Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Leonard Susskind, global warming, and groupthink

Leonard Susskind's new book is selling very well. An amazon.com user named Collosus [sic] wrote an interesting 3-star review:
Susskind mainly does well here. He takes the time to give a pretty good qualitative grounding in a number of important concepts. His extended discussion of entropy is particularly well done and does provide a good foundation for understanding the black hole information destruction question. However, he cannot resist making the political statement here and there and, while his physics may be sophisticated, those statements quickly indicate that his politics isn't.

His statements around global warming in particular reflect a willingness to accept assertions without any scientific rigor behind them. This reflects something that is a paradox with a lot of these popular physics books, particularly when they are written by members of the academy: it is often difficult to distinguish between the real scholarship, on the one hand, and the prevailing academic herd orthodoxy, on the other, in which many assertions are simply accepted without the requirement of evidence, much less proof.

This is a phenomenon that Lee Smolin discusses perceptively in his very good "The Problem with Physics."

Other issues include the writing, which is at best pedestrian (don't expect the literary gifts of a Brian Greene) and the insistent name dropping, apparently intended to remind the reader of his membership in the pantheon with Feynman and Hawking. Susskind's dismissive attitude towards religious scholarship (including a particularly insulting (and utterly gratuitous) passage regarding Talmudic scholars) is also troubling.

However, these is relatively minor annoyances if you're there for the physics. This book is still reasonably useful and is worth the time to read.
As a physicist, Leonard Susskind is on par with Stephen Hawking even though most media tend to obscure such things. And many other physicists besides Leonard Susskind would have serious doubts about Talmudic scholarship, too. ;-) But of course, I want to focus on global warming and groupthink.

Scholarship vs herd mentality

I completely agree with the reviewer that the difference between real scholarship and groupthink is often (but not always) obscured in popular books. But if the authors are serious scientists such as Susskind, this fuzziness is due to the popular character of the books, not due to the authors' inherent scholarly sloppiness. For example, Susskind would never include the global warming orthodoxy into his physics papers for experts. It simply seems difficult to explain certain things to the laymen - where every statement in science comes from, how solid it is, and so on. Scientists usually think that the laymen are not even interested in similar things: sometimes they underestimate the laymen, sometimes they are right. Leonard Susskind surely thinks that it is important to mix physics with anecdotes and social topics - he explicitly says so - and the boundaries may often become fuzzy.

But much like a majority of scientists in the Academia, Leonard Susskind is "progressive" (far left) when it comes to politics and global warming is one of the main incarnations of modern leftism. It is about the regulation of the world. The basic questions (or, more precisely, the key answers) have nothing to do with science and they are not allowed to be questioned by science.

And I am confident that Lenny, in essence, realizes these points. I am confident he knows that the global warming scientists are simply not at the scholarly level of the world's top scientists: 90% of them were hired during the last decade and they were simply tasked to "prove" the pre-determined existence of man-made global warming from the very beginning, not to objectively look for answers to scientific questions.

I am confident he realizes that what he writes about the climate is not supported by his (or someone else's) serious scholarship but by his political agenda and by the herd mentality that he happens to share with most of the Academia, for purely political reasons. And he is able to divide these things from the arguments about black holes if you seriously ask him in privacy.

When I was an undergrad, I used to interact with a group of Christians rather intensely. Many of them were kind of friends. And many of them were extremely rational (and sometimes even excessively materialistic) in their everyday life and many of them were even very good in programming and other things. But when it came to questions that had religious implications (such as the origin of species), the rationality simply evaporated. They hit a very hard mantinel. Science is useful but big questions such as the origin of life simply don't belong to science: they belong to the set of basic beliefs. It is God who created the animal and plant species, one by one. You can't simply betray God. Amen.

The case of global warming and equality is completely analogous. The left-wing believers are ready to use the scientific method to analyze all kinds of small questions and phenomena. For example, they may scientifically study the gaugino masses or the squirrels in New Jersey that almost no one outside their narrow field cares about.

