CBC’s How to Think Aboot Science series

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has a great web site with a series (so far on-going) How to Think Aboot Science.

I recommend the site as a great resource for interviews with the players in many different areas of the philosophy of science, on the sociology of science, and on what is happening at the far fringes and beyond.

While I encourage a visit to the site, I can hardly recommend some of the ideas presented there. A few of them are downright screwy.

For example, James Lovelock rolls out his tired Gaia hypothesis for the n-teenth time. This belief states, more or less, that the Earth is alive and in just the right condition—lest we continue being naughty and upset the balance—for human life. Also the life of viruses, infectious bacteria, rats and other vermin.

Actually, whenever Gaia supporters mention non-human lifeforms, it’s always the fuzzy or feathered kind. They always forget the nasty stuff. Anyway, the Gaia hypothesis is sort of the Strong Anthropic Principle applied to just the planet, and just the way the planet is now (forgeting orbital variations, for example).

Rupert Sheldrake talks about having psychic connections with plants—no, not really. But what he’s advocating is not too different. Sheldrake is a big ESP buff. He has the idea that, roughly, plants have mysterious aura-like fields that are necessary for their growth. Nobody else has been able to find them yet, but Sheldrake can.

Steven Shapin presents the standard relativist view (that we refuted yesterday) that “science is social all the way down, and that this in no way undermines its truth claims, truth also being, by nature, social.” Hey, Shapin, is that statement true? If so…well, you get the idea.

There are many nods to our modern sensitivities, as will be obvious from a cursory inspection of the speakers and topics.

Then again, there are some intriguing, even daring, ideas. Margaret Lock, who has studied menopause in North American and Japanese women “makes a surprising suggestion. She proposes that there are biological differences between [these] women.” Not just cultural, but physiological differences. Not superficial ones, either, like outward appearances, but something more fundamental. This is a politically dangerous area, as, say, Charles Murray would tell you.

Lee Smolin takes string theory to task, as he does in his readable and important The Trouble with Physics. Smolin claims that string theory is beautiful—and exceedingly complex—mathematics, but it doesn’t seem to be physics.

Allan Young talks about how post-traumatic stress syndrome was invented, created out of whole cloth, that is.

Christopher Norris and noted philosopher Mary Midgley try to bring realism back to the Western world (I would say it was always there, but ignored or denied). It was Midgley, incidentally, that gave the most scathing and damning attack on Richard Dawkins memes and self genes theories.

Maybe we should have audio interviews here with some of our—it has to be said—highly intelligent readers.

16 Comments

  1. Here is a link to a reviw of “The trouble with physics” by a brilliant PhD specialist in quantum field theory : http://motls.blogspot.com/2004/10/lee-smolin-trouble-with-physics-review.html

    It begins by :

    “The interactions between Lee Smolin and mainstream physicists are interesting. Lee often visits us. We smile at each other and Lee is being politely explained why his newest theories can’t really work. Lee says that he understands these arguments. Then he returns to a conference or a journalist and repeats that all of his theories have been perfectly proven, while offering even more unusual theories.
    The newest theory says that the neutrinos are octopi swimming in the spin network. Believe me, we like him but it is not always easy to take him seriously.

    A few months ago, I had to promise Lee that I would read the whole book before saying anything about it.
    So I did so.
    It was tough because the concentration of irrational statements and anti-scientific sentiments has exceeded my expectations.
    The book is primarily filled with the suicidal and absurd sentiment that all of modern physics of the last 30 years – the era of Lee’s career – is a failure.

    What are the problems with Lee’s appraisal of physics? First of all, Lee reveals his intense hostility against all of modern physics, not just string theory. He believes that quantum mechanics must be wrong at some fundamental level and many people should try to prove it.
    He also believes that the attempts to falsify the theory of relativity are among the most important topics to work on.
    In the context of string theory, he literally floods the pages of his book with undefendable speculations about some basic results of string theory.
    Because these statements are of mathematical nature, we are sure that Lee is wrong even in the absence of any experiments.

    …. ”

    Being a physicist myself even if not specialist of the string theory ; I agree with the review .
    The book is trash .

