Saturday, May 13, 2017

Journalists respond to the inflation wars

Two days ago, I wrote about two open letters about the cosmic inflation published in Scientific American. In February, critics ILS claimed that it wasn't even a science. Days ago, GLKN (Guth, Linde...) along with 29 other heavyweights who just signed defended the inflationary cosmology.

There have been some reactions in the pop science media.

First, Amy Adams wrote a Stanford press release:
Despite a popular media story, rumors of inflationary theory’s demise is premature, Stanford researchers say
It was later copied to Phys.Org. You may see that Amy Adams is working for Stanford which is proud about Linde, so it is a pro-Linde, pro-inflation story – which is reasonable. Similar comments apply to the text in the Stanford Daily
Stanford scientist defends inflationary origin theory of the universe
by Sarah Wishingrad. Stanford may be considered the world's headquarters of research on inflation. Aside from the inflation's co-founder Andrei Linde – who thrilled us by posting a comment on Thursday – Stanford also has numerous other brilliant researchers of the cosmic inflation. Some of them have written TRF blog posts in the past.

Aside from some self-evidently credible technical research on inflation, Stanford is also one of the hotbeds of the anthropic reasoning which I don't find so nice. But it's clear that it's a kind of metaphysics that is somewhat naturally suggested by the technical results surrounding inflation – and its realization within string theory – and Stanford is arguably contributing the more rational things to the anthropic reasoning, too.

Fine, some of the world's media don't belong to Stanford, however. So what did the other science journalist who have noticed this "story" write about ILS and the GLKN+29 response?

Gizmodo (also Gizmodo Australia, Gizmodo India etc.) published the article
Thirty Three Famous Physicists Sign Angry Letter About the Origin of the Universe
by Ryan F. Mandelbaum of "Gawker Media". The affiliation looks like a greeting from Hell – because I believed and I hoped that with the help of a flamethrower, Peter Thiel has already successfully neutralized everything that was linked to this disgusting Gawker empire. I must have overlooked some subtlety.

Mandelbaum wrote that the top cosmologists were angry – Alan Guth even made a comment that supported that assertion, at least when it comes to him personally – especially when they heard that inflation was not even science. Mandelbaum added that it's a similar insult as if you say that an artist's work is "not art", or a chef's is "not food". Maybe a better example he could have picked is that some inkspillers' writing about science and politics is "not journalism" but I am afraid that Mandelbaum wasn't impartial enough to invent this example.

Also, Joshua Sokol wrote an article in The Atlantic:
A Cold War Among Cosmologists Turns Hot
Previous stories were combined in The Daily Galaxy:
'Cold War' Rages Over Inflationary, Expanding Theory of the Universe --"Does Not Meet the Standards of Real Science" (WATCH Today's "Galaxy" Stream)
One can see that they disagree whether it's still a cold war or a hot one. ;-)

These independent writers sketch what the argument is about but they also add some commentary. Correct me if I am wrong but in between the lines, I read that all these writers tend to support the "critics". Why do I think so?

Well, the inflation advocates are painted as angry – even though it looks clear to me that the "critics" ILS and others are intrinsically much more angry, but the journalists never wrote explicitly about this self-evident fact. Also, the fathers of inflation and researchers on inflation are described as the "establishment" with the implicit message that it's good to fight against the establishment. The Atlantic emphasized the proposition
“This kind of reasoning … cannot be resolved by invoking authority.”
I agree with that. Except that there's something more relevant for the journalists. They are not doing real science themselves. They are informing the public which is also not doing research and the information about the authorities' opinions is rather important for the readers to build some opinion.

Disputes about cosmology or particle physics – and other branches of science – cannot be resolved by invoking authority and you can find hundreds of copies of this statement on this blog. On the other hand, it's still an example of journalistic dishonesty if a journalist represents some opinions as if they were considered reasonable by the bulk of the most achieved researchers in that field.

The journalists are adding some bias which has become too strong. It's hard not to compare the situation with that of the climate hysteria. In that case, it's often (absolutely incorrectly) claimed that the bulk of top atmospheric scientists supports the climate hysteria and the skeptics are painted as mavericks, a tiny minority etc. But very similar journalists – and in some cases, the very same journalists – don't see any problem when they turn into advocates of the weird minority in the case of inflation.

