And Keating's proposed Nobel prize reforms are left-wing lunacy
Nick has asked whether Brian Keating, the designer of BICEP1 and the author of "Losing the Nobel Prize" (which will be released today), was conservative. At least according to some methodologies, the answer is Yes.
His 50-minute interview in Whiskey Politics, a right-wing podcast, has shown that he had the courage to hang the picture of George W. Bush in his University of California office – where most of his colleagues would prefer to hang Bush himself. Well, he didn't support Trump throughout most of his campaign, however.
He deplored the Che Café at UCSD where lots of taxpayer money is being spent to renovate the business and celebrate the mass killer by drinking coffee (which is a carcinogenic substance according to the Californian law but I guess that Che's café may get an exemption). And Keating has also followed me on Twitter so he can't be too left-wing. ;-)
The interview is sort of amusing – about the group think in the Academia, about Keating's idiosyncratic claims that the Nobel prize will be boycotted and killed (he hates the nomination process, I don't quite get how he wants to pick the candidates instead), against tenure (which he says to greatly contribute to the amount of rubbish published by the soft, social scientists). He also gives an introduction to the Cosmic Microwave Background and its polarization and his feelings about his ex-boss and father-like figure Andrew Lang's suicide.
One of the comments he made was that just like the climatological community is pushed in a direction by the left-wing bias (Will Happer talked at the podcast in January), the left-wing group think also penetrates to cosmology – and it manifests itself as the support for the multiverse.
Well, it's not the first time I heard about this identification. I can see some justifications of this identification. But I think that the identification is oversimplified and exaggerated.
Eight years ago, I was invited to the French Riviera for a week. The scholars did things that were considered heretical according to the Academia's group think. So most of the folks were top defenders of the Intelligent Design. Richard Lindzen was there as a leading climate skeptic. And I was there because I was known to be politically incorrect. But it was assumed that I had to have such "right-wing" opinions about cosmology – which means to be against the Universe.
I didn't really meet those expectations. While I think that the anthropic principle is partly tautological and partly wrong (and lots of papers written to promote it have a very poor quality) – so that it's not useful to say true things about the Universe, at least at this moment – the very existence of the multiverse is a different thing. It seems rather likely – and probably more likely than 50% – that the multiverse is needed to properly understand the initial conditions at the Big Bang in our visible Universe, the vacuum selection, and other things.
Why do I think so? Well, inflation works and explains lots of things. And there are good reasons why a good inflationary theory may be automatically assumed to be eternal, and therefore produce the multiverse. It's a likely additional consequence of a theory in cosmology that seems to pass some tests to be believed to be correct. How could a rational person think that it doesn't matter? On top of that, string theory also has very good reasons to be the correct quantum theory of gravity and all other forces. And string theory seems to imply the landscape as well as the processes needed to change the vacuum of one type into another. An honest, competent, rational person just can't overlook these powerful arguments.
One can discuss the quasi-technical issues of whether or not the evidence for inflationary cosmology itself (or the string theory landscape) is strong or sufficient, whether the theory is natural, whether the most natural types of inflation are eternal, whether one should trust the eternal inflation in other parts of the multiverse that they seem to envision, and other things.
But the experience with the French Riviera and Brian Keating suggests that something more powerful than the rational arguments is deciding inside many folks. Many people apparently decide what to think about the multiverse by identifying the multiverse with some politics – usually left-wing politics. And if they like the left-wing politics, they decide to become the multiverse supporters; if they're not left-wing, they become the critics of the multiverse.
Needless to say, this rule isn't universally valid. There are lots of very left-wing people who are critics of the multiverse; and I am a right-wing example that is "mostly" a supporter of the multiverse. (Well, maybe the correlation between one's being religious and one's being a critic of the multiverse is stronger but it is surely not perfect, either.) But some people on both sides think that it "should be" valid. Why?
I think that the reasoning is just silly.
