Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Keating's religious pseudoscience, fine-tuning, and Thunderf00t

I guess that John Archer won't be happy about this blog post but he's a strong man who will survive, I believe.

In April, I discussed Brian Keating, a key guy behind BICEP and measurements of the polarization of the microwave background. He wrote a book bragging about his bitterness that Nature wasn't generous enough to guarantee a Nobel prize for himself. He would like to reform the Nobel prize in clearly harmful ways.

And Keating deceitfully presented the multiverse as a left-wing construct. His claims that he is a conservative may be nothing else than the promotion of various nutty religious views on modern physics.

But only today in the morning, I learned about his April 2018 monologue he recorded for Prager University – not to be confused with the Prague University, my Alma Mater – about God, fine-tuning, and the multiverse. He thinks that the fine-tuning is everywhere and only allows two beliefs, the multiverse and God, and the multiverse sucks, so God is real.

First of all, it's very confusing for the people who see "PragerU" for the first time because the name sounds like a university. In reality, it's really just a YouTube channel and an NGO promoting Christian apologetic videos pretending that there's a lot of great, empirical science behind the Christian faith.

In reality, the Prager University doesn't have students, certified professors, and doesn't give diplomas to anybody. So it's not really a university. I surely think that the word "university" in the name of this YouTube channel is pretty much deceitful – it is inserted to spuriously increase the credibility of the videos.

What's primarily wrong isn't that Prager University hasn't gotten a confirmation from some government bureaucrats. The real problem is that the people aren't really producing papers that are critically read and evaluated by other scholars – if I avoid the partly discredited word "peers". The process of converging to the truth, while facing the obstacles represented by critically thinking brilliant minds, is missing in Prager University. And that is why it's so misleading to call the channel a university. That's why it's so misleading to consider the authors of the videos "scholars".

They only create "stuff" that is addressed to pure consumers. The consumers aren't really using these videos as foundations for further, more advanced research. They're using the videos to justify and strengthen their faith in God.

Now, the Christians who really believe the Bible literally simply want to see such videos. And if someone provides them with those, they probably have all the rights to watch them, pay some money to PragerU directly or indirectly, and I guess that this capital is partly spent on the speakers such as Brian Keating. On the other hand, I think that I have all the rights to point out that because of their deeds, the likes of Brian Keating are intellectual prostitutes.

Well, I need some courage given the fact that more than 1 million people saw the PragerU video and 80% liked it. That's quite some amount of demonstrated stupidity. And by the way, note that this religious PragerU stupidity about the multiverse sounds almost identical to the criticisms of the multiverse by the likes of Mr W*it.

Ten hours ago, Thunderf00t has released this video that is critical of Keating's monologue for PragerU. Thunderf00t has produced almost 1,000 videos, it's his primary job, and he's surely among the successful YouTubers. In his previous life, he's been a chemist or an applied physical scientist for decades. He knows quite a lot. He has recorded lots of videos showing that Hyperloop is rubbish – everything that makes sense about Hyperloop is very old and everything that is claimed to be new or going to change the world soon is unrealistic, economically infeasible fantasy based on overlooking lots of self-evident problems.

You may remember some TRF blog posts showing some degree of excitement about Hyperloop. But Thunderf00t has turned me into a Hyperloop skeptic. Really, the risk that the whole tube will just implode is too high. The tubes get rusty. On top of that, the ordinary thermal expansion changes the length (and shape) of such long tubes dramatically. And because you need to preserve the vacuum, you can't really fix it by solutions that work for other tubes. The problems how to allow the people to leave and not to lose the vacuum are serious, too. The speeds demonstrated so far aren't really "clearly superior" relatively to vehicles outside the vacuum i.e. in the air, and so on.

But he has recorded lots of similar critical videos about the technological hype that is all around us – hype created by people who are less famous than Elon Musk and his companies but whose pseudoscientific deception is very analogous to Musk's. For example, a company produces drinkable water just from the air. What these "amazing people" have "invented" is just a dehumidifier – and to get water from that gadget is guaranteed to be more expensive (by orders of magnitude) than to make someone deliver the water to your house. I can really subscribe to at least 95% of his stuff.

As far as I know, his newest video is closest to theoretical physics. I am used to seeing serious problems in almost all such videos by "non-experts" but I was surprised to see that I could basically subscribe every word by Thunderf00t, too. First, Thunderf00t spends some time by saying that "God is the answer" to the question why we're here – why the conditions in Nature allow our existence – is scientifically vacuous because it doesn't allow any testable predictions. The word "God" is just a placeholder, a label, an empty word. It's rather suicidal for the believers to justify God by the existence of the unknown (to hide Him in the unknown corners) because, as Feynman liked to say, the more we learn, the smaller this God becomes.

