Friday, February 08, 2019

Should the sentence "it is curious" be banned?

Last night, Young Sheldon got 95% for an exercise from Dr Sturgis (an older lookalike of Strominger's – that's how I correctly predicted he had to be a Jewish actor). It turned out that Sheldon has done a more elegant calculation using the QCD energy density and his result was right – Sturgis had a mistake due to the factor of \(\sqrt{4\pi}\) from non-rationalized units. Well, the energy density is rescaled by the whole \(4\pi\) – I hope they got it right at the end. So 100% for Sheldon – and 100% for the science adviser because this was a damn realistic calculational battle. ;-)
Jeremy Butterfield, a philosopher, became the latest sycophant and wrote a positive review (arXiv) of Sabine Hossenfelder's atrocious anti-beauty and anti-physics pamphlet, "Lost In Math". Except for his ludicrous claims that the book is good, his views about the actual topic are totally sensible.

According to Sabine Hossenfelder, however, his sycophancy (which makes me feel sick) is insufficient. She claims that Butterfield misrepresented two points she is making. Needless to say, her accusation is untrue in both cases.

The first disagreement revolves around Butterfield's sensible viewpoint that regardless of the labels "beauty" etc., there are good reasons to study supersymmetry, GUT, string theory, and other things, in contradiction to her claims. She claims that she has never proposed those things not to be studied – oh, really? More than 10 years of her blog posts that contain virtually nothing else are still available on the Internet.

The second point was more shocking. Butterfield wrote:
I also think advocates of beauty as a heuristic do admit these limitations. They advocate no more than a historically conditioned, and fallible, heuristic [...] In short, I think Hossenfelder interprets physicists as more gung-ho, more naïve, that beauty is a guide to truth than they really are.
Precisely. No well-known enough professional physicists are really promoting "beauty" to a focus of their thinking. All well-known enough professional physicists understand that the reasoning revolving around "beauty" and similar notions is at most heuristic and fallible, unless "beauty" is just a popular label for some argument that may actually be phrased as a rather rational derivation based on logical inference. And all well-known physicists have some rather good rational reasons, e.g. some historical experience, when they really start to build on something that looks like beauty.

So Hossenfelder is fighting a straw man. The whole thesis that there's something wrong about the physicists' work and it may be summarized as their "attachment to beauty" is a silly fabrication.

She basically admits that she is fighting a straw man and says that she has admitted it in her pamphlet, too. But she still has a problem with the physicists because she can interpret their thinking as one rooted in beauty which drives her up the wall.

When the physicists justify their reasoning by some historical precedents, this is how she responds:
A few try to justify using arguments from beauty by appeals to cherry-picked historical examples or quotes to Einstein and Dirac.
I just couldn't believe my eyes. Einstein and Dirac are "cherry-picked historical examples"! In reality, cherry-picking means to stand in front of thousands of fruits and pick several cherries, the best ones. But in combination, Einstein and Dirac may represent 1/5 of the breakthroughs of the 20th century theoretical physics. They're like two best watermelons among 10 watermelons. For example, 100% of the quantum particle statistics, Fermi-Dirac and Bose-Einstein, were co-discovered by the Einstein+Dirac team. How could a sane person describe the selection of Einstein and Dirac from the list of theoretical physicists as "cherry-picking"? He couldn't. Watermelon-picking would be marginally acceptable.

Needless to say, the reality is that many more physicists followed in the "beautiful" footsteps of these men, to one extent or another, so the percentage of the 20th century theoretical physics that was found within a "similar" mental frame almost certainly exceeded 50%.

There is no guarantee that by following similar patterns of thinking as those of Einstein and Dirac, one will go from one success to another. And indeed, Nature has guaranteed that this rule doesn't work. On the other hand, there is nothing wrong about a theoretical physicist who thinks in ways that resemble the thinking of Einstein and Dirac in some ways! There is nothing wrong for a theoretical physicist to consider Dirac and Einstein to be role models of a kind. She literally wants to ban Einstein and Dirac as positive examples – which makes her activism worse than the Deutsche Physik promoted by her compatriots and predecessors in the 1930s because that movement considered at least Dirac to be an Aryan man, although he was dismissed as a friend of the Jewish Physics.