  2. I thank you very much for the link. It’s great to listen while working, and very challenging. I’m listening to the first one and it is very interesting.

    But why did they have to choose Realplayer? For goodness sake, I hate Realplayer!

  3. (Tom, sorry, your original comments went to the spam queue: I have no idea why, except you have a link. However, it’s not supposed to classify comments as spam unless the links are greater than 4.)

    We should point out that Smolin is not alone. Peter Woit has written a similar book Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law.

    Smolin does have some interesting things to say about consensus in science, and its sometime limiting or restrictive nature. Kind of wishy-washy in parts, but worth knowing.

    Update: Here is a radio interview with Leonard Susskind, a big cheese in string theory.

    Update again: See Motl’s page on Woit. Cute graphic. But I think he misunderstood Woit’s “Discipline” title.

  4. I have just finished a Great Courses series of Lectures on DVD by Professor James Gates – Superstring Theory – The DNA of Reality.

    In it he states a few times that String Theory is not Physics but, as of now, a purely mathematical construct. It will take the ability to construct machines capable of detecting (would it be called matter?) at the size of ~10^-35 before any of it could be proved to exist.

    What I found fascinating though was the capacity of mathematics to predict particles simply from the equations ie Dirac in the 19th century predicting the anti-election (I think it was) from his equations of electromagnitism.

    Anyway I had Smolin’s book for about 18 months and have never read it. Guess I’ll have to dust it off and read it.

    The Great Courses are at http://www.teach12.com. Lots of fascinating lectures. Good prices if you get them on sale.

  5. William

    Right . They are 2 . Woit and Smolin . There is not a third one in this category .
    They share both 3 features (actually more but those 3 are characteristic) .

    1) They hate modern physics
    2) They don’t publish (e.g they don’t do any actual work in physics but write anti science books instead)
    3) As a corollary of 1 and 2 (actual working physicists equate this with Woit and Smolin being failures as physicists) and in order to preserve their wounded ego , they try to present themselves as “misunderstood geniuses” to the general public .

    It is a more or less an efficient strategy at least as far as insuring material subsistance is concerned because the general public has not a clue about quantum mechanics let alone string theory and those who have a clue (the thousands of real physicists) don’t read the books because they know that they are wrong .

    This strategy is as old as the world . If somebody is a failure , there are 2 possibilities .

    First is to admit that one has not what it takes to succed in this particular field and do something else . This takes courage , especially in physics because this lacking “something” is intelligence and nobody likes much admitting that he is just not intelligent enough for the task .

    Second is to invent (perhaps even believe that it really exists) a conspiracy of evil socio-cultural forces that unfairly prevents one to become the genius that one deserves to be .
    Of course in this second case in order to avoid that the real self serving motivations appear too obviously , it is adviced to present those evil forces as targetting the whole society or science or [choose your collective term] .
    That way the failing individual transforms himself in the eyes of the unsuspecting general public in just one of the (unfairly persecuted) multitude to which the general public is convinced to belong too BUT in one who has the courage and intelligence to stand up and denounce the evil . Instead of a failure one might well become a hero in the eyes of some people ….

    Woit and Smolin use the second possibility .
    Even if I don’t know their opinions on AGW , I am ready to bet that they are both raving Al Gore/Obama & Co admirers and climate alarmists .
    It is simply consistent with persons who belong to the second kind I defined above .

    So really if somebody wants to get an idea about physics or string theory , do yourself a favour and skip Woit and Smolin .
    Read Feynman , Weinberg or the excellent “Deep down things” by Schumm .

  6. All,

    I just received an anonymous email correcting my spelling of “aboot”. This spelling was intentional.

    Think like a Canadian, eh.

    Which reminds me. We have this young doc at the hospital who claims to be Canadian. Yet he has never heard of Bob & Doug McKenzie!