Thunderf00t keeps on saying that the multiverse is typically not too testable, either, but it's better when some details are added, and scientists are working with such scenarios. However, as Thunderf00t also points out, there's one utterly demagogic theme in Keating's video, namely that the multiverse is "just another religious belief". In reality, there's really almost no scientist who feels "certain" that the multiverse exists – in a way that would be analogous to the believers' certainty that God exists.

My confidence that the multiverse "exists" – is going to be a part of some convincing theory – is comparable to 50%. I really don't know. I am more confident than 50% about the cosmic inflation and, to a lesser extent, eternal inflation. And I am much less confident than 50% about the value of any papers invoking the anthropic principle. Most of such papers are rubbish showing the authors' rudimentary misunderstanding of the probability calculus (the ways in which the problematic sentence "we are the typical intelligent beings" is being quantified are usually downright inconsistent) but it even seems more likely than not to me that all versions of the strict anthropic principle are guaranteed to be either wrong or scientifically vacuous.

So indeed, as Keating fails to say but Thunderf00t points out, the multiverse is a hypothesis. And it's the legitimate job for scientists – and indeed, a part of the scientific method that makes it so successful – that scientists collect evidence for or against hypotheses such as this one. It is totally counterproductive to try to discourage scientists from thinking about hypotheses. The comparisons to the religious faith are almost entirely demagogic.

Keating says that like the believers, the "believers" in the multiverse have a problem. In the absence of the Creator, how do they account for the existence of planets, ... and anything? Thunderf00t points out that indeed, an astrophysicist should know something about the birth of planets. They're just some pieces of rock that were left behind after the Solar System was created. For (astrophysicist!) Keating to suggest that science has no idea about the origin of planets – and lots of similar tangible questions – is just totally fraudulent or stupid. The question about the human consciousness is hard but the scientific approach to it – to any details of consciousness – is probably rooted in neuroscience. And Thunderf00t sketches the scientific answers to numerous such questions.

But there's one topic that occupies the greatest part of Thunderf00t's video: Keating's claim that there has to be God because someone needed to fine-tune all the parameters that are needed for us to exist in such a hostile Universe. Keating is surely far from being the first believer who wants to prove God by looking at the apparent fine-tuning of the world. However, the argument – in the form I just reproduced it – is totally invalid. And it's invalid in a very stupid way.

Thunderf00t estimates that about \(1/10^{46}\) of the volume of our galaxy is occupied by places where the humans may live. The ratio is the ratio of the 2-meter-thick layer surrounding the surface of the Earth to the visible Universe. If you're dropped at a random place of our galaxy (or even the Universe), with a uniform distribution, the probability that you will end up at a place where you may survive is some \(10^{-46}\), a really tiny number (probabilities of this magnitude are often said to be "equivalent to impossible" by PragerU). Keating has explicitly quoted this kind of probability as one of the things that justifies God because most of the visible Universe is so hostile.

But we know that God created at least the visible Universe – because we observe the visible Universe – and a vast majority of the volume is incompatible with life, just like you could expect from a Godless Universe. This "mostly hostile, lifeless" Universe surely indicates that if there were a designer, the hospitality of the Universe for life was not his priority. Humans must live at a place that allows the existence of the humans. But the previous sentence is a tautology and its validity therefore doesn't and cannot prove any nontrivial statement at all. In other words, we know that God didn't need any fine-tuning to pick the right position for humans because God obviously hasn't been picking anything at all. God has created all positions and most of them are incompatible with the existence of humans who are alive. So He wasn't fine-tuning anything here at all. He created a big volume whose tiny fraction allows the rare processes we call life. Your birthplace wasn't picked by God. You know it was picked by your mother and her decision to stay somewhere or to travel. And so on.

The question about the existence of the multiverse is just the question whether an analogous explanation holds for regions outside the visible Universe – where the low-energy effective laws of physics may be different than in our visible patch. If the multiverse is the right concept, it just means that the right explanation involves a much greater Universe, one that contains lots of patches with the different string vacua. And if it's so, God or extra principles weren't really needed to pick the right string vacuum, either. Life tried to flourish at places where there was a chance and it simply flourished somewhere.

If the multiverse is right, the question "which string vacuum we inhabit" is analogous to "which star our planet orbits". It has to be one of the options compatible with life – and, indeed, compatible with everything else we know about Nature. (Yes, I think that the game of picking just "the existence of life" from the list of known facts about the Universe around us is a stupid game when you try to find out something about the realization of your Universe within string theory or science in general. You should use all the data, it may be helpful! And I think that there really can be no sensible way to define the boundary between the "anthropic" facts you should use and the others that you shouldn't. In this sense, I probably think that the whole "anthropic principle" as a project understood by all of its fans is dumb. But I may use the word "anthropic" in a more general way – and so can a few others – and in this generalized sense, it may be promising.)

