Monday, June 12, 2006

Science and Democracy

While I was sitting at the coast throwing stones into the ocean, it seems Lubos has written a very interesting post about an important topic: Science vs Democracy.

I don't quite share the perception of the so-called-crisis-in-theoretical-physics, but we are currently in a situation that requires adjustment to the changes that front research has made during the last decades. Without doubt, the number of people working in theoretical physics has increased a lot. Research fields have become more and more specific. It takes a long time to gain enough knowledge to be able to contribute to the front of research.

This has caused the community to fall apart into many distinct fields. Most often, people working on one field don't know much about other fields. Worse, I even noticed that the basic knowledge that postdocs should have, already begins to be filtered by the supervisor they had, or the topic they were focused on. This is not only annoying, but it also hinders progress.

Reading Lubos', Peter's and other blogs, following articles in newspapers, or recent books, it is pretty obvious that currently there is some controversy about which direction research in theoretical physics should take in the future. This is a question that most likely won't be answered by calling each other names in comments on blogger's posts.

It concerns me very much that this discussion is lead on such a level, without serious attempts to resolve the problem in a constructive way. Our work is based on the support of the society we live in. Research funding has to be distributed to the most promising researchers. These decisions have to be made based on something. These decisions ARE made on the basis of SOMETHING. But something is not good enough.

This is the context in which I mentioned the advisory committee. Not to decide on the number of critical dimensions, as Lubos indicates, but to decide which researchers and projects are worth supporting.

Besides this minor misunderstanding, Lubos essentially agrees on what I say.

Lubos: it is absolutely critical that scientists have the freedom to reveal the truth whatever it is and they are unconstrained by the pre-determined truth defined by someone else...

If that alone was the base on which researchers are supported, I would be very happy! However, one might keep in mind that 'truth' is something to search for in mathematics as well as in physics.

To clarify another statement:

Lubos: The blogger mentioned at the beginning has even proposed to establish "advisory committees" that would be deciding what research directions are promising and what conclusions about general questions that scientists are allowed to make and what conclusions they are not allowed to make. I just can't believe she's serious ...

I certainly never said someone should decide what conclusions scientists are allowed to make. I want to point out again that there ARE people deciding what research is promising in terms of financial support. It is definitely possible, and necessary, to improve this decision making process. It requires an objective analysis of what science is, what it should be, and how it can work best.

Lubos: The more specialized and advanced questions in science we try to answer, the more devastating effect the committees would have. It's simply because the very specialized topics in science are always correlated with very small groups of people who understand these things well.

I am very glad that Lubos understands the problem. Groups of people specialized on things they understand will most likely fail to appreciate important contributions outside their line of thought. Candidates picked on this level are most likely those which pursue research topics the group of people who understand these things well understands well. I.e. when things go wrong, they go really wrong.

Lubos: But it is completely crazy for deciding about highly difficult science questions.

To make this clear one more time: truth is not decided about by committees. When truth remains to be found, and resources are limited, decisions ought to be made where the resources go. How this can be done in a way that hopefully leads out of the so-called-crisis-in-theoretical-physics is exactly the discussion that we need.




Note added: This discussion originated from the comments on Lubos' post Dean of crackpots, Hitler's Pope, and string theory.

59 comments:

Michael said...

You are absolutely right. Resources are very finite and have to be aportioned even if no one wants to, or is truly qualified to make the decisions. It is a fact of life for researchers in a democracy or any other state.

The situation in experimental physics is already severe. The main experiments (Tevatron, b-factories, LHC) take an increasingly larger portion of the available money and personpower in order to succeed, with the consequence that the number of small, off-the-mainstream experiments has diminished markedly over the last couple of decades. There are lots of reasons (most of them theoretical) why the b-factories and the LHC are well motivated, but still they represent a consensus decision which comes at the cost of other options which were not valued as much by those who make funding decisions. Who knows what will come from the LHC, and whether rare kaon decays (for example) might have told us more about the flavor sector than the b-factories.

