Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Scientific genius isn't extinct

...just the number and influence of stupid people who don't care about it and who don't even try to see it has increased...

I am going to (mostly) agree with a Western European blogger after quite some time:
The end of science is near, again (B.-R. blogspot blog)
She discusses a January 30th essay in Nature written by self-described "distinguished professor" Dean Keith Simonton,
After Einstein: Scientific genius is extinct (Nature, behind a paywall)
The author's points are good; see also another critical Big Think comment by Ross Pomeroy.

What does Mr Simonton actually want to say?

The first widely copied quote is the following:
Our theories and instruments now probe the earliest seconds and farthest reaches of the Universe, and we can investigate the tiniest of life forms and the shortest-lived of subatomic particles. It is difficult to imagine that scientists have overlooked some phenomenon worthy of its own discipline alongside astronomy physics, chemistry and biology. For more than a century, any new discipline has been a hybrid of one of these, such as astrophysics, biochemistry or astrobiology. Future advances are likely to build on what is already known rather than alter the foundations of knowledge. One of the biggest recent scientific accomplishments is the discovery of the Higgs boson – the existence of which was predicted decades ago.
First, Simonton seems to equate "dramatic progress in science" with the "establishment of new scientific disciplines".

But, as the author says in different words, this is a truly stupid criterion of progress because the separation of Man's knowledge into scientific disciplines is mostly a social convention rather than something important. Some activities are commonly divided into several disciplines although the experts in these disciplines have almost the same background and are applying almost the same insights and methods. On the other hand, there exist disciplines such as theoretical physics in which the number of radically different, inequivalent deep ideas is huge even though no one tries to "split the discipline".

At the end, there is one Nature (let's include the society and everything else that may be – perhaps – studied by the scientific method) which follows one set of rules or insights – insights that ultimately boil down to the fundamental laws of physics – and these insights are just organized into clusters for practical purposes, namely to allow the division of labor among scientists. I agree with the author that Mr Simonton hasn't grasped the essence of reductionism which is a severe handicap that prevents him from a proper understanding of the current state of science (and not only the current state).

Second, Mr Simonton is also wrong when he suggests that the progress in physics (and perhaps other sciences) is only seen in the (dull) increased amount of stuff that scientists have to memorize these days relatively to their predecessors. Quite on the contrary, mere memorization is increasingly inadequate in physics where people have needed an ever deeper depth, ever broader breadth, ever greater creativity, ability to think in entirely new and different ways and switch between these modes. People have needed minds that were increasingly wiser and creative in the human way, and therefore increasingly irreplaceable by computers.

Moreover, and this is my third criticism of Simonton's thesis, there is nothing new about the "new disciplines' being a hybrid". New disciplines of science were always a hybrid of some previous knowledge (or previous right or wrong beliefs). When Mr Simonton writes
Just as athletes can win an Olympic gold medal by beating the world record only by a fraction of a second, scientists can continue to receive Nobel prizes for improving the explanatory breadth of theories of the preciseness of measurements.
he clearly misunderstands that this description has always been true. At every moment of the history of science – or even philosophy or a "generalized thinking about Nature", people had some ideas about the external world and the rules it followed and they were refining this image, increasing its resolution, and replacing faulty parts of it by more correct or accurate or precise ones. After all, it's no coincidence that Mr Simonton's quote is almost identical to Lord Kelvin's quote articulated more than 100 years ago:
There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.
Whether Lord Kelvin was right depends on whether we view radioactivity, quantum mechanics, atomic physics, nuclear physics, nuclear bomb, DNA, and millions of other things to be just more precise measurements of the 19th century scientific concepts. I choose not to describe these 20th century discoveries in this way. ;-)

Incidentally, the same is true about Olympic runners – and even pre-Olympic runners. Pretty much every runner in the history improved the world record (in sprint) by fractions of a second only. These improvements may have become numerically smaller – perhaps even if you express them as a percentage i.e. if you use the log scale – because we're perhaps getting closer to some "physical limits". But that doesn't mean that running has become unexciting. The people who care about running simply focus on the time differences that are smaller than the time differences a century ago. If they care about the discipline, they simply have to care and do care about the numerically smaller improvements of the world record. There is no rule that an amount of excitement \(X\) should always be associated with the improvement of the world record by \(\Delta t = CX\) where \(C\) is fixed. The proportionality constant \(C\) may be changing with time.

