Sunday, January 22, 2017

Arts vs sciences, Rovelli vs Dawkins

In two days, American readers will be provided with an English translation of Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli. Rovelli is tightly connected to the Italian (and French, I believe) inkspillers' community which is the main reason – I believe – why the book became a bestseller in Italy in 2014 and has sold something like 1 million copies in the world so far.

Just to be sure, his book Seven Brief Lessons on Physics was published after the Reality... in Italy but the English translation emerged before the Reality....

A majority of the books is about the quasi-topics frequently associated with science that the full-blown laymen may be interested in – or discuss when they want to look smart. The relationships between science, arts, mystery, religion, philosophy, well-known philosophers, painters, and all this stuff. Needless to say, I am not interested in this kind of stuff too much (even though over the years, thanks to the things I am doing, I was led to learn a lot about them) and I don't plan to read the book.

People reading and writing about Dante, Lucretius, Romeo, and Juliet may be erudite and I am among those who have some kind of a respect to this stuff but if they seriously believe that these characters settle conceptual questions about physics in the 21st century, they're morons.

We may notice that an Italian chap was able to write cheap stuff mixing science and arts but we must first graciously overlook the primary point that he remains an arrogant subpar scientist who actually believes loop quantum gravity better unites quantum mechanics with general relativity than does string theory. And it's important that there is no smiling following the previous sentence because it's a damn serious and important issue.

OK, The Guardian's Ian Thomson wrote a review of the Reality... book that is gonna be released soon:
Reality Is Not What It Seems by Carlo Rovelli review – physics versus certainty
The main "point" that attracts the many readers seems to be the claim that science and arts (or humanities) aren't enemies but they attract each other. An argument that Rovelli uses is that Benito Mussolini (and his fan, philosopher Benedetto Croce whom I have never heard of) were working hard to split arts and sciences – and Croce stated that "scientific problems are not the real ones".

In these new-age-style comments that science and arts reinforce each other, Rovelli criticizes folks like Richard Dawkins for their equally "intolerant and prejudiced" atheist attitudes that are on par with the religious fundamentalism, Rovelli believes. I can imagine why this stuff is popular among so many people, especially simpletons. Dawkins doesn't avoid collisions with religions and lots of people on the religious side just don't like it and they're delighted by any text that gives Dawkins a proper thrashing.

Arts and sciences are primarily independent of one another. Talented people may do one of those things or both but they are largely orthogonal to one another. They're united by the fact that they're pursued by human beings – so they depend on some qualities and desires by which the humans have surpassed almost all other animals. On the other hand, almost all the methodological details and values powering arts and sciences are completely different – and these differences are immensely important both for sciences and arts.

One may write dozens or hundreds of pages about examples and specific situations but there's no other "big lesson" to be learned here. Sometimes artists may be right about science (and scientists may be right about arts), sometimes it's not the case. One can learn virtually no sciences (or arts) by discussing its vague relationships with arts (or sciences).

When one focuses on the differences between sciences and non-sciences (such as arts), and Richard Dawkins likes to do it, he sees very sharply what these differences are about. Dawkins likes to think and talk about those, Rovelli wants to obscure and mask these differences. There are some topics – perhaps including his bizarre would-be new "relational" interpretation of quantum mechanics that places Rovelli among the more reasonable 50% of writers about these foundational quantum puzzles – where Rovelli may think as a good enough scientist.

But I think that at the end, he is mainly a guy who isn't thinking as a disciplined natural scientist. He prefers to look at the world as a guy from the humanities – and it has always been the case. That's why his books are obviously full of would-be arguments that a scientifically-minded person – and surely not just Richard Dawkins – considers obvious fallacies.

These fallacies start with lots of ad hominem arguments. Rovelli obviously suggests that the actual relationships between arts and sciences can't be understood without looking at Mussolini's or Croce's opinions about these matters. Why should those things matter? Mussolini and Croce could have been wrong about something but they could have been right, too. By making the duce's views important in 2014-2017, Rovelli participates in a similar cult that Italy was enthusiastic about some 80 years ago. Hitler was at least an OK painter on the street – but why would someone place the duce at the center of similar fundamental debates?