Whether the multiverse "exists" is a question about the world at the longest possible distance scales and time scales. But at the end, it's really just a question about the "size of the whole world". The multiverse research needs "more advanced, modern insights" but it's not "that different" from the question whether the Earth is flat, whether the Sun is the only star, whether the Milky Way is the only galaxy, or whether the Earth is the only inhabited planet. Even if you care about God's existence or in His holy absence, it's just a technical detail of a sort.
If God could have created (the laws that produced) a round Earth, small planets and large planets, one galaxy and billions of other galaxies, He could have created laws that produce a single patch of the visible Universe, a trillion of patches, googol to the 5th power of patches, or infinitely many patches. What is the problem? I think that you must imagine a very weak, anthropomorphic God if such things are a problem for you.
Years ago, Leonard Susskind promoted the multiverse as a weapon to kill God. Susskind believes that there is no God which is why it's so important to kill Him. ;-) His argument is that God has a good taste and creates pretty, ordered things. To prove that God is dead, just show that the Universe is maximally messy and the multiverse seems šitty enough for that – so that all the šit really looks beautiful to a staunch atheist. OK, Susskind stood on the opposite side than Keating but the underlying logic is equally unscientific and both of them "politicize" a topic that shouldn't be political.
If you look at the structural character of the argumentation, you could reasonably argue that the right identification is the other one: the multiverse and especially the anthropic principle often build on the kind of arguments that are similar to those by the Christian apologists. The anthropic principle differs from Christianity but both of them look like "some forms of faith". The evidence is really lacking and the belief in the importance of "the size of God" or "the number of intelligent observers' souls" seem to trump any "finite" empirical argument. So maybe this could be a better simplification: the most ambitious versions of the multiverse are on par with religion.
But my primary point is that none of these simplifications is the right starting point to discuss the existence of the multiverse and/or the existence of the multiverse or the validity of an inflationary theory. When things are simplified or politicized according to any of these vague templates, the discussion simply invites too many superficial people whose arguments are shallow and who will support any claim whose apparent goal is to strengthen the "politically correct" side of the argument, independently of the quality of the claim. And that's just wrong.
The existence of the multiverse is a deep question but it's still a scientific, in some sense technical question, and no one should be assumed to defend one side of this debate or another just because it's claimed to be correlated with some (known) political or religious opinions of the person. It's the pressure arising from such expectations that is wrong for science; and it's the numerous people's inability to resist the pressure that also hurts proper objective science.
Back to lawsuits against the Nobel committee
At 33:40 of the interview, he discusses a website he founded that is meant to pressure the Nobel committee to reform the prize in some incomprehensible ways, in order to avoid the lawsuits and/or lost of allure, and also to help women and minorities. Holy cow. What does he exactly want, what is the justification, and how is this desire compatible with his being conservative?
Alfred Nobel wrote a will and some folks in his foundation tried to fulfill it. I think it would be very hard to fulfill it literally because Nobel didn't have a terribly good idea about the number of scientists who would exist in 2018, about the size of the relevant teams, and about their complex relationships with each other, with the organizers and sponsors of the scientific enterprises, and about the timescales it takes to complete an experiment or decide about the validity of a theory. If Nobel got familiar with all these things, he could very well agree that what is being done with his Nobel prize in physics is mostly reasonable. Or not.
Can Alfred Nobel sue the Nobel committee? He cannot because he's dead. Can someone else sue the committee on behalf of Alfred Nobel? I don't see how someone else could claim to better understand his intents than the committee that was specifically picked to do such decisions. But even if someone convinced the whole world that the committee deviates from the will in important aspects, what would it be good for? Does Keating really have a system for a better prize? It doesn't seem to be the case. That's an example of a situation that shows why it's so wise for the legal systems to demand the plaintiffs to have some standing. It seems clear that Keating has no standing in a hypothetical lawsuit about the "right way to interpret and fulfill Alfred Nobel's will".
