Monday, April 03, 2006

Lawrence Krauss: Science under attack

The colloquium speaker was Lawrence Krauss. The room was almost full and the speaker was very entertaining. He discussed the relations between science and education, especially in the context of Intelligent Design, and I agreed with approximately 85 percent of his points. The figure is high especially because he carefully avoided any discussions about modern theoretical physics.

Krauss said that he has just given a talk for the American Enterprise Institute - and this comment was obviously meant to be a joke for the audience. Well, let me say that AEI is no joke but a leading think tank and indeed, Prof. Krauss has good reasons to be genuinely proud that he was offered to give a talk at the AEI.

Krauss has shown some statistics how many people in America believe various strange things. For example, 50% of the people answer that the Earth orbits the Sun and it takes 1 year, while 50% of the people think that the statement is wrong. Even more discouraging numbers describe the opinions about evolution.

He argued that the very advantage of science is that it can falsify statements so that we no longer have to talk about all of them; that different hypotheses are not equally valuable, and so forth. The advantage of science is that it can confirm or reject hypotheses regardless of our preconceptions and regardless of the possible consequences of such insights. Krauss also said that every person in science should see how an idea she completely loves is ruled out because it is a great lesson. I completely agree with him.

He offered several quantitative insights based on comparative literature that Intelligent Design directly replaces creationism without any development of the scientific content, without any new intellectual idea behind it. He has also shown that Intelligent Design is dead in scientific literature (where only a few engineering articles talk about intelligent design - indeed, in their case, the design should be intelligent). In fact, ID seems nearly dead in any literature. There are as many books about Intelligent Design as about the alien abduction. Should we create a controversy at schools just because there are some books about the alien abduction?

I agreed with all these points but his best joke occured when he was explaining that science is what works and all people want to use things that work whenever they are in a crisis situation. His funny example involved the bird flu: the U.S. president suddenly talks about the possible mutation of the virus that could be dangerous for the humankind. When a real potential crisis occurs, suddenly the president does not say Well, the virus was intelligently designed to kill us. ;-)

Krauss has also debunked several flawed arguments used by the creationists - using the same arguments that I also use, so I could not complain. The creationists often say that there is a clear boundary between "humans" and "non-humans" but if you draw all the skulls that different creationists consider to be the skull of the oldest human being, you get the full evolving chain. Clearly, there is no gap separating humans from non-humans.

Also, some creationists say that evolution is different from the rest of science because it is not a "real" science but a "historical" science. Krauss correctly argued that every science is strictly speaking historical because it is based on observations of past events. But it is science because it can also predict the future observations. Well, of course, some sciences - such as cosmology and the origin of currently existing species - that are "more" historical than others. But again, there is no sharp boundary.

Points where I disagreed

There were of course also many points where I disagreed. Let me mention a couple of examples.

The first one is just an amusing observation: Krauss has stated, apparently by mistake, that the hearing of whales was predicted by inflationary cosmology. ;-)

More seriously, there were some points that I found rather painful. After he explained that science should never advocate things that cannot be defended scientifically, because it is not right and moreover it diminishes the power of science, he listed approximately five principles of the scientific ethos (or even the scientific method), and one of them was "egalitarianism".

Now, this is a real shocker. I can't imagine how someone can make such a blunder after a rather carefully designed discussion of the scientific method. Egalitarianism has nothing whatsoever to do with the scientific method, much like any assumptions about races don't. It's pretty bad if someone tries to include a left-wing political principle as a part of the scientific package. Did Prof. Krauss also want to include the working class in the sentence, and the equal role of the sexes?

I am afraid that I am the very first person who found the inclusion of "egalitarianism" among the principles of science to be a shocker. There are many subtypes of egalitarianism, and I personally endorse the legal and moral egalitarianism only (certainly not the material one and others) - but not even these two have any relation with science. These are completely different issues. And indeed, science was developing long before these egalitarianisms were codified.

Europe vs. America

Another strange comment he made was that Europe was "ahead of America" in science education and maybe even in science and technology as such. That was a surprising comment - apparently not just for me. Isaac Silvera asked the speaker how is it possible that America has been quite demonstrably the leader in science and technology during the last 50 years, despite the fact that the percentages of those who know about evolution and heliocentrism has always been quite low.

Krauss' answer was that the separation of state and church was bad (!) for America because it has made the Church and its public relations more efficient. I just can't swallow such an appraisal. The separation of state and church has made many other things more efficient, too - and an increase in efficiency is a positive thing even if you don't like some of the new efficient institutions.

Why is America ahead?