OK, she clearly has a serious psychological if not psychiatric problem with Einstein and Dirac – and odd condition for a theoretical physicist, indeed – but it gets worse. Why? Aside from some heroes of physics whose examples should be banned, she also wants to stop certain behavioral patterns from the present:
In most cases, however, physicists are not aware they use arguments from beauty to begin with (hence the book’s title). I have such discussions on a daily basis.

Physicists wrap appeals to beauty into statements like “this just can’t be the last word,” “intuition tells me,” or “this screams for an explanation”. They have forgotten that naturalness is an argument from beauty and can’t recall, or never looked at, the motivation for axions or gauge coupling unification. They will express their obsessions with numerical coincidences by saying “it’s curious” or “it is suggestive,” often followed by “Don’t you agree?”.
Wow, just wow. We learn about five examples of sentences that Ms Hossenfelder interprets as arguments rooted in beauty, and therefore they're not Aryan enough for her. The five sentences she wants to be demonized are so innocent, reasonable, inevitable, and omnipresent that I simply can't believe that her attempted co-existence with the physicists could have continued for years.

If and when I said one of the sentences
this just can’t be the last word

intuition tells me [...]

this screams for an explanation

it's curious

it is suggestive
and a person would try to yell at me that I did something wrong, I would scream her out of the room or out of the country. What's your fudging problem, you stupid obnoxious lady? What's wrong with all of you, Steve Giddings and everyone else who has tolerated this nasty, stupid, narrow-minded person, that this has never taken place?

Whether these statements may be classified as "sentences rooted in beauty" or not, and it is highly debatable for lots of reasons that should be discussed separately, there is absolutely nothing wrong or unscientific with any of these sentences. Indeed, they are absolutely essential for the work of any theoretical physicist who is sufficiently close to the cutting edge and every would-be physicist in this group has has failed to authentically use one of these sentences at least 10 times in his or her life should be immediately sacked.

"This just can't be the last word" simply conveys the speaker's opinion that it can't be the last word. More specifically, in the context of fundamental physics, the sentence means that the speaker believes that the present explanation or theory will be superseded by a superior or more complete or meaningful one in the future. The comment "this just can't be the last word" was surely correct for almost all explanations and theories that physicists and other scientists were ever using – simply because we already know that they weren't the final theories.

The statement may still be wrong. Some axioms or parts of scientific theories – and you know that I surely count the universal postulates of quantum mechanics into that category – are rather likely to be the last word, indeed. But people must be allowed to convey their view that a theory isn't the final one. They believe such views for lots of reasons. In particular, existing practically useful models – such as the Standard Model – simply seem to be effective, and therefore approximate, theories. They share certain features with other effective theories that were later proven not to be the final word. So it is perfectly rational to lean to the opinion that the Standard Model isn't the final word.

Well, the Standard Model almost certainly fails to be "the final word" for many reasons at several levels. Some of these "aspects of incompleteness" of the Standard Model may be proven pretty much experimentally. The Standard Model doesn't include gravity – and naively quantized quantum gravity is non-renormalizable. The Standard Model seems to lack a particle that the dark matter would be composed of – although we're not "quite certain" that the dark matter phenomena are explained by a new particle species.

Also, the Standard Model (where I assume the neutrinos to be Majorana fermions) requires non-renormalizable terms to achieve experimentally observed neutrino masses – which breaks its consistency at higher energy scales. The Standard Model probably contradicts the existence of matter-antimatter asymmetry (the fact that our matter hasn't completely annihilated against antimatter: we're still here), and aside from this inability to explain baryogenesis or leptogenesis, it has a similar problem to produce inflationary cosmology that was apparently needed to make our Universe almost flat, uniform, and large. Whether Ms Hossenfelder understands the logic or not, both of these cosmological processes are "almost directly" deduced from the observations.