  7. Briggs,
    That was obviously a joke!
    Sounds of the Scottish accent making it’s way across the pond.
    Thank you for the link to the page, I will work my way through, audio is a breath of fresh air.
    Talking of accents, Margaret Lock sounds like she’s got a faint antipodean accent going on; the one who reports that she is from England.
    Maybe she’s from East London, this sometimes has a slight Aussi sound in the vowels.
    We call hot ‘flashes’ ‘flushes’ in English hospitals. Maybe Japan would have a word for that. I can think of a Japanese patient on my books right now who describes a hot flush with the help of a translator! Funny that this word was of particular interest in her study. Wonder if she tried searching for “flush” instead whether she might have found an equivalent phrase. The talk was dull though.
    Why would it be so surprising that the physiology of menopause works differently in different races? Surely that’s not remotely controversial! I can’t see that her ideas are anything new. Only a non clinician would think otherwise. Physiology is controlled by genes and affected by function or life experience. Somebody has wasted a lot of money there.

    Tom,
    What would you say to someone who scored 100% in the ‘QM’ part of a final exam in physics at a reputable English university who thought that ‘QM’ was nonsense? Would you class them as a failure?
    Wonder which category they’d fit into in your binary classification of physics ability. As far as I know he is sceptical about AGW, Big Bang goes that idea too. His name is Lee too! It must be the name.
    P.s.
    Roll on mankind seriously upsetting the viruses, my tonsels will say thank you. Right now,there’s nothing more important.

  8. The other tired idea is that of the risk society, which has been a nice little earner for Ulrich Beck. The main threats to humanity are now sociological/idealogical. he should know something about that but apparently prefers to deflect the heat.

  9. “What would you say to someone who scored 100% in the ‘QM’ part of a final exam in physics at a reputable English university who thought that ‘QM’ was nonsense? Would you class them as a failure?”

    Well if this case existed , my conclusion would be much more that the test didn’t test for understanding of QM but for skills in applying mathematical tools .
    That is what happens too often even in “reputable” universities .
    I freely admit that most QM exams I passed (in a reputable university) were also of this kind and therefore “easy” .

    And the conclusion would be that the hypothetical person while apparently skilled in computing eigenvectors and manipulating hilbertian spaces has obviously understood nothing about QM and wasted his time attending this course .
    So yes , it would be a total failure in QM because once he’d want to solve problems where it is necessary to use something else than mathematical skills and what is called physical insight , he’d fail utterly .

    Of course there is also the trivial alternative that the hypothetical person wants to make himself interesting by looking for provocations because he can’t be interesting in another way .
    Some provoke by clothes and pink hairs so why not by saying that QM is nonsense and relativity wrong ?

    Dirac would have never discovered anti matter and got a Nobel if he had thought that QM are just mathematical games with nonsense as background .
    Scoring high on a physics exam in domains that are highly mathematics oriented is a (almost) necessary condition to make a good physicist .
    It is far from bein a sufficient condition .

    And btw it is not the physics ABILITIES that I broadly classified in a binary way 🙂
    It is the physics FAILURES – like Smolin , Woit and perhaps your hypothetical example .

