Thursday, January 21, 2010

The rise of populist pseudoscience

Nothing against the ordinary people in general I think it's fair to say that at least 95% of the population has no clue about modern physics.

Many people have been taught to uncritically "okay" the kind of science that is taught at schools - which is usually correct, at least morally. But whenever you seriously investigate what they really think, deeply in their souls, about the "right" laws of physics to be found, you find out that
  • they think that there should be virtually no maths in it because they - the normal people (and sometimes even not-quite-ordinary people) - dislike maths, they always did, and they were never quite good at it, so it "must" mean that maths is unimportant
  • they think that there should be no quantum strangeness in its pillars because the postulates of quantum mechanics and its inherently probabilistic character disagrees with their experience

  • they don't really like relativity either because it makes the measurement of time and space problematic; in particular, time fails to be centrally organized. Again, the everyday experience suggests a simpler way of thinking: there must be a preferred frame, right?
  • the laws of physics should allow some really ambitious conclusions such as wormholes, time that is running backwards, communication with parallel worlds or the deity, or anything else that can be described in the media as a sensation that every single ordinary person can understand
In other words, they want a simple-minded picture of reality - which is free of maths, quantum mechanics, relativity, as well as any other modern physics, i.e. something similar to the classical chaos in their cup of coffee - to be directly connected with some of the most far-reaching dreams they have such as immortality.

Sorry, ordinary people, but Nature just doesn't work like that. It's completely obvious that
  • increasing deep layers of our understanding of the Universe require correspondingly profound and deepening advances in abstract maths; the mathematical tools are inevitably getting more sophisticated
  • the quantum postulates are here with us to stay; they're the most radical insights of the 20th century science and science - as long as it remains science - will never return back to the pre-quantum era; fundamental processes are inevitably probabilistic, interfering, entangled, routinely violating Bell's inequalities, and so on
  • relativity is with us to stay, too; Lorentz invariance must work at arbitrarily large boosts and it rules out all aether-like pictures of the vacuum; general relativity eliminates the possibility to describe gravity as a phenomenon that qualitatively differs from the things that can occur if the space is free of heavy masses (the equivalence principle says that physics near huge masses is equivalent to physics without gravity but with nonzero acceleration)
  • despite these big conceptual and technical requirements when it comes to unusual quantum and relativistic frameworks and advanced mathematics, the newer and newest theories don't change almost anything about the old theories' most general conclusions concerning the everyday life: there are no time machines, perpetuum mobile devices, or direct phone lines with the deity.
It's very obvious that the more a person hates physics, the less willing he is to tolerate dramatic conceptual deviations from the everyday life or advanced mathematics that rarely occurs in the everyday life, and the more he insists that new physics developments that are worth research funds must bring us something good for our everyday life.

On the other hand, those who like science and physics - the activity designed to find the truth about the most fundamental rules of the processes in Nature, whatever it is - are prepared to the likely fact that the truth that may be found (if we're lucky) won't improve our everyday life in any way, and it may even look modest or conventional to the naked eye, but we will still need to learn and calculate a lot in order to have a chance to find the truth. It's the truth that they really care about - and not the material advantages that it may bring to them, or the difficult work that has to be invested.

Now, you may expect the rest of the article to be dedicated to the populist pseudointellectual garbage of Lee Smolin's or Peter Woit's type that peaked sometime in 2006 - but that was followed by less flagrant but more numerous "follow-up movements". Although they differed in details, it's clear that both Gentlemen have been addressing their ideology to the bottom of the mankind, i.e. the lazy, truth-hating, mathematics-hating, jealous, and generally hateful scum that just wants to be confirmed by an "authority" that it's OK - if not a moral advantage - to be stupid scum.

But this stuff has already filled too many postings on this blog. And I think that the problem is much more serious than a movement surrounding two crackpots because even physicists who have not been known as crackpots similar to Lee Smolin are beginning to jump on the same stinky populist bandwagon. The atmosphere in the society is such that it is fashionable to promote populist, anti-scientific sentiments, and the postmodern media always help to those who are doing these things.

I guess that some of these people actually believe the sensationalist nonsense they offer - while others don't. But what's important is that there are very many others who know that it's nonsense but they don't have the courage or the integrity to be heard.

The demise of climate science became one of the earliest examples in our era - examples of scientific disciplines where the temptation to offer sensationalist results that will be liked by or frightening to the uneducated readers of the media becomes stronger than the tempetation to converge closer to the truth - which is why those disciplines inevitably and logically begin to converge to the sensationalist crap rather than the truth.

Science is never perfect but as long as the "attraction to the truth" is at least marginally stronger than the attraction to the personal or collective gain that can be achieved regardless of the truth, these disciplines are pretty much guaranteed to make progress (although the speed depends on many things). However, there exists a critical level of unscientific influences and when it's surpassed, things just get out of control.

It seems clear to me that this new temptation - the opportunity to achieve a personal gain by replacing proper science with high standards by the populist garbage that can be easily sensationalized - is attracting an increasing number of the people who are employed as scientists. There are Nobel prize winners whom I once worshiped among those who openly promote the cheap populist, anti-mathematical, anti-quantum, anti-relativistic pseudoscience against the difficult task of doing science right.

What's even worse is that in general, the people who promote the populist conclusions about science are getting personal gain, indeed. This outcome is attracting new people, and so on. Although the situation is manifestly getting worse as time goes by, many other scientists live in the denial of the dynamics and they are not moving their finger against it.

In a few years, they may find out that they are leaving a world in which the scientific approach to reality is almost unstoppably dying away, much like the nuclear reactions in a piece of uranium that no longer produces enough neutrons.

Many of them have made good or great technical contributions to science but they may soon realize that they have failed to help the very scientific, neutral, materially undemanding spirit of self-sacrifice and the passion for the truth to survive which will make their technical contributions "effectively" worthless - because only the people may really appreciate the value of the insights they have made (and only people may really appreciate Mother Nature and Her amazing wisdom).

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