But in their viewpoint, science has its boundaries, too. When it comes to the fundamental question such as "should the government remove all inequalities between the people?" or "should the government regulate?" or "should the government pay huge and increasing money to the Academia?" or other questions that could directly influence the previous three, there is no room for a scientific debate. The debate is over before it started. These are pre-determined dogmas. "Wrong" answers would make all of their life and work meaningless.

For example, one can talk about all kinds of somewhat detailed climatological questions with Andy Strominger, too. But he would explicitly make you sure that these arguments don't really matter because the regulation and redistribution are good things even if the whole "science" is completely wrong. That's how it works. Science is irrelevant here. In the following day, he would have a lunch will Al Gore and a dinner with Naomi Oreskes. ;-)

Smolin and groupthink

The reviewer's comment painting Smolin as a warrior against groupthink is amusing. It's not enough to be a high school dropout (see also NYT) and a retired revolutionary to be immune against groupthink. In fact, most other well-known high school dropouts suffer from groupthink, too. And the Cuban Parliament is full of retired revolutionaries but it also suffers from groupthink. ;-)

Lee Smolin is the ultimate example of groupthink, politicization, and intimidation in science. When I wrote a completely objective, polite, and innocent review of his book, explaining why his opinions about physics are nonsensical, he teamed up with a few additional enemies of string theory and sent letters to several senior physicists at Harvard (they chose the "most progressive" ones) who were kind of above me at the time, in a clear attempt to cause problems to me personally, behind the scenes, and to silence me. He wanted the whole public not to be told the reasons why (and the very fact that) almost not a single achieved physicist considers Smolin a serious scientist and, although it almost sounds as a giant conspiracy theory ;-), Smolin essentially succeeded.

In the letter, they also argued that I had to be a sexist and a racist just because I find it unacceptable for physics to be controlled by the ideology of feminism and similar pseudointellectual junk. They were simply abusing the fact that much of the Academia believed in far left-wing causes to personally hurt someone. I am not sure whether they were able to separate string theory from their left-wing politics but they surely didn't want to separate them. And this is what the far leftists are doing all the time. These are methods of Gestapo informers and you can't be surprised that I view Smolin, Woit, and a few others as symbols of moral deterioration and totalitarian tendencies in the Academia. Having some experience from communism, I couldn't ever work in an environment that allows this disgusting immoral crap to flourish.

You know, every good physicist I have known kind of knew (and knows) that Smolin was a sort of crackpot. But their shared left-wing politics has always been more important for them.

Smolin is the ultimate builder of a "consensus science" who would never tolerate any disagreement with his own opinions that are, when it comes to politics, even more "progressive" than Susskind's. And he writes these things very explicitly in his book, too. I am shocked that so many people haven't understood what he actually wants. In the book, he proposes to create a group of "scientists of good faith" (apparently including himself or even led by himself) who could never be criticized and whose (usually very dumb) theories could never be questioned. This group is subsequently supposed to search for "original" thinkers, i.e. mediocre pseudointellectuals who are exceptionally good in licking the butts (and sometimes not only butts) of the "scientists of good faith" such as Smolin: this ability is referred to as the "social skills" over at a European physics blog. (They often like to praise them, in order to reward Smolin's promotion of their papers.)

In reality, he also surrounds himself with many people, usually females, who are not up to their job but who mostly say "Yes Mr Smolin". Physicists with IQ above 120 could easily explain him what are the problems with every new glub-glub-glub paper that he writes and what are the correct answers to some questions he can't even formulate well - but he doesn't want to listen to the people who know what they're talking about. He is not interested whether his theories (and others) are actually correct or not. Instead, he wants to enjoy (a completely undeserved) privileged status of a "scientist of good faith". And because of the support from the extremely limited journalists and laymen whom he is able to manipulate single-handedly, he actually does enjoy the status even though he has never contributed anything valuable to science.

