Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Welcome

Welcome to the Physics Anti-Crackpot Blog.

I am a professional theoretical physicist, and recently, there has been more and more attention paid to speculations about science that are simply wrong. a.k.a. Crackpot theories. There are many reasons for this. One is the ease of communication that the internet provides. Another is the highly speculative direction that theoretical physics has taken over the last 20 or so years. More and more often I am approached by people who are misinformed, or I see articles in the press about unscientific things. It is my goal to correct some of these mis-perceptions. There is an accepted channel for new ideas. Write up your idea as clearly as you can, and submit it to a journal for peer review. Anyone can do this. Avoiding this procedure and going to the media, courts, blogs, or forums is a means to hide among people who don't have the training to evaluate your idea. An idea could never be proven in such circles. Come to the experts instead. Submit to a journal.

Historically, physicists have tended to ignore the "crackpots" and obviously-wrong theories because there was little to be gained by addressing them. There always have been, and always will be people with plenty of interest, but lacking the training to make a contribution to physics. Frankly this is sometimes where great advances come. Far-out ideas should not be dismissed without very good reason, or we would never have any new theories or scientific revolutions. Indeed, papers occur regularly by "real" physicists which could easily be classified as crackpot. I might even have written one. I think people with lots of interest should be encouraged. But, they need to realize exactly what science is. When untrained people read scientific articles, it sounds like a lot of gibberish strung together. It must be tempting to string the gibberish together in a slightly different order and claim it as a new idea, and many people do that (in fact, people may have received Ph.D.'s doing exactly that).

But science is not strings of gibberish prose. It is a method of making predictions. Making predictions and testing them is the best method mankind has ever devised to determine what is true. If you have a great new theory, it's exactly as great as the number of new things it predicts, that can be tested. Science is prediction, not explanation. The prediction must be quantitative, and the test must be performable in the near future. Theories which predict never-before-seen catastrophies are just as bad as theories which could only be tested by a particle accelerator bigger than the galaxy.

Of course, a good predictive theory also contains an explanatory description. Nonscientific explanations generally are all explanation and no prediction. Consider the widely held belief from not so long ago that lightning was the hand of God, striking down people who were evil. In hindsight, one can always come up with an explanation for lightning striking someone's house. But this was never predictive. It could never tell who would be striken next (and lightning strikes used to be much more common). This all changed when Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod. Now this was truly predictive -- one can predict that with a good lightning rod on top of a building, it will not be struck by lightning, no matter how evil the activities inside are perceived to be. Of course many people still believe things in the physical world to be decided based on how good or bad they are, depending on their religion, but this never has been, and never will be predictive, and is not science.

Part and parcel of the "making predictions" part of science is falsifiability. A physical theory must be capable of being proven false. Unfortunately, most of theoretical physics nowadays has forgotten this fact, and we routinely play with theories that can be modified to survive any experimental test. Indeed, some physicists think falsifiability is actually a drawback for their pet theory (because then their pet theory may die). But who wants to live their entire lives with a pet theory, and never know if it is actually true? This modern trend in physics has, I believe, emboldened untrained but interested people to espouse their unpredictive pet theories. Theories which are unfalsifiable because we're too terrified to perform an experiment are just as bad as ones which require technology that can't be envisioned anytime in the forseeable future. They're unscientific and should be ignored in favor of theories which can be tested.

There are three types of "crackpot" ideas. The first is from professional physicists with some gap in their knowledge. The second is from interested but uninformed non-physicists. And the third is from people with some minor psychosis, and want to be associated with physicists or be famous. In any of the three cases, the person may be immune to logical argument. Many of the "crackpot" things I read do not have sentences which follow any grammatic structure, much less an argument which follows any logic. These must simply be ignored, because there is no way to use logic to argue with an illogical person. Unfortunately some people have discovered that they can file lawsuits to get attention. I don't think these people are malicious, and probably truly believe that they may save the world. But, they are misinformed and I hope to change that.

The interested but untrained, and professional physicists are the target of this blog (and perhaps anyone who might get caught up in uninformed arguments about the end of the world). Interested people must always be encouraged. They are more capable of understanding what we do than the rest of the public. Sometimes, they follow their interest, enter a Ph.D. program, and make valuable contributions. They may communicate with their friends and family why physics is important and therefore are a valuable asset in communicating with the public and governments. After all, the citizens pay our salaries and they deserve to be kept informed.

