Sunday, August 27, 2006

Journalistic hyenes attack inflation

One week ago, The Sunday Times have given us a rather explicit example that string theory is not the only target in a new jihad declared by a coalition of fringe physicists, scientific zombies, postmodern crackpots, and journalistic hyenes, using some catchy words of the former social-democratic Czech prime minister, Miloš Zeman, a big fan of fancy herbal alcoholic drinks. :-)

A journalist called Jonathan Leake didn't like Alan Guth's opinions about the cyclic universe and related ideas. Most of the broader community of cosmologists including me tend to agree with Alan Guth that the cyclic universe seems much less convincing and promising a direction for cosmology than the inflationary framework. Alan Guth may perhaps have some additional personal sentiments in this story.

Nevertheless, at a summer conference, he has made a calculation and ended up with the result that Neil Turok's new theory is comparably reasonable as a thinking of a monkey. To visualize his result, Alan Guth has also showed a cute picture of a monkey. His result is perhaps controversial but most people would probably disagree about the quantitative and presentation issues only. ;-)

Moreover, most people in the field prefer to know whether the Universe ever expanded by a factor of 10^{30} or more than whether Alan Guth ever drew a monkey. Leake's priorities are probably different. Moreover, he did a bad job even as a "social scientist". If he studied these things more carefully, he would know that there has been tougher tensions involving Linde and Hawking or Linde and Turok.

Now you may ask: is it fine to show a picture of a monkey? No doubt, Neil Turok was going to be offended. Well, what a surprise. It was probably one of the points of Alan Guth to attract Neil Turok's attention. Alan Guth feels strongly about these things, and as far as I can say, he has good reasons. Many other people fully share Alan Guth's opinions even if they don't share all of his emotions.

I think it is absolutely critical for scientists to be allowed to think and say that a theory is crap. In fact, it is one of the main jobs of a scientist to identify theories that are crap and to abandon them. Science can never prove that a theory is correct forever; such things are only possible in the world of religion (and perhaps in science, once we or the future generations complete the theory of everything).

But what science can do is to falsify hypotheses. This is how the progress is made. The scientists keep on abandoning hypotheses and keep on studying the most plausible theories that have not been falsified yet - theories that are Not Yet Wrong or Not Even Wrong if you wish - in more detail. Quite clearly, most science-haters don't understand this strategy of science. But they're wrong and they're irrelevant, together with thousands of their dumb fans.

Moreover, it is important for the senior scientists to evaluate their peers' theories critically; otherwise all of them would end up working on theories that neutrinos are octopi swimming in the spin network. Silly journalists would surely like such a situation and support them in this enterprise but science as we know it would be over.

Dr. Jonathan Leake is not a cosmologist and he can dislike slides with monkeys, perhaps because of some biological connotations. That's his right and that's his problem. But what I find completely unacceptable is to write a scientifically misleading article about cosmology based on these irrational emotions of the journalist.

The article overhypes the cyclic universe as a revolution in physics that is painted as analogous to the Einsteinian revolutions. Its author paints Alan Guth in the worst light that is publishable. More importantly, the article is written as a weird attack on inflation - which is a different entity than Alan Guth despite his pioneering contributions. It invents many childish links between the Catholic Church and the inflationary cosmology.

Neil Turok helps the journalist by saying:

  • "The supporters of inflation have become too evangelical. They have no idea why inflation happened but they still believe in it," he declares.

If I were Neil Turok, with all of my respect for him, I would be ashamed for having used the same crap that the crackpots are using on a daily basis when they attack anything about physics - for example relativity. If you can't find working arguments that would support your theory and convince others, you start to compare them to generally disliked groups of people, Nazis, or the Inquisition, don't you? It's great to have a compassion of the laymen but it is not a scientific argument.

We don't need to encourage stupid people to invent new comparisons of physics and religion. I have personally seen too much of it.

Science is not a place to cry and to help those who cry. Science is a place where evidence and convincing arguments brutally destroy wrong theories and less convincing arguments, whether or not the feminists find this mechanism sufficiently feminist, in order to make progress. Scientific arguments are what makes Guth's comparison of his colleague with a monkey more powerful than Turok's comparison of the mainstream with the Church.

Inflation happened because an underlying theory such as string theory naturally gives us scalar fields whose potential energy has a non-trivial profile that can admit a slow roll; with these assumptions, the evolution is a derivable fact and it is called inflation. The conditions needed for inflation seem rather generic in an underlying theory by which we usually mean string theory, unlike the cyclic universe.

We know that inflation is likely to be correct because it non-trivially solves dozens of problems with the Big Bang cosmology. Equally importantly, we have obtained new very accurate WMAP data in March that confirm basic predictions of inflation and allow us to start to ask the first questions beyond the zeroth approximation (of the scale-invariant spectrum) - questions that can support or rule out classes of specific inflationary models.

These facts strikingly contradict the text of the dumb article:

  • Guth himself has built his career on it. Recently, however, it has become clear that the theory has major flaws. There is, for example, no widely accepted way for physics to explain how such "inflation" could have happened.

