Monday, July 09, 2012

Landscape wars: David Gross vs Brian Greene's PBS program

Next month, my translation of Brian Greene's third major popular book, The Hidden Reality, should be released in the Czech Republic.

It's a good book and I still consider Brian to be a top physics writer but I plan to write down a blog entry summarizing the book, its content and scientific misconceptions, its format, its philosophy, a comparison with The Elegant Universe I translated a decade ago, and the evolution of my feelings about the usefulness of the promotion of advanced science in general.

But before I do so, let me inform you about an interesting 90-minute debate that took place at David Gross' KITP in Santa Barbara two weeks ago. It was about the controversies in science and the right journalists' reactions to them.

The debate was moderated and the video materials were presented by PBS NOVA's Paula Apsell who is also the current KITP science journalist in residence:
Controversy in Science: When Scientists Disagree, What's the Journalist to Do? (HTML, various formats)

Flash video hi-res, Flash video lo-res, 3GP file (40+ MB, video: a few frames per minute)
The right way along which the journalists should approach controversies in science has of course been one of the major issues on this blog throughout the years. The particular topics they have discussed include

Climate change

The multiverse
As both my evolutionist and creationist friends know, I am a full-fledged Darwin chap. As an undergrad, I was a pro-Darwinian activist but I am no longer one because I don't think that creationism threatens anything or anyone (or because of my former undergraduate sweetheart, a fanatical evangelist?). In some sense, I feel compassionate towards creationists even though I don't really share their beliefs. The evolution debate is discussed in the first 30 minutes of the video above.

Climate change is of course a major controversy and NOVA's reporting on this part of science and policymaking – and everything that this woman has said about the topic during her talk – has been utterly catastrophic, dishonest, distasteful, and scandalous but I will omit it in this text. There's been no controversy about climate change at the KITP because all people in the room were staunch advocates of the Big Government and that's what actually decides in 95% of the cases on whether or not one decides to think about this topic rationally or not. People who consider the Big Government to be one of the best things in the big picture will simply prefer arbitrarily breathtakingly idiotic group think over the individual rational reasoning and over an arbitrarily rigorous proof that there is no climate problem. About 15 minutes were dedicated to climate change in the discussion about the scientific controversies in the media.

It turned out that the most controversial topic (locally) was something else, namely the multiverse and the anthropic principle. Go to 43:20 and she starts to talk about the multiverse, the landscape, and The Fabric of the Cosmos, the 2011 PBS TV program hosted by Brian Greene. The four episodes were previously discussed on this blog. I always enjoy the style of Brian Greene's programs; the content received mixed TRF reviews.

The first episode on space was mostly correct. The second episode about time has been full of eternalism; over-the-edge claims that no one knows what time is; and nonsensical claims about the non-existence of the logical arrow of time (in the very trailer, Brian directly says "according to the laws of physics, processes with macroscopically decreasing entropy may occur": WTF!? Especially the second law, right?), among other things. The third episode about quantum mechanics was nicely done but it has really failed to explain how quantum mechanics – the framework underlying our world – works. It's probably because Brian Greene intrinsically doesn't believe that the world doesn't obey some laws of a (conceptually) classical theory at the fundamental level.

The fourth episode was about the multiverse and it was the main topic of the 90-minute KITP debate two weeks ago. David Gross had a monologue in which he pretty much repeated everything I wrote about the episode. It was propagandist in character (or "manipulative", using better words of David Gross); it failed to coherently and honestly explain the picture of the critics of the anthropic lack of principles; and it just made lots of incorrect statements such as "logic seems to lead to the multiverse" which were not disputed in any way on the show.

More generally, the four-episode PBS program totally failed to separate uncertain and speculative topics such as the multiverse from established science such as quantum mechanics. (This point was highlighted by a layman at 1:07:00 who said that he believed that quantum mechanics is just as speculative as the multiverse.) I've made those statements many times in the past; it seems that David Gross agrees with me on every single point here. If I were born in April 1973 and not December 1973, I could easily conjecture that the Gross-Wilczek paper on QCD has plagiarized some scribbles of mine, too! ;-)

Just kidding.

