Thursday, October 10, 2019

When accusations of "groupthink" and "collection of likes" become ludicrous

If you want to understand what they mean by psychological projection...

Abraham (Avi) Loeb, the Israeli American chairman of astronomers at Harvard, has gotten some reasonably good press on this website. However, no sane person may doubt that he is a media-savvy or political flavor of a scientist whose visibility in the media overstates his contributions to physics – a field he actually loves to discuss loudly.

In recent years, the readers and viewers of the mainstream media have heard about him often because he has co-authored numerous wrong, silly, or vacuous preprints that were really professionally formatted troll's diatribes against physics, inflationary cosmology, and other things – and inkspillers in the popular science media (and millions of their stupid brainwashed readers and viewers) simply love this kind of pseudoscientific trash. That's why I laughed so much when someone sent me his October 8th essay in the SciAm blogs
Science Is Not about Getting More “Likes”:
Extraordinary groupthink leads to extraordinary ignorance
Both the title and the subtitle are combative yet true. However, in combination with the name of the author, these three lines are hilariously funny, indeed. And he's not a darling of the left-wing media just because he loves to repeat bitter, misguided remarks about the very value of physics and cosmology which are too speculative according to Loeb. He's also a darling of the popular media because he's a boss of an organization looking for extraterrestrial aliens. Physics is too speculative for him but ETs around us are not! Cool.

As Edwin and your humble correspondent mentioned in some recent comments, contemporary radical activists love to create the impression that they are objective, neutral, politically centrist, and no sensible person can possible disagree with their innocent views. That's also why they love to blame the artificial intelligence for the censorship and harassment that they increasingly exploit. Meanwhile, they are spreading some of the most extremist, unhinged ideas about the world and the future of mankind.

Tomorrow, a state mourning will be enforced in Czechia and some 300,000 people are expected to attend the extended funeral of the musician Karel Gott. But some of these objective innocent centrists, the Extinction Rebellion, plan to cripple the transportation in the country on the very same day. And these people – yes, full-blown eco-terrorists – tell you that there's "scientific consensus" that they're fighting for the right thing!

Similarly, the accusations of "groupthink" belong among the most fashionable accusations in the uniform community of mindless haters of modern physics. To make sure that all his fellow warriors in his organized movement will remember the slogans precisely, he repeats the point that physicists are just "collecting likes on social networks" and "suffer from extraordinary groupthink" about ten times.

He must live on a different planet. I live on a planet at which The Reference Frame is the only active blog that is comprehensibly defending modern physics as a discipline and most of its insights as rather established parts of the collective knowledge of mankind. Where are all the others who belong to my groupthink? I have met several people who understand theoretical physics at the top global level in the recent 10 years. Months ago, some of these people didn't even provide me with some infinitesimal help – that was related to these very arguments about the very value of physics – because they may understand physics but they still have no spine.

And a Mr Loeb arrives and tells us, with a serious face, that the defense of inflation, string theory etc. are consequences of groupthink? And it's extraordinary groupthink? You surely can't be serious, Mr Loeb. The word "groupthink" and "professional collection of likes" is about 500 times more appropriate for you than for the people whom you accuse from it.

According to Loeb, theoretical physics isn't just "groupthink" and "collection of likes". There is another line of criticism:
The mathematical constructions of supersymmetry, string theory, Hawking radiation, anti-de Sitter/conformal field theory (AdS/CFT) and the multiverse are currently considered irrefutable and self-evident by the mainstream of theoretical physics, even without experimental evidence to support them.
Imagine that. Theoretical physicists dare to think that the mathematical constructions of supersymmetry and the other things are "irrefutable and self-evident". That must be a serious blasphemy. Let me tell you something, Mr Loeb. When something is given a mathematical definition – it's a result of a mathematical construction – and there's no contradiction or mistake in the definition and the basic proofs that make it meaningful, then indeed, this product of the mathematical construction is self-evident and irrefutable. Everyone who doesn't understand this simple point is an irrational moron.

These things surely work as mathematical constructions. Two other questions are whether they describe the Universe and/or whether they are helpful for our understanding of the Universe. And while mostly "Yes", the precise answers to these two questions depend on the construction. As far as I am concerned, and my opinion is close to many others who actually know what they are doing because it's not really "just an opinion", supersymmetry is "more likely than not" to be relevant for the Universe around us, string theory is "very likely" the right framework for a theory of quantum gravity that we clearly need, the Hawking radiation is backed by a nearly rock-solid body of evidence building on two very independent foundations (QFT on curved spaces and string theory), the multiverse isn't established and the probability that it's relevant is at most comparable to 50%, and the anti de Sitter space is certainly irrelevant for the Universe around us.

But all these things – with different truth values within physics – are studied because they're related to the mathematical constructions and arguments that are rather clearly needed to understand the Universe at a deeper level. For example, the anti de Sitter space – which surely isn't the Universe around us – makes it possible to study quantum gravity in a very new, much more precise way (via AdS/CFT), which is why this research is being done. By locality etc., the behavior in our Universe is bound to be qualitatively analogous to the lessons we may learn in the anti de Sitter space. Even if you thought that the word "bound" overstates our certainty that things work in the same qualitative way, it's a reasonable hypothesis to assume that some basic things work in a similar way in spacetimes of somewhat different shapes. And the connection or universality has a chance to be clarified and proven. In science and especially theoretical physics, we just can't attack every puzzle directly. We increasingly attack problems indirectly and there's nothing wrong about it. To misunderstand the need for (and the value of) clever indirect arguments and ideas means to misunderstand an overwhelming majority of modern physics.

The second part of his paragraph says:
In the words of a prominent physicist at a conference that I attended a few months ago: “These ideas must be true even without experimental testimony in their favor, because thousands of physicists believe in them and it is difficult to imagine that such a large community of mathematically-gifted scientists would be wrong.”
I remain open-minded on whether an anonymous "prominent physicist" has made this statement or whether Mr Loeb simply writes an untruth – these two possibilities look comparably likely to me. I haven't met a critic of string theory etc. whose dishonesty wouldn't provably manifest itself very soon – and some quote attributed to an anonymous person is an easy lie to be made. But even if some "prominent physicist" made this stupid statement, what does it prove? It only proves that a prominent physicist uses a shaky sociological justification to believe what he believes.

But that doesn't mean that the underlying statements that he believes are wrong. It doesn't even imply that other physicists believe that the relatively large number (is 500-2,000 really so large for mankind with 7.5 billion people?) of mostly brilliant minds who believe in the validity of string theory etc. are the reason why string theory is correct. I personally believe nothing of the sort. I am terrified by the illegitimacy of such sociological arguments. But if someone offers a wrong argument in favor of string theory, it doesn't mean that string theory is wrong.

I have written dozens of blog posts that have discussed actual scientific arguments in favor of string theory but for some reasons, demagogues such as Mr Loeb have never paid attention to those. They never pay attention to the actual scientific research in this field (string theory etc.). They are only collecting "likes" for their irrational, Greta-style hateful outbursts, while they are ludicrously accusing others of doing what they are doing much more often than everyone else. It's easier to get thousands of likes from stupid readers of SciAm than to impress 500 string theorists by a novel scientific idea, isn't it?

Some people are just embarrassing.

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