The ILC will be an extreme example of this process. Already reports are written as if the ILC must be built - and as soon as possible - in order to refine and expand what will surely be discovered at the LHC before the LHC is even turned on! The people who write those reports are not silly - they are trying to make sure that the ILC is a real possibility rather than just a dream.

I do not see any other way to conduct ourselves, and the selection of some strains of research to be supported and others neglected, is unavoidable. If there is something to be improved, it is the cohesion of the field (both yours and mine) and perhaps the depth of understanding of committees.

Lumo said...

Hi B, you are absolutely wrong and still apparently missing all the basic points I wrote.

The fact that some people don't know what's happening outside their narrow specialization is exactly the reason why these people should never significantly influence how the interest is distributed.

You *are* saying that you want to centrally control what conclusions scientists are allowed to make. For example, take all the discrete models of gravity. It is abundantly clear that any bureaucratic committee would be trying to force people to study these things. It would impose affirmative action for discrete physics crackpots, attempting to "restore the balance". Any democratic committee would always push for anti-scientific prejudices and preconceptions and widely held myths. It just can't be otherwise.

As a result, scientists would be intimidated and forced into believing that there could be something about these absurd speculations, without there being any rational evidence, and indeed, they would be financially and otherwise pressured to become consistent with these myths.

Now, you obviously belong to those who don't know why various loop quantum gravities can't work and why are they nothing else than a fog, waste of money and time (not so much waste of talent because none is entering the field of LQG), and a shame for theoretical physics.

But nevertheless, you would be influencing these committees. Forcing the scientific community to create inconsistent compromises and unscientific hybrids.

Concerning money vs. scientific outcomes: indeed, it is closely related, but your policies are unacceptable in the case of money just like they're unacceptable in "defining the truth". Of course that the society democratically decides how much it pays to science in general. Only more specialized people inside various agencies and other influential bodies are deciding how the resources in science are redistributed between physics and biology, for example.

Again, as one goes to finer substructure of scientific disciplines, the number of people who actually decide about the distribution of resources and who should decide is decreasing, and at some very specialized level, what really matters are peer-reviews that only include the experts. It can't be otherwise.

Only complete experts may decide whether they should study (and dedicate the available resource controlled by them for) a/the correct approach to quantum gravity, or whether they want to study loop quantum gravity. The idea to dictate these things to individual scientists by some committees from above is absolutely outrageous and pernicious, and it is an attempt to return us to the age of the Inquisition.

It can lead to nothing good. The only thing it can lead to is destruction of science and its replacement by popularly believed myths. The hierarchical structure of science that builds new insights on previous insights, and the more difficult pyramids of knowledge we consider, the smaller number of people who have mastered the pyramid exists, is its absolutely essential feature that you want to deny and, indeed, prohibit.

Even in purely financial matters your proposals are lethal. If people are deciding which type of collider to build, it must be decided by the very best people in that field again. And it naturally occurs so. Why? It's because the people who have not mastered all the differences between linear colliders and synchrotrons simply realize that they are not experts, and they leave the decisions to the experts, unless they are pompous fools.

What you are proposing is to give voice exactly to the idiots who don't understand anything but who would like to be changing science according to their preconceptions - usually extremely dumb ones. Your recipe is the fastest way to put science under the control of crackpots and scientific zombies and stupid, narrow-minded people with extremely superficial knowledge and no new ideas, and indeed, Peter Woit is among those whom I am thinking about.

Your proposal is to convert the scientific community to a combination of "Not Even Wrong" and "Uncommon Descent" - a playground for breathtaking idiots, irrational emotions, 14th century science, and lies. The idea that it could lead to anything different systematically in the long-term is unjustifiable wishful thinking.

If you are lucky that your committees will be made out of really reasonable (or extremely lucky) people, it won't do any harm. But in the long term, it will always be harmful because committees is just not how the truth can be found, not even the truth about the distribution of resources.