The PBS folks recorded David Gross for something like four hours but his explanations finally didn't make any significant impact on the show because Brian apparently controlled the composition and the flow of the program and he's become a nearly complete anthropicist in recent years. (Just for the Czech readers, the word "anthropics" may be translated as "antropičiny" but the correct translation is obviously "antropíčoviny".)

Because I've seen this immense discrimination against the Nobel prize winners, it's plausible that I will try to offer David a platform that is thermonuclear i.e. vastly more powerful than PBS, namely TRF. ;-)

Back to the 90-minute KITP debate. To make things worse, Joe Polchinski who had pledged a decade ago to quit physics if the anthropic reasoning ever becomes dominant has switched to the anthropic reasoning, too. So he was defending the PBS program, although in a seemingly confused and undecided way.

Now, David, make no doubts about it: the same kind of manipulation affects all the programs about the climate change, too. Many of these programs, overseen by very similar stupid and/or dishonest TV/journalistic folks, are presented as research, too.

A difference between the anthropic reasoning and the climate hysteria is that the anthropic reasoning is an unlikely but conceivably correct speculation about the reasons behind some unexplained features of the Universe which hurts no one; the climate hysteria is also a project to liquidate tens of trillions of dollars, the industrial capitalist civilization, and some of the basic human freedoms, too. But some of the mechanisms by which these two types of garbage are being promoted into the "mainstream opinion" are analogous.

Someone during the debate mentioned that the journalists are presenting populist topics and cherry-pick controversies which distorts the picture what is important and what is true. The woman calls it a "reality" that one "has to do so". That's interesting. I use very different words for what she calls "reality": "immorality" and "corruption".

Today, I was sort of expected to participate in the discussion under the Higgs interview with me on, so I did participate. But I was also offered to write a Higgs article for the leading printed classical newspapers, "Lidové noviny". It turned out that it was planned that a big chunk of it would be about apologies for particle physics' existence and nonzero funding. I mentioned that I had to write several paragraphs about the very same thing in my February article on OPERA. I got another reply about "the will of the people" (it's a scientific consensus of the people that the scientific knowledge is worthless), the kind of "reality" comment, with some options. So I replied again that I had another option, namely to shit upon the working class primitives who pompously call themselves people and just to write nothing.

I just happened to get the offer again and I could reduce the space given by the humiliating "apologies for physics' existence" to one sentence – in the last sentence, I sent a message to the foes of funding of physics saying that Austria wanted to leave CERN in 2009 but many people realized how humiliating it would have been for Austria to become a physics peer of Albania so the plans for the CERN exit were scrapped in 2010. That's the only explanation of the purpose of physics funding for those who don't care about the truth in physics: people not paying attention to the laws of Nature are primitives and it's embarrassing to be a primitive. There's no other explanation for the funding of pure research they could understand. (Even if Austria left, it would make no significant different at CERN, of course. In similar smaller countries and environments, it's important to realize that the public pompously claiming it's very important is actually very unimportant and only decides about irrelevant fractions of the resources.)

Well, I understand that the newspapers may depend on the copies sold to lots of idiots who consider science to be junk and just don't want or can't read any high-brow articles in the newspapers, either. But that's their choice and it's not my problem. Prostitutes depend on some men's desire to have sex with paid women, too. It's exactly the same thing. The fact that some people depend on various things doesn't make their immoral behavior less immoral. They may always choose to do something else if what they're doing is forcing them to behave unethically. If they don't choose a less immoral job and continue in their immoral practices, then they're immoral people. It's as simple as that.


