Friday, February 08, 2019

Inference is probably driven by great ideals

...but it's hard to make a difference...

OK, it took some time to decide whether I should write about this topic at all or not. I have known about the plans to establish Inference, a fancy quarterly journal, since June 2010. It was finally launched in 2014.

It just happens that I know the people behind Inference more closely than 99% of the people who write about it. In the text below, I will partly anonymize the names – but everyone who knows the characters and/or Czech will be capable of translating the nicknames to the real names very easily.

So first of all, I've spent some hours by chatting with Mr Kajetán (you should know something about the 19th century Czech theater to understand the nickname; the guy has a theater in Pilsen), a very smart and rich man who was designed (I mean predetermined) to become the funding source of Inference – which I wasn't explicitly told but it was unsurprising given his funding for the 2010 event.

I think that Mr Kajetán is intelligent, kind, rather realistic, has made some genuine contributions to the business that I respect, and his funding schemes for various activities have been original.

His politics and views about the society and business are usually close to mine but of course, there must be differences. For example, according to some news articles, Kajetán bought some 30,000 Bitcoin sometime in 2014. The Bitcoin price could have been of order $500 at that time. So he just invested $15 million or so, pocket money. That grew 40-fold to $600 million in December 2017 before the Bitcoin lost over 80% of its value and the current value of the original amount could be around $100 million.

So you know, Mr Kajetán is one of the great Bitcoin bulls, saying that the Bitcoin will become [something amazing] in the financial world of the future. I think it's factually implausible and the logic behind this cryptocurrency cult is irrational, as Edwin and I sometimes explain in more detail. But on top of that, I have some sort of an ethical problem with this promotion because there's a conflict of interests in it. Kajetán is inviting people to be "just like him" except that today, they pay $3,300 for one Bitcoin, a much higher price than he has.

So they're not quite on the same boat – they're more likely to be the losers. At the end, this will clearly be a zero-sum game – with lots of money wasted for electricity etc. – and some people will be winners while most people will be losers. And like other promoters of the Bitcoin who are long, Kajetán is basically acting like the author or an early participant of a pyramid scheme. If he wants others to be on the same boat as he is, why doesn't he sell the Bitcoin for $500 to them?

But the Bitcoin isn't supposed to be the key topic here at all.

I was also honored to meet Mr Deutschebank (quite a German sounding geographic surname, right? If you figure out the real name, please don't brag about your IQ's being above 80). A smart and confident man who has done lots of work related to mathematics, whose ancestors include a rather famous musical composer etc. On the general political issues, he's comparably right-wing to your humble correspondent. Concerning the differences, he has issues with Darwin's theory, like most participants of the 2010 event. I figured out that Mr Deutschebank would have lots of power over the editorial policies and editing of the articles in Inference – and it seems to be the case, despite lots of famous names who are the editors (including Chomsky and Glashow).

Mr Kajetán must admire Mr Deutschebank a lot – because Mr Kajetán has made Mr Deutschebank rather powerful. It just seems to be the case. I feel that I am missing some answers to the questions "how it is so" and "why it is so" but one can't know everything. ;-)

At the one-week-long 2010 event in Nice (where I caught some brutal yeast-enhanced flu), there was a dozen of people and the ideas were being shot in all directions. A fun event in a nice environment, of course. Only two participants may have been considered clear "believers" in Darwin's theory: your humble correspondent and Dr Victor Smetáček, an Indian marine biologist. I hope that he appreciates that his name was fully revealed because it means that he's fully innocent and absent from all the controversial issues here. ;-) How does it happen that an Indian biologist has the surname Smetáček which is a "little broom" in Czech? Well, because of his German father. OK, a Sudetenland German father who still has a Czech name. I didn't penetrate the pedigree further but it seems rather obvious that an ancestor had to be ethnically Czech and the word "German" is partly an approximation that is good enough for India.

The remaining participants were "sort of Intelligent Design supporters", including the world's ID elite. I decided they were very open-minded and smart. Well, they were surely more open-minded than some of my fundamentalist Christian classmates in Prague – who loved to scream how stupid the Darwinists had to be because they had to believe that a bird turns into a squirrel while sitting on the tree. ;-) Some of the arguments claiming possible inconsistencies within Darwin's evolution were rather clever (I had known about the general buzzwords, like irreducible complexity, before – but I had enough time to listen to details). I remember some arguments saying that a certain amount of evolution couldn't have taken place before it was too late because there wasn't enough time. That argument was rather clever. I decided that the key loophole was that the mutation rate itself was variable and when faster mutations seemed necessary for a group of species to survive, then the subpopulations with the faster mutation rates were spreading and prevailed.

