“I’m not sure that I understand.” is the worst criticism a high-ranking person can dole out in the world of physics. Given the abstract strangeness and counterintuitive nature of some of the central tenets of modern physics, such a criticism often carries a heavy weight of irony.
“I’m not sure that I understand.” is something that a professor is allowed to say to a student, while students are not allowed to admit that they don’t understand something lest their grades suffer. The student must be the good little parrot and recite the silly rules. Whether or not the student believes the rules is largely a question of temperament.
Some examples of the concepts that a physics student is expected to accept on faith include:
“Despite the fact that this result conflicts with basic notions of common sense, I assure you this is not a paradox.”
“Even though we have never measured effect X, we must all believe in it because it is a consequence of a theory which we all know and love.”
“There are several ways to interpret the physical meaning of these equations and some of them are simply preposterous, so we will just ignore them and pay attention to the ones that seem to make sense.”
“These results should not be interpreted objectively as a real physical motion – these properties exist only in an abstract sense.”
“These two effects are measured in the same way and are associated with the same basic motion within a given object, but I assure you that they describe very different intrinsic properties of the object.”
Would any of these statements be acceptable in other fields of study? Religion, perhaps. I thought that what made science different from religion was its insistence on reproducibility. What went wrong?
We have all probably read about the crisis of reproducibility within the field of psychology and many of us from other disciplines reacted to this with a sense that such a crisis is unique to the “soft sciences” where interpretations are much more flexible. Hard sciences like physics are immune to such a problem because everything is based on hard numbers, hard numbers don’t lie, and the number of possible interpretations is far more constrained in a physical system compared to the complex environment of the human mind.
When I decided to study physics in college 20 years ago, this was certainly my reasoning, but is this true? Could physics be suffering from an as-yet undetected crisis of reproducibility?
The areas of physics which are sometimes timidly criticized for lack of reproducibility typically use a large, expensive experimental apparatus of which there may only be one in existence in the entire world. Sometimes major claims are made based on these devices.
For example, BICEP2 claimed to have measured evidence that the universe inflated like a balloon at faster than the speed of light and OPERA claimed to have measured faster than light neutrinos. More than a year later, both of these measurements turned out to be wrong as BICEP2 was only measuring dust, and OPERA was only measuring a loose fiber optic cable.
In these instances, the error was detected and the scientific record was corrected, but how many other instances don’t get this level of scrutiny and correction?
IceCube, LHC, LIGO, and climate simulations, are all members of the club of “big science” experiments requiring large collaborations and large amounts of funding to sustain themselves.
IceCube measures neutrinos, LHC measures high energy collisions, LIGO measures gravitational waves, Climate simulations try to predict the future based on a complex model of the planet. Each of these experiments use unique data sets coming from unique measurements, and unique algorithms which are hard for those without access to unique computing resources to reproduce. The uniqueness in all of these examples should be seen as a defect, yet no one seems too worried about it.
“What a killjoy!” is the natural reaction to such a condemning assessment. As science goes through its seasons of creation and destruction of ideas, one might argue that this is all natural and making such a criticism is unnecessary to accelerate the renewal of foundations and removal of spandrels.
In any case, a few killjoys always try to reform seasonal activities.
If you want to see the side which lost the battle for hearts and minds, check out the killjoy in 1968ApJ…152L..71T Page L71 and note the irony of who wrote the paper. Kip Thorne!!! Before he won a Nobel Prize for selling his soul to the gravitational wave observatory (LIGO), he didn’t believe that neutron stars were possible because he understood that they were a result of a misapplication of theory.
Another good case study in seasons of scientific inquiry involves a great mistake which has been playing out over the past 70 years: the marriage of standard model and big-bang cosmology, abbreviated as LCDM physics (Lambda Cold Dark Matter = LCDM)
Criteria for a great mistake in physics are:
- The mistake held back the progress of science on a major issue for a long time: a lifetime or a century.
LCDM physics represents a linguistic break in physics which has stood in the way of the use of a language which is more powerful, easier to understand, and unifying.
- The mistake stole part or all of the active scientific life of one or more excellent scientists.
LCDM physics has absorbed the efforts of tens of thousands of men and women over the past 70 years – since the second world war. It has made no progress towards its stated goal of finding a simpler, more unified framework. In fact, it has made progress in the opposite direction.
- The mistake was made deliberately by people who knew it was bad science, to protect their careers, suppress competitors, or to gain career advancement or money.