  1. If someone asks "Why is our planet habitable?" then the anthropic principle cannot give any reasonable answers imo, but if someone asks "Why is it that we live on a habitable planet out of all the planets out there? (It surely must be because of God :P)" then I think anthropic reasoning can be quite useful ;)

  2. Maybe Joe Polchinsky HAS quit physics by switching to the anthropic reasoning ... :-P ;-) ?
    (Yeah I know that I`m provocatively overstating, he is still cool, but I could not hold it back since I dont like the anthropic reasoning too much ...)

    I exactly agree that (particle) physics needs absolutely no excuse for its existence, people who claim something else always drive me up the wall ...:-(0)! It is a very sad thing that such trolls obviously hold the majority in the US governement since quite a long time now. Observing the US quit (fundamental) physics lets them look not so good ...

    A guest post from David Gross (or somthing) would be very cool :-)
    And to the promised TRF article discussing Brian Green's "Hidden Reality" I look forward too :-)

  3. I enjoyed when, in the article, I was reminded of the power of persuasion that can be wielded by method of well timed/targeted shaming. ;>>

    The only aspect (an utterly minor one) of how you wrote this article that I did not like - and believe was caused by too hasty (superlumonal) thinking/writing - was that you described anthropic reasoning as "unlikely".
    "Unlikely" should not (IMHO) have been included when you made that otherwise very good point.

  4. The problem with debates is that journalists and toxic pests often take what is said out of context and use it to bolster arguments that the quoted scientist does not support at all. This happens all the time with Creationists who latch onto any difference of opinion say, between Stephen J Gould and Richard Dawkins (punctuated equilibrium and gradualism) to say that evolution is incorrect when both scientists strongly believe in evolution. David Gross faced the same treatment in 2005 when, at the Solvay conference he made some comments about the current state of string theory.
    Promptly, Lubos' bete noire and shameless prevaricator
    PW latched onto David's musings to say that he was repudiating string theory when he is actually a strong supporter with probing questions about it.
    Dilaton---I agree with you about the Anthropic Principle---the weak form is simply obvious and the strong form seems just wrong and abhorrent.

  5. Thanks for your feedback, Peter. "Unlikely" is a word that has nothing to do with the main substance of the sentence, indeed. It's also an oversimplified shortcut of my opinions. What I really think is that some ways of thinking often included under the anthropic umbrella are demonstrably wrong; and all of them are unlikely to yield useful results or explanations. Otherwise whether they're unlikely is disputable.

    But my main point was about the existence and methods of demagogy so |I should have separated these technical opinions, indeed. Tx.

  6. Dear Gordon, right! I was just watching the complete 30 minutes of the 90-minute debate at KITP, with pieces of a show about the ID and it contained some good pieces.

    There was a trial and an ID advocate talked about irreducible complexity; he also referred to a biologist who said that some bacterial motor is irreducibly complex, i.e. useless until all parts are assembled, which proves that natural selection couldn't have created it. That scientist did say that it does look like it was man-made ... but he knew it wasn't. In fact, it wasn't irreducibly complex because the part of the motor without the rotor has been found in other bacteria as a gadget to inject poison - and the cited scientist himself knew that very well.
    Now, it's typical for journalists - and "scientists/activists" - to use someone's arguments in slightly wrong ways (and incomplete ways, stripped of some essential insights) that do not imply what they want to prove. Of course, Columbia's Shmoit is a notorious example of this hardcore demagogy, one who is well over the edge.

  7. does not the overlap between number theory and quantum theory disprove the anthropic principle?

    correct me if i am wrong:
    -anthropic principle is the theory of evolution applied to physics
    -anthropic: the structure of atom is what it is otherwise no emergent life would exist to exam it
    -number theory: pure axiomatic language of math eerily
    tells us something about the structure of atom
    unless prime numbers are also subjected to anthropic principle, why would this overlap exist

  8. Lubos, I know this is off-topic, but you're the only Czechian I know. In the 2012 Intl Mathematical Olympiad (which is going on right now), the Czech team has a chinese kid on it. What gives ?

  9. Funny. I will investigate. Don't forget that Czechs and Chinese are closely related, unlike the Poles. ;-) It's a český-čínský tým.

