Friday, September 4, 2009

How can brilliant people think really dumb things? PART 1

I'm a physics groupie. I follow ideas and developments in theoretical physics, I read physics books (for the layman - or for the advanced layman if I can) and I follow some physicist bloggers.

One of these bloggers whom I've come across is the rather notorious Lubos Motl from the Czech Republic. He is a legit String Theorist who has taught at Harvard and is, in many ways, a very smart physicist. I'm not a physicist, but this is what I gather. He also appears to be full-blown, mad-scientist insane.

For a while I took his strange and sometimes off-putting writing as a combination of English-as-second-language and poor internet etiquette. Surely when he casually dropped terms like "feminist bitches" followed by a ;) emoticon, he was just painfully unaware that this language could be considered highly offensive, right? He consistently refers to anyone who disagrees or even questions him as a "crackpot" or "stupid." In an example of  borderline self-parody, Motl regularly uses terms like "isomorphic" instead of "the same," "unity" instead of "one," etc. Rumor has it that a character on the sit-com The Big Bang Theory is based on Motl.

Oh, and he also denies that global warming is real or anything to worry about, proudly trumpeting the discovery of anyone who agrees with this position, which is, of course, given greater weight than the 99.9% of climatologists who disagree. This fact alone had earned him a place in my internal musings on "how brilliant people can think really dumb things."

Still, one could just barely write it all off as the idiosyncracies of an eccentric scientist with an awkward grasp of English and social conduct. Just barely... But a recent blog posting of his takes things WAY over the top. I will link to it HERE - However, I would encourage others to follow my example and NOT give his blog any more traffic than necessary. I am now unsubscribing myself.

Motl's post is entitled "Why Lee Smolin is an immoral double-faced fraudster and liar." Okay, really? REALLY?

This doesn't need a rebuttal at all. Even without knowing anything about the people named, or the physics being discussed, any sane reader could deduce from the writing itself that Motl is bonkers. In fact, the people mentioned in his posting have - wisely - completely ignored this. At least a couple of them maintain their own blogs and they have not mentioned it. There's no need because it speaks for itself. So why am I taking the time to write about this? Well, it made me think. Besides, I am not a physicist and no one reads this anyway, so I can vent my thoughts without stirring up the situation any further.

Lee Smolin is another physicist who has written some books for the general public. He also happens to be very critical of String Theory and has made a public case in one of his books that its domination over physics' marketplace of ideas is hindering progress. He works on a rival theory called Loop Quantum Gravity, but he has also done work on String Theory. I have read his books and enjoyed them all. I think his motivations and guidng principles are well-founded, although I do think some of his scientific theories and hunches are very wrong-headed. (A post for another time)

So what is the great crime which Motl accuses him of? If any casual observer were to read Motl's writing, which includes the lengthy "incriminating" quotes from Smolin, they would probably be baffled. They would certainly be hard-pressed to find anything "immoral" within. To summarize, a decade ago, Smolin suggested that his pet theory, Loop Quantum Gravity, had some real testable predictions - unlike String Theory (according to Smolin). Specifically, different energies of light might travel at very slightly different speeds through the vacuum of space. This very slight difference might accumulate as light travels through space and it could be detectable in light from distant supernova explosions or similar events. Well, just recently there WAS a rather clear observation of just that, a distant gamma ray burst - and it would appear that the energies of light in fact arrived at the same time - and thus traveled at the same speed. Bad news for Loop Quantum Gravity? Maybe - but now Smolin says that prediction was not definitive and the theory is not absolutely ruled out.

Fraudster! Liar! ... Wouldn't you say that "Smolin is the ultimate symbol of the complete absence of the scientific integrity and, indeed, the very basic human ethical values."?