  10. A. Joy is a silly billy.

    B. I have a good buddy 160 IQ style theoretical physicist who says string theory is crap.

  11. “Well if this case existed…”
    Stop there, why, if you admit that quantum exams are easy, do you find it hard to believe that such an individual exists? And why do you need to resort to the old chestnut of so many angry bloggers of accusing the other individual of dishonesty? Is that how you go on in your physical life? Why did you not ask, “How do you know that person?” if you’re so suspicious.
    “my conclusion would be much more that the test didn’t test for understanding. of QM but for skills in applying mathematical tools .”
    Do you truly believe that you are so special that 100% (being a measure of ability) is not high enough, because it requires someone even MORE clever! That is funny, and I will never buy that.
    “That is what happens too often even in “reputable” universities .”
    Yes, even in English ones, all too often the teachers don’t understand what they’re teaching! The students think they’re part of something very special because they speak the language and go on to speak the same language to their students. Physics is no exception to this.
    “I freely admit that most QM exams I passed (in a reputable university) were also of this kind and therefore “easy” .” Well in this particular case, the individual was not one of many who found this subject easy. His friends did not leave the exam room half way through like Lee but were wondering why he’d flunked it. There were not many, if any, that scored the same. If that were the case, your argument might have had some weight. He did explain to me why he thought it was nonsense, but all I can remember was that it had to do with ignoring significant digits or figures, rounding up or saying that near enough is good enough. This will do if you’re building a car, but not if you’re trying to explain the universe; And if near enough isn’t good enough you’ve built a windmill, or a french car.
    The university was Liverpool, in about 1984, when university meant something other than filling time placing the individual already in the top 5% in the country. Grants were fully available if your grades were good enough.
    “And the conclusion would be that the hypothetical person while apparently skilled in computing eigenvectors and manipulating hilbertian spaces has obviously understood nothing about QM and wasted his time attending this course .” He would agree that he wasted his time, now wishing he’d studied history; but that would not have secured him the six figure salary, the car, the house, the girl, the blackberry, the bike, the 10 guitars, the three computers, the dog, the electronic drum-kit, and anything else that money could buy.
    So 100% IS a failure! Wow, heaven help the ones that just scraped through.
    “where it is necessary to use something else than mathematical skills and what is called physical insight ,he’d fail utterly .” ‘Physical insight’ sounds like a tricky business!
    “Of course there is also the trivial alternative that the hypothetical person wants to make himself interesting by looking for provocations because he can’t be interesting in another way .” Hey, yu haven’t met the guy and you can already deconstruct his personality!
    “Some provoke by clothes and pink hairs so why not by saying that QM is nonsense and relativity wrong ?” How many pink hairs does one need to be considered provocative?
    “Dirac would have never discovered anti matter and got a Nobel…” ‘Blake’s 7’?
    “Scoring high on a physics exam in domains that are highly mathematics oriented is a (almost) necessary condition to make a good physicist .
    It is far from bein a sufficient condition .”
    Hmm, yes, it takes a REALLY special person to make a good physicist! One that does not need to make himself look interesting because he’s such a blast, and brimming with innate sensitivity and charm, oh, and ‘physical insight’.
    The man was my fiancé.

  12. Mary Midgley is a wise lady.
    I felt the narrator introduced Mary’s opinion about James Lovelock as much stronger than what she actually expressed. Quite misleading in fact. I thought she was the most interesting of all of the above, although Norris from the same episode was interesting too.
    Thanks again for the link, and while I’m on it and because I’m lazy, thank you very much for the excellent link on today’s post to the free downloads. I’ve started listening to the audio books.

  13. “He did explain to me why he thought it was nonsense, but all I can remember was that it had to do with ignoring significant digits or figures, rounding up or saying that near enough is good enough. This will do if you’re building a car, but not if you’re trying to explain the universe;”
    .
    Well this says it about all , doesn’t it ?
    Somebody said something about an issue that you ignore and don’t remember exactly what it was anyway .
    For your information the 3 lines you wrote make no sense whatsoever and certainly have no relation with QM . QM has nothing to do with roundings up or building cars .
    So you have obviously not understood what the person was saying and I can’t exclude now that he was actually saying something completely different than what you make him say .
    Why do I then waste time with it could one ask ?
    Mostly to prevent future misunderstandings because blogs are full of sterile debates grounded on a misunderstanding and it always wastes time and space .
    So :
    .
    1) It was not clear for me that the person you put in scene was real . That’s why I called it a “hypothetical example” . Anyway whether it was a hypothetical example or a real person is not important for the argument . No need to fly in irrelevant hyperboles about honesty and such .
    .
    2) Now that we know that it was a real person (not that it interests anybody and that it changes anything) , it can be said that this real person understood nothing about QM and is a failure in THIS field . The reasons why have already been given , I won’t repeat them . Provided of course that he really said what is reported to be said and there are now some reasons to doubt it .
    .
    3) Why do you believe that because some guy was “your fiancé” it shows something about his QM understanding and why you think that somebody cares about this uninteresting information is beyond me .
    I have also “the six figure salary, the car, the house, the girl , etc etc” but it would never cross my mind to use this statement to prove something about my QM understanding .
    Another kind of uninteresting and irrelevant information .
    .
    4) It would be more constructive to stop misinterpreting people and to be systematically flying in overregimes .
    You wrote :
    “So 100% IS a failure! Wow, heaven help the ones that just scraped through.”
    Of course I have never said that .
    What I said was that a good test result (f.ex 90% or 100%) was a condition but absolutely not sufficient to succeed in physics .
    Good test results say however something about memory , ability to reproduce schemes and abstract manipulations that are obviously good .
    I could have even gone farther and give many examples of physicists that just “scraped through” and made mankind’s physics understanding progress infinitely more than all those who made “only” 100 % on tests .
    Some of those excellent physicists have even passed no tests 🙂
    This undisputable fact shows that to become a good physicist MUCH MORE is needed than only to pass tests .
    So it is not the 100% fact that IS or implies failure while the lack of physical understanding IS .
    In other words what some university test measures and what a Nobel measures are 2 very different things . OK , got it now ?
    .
    Apologies for other readers because all that has little information value – I generally try to limit this kind of things to a minimum .
    Basically the interesting part of what I wanted to say is already in the first 2 posts – Smolin is not a good choice if it is physics that you are interested in and read L.Motl’s review before making your choice .