I've served on various committees, too, and I know how they typically work. It is always an opportunity for people to promote their personal interests, without having a rational justification, and if there are many rotten people with a similar interest - which is the only case in which your committee starts to play a big role - then a disaster is inevitable.

Best wishes
Lubos

Lumo said...

Incidentally, when you apply your reasoning to funding and the whole economy of ordinary citizens, what you're proposing is exactly nothing else than centrally planned communist economy.

This is exactly how they thought that the best results in economy can be obtained. A central committee is redestributing the resources in the "optimal" (...) way.

Capitalists were suppressed, the goals to create ever greater amount of steel was codified, the air was polluted, obsolete technologies were thriving, corruption and relative poverty was getting stronger, individual iniative and good ideas were generally killed.

This system has transformed Czechoslovakia and other developed countries from a country in the top ten in the world to a country with wealth more than one order of magnitude lower than the wealth of the societies that had been comparable. Even today, some stupid people in Germany still misunderstand that at the timescale of a century, the Czechs are inherently as developed as they are, and it will soon be the case in reality and not just in the history textbooks.

The socialism was simply devastating for the nation - and other nations - and it was no coincidence.

It is the whole point of economy that ideas like yours are always devastating. These ideas are always meant to artificially put self-invited idiots who don't understand anything and who have not done anything exceptional to the top. The only thing that these idiots have is the desire to control everyone else.

And these people then lead the society in their way. The fact that they are not only intellectually weak but also morally weak, especially if there are no powerful mechanisms to eliminate the really bad and corrupt ones, is another inevitable consequence of communism or any other centrally planned society for that matter.

In a working economy, the decision what the money should be invested to must be made to those who can actually create them. Or those who have them and want to multiply them, and are trying to be careful to find the best way to do so. I am not saying that the real capitalism is perfect capitalism, but it is the best approximation of the perfect state that is sustainable and systematically positive and optimizing in the long run without assuming an arbitrarily long sequence of miracles.

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are going to decide about their software, computers, and iPods, until there appear new ones who show their abilities and good ideas in actually doing something.

Pre-determined committees can virtually never make any nontrivial helpful advances because these are essentially random people. Important things in the world as just not made by random people, which is why they can't be done by committees. Every influence of a committee on the individual people is statistically counterproductive.

QUASAR9 said...

Hi Bee, maybe I should wait to see your reply to Lubos, if there is 1.

Seems to me that Lubos is coparing science to Art, ie the value of art is totally determined by those who value it. It has no real or nominal value, beauty in the I of 1 is trash in the eye of another.

With Science, even theoretical physics, the final test or result can be more 'concrete' and conclusive. For how to address two apparent conflicting views or the 2 ends of a 'string' pun intended, you mightlike to refer him to Plato's last couple of posts attempting to address this very dilema. Here's looking at ya - Q

Lumo said...

Dear Michael,

your extremely vague comments are exactly an example of the things that are promoted by committees of the kind that B proposes.

If you actually had some interesting proposal for a new experiment that could make us learn something new, you would have published it and if it were really interesting, it would get attention and eventually funding.

You don't have any proposal like that, and committees are methods to push for completely unjustified ideas and proposals that no one cares about - that are only supported by the personal interests of the committee members.

What you showed is a great example why the committee system to run science is a cancer.

I would personally nearly stop funding of all experiments that have no applications and simultaneously are almost guaranteed to give results that we can calculate from the SM, and thanks God, the opinion of people who are actually deciding is not too different.

The only thing theorists really need here is new physics, not some experiments done just for the sake of experiments. The best framework to make these regulatory decisions that reduce funding of uninteresting activities is the free market of ideas, not a centrally controlled system with committees.

Best
Lubos

Lumo said...

Quasar9, on the contrary, it is B who is comparing science to the kind of art - mass art - where everyone can have an opinion and rate it and where every opinion matters.

I insist that science can only be evaluated experts - those who are real experts, not just someone who wants to name himself or herself to a committee or someone who received an otherwise worthless degree. The more specialized questions one considers, the smaller the set of experts is.