LCDM physics was promoted because it excluded those who had not been educated in US supported institutes. A researcher’s use of the framework guaranteed ample funding from US government sources. This strategy was executed at the expense of the development of clear, cogent scientific models. Instead, opaque, overly complex semantics were promoted.
- A substantial portion of the scientific community promoted the mistake or suppressed the truth for a number of years.
LCDM physics has become so entrenched at the graduate level, that many physics students are unaware that other frameworks exist. It has become entrenched in the popular imagination through pop-sci literature.
- The mistake caused substantial damage to society in terms of scientific progress, health, morality, prosperity.
LCDM physics has absorbed tens of billions of dollars in research funds which could’ve been used for more productive purposes. The public was given the impression that physics is more mysterious and complex than it really is. This was fraud.
Perhaps there are those who would see this criticism as a betrayal of a scientific institution supported by the US government and therefore as an unpatriotic act, but I see it as the duty of a citizen to speak out when the truth is either deliberately or accidentally obscured through government financial incentives. I doubt that politicians are even aware of what the physicists have been up to. They were served the same pop-sci nonsense as the rest of us.
How did this mess happen? Methinks some nuclear engineers got spooked by the mess they made and decided to make an even bigger mess to hide the original mess. Methinks physicists noticed that when they made things sound more mysterious, they were able to secure more funding for their research. The rest is history.
Of course, if this was just an innocent mistake, there is no fraud. However, I see the following text from a recent Nobel Laureate as evidence that top physicists know that they are using a deliberately obfuscating language, but they just don’t care.
****From: Black Holes & Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy, by Kip Thorne, 1994.
“Is spacetime really curved? Isn’t it conceivable that spacetime is actually flat, but the clocks and rulers with which we measure it, and which we regard as perfect in the sense of Box 11.1, are actually rubbery? Might not even the most perfect of clocks slow down or speed up, and the most perfect of rulers shrink or expand, as we move them from point to point and change their orientations? What could possibly make the ruler shrink, when its orientation changes? Gravity, of course.
What is the real, genuine truth? Is spacetime really flat, as the above paragraphs suggest, or is it really curved? To a physicist like me this is an uninteresting question because it has no physical consequences. Both viewpoints, curved spacetime and flat, give precisely the same predictions for any measurements performed with perfect rulers and clocks, and also (it turns out) the same predictions for any measurements performed with any kind of physical apparatus whatsoever.
Which viewpoint tells the “real truth” is irrelevant for experiments; it is a matter for philosophers to debate, not physicists. Moreover, physicists can and do use the two viewpoints interchangeably when trying to deduce the predictions of general relativity.
The flat spacetime paradigm’s laws of physics can be derived, mathematically, from the curved spacetime paradigm’s laws, and conversely. This means that the two sets of laws are different mathematical representations of the same physical phenomena, in somewhat the same sense as 0.001 and 1/1000 are different mathematical representations of the same number. However, the mathematical formulas for the laws look very different in the two representations, and the pictures and exemplars that accompany the two sets of laws look very different
Since the laws that underlie the two paradigms are mathematically equivalent, we can be sure that when the same physical situation is analyzed using both paradigms, the predictions for the results of experiments will be identically the same. We thus are free to use the paradigm that best suits us in any given situation. This freedom carries power.”
I think that this freedom has carried the power to confuse students both deliberately and accidentally. If your students are confused, they will continue to work hard and spend more money to understand the mystery! That is fraud. And people like Kip Thorne, who knowingly took part in that system, are guilty of perpetuating a fraud on those who fund physics research – people like you and me.
I haven’t read John Horgan’s book: “The End of Science” but from what I’ve read in his blog, he has an attitude which is similar to mine.
Academia is defined by closed communities which only cite within their bounds and within those closed communities, you find competing research groups which deliberately ignore one another in their citations. Not only does this make the language used in the communities stilted and opaque with jargon and acronyms, it leads to research going in circles, swirling off from the main current of progress in large, stagnant eddies.
After several years of scientific work, I started to notice that researchers mainly cited people that they had personally seen before at a conference and many of the ideas they thought they had just invented had already been written about by researchers from the 1960s–1990s, but nobody ever pointed this out to them because there was a sense that everything reported had to be *positive*. Anything which was directly critical was socially unacceptable.
This is a hallmark of zero progress.
Some researchers make the distinction that journals are okay while conference proceedings are bad since they tend to be composed of student work or status reports on incomplete projects. I actually have the opposite opinion: the conferences aren’t too bad but the journals are terrible because they tend to highlight research which is knowingly or more often unknowingly lifted from someone unknown and which often hides errors to gain the boost which a journal publication provides to a person or group’s reputation and funding.