So the Standard Model's failure to produce (quantum) gravity, dark matter, neutrino masses, leptogenesis/baryogenesis, and inflation are pretty much empirical proofs of the statement that "the Standard Model cannot be the last word". How could a genuine physicist complain when someone just says that "the Standard Model cannot be the last word"? He couldn't.

On top of that, the Standard Model has some imperfections that may be considered aesthetic, such as the smallness of its parameters. The Higgs mass is very low relatively to the Planck scale where new processes exist. The \(\theta\)-angle of QCD is tiny or zero (well, the "zero" option can't even be stable under various operations, so it must be correct that in a generic convention, it's tiny and nonzero), a fact that should have an explanation. Many of the Yukawa couplings are also rather small. And we don't understand the discrete choices – the gauge group and the representations of the fermions and the number of generations – either. It's a professional duty of a theoretical physicist in this field to ask "why" about most of these questions – and work on the "why" at least in some of them. But even if all these "aesthetic" puzzles were declared to be non-problems, they're far from being the only reasons why physicists generally think or know that "the Standard Model cannot be the last word".

"Intuition tells me..." simply says that the speaker believes something but he can't quite explain why he believes it because it boils down to intuition. How could a sane person demonize this sentence? Again, he couldn't. "Intuition" sounds mysterious but it is just a word describing some automatic mental processes in the brain that generate some feelings or conclusions and whose mechanism cannot be translated into words. People generally have intuition. It's a compressed mode of thinking that the best neural networks etc. are trying to emulate.

A huge fraction of the scientific advances began with the sentence "intuition tells me something". This is a completely neutral sentence that has nothing to do with any fallacy, any particular theory, any particular type of thinking, belief system, or scientific discipline. People just intuitively feel certain things – sometimes correctly and sometimes incorrectly – and they talk about it. What the hell is your problem with that? She wrote:
But who cares what I think nature should be like? Human intuition is not a good guide to the development of new laws of nature.
But in the actual example, she didn't talk about some generic stupid "human intuition". She was talking about the intuition of a theoretical physicist which is just a manifestation of his compressed thinking and experience that can't be translated to solid verbal or mathematical arguments yet. Physicists' intuition in this sense is absolutely vital for any progress in physics. And the intuition of a physicist is usually not about the scientist's desire to determine how things "should" be, as she totally demagogically claims; the scientist's intuition is about his feeling how they actually "are".

"This screams for an explanation" means "this means for an explanation". This sentence is generally used when the speaker sees some pattern or characteristics of the empirical data – or the theoretical structures – that are very special and may often be described by a concise sequence of words but the pattern looks special and unlikely according to some ideas about randomness or statistical distributions. So people just ask "Why the pattern is there". Again, this is a totally fundamental question that a theoretical physicist – but even a curious kid – has to pronounce many times a day. I am flabbergasted that someone has the arrogance to question the essential role of this question and of this sentiment.

The sentence "it's curious" is basically equivalent to "this screams for an explanation". There is a pattern or a characteristic of the observed or theoretical data that looks unlikely according to the speaker's scheme of estimating these probabilities, and that's why the speaker thinks that he is missing something. He usually does.

Finally, "it is suggestive" simply says that there exists a vague or incomplete evidence or argument in favor of some conclusion. Everyone who has ever done any genuine research in his or her life – Ms Hossenfelder clearly doesn't belong to this set – must know that these incomplete arguments or evidence appear at a huge number of stages of the research. In other words, genuine researchers encounter "suggestive" circumstances, facts, and patterns all the time, they think and speak about it, and if they're serious about their work, they are affected by them. Important work simply rarely appears in its final, transparent, rigorous form – it's just like the discussion about the irreducible complexity.