America is simply efficient in giving the people the right roles which is why it is largely irrelevant that most people believe in creationism or geocentrism. These people live their often happy lives and do a lot of other important things: but astrophysics and biology is done by someone else. The percentages of people advocating creationism can be lower in Europe but it does not guarantee that all things are fine - especially because many people "believe" evolution just because they have been brainwashed, without being able to argue scientifically - as Jerry Gabrielse has also argued.

If someone actively believes creationism, it may irritate you more easily - indeed, eight years ago I was spending hundreds of hours with debates about evolution - but on the other hand, I feel that if someone blindly believes evolution without understanding the science behind it, it is equally unproductive as the belief in creationism.

Eight years ago, I had many creationists around. Today, creationism just does not seem to be one of the biggest threats for science. It is much more likely that someone includes "egalitarianism" or any other left-wing buzzword as a part of the scientific package than "God". Some people think that God (and the Heaven) must be a part of any solid science; other people believe that egalitarianism (and catastrophic climate change) must be a part of any solid science. I don't see any qualitative difference between these two un-scientific misconceptions except that the second one seems much more dangerous these days.

Lawrence Summers' resignation is an example of the fact that the political pressure on the actual science and Academia from the left is a more realistic threat than the pressure from the right. Unless, of course, you define science to be the combination of science - as understood by The Reference Frame - and left-wing political values. In this redefined framework, of course, the Left can never threaten science, by definition.

Let me keep my own definition of science.

Just like some Christians may have problems to understand our common ancestors with the chimpanzees, left-wing concerned scientists may find it difficult to understand that the male brain and the female brain can work very differently, when observed carefully. See this new article. If you ask me whether the evolution of apes millions of years ago is more important for the contemporary scientific reality than understanding of our actual brains today, I am afraid that my answer is No. The left-wing ignorance is likely to be more serious. Of course, Lawrence Krauss has not said a single word about left-wing un-scientific misconceptions.

Humiliating groups by choosing irrelevant examples

One of the speaker's main points was that the Bush administration is against science. I found these comments excessive and Krauss' selection of the quotes unfair. He would show you a quote by Bush father that was very positive about science, and a quote of a not-too-relevant person from the current administration to highlight the difference. (The newer quote was a stupid quote saying that good science is the science that is good for the American people but it seems that the joke during Krauss' talk was the most important application of the quote.)

Krauss has also shown some childish pictures of castles of (bad) evolution and (good) creation that fight against each other - and he claimed that the institute that has created the cartoon is important, at least in Ohio.

Much like in the previous case, he did not convince me it was important.

This is not what I call an entirely fair treatment of a controversy. If one is presenting a controversy, he should sketch the best arguments that both sides of a certain dispute - either scientific or political dispute - may offer instead of the worst ones. This was clearly not the case in many portions of this talk although many other portions of the talk did a better job. The choice of the cartoons could have been entertaining, but it reminds me of the quotations of irrelevant personal e-mails with other crackpots that you can find in Jack Sarfatti's books; unfortunately, Peter Woit's book is somewhat analogous.

Criticism of Richard Dawkins

Lawrence Krauss as well as a professor of Harvard argued that the evolutionary "camp" is losing the P.R. battle, and Richard Dawkins was the first person to be blamed. Why? Because Dawkins has said many things about the tension between religion and science - and these statements have culminated in his thesis that "Religion is bad science".

Well, I certainly find this statement of Dawkins too general - but if we assume a certain particular definition of religion, it may be true. Some people may imagine God in very abstract ways and it is somewhat hard to analyze what they really think or find sharp errors in their beliefs. But most people imagine God and His role in a very specific, mechanistic fashion that justifies people like Feynman, Weinberg, or Dawkins to say what they have said. (Feynman said that whenever we understand something, God diminishes: God is only hiding at places which we have not yet understood.)

Incidentally, the thing that Lawrence Krauss hates about Einstein is that Einstein often used the word "God" in his quotes. I certainly don't share Krauss' emotions. Einstein clearly meant something else by "God" than those who are criticized by Feynman, Weinberg, or Dawkins. I personally believe in Einstein's God (once you remove determinism from Him and replace it by the postulates of quantum mechanics).

Maybe I misunderstand something but I find Krauss' comments about the inclusion of religious attitudes to science a bit hypocritical. My understanding is that the very main point of his latest book, Hiding in the mirror, is to present the idea of extra dimensions as an essentially religious idea in order to diminish the credibility of the research of modern high-energy physics - because he knows that most of the readers are anti-religious.

Everyone who has ever worked in phenomenology or string theory knows very well that this research has nothing to do with religion. The link is an invention of Krauss' - one that is intended to politicize things and to encourage his readers to think about completely irrational relations between different ideas.