I encourage you to ask questions and post comments (thought they will be moderated). If you find a news report, blog post, or even real physics article you think is questionable, email it to me and I'll do my best do debunk or confirm it, or find a colleague who can. Also if you're a physicist (or otherwise sufficiently knowledgable), I welcome unsolicited debunkings for this blog. You can submit things to anticrackpot@gmail.com.

14 comments:

Dr De Range said...

"Science is prediction, not explanation. The prediction must be quantitative, and the test must be performable in the near future."

I think I will set up a blog designed to expose and mock scientists with little or no understanding of the philosophy of science, who nevertheless feel compelled to post their naive misunderstandings all over the blogosphere. Now what shall I call it? "The Philosophy of Science Anti-Crackpot Blog"? Or perhaps "Not Even a Philosophy Undergraduate"?

Anonymous said...

Hi! Can someone please tell me whether or not Lubos Motl is a crackpot? He seems to write sensibly (if provocatively) about physics, but then he also rants about personal vendettas, global warming denialism and far right politics. As a layman, I cannot judge the quality of his physics postings.

De Bunker said...

Dr De Range, It would have been great if you had corrected my statement using your enlightened philosophy of science, instead of embarrassing yourself with an ad hominem attack.

Anonymous said...

It is not always true that if one puts up logical arguments, one wins. If it were true, people like Boltzmann might have suffered a little less....

Robert said...

Hi,

welcome to the blogoshere!

You would like to add that I think that criteria for good science are unfortunately slightly more complicated than just asking for "falsifyability".

This notion comes from the (pre war) neo-positivist school of thought with Karl Popper being one of the major figures. It is a tremendous progress after realising that strictly speaking you will never be able to prove empirical statements like "all ravens are black" (the classic example) by looking only at a finite subsample of all ravens.

This is how far the education of a typical physicist in philosophy of science goes.

Unfortunately, falsifyability is not a good criterium either from the standpoint of logic at least: The thing is that non-trivial scientific statemens are much more complex than a simple "all ravens are black". When you say such a thing (or write it in a paper), there are many qualifyers that go with it, at least implicitly. You have to know what exactly "raven" means, what exatly you call "black" and not "dark grey", you have to say how you measure the color and that might come with a theory of itself that makes sure your measuring aparatus acutally measures color (as for example percieved by the eye).

Speaking in terms of formal logic, all these presuppositions are connected to the "all ravens are black" by a long long chain of "and"s.

Now imagine you observe a white raven (after having seen a million black ravens). At least you would be tempted to further investigate whether that bird is really a raven or was painted white. It's typically not the first reaction to throw away the "black ravens" theory if it had a lot of support before. Often the reaction is that you rather fiddle with the presuppositions of your theory (for example by changing slightly the definition of what you call 'raven').

The "all ravens are black" part is somewhat protected after receiving some positive evidence for some time and you rather add bits and pieces to the silent background theory before giving up the big statements.

Thus we have to agree that it's not that easy to falsify even simple statments like "all ravens are black" that easily. Furthermore, this is not what happens in science (historically speaking)! You could probably still find an ether theory where the ether is dragged along by the earth in its orbit around the sun and that has many more very unusual properties that is not ruled out empirically. Still nobody in her right mind believes in it since relativity is some much more successful!

All this is much better explained in Thomas Kuhn's "Structure of Scientific Revolutions" and I urge everybody with a slight interst in these matters to read this classic. He argues much more for the consensus of the scientific community to be the relevant criterium (which might be a self referential criterium for science consiracy theorists).

I believe that naive following this wrong criterium of "falsifyability" has gotten beyond the standard model theory in a lot of trouble in the public perception. I would attribute a lot of this to trying to follow the wrong criterium.

piscator said...

Is taxonomy science? What about large parts of astronomy and evolutionary biology?

Possibly. Clearly, however, they do not rank with desperate and unmotivated model-building whose principal merit is to win the author a Nobel prize with some spectacular signature when the LHC turns on.

De Bunker said...

Nice comment Robert, and thanks for the welcome.

Let me just say one thing in response: one can develop a hierarchy of theories, in order of increasing goodness:

1) non-mathematical descriptive theories ("god created everything")

2) mathematical descriptive theories (e.g. parameterizations such as epicycles)

3) theories which predict aspects of a previous theory which are simply parameterized.

Falsifiability does not enter until the last one. A new parameterization can (generally) take care of any new aberrant observation in #2. All modern theories sit at #3 (QED, QCD, etc -- millions of observations could have disproven them). Modern model building, arguments about fine-tuning, string theory, etc. sit at #2. None of them predict any of the constants in the Standard Model. They simply inherit it. Thus, they are not (generally) falsifiable, and not as good a theory as one which could for example, predict fermion masses or alpha_EM.