Scientists are typically converging to the complete theory gradually – just like the evolution of species that has many steps – and words like "curious" and "suggestive" are absolutely essential on that journey! Her misunderstanding of this trivial point – the stepwise and temporarily fuzzy character of our learning of the laws of Nature – makes her a "creationist of the scientific research".
What physicists are naive about is not appeals to beauty; what they are naive about their own rationality.
No, as I and Butterfield correctly wrote, almost all well-known enough professional physicists fully appreciate that all arguments based on "beauty, intuition, curious patterns, suggestive observations, heuristic proofs" and all this stuff are non-rigorous and fallible arguments that are immediately beaten by more tangible arguments such as the direct empirical proofs.

But who is breathtakingly naive is Ms Hossenfelder when she suggests that science could work without them.
They cannot fathom the possibility that their scientific judgement is influenced by cognitive biases and social trends in scientific communities.
Beauty, intuition, curious patterns, and suggestive observations don't depend on any "communities" whatsoever. Isaac Newton (or basically any similar grand example) wasn't a part of any "community" but he still had to deal with his intuition, curious patterns, and suggestive observations. These comments that these fundamental aspects of the scientific work are artifacts of some social phenomena or group think is just a self-evident lie promoted by this individual because she just hates science – what science actually is – and she is eager to use any lie in her efforts to harm science.

Hard sciences such as theoretical physics are intrinsically individual enterprises and their rules have nothing to do with sociology. When theoretical research is made by teams, the division of the labor follows an understandable logic and doesn't change anything about the meritocratic character of physics.
They believe it does not matter for their interests how their research is presented in the media.
Science isn't done for the media. Science is being done to find the truth about Nature. Most people in the media are stupid and dishonest scumbags who don't hesitate to pick a clueless pretentious parasite like Ms Hossenfelder and paint her as a scientist. Incidentally, her remarks about "how their research is presented in the media" is pure blackmail which makes her disgusting by itself.
The easiest way to see that the problem exists is that they deny it.
The main defects are inside Ms Hossenfelder but it's surely more convenient for her to deny this fact, look for problems elsewhere, and seek some support among brain-dead crackpots who spell the name of a physicist as "Einstien" (see the third comment under her latest blog post).

P.S.: She continues to emit tons of garbage in pretty much every paragraph. In her first comment, she writes:
[...] In addition, strange as that sounds, in some cases the "explanations" don't actually explain anything.

Take the recent example which we discussed here [Baer et al.: String theory predicts the Higgs mass etc.]. Rather than postulating the values of certain parameters, you can postulate a probability distribution from which you then calculate the values of parameters. What does this explain? Nothing. It's just moving around the bump under the carpet.
Oh, really? So the derivation of data from statistical observations cannot explain anything? All of thermodynamical laws were explained by statistical distributions for velocities etc. of particles – that's why the correct microscopic physical explanation of thermodynamics is known as "statistical physics". Even more importantly, the whole framework of modern physics builds on quantum mechanics which is a theory of the probabilistic character. It means that all fundamentally correct conclusions extracted from the state-of-the-art laws of physics must really be deduced from statistical distributions that are predicted by the actual theory!

The transition from the assumption about the "unique and sharp values" to "uncertainty and statistical distributions" is a big deal and in many cases, this transition was the key step to "crack" a whole subdiscipline of physics. We just wouldn't have statistical physics and quantum mechanics (aside from a few more examples) if our predecessors listened to arrogant crackpots who "think" (what an insane euphemism) that the transition to statistical distributions is just a meaningless "movement of a bump under the carpet".

In an analogous way, Baer et al. – and many other people who are vastly smarter than Ms Hossenfelder – are investigating the possible transition to probability distributions in their efforts to predict or explain parameters of low-energy effective field theories. The success of the program in this situation hasn't been proven as it was in the case of statistical physics and quantum mechanics – but the fact that the work by Baer et al. and others is an ongoing research is a perfectly sufficient explanation of the absence of a proof at this moment. If there were already a proof, physicists would no longer need to do research on it! This broad research effort may turn out to be successful or unsuccessful but the success would be impossible if no one even tried.

No comments:

Post a Comment