Friday, December 01, 2017

Hossenfelder has the power to edit, negate Witten's answers in interviews

I've argued that the recent Quanta Magazine interview with Edward Witten has shown some deep differences between the culture of actual top theoretical physicists and the culture of pop science which has largely identified itself with the slogans by the notorious critics of modern physics. Despite all of his diplomacy and caution, Witten simply had to say lots of things that contradict the orthodoxy of the pop science world.
Young Sheldon, off-topic: in the newest episode of the sitcom, we could have seen Elon Musk whose SpaceX stole the ideas how to land on the ocean from the 8-year-old Sheldon Cooper and made Sheldon's notebook disappear. It's great he played it because that's how I imagine Musk's companies to operate whenever they do something right. ;-)
Unsurprisingly, these deep disagreements had extra consequences. One of the answers that Edward Witten "dared" to say was that M-theory was our candidate for a description unifying separate theoretical formalisms quantifying particles and forces that exist or may exist in Nature. Wolchover, the journalist, announced her interview on Twitter and one dissatisfied reaction by Ms Hossenfelder was posted soon afterwards:

Hossenfelder repeats the insane 2010 meme by Nude Socialist that Edward Witten is one of approximately 7 similar geniuses – the list includes Garrett Lisi and a former spouse of Lee Smolin – who have proposed comparably promising theories of everything. Needless to say, none of the "alternative theories" above could be called by a "candidate for a theory of everything" by a sane person who knows the basic stuff about the limiting and approximate theories that contemporary theoretical physics uses and why they're hard to be unified.

But even if you just don't get any of the physics, you should be able to understand some sociology. Take INSPIRE, the database of papers on high-energy physics, and compare the publication and citation record of Garrett Lisi and Edward Witten. They have some 90 and 130,000 citations, respectively – and I need to emphasize that the first number is not 90,000. ;-)

The difference is more than three orders of magnitude. Even a decade after his "groundbreaking" work, the surfer dude's quantifiable impact is more than three orders of magnitude weaker than Witten's. On top of that, every citation among 90 Lisi's citations is vastly less credible than the average followup of Witten's papers. There are very good reasons to say that the people who have followed "theories of everything" for some years and who consider Lisi and Witten to be peers (or even think that Lisi is superior) suffer from a serious psychiatric illness.

I think that this is not Hossenfelder's case – she must know that what she writes are just plain and absurd lies, lies whose propagation would be convenient for herself personally.

OK, so the fringe would-be researcher Ms Sabine Hossenfelder has suggested that it was politically incorrect for Edward Witten to say that the contemporary physics only has one viable candidate for a theory of everything, namely string/M-theory.

Even if you hypothetically imagined that Hossenfelder's proposition about "numerous alternatives" was right while Edward Witten was wrong, it shouldn't have mattered, should it have? Wolchover interviewed Edward Witten, not Sabine Hossenfelder, so the answers should be aligned with the views of Edward Witten, not Sabine Hossenfelder. But look what happened.

(Just to be sure, Connes' theory is in no way a step towards a theory of everything. It has nothing to say about any problem related to quantum gravity. It's an unusual, non-commutative-geometry-based proposal to unify the non-gravitational forces, like in GUT. At the end, it produces some subset of the effective field theories we know. The subset doesn't look natural and it has produced predictions that were falsified. For example, Connes predicted a Higgs boson of mass \(170\GeV\) which was ironically the first value that was ruled out experimentally – by the Tevatron in 2008. Some huge, TOE-like statements can always be made by someone, perhaps even by Connes, but it is spectacularly obvious to everyone who has at least the basic background that these ambitious claims have nothing to do with reality.)

Hossenfelder's dumb comment was not only taken into account. The interview was actually edited and Hossenfelder was even thanked for that! So for some time, Witten's answer in the interview probably contained some statement of the type "M-theory is just one of many similar alternatives and I, who first conjectured the existence of M-theory, am on par with monster minds such as Garrett Lisi". The Quanta Magazine didn't edit the answer quite this colorfully but it did edit it, as Wolchover's tweet says, so that Witten's proposition was severely altered.

