Saturday, October 28, 2006

George Johnson at KITP

Clifford Johnson has written the

of the recent media-driven "controversy" about theoretical physics and as far as I can tell, he is right on the money. Clifford focuses on the talk by the journalist

presented to the physicists at KITP in Santa Barbara. George Johnson - who is probably not Clifford's relative - has written some pretty good popular articles about theoretical physics in the past although some of them have had overhyped titles ("Physicists finally find a way to test superstring theory" is an example).

I remember that someone has convinced me to translate George Johnson's "Does the Universe follow mathematical laws?" into Czech when I was in the college. I disagreed with many statements of that article but it was an inspiring one so I did translate it.

Later, Johnson also added an "inelegant universe" in August 2006 among his rather famous pieces. Given the fact that The Elegant Universe is a great, balanced, and honest book that focuses on the actual content of science and its key results, avoids manifestly untrue statements, conspiracy theories, and ad hominem attacks, you may guess how an inelegant universe looks like. ;-)

Recently there have been roughly 30 similar inelegant universes - some of which have had even more drastic names - spread all over the newspapers. This wave has created such a vast and dramatically inelegant multiverse that even Prof Leonard Susskind must be jealous. ;-)

George Johnson was explaining why these things - and artificial boom-doom cycles, as he called them - occur. He has realistically painted the journalistic profession as a corrupt community whose main goal is to produce "stories" - caricatures of reality with heroes and villains - that can be sold to the average consumer, without much care whether the "stories" and their parts are true or not. He has also revealed that the headlines are not written by the authors of the articles themselves which was shocking for many innocent physicists in the audience. ;-)

He has also illuminated the method to write "balanced" articles: you can write a full page of lies and nonsense but if you add a sentence "but to be sure, something", then everything is just fine.

This morally mediocre nature of the journalistic profession inevitably leads to irrational waves of groupthink such as the recent one about string theory - but Johnson also offered some less drastic similar examples from the past. Some of the old, somewhat uncritical articles that have been written about string theory are just another side of the same coin. But I am personally convinced that no physics theory has ever been as over-hyped as the recent anti-physics non-theories promoted by the two slanderous books.

The curious physicists were asking him why he personally believed or paid attention to the weird statements of the two books. Gary Horowitz asked why they didn't write about even bigger stories that relativity and the 20th century physics was wrong and one of the new Einsteins - such as Mark McCutcheon - was right. Johnson answered that he didn't understand the technical jargon in the first part of the black book, so it had to be intelligent and reasonable (...). He also thinks that the voices of some of the outspoken condensed matter physicists must be extremely important for particle physics, and no one is obviously going to change George Johnson's mind about it.

The focus of the discussion - and the real source of outrage - was the book of Lee Smolin because its author is officially a part of the research community, unlike Peter Woit who was viewed as irrelevant by the participants.

Amanda Peet explained that it had to be obvious that the authors of those books don't apply the same standards to their theories as they use for string theory - and she uses the obvious inconsistencies of loop quantum gravity as an example. George Johnson offered a truly bold hypothesis that "he thinks that no one would call [the author of the blue book] a crackpot". A massive laughter, led by Joe Polchinski et al., explodes in the room, indicating a rather strong disagreement of science with the journalist. ;-) A physicist has challenged Johnson more comprehensibly: "Do you want to take a vote about it?"

The physicists who have talked to Johnson for a long time have clearly failed to explain him that there are roughly 4 additional distinguishable levels of knowledge between being marginally able to follow the presentation of the history of physics until the 1970s, and being able to produce scientific arguments that can influence the research of quantum gravity in 2006. Amanda Peet tried to tell Johnson that for any topic, you can find people with extreme opinions what's going on. As far as I can say, Johnson didn't get it.

No science-like hierarchy of knowledge exists in the profession of the journalists. You learn the grammar, some stylistic rules, and the wisdom that the point of the article is to create stories that are sold well, and you can become a journalist: you don't actually have to know any content. A skillful high school student may write an equally good article as his retired colleague. In physics, it is "slightly" different, and an average reader who just understood the material of the first part of the black book must be very intelligent and study for 5-10 more years to get to the actual level of current research in quantum gravity. Is that really such a difficult fact to comprehend, Mr. Johnson?