This is not how real science can work or should work even though some disciplines that have become pseudoscientific obviously do operate in this way. I hope that the bulk of theoretical high-energy physics won't join them.

Summary: which disciplines are threatened

So the reality of groupthink in the Academia is that there are many disciplines where it plays a role. The closer a discipline is to the media and to the activists, those who care about the "character" of the results and the social "applications" but who don't care whether the results were derived properly and honestly, the more un-scientific mechanisms influence the discourse about this topic, even within the scientific community.

So you may be pretty sure that the "big questions" with implications for policymaking - e.g. "is it beneficial to regulate CO2?" or "are all statistically observed cognitive differences between groups caused by discrimination?" - are answered by the herd mentality ("Yes", "Yes"), not by serious scholarship that is only allowed for (politically) "smaller" questions. And all such questions end up on the left side because virtually everyone in the current Academia is "progressive" (and the conservative exceptions are mostly sissies). It wasn't always like that: in Germany of the 1930s, there was, on the contrary, a right-wing bias in science (at least with a certain definition of the political right) which was, of course, at least as bad as the contemporary bias. But this bias doesn't mean that all disciplines are equally contaminated by this junk and that you must throw all of science away.

When you look at more abstract disciplines (such as black hole physics), the direct links with politics largely disappear. It doesn't mean that the amount of groupthink is exactly zero. But if there is some groupthink somewhere, it is always local and other groups and cultures can compete with it - and a competition of different groupthinks is sufficient for objective science to continue.

It is simply not true that every individual scientist should be thinking (and can be thinking) about every single question completely independently. Because of their finite capacity, scientists have to rely (and do rely) on some "relatively trustworthy" sources that they identify. When it turns out that they shouldn't have (because the predictions were falsified), they modify the strategy and adjust the weights. And in many cases, it is also useful for (relatively) leading scientists to have some "junior colleagues" who buy the "big picture" from their bosses and who help them with hard work, especially if they know that the bosses are smarter and more experienced: not everyone is another Isaac Newton even though it is fashionable and politically correct to claim otherwise these days (billions of stupid people simply love to hear that they're at least as good as Isaac Newton).

As long as some scientists, at least the (relatively) leading ones, have the freedom to modify their scientific strategies, there is no problem to talk about here. Every attempt to social-engineer a different level of independence of the individual scientists is counter-productive because a large part of scientists are "natural mavericks" and the "market of ideas" determines the ideal balance between the independence (and mavericks) on one side and collaboration (and team workers) on the other side. If there are teams that are too unified or too fragmented, they will statistically lose to the more optimal ones. And if they don't lose, it simply means that the degree of unity doesn't matter. The same scientific results may be found both by individuals as well as by teams.

If a group of scientists largely relies on rational, individual, reproducible, unemotional, scientific arguments and quality scholarship in general, it is likely that it will win over another group spoiled by groupthink. Why? Because science simply works. The better group will eventually find better theories and evidence and arguments that will dissolve and transform the beliefs of the competing groups. They will gradually convince others - because not everyone in the competing groups is a completely dishonest and silly zealot (that's one of my assumptions here).

The only possible dangerous exception where the assumption breaks down occurs when no scholars have any chance to leave the groupthink because the groupthink is global in character. For example, if you must be afraid to say that a politician who is a scientific crackpot is a scientific crackpot - just because almost everyone else has voted for him as a politician in 2000 and they put politics above science - then the system is in real trouble. The same problems occurred in the era of the Inquisition when the Church (temporarily) had similar tools to globally control certain important segments of science. But whenever there is a scholarly place in your country or in the world where you can realistically escape from the groupthink, things are OK.

The topics related to the "equality of people" and "regulation of the evil markets" are perhaps the only topics that are plagued by a universal groupthink induced by a global bias in the scholars' opinions - a bias that is driven by obvious personal interests (e.g., the people in the Academia typically want the government redistribution to be high because they're mostly paid from the taxes). It might be a good idea to do something about these sick, politicized disciplines. But one must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

And that's the memo.