The same comments apply to science. Science is exciting for those who like science and the actual realistic advances we are making today define the "typical order-of-magnitude estimate" of how much scientific progress we need to get excited. If someone doesn't get excited by the progress of the ongoing scientific research, then it simply means that he isn't into science much. It doesn't say anything about the scientific progress itself; it only says something about the combination (scientific progress, the individual's relationship to science).

Moreover, I don't really agree that the progress has gotten slower or less deep in general. Physics is still making theories deeper as well as broader. Each decade or two, we add an order of magnitude to the characteristic energies (or subtract an order of magnitude from the characteristic distances) that our cutting-edge effective field theories work with. We keep on unifying concepts and adding new ways to look at the phenomena we thought we have understood, too: this sort of truly conceptual progress has been particularly striking in string theory. And aside from these aspects of progress, we are accumulating lots of ever more complex applications. Molecular biology is perhaps the best example of this kind of "extensive" growth of science.

The scientific image of the world keeps on collecting an increasing amount of data and applications; is unifying them ever more tightly; is increasing its resolution; is extending the domain of validity of its theories; and is adding new (intellectual) dimensions from which the seemingly well-known phenomena may be looked at and new (logical) relationships between concepts and whole disciplines that were once thought to be independent. Moreover, these are the types of progress that the scientific progress has always been composed of. There is nothing qualitatively new (or "worse") about the current age; poisonous comments that "we're bored by this" could have been said at every moment of the history of science (and human thinking in general).

What Mr Simonton seems to suggest by the meme "the progress has slowed down because totally new disciplines aren't being founded" is that his knowledge of the world is superficial and one slogan about a subset of the objects or phenomena in Nature that he may repeat counts as the "bulk or skeleton of the qualitative knowledge" and everything else are details.

But this is an extremely deceptive attitude. People – and monkeys or psychologists – could always say a sentence or two about an aspect of Nature and predict that the accuracy of their basic truth would be increasing. But that doesn't mean that they actually knew the majority of the important insights about the topics they briefly talked about. Why? Because the Devil is in the details, after all. What these people – and monkeys or psychologists – dismissed as "details" were often stunning intellectual gems, precious jewels that Nature was hiding for geniuses of the future.

One may always dismiss them as details but that doesn't mean that they're worthless for the people who actually care about science. We may also say – and the author does say – that Mr Simonton and similar folks expose their lack of imagination, too. If they say that "totally new insights" (whatever the criterion for this adjective is) in a certain discipline won't occur, they are making an assumption or assuming their prejudices. The only real justification for treating their prejudice as a fact is their lack of imagination. They just can't imagine a completely different form of extraterrestrial life, if I use the author's example (I would probably choose more realistic and perhaps more modest examples, however).

It's a subtle task to compare the "rate of progress" in science – or in a scientific discipline – except that in some cases, the comparison seems doable. For example, it seems clear that string theory isn't undergoing another revolution that would be analogous to the first or second superstring revolutions in the mid 1980s and mid 1990s, respectively. You may compare it to Olympic runners who aren't improving the world records much.

Except that when science is done correctly and people aren't forgetting things, it means that the current generation of scientists is always able to match the previous world records. They may be improving it slowly but whatever the rate is defines the normalization constant in the reasonably expected progress. Moreover, the expectation may always be wrong – it's always possible just like it has always been possible that some unexpected breakthroughs and revolutions will arrive tomorrow. People may switch from one scientific discipline to another if they find the latter more interesting or satisfactory or promising (one always needs to compare apples and oranges to generate such a verdict – but to some extent, it may be done and should be done because both apples and oranges are fruits, after all) but it makes no sense to say that "all of science" has lost its steam. In the most natural units, the rate of science is always "one" and if it is a wildly dropping function of time in your units, it says more about you than about science.

What I want to say – and I just wrote a similar essay in an e-mail to a younger, very bright physicist last night – is that what is important is that people care about science and the actual progress that is being done every year. Once they lose the interest in the "incremental" improvements that may be done this year or this decade (e.g. about string theory advances that contain "just" 5% of the importance of the discovery of D-branes) – once they start to consider the hundredths of a second in the Olympic sprint worthless and uninteresting – they're really out of the game. If it's so, they should be removed from the system, they should lose their influence on the scientific process because they have clearly become enemies of science whose judgment won't be meritocratic – they're explicitly telling us that it won't because they approximate the merit by zero in all situations.