  10. I am reading he is actually the best young mathematician in Czechia these days, also a good chemist and other things. If it calms you down, classmates call him Tonda (Czech for "Tony"). ;-) Look at|en&tbb=1&ie=UTF-8

  11. It is NOT in any sane sense "evolution applied to physics".

  12. You're certainly right about the 15 IQ point advantage of Asians that allows them to rise to the top even in countries in which they are minorities. However I see this same phenomenon for Indians in countries where they are a minority and yet, Indians only have an average IQ of 85. For example, this year the teams from Uganda and South Africa both have indians.

  13. Cze Wronski, I am convinced that those things in India are fully explained by India's wider IQ distribution

    Think about castes.

  14. The problem I have with M theory is that it is one of the last crutches of religion. If M theory is correct then there are millions or more universes with all types of slighty different Gods. The only thing we can be sure of so far is that our universe is not one of them. Thank probability amplitudes.

  15. Holy cow, you should ask your doctor for stronger pills.

  16. gods can type poetry as good as monkeys can't they?

  17. It's alcohol not pills? ;-)

    Should I frame my comment into a question about the implications of an infinite multi universe theory?

  18. Nah, its the cultural work ethic. Asian students on average imo work/study many more hours than N Americans and the consequences of them not succeeding are much more severe for them and their familites.

  19. Dear Gordon, I am confident that your comment can't apply to folks like Dung Le Anh in Czechia. They don't face any problems or serious risks here.

  20. Anthropic principle should have no place in science, because it is no science, it is an empty tautology at best, and a backdoor for religion into science at worst. And I disagree that creationism is harmless to science. I watched some discussions on youtube between proponents of creationism and defenders of evolution and it was almost painful to watch. It is hardly anything more than a medieval obscurantism in a modern cloak.
    And I should add that I am obviously not an atheist. I am just able to separate strict science based on sound evidence from philosophical speculation

  21. I find it hard to believe that Asians have on average 15 higher IQ scores. Do you know of any original research article that examined it and where I could check the methodology?
    For example, in the West, every single child goes to school. In China and similar countries, some children might not attend the school and so if you compare the results, it is not really an equal situation. I spent half a year in China and honestly found a lot of people there pretty stupid.

  22. Creationism is close enough to cretinism. There is only an "a" and an "o" missing.

  23. It is not the risks, it is the cultural values, loss of face, Asian tiger moms etc.

  24. Head up for you lumo.

  25. Europe has a history with deciding people they don't like are less than human. So does America, for that matter, and Africa, and Asia.

    I can share the planet with Creationists.

  26. The irony of David Gross' position is that he was complaining in that talk to the lady that he felt the program didn't hear from his side enough so they looked silly. But it was him who was explicitly calling the other side silly by saying they believe in "angels and fairies". C'mon David. If looking silly is your main concern (which he stated it was) then don't be a hypocrite and call the other side silly angel believers.
    At least Brian Greene NEVER characterized his opponents as such.

    Personally, I think the multiverse arguments of Greene are rather weak. But it is a logical possibility, and has arisen simply from our best attempts to explain the world. Although they might not prove to be right. Anyhow, they should definitely not be equated with theology and angel worshipping. It is ridiculous for David Gross to claim that - how childish.

  27. Stephen Wolfram's mom

  28. Lubos, on a related issue:
    there do exists ARGUMENTS (not proofs) that there is a multiverse, coming from considering eternal inflation, string theory, fine tuning, etc. Although these arguments are not water-tight, they do have some basis.
    On the other hand, Lubos, do you know of any arguments that there is only ONE universe?

  29. "And I should add that I am obviously not an atheist....." Oh, and up to that point you were actually making sense.

  30. Whether you can or cannot you WILL BE sharing it.

  31. Yup, it seems like an interesting reconstruction; I've seen it at Watts' blog. If true, this could very well suggest that the decline of the Roman Empire was at least helped by the decline of the temperatures, although I am not too happy about similar explanations.

