Every so often, there are books you don’t feel you can adequately review because you simply aren’t qualified or intelligent enough to discuss the issues involved. One of these, for me, is Lee Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics. In the broadest possible terms, the author lays out what he describes as the failure of string theory effectively to predict anything, as well as theoretical issues with the theory itself (or, more accurately, the “theories themselves”). He then goes on to describe the social and sociological aspects of contemporary physics, which could best be described as “tribal”. In a final, sweeping section, he highlights little known work done by people he admires and suggests possible different roads for physics to take.
It’s for the sociological elements that I suggested, via Twitter, to Bishop Hill that he read the book. Some of what Smolin describes is eerily similar to what Bishop Hill writes about the sociology of climate change science. If there is anything to Smolin’s complaints, then it sounds like a problem of contemporary organisations rather than of science. But it would beg a terrifying question: how much of what we (the non-scientists of the world) take for granted, are assured is true, is true? People like me wax lyrical about string theory in pubs, or drunkenly on twitter, just as we earnestly recycle because of our fear of climate change. But the truth is, we don’t know what we are talking about. My highest scientific qualification is a Grade E in A Level Chemistry. I have no option but to trust the experts. What if the experts are wrong? It means my worldview, at two fundamental levels, that of what the world actually is, and how we should live in it – is wrong. It means I have been thinking and seeing wrongly.
That’s no big deal of course, until you think about that problem on a much wider level. What happens to a culture that has its physical and ethical basis ripped out from under it? What happens to a society when the truth turns out to be nothing of the kind? In a sense, of course, with the decline of religion, we’ve seen it already and the answer is, “meh”. But if you have a systematic, evidence-based worldview that is still, fundamentally, twisted by group dynamics and tribalism, and if, as a result, it has nothing to say about the truth- then I think that might be more of an issue.
I ought to stop there and point out that I have literally no way of knowing whether any of Lee Smolin’s claims are true. What can I do about that? I can look the book up on Wikipedia, where I find that string theorists hate Smolin’s guts. Fair dinks. I can google “Lee Smolin” where I find his homepage. I also find some extremely irritated but still scientific (I think) writing about Smolin by Lubos Motl here. I can look string theory up on Wikipedia itself or google it, but I have no hope of understanding it because I cannot make up the gap between my AS Level maths and the postgraduate mathematics demanded to actually know about string theory. In short, for all the information at my disposal, with all the “skills” I was taught at school, I have no way of knowing if anything about Smolin’s claims is true or not.
The only, real way I could understand it myself is to assume that I have the necessary IQ, finish the maths A2 to a high standard, do a physics A Level as well, then study both subjects at undergraduate level at the very least.
Technically possible, but unlikely.
So what is the point of non-scientists even engaging in scientific matters? If we cannot verify or take part in the verification process, but instead just have to trust what we read, and if what we read is mutually contradictory (take Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe alongside The Trouble with Physics), and if there are actually problems in the conduct of science itself, then we’ve not a hope of knowing anything. We should probably just watch TV or something.