No? You wouldn't? Me neither, but apparently Motl would. If I were to be particularly hard on Smolin I might say that he is "waffling" or that his previous statements were "misleading." Motl however, says of Smolin that "what he's doing and saying ... simply exceeds all the limits that could be tolerable for a person who should be allowed to freely walk on the street." If Obama were guilty of a similar transgression, I think even his harshest critics would, at worst, accuse him of "flip-flopping," not representing the absence of basic human ethical values! (okay, maybe Rush Limbaugh would)

I should point out that making claims of testable predictions, then changing or retracting those predictions, is something that String Theory has been widely accused of for a long time. In fact, that was one of the points Smolin had made in his book. ("The Trouble with Physics") So this criticism of Smolin is especially rich coming from a hard-line String Theorist. It seems to me that the worst thing you might be able to say about Loop Quantum Gravity is that it now looks "no better than String Theory."

I would also like to point out that what all of these physicists are trying to do, develop a Grand Unified Theory, is really hard. Really, really hard. No one on Earth can be certain about how to proceed. It would be insane to demand that any physicist should be able to avoid all wrong ideas or never need to revise their theories.

But wait, Motl goes on: "Everyone who tolerates this disgraceful liar and demagogue as a part of the scientific community is an immoral bastard. ... the internet crackpots - the likes of 'Marcus', 'Peter Woit', 'Sabine Hossenfelder', and similar subjects from the moral dumping ground of science"

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that Sabine Hossenfelder helped me get some freelance web-combing and data entry work on a project of hers. This gives me neither insight into her moral character, nor her abilities as a physicist. I invite you to judge for yourself based on her blog, Backreaction, which I do personally recommend. (in fact, reading it is how I found out she needed some data entry help) She has also weighed in on that gamma ray burst observation with a post here, which seems very sober and sensible to me. I also hadn't spotted this before now, but Hossenfelder has also written a post on Lubos Motl here, which explains her experiences in dealing with him, and why she discourages giving him more web traffic.

Peter Woit also maintains a blog which I read, entitled Not Even Wrong, found here. He is also a String Theory skeptic, and in fact plays the role of general physics skeptic in his blog. From what I gather he is also opposed to reasoning that invokes a multiverse, although I personally tend to believe that some form of multiverse must logically exist. (another topic for another post) Still, I think his viewpoint is necessary and refreshing, and though occasionally sarcastic, I've never noticed his writing to be personally insulting to anyone. He has several times mentioned Motl's objections in a very calm and charitable tone.

To sum up.

Backreaction and Not Even Wrong are recommended physics-related blogs that are readable by the layman. Lubos Motl also writes a physics blog, but may be insane. Please don't take his criticisms of other people seriously. More physics reading recommendations in future blog posts...



Sean Andrew Murray - aka Muttonhead - aka SAM said...

I don't know about physics, but on the issue of global warming, I would warn 2 things:

1. Just because MOST SCIENTISTS adhere to a theory, doesn't mean it's correct. There was a time when most men of learning believed the Earth was flat... they were wrong about that and it took rebelious thinkers to prove them wrong. You can't just accept the popular or accepted thinking when it comes to science.... ever.

2. There are way more than .1% of scientists that believe that global warming science is in someway overblown, not fully understood, or less human-related/understandable than previously thought, including a prominent climatology professor at Harvard... this whole idea of "accepted science" when it comes to global warming is just nonsense pushed upon us by media-types.

Thanks for posting on my blog! I like your idea about that creature being the "Spirit of Autumn"... that's a cool idea! I actually hadn't thought of it that way, but it makes sense... I might use that if you don't mind... I will make sure to credit you.... :)

How's things?

M*P*Lockwood said...

I guess I have to do a little global warming follow-up now. Admittedly, I invented the 99.9% number as hyperbole. In cases like this, although I do listen to the expert opinions, I follow the evidence.

And so, that evidence:

NASA's Global Climate Change Evidence page
Brief, easy to read, lots of references

Also, here is a news story on the discovery of an ancient rise in carbon dioxide levels which led to global warming.

And, this presentation is a little long at an hour, but it is a very thorough disassembly of the claims of prominent global warming skeptic Christopher Monckton, HERE.

A reasonable argument could be made that the concern over global warming is exaggerated. For example, in An Inconvenient Truth, mainly worst case scenarios are discussed. But I do think there's value in considering how bad things COULD get, maybe even planning or taking steps to avoid such situations?

All that aside! Nice to hear from you, and I really enjoy seeing the art that appears in your blog, which constantly becomes more and more awesome!