Science is all about the constant revision (and usually gradual extension) of its cutting edge. It has always been all about this thing. At any moment, whoever liked this refinement of the cutting edge liked science; whoever didn't like it – for whatever reasons and with whatever excuses – just didn't like science. It's this simple. It has always been this simple. It's totally clear that Mr Simonton just dislikes science. It has almost no value for him. But this is mostly a statement about him; it isn't a pure statement about science itself.

Several paragraphs above, I mentioned Mr Simonton's misunderstanding of reductionism. His confusion about the role of physics is demonstrated by the following quote, too:
The core disciplines have accumulated not so much anomalies as mere loose ends that will be tidied up one way or another. A possible exception is theoretical physics, which is as yet unable to integrate gravity with the other three forces of nature.
First of all, the last sentence has been known to be wrong for 39 years – we have known the consistent quantum theory of the curved spacetime since the 1974 paper by Scherk and Schwarz (although many people, including the Western European blogger, are still failing to take notice).

However, even if we ignore Mr Simonton's self-evident ignorance of string theory or quantum gravity, we're not listing all the problems with the quote. The main problem with the quote is that what Mr Simonton "complains" about is really an inevitable tautology. No other discipline except for theoretical physics may really offer us "dramatic anomalies and apparent contradictions between the basic laws" simply because no other discipline except for theoretical physics studies the basic laws!

All other disciplines of science study laws that are not quite basic; they may ultimately be reduced to the fundamental laws of physics. It means that whenever a contradiction is found in these disciplines, it's a contradiction in one of the candidate "emergent laws" that isn't really fundamental, and those may always be described as "loose ends". Only the basic laws in fundamental physics are "not loose ends" directly attached to the body of Mother Nature. Once you look at Mr Simonton's first sentence rationally, you will recognize it as a tautology: the scientific disciplines that study fundamental laws may sometimes face the apparent contradiction between the fundamental laws; the scientific disciplines that study non-fundamental laws may only encounter apparent contradictions between non-fundamental laws. ;-) He isn't saying anything else than this tautology and if he is, it is definitely wrong.

Lots of these end-of-science hacks are emotionally complaining about things that are tautologies, things that are inevitable. It's part of their propaganda and their self-brainwashing, too.

Finally, I want to mention another critical problem with Mr Simonton's essay that the author has also commented upon: his actual complaints have nothing to do with the title. In the title, he promised to discuss "scientific genius". But he hasn't discussed anything of the sort. A genius is someone with an exceptional intellectual creativity, skills, or originality. It is a characteristic of (some) human minds. Instead, what Mr Simonton's complaints are all about is concerned with the objective state of the knowledge in the scientific disciplines as of 2013.

These are completely different things. If you take a genius – who really deserves the title – and transfer him or her to another era, he will still be a genius because his or her being a genius is a property of his brain and thinking.

Needless to say, I find it implausible that the actual intrinsic ingenuity is dramatically changing. Neither the average IQ nor the standard deviation of the IQ is dramatically dropping so the number of extremely smart folks can't be decreasing, either. Of course, we may use a differently time-dependent definition of a genius so that the geniuses "officially" disappear from our world but once again, such a choice says much more about the person who picked this definition of a "genius" than about the real state of affairs.

What may be also happening is that the geniuses don't use (or can't use) their ingenuity as efficiently as their ancestors. But to the extent that this is avoidable at all, it is mostly the fault of the society and its state.

To summarize, if something is changing about the scientific progress, it's mostly the degree to which literate people appreciate this progress. This degree is decreasing, I think. A long time ago, writing of wise books and articles – and university jobs – were mostly reserved to those who loved wisdom (that's what the word "philosopher" means, too). But these days, writing of books, Nature articles, and chairs of distinguished professors is open to lots of morons who just don't give a damn about science and its progress so it's no surprise that we are reading lots of nasty defamation of science and its progress.

This state of the affairs mostly reflects the subjective opinions – and increased influence – of those idiots who don't know science and who don't like science rather than any objective property of science and its genuine progress.

P.S.: If you want to risk problems with your stomach, read the text by a super hardcore end-of-science crank named John Horgan, The End-of-Science Bandwagon Is Getting Crowded, who quotes many other similarly deluded writers many of whom were included into the annual Edge.org question – probably to highlight the increasing influence of such scumbags (let me explicitly say that Steve Giddings isn't counted!) on institutions and events that claim to be pro-science but they are anti-science.