There are many similarities between scientific insights and art, scientific insights and products of factories, and between art and products of factories. And there are also differences. You should be more specific what you mean.

What I certainly emphasize is that art, science, and economy can only make advances in the environment of freedom that does not suppress creativity, and that the only meaningful judgement in all these classes is made by those who were spontaneously selected by their achievements. It is absolutely crucial that people have the room to pursue their research directions and expand them even before the majority of others potentially understands why the direction is the right one. Otherwise there could be no progress whatsoever.

The right judgement is never an equal average of all people or all people within some artificially created "box" (such as all PhD degree holders). These things never lead to anything useful.

Uncle Al said...

Contemporary theory can interpolate anything to any desired degree of minimal net error. What theory lacks is constraining observation. Physics is devolving into economics.

String theory is too pretty to be wrong and too big to be correct. At least one of its founding postulates is sloppy. Drive a bung into the narrow end of the funnel. Somebody should look.

Grant funding specifically forbids observation in contradiction to theory. 10^500 vacua foment an abundance of unresolvable employments.

Anonymous said...

Here's a book about the abuses of "science" (and pseudoscience) by committee during the Nazi era:

"The Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust"
by Heather Pringle.

Bee said...

Dear Lubos,

regarding your analogies to capitalism and communism, you are making a very common mistake. You are mixing up the economical with the political system. What you actually mean is capitalism and planned economy (economical system). Both of which can be realized in a democracy (political system).

Capitalism is known to fail if left alone. The reason is roughly that death is an irreversible process. Though it might improve the economical situation of the poorest die, its rather unpleasent.

That is why most modern civilizations have some readjustment through representative democracy. The idea of representing is to delegate decisions to experts on whose decision you trust. It requires to realize that your own knowledge is limited and that you neither have the time nor the resources to judge on the situation on your own.

To come back to the scientific question. I have no recipe to improve the situation. If you don't like the idea of an advisory commitee, I encourage you to make other suggestions. Apparently, I did not mean these people should be 'random people'.

I have no doubt that whatever the truth is, it will eventually be found. What I am talking about is to make the way to get there as easy as possible for those who are searching for the truth. I am rather selfish and want there to be progress before I am 80 years old.

As a result, scientists would be intimidated and forced into believing that there could be something about these absurd speculations, without there being any rational evidence, and indeed, they would be financially and otherwise pressured to become consistent with these myths.

It is your opinion that some research fields are 'absurd' or 'myths'. Other people have other opinions. As long as no approach has proven to describe nature, I have the opinion we should be open for a variety.


The hierarchical structure of science that builds new insights on previous insights, and the more difficult pyramids of knowledge we consider, the smaller number of people who have mastered the pyramid exists, is its absolutely essential feature that you want to deny and, indeed, prohibit.

Indeed, I don't want science to result in insights that are accessible only for a small number of people at the top of the pyramid. If these people fail to explain why they have found essential insights into the description of nature, and and are not able to communicate it to others, then their task has failed.

Best. B.

Rae Ann said...

Hi Bee,

I hope you don't mind me commenting here. I just wanted to add that it seems Lubos isn't the only one mixing the economic and political themes. And really, you can't quite separate those that much in practice. While you say that Lubos is mixing the politics with the economics it looks to me that some others are mixing the economics with the politics. One side talks about funding and the other talks about decision-making, but in the end the decision making always ends up being about the funding. I hope I'm making at least a little sense here.
(I'm not a PhD, ;-) )

Bee said...

Hi Rae Ann,

thanks for the comment, I agree. I didn't want to lead a discussion about politics. The decision making I was refering to is about the funding, whereas Lubos is concerned we might end up voting on whether quantum mechanics has hidden variables.

Hi Michael,

I do not see any other way to conduct ourselves, and the selection of some strains of research to be supported and others neglected, is unavoidable. If there is something to be improved, it is the cohesion of the field (both yours and mine) and perhaps the depth of understanding of committees.

