Sunday, December 07, 2008

Relativistic and particle-physics cultures

Recently, I've heard many people talking about the "cultures" in theoretical physics and quantum gravity. The two most important "cultures" in the field of quantum gravity are the "relativists" and the "particle physicists". The assumption is that the "relativists" consider the Einsteinian tradition of classical general relativistic theories to be more important and want to add the quantum features as a "detail" while the "particle physicists" build on quantum field theory - that's been very useful to describe particle physics - and want to properly add gravity to it.

But people also tend to assume that the two groups should naturally have different answers to well-defined questions. For example, if someone belongs to the "relativistic culture", he or she is allowed to "think" that it is the singularity, not the horizon, where the solution to the information loss paradox must start.




What intoxicating vanity!

The scientist's task is not to live in a culture or grow a culture. His or her task is to find out how the world works. To do so, he or she must properly and scientifically evaluate all the relevant available observational and rational evidence.

It is very clear that if someone starts to talk about "cultures" instead of talking about the actual scientific arguments, he is just hiding behind the group-think of his or her "culture" and he or she doesn't want to hear about the actual evidence concerning certain "inconvenient" questions. The whole groups that are approaching the questions in this way are simply not being scientifically creative, rational, and honest.

You might ask why they're creating these gaps. Well, they're doing it for several reasons. Most importantly, it is
  • laziness
  • fear that some of the dogmas held by a group of people that included them could be shown wrong if they look more carefully at the existing evidence
In both cases, we must say: Too bad. I am confident that virtually no string theorist is trying to hide into a "culture". String theorists are reading all kinds of papers that might be interesting or useful for their work, regardless of the "culture" in which the papers were written. For example, there are relativists who have found some solutions to Einstein's equations that string theorists find useful. If that happens, they use them, of course. There is absolutely no problem here. There is only one science. In the core of this science, you can only find one physics, and it is very clear that any relevant paper should be read regardless of different "cultures".

The following paragraph is surely pretty typical among people who "believe" string theory or the particle-physics approach to physics in general. I have personally studied special and general relativity on one side and quantum mechanics and quantum field theory on the other side pretty much on equal footing as a college student. Sociologically speaking, I was never educated to be a part of one "culture" or another. The only reason why I agree with pretty much all the "particle-physics culture's" answers to the controversial questions is that these answers seem robust and consistent while the "relativistic culture's" answers to these questions don't make sense and show that the people simply haven't looked at the issues carefully enough.

Unfortunately, the relativistic "culture" is not thinking in this way. I have already mentioned one example (there are hundreds of others). Some people want to believe that the singularity is the key to the mysteries of the black holes - even though it is obvious that the mysteries already begin at the black hole horizon. Moreover, what is more paradoxical is that the arguments showing that the horizon is the place where the complementarity and other interesting properties have to start are essentially (semi)classical relativistic arguments based on the Riemannian geometry that require no special advanced tools of quantum field theory.

Why do so many relativists hide their heads into the sand and and why don't they want to hear the obviously correct answers to these basic questions? I am afraid that it is because of one of the two reasons listed above. Although I feel that the percentage of wrong and uninteresting papers in the "relativistic culture" is higher than in the "particle-physics culture", I have never rejected to read a paper just because it belonged to one culture or another. 

More generally, I feel that physicists shouldn't use any of these filters because they contradict the unity of science and the principles of scientific integrity. Theories should never hide from the risk of falsification or from competition by presenting themselves as "parts of a different culture" that should be preserved for the sake of "diversity". That would not be the method how science works. There are only correct theories and less correct theories in real physics, not incompatible theories from different "cultures".

I am convinced that some people who advocate "diversity" in science are advocating nothing else than this harmful concept of "cultures". There's no room for "cultures" in real science. "Cultures" are just tools to expand group-think, to inflate the percentage of people who believe certain paradigms well above the figures justifiable by the available evidence.

The isolation from other "cultures" may become extreme in scientific disciplines that get severely damaged. Of course, the climate science is the most catastrophic example because the "tumor" of the wrong "culture" has grown to become a majority of the field. This discipline has been pretty much overrun by quasi-religious hacks whose main idea is to protect themselves from the "contrarians", a term that they explicitly use as a negative label. After I wrote this sentence, I randomly opened realclimate.org where Gavin Schmidt just wrote a new rant about the contrarians and consensus. Oh my God. What the hell is wrong with "contrarians"? A "contrarian" is comparably likely to be right as a "non-contrarian", whatever the method to distinguish and separate these two normally ill-defined categories is supposed to be, and when a person called a "contrarian" is right, it is usually more important than when a "non-contrarian" is right. Our civilization is based on insights of many people who used to be "contrarians", and the same thing will surely be true about the future.

But I don't really want to spend much time with the climate science because in the present form, most of the stuff done in the discipline is simply not science but rather a selective filtering of not too important partial data meant to confirm a pre-existing prejudice whose main motivation is political (to promote certain eco-socialist policies) rather than scientific (to learn how the world works and to construct convincing, comprehensive, and detailed theories explaining and predicting the data).

Let me say that the problem of "isolated cultures" is not just about their being right or wrong. It is also about the question whether some work is important or not. Even if scientists write correct papers, it's not guaranteed that they're important. There must exist a market of ideas that motivates people to do important stuff and those who are doing things that are both correct and important must be allowed to flourish. In this context, competition must exist between adjacent disciplines and it must be possible for people to move from one place to another so that the efficiency and importance of the scientific process is optimized by the invisible hand of the free markets (of ideas, in this case).

This principle is being affected by the "cultures", too. People in a separated culture often don't know - and can't say - why their research is "important" (because in many cases, they feel that it is not). But they hope that some other people, often in different "cultures", will eventually find their work important. However, they leave it to pure chance. They rely on the "need to preserve a culture" or "diversity" as the main justification of their existence and their funding.

I think that this is a fundamentally wrong approach, too. If the only motivation to do certain research (XY) is the belief that it could be important for someone else (UV), I think that the researcher of XY should systematically learn what UV is/are doing so that the research of XY can be directed in such a way that it will be more useful for UV. It is his or her responsibility and duty. In other words, people should always try to know enough about the adjacent disciplines if these disciplines serve as the main motivation of their own work. These gaps between the different interrelated disciplines and "cultures" simply shouldn't exist. And when they do exist, it is always the fault of the person who refuses to study the important work of the people "behind the gap".

And that's the memo.

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