Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Physicists' views have been confined to servers that no one else reads

A few days ago, The Symmetry Magazine published Falsifiability and Physics.

Folks such as Slatyer, Baer, Prescod-Weinstein, and Carroll argue that (and why) real physicists don't really pay attention to buzzwords such as "falsifiability" that have spread to the mass media as fire; and why they don't really consider Karl Popper as their infallible guru. The article also points out that Popper's targets weren't theories in physics but things like Freudian psychology and Stalinist history which is why the current critics of physics are really using Popperism outside its domain of validity.

Physicists are interested in statements that are falsifiable in principle and whether they may be falsified in practice and whether it can be done soon is at most secondary. Science cherishes the insights that are true, not those that are early. The thousands of years that the atomic hypothesis needed to be fully established is probably the greatest counterexample to the claim that "we only need theories with a fast complete confirmation".

Some of the names could produce some emotions in the TRF community. If I omit those with the greatest capability of igniting emotions, we are left with Baer and Tracy. Slatyer is an excellent Australian physicist and I was present when she was being admitted to Harvard – she has also worked at MIT and Princeton. Well, it just happens that she – and Baer as well – has also become a "progressive" activist although not as loud one as others. She is still an excellent physicist.

If you want a reason for frustration, let me confirm an example of a sad fact: All four physicists above have signed the "Particles for Justice" petition.

But let me return to the falsifiability and the distribution of texts about it. You may check that this take on falsifiability – which is compatible with the comments that I have written about the issue on this website – is extremely rare in Internet and paper publications that are meant to be available to the public. The Symmetry Magazine might be the only example in years. The ordinary Joe's newspapers such as The New York Times as well as would-be scientific publications such as Nude Socialist have preferred the worshiping of Karl Popper and falsifiability as presented by the critics of science, to use a euphemism.

Now, The Symmetry Magazine is a joint publication of Fermilab and SLAC. At some level, it is the only realtime website of the "blog type" that officially represents the opinions of the U.S. particle physicists. Is it influential? It depends on your expectations. The Alexa rank of the Symmetry Magazine is around 250,000, basically the same as that of The Reference Frame. I think that the percentage of the professional particle physicists who read both servers is about the same, too.

Needless to say, servers such as The New York Times are more influential so far (Donald Trump may plan to do something about it) – the NYT's rank is 120. You will find some blogs of critics of science whose impact exceeds that of the Symmetry Magazine. I think that every person who has followed the media and/or blogosphere must agree that the public (generic Internet readers') perception about particle physics has been much more affected by the critics of science than the actual scientists for many years.

But it's worse than that. Try to think about other websites from which the Internet readers – or even folks who make a Google search – may learn that particle physicists have good reasons to ignore the Popper cult and the calls for (early) falsifiability. The Symmetry Magazine, The Reference Frame, and...? Perhaps you could add The Preposterous Universe by Sean Carroll whose rank is also around 250,000 but that has been inactive for a very long time. Carroll has worked on his visibility so I think it's common sense that the full-blown researchers' blogs are much less visible.

The rank of is 4,000,000, is at 12,000,000... I have tried to think about other examples and I failed. There aren't really any websites with a greater-than-infinitesimal influence run by the people who understand the rudimentary insights as well as common beliefs of the professional physicists in this discipline. We could discuss some marginal cases – such as the Quanta Magazine sponsored by Jim Simons – but I think that even the Quanta Magazine has mostly turned to a website controlled by critics of particle and theoretical physics.

The aforementioned and similar websites were bound to be inconsequential mainly because their writers didn't really have the courage to openly discuss the "topics covered by the physics blogs on the other side". They were writing some diluted stuff whose relevance as well as candidness was always questionable.

Theoretical and particle physicists don't seem to care. Most of them don't read any blogs – or scientific sections of newspapers. Their opinion about the impact is reflected by their reading habits. So they would tell you that it doesn't matter what is written on the Internet. A more accurate explanation is that most of them don't care whether the field survives – they just want to get their grants and other money and hope that these flows will survive up to their retirement. It's sad but it's true. Most people are in it for the money. It was probably always the case.