So the animals' adaptation isn't just an individual strategy. It's an adaptation of many collective parameters, including the mutation rate i.e. the speed of evolution itself. Now, I couldn't be sure that my explanation was the right one – someone could call it "contrived" and some of the "assumptions" of the problems that I was given could have been wrong, too. Or there could have been a different loophole. But I just thought that these ID folks' discussion was intelligent and scholarly.

On the other hand, while religion proper wasn't discussed too much, I do think that the motivation to question Darwin's theory was ultimately religious for all those people. So even Mr Kajetán and Mr Deutschebank are mostly religious. That's also true for Richard Lindzen – again, the real name! – who was there and talked about the climate skepticism. I've met Richard at many different places over the recent 15 years or so – in America, France, and Czechia. He's an Orthodox Jew and I do think it is a reason for his somewhat moderate doubts about the evolution, too. I don't want to go to details because I don't know too many and I just don't find his views too shocking.

OK, I was there as a guy who had also had some issues with the university establishment – mostly meaning the identity politics – but it was apparently assumed that I would also disagree with the state-of-the-art physics such as inflationary cosmology if not string theory. In fact, it almost looked like some people were assuming I would think like another Woit or Smolin. Well, that's silly. If one is against feminism, it doesn't mean he is against the state-of-the-art physics. In fact, I would claim that while the correlations are highly unreliable, they have the opposite sign in average. Feminism is linked to the relativization of the new enough findings in physics – according to feminism, those are evil male narratives designed to oppress women and others.

So I did explain that (and why) I found string theory to be likely to be correct, the existence of the string landscape rather likely, and the eternal inflation to be the most likely single scenario explaining the large size of the present Universe and other things. So the multiverse might exist – it's more likely than not – and I only stop with the anthropic arguments that try to link the probabilities of string compactifications to the "number of observers" in some proportional way. All such attempts in the literature seem internally inconsistent. Long-term TRF readers may guess why my talk about the landscape issues in front of such a general but smart audience roughly looked like.

I have also met Cameron Hampshire [OK, translate the first name using a twin], a kind young idealist guy who knew a lot, especially considering his not being affiliated with universities. I think he remained unaffiliated and some critics have abused this fact. But in my optics, it doesn't mean anything – that's simply not how I judge the people and/or their talent or expertise. Mr Kajetán tried to teach some chess to me and Cameron ;-).

There were some other impressive people there but I think we would get too far from the main topic.

When Inference was created, Sheldon Glashow became an editor, too. Well, I've known Glashow rather well from various social events – mostly dinners – in Greater Boston, too. He left Harvard years before I came because he hated string theory but he was making a good impression on me most of the time. I was telling these things to Mr Kajetán, I think, and my testimony may have even been a reason why Sheldon Glashow was invited to Inference.

There's a sense in which I am sorry of my kind words because that has clearly made Inference substantially more "anti-string" – not that I think that Inference matters much in this discussion. Their whole website has fewer visits than this blog and I think it's debatable which website has a more high-tier average reader. OK, Glashow is just wrong about string theory. When he moved to Boston University, he could have created a new powerful group with some well-defined physics direction is string theory had an alternative of sort. But it apparently doesn't have any alternative. It's the only game in town which is why Harvard kept on flourishing and producing breakthroughs in theoretical physics and Boston University kept on fading away in physics, as you may expect from a university name that doesn't "quite" sound like Harvard, you know.

Because Mr Kajetán, the sponsor, is rich, the authors are paid handsome amounts. So as promised in 2010, I was also invited to write a text about something. The fee would have been [some thousands of dollars] or [even twice as much, a rounder amount]. It became clear to me extremely quickly that the amount of editorial interference was too high for me and I stopped attempts to agree on the requested "improvements" and a compromise that would please the editor – mainly Mr Deutschebank if I remember well.

This shouldn't surprise you because I am independent enough – even from folks who could be said to be "on my side" in some oversimplified way. But just to brag about my adaptability, I did finish the French book, L'Equation Bogdanov, which was also the subject of some editing needed to make the book sufficiently respectful towards the Bogdanov brothers. Yes, one reason why I didn't care was that the readers were French – and mostly Bogdanov fans, I guess – and the French people speak an incomprehensible weird language and they're crazy, anyway, so for those reasons, I just didn't care much whether some people in such a strange country are accurately told what I think about some technicalities in modern physics. So yes, in that particular case, the compensation was more important than the accuracy for me. It was a little bit like saying "the Earth is roundish but it is also sometimes flat" to a telephone connected to some extraterrestrial aliens while the aliens are sending you thousands of dollars. Why wouldn't you tell them? ;-)

Does it make sense for Kajetán to fund Inference? First of all, it's pocket money, even relatively to the money stored in the Bitcoin that I have discussed. So the loss – if it is a loss – is negligible from his viewpoint. But does it achieve something that pleases Mr Kajetán?