  1. I have been intensely interested in science for almost seventy years and have but one regret, that I will not live long enough to see the most rewarding developments in both theory and application that this world has ever known. The best really is yet to come.

  2. I think that most people want to be stunned, shocked, dazzled, all at once. They want their mind blowing experience immediately, everyday, with no efforts. The media know that and they give it to them, so of course they sell them frenzied delusions.

  3. You never know Gene. The best might be just around the corner ;-)

  4. Right, most of the people's feelings ultimately depend on the hype and illusions... I sort of liked John Paul II, for example, but the vastly weaker star power that was given to Benedict XVI also seems to be clearly up to some ad hoc personal choices of the writers etc., it doesn't reflect some lack of qualities of Joseph Ratzinger that I would care about, either...

    Perception is everything, in some corners.

  5. I am feeling so sad our Pope is giving up... He did the best he could...

  6. Nah, he is maybe not "giving up" ...

    As I have heared people saying, it could well be that he just wanted to timely pull himself out of the business before his health gets so bad that he could be too easily manipulated by other people and catholic leaders surounding him. If this is true, it would be quite a wise and well thought out decision ;-)

  7. People who seriously like fundamental physics or fundamental science generally, should just forget about Nature, Scientific American, etc.

    Today, the editors of such popular magazines are only interested in hyping at best outsiders (philosophers, psychologists, ...) and at worst outright sourballs and trolls (everybody knows what I mean ...), who are by no means competent to talk about such topics but like to pose as experts and faking to represent the opinion of real experts working on these topics anyway :-/

  8. Hmmm, is this a Sabinification of Lubos ? :) (cf. the Lubosification of Scott Aaronson).

    The modern template for this sort of "end of" and "death of" rubbish is "science" journalist, John Horgan who wrote two worthless books, "The Death of Proof" and "The End of Science". For some reason, he still manages to get himself quoted on book covers as if his opinion meant anything. Another one is Lee Smolin and his "Trouble with Physics". I have never seen anyone as eager or able to get themselves quoted on new book covers as he does. I am willing to bet he even would give

    a book Lubos writes a cover blurb if he could see his name in print.
    WRT the blog on Weatherell's new book on Finance, there is Lee with a cover quote. ( I was considering reading it, but then remembered Lubos' comments on an old blog. Also, Horgan is promoting it. )

  9. The
    problem is not in just science it is everywhere, sloppy work is now tolerated, people who now write and report are allowed to make “errors” that would have gotten the fired years ago. When I was young a reporter on the local news station was required to learn the names and proper pronunciation local towns. Today you only have to listen a short time to hear one of them mispronounce any number names of the local communities, not only that they misuse words with great regularity. So the lack of standard is showing up everywhere not only in reporting but at all levels of society, You only have to look at the last two US Prudential election to see the. When Obama walks into any room with a group of people from any profession, he is the least qualified man there, yet he is President. Then to top that off generally when he speaks he lies, funny I am old enough enough to
    remember that in itself was enough for you to be removed or disqualify you from the office. Yes standard have fallen and we are being lead by idiots. OH if forgot I am not suppose to use the term idiots. The reality of today is it not if you are correct or have the right idea, it about if the idea or you are politically correct.

  10. Dear Gordon, on the contrary, it's a partial Lubošification of Sabine because the defense of science against various end-of-it claims is one of my trademarks, isn't it? ;-)

  11. You're right Dilaton but somehow I can't stop that feeling that we are living some... civilization shift... with no visibility... and I like to know that our intergalactic monarch ;-) keep an eye on what we humans are doing... :-)

  12. Its clear that scientific genius is not extinct as long as we have Lubos as our shining example. Although perhaps sometimes suffering from overexcited mental states, to which any genius may be prone, he is still nevertheless a giant amongst dolts.

  13. Regarding John Horgan - I recall a meeting with him many years ago when he was doing what passed as "research" for his end of science book. Several physics faculty sat around a table trying to help the poor man. Nobel Laureate T.D. Lee patiently explained rotation curves in galaxies, describing how they strongly suggest that there must be dark matter. I could not tell if Horgan was intellectually incapable of following the logic, or intellectually opposed to the evidence that there was not an end to science. Of course these are not mutually exclusive options.

  14. I wonder why he did meet physicists during his "research" at all, as he obviously refused listening to what they tell him and wrote what he wanted to write long before anyway ...

    The physicists must feel really mucked about, if they read his book afterwards ...