  32. Sorry, Ghandi, but this is just anthropic propaganda. There's no truly logically working argument of this sort and one just can't replace a working argument by several dysfunctional ones.

    Eternal inflation is only relevant if inflation is eternal. Your belief that inflation is eternal is just a belief and the fact that one may combine the words to "eternal inflation" is just a circular argument in favor of such things.

    String theory only implies a landscape, a complicated configuration space of "possibilities" (empty universes allowed by the theory's equations), but that is something different than the multiverse: string theory doesn't imply that all/most_of these "possibilities" are realized.

    Fine-tuning, much like creationists' irreducible complexity, is a fair working hypothesis that *would* support anthropic ideas if it were found. But all possible cases of fine-tuning in the past were found to be non-existent - very much like in the case of the irreducible complexity - and the hints that haven't been solved by a well-established, proven solution yet indicate that they will be solved. Hierarchies involving the Higgs may still be solved in agreement with the scientific logic by new physics around the TeV scale; the cosmological constant may be tiny because of SUSY cancellations perhaps accompanied by some extra cancellations from some other mechanism. The small theta-angle in QCD is a counter-argument against the anthropic fine-tuning because the smallness apparently isn't advantageous for life, so even without a proof of axions - which make it naturally small - we know that the anthropic thinking doesn't look solid.

    Concerning your question whether there is evidence that there exists just one Universe, yes, there is and it is based on much more solid a part of research in modern quantum gravity. Holographic principle implies that the degrees of freedom behind the horizon aren't independent from those that are inside - the complementarity principle. When applied to violent cosmologies, it means that one isn't allowed to think about the volumes behind the cosmic horizon as about independent regions of space. They're just a different, scrambled way to choose observables acting on the same Hilbert space. This fact probably makes it invalid to think about the existence of "us" and "them" at the same moment (it would be a violation of the uncertainty principle) *even if* the existence of these large volumes behind the horizon as well as the domain walls from quantum tunneling were implied by classical physics which they're probably not.

  33. I also think that the belief in infinitely many Brian Greenes in the Universe that are relevant for doing physics *is* fully analogous to the belief in angels and it is very stupid. In my opinion, this point isn't hard to be seen but some people may need some help to see it. What David Gross complained about was that they didn't allow the actual explanation why the belief in the anthropic fantasies is analogous to the belief in angels to be coherently articulated on the show. So while your criticism seems to be directed against Gross, you are actually strengthening this point that the program was manipulative. It was propaganda.

  34. No-one ever claimed that the smallest of theta was due to anthropics, so this seems irrelevant. Your argumenta that the smallest of the cosmological constant is due to cancellations is not supported by any known calculations.

    Anyhow, can you explain more as to how holography favors a single universe? Why does Susskind promote holography as well as the multiverse?

  35. Lubos, I think creationism by itself would bring no threat/contradiction to science when the Creator is considered to be the responsible for picking up a specific "minima" in a degenerate landscape of physical laws. Analogously, what physical (and not metaphysical or philosofical) principle could a physicist invoke from ST to let universe X instead of Y to be the one realized by Nature from the landscape ? Is there some kind of constructive interference of possibilities working synergically here?

  36. I am the Devil

  37. It doesn't matter whether someone claimed that theta was due to anthropics - which would be wrong.

    What matters is that we have a fundamental parameter of Nature which is "unnaturally" small, isn't explained by any well-established or proven physics processes, but we still know that the anthropic ideology isn't a solution to this problem. This is an example showing that we must always admit that any hierarchy or apparent fine-tuning may have a natural, non-anthropic explanation even if we don't know what it is.

    It is not quite true that my comments about C.C. cancellations are not supported. SUSY and no-scale supergravity in particular solves 1/2 of the cosmological constant hierarchy problem as it reduces the unnatural gap from 120+ orders to just about 60 orders.