And there's no mystery about the presence of some randomness in the answer. On the other hand, this randomness doesn't mean that nothing new can be learned. We may very well find out that only planets around stars of a certain type allow life similar to ours right now. We may also find out that only string vacua of a certain type allow life like ours – and other things we have observed. And we may find evidence for some probabilistic distribution that makes some vacua much more likely than others – and such a distribution may hypothetically determine the right string vacuum, too. We don't have the full story now and I can't even guarantee that such a full story exists in principle but it's a possibility.

When Keating says that the proponents of the multiverse "have a problem", something is cute. The "problem" is the existence of life and anything. That's great. In effect, because the proponents of the multiverse are said to "have this problem", they're being blamed for the existence of life. That's nice because if they're responsible for this "problem" in this sense, they should be treated as God or gods! ;-) OK, if the existence of life is a "problem", it's God's or Nature's problem, not mine.

As Thunderf00t correctly says in different words, it's just plain unscientific to present the existence of life, anything, or even the existence of any question that isn't answered right now as a "problem" in the sense of something that should make one abandon his theories, his scientific research, or make him frustrated. The ignorance – the existence of the unknown – simply isn't an argument for abandoning the scientific method. (In a recent blog post, I argued that the so far null LHC data simply cannot persuade a rational theorist to be "less ambitious". New data can only tell an impartial smart theorist "how" to be ambitious in a better way than before, not "whether".)

On the contrary, the existence of the unknown is a universal prerequisite for the meaningfulness of the scientific method! Science is based on the research and the research was occurring and is still occurring because some questions haven't been answered and the scientists are curious about the answers. When some questions are answered, others remain unanswered. This is the status of the scientific knowledge at every moment. Some questions have been answered, others haven't.

To present the existence of open questions as an argument against science means to show one's complete misunderstanding of the scientific thinking about the world, Universe, and everything. I have met many religious and superstitious people who have criticized science in this way. Science doesn't know everything so it knows pretty much nothing and is approximately worthless, they have approximately argued. Well, these people were clueless morons, at least relatively to a scientist. But it's sort of shocking that Brian Keating, a guy behind BICEP, seems to be exactly like one of them.

(I mentioned a self-evidently wrong witticism – "if science doesn't know everything, it knows nothing". Thunderf00t mentioned other such examples used by PragerU. For example, around 20:00, Thunderf00t discusses Chesterton's "When men stop believing in God, they won't believe in nothing. They will believe in everything" which is around 3:40 in the PragerU video. Well, it sometimes makes a point resembling some reality about Czechia etc. but more often, it doesn't. To take such slogans as literal facts is just plain stupid. They're clearly wrong as serious propositions. The implication cannot be justified logically and may be shown to be frequently violated empirically.)

In the BBC program (video), Richard Feynman talked about ignorance as well:
“I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don't know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we're here. I don't have to know an answer. I don't feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.
A scientist simply has to be capable of living with the ignorance – he must be able to admit to himself that he doesn't know the right answers to many questions. Because the ignorance is every scientist's state of mind when it comes to most questions that are sufficiently hard – and this set includes the bulk of the questions that the scientist is actually working on.

In practice, these religious and superstitious people – when they're using the existence of open questions as an argument against science – are showing their complete and total misunderstanding of science and how it differs from religions. One may say that they prove that at most, they are looking just for another religion, another scheme of the truths that must be parroted, worshiped, and that are completely known from the beginning.

But a key feature of science is that it is simply not another religion in this sense. There aren't any absolute and omniscient authorities, answers aren't known from the beginning, and it's normal to be ignorant and/or to assign probabilities to different answers. And this incompleteness or "insufficient power of authorities" is something that every scientifically thinking person knows to be an advantage of the scientific method relatively to any religion, not a disadvantage!

Also, as Thunderf00t discussed in some detail, it's just utterly bizarre for Keating to say all these far-reaching things – such as the claim that science knows nothing about the reasons why planets exist – after he has spent some decade or decades by constructing a gadget that measured a very particular technicality (polarization) of the cosmic microwave background.

Why would a sane person study something as abstract and distant from our direct experience as the possible primordial gravitational waves – that could have been created when the Universe was a tiny fraction of a second old (and an idea that is only meaningfully considered if you take a pyramid of 20 theories underlying it for granted) – when he doesn't quite believe the scientific explanation for even very mundane processes such as the formation of planets? It just doesn't make any sense. But there is a possible explanation that is consistent with other data (such as Keating's book and its main bitter theme). Keating has spent so much time with questions he doesn't really believe because he wanted the prize money and the fame.

Maybe he wanted to spend the Nobel prize money on the material to build a rocket to shoot himself in the air and prove that the Earth is flat. To do so, he needed to discover the primordial gravitational waves. Is it possible for a person to be deluded even about rather simple questions – but to team up with real experts who study very advanced scientific questions? It's probably possible. A large amount of cognitive dissonance (plus lots of greed) is needed for such a combination, however.

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