Due to the competition surrounding journal publications and the funding implications of a publication, the incentives to lie and distort are simply too great. I don’t mean that all journal publications are lies, I just mean that the incentives to mislead are strong. As an expert in something, I could identify where a researcher from my field was hiding something ugly about an experiment, but nobody else could detect it. This situation makes papers act as fuel for zombie ideas which should’ve died long ago. There are no zombie slayers in existence because if you write something critical of another research group, you risk being permanently ostracized for jeopardizing the funding flow to the community.
After I stepped out of my field and looked at the larger picture, I saw that some of the biggest, most famous experiments in science were committing the same sorts of crimes I’d seen on a smaller scale. They were over-selling what they had really learned, downplaying error sources, and thereby stretching the truth.
When you do science for money, status, and power instead of for truth, the distorting effects of those incentives cause you to delude yourself into believing in weak experimental evidence. A good scientist has skepticism as his or her guide and without it, we are very good at tricking ourselves into believing that coincidences represent repeatable events.
People think that pseudoscience only consists of things like homeopathy, chronology, and astrology, but it is really much more widespread than that.
Medicine: there are many procedures that come into fashion based on weak evidence: many medications, heart operations, spinal operations, knee operations, ear tubes, labor complications, etc… And then, with further study, we learn that the patient was better off left alone.
Psychology: Perhaps you read about their reproducibility crisis.
Biology and chemistry: A website called Retraction Watch has become popular as a gathering point for information about researchers who have a habit of fabricating data or committing other scientific crimes.
Economics and other “soft sciences”: The only valid scientific method is to make a prediction (that changing A will cause B to change) and then test it. But that is not possible in economics. It is easy to fit curves to historical data, but not easy to prove that those curves have predictive power – there are too many “black swans” and no closed systems.
Climate science: I am a liberal, but I am appalled by how much politics disorts the scientific case.
Physics: String theory and many claims in cosmology can’t be tested, so they are philosophy and not science, yet you wouldn’t know that after watching Cosmos.
Pseudoscience is anything that pretends to uphold the standards of the scientific method but falls short and much of what we think is true today has been produced through methods that fall short of scientific standards- that makes it pseudoscience.
But, this is all normal, right? We believed in phlogiston for hundreds of years, before understanding that it didn’t exist, and there will be something that we believe in today which turns out to be wrong.
Just being wrong doesn’t make something pseudoscience. Pseudoscience is when you delude yourself with weak evidence and when money and power are at stake, this is guaranteed to happen.
Competition fails to produce research of good quality when the number of competitors is limited to just a few, large groups with nothing “trickling down” to the smaller, newer groups. This is what tends to happen in scientific communities, in capitalist economies (Picketty), emotional economies, and, perhaps, also in online communities.
When you have only a small number of groups studying a topic, there are fewer cross-checks and therefore a higher likelihood of scientists tricking themselves into believing weak data. This leads to groupthink and pseudoscience.
If the groups get their funding from different sources (government institutions), the groupthink effect can be made worse because there is little incentive for a group from one country to point out the errors in another country’s research. There is an attitude of – if you don’t mess up my funding, I won’t mess up yours. They can each claim that their research is valid just because someone in another country studies the same thing (runs the same scam).
A lasseiz-faire economic system would rely on bankruptcy to remove the worst research groups, but the elders of the scientific community don’t let each other go bankrupt. With a steady stream of government funding at stake and ties going back to their school days, they watch each others’ backs.
Perhaps a recession or temporary funding reduction would provide a cleansing, reorganizing effect, as it is known to do in the economy. But a recession wouldn’t correct the structural income inequality problem. Income inequality has been reduced by large wars in the past, but war would be highly destructive of existing institutions. I would hope that a scientific war would not play out like the Spanish Inquisition.
In a system reminiscent of progressive taxation, funding agencies set aside a certain amount of money to dole out to younger researchers, but what the funding agencies don’t always consider is that these young researchers are far from independent. They rely on older, more powerful people or institutes to support their grant requests. This serves as another mechanism of groupthink enforcement.
Thinking of science as an economic system, the inheritance tax should remove bad ideas from circulation as the older researchers retire and their worst ideas retire with them. The next generation can read their work and decide on what looks legitimate based on the merits of what is written down. But in the age of “big science”, this doesn’t happen anymore at an institutional level. One researcher retires and gives his power to the person who takes his place, thereby preserving the distribution of power given to various ideas. This can crystallize dead-end ideas within a large institution.
