Sunday, June 11, 2006

Dean of crackpots, Hitler's Pope, and string theory

  • WOW. I can't believe the FT article. Holy Shit, the world has gone completely bananas.
These are the words of a very famous physicist with more than 10,000 citations who is not a string theorist but who is also someone else than the senior physicist who has originally sent me the extraordinarily dumb article in the Financial Times one week ago, after he had read the same article. ;-)

Be sure that your humble correspondent plus the two senior physicists are extremely far from being the only ones who were stunned by that article.

Well, now we have another reason not to believe our eyes.
(this blog is not responsible for the quality of external websites)

have joined the Financial Times in their celebration of the dean of all crackpots - or, as they ironically call him, using the term invented by Ms. Susan Kruglinski, the dean of "debunking". The new politically correct word for crackpots is "debunkers". ;-)

While Robert Matthews had at least some remote links with natural sciences, the second outrageous attack of major British newspapers on physics in one week was constructed by John Cornwell from Jesus College in Cambridge, U.K. Cornwell normally writes controversial texts about the relation of Hitler and the Catholic Church that others call thoroughly discredited screeds. But the Sunday Times found it completely O.K. to combine this "scientist" with another "scientist", namely the dean of all crackpots, and give them space in their newspapers to "prove" that high-energy theoretical physics is not a science.

The article correctly explains that the dean of all crackpots is a scientific zero, but John Cornwell apparently does not think this fact reduces the importance of the bitter statements made by the "dean".

Nowadays, serious or well-known newspapers would probably not publish a similarly silly article against evolutionary biology written by a similar (or the same) author from a Jesus College. Unfortunately, it seems that it is perfectly fine to publish such an article against physics.

The article is full of meaningless stupidities and variations of the bizarre thesis that quantum gravity and string theory do not satisfy Popper's definition of science: it can't be falsified. The text also features conspiratory theories about the suppression of the "alternatives", whatever it is supposed to be, and all these verbal ejaculations that the readers may find on a certain anti-physics blog somewhere at the dumping ground of the blogosphere. Cornwell explains that the colliders are a waste of money. He also argues that string theorists don't understand mathematics of string theory - no idea where this particular craziness comes from.

The most entertaining example of the fact that Cornwell has absolutely no idea what he's talking about is his statement that in his effort to "dismantle the cage of the string theorists", Peter Woit has "formidable allies such as David Gross". :-) This blog usually doesn't avoid explicit and transparent formulations - but in this particular case I chose not to reveal what David Gross thinks and says about the "dean" because the readers with weaker nerves could experience serious psychological complications. ;-)

Cornwell predicts that string theorists will be preparing a rebuttal to the dean of the crackpots. I am afraid that with exactly one exception, they have much more serious work to do than to talk to cranks. My simple statement that the dean of all crackpots much like John Cornwell could not become graduate students of physics today because they are unable to understand some very elementary questions about science will probably remain the only reaction.

We could discuss how to re-educate people like Cornwell who obviously missed the most important messages of the high school education. We could discuss the best strategies how to stop the exponentially collapsing mathematics and physics skills of the population of the United Kingdom - something that Cornwell's article proves so dramatically.

But it is impossible to seriously talk about theoretical physics with someone who doesn't have a slightest idea what theoretical physics is. How should such a discussion look like? Prof. Cornwell, could you tell us what is the dominant process in the scattering of two gravitons at one half of the Planck energy according to your present model and whether there is a first order phase transition near the Planck scale?
  • I guess that Pius XII will turn into Adolf Hitler,
Prof. Cornwell would probably answer. ;-)

Do they really think that a moron becomes a scientist that should be debated with as soon as his or her stupidity is revealed in the newspapers? Cornwell's readiness to discuss difficult things in physics is comparable to the readiness of dogs or Paul Boutin - it is by 3 or 4 orders of magnitude smaller than the readiness of the colleague mentioned at the beginning of this article and by 2 orders of magnitude smaller than the required minimum. It's just not possible to have a discussion resembling a scientific discussion between peers; it is equally absurd as a physical confrontation between al-Zarqawi and an airplane with two 500-pound bombs.

Do they really think that the scientists have to respond to every silliness written by complete laymen just because other simpletons have printed it in the Sunday Times, in order to sell more copies of their sensational newspapers to their least demanding readers? Or do the physicists even have to reply to every article against evolution or physics written on William Dembski's blog?

Most string theorists much like most high-energy physicists in general are extremely nice people - too nice people - so they won't say that Cornwell is a breathtaking moron in the public. But be sure that they agree with me and many of them are saying these things in between the physicists. In the public, the only question is how to explain that Cornwell is a complete idiot without making anyone upset.

Undereducated journalists and writers may increase the amount of ignorance of the general public about science - which has certainly occured in this case. They can promote creationism or the idea that theoretical physics - the queen of all sciences - is no science. But they cannot actually influence the conclusions of the science under consideration. Both writers as well as readers of scientifically defective texts will remain irrelevant for science.

And that's the memo.

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