After 42:00, he criticizes people's will to win the Olympic medals – some athletes would agree to die at age of 35 if they won one. Well, that's extreme but it's surely a reflection of a legitimate list of priorities that some people may have. A life that ends at this modest age but includes an Olympic victory may be considered a "better life" than a longer (just twice longer), more ordinary life, by some people. Some people simply are ambitious, some aren't. I think that the ambitions themselves are important for the progress of the mankind. So I don't share Keating's "horror" about it.
He says that the same extreme ambitions also exist in cosmology. Well, he has only provided us with some evidence from sports. But even if similar things exist in cosmology, and they may exist, I don't see anything unacceptable about it, either. Some people want to do great things (and even though the Nobel prize is just an honor, not the "real thing", as Feynman puts it, it's still a great enough thing for many people). This ambition exists independently of the Nobel prize. I think that Keating's logic is defective when he wants to sue the Nobel committee for the fact that some humans have ambitions. The ambitions are a universal constant of the humanity. In between the lines, I think that he is a great example of ambitious people himself.
Also, I understood some of his comments as urging the committee to give the Nobel prizes to everyone who wants it so that they're satisfied (Keating says that too many people fail to get the Nobel LOL). OK, that's a terrible idea (and the comment that "too many people are shut out" sounds like a joke; I literally cannot tell whether he's serious; of course that most people should be "shut out", it's a prestigious prize given at most to 3 physicists a year in a world that has over 7 billion people). I can't believe he's serious. They could bury meritocracy in this straightforward way. That would probably kill the people's interest in the Nobel prize, indeed. This move would actually kill the prize, unlike the real world events that Keating incorrectly predicts to lead to the death of the prize.
But the death of the Nobel prize wouldn't be enough to kill the people's ambitions. These people would naturally set other, more or less equivalent goals (when it comes to their will to shorten their lives), in front of themselves and these goals would arguably be less noble than a Nobel when it comes to the character of the activities that the people would do. And that would be bad for the mankind. One reason why Nobel's will is so useful for the mankind is that it is one of the motivations that makes people do great things such as top science. If you kill that prize, you will reduce the motivation of the average people to do this great stuff – and that's bad! Nobel knew about that effect of a prize and he wanted to encourage people to do great things – one reason was that he felt guilty that the dynamite was going to do some bad things that he needed to compensate.
At 43:30, Keating starts to sound like a generic extreme left-wing fruitcake again. Rosalind Franklin wasn't given the prize for DNA just because of some petty details – she died before they made the decision. How can such an unimportant thing that the candidate is dead affect whether she wins? Honestly, Keating must be joking. Implicitly, he thinks that he's just like Rosalind Franklin which is why he launched this jihad against the Nobel prize. Holy cow.
These are real sour grapes, a textbook example of what they mean. There are very good meritocratic reasons (not just the death) why Franklin hasn't won the prize; and why Keating hasn't won one, either. Even if someone is the deepest thinker in the world, and it could very well be Edward Witten (or late Stephen Hawking) or someone else, there isn't any law of Nature that saying the Nobel prize is a necessary condition for him to be the world's deepest thinker. Unlike Keating and despite his modesty, Edward Witten knows that he may be the world's smartest man even without the "confirmation" from Stockholm. The Nobel prize is just an important prize with its own rules; the rules can't be precisely equivalent to everyone's definition of greatness. Keating seems to blame his colleagues that they have distorted definitions of greatness but it seems to me that Keating is one of the best examples that deserve that criticism of his.
While he's right-wing in some respects, I found his calls to "give the Nobel prize to women, minorities, and everyone who wants it so badly" to be examples of the generic, currently omnipresent, "progressive" insanity. Nobel wanted the price to go to one physicist a year and the cap was tripled soon. But the cap shouldn't be lifted or loosened (especially not substantially) because the prize would cease to play the positive role it plays.