Meanwhile, the fields – all scientific disciplines that are not low-brow – are existentially threatened.

The biggest threat is the rise of new generations that are completely losing their contact with the disciplines. Before the young people decide to do something like particle physics, they need to be exposed to some texts or shows that make them aware of the existence of the discipline, of the main challenges and values in the disciplines, and of the basics of its belief system. Is it happening today? I don't think so.

Elementary and high school kids aren't exposed to this stuff at school because teachers are sufficiently decoupled and mostly focus on the standard rudimentary curriculum, anyway. And they don't really learn it from popular books, shows, and magazines because those have been hijacked by the critics of science. The meaning of the word "science" is being redefined every day. When the young people say "science", they increasingly imagine something that we would call "social critique of science" or some "political activism dependent on some science-like rhetoric". The density of the actual science – according to those of us who haven't softened their criteria for what is science (the learning of the truth about Nature by refining and eliminated hypotheses, using the careful, quantitative, logical, impersonal evaluation of empirical facts) – is decreasing.

The problem is that "the laymen's publications" about physics aren't affecting just some "inconsequential laymen". They are also affecting future potential researchers, sponsors, teachers, politicians, members of other departments, and others who influence the research and especially its future.

Two decades ago, we had numerous brilliant undergrads who could really do research that was characteristic for top researchers. Barton Zwiebach gave meaningful undergraduate string theory courses at MIT. Those things have disappeared, as far as I can say. There is no longer any potential for high-brow, graduate-school-level courses for undergrads. Undergraduate and graduate courses are being softened. Graduate students are getting significantly easier projects than their predecessors 20 years ago. This trend is undoubtedly correlated with (or partially caused by) the omnipresent "inflation of degrees" and with the increasing percentage of students accepted due to affirmative action. The same kind of students at the same places are really solving some classical GR problems – while their predecessors were ordered to solve difficult problems in quantum gravity or otherwise in or beyond quantum field theory.

The people's first faculty jobs are being given for very ordinary and sort of average work in science. I couldn't find a new faculty hire at the rumor mill whose work would look exciting. If you ask who is the brilliant big shot below 25 years of age, you won't get clear answers, I think. You would have gotten numerous answers 20 years ago and maybe even 10 years ago. The average age of citizens of every Western country is going up – which is mostly a good thing, a result of better healthcare etc. – but the average age of the influential researcher is going up much more quickly.

Concerning the ideology about falsifiability etc., the problem isn't just that the actual scientists' opinions have been confined to nearly invisible publications such as The Symmetry Magazine. The problem is that even when a scientist may be quoted in more influential publications, he or she is afraid to say what he or she thinks. Or there's some opportunism. It's likely that the reaction to the truth could be very hostile. After years of the influence of the critics of science, the mainstream media have produced a whole ecosystem of unfriendly and ignorant people who often behave as animals. Scientists don't want to interact with these trolls so their willingness to say what they think drops further, therefore making the trolls even more self-confident, and so on. It is a vicious circle, an exponentially escalating degenerative process.

I haven't talked about it much but even in 2004, I felt like the only sane voice in the wilderness and I was increasingly shocked by the lack of support from other physicists, by their cowardliness and spinelessness. Sometimes now – maybe a decade ago, maybe in a decade – we're approaching the point of no return when the fields can no longer be saved and the mankind will make several huge steps towards Idiocracy – a societal system where, among other things, scientific research will be replaced with a bunch of – ideologically motivated and logically unsound – slogans "explaining" why the scientific research will have been no good. Well, when almost all people in a society suck, either because their intelligence or integrity is low, like that of the critics of physics, or because they're as cowardly and spineless as the typical passive researchers I have mentioned, then the whole mankind will obviously suck, too. Any better outcome would be counterintuitive, to say the least. The society is ultimately composed of individuals.

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