The review in The Guardian suggests that Rovelli isn't terribly pro-science even when he discusses Galileo's hassles with the powerful church institutions. For Rovelli, Galileo was just a "proto-physicist". OK, these are nuances and the stress on "proto-" may be stronger or weaker. But I don't think that Galileo is receiving the appropriate credit here. He was really the founder of the scientific method as we know it – the first guy who formulated quantitative hypotheses and was falsifying them by the experiment. He was not only a "scientist" without "proto-" but he was the first, pioneering scientist. Because his scientific research focused on questions we consider "physics" today, he should be called a "physicist", too (and not a proto-physicist).

Some atheists may be incapable of learning the lessons of science – on this blog, the anti-quantum zealots are the most prominent example. But the existence of some irrational, prejudiced, or unscientific attitudes of some atheists in some questions cannot be generalized to say that everyone (e.g. Dawkins) who ever makes a pronouncement that science has confirmed an atheist view must be wrong. One should fairly look at the actual quotes by Dawkins and show what's wrong with them – instead of relying on the stupid Italian readers' prejudiced feeling that "there's too much science or atheism around them" which is the reason why they will applaud any anti-scientific or anti-atheism claim by any scientist.

I haven't read this book but I am convinced that it's the same kind of a populist rubbish as many other books that I have read, the rubbish basically trying to please the religious or superstitious readers and tell them that they don't have to worry and atheism hasn't scored any victories against their religious beliefs on the stadium of science. I am sorry but this broader lesson is a lie. Atheism has scored lots of victories against religion on the stadium of science. These victories don't mean that an atheist has to win every match against a believer. But they shouldn't be denied, either.

And the denial of these victories is what the attractiveness of Rovelli's book seems to be all about. I am sorry but many of these victories are absolutely unquestionable and most of what Rovelli calls "Dawkins' arrogance" is fully justified by the facts.

The title of the book is mostly right – at least sometimes, reality is not what it seems (to a naive would-be scientist). But the title fails to mention that reality is not what it seems to an artist, a philosopher, or a preacher, either. In fact, these three employees in the humanities are usually further from a proper understanding of reality than a scientist, even a rather naive one. Also, Rovelli uses the "journey to quantum gravity" in the second part of the title but he fails to mention that none of his papers has ever moved us a Planck length closer to the correct understanding of quantum gravity.

Also, the review in the Guardian makes it clear that Rovelli repeatedly emphasizes the uncertainty that science brings – or that survives after the scientific research. The uncertainty is always there but that's not such a big issue. Science still often implies that one answer to a question about Nature is vastly more likely than another answer. And for a scientist, this insight matters – it's the kind of an insight that science brings us and the reason why we study science at all. Rovelli's overstated notion of uncertainty is one that quantifies the probabilities of the two answers to any Yes/No question to be 50%-50% forever. But that's not what science does. Science typically tells us that the odds are 99.9999% vs 0.0001% or even more extreme – and these odds are much closer to the certainty than to the complete uncertainty.

Every book that oversells the uncertainty in science – and Rovelli's book is almost certainly an example of those – is basically claiming that 0.0001% is the same thing as 50%. But it's not. Science would indeed be meaningless if 50%-50% were the only possible odds that could come out of the research. But it's not meaningless. Science has allowed us to be "virtually certain" about many rather well-defined insights and it's too bad to deny this fact. Science (and also quantum mechanics in particular!) decides questions by generating probabilities between 0% and 100%. But the rational reaction to these numbers should be qualitatively similar as the reaction to the answers that are always either 0% or 100%, No or Yes. Even when the answers are probabilistic, we are still learning something from science (and quantum mechanics). Rovelli seems to misunderstand this elementary point – or at least encourage the misunderstanding among his readers.

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