I don't know and I can't know. I do think that one of the motivations is to defend some "relatively minority-held but intelligent enough" viewpoints on science and other topics that are being expelled from the Academia by the "scholarly establishment", especially if it is ideologically or politically motivated. If this is the overall main goal of the existence of Inference, I think it is a very noble goal, indeed.

It doesn't mean that I agree with all (or even most) of these suppressed minority views. I do think that the criticisms of Darwin's theory are ultimately wrong and it's straightforward to see why. On the other hand, I think that there are lots of comparably or more wrong theses that are being tolerated if not fanatically supported by the "establishment" – and I do think that universities, journals, and other intellectual venues should respect some true meritocracy that reflects "the quality of thinking" of the people and not the agreement with some predetermined ideological – or otherwise "big picture" – conclusions or "narratives". So I do think that if a creationist is smarter and produces more nontrivial yet original possible counterarguments about something, he deserves at least the same space as a less intelligent person who does something much less groundbreaking within the evolutionary framework. I don't want all of biology to be overwritten by debates about the Intelligent Design but it's wrong to have some "total filters applying to all of intellectual venues" that ban all the talk of "certain very general types".

At the end, I think that the resulting Inference journal is a high-quality journal. The articles are polished to the extent of being boring. You know, a problem is that while the formal features of an article may be optimized really nicely if lots of money goes to the author and the editor as a compensation, that can't make a groundbreaking deep idea in the article to appear – if it wasn't there in the first place. In other words, you can't really "buy huge discoveries" for the money from a predetermined person. "Huge discoveries" are being made at places that are mostly unpredictable.

Because I don't really care about the genuinely formal advantages of articles, it's plausible that most of the [thousands of dollars] are wasted from my viewpoint.

When it comes to Inference's impact on the "legitimization of various theories, views, and discourses", I think that it became negligible already years ago. And I actually think it's a pity. Although Richard Lindzen is an editor, I think that the impact that Inference has made to return science, sanity, and common sense to the climate debate is very small. So for me, articles on that website look like highly polished pieces of work that often fail to excite me.

That's true in other topics, too.

Glashow is an early string critic but Inference has also published an exchange between Yin and Paquette who are both string theorists but presented different views about the value of beauty and ugliness. In these amusing but necessarily "popular philosophical" articles of a sort, both agreed that the beauty or ugliness mattered – in that sense, they were not "Lost In Math" – but they had the opposite signs. Xi Yin, whom I also know very well, glorified the ugliness in a very clever way.

So I think that Inference isn't particularly pro-string or anti-string at the end. It doesn't seem to be anti-evolution in recent years, either – a "loss" that I don't personally care about. But Inference also ceased to be a source of influential "skeptical" articles about climatology which is sad. It publishes articles praising the Islamic culture and wisdom and many other things you wouldn't expect in a "right-wing" journal. I surely don't consider Inference to be a "right-wing journal". In fact, it looks too generic to me and I think that Kajetán has changed the intellectual landscape way too little – and I am generously ignoring the low number of readers. Of course I think he would have a 100 times greater influence per dollar if he just sent me $50,000, for example. ;-)

Of course I think that at the end, Inference is a much better journal than most – than the likes of Nude Socialist, you know (although I am far from having carefully read "lots" of essays at Inference). I am afraid to get connected with it too much because I would also get frustrated by Inference's much smaller impact than the impact of Nude Socialist and similar outlets.

Several people recently judged Inference. First, on his notorious "Not Even Wrong" blog, Peter Woit has enthusiastically praised Inference. It's so great when a rich guy like Kajetán pays for these intellectual activities. It's great to be impartial and Inference is and some criticisms of Inference – that I will discuss momentarily – are so bad. I actually agree with all of it. But like "Not Even Wrong" readers, I was surprised by that. How did it happen? You know, Woit is generally anti-Trump while Kajetán was a Trump supporter, and so on. Suddenly, he treated left-wing and right-wing commenters as "equal" on his blog. What happened?

Peter Woit must be considered Mr Kajetán's strangest bedfellow! How did it happen? Is it because Inference has paid those $250 to Woit for some minor service? I would have sent $251 to Woit – beating Mr Kajetán – years ago if he switched to writing texts celebrating modern physics instead of the anti-physics vitriol! ;-) Or because of some secret $250,000 gift to Mr Woit? Or because of the compliment hiding in the Inference's decision to hire him for something at all? Or because Woit considers Inference to be anti-string which he likes? I just don't understand what's going on. But I also don't claim that there must be something fishy. Woit, Chomsky, and other leftists might genuinely appreciate the work done by Mr Kajetán and other folks – for similar idealist reasons as mine. has published an anti-Inference tirade by Adam Becker, the author of the recently published atrocious book against quantum mechanics, "What Is Real?". Here is the response by Glashow and Inference. Becker attacks Inference in rather existential ways, presents the (from his viewpoint) seemingly non-transparent funding as a crime although it's perfectly legal and morally correct, especially because it's not too hard to find out that Mr Kajetán is the sponsor.