Robert said...

I would say that already category #2 can make predictions: Once you know about epicycles (and have determined all their parameters) you can predict the next eclipse. Therefore, even though epicycles do not really "explain" the orbits (as would deriving them from a universal law of gravity) they do make predictions.

Or taking up your analogy, of course its the strongest constraint for model builders to be consistent with previous experiments and thus with standard model physics under conditions studied up to now, again they do make extrapolations where they don't agree and where they should be tested (e.g. once the Planck scale accelerator is build).

changcho said...

Hello 'de bunker': welcome to the blogosphere, thanks for writing it.

To anonymous: "Hi! Can someone please tell me whether or not Lubos Motl is a crackpot?"

Keep reading LuMo's blog, then decide for yourself...

antimatter33 said...

Well Herr Bunker,

I did just what you said, got my paper published in a peer-reviewed journal with a stellar editorial board, yet it was removed by fiat from arxiv (not, however CERN docs).

Am I a crackpot?

See for yourself.

http://doc.cern.ch//archive/electronic/other/ext/ext-2003-090.pdf

Good luck with the blog.

-drl

bernielomax said...

I love everything crackpot. But that's because I am fascinated by lack of information. A kind of personal journalism.

Then suddenly religion and science becomes just subsets of philosophy. And it is then that blogs such as these come across as incredibly naive. While I do enjoy reading a good concise (something I can't see you mastering) rebuttal of famous crackpots.

So, when some debunker rips apart a crackpot I have to see a third party (who is familiar with the theory of the crackpot per kuhn) verify the debunking. Rarely if ever does anything pass this stage.

This is because the debunkers often fail to understand crackpots, because you are in different trades.

But I can hope. I'll watch this space even if I haven't seen anything not said better elsewhere.

Ingvar Aastrand said...

Crackpot quotations?

”To my mind there must be at the bottom of it all, an utterly simple idea. To me that idea, when we finally discover it, will be so compelling, so inevitable, that we say to one another, Oh, how beautiful and simple the truth is. How could we have been blind for so long?” • ”In one year or a decade, we will and we can understand and grasp that idea” John Wheeler

I look forward for deeper understanding of the nature of the universe in which we live. I expect that there will be an intellectual revolution in physics comparable to those in the past with the heliocentric idea, evolution, relativity and quantum mechanics. Murray Gell-Mann

Perhaps there is a final theory, a simple set of principles from which flow all arrows of explanation, but we shall never learn what it is. For instance, it may be that humans are simply not intelligent enough to discover or to understand the final theory. Steven Weinberg

But … the particle physicist Dr. Robert R. Wilson, the 1985 president of the American Physical Society said:
”Just suppose, even though it is probably a logical impossibility, some smart aleck came up with a simple, self- evident, closed theory of everything. I - and so many others - have had a perfectly wonderful life pursuing the will-o'-the-wisp of unification. I have dreamed of my children, their children and their children's children all having this same beautiful experience.
All that would end.
APS membership would drop precipitously. Fellow members, could we afford this catastrophe? We must prepare a crisis- management plan for this eventuality, however remote. First we must voice a hearty denial. Then we should ostracize the culprit and hold up for years any publication by the use of our well-practiced referees."
R.R.Wilson, Physics Today, 39(7), 26(1986).

Uwe Hayek said...

http://www.xs4all.nl/~notime/Duesberg_On_Science.html

http://www.virusmyth.com/aids/hiv/cjinterviewep.htm

I am surprised you "believe" in global warming. I live near a river, and I will accept it, if the water level raises by 1 millimeter. So far, this has not happened.

And this "anti-crackpot" thing can turn easily against you, I think it was Von Braun who said : "A crackpot is just a crackpot, until he hits the jackpot".

In that sense, we are all crackpots, until we do hit the jackpot, and discover something that revolutionizes science.

My own pet interpretation of some physics phenomena, have been called from "crackpot" to "every scientist knows that".

I can prove that no-one has understood time, GR and uncertainty, does that make every physicist dealing with these a crackpot ?

Uwe Hayek.

sharad said...

hi
Perhaps there is a final theory, a simple set of principles from which flow all arrows of explanation, but we shall never learn what it is. For instance, it may be that humans are simply not intelligent enough to discover or to understand the final theory.