Which attitudes are anti-scientific according to Krauss

The theory of evolution - that Krauss finds more important than any discovery in physics including quantum theory and relativity (I am not sure about the order but I find Darwin's insights amazing, too) - was the main example of a "threatened" scientific field in his lecture but it was also the only one that I found un-controversial.

In one of his lists, he was showing the issues that were meant to demonstrate that the Bush administration is un-scientific, and the list started with
  • global warming
  • stem cell research
  • missile defense

As you know very well, I think that some of the most principled republicans are more scientific on the issue #1 than Lawrence Krauss and many others. Krauss also mentioned that James Hansen, the father of global warming, feels that his ideas about the looming disaster are being suppressed. Given the fact that finds over 8,000 articles about global warming in the MSM media from the last month, some of which are completely insane, I find Hansen's and Krauss' conspiratory theories about the suppression of their findings somewhat unconvincing, to put it extremely mildly. A healthy number of articles about the global climate would be smaller by 2-3 orders of magnitude.

Concerning the topic #2, I think that it is not the best idea to promote the maximized stem cell research hype after the Korean fiasco. The recent events have shown that it is not such a bad idea to be a bit cautious. Also, stem cell research is a scientific activity but one that is politically sensitive and one should not be surprised that the moral values will play a role in policy-making. Sometimes I feel that many concerned scientists including Lawrence Krauss don't want to understand that science cannot tell us what is "good" and what is "bad".

Concerning the point #3, I would say that even though Prof. Krauss likes to be described as an internationally known theoretical physicist, people like Edward Teller, the father of the H-bomb - who was the primary initial driver of the project of Star Wars - and John Wheeler - who has been a great supporter of the program - are more internationally known physicists. By the way, the H-bomb has worked after all.

More importantly, there is obviously no physical law that says that the missile defense is impossible. In fact, if the goal is to make the system 90% reliable, it is more or less guaranteed that it can be done. Anything that can be designed and tested with a 60% efficiency can also be boosted to a 90% efficiency.

Also, I did not like some of the descriptions of the reasons why the tests of the missile defense system were interrupted.

Punch line

The punch line of Krauss' talk is that the physicists should be evangelizing everyone else. The attack on evolution is really an attack on science, Krauss argues.

Well, this also seems as too strong a generalization to me. We could also argue that Krauss' latest book is not just an attack against modern high-energy theoretical physics but an attack against science as such. We could also present arguments similar to Krauss' arguments to support such a statement and argue that Krauss wants to blur the boundaries between physics and religion in order to diminish the power of physics arguments that he can't diminish otherwise. But such a generalization could be too strong, too.


  1. Regarding missile defense. The question is NOT whether it is allowed by physics laws or not. The question is other confining factors, like the priorities, the money and resource constraints. For example, a much more urgent need than missile defense is defense against IED (improvised explosive devices) carried by road side bombers in Iraq. It's low tech, it is not prohibited by physics, so why it is impossible to do?

    And what does missile defense help if a terrorist is to smuggle a nuclear warhead onto US soil through low tech means like carry it on a back pack and sneak through the boarder. Why have we NOT already install Geiger Counters on all sea ports and airports? Why 95% of all good are still unchecked? What use is missile defense if you can't even prevent the low tech means of attacks?

    We are in a very vulnerable situation now. See the underwater missiles Iran tested the other day? Guess who are their intended target? US navy ships? Wrong! Our ships would stay at least a thousand miles away to make sure they can't get us. But their real target are the bulky and slow moving petroleum tankers moving in the gulf. If a giant oil tanker is sinked, the oil supply will be cut off. The world economy is over, and same is US economy. And it will be chaos all over the world.

  2. Of course, Lawrence Krauss has not said a single word about left-wing un-scientific misconceptions.

    Which apparently becomes a necessary counterbalancing aspect of science when fanatics incessantly push their ideolgical agendas. Fanatic vs Antifanatic, I see this as the single most blinding feature of the "most-real" frame of reference, but it runs rampant through just about everything that Lawrence Krauss is involved with, thanks to his position in the CrEvo debate.

    The theory of evolution - that Krauss finds more important than any discovery in physics including quantum theory and relativity.

    With good reason maybe...

    The TOE could very well be the ToE if the anthropic constraint on the forces means that there is a mechanism which enables the universe to evolve its characteristis or traits to higher orders of entropic efficiency just like we humans did when we lept from apes to harness fire... and beyond...

    Kinda makes a little too much sense for abstract thinkers tho, dun't it...

    Boy is the joke gonna be on ya'll fanatics on ALL sides tho!... if there is (thermodynamic) purpose in nature that isn't about god...

    Then Einstein will have made every person that's ever criticised him look like the fools that they are...