Sunday, June 04, 2006

Robert Matthews: science-hater par excellence

A senior physicist who is not a string theorist has sent me a piece of text that he or she called "a tendentious, malicious attack on scientists and through that on science itself".

So I looked at it. Indeed, it was the kind of anti-scientific rant that people with IQ around 80 often write when they become desperate that they can't become scientists themselves and when they want to fool themselves into believing that their ignorance is a virtue - an equivalent of someone's knowledge (or something better).

It was a text full of comparisons of science with the medieval Church, calls to stop funding of XY, very bitter emotions, denial of science including rigorously established mathematical theorems, the opinion that no one should care about certain questions in science, and references to opinions of "authorities" who are crackpots or semi-crackpots themselves.

It was obviously a kind of text written by someone whom you definitely don't want meet on the street. Someone whom very serious colleagues of mine would never talk to. Someone whom we should not even think about. Someone who is definitely going to be irrelevant because the society has built-in mechanisms to suppress intellectual dwarves of this magnitude, as famous colleagues always say.

It was a text that tells the readers not to ask what supersymmetry is because the author has no clue - and no one else should have a clue either, he thinks. A truly dumb text that criticizes M-theory for the fact that no one has a unique answer what it stands for. A verbal construction that identifies Edward Witten's main virtue as being "charismatic". An article that attacks not only Edward Witten and everyone else but also the Calabi-Yau manifolds, dreaming about the world where people don't know what the manifold is.

Why I am telling you this story on this physics blog? Surely you can find thousands of texts written by idiots everywhere on the Internet and thousands of attacks of these folks against fine, nice, and smart people - which does not necessarily have to be just your humble correspondent even though it is the case in most cases. ;-) Surely you can find hundreds of millions of people on this planet who don't care what supersymmetry is and who think it's even wrong to try to learn.

The reason why I am telling you about this mad text is that it was just published in the
Oops. That's quite an example of the exponentially collapsing physics skills of the British society - one that used to be so great in physics a century ago or two. The author is called Robert Matthews and he is apparently a kind of writer who writes about everything but does not understand anything - a new, "improved" generation of Paul Boutin. Our scientific picture of reality has simply become so complex that people who are just a little bit outside the field - science journalists and even professors of different disciplines of mathematics and physics - just can't distinguish a text with a scientific merit from a completely vacuous ranting.

Should we worry about these developments? Are they new? Are they a threat? Most experts would answer "No, we should not worry". In some sense, I would also answer "No" because I do believe in some self-regulation of various systems in the real world, including various communities and the whole society as such. But this self-regulation at the level of the society usually occurs only when individual people are actually doing something that can be interpreted as self-regulation of the society. Nothing in the society can happen without any activity of some individuals. Of course, the individuals usually have reasons to act the way they act, which is why we view the regulation as an "automatic" one, but still: they must act.

Because of the logic in the last sentences, I think that it is important to emphasize that Robert Matthews, among many others, has absolutely no idea about high-energy physics and his article in the Financial Times is a malicious, tendentious, and scientifically unsubstantiated and unjustifiable rant that should not influence reasonable readers of the newspapers. It is complete junk. I am not foolish to think that one article will diminish the good name of the Financial Times, but at any rate, it proves that even the Financial Times can sometimes publish a complete junk. I am sure that they have even payed for this article.

"What does physics look like at energies beyond the Standard Model or the Planckian energy?" is an example of a meaningful and well-defined question. A question that many people find important because it is about a deeper understanding of the Universe in which we live. It is also a difficult one and the scientists often torture themselves in their struggle to find the most complete answers that can be found.

Sometimes they are making the progress quickly, sometimes they are making it slowly. But the only way how the society can help to make progress in answering this question is to create environment in which the people with the best - or at least good enough - abilities and desire to answer this question are dynamically chosen and in which they have enough room and freedom to try to do so.

They're doing the best they can and string/M-theory plays an important role in the state-of-the-art picture of the reality, as seen from a physics perspective. String/M-theory is a very fine, robust, and mathematically beautiful structure that agrees with all known features of the real world, at least in the qualitative sense, and that is making continuous progress, or at least a substantial progress in every decade, certainly on the mathematical front.

It is impossible for a layman such as Robert Matthews to change the status of science by a rant published in the newspapers. This is just not how science works. Some puzzles in physics are hard and they require years of torture and thinking. What people like Matthews want to propose is an "easy" solution. But that is not how science can be made.

If Robert Matthews or anyone else thinks that physics at the Planck scale is not governed by anything like string/M-theory, they can try to publish their alternative answer in any scientific journal or the preprint server.

Everyone knows that people like Matthews or Woit have no alternatives. They're orders of magnitude and decades of education from being able to do something like that. Physics at the Planck scale is not like plane tectonics, climate, cellular automata, or other relatively cheap topics that Matthews writes about: it is a topic for which the students must literally study for years to be able to find the right answers to some questions and where the gap between "knowing something" and "not knowing something" is very deep and easy to see for those who already know the subject. The only thing that Matthews, Woit, and others offer and share is their hatred against science and a very poor knowledge of the actual problems that are being discussed.

I just think it's very dangerous for the society if the people who are - from the physics perspective - complete laymen become able to contaminate the public discourse in such a brutal way. It must be clear that even if you collect thousands of Boutins or Matthewses, you will still not be able to get a more meaningful idea about M-theory than if you ask e.g. Edward Witten (or others). Someone may complain that this fact promotes Edward Witten to the status of the Pope. But this is just how nontrivial science works. The ability of individuals to answer deep questions sensitively depends on their training, experience, and also - sorry to say - intrinsic aptitude.

We may eventually decide that the search for more complete laws of physics has become so difficult that it may be better to give up, at least for a while. Many of us may have different reasons to make such a decision. Such decisions are possible. The society can influence the amount of funding for science.

But what the society and the lay journalists can't influence are the actual answers - complete or partial answers - to particular advanced scientific questions such as the questions about the Planck scale physics. One must become an expert to have a chance to do something like that. Even if you're a journalist, you can become an expert, but you will never become an expert by publishing ad hominem attacks in the Financial Times.

If you decide to stop the research of evolutionary biology in your country, it won't make the creationism true - although it may make it easier for uneducated people to believe that it is true. If you decide to make research of string theory or any other theory very hard, it won't make the theory false either. It will just restrict your country's ability to find the right answers.

The journalists should simply never become so powerful that they could intimidate scientists via rants in newspapers and force the scientists to change their opinion what is the right answer to a scientific question: this would be against all principles of science. No doubts, some journalists want to scare scientists and impose naive journalistic opinions upon the scientists - so that the scientists are afraid to announce their results or to explain why the journalists are silly. Irrepressible Czechs won't get intimidated so easily ;-), which is why I repeat and emphasize that Matthews' opinions and his article are complete rubbish.

And that's the memo.

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