Friday, June 25, 2010

Quantum gravity: minority report

Clifford Johnson is giving introductory lectures on string theory at
Quantum Gravity Summer School
in Morelia, Mexico. Veronika Hubeny and Per Kraus are giving AdS/CFT-related talks, too. The other speakers are working on non-stringy quantum gravity - without realizing (or admitting) that it is an oxymoron - that they even pompously call simply "quantum gravity". ;-)

Of course, the string theorists were only invited to make the summer school look more serious in the eyes of those who know what's going on.

However, almost none of the students is actually ready to learn serious stuff so Per and Veronika in particular are probably going to speak to deaf ears. A vast majority of the participants belong to the "soft" research groups that prefer to produce papers full of meaningless philosophical flapdoodle, speculations, and ad hoc combinatorial models ambitiously dreamed to describe everything although it's clear that they describe nothing around us and they bring no nontrivial interesting theoretical or mathematical ideas or explanations, either.

The school is an example how trivial it is to fabricate a "consensus". You just choose a group of people where the majority defends certain fundamental misconceptions. And if you give them enough money, they can bring many friends - with the same opinions - and they can easily produce a majority in the field. Whenever the hard scientific evidence is replaced by some crazy sociological criteria, science may be easily doomed. Clifford belongs to a minority.

In fact, I am going to claim that this is likely to happen not only in Mexico but at a global level.

The place of the summer school, Morelia, is not coincidental, either. There is a "quantum gravity" group over there, too - Alejandro Corichi is one name I may mention. Their research is what they would imagine under the term "quantum gravity" in Mexico. Now, you shouldn't be shocked to hear that Mexico is not a leader in high-energy physics, according to any meaningful objective or subjective criterion you could think of.

The Americans and Europeans who are working on "non-stringy quantum gravity" are just practitioners of this Mexican-level science. They're the Mexicans' true peers, so it shouldn't be surprising that they're third-rate scientists in the U.S. context. There's no string theory group in Mexico - another fact that shouldn't be shocking given Mexico's average IQ around 85. The IQ increment needed to go from non-stringy quantum gravity to string theory is around 20. But you need many other pre-requisites, too.

Clifford Johnson seems to be surprised that almost all the students have been brainwashed by various anti-stringy misconceptions. Clifford has clearly been living outside the reality at least for 4 years, and so have many other serious high-energy physicists. In his article, Clifford explains that with the poor background of the students and given the limited time, it's unlikely that the stringy lectures will be any useful for the students. Clifford is capable to give excellent lectures - but his expectations are simply not too high.

He also mentions some episodes that fill him with some hope. Some students told him that they were interested.

His conclusion is pretty bullish:
They’re also talking to each other, including some of the students who work on strings, informing way other of their respective approaches… and so maybe they are forming a community of a new generation of scholars that will be less embattled than the current generation seems to be...
Well, I don't think so. The generation that was born in the 1980s will almost certainly be the first "completely lost" generation in theoretical high-energy physics in many centuries. The incompetent people who have no chance to be productive have largely taken over the system. They surely don't control the Harvard theory group but they're controlling the majority of the less important places which are enough to "squeeze" the quality schools out of the picture, anyway.

You know, there are simply many places where you can make living out of meaningless philosophizing and childish models that have nothing to do with the reality and that require no special expertise, education, or hard work. Pseudoscience and pure demagogy calling itself "science" has become possible and the structures in the society began to tolerate it - and sometimes openly support it.

It's clear where this situation will lead in many years or a decade. Most of the students will prefer the places where they don't need to work hard or learn difficult things; instead, it's enough to parrot superficial lies of the likes of Swolin and Smoit. It will simply be attractive for most people, especially because their financial and other situation will be the same (if not better) as if they chose a place where they have to do some serious work or where they're actually expected to have some talent.

There will always exist people who won't care about the material issues but they will be increasingly punished for their pure souls.

As time goes by, the places that would insist on hard expertise, hard work, and talent will be losing people who want to come there. They will have to lower their demands and lose funding, too. Meanwhile, the low-quality places that have been taken over by the third-rate pseudoscientists will thrive because their support by the society eventually boils down to the opinions of the public - and after all, the public hates maths and hard work in physics. They will prefer the populists who tell the public things that they want to hear but who never compute anything that makes sense.

These scholars will still call themselves "physicists" for a while but their true mode of thinking will be returning to the shamans.

The methods how the research is evaluated will be modified to suit the new "scientific" class. I know how these mechanisms work too well - from the socialist Academia. The "lost" generation knows that they haven't made enough work for the support they've been getting - and their interest is to hire another generation that won't do anything useful, either: otherwise the new generation could be an existential threat for the older one.

This is a self-enforcing, vicious circle. It may only be reverted after two generations or so because the "grandson" generation of these freeloaders may be the first one that can be legitimately identified by the bulk of the society as freeloaders who haven't brought anything to the mankind, instead of "revolutionaries" who managed to remove hard work and the "evil" abstract maths from physics. ;-)

The discussions at summer schools can surely not save the day. It can only mix serious science with nonsense - but the percentage of nonsense in this melting pot will keep on increasing, anyway. One can't do serious physics by randomly mixing discussions with marginal figures who babble in all conceivable directions. Science is a very disciplined process and especially in this discipline, precision and rigor are paramount. Work that doesn't respect these things has to be eliminated - and the people who can't do work that respects these rules have to be eliminated, too. These basic concepts have become nearly politically incorrect.

I think it's probably too late to revert these processes.

Some people think that these processes are not happening and they keep on denying them. In general, I am an optimist but I am convinced that they're completely wrong. The preservation or growth of serious science depends on a favorable environment. And the environment is completely screwed even in the very near vicinity of high-energy theoretical physics.

For example, Tommaso Dorigo is a representative of the type of people who may affect the general distribution of "subjects" that may grow at CERN or the Fermilab in the next decade or two. And he just published a quote by Sherlock Holmes - no kidding - whose main point is that it is a "capital mistake" to work on any theory before the data are observed.

Holy crap. Most of the progress in science is about working on theories before their questions are experimentally settled. Once they're settled experimentally, there's nothing much to talk about: the things become straightforward work that doesn't need any creativity or expertise, for that matter. However, even inventing the right experiments requires some pre-existing theoretical framework. A proverb says that the theorists need the experimenters not to be led astray while the experimenters need the theorists to know where it's important to look. The history of science would stop after one or two steps if the "Sherlock Holmes'" quote were considered as a rule.

Clearly, mentally impaired people of Dorigo's type are working hard to eliminate theoretical physics - and any theoretical science or careful rational thinking in general - from the surface of the Earth. And they have millions of people who de facto support them, sometimes fanatically. Unless someone finds a way to regulate these Dorigos away, the progress is just doomed and high-brow science will keep on evaporating because the allocation of resources to the right people is simply important when the intellectual work that has to be done is both difficult and time-consuming as well as selective.

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