Wolchover isn't a bad journalist but even independently of any knowledge of the beef of physics (i.e. even if you assumed that it's just OK for a science journalist not to know that all claims by Hossenfelder about physics of the recent 40 years are wrong), I think that this retroactive edit was an example of a breakdown of the basic journalistic integrity. You simply cannot severely edit the answers by EW in an interview just because someone else, SH, would prefer a totally different answer. Such a change is nothing less than a serious deception of the reader. And note that the Quanta Magazine, funded mainly by Jim Simons, a rather legendary physical mathematician (and a co-author of a theory that Witten wrote lots of important followups about), is surely among the outlets where it's least expected that journalists distort scientists' views. It's almost certainly worse in all truly mainstream media.

Now, I am virtually the only person in the world who reacts – at a frequency that detectably differs from zero – to these constant scams by the various activists, journalists, pop science advocates and hysterical "critics of science". But in this case, I had a pal. David Simmons-Duffin, an assistant professor at Caltech and a co-author of the newest paper co-written by Witten, may still be grateful for the good enough furniture I sold him at Harvard, shortly before escaping the U.S. on the 2007 Independence Day when my visa was expiring.

Or maybe he had deeper reasons than the furniture. Hopefully. ;-)

OK, Wolchover was told – and she could literally remain ignorant of this elementary fact if David remained silent – that most theoretical physicists would agree with my (scientific) comments about the "encounter of pop science and Edward Witten", and not with the comments by Sabine Hossenfelder. David was careful to restrict the approval by the adjective "scientific" to be sure that he didn't dare to accuse someone from believing in some right-wing or otherwise politically incorrect views about broader questions. I will return to a discussion whether these things are really as separate as David suggests.

Right now, Witten's answer in the interview says "M-theory is the candidate for the better description" which sounds OK enough. At the top, the article says (seemingly on behalf of Ms Wolchover) that M-theory is the "leading candidate" and a clarification at the bottom says that an edit was made. Maybe the statements were edited twice and they're tolerable now. But the very fact that Hossenfelder's hostile opinion about the number of theories of everything was incorporated to an interview that should have built on Witten's views on physics is something that I consider absolutely shocking. In effect, we seem to live in a society where a scientific Niemand of Hossenfelder's caliber stands above Edward Witten and has the power to "correct" his statements about Witten's field made in any media outlet on Earth.

Clearly, the main purpose of David's tweet was to inform Natalie Wolchover, the journalist, about some "basic sentiments" that are widespread among actual professional theoretical physicists – and indeed, about actual beliefs of Edward Witten's, too. But David sent a copy to Sabine as well who reacted angrily:

Hossenfelder "doesn't care" what Witten's recent co-authors think about the opinions of theoretical physicists about an interview. In the repetitively, stupidly sounding joke, she has clearly added at least one redundant level of recursion that shouldn't be there. ;-) But she, apparently rightfully, assumes that journalists do care what she thinks about what Witten should think.

Again, the irony is that Hossenfelder believes that Wolchover should care what Hossenfelder thinks about theories of everything but she doesn't care what people around Witten actually believe, even though it was an interview with Witten that is at the center of all these discussions. Thankfully, Wolchover at least replied that "she cared" about David's reports – and blamed Hossenfelder's arrogant "I don't care" reaction to Hossenfelder's wacky sense of humor.

To assure everyone that this is not the end of her jihad against physics, Sabine Hossenfelder posted another obnoxious tirade against modern physics. By studying SUSY, string theory, inflation, or the multiverse, scientists have stopped doing science, she claims, and we need to pick a new word instead of science to describe what they're doing. A fairy-tale science? Higher speculations? Fake physics? She mentions proposals by some of her true soulmates who are considered sources of worthless and hostile pseudointellectual junk by everyone who has a clue.