Some physicists, especially David Gross, were analyzing the intellectual dishonesty of the authors of the books collectively referred to as Swolin, especially the blue book whose author has manifestly understood why and agreed that his arguments about background independence and other concepts are incorrect, because of the AdS/CFT correspondence (where the background is not inserted) and because of other reasons, but he still prefers to pretend that he has not understood it yet.

One of the physicists offered a joke that became an instant classic:

  • Do you need higher dimensions in order to be both one-sided and two-faced? :-)

Amanda Peet, Mark Srednicki, Gary Horowitz, and others were surprised why it was so difficult for the journalists to figure out that the recent books are nothing like a balanced view on physics but rather extreme screams in the darkness that are not supported by any real science. For example, Mark Srednicki argued that even the journalists should be able to see that someone is manipulating them if he uses the sentence "I can't understand why some people think that my book is anti-string" in the context of a book whose very subtitle links string theory and the "fall of science".

David Gross explained why the arguments of the critics are empty. They are either ad hominem attacks or dishonest comments about science or they try to create emotions about actual unanswered questions that are being rationally and legitimately investigated by the scientists right now.

He has also re-iterated his opinion that he always believed and he still essentially believes that the right policy is to ignore the weird voices in the jungle and assume that their existence will have no implications for science. It would be bad if the scientists were forced to participate in discussions with individua at the level of John Horgan about "deep" questions similar to the question whether science is over, among other bizarre things.

It is obvious that I don't blindly follow David's policy ;-), which has both negative as well as positive consequences, but I certainly understand where David Gross and other famous physicists with the same opinion come from and why they would never honor aggressive "critics of science" with an answer. The famous physicists' opinion is a qualified extrapolation of the old good times in which the foes of science were irrelevant, an era in which the enemies of well-established physical theories and the authors of incoherent alternatives could be humiliated or ignored by the scientists, according to the scientists' choice.

But if you listen to David Gross more carefully, you can tell that he is not so certain that his assumption continues to hold. We arguably live in the first decade of the human history in which the crackpots have become organized and they started to influence science and science journalism using political tools and intimidation.

The newest online technologies including the blogosphere have made such a thing possible. Also, the search engines are literally flooded with bogus statements about physics at junk blogs and other websites and many people, including journalists, often rely on these sources and they are completely unable to see that a bogus source is a bogus source as long as it respects most of the rules of grammar. Moreover, the organized cranks have absolutely no moral constraints. So for example, they erase every single reasonable review of the silly books. The last review of the blue book at that was erased today was an insightful review of a non-string physics grad student.

Also, I completely agree with Clifford's assertion that one of the main goals of science journalism - a goal that is arguably more important than any technicality in particle physics - should be to explain how science actually works, how the arguments are constructed, propagated, and judged. How science differs from arts, politics, democracy, or war. It may be a difficult goal if the journalists don't have a clue themselves.

For example, George Johnson has made it very clear that he thinks that the popular books and newspaper articles don't belong to the public sphere but rather to the scientific process. He couldn't be further from the truth. Indeed, as long as he assumes that the most important things in science occur in the popular books and in the blogosphere, he will probably continue to write articles similar to his inelegant universe whose 95% have nothing to do with the actual scientific questions and discussions among the scientists.

Popular books are only interesting for active researchers to the same extent to which the researchers are parts of the general public. In the last 100 years, no important paradigm shift in physics was started by a book. Weinberg's "First Three Minutes" are the closest thing to a counterexample you can find because it has really stimulated research of the nucleogenesis, among other things.

Johnson has, in fact, explained why he thinks that some essays of condensed matter physicists about theology don't belong to the public sphere: he defined the public as those who don't care about string theory one way or the other. ;-) The audience has understood this description of the public as a good joke except that Johnson was clearly serious. ;-)

Finally, I want to say that some people propose various speech codes to fight against various undesirable tendencies in the broader discussions about science. These suggestions should restrict not only Swolin et al. but also scientists like Leonard Susskind. I disagree with this suggestion because it is against freedom and moreover it is unworkable because there will always be people who won't follow the rules even if they're good. Instead, the right situation should always allow anyone to do and say anything, but there should exist balanced mechanisms that naturally regulate what's going on. Do you want to write a book that rejects most of the scientific lore and attacks most of your colleagues, without having a good alternative? You can try but if something is wrong or dishonest about your writing, it will be exposed.

The fact that the "critics of science" have higher influence over the media and public perception of a scientific field than the Nobel prize winners in that field indicates that something could be wrong about the existing mechanisms of checks and balances.

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