Authorities don't matter in science but they do matter for the opinion of the laymen who don't really understand the science and who rely on others. And within science, the weight of the 33 signatories of the pro-inflation letter isn't important because they're authorities as humans but because their number and fame is approximately proportional to the actual evidence and nontrivial insights that exist in the scientific literature.

The current atmosphere in the society is immensely politicized and this fact unfortunately influences science as well. In particular, lots of people are trying to affect the discussion even in questions that are as esoteric for them as the inflationary cosmology because they have previously decided that they are "pro-establishment" or "anti-establishment" and they were told which side of the inflation wars they should support as a consequence.

Needless to say, the people who decide about "their side" in this way are idiots. You just won't contribute anything good to the world if you will just mindlessly fight for all the things that are considered "pro-establishment". And you won't contribute anything positive to the mankind if you will mindlessly fight for all the things that are viewed as "anti-establishment", either. Moreover, you will have to change your attitudes to many actual scientific questions because who the establishment is and what it says is sometimes changing, too, as science is making progress (and also when politics is evolving, with much less actual progress).

At least one of the "independent" articles about the cosmic inflation ends up making the inflation side look a bit bad for another reason. It finds two signatories of the letter of 33 who actually say bizarre things that make you doubt why they signed the pro-inflation letter at all. Sean Carroll says that inflation is a marginally ill-defined term. And Lisa Randall finds "the model of inflation incredibly unsatisfying". Oh, really?

I have no idea what they are talking about. Inflation isn't a simple, elementary, and therefore totally well-defined object, like "the number 137". It's a part of our state-of-the-art description of the Universe. Moreover, it's a phenomenon that was taking place in the whole Universe. When something is taking place in the whole Universe, you can't really geometrically divide it or separate it from all the other things.

Inflation is any process of approximately exponential expansion of the whole (cosmic) space in a theory reducing to general relativity at long distances that is driven by a scalar field located away from the minimum.

Can't you use this sentence or a similar one as a definition of inflation? If you agree that you can, why you would say, like Sean Carroll did, that "it's very hard to define exactly what we mean by inflation"? Of course my definition can't be exact because we're talking about physics and we haven't understood the complete theory of everything with all its consequences completely yet. So any concept in physics unavoidably has to be defined at least somewhat inaccurately and non-rigorously because it must be consistent with the largely unavoidable refinements in the future!

Also, I have no clue why Lisa Randall would call the model of inflation "incredibly unsatisfying". The words partly follow from an emotional reaction but my reaction to inflation was much closer to Alan Guth. On December 7th, 1979, when he studied some behavior of the Higgs fields, he figured out something:

Click to zoom in.

The realization was termed "spectacular" and I am convinced that the realization was right and its description was appropriate. And the adjective "spectacular" directly contradicts "incredibly unsatisfying".

Why is it spectacular? Because a building block – a scalar field that may be away from the minimum – was always present in the theoretical framework (field theory) and was found to be able to explain why the Universe is so incredible large, flat, uniform, why the mass of the visible Universe is so much greater than the natural unit of mass, the Planck scale, and other hierarchy-like problems. Without this mechanism, the natural prediction could have been that the typical curvature radius in the Universe could be very short, perhaps Planckian, the total mass of the Universe should also be natural and therefore Planckian (a tiny seed of dust), and so on.

But the previously overlooked behavior of the scalar fields with a potential coupled to the metric tensor in general relativity is enough to make all these numbers very large or very small, in agreement with the observations. You don't really need to assume anything else and you immediately get an explanation why the Universe is so large, flat, and has similar adjectives.

This realization doesn't imply the precise answer to any detailed question – and doesn't determine the precise model with a number of inflaton fields, potential energy's shape, and related things – but that is true in all of science. If you realize something important, it doesn't mean that you realize everything important. Albert Einstein is celebrated both by the laymen and the physicists but he was very far from making insights that would answer everything important, too.