SUSY, string theory, inflation, and to a lesser degree the multiverse are examples of science par excellence. It's the critics of science like Hossenfelder and the assorted activists who are at most fake scientists and who have nothing to do with the actual science. They're not cracking equations that may link or do link observable quantities with each other. They are doing politics for the stupid masses.

By the way, Hossenfelder's argumentation becomes almost indistinguishable from the deluded tirades by the postmodern pseudo-philosophers and feminist bitches who would say that science is just another cultural habit, a tool of oppression, and so on. Hossenfelder wrote, among many similar things:
“Science,” then, is an emergent concept that arises in communities of people with a shared work practices. “Communities of practice,” as the sociologists say.
Wow, so just like the "sociologists" say, the readers is invited to believe that every "community" that shares work practices is equally justified to describe itself as a "group of scientists" who do "science". Perhaps if they say that they're looking for "useful descriptions of Nature", that is certainly enough. For this reason, science is on par with the ritualistic dances of savages in the Pacific Ocean, the "sociologists" say.

But this "sociological" view is just flabbergastingly stupid. Science obviously isn't any group of practices of any community. After all, science doesn't really depend on a community at all and some of the most important scientists were true solitaires in their work – and often outside their work, too. The scientific method is a rather particular template how to make progress while learning the truth about Nature. This template had to be discovered or invented – by Galileo and perhaps a few others – and these principles have to be kept, otherwise it's not science and, more importantly, otherwise it's really not working and doesn't systematically bring us closer to a deeper understanding of the world. Hypotheses must imply something that may be expressed sufficiently accurately, ideally and typically in the mathematical language, and the network of these assumptions of the theories and their logical implications are elaborated upon and finally compared to the facts that are known for certain – and the facts that are known to be certain ultimately come from experiments, observations, and mathematically solid proofs.

Only a very small percentage of people in the world actually does science related to theoretical physics and if it makes sense to talk about a community – especially a community of theoretical physicists – there is really just one global community. It's doing science defined by the same general template. The relevant theories and questions have become much more advanced than they were in the past – the theories are more unifying, they require a deeper, more difficult, and more abstract mathematical formalism, the experimental tests of the new things are increasingly expensive and often impossible to be made in a foreseeable future, and this forces the researchers to be even more careful, intellectually penetrating, and employing increasingly indirect strategies to probe questions. But those are quantitative changes reflecting the change of the phenomena that are investigated by the cutting-edge science. They are not negations of the basic meaning of the scientific rigor – and its dependence on honesty, mental power, patience, and the illegitimacy of philosophically justified dogmas.

Let me return to the comment by David that the actual working physicists may only declare the agreement with my "scientific" views about the interview and other things. It's true but it's a pity. David implicitly declares the view that politics and science are sharply separated. So I could be thrilled by lots of amazing discoveries made by the people who are overwhelmingly politically left-wingers – and they, if they're similarly honest as scientists, should be able to proudly say that they agree with my (a right-winger) many of my multi-layered comments about physics. Surely some people with Che Guevara T-shirts have been doing so, too. ;-)

When this setup of "politics separated from science" works, it works and it's great if it works. But the problem that David and others seem to overlook is that people like Sabine Hossenfelder – and basically everyone on the list of her "soulmates" who participate in this jihad against physics – are doing everything they can to obfuscate the boundary between science and politics. It wasn't your humble correspondent who would write blog posts addressing both groups of questions, scientific and political ones, because I find their increasingly intense mixing desirable. Those blog posts were a reaction to events that reflected the "dirty" mixing of science and politics. How many times did I have to explain that one can't understand any physics through sociology and similar things?

The likes of Hossenfelder and Šmoits are full of the word "science" but what they're actually up to is a disgusting political movement that is trying to brainwash millions of gullible morons and turn them against science. And to do so, the likes of Hossenfelder find it very convenient to pretend that they are or they could be equally excellent scientists – the peers of Witten – themselves. And there are millions of people who are ignorant enough so that they buy this nonsense. Maybe these brainwashed laymen are honest – they are just sufficiently intellectually limited which makes them unable to figure out that all these critics are scientifically worthless relatively to Witten but also hundreds of others.