As far as I can say, Becker's text is just a hit piece by a generic activist-journalist driven by four main incentives:
  • He found out that the sponsor is Mr Kajetán and because that guy is not left-wing and he is a Trump supporter, Becker feels he must fight against him and his journal
  • In 2014, Inference dared to publish a text disagreeing with the climate hysteria
  • In 2014, Inference dared to publish a text questioning Darwin's theory
  • Inference published Glashow's review of Becker's šitty book that concludes that Becker's book is šitty
Now, Becker is a classic left-wing inkspiller but I find it rather plausible that the last reason, Glashow's review, is actually the most important reason why Becker has decided to treat Inference as an enemy. I wouldn't subscribe to every sentence of Glashow about quantum mechanics but he correctly says that "the cat is either dead or alive and there's nothing mysteriously inconsistent about the properties of physical objects", "it's right to shut up and calculate", "pictures may exist but if they don't, it's just fine" (Glashow supports a nice quote by Dirac).

More importantly, Becker's book spreads conspiracy theories about the physicists' and physics instructors' being an evil cabal that pushes the Copenhagen interpretation down the students' throats. This really captures the bulk of Becker's book. It's nothing else than a conspiracy-theory-style hit piece against quantum mechanics as we've known it from the mid 1920s.

It's too bad if Mr Becker is incapable of separating one review by a random Nobel prize physics winner who dislikes his book from a whole journal that has published some 500 articles on various topics. Becker clearly represents evil and personally motivated efforts to censor lots of others. It's bad and I am disappointed by the people who can't see that Becker was the evil one in this battle.

Quite generally, I think that it's right for Mr Kajetán to pay some "pocket money" to legitimize some thinkers who are being illegitimately suppressed – which seems to be at most a tiny fraction of Inference's work, however. Of course, whether the suppression is illegitimate depends on some objective facts about each case, one's subjective knowledge and opinions about each case, and other things. It's complicated. But the censorship of ideas is wrong and if Inference helps to counter it, it's great.

I think it doesn't do it enough. He's getting almost nothing per dollar (that word means about \(10^{-9}\) of a billion, if Mr Kajetán forgot about that word). In fact, we agreed about those things in the context of sponsors of MIT with Richard Lindzen. I think that Kajetán used to say that the sponsors may be shaping the character of the research at MIT. I and Richard had the opposite opinion – the sponsors' impact is generally tiny and "too small" relatively to what would be desirable.

In particular, lots of the sponsors of MIT are sane people who have actually achieved something, like many of you – in business etc. – and they like sane old-fashioned scholars like Lindzen and the MIT's affiliation with them. So a nontrivial fraction of the money that has flown to MIT from private sponsors has flown there because they've had Richard Lindzen. Now, do these sponsors influence things? The reality is that they just pay and shut up. Various progressive activists ultimately divide most of these often conservative sponsors' money. These rich people tend to be extremely shy. I think that to a large extent, it's the case of Mr Kajetán, too.

One reason is that based on my experience, I believe that the journalists and people in the similar industries of opinion makers – and at least the "softer" disciplines of sciences – are far more and easily corruptible than most people can even imagine. Imagine that you're a rich guy who wants creationism to spread. For a few million dollars, it must be possible to replace all editors of Nature with creationists and build new headquarters for the journal resembling Noah's Ark, too. ;-)

But I want to emphasize that I believe that there is no "magic solution" to pick and support the valuable ideas and defend them against illegitimate attacks by the champions of other ideas. You know, at the end, it matters which ideas are right and which ideas are wrong. And the majority or the "muscular men" may be both right and wrong. So the universal and unquestionable support of the system for the majority is wrong, but so is the unquestionable support for the minority. The universal support for the strong ones is wrong but so is the universal support for the weak ones.

If Mr Deutschebank really has the decisive role, it's an interesting new methodology to pick the good candidates and remove the bad candidates for scholars and articles. But it is no magic cure. For example, I think that Mr Deutschebank doesn't really understand anything string theory or related branches of physics at this level so his powerful hand may contribute at most noise and prejudices to this issue – and probably others. It's still important for many fields of science to compete according to more impersonal rules of the game.

Inference is a high-quality journal with some high compensation but it's really just another journal that may influence the intellectual landscape and should be allowed to do so. The efforts to ban or universally delegitimize whole such journals – that seem to have enough independence from the group think, like Inference does – is wrong and Becker is clearly an aßhole. But it would be equally wrong to mindlessly support everything that Inference does or publish just because it's Inference.

And that's the memo.

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