Or take someone who invented a car, a light bulb, or anything else. Was it the same advanced model we use today? It wasn't. Even our current models aren't necessarily the final world. Things keep on evolving and it's a good thing. But that evolution doesn't mean that the initial realizations are abruptly rendered worthless, does it? The new iPhone doesn't turn Bell into a fraudster. In fact, Apple's success still largely depended on Bell's, and the success of many others in the past. Does someone really fail to understand this simple assertion?

So Guth's and Linde's realizations were qualitative to some extent but that doesn't mean that they were not spectacular or incredibly satisfying. Darwin's theory about the origin of species was also qualitative in some sense – it doesn't immediately tell us who our ancestors and other animals and plants have been – but that can't change the fact that it was spectacular and game-changing. The case of the inflationary cosmology is completely analogous.

Both Darwin's theory and the inflationary cosmology gave us new foundations to address many questions about some important events that took place before we were born and that were important for us – and even the stars and planets we depend upon – to emerge. The idea that the first discoverers of similar theories should write down the "complete new dogmas" that the following generations would only be verifying and worshiping is absolutely idiotic and childish. Whether or not Steinhardt, the girl working with him, and Loeb have done some other things that look important, I just couldn't agree with the hypothesis that they are intelligent people if they can't imagine that the research on theories about similar complex things as the "life of the very early Universe" unavoidably has to evolve.

Even though Lisa Randall has written many influential papers about inflation, she finds it "incredibly unsatisfying". It's hard for me to get some empathy for this combination of facts. If I find some theory incredibly unsatisfying, it automatically implies that I don't believe that Nature would choose it, and I wouldn't work on it.

Still, I think that a majority of the 33 signatories of the pro-inflation letter find inflation profound, explanatory, and satisfying. There clearly exists lots of confusion about the question what many of these folks actually think about many important questions because the discussion about all these things has been very far from flourishing. Paul Steinhardt has been waging this jihad about inflation for decades but 2017 could be the first time when some people beyond Guth, Linde, and Susskind (and perhaps 2-3 more exceptions) have publicly stated that and why they disagree with him. Almost everyone else preferred to live in the ivory tower. And indeed, in the case of some of them, I couldn't ever get rid of the suspicion that they are only writing papers on certain topics and certain kinds in order to be paid – but perhaps, they don't necessarily believe the stuff or understand why it's right.

In this populist era, it isn't really possible anymore. I think that at least for science, this populism – the deliberately spread populist meme that the laymen should influence where the science is going and what it believes – is extremely harmful. It was created when some researchers or popularizers wanted to become popular. So they were licking (and they are still licking) the aßes of the laymen. But the laymen don't really have a clue and should have no power about the selection of the right answer simply because they don't carefully stick to the rules of the scientific method. Many of them try to scream and use the arguments such as "it is right to be pro-establishment or anti-establishment".

The scientific method is a fine art which may in principle be done by everyone but in practice, it is not. It is vitally important for those who are actually doing science right to be defended from pressures exerted by those who don't actually choose their correct answers by the scientific method and who are eager to use various powerful methods to make their views spread. The protection of the safety and integrity of the "beautiful souls" who do things carefully and professionally is a precondition for a society to become and remain civilized and for it to advance.

Research of the cosmic inflation – or other hypothetical phenomena that could play a similar role in the fate of the Universe – is a highly selective enterprise that may be meaningfully done by a few hundred people in the world. It's very important that these folks are carefully meritocratically selected – like in representative, Parliamentary democracy, perhaps one with many more levels of selections – and they are generally shielded from the pressures exerted by those who were not selected.

If and when this protection disappears, the society more or less uniformly returns to the Middle Ages, the epoch of superstitions, and burning of the witches which was (and may) be driven by the irrational mass hysteria and group think.

Hours after the text above was written, Russia Today published their story Stephen Hawking among 33 scientists on offensive against critics of popular universe origin theory which seems to be one of the most balanced ones. I couldn't praise the commenters there, however. They say that inflation and all of science are tools to kill God, those 33 cosmologists are a highest layer of free masons or the agents of CIA, Stephen Hawking has been dead for 20 years, the big bang is just a virtual bang resulting from the pressing of a home button, and these "nice" people are waiting for the world without Hawking, without an ethnic group important in science, and other things. Not a pretty picture.

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