Friday, June 08, 2018

Science Magazine: a surprisingly sane review of an anti-physics book

Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray by anti-physics blogger Sabine Hossenfelder is going to be distributed in a few days. The book builds on interviews with big shots of theoretical physics – such as Nobel prize winners Wilczek and Weinberg and Milner prize winners Arkani-Hamed and (late) Polchinski.

However, the author of the book – who hasn't made an interesting contribution to science yet – thinks that she is smarter than all these men. So she "corrects" their opinions and "womansplains" to them that modern physics is junk and all of its pillars (and intuitive assumptions such as the elegance of the laws of Nature) are wrong.

This basic theme of the book – a complete and deluded Niemand telling the best physicists that they're idiots – always makes me think about Arthur Bolčo, a Slovak amateur physicist who wrote the book "The Ordinary Failure of One Extraordinary Theory". I was "honored" to talk to this man once – and debunk his criticisms of relativity. You may see that he placed himself next to Einstein – and adjusted his surname to "Bolstein" to highlight his intelligence.

Well, while she failed to rename herself to a Hosseinstein, Ms Hossenfelder has made progress since the times of Mr Bolstein. She is no longer placing herself next to Wilczek, Weinberg, Arkani-Hamed, and Polchinski. She thinks she's above them. And she mostly correctly assumes that no one would challenge this picture – to challenge her superior position would mean to be a sexist, chauvinist, racist, and a homophobe.

The contemporary "science journalists" work in such a way that if someone who spouts complete garbage criticizes the powerful or the achievers – like the white male physicists – she or he is immediately given a full support by the media. For example, to review one book by a woman who has slept with Lee Smolin, they would normally find it most appropriate to find another woman or a man who has slept with Lee Smolin, too. (Just to be sure, for those who haven't studied the dynamics: They are mostly not jealous of each other.)

But something unusual has happened in the Science Magazine.

The magazine's editor Valerie Thompson has picked an actual researcher – also a female researcher – as a reviewer. And here is the review:
Lost In Math (review by Djuna Lize Croon)
The reviewer has done research into inflation and holography for some five years – currently she is at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire. At Quora, she describes herself as a feminist and a theoretical physics PhD. But there's one self-evident difference between Hossenfelder and Croon. Well, Croon is actually cute. And even the editor, Ms Valerie Thompson, is pretty.

Such a situation could have affected many things. If you think about it, Sabine Hossenfelder finds herself in a conflict in interest when she writes vitriolic tirades against beauty. If you look at her for a few minutes, you will agree that the conflict of interests is deep, indeed. Thompson and Croon don't have this problem.

Croon starts by mentioning Hossenfelder's notoriety and by quoting her colleague whom she knows through Facebook:
[Hossenfelder and other bloggers] just spout platitudes without offering any real solutions or making a concrete contribution.
Right, exactly.

Hossenfelder and similar members of the Šmoitian activist foam are just like vandals who arrive to an ancient city and destroy it because they don't like it. But they never build anything by themselves. They really cannot. They don't have the innate aptitudes for that. They're just worthless pests. Croon also discusses Hossenfelder's sloppy language – for example, she is constantly conflating the technical naturalness with the more vague concept of beauty in physics. And that's a pretty bad bug for a book that claims to explain the status of beauty and naturalness in physics.

At the end of the book, we also learn – Croon tells us – that Hossenfelder wants to force theoretical physicists to talk to philosophers. Oh, that's a wonderful idea. So everyone like Arkani-Hamed should find a Maudlin somewhere in the pub, adopt it, grow it in the physicist's office, and overwhelm it with compliments how smart the Maudlin is.

Sorry but back in the real 21st century world, self-described philosophers just don't have any chance to contribute to physics research. None of them understands the physics of the last 40 years, those who have focused really hard – like Maudlin – still completely misunderstand (quantum) physics of the last 90 years, and more generic philosophers don't even understand any physics that is 150 years old. How could it be a good idea to give them some important role? Like the third-class physicists similar to Hossenfelder herself, philosophers may only offer worthless platitudes.

A century ago, the flow of ideas between physics and philosophy was beneficial. But that's because the two disciplines hadn't been as cleanly separated as they are today. Physicists were routinely expected to pass tests in philosophy at schools, and philosophers were expected to learn some actual physics. That's no longer the case today.

Even among the four top physicists in the list above, some misunderstand e.g. string theory. Frank Wilczek is probably the best example of a string theoretical layman among the four. Despite his great credentials as a theoretical physicist, he is already useless in discussing pretty much any possible issues that transcend quantum field theory. He simply has no clue about them – about the knowledge of quantum gravity in particular – and his negative comments don't differ from those of other laymen and they're almost completely explained by ignorance. He finds physics beyond QFT to be foggy and disorganized because his ideas and knowledge about them are foggy and disorganized. It's that simple.

At any rate, the review is an optimistic hint that there could exist a bottom, after all. The quality of the science reporting was collapsing in the recent decade or a few decades. But when the authors stoop too low, some editors in the magazines may start to notice and a backlash may start to emerge.

Reaction by the crackpot

Hours after this blog post was written, Hossenfelder angrily reacted. I was preemptively writing the statement as a hyperbole above – but Hossenfelder actually claims that it's outrageous to choose a reviewer who is actually doing research on the type of science that Hossenfelder claimed to discuss (well, she idiotically attacked it) in her book.

Imagine that. According to this spoiled girl, whenever she attacks someone, the attacked persons should have absolutely no right to say anything – even though they're clearly the people who are more or most qualified to say something. Hossenfelder really thinks that the cracked potty whores who have slept with Lee Sm*lin are the only people who should be allowed to discuss physics in the media.

Hossenfelder also attacks Croon for daring to write that naturalness has a statistical meaning – which is an important fact about naturalness. As explained on this blog many times, we expect the parameters to have natural values because it's very unlikely for the values to be too small or too special. For example, the probability that a random number \(x\in(0,1)\) obeys \(x\leq p\) is \(p\) (with a uniform distribution).

See e.g. Fowlie's talk on the Bayesian interpretation of naturalness, so that you see that I am not a unique nutcase.

So when this unlikely circumstance materializes – most often, when a parameter looks unnaturally small – then we should be surprised and look at least for a qualitative explanation of the trick that makes the unlikely condition possible. Hossenfelder thinks it should be taboo to say that "naturalness has a statistical meaning" because "statistics requires probability distributions". In between the lines, Hossenfelder wants her brain-dead readers to buy that Croon doesn't know that statistics requires distributions. I assure you that she knows that. There are distributions in all these discussions about naturalness. A point is that when some value is very unnatural, it's unlikely according to all natural enough distributions. So it doesn't really matter that the uniform distribution on \((0,1)\) isn't necessarily the "most relevant one". According to some highly non-uniform distributions, a small value of a parameter may be likely enough but then the question is why the unnatural – highly non-uniform – distribution should be relevant. You clearly can't make the surprise go away just by saying the word "distribution" in an incoherent sentence.

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