    Susskind promotes the anthropic misconceptions because he randomly made the guess and wants to promote this meme to remain influential. Moreover, as explicitly explained in his popular book, he believes that spreading the anthropic opinion as an ideology is a good way to combat traditional religion which he considers a good trend.

    At any rate, there are no scientific arguments supporting the viewpoint that the counting of observers is relevant for understanding of the properties of Nature. And that's what matters in science.

  38. Instead of the theta angle, which seems irrelevant, if might have been interesting if you had an historical example of the following kind: there was some phenomenon that appeared to only have an anthropic explanation, but was later found to be dynamical.

    Of course there is still the 60 orders of magnitude left for CC, which I was referring to.

    So you see holography and multiverse to be 100% incompatible, or is there some way of fitting them together. Seems odd to me that Susskind would be so contradictory.

  39. It is important to know that: the Pope is not a creationist. For the catholics the creation of the Universe by God is not in opposition with the Evolution theory. Christiantiy is opened to new discoveries in Science and have no problem including them to match their belief. It's just way more flexible and intelligent than this stupid creationism movement. Voilà.

  40. Science is something else than funny stories from the history of science so despite your fundamental delusions, the importance of what I write below is exactly zero. Nevertheless, of course that I can give you such an example.

    In 1953, Fred Hoyle argued that the existence of life required the existence of an excited state of carbon-12 at approximately 7.7 MeV. This was soon confirmed experimentally, a great victory for the anthropic reasoning. Except that we know that the energy of the excited level isn't a fundamental parameter but it is calculable from QCD which has no dimensionless parameters related to pure QCD and just a few bare mass parameters in non-pure QCD.

    Moreover, as the article above explains in some details, we no longer believe that there's any real fine-tuning over there because the tolerance of star life to deviations of the energy of this level is pretty much of the same order as the distances between various energy levels of the carbon nucleus.

    Of course there is still the 60 orders of magnitude left for CC, which I was referring to.

    Fine, we don't have the final answer to everything in Nature. That doesn't mean that we have to accept the first pseudoscientific belief system that claims to explain all the things we can't explain yet.

    I don't consider the contradiction between the multiverse and holography to be waterproof but it's strong enough for me not to spend time with thinking about any details of multiverse-statistics-based reasoning (and I have many other reasons).

    Our attitudes to science are utterly incompatible. Note that every your comment is about appeals to authorities, sociological stories about the history of science, and so on. You're simply not thinking about Nature in the scientific way. At least if you were able and willing to fix your ideas about the history...

  41. I won't be if I "cannot." ;)

  42. Susskind promotes the anthropic misconceptions because he randomly made the guess and wants to promote this meme to remain influential. Moreover, as explicitly explained in his popular book, he believes that spreading the anthropic opinion as an ideology is a good way to combat traditional religion which he considers a good trend."

    As if he knew better about whether "traditional religion" by which he means the Judeo-Christian tradition -- the Hebraic conception of God as a just being who supports equity in all human relationships -- was good for society. This is a sociological issue as much as anything else. Look at China for an alternative, where the rule of law is a foreign concept. As are the rights of the individual, the public welfare, and a lot of other things that grow (and grew) out of the West's "traditional relgion."

    This is not about science, but it is not about nothing either. God talk should not be condemned.

  43. The Hebraic idea of God is a moral concept not a physical explanation of the universe. It has had enormous historical influence on the course of Western civilization, including many of the values I'm sure Lubos shares with his readers. For scientists to ignore this historical dimension in their haste to dismiss the idea of God as a physical explanation of nature is to throw the baby out with the bath water. Science isn't everything, not by a long shot.

  44. This is a very interesting comment for me too ... :-)

    Up to now I always thought that the multiverse from eternal inflation (with each member evolving accorcing to the laws of nature that correspond to a particular point in the landscape) is the only one among the different definitions of the "multiverse" that could make a small limited amount of sense...

    And now your holographic argument even against this is seems obvious to me :-)