The perpetuation of an idea’s power despite weak evidence also draws from the influence of self-citation. A large group can produce a mountain of self-referential material and there is no incentive for them to cite those outside of their group because the outsiders often represent a threat to their funding supply and reputation. This leads to massive eddys of self-citation which swirl off from the main current of progress. An eddy is a problem because that means that those caught up in it are not influencing anyone and no one is influencing them. Old ideas are forgotten and may be rediscovered again and again by research groups which are caught up in such a myopic pattern.
These are serious, structural issues because we spend a substantial fraction of our GDP on science.
13 billion military technology research
7 billion national science foundation
26 billion department of energy budget
31 billion national health institute
18 billion NASA budget
10 billion department of commerce (NOAA, NIST, oceans, forestry, etc..)
x billion on research for other areas: education research, economics, etc
The grand total is more than 100 billion
but this doesn’t take into account the cost of educating scientists and science educators in the university system which would surely add 100 billion more.
So, if we want non-corporate science to consist of internet educations and backyard experiments, we could save 200 billion dollars per year.
For each adult, this amounts to 1000 taxpayer dollars per year spent on science. This is 2% of the per person GDP.
I must have missed some significant funding sources (military) because this Wiki says that 2.7% is the percent of per person GDP spent by the government on research in the US.
If I compare this to research spending by the top 15 companies, I see about 150 billion listed in their budgets as R&D, not including the infrastructure investments necessary to support that research. This makes the private sector research contribution a bit larger than the public sector contribution.
Since knowledge is power, cutting the federal research budget would result in a reduction of federal power. Cash rich companies would subsequently become more powerful as they take possession of secrets which give them an advantage.
One such company is Amazon. With 600,000 employees and servers that contain most of the data held by the CIA (and soon, the defense department as well), Amazon is led by a man who dreams of helping humanity colonize space and he believes in this mission with a passion that concerns me since some of the worst monsters in history committed attrocities because they were passionate about an ideal. Think of Hitler wanting to Germanize Europe, think of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, think of Stalin’s political purges or Pol Pot’s dream of remaking society in an ideal image.
Jeff Bezos believes in the benefit of a relentless, brutal workplace culture which places the value of progress far above happiness and which has a warped view of what meritocracy means. The top two echelons of his organization are made up entirely of men and in an organization that values work at all costs, this is not a surprising result. Women are not willing to kill themselves for status in the same way as men.
I think organizations with this sort of structure are evil because providing incentives for men to work themselves to death is cruel. They may think that they are having fun – up until the moment that they drop dead of a heart attack at age 50. They may think that they are working to make a better future as they medicate themselves into a zombie-like state to maintain productivity only to wake up decades later, paralyzed in a nursing home at age 65.
This sort of self-abuse doesn’t just happen at the top of the corporate ladder. There are even stories of men dropping dead in Amazon’s warehouses after running themselves ragged as they respond to commands from an automated manager.
Perhaps I seem too emotional about these issues, but I’ve seen systems like this kill or maim men in my family. Amazon is just one example of many. The medical industry, the scientific research industry, and IT have all crushed converts, destroyed families, and deposited casualties in homeless encampments. That is why I am creating this blog and these novels to cast a spell which may someday produce the sort of kinder, gentler world that I hope to see.
By seeking to undermine the foundations of physics, I hope to undermine the faith placed in men who insist that resistance is futile and that the price paid by those crushed under the wheel of progress is worth it.
Maybe I’m wrong about all of this and there is something that I simply do not understand or do not wish to see. Maybe not.
(I appeciate the irony of posting a link to a book I’m selling on Amazon in a post which criticizes Amazon’s zeal for progress.)
As with most of my blog entries, this material was gathered from posts I made on Quora.com. The image in the header is from Jason deCaires Taylor of underwatersculptures.com
3 thoughts on “Ye of little faith..”
You’ve unravelled a mighty lot of deep tricky stuff but it looks as if the only serious finding of science that matters is the climate warning. Maybe we need to focus some of that 100 billion on flood defences . Let’s stop looking out into the deep’s of space and start spending on measures to meet earthly needs.
I thought Karl Popper was the man who put up the essential need for hypothesis to be falsifiable although he did mention that the un – falsifiable can be useful.
I’ve thought a bit about what is known about the climate and wrote about it here: https://kirstenhacker.wordpress.com/2019/09/09/peak-oil-peak-phosphate-peak-stupidity/ I am a pragmatist at heart.