideas as long as they behave as scientists. She can't speak "directly" but Her effective spokespeople are Her boyfriends - the Gentlemen and Ladies who have been most successful in having an intimate relationship with Her. And there's a huge hierarchy in this business.

Sorry to say but Sabine Hossenfelder, Garrett Lisi, and their loop quantum gravity friends are extremely far from this category of Nature's boyfriends if you compare them e.g. to Steven Weinberg. Tommaso Dorigo is not a boyfriend of Nature either, at least not now: in fact, he refers to Her as the bitch, a term that doesn't indicate that he finds himself in too intimate a contact with Her himself, even though many others do. ;-) To make things worse, Hossenfelder mentions an anonymous physicist (it could be someone like Stephon Alexander?) who decided to switch to loop quantum gravity and uses this sad episode from the underclass to argue that "there is change knocking on the front door." Oh, really?

Does your anonymous friend also plan to knock on Steven Weinberg's front door in Austin, Texas and tell him that he should change himself and study (or at least promote) loop quantum gravity, too? They should better check up their Texan handguns!

After years of heavy interactions with people as stupid, as aggressive, and as arrogant as herself, i.e. with the underclass, has Ms Hossenfelder completely lost her mind? I don't know how to explain these matters comprehensibly enough but let me try again: relatively to real top physicists, they are just a tiny piece of a waste product of metabolism who often got into the system mainly because of quotas on the female reproductive organs and other things. Whether they would like a certain kind of change is completely irrelevant.

None of them can reach to Steven Weinberg's ankles. Do they really want to dictate him and his peers how he should change his opinions about physics so that it better suits their tastes and personal interests? Everyone who is buying into the idea that "there is change knocking on the front door" of the type advertised by catastrophic left-wing activists who say that we live in an "exceptional era", an era of the "end of science", and so on belongs to the lumperproletariat himself.

There is no change like that knocking on the door and there is no justification for such a change.

To make us really sure that she also belongs to the moral underclass, Hossenfelder informs us that the activity in science focuses on theories where "money and attention go". Wow. Corrupt pseudoscientists may be choosing their interests - and maybe even their beliefs about the actual statements in science - according to the flow of money to their pocket (which is why there are so many pseudoscientists behind the "climate consensus" these days) but the scientists who actually deserve the name honestly look at objective criteria instead. I don't claim that scientists motivated by money can't ever contribute substantial things but I want to claim that those whom I consider to be the real leaders are unaffected by financial and similar pressures.

Richard Feynman described the pseudoscientific nature of sociology nicely in his famous 1974 Caltech commencement speech. Once he told the students some cute stories about the picking of beautiful chicks in paranormal baths, about Uri Geller's tricks, and other crazy things that many people believe, he continued:
... But then I began to think, what else is there that we believe? (And I thought then about the witch doctors, and how easy it would have been to check on them by noticing that nothing really worked.) So I found things that even more people believe, such as that we have some knowledge of how to educate. There are big schools of reading methods and mathematics methods, and so forth, but if you notice, you'll see the reading scores keep going down - or hardly going up - in spite of the fact that we continually use these same people to improve the methods. There's a witch doctor remedy that doesn't work. It ought to be looked into; how do they know that their method should work? Another example is how to treat criminals. We obviously have made no progress - lots of theory, but no progress - in decreasing the amount of crime by the method that we use to handle criminals.

Yet these things are said to be scientific. We study them. And I think ordinary people with commonsense ideas are intimidated by this pseudoscience. A teacher who has some good idea of how to teach her children to read is forced by the school system to do it some other way - or is even fooled by the school system into thinking that her method is not necessarily a good one. Or a parent of bad boys, after disciplining them in one way or another, feels guilty for the rest of her life because she didn't do "the right thing", according to the experts.

So we really ought to look into theories that don't work, and science that isn't science.

I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call cargo cult science. In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people...
Sabine Hossenfelder's musings are the ultimate incarnation of this cargo cult science that doesn't work because its predictions are never being tested by the scientific method. She wants to put mobs and sociologists (including the amateur ones, such as herself - she reveals that she has even applied for a grant to be paid for pretty much the same sociological conspiracy junk she is writing on her blog: fortunately, the application was rejected because she was an amateur) not only above the high school teachers but above the scientists themselves!

No, it won't work. The selection in science works and has to work very differently from the way envisioned by Lee Smolin and the scientific lumpenproletariat. Lee, feel free to brainwash the stupid people with populist clichés. And stupid people, feel free to believe manipulators like Lee Smolin. But unless things start to collapse, both of you will remain irrelevant for the actual science as we know it.

And that's the memo.

1 comment:

  1. I still remember reading a crackpot website claiming that EM fields weren't really "real," that the spin of a particle had nothing to do with the number of tensor indices its underlying field had, and that one could have spin 1 gravitons.

    The sad thing is, within THE FIRST 30 PAGES of Zee's book on quantum field theory, it explains, in exact detail, why gravitons must have spin 2.

    This guy was trying to say that electric and magnetic fields weren't really real, and that electromagnetism could be formulated with rank 2 tensors instead. Of course, it can, but the Maxwell bivector really is the electromagnetic field. He said that because you could formulate Maxwell's equations with rank 2 tensors, but that photons have spin 1, this proves that tensor rank and Lorentz transformation properties have nothing to do with spin.

    We both know, however, that photons result from the quantization of the four-potential, which is a Lorentz vector. We also both know that the highest weight of J directly follows from m + n. Quantum mechanics REQUIRES that anything which transforms like a four-vector must have an intrinsic angular momentum of 1, and anything which transforms like a traceless, symmetric rank 2 tensor must have spin 2.

    I only have a BS in physics and I can figure this much out. Who the hell are these people and how can they get this far without learning stuff like this?