Quantum Reviewing

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.

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About Kevin Donnelly

I'm also known as Lawrence George, which is the name I write for Helium under. I think I ought to ditch my pseudonyms before I forget which one is me.
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5 Responses to Quantum Reviewing

  1. One of the biggest issues with science as portrayed to the populous is that it is presented as “truth”.

    Science is not “truth”. Science is about observing the world, and attempting to understand it. Scientific explanations are always “theories”, to be replaced when a new theory comes along that explains the same observations, and a few more, or which explains the same observations with a much simpler basis than the older theory.

    Of course, it takes time for new theories to be accepted, and this is where the social side comes in — there’s a saying that the previous generation of scientists has to die before a radical new theory will become accepted, as the old guard have too much invested in the old theory, and too much political sway to let the new theories take hold across the board.

    And then there’s the media. Media reports want simple, clear, firm statements that they can explain to people who don’t understand the underlying science, and they thrive on anything controversial, provocative or otherwise dramatic. Scientists who are also writers such as Richard Dawkins know this, and make bold and assertive claims. Within science itself, these are accepted as part of the process of trying to convince others of the validity of your theory. In popular culture, they are often taken at face value, as statements of fact, which is why you therefore come across contradictions when reading multiple pop-science books.

    • Hi Anthony, Good to have your expertise here.

      While I agree with your analysis of the purpose of science, it goes further than that. Our understanding of science, as you say, is about understanding the world. That means it’s a process of uncovering the truth about how the world really is. Sure, science changes, develops, adapts and our understanding changes with it. But at each point along the way we’re culturally convinced that this is the nature of reality.

      Now you can argue, as you do, that this is to do with the media’s need for certainty, but it’s also to do with our need for certainty. There’d be no media if we didn’t want it. Them. We always need to know what is actually happening around us – that’s how science got started in the first place.

      The problem comes in when that understanding can no longer be definitively verified. String theory is clearly a great idea, but hasn’t any experimental validation. That may be a matter of time and the LHC (I know it won’t detect strings directly but it might lead to something that leads to a tightening of the parameters such that string theory becomes more likely). So we are left, effectively, with the problem of authority.

      You’re right about pop-science books but the contradictions I’m referring to aren’t details – they are the entire philosophy. Brian Greene is convinced of string theory and M Theory and The Elegant Universe is all about it. Lee Smolin ain’t. I wonder if the “bold and assertive claims” bit you mention could be watered down in the editorial process before these books are actually published, so that both sides need to be clear about what may be the actual case…?

      There must be a way to write popular science without going all “Heeey, wooow, this is AMAZING” on us. Popular maths books are a lot more restrained but then they are also harder (in my experience).

      As far as physics is concerned though, it does seem to be at a bit of a crossroads. We have the standard model still awaiting final verification by the LHC and string or M theory underlying it without any verification. If the string theorist generation dies off, leaving us with…I don’t know, quantum gravity? – What are we left with? An even older idea! But I suppose if it’s actually based on evidence then its age don’t come into it.

      I love the cartoons in your link!

      • I agree that the populous are also keen on certainty, and like nice, clear “facts”, which is why the media gives that to them.

        I agree that scientists are on a quest to find the truth about the universe, and I suppose there a “cultural conviction” that the current accepted theories truly describe the nature of reality. However I’ve never met a scientist who would genuinely claim that the current accepted theories are “truth” in the absolute sense, just that they are currently the accepted theories, and that they best explain the observed behaviour of the universe. Scientists are usually the first to admit that they don’t know everything, and that their theories can’t explain everything that we see — that is why they keep working, trying to find better theories!

        I haven’t read the books you cite, but the contradictions you describe don’t seem surprising. Until experimental evidence clearly favours one approach over another (and maybe even then, if the losing side is strongly invested in their approach), there will always be disagreements like this, and consequent contradictions. At the extreme, Galileo was imprisoned for daring to contradict the accepted theories!

        I haven’t actually kept up with the latest theories for fundamental physics recently, but if string theory turns out to be wrong it won’t be a catastrophe — we’ll just have to wait for someone to come up with a better theory.

        And yes, the xkcd cartoons are always great.

  2. Further to my previous comment, this seemed appropriate:

    http://xkcd.com/882/

  3. However I’ve never met a scientist who would genuinely claim that the current accepted theories are “truth” in the absolute sense

    I suppose this is the fulcrum of the scientific method. But I think that when funding, sponsorship, media attention and the possibility of political influence come into play then this very noble world view begins to creak slightly. Scientists are like anybody else in that power is very tempting, and as the purveyors of knowledge denied to most of us, it would be surprising if some of them didn’t feel inclined to make the most of their influence.

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