David, you and others don't want to participate in a fight that is political which is an understandable reflection of an idealist, morally pure scientific ethics. But that desire won't make this fight go away. You may deny it but this fight is taking place, anyway (because the likes of Hossenfelder are deliberately waging it), and it has far-reaching consequences for the future of science in the real world.

You may combine this "pure focus on science" with some polite, "nice", politically correct attitudes, while persuading yourself that these things have nothing to do with each other. But in reality, the political attitudes influence the future strength of science in the society – and the ability of wise kids of future generations to do pure science as their job – tremendously, surely much more strongly than some extra $10,000 that a physics grad student will lose according to an (excellent) planned tax reform (I actually saved over $10,000 every year as a grad student, so under the new system, my budget would be just balanced – which would probably increased my desire that I simply had to stay in the U.S. for a few years as a postdoc or more). When the public overwhelmingly buys the idea that Edward Witten or the IAS at Princeton don't do anything that would go beyond what a surfer dude may do in Hawaii while surfing, the efforts to selectively defund high-brow science will accelerate.

Every time you're silent when someone like Ms Hossenfelder spreads this hostile garbage, you are helping this movement to win and destroy pure science – as a realistically sustainable occupation that hundreds or thousands of people can do – in the coming years. Every time you are allowing someone to get a degree for political reasons such as her sex or skin color, you are increasing the chances that you have produced a new weapon that will be used to obfuscate the separation of science and politics and to attack science using political tools. If someone got her PhD or jobs because of (identity) politics, be sure that she will be grateful to (identity) politics and will help (identity) politics to defeat science.

One more comment – about the wrong classification of topics. A week ago, I posted two comments under an article Our Bargain at the 4gravitons blog. The second one – mainly explaining that some people's screaming that they have to make this or that amazing progress very soon – was just a wishful thinking (analogous to planners in socialist planned economies). And the owner of the blog erased it because he has a "policy not to allow comments that are about politics".

But this justification was obviously completely fraudulent because the whole original text, Our Bargain, was about politics. It was mainly about funding and self-funding of scientists and the period for which a financial injection should last and other things. These topics are actually totally political in character. My deleted comment was actually much less political than his original text. So the explanation of the erasure was just plain dishonest.

It's very obvious what's going on. My comment was erased as a political one because it wasn't sufficiently respectful towards the left-wing orthodoxy. It's even possible – because of his policies, I can't know for certain and I can (and I must) only speculate – that Tetragraviton loves the planned economy and can't tolerate any criticism of it! Right-wing comments are often erased with the explanation that they're political while totally analogous left-wing comments – and even left-wing original articles – may be kept and sometimes even thanked to. The double standards must be absolutely self-evident to any honest person, including a left-winger.

These double standards are not only unjust. They are ultimately very harmful to science. By insisting that they're "primarily" scholars who are loyal to the left-wing orthodoxy of the Academia, the scientists help the actual "leftists-in-chief" to succeed in their plans and one of them involves the obfuscation of the boundary between science and politics and the eradication of pure science as we have known it for centuries. It's bad when you, the leftists who still do excellent research, don't realize what you're actually helping to do with science by your subtle and not so subtle endorsements of the radical left-wing positions. And it's even worse if you realize it but you keep on doing it, anyway.

Idealized science is separate from politics and the best physics groups are still close enough to this ideal. But the actual particular discoveries are being made by real scientists in the real world and that world is affected by politics – and by political movements of science haters such as Ms Hossenfelder, Mr Woit, and hundreds of others who simply don't want tolerate science because they're shocked by the fact that they're not good enough to practice it themselves. So you should better understand some of this politics and the consequences of some of your actions – including affirmative action – that you incorrectly believe to he harmless.

And that's the memo.

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