  14. William Briggs

    I’m in a quandary about science – bear with me but, I don’t think Steve Shapin and many others of the social construction school are actually pushing cultural relativism in quite the way they get dismissed.

    Shapin’s “How to be anti-scientific” has the most brilliantly written first few pages (you can get it from his website) of anything around the wider issue of what is science IMHO, but you have to read them to see why.

    My point though is this – as part of all the cheering from the hard science side of the “science wars” there was a gaping oversight which is being brought to the fore in the ‘climate wars’.

    Now with your site, found originally via climateaudit, we come to the situation where there is hard science and there is interpretation of the same and the two appear to be being blurred by the warmers. Doesn’t this mean that with controversial science (as opposed to normal science, to use Kuhn’s words) that there is some social construction taking place.

    This is my quandary. Forget relativism, that’s a red herring. Social construction is clearly valid for some things – married individuals or paper money to use those famous non-scientific examples – but where and how does it affect science?

    I think it is completely paradoxical to take a hard positivist line on science and yet also to be a climate skeptic. (unless you advocate some sort of hoax or fraud is being perpetrated by countless scientists).

    I’d be grateful for your thoughts on this.

  15. Tom,
    You referred emphatically to the “hypothetical person” with words like ‘apparently’ and ‘perhaps’ If it was not important or interesting you ought not to have mentioned it once let alone five times. So don’t ask why I mention it because that’s silly. Why on earth do you think I left the information out first time? I wrote what was sufficient to make my point. You ought to learn to reply in a polite manner or not at all.
    You also find it necessary to imply that I “ignore” I make up information about what someone says.
    Clearly I don’t ignore it otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I don’t remember because it was years ago and I don’t remember entire conversations. The important part was his assertion that QM IS nonsense. This stands regardless of what you would like to imply about my recollection. This is a real situation.
    Why bother replying you ask?
    Good question. You certainly didn’t clear anything up, you threw a little more mud instead.
    Your second remark, that ‘provoked’ a reply, on Lee Smolin was vitriolic considering that you feel you have the moral high ground of truth and intelligence! Why so angry if you are so clever, just ignore him, he’s a silly man, or a loser or whatever you like to think. The fact that you vent your spleen about him speaks volumes about how you treat those who you consider to be your intellectual inferior. It’s your prerogative to do this, I don’t have to like it or stand by without comment. Just as you are not forced to stand for what Lee says without comment. It is a two way street. What you consider to be important doesn’t need to be the same as what others think is important.
    “What I said was that a good test result (f.ex 90% or 100%) was a condition but absolutely not
    sufficient to succeed in physics .”
    , what you actually said was,
    “almost necessary” To allow for the ones that didn’t take the test at all that you then brought in after the fact.
    QM has nothing to do with roundings up or building cars” but it has to do with building windmills, surely?
    “I have also the car…” this was not used to prove anything about QM, but to answer your point that the individual was a failure, and somehow uninteresting. It was a response to your assertion about physicists being superior in intellect and interest, needing not to resort to ‘provocations’. It is not a competition to see how many things you have, this was a cynical list of material goods, note the girl was on the list of things.
    Tom, I’m not interested in anything further you have to say on the subject.

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