What a pile of Severely Hurt Information Technologies, if I have to avoid the acronyms. We are aware of no major flaws of inflation. In fact, we don't know of any flaws of inflation that would indicate that something is wrong. And one of the main victories of inflation is exactly its ability to explain where did the Big Bang get the bang, if I use Brian Greene's words in "The Fabric of the Cosmos". What Jonathan Leake wrote is a malicious lie.

Moreover, even if there were a sense in which inflation doesn't explain its very beginning, the same is true for the other scenarios even though the beginning may be shifted further to the past. To summarize: the lie is absolutely unjustifiable and atrocious piece of propaganda.

And it is not the only absurdity: the next paragraph argues that inflation contradicts the cosmological constant which is quite crazy given the fact that the whole mechanism of inflation is an exponential expansion because of temporarily higher cosmological constant that eventually rolls to its present value.

It is even more outrageous if you realize that the theory that was chosen to have "major flaws" according to The Sunday Times is a nearly proved theory of inflation, while other patently wrong theories that have been invalidated by all of recent research - such as the discrete theories of gravity - are never mentioned negatively in the media - because their authors share the same anti-scientific sentiments with the poor journalists.

The only thing we don't know about the inflation is the full picture with all the potentials etc. - something that should ultimately be calculable from a fundamental theory (which probably means string theory) - but we have never known the theory of everything in the past so this is not the first time. This incomplete knowledge has never prevented us from making progress in the previous examples. The progress called "inflation" is no different.

Inflation is the way to go beyond the standard Big Bang cosmology. Just like in high-energy physics, it is true that we must rely on theoretical reasoning more than ever before because direct data about the high-energy mechanisms that created the CMB spectrum are not available.

And yes, we don't think that the same predictions have been derived from the alternative theories as reliably and convincingly as they have been derived from the inflationary framework - the difference seems large - and many people argue that the papers on the cyclic universe have been plagued by errors. I haven't checked most of these statements myself but I have sociological reasons to believe them.

Cyclic universes are also far from being the only competitors of inflation, if you can't resist to talk about alternatives. See e.g. the recent papers by Ali Nayeri, Cumrun Vafa, Robert Brandenberger, et al. These guys also think that the cyclic universe is not a good approach. Their alternative uses some very specific possibilities offered by string theory thermodynamics but it remains controversial, too. You can see that more stringy-sounding titles don't necessarily mean that they are more acceptable by the "establishment". At any rate, you should read the papers by Ali, Cumrun, Robert et al. because they are understudied and they could lead to a more realistic alternative solution than the cyclic universe.

What to do with articles that try to increase the heat inside the scientific community?

Of course that an ideal scientist won't get affected by irrational arguments like stupid and untrue articles in the newspapers or hate mail that he may receive after these stupid articles are published. ;-) But we live in the real world, not in the ideal world. Recently, I find the amount of attempts of dumb journalists to intimidate scientists and influence what they think about scientific questions - by misusing the public opinion - to be absolutely outrageous, especially given the thoroughly unscientific character of the journalists' motives.

Dear Dr. Jonathan Leake, I don't know how I can explain these things so that you would understand them. But as far as cosmology goes, you're just a layman. However, you should try to understand that if you write something in The Sunday Times, it can have quite an effect, so you should better try not to write such an incredible piece of Severely Hurt Information Technologies like this painful article.

Once again, the validity of scientific theories has nothing to do with whether or not you like Alan Guth or his slides, and you should allow the scientists and the scientific public to continue to live in the world where these two things are absolutely disconnected. Writing about cosmology - that has become a full-fledged exact science in the last decade - is something different than writing about wild religious sects' witch-hunts against their heretics because the rules are very different. If you bring new external emotions, compassion, or support for your horses, it always hurts science. Everyone who thinks that he or she can help science by some emotions or unscientific recommendations and pressures is misguided.

I, for one, like Alan Guth a lot, but even if I didn't, I would still think that the evidence that inflation is the best way to go in cosmology is extremely strong and the other proposals so far look like convoluted variations borrowing the same basic ideas from inflation that however don't quite work. As far as I can say, Guth and Linde are right and deserve the credit for the key pre-Big-Bang cosmological discoveries, while Hawking and Turok are less right. ;-) But even if the truth is different, the last thing science needs is a political or emotional pressure from journalists who have no idea what's going on.

Do you want to reduce the impact of Einstein's theories because he was a Jew? Feel free to believe and print whatever you want but your dust in the river will follow Einstein's laws of Brownian motion after you die anyway. Do you want to ban quantum mechanics because its key discoverer, Werner Heisenberg, was a German patriot and the leader of the German nuclear efforts? Screw you. The laws of quantum mechanics are those who will eventually kill you and show you who is the king in the city. Similar fate awaits you if you want to deny the QED results of Richard Feynman, the sexist pig, or the quark results of Yuval Ne'eman, the Israeli spy.

And that's the memo.

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