Yes. Resources are limited. If someone has to decide what is supported, we should make sure these decisions are based on the best possible expertise. With that I mean not only understanding of the actual research topic, but also understanding on how science works, and how the best researchers can be supported most efficiently.

It is possible to improve the situation. I wish more effort would go into an objective analysis of the weakness of the current situation, and ways to make it better.

Best,

B.

Lumo said...

Dear Bee,

I assure you that I am not making any mistake in the analysis of the relation of capitalism and the planned economy. I have checked and rechecked the texts, and if you have a feeling that something is incorrect, then be sure that the error is on your side. ;-)

When you say that capitalism is known to fail if left alone, the correct statement along similar lines is that capitalism is known to thrive if left alone - and it is usually known to thrive *only* when it is left alone.

Let me politely assume that your sentence has been just a typo.

You write that I have an opinion that discrete physics is crackpotism, and others have *opinion* that it is a promising direction on physics.

I completely agree. This is exactly why I am explaining you, obviously without any success, that this is a reason why the committees are extremely bad an idea because committees would exactly allow the "opinions" - and people who have primarily opinions (but not ideas or evidence) - to gain power.

But science is not about opinions. Science is about scientific arguments. If a crackpot - regardless whether he has a PhD in physics or not - says that relativity, evolutionary biology, or string theory is wrong or not even wrong, it may be his "opinion", but it is not a contribution to science, just a stupidity, and as long as science remains science, such things can't have any power to influence where science is going.

Science cannot work under these threats. It's enough to imagine how hundreds of the idiots on "Not Even Wrong" are permanently writing idiotic attacks against me, trying to threaten me, and you can be sure that science cannot work well under these pressures. You are apparently trying to join the idiots which is far from encouraging.

Concerning your economics vs. politics. I agree that these two concepts have different aspects, beyond similarities. But you are clearly proposing communist policies *both* in politics as well as in economics. You want central committees to decide about important questions to help "everyone", which is communist politics, and you also want them to be in charge of the resources, which is communist economics.

You are clearly proposing mechanisms that are in rough framework as well as in most details isomorphic either to The Inquisition or the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, or many other similar infamous institutions, but you still seem to believe or hope or assume or wish that the results of the very same mechanisms would be different or better. It's completely irrational.

Why are you and many others imagine these irrational ideas? Because you have been brough up in a free, capitalist society where things work exactly because the right people and products are encouraged and spontaneously chosen. Society that became rich because of people like Henry Ford, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Ronald Reagan, and others. All the wealth and other things are due to the creative power of freedom and capitalism. And you assume that if you replace these mechanisms by your naive left-wing ideals, you would still look like a rich citizen of a rich country.

But that's totally irrational. If you're thinking about the ideas that you promote here, you should be imagining yourself as a citizen of North Korea, a poor, unfree human being in a devastated country. The countries and places that actually can serve as examples of what you propose are very different ones than you pretend. America or theoretical physics never followed your policies. North Korea, the Inquisition, and other institutions show where your ideas lead, and you just want to deny this reality.

Of course that when you impose the same mechanisms, you will eventually get more or less the same results. It does not matter whether you call it the Inquisition, the Advisory Committee, or the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The principle and the inner structure of the processes are identical, which is why they will lead to qualitatively identical results. Terminology does not matter.

You're also confusing democracy, capitalism, and their respective contributions. The wealth of the current societies has not much to do with any particular details of democracy or human rights. In ancient Greece, only the priviliged citizens enjoyed democratic rights, but it was obviously a sufficient system that allowed the Greeks to flourish and that would clearly allowed them to reach the present quality if life if other circumstances were favorable.

Science has been done without women for centuries, and it obviously worked.

Equality of people and all these things are just conventions that were chosen because people at some moment chose a certain kind of moral and political values - something that cannot be justified scientifically. But the progress of the society is based on other concepts such as competition and selection of the good things, much like it has been the case in evolution of life for billions of years.

In politics, what's important for the society to make progress in the long run is not so much equality of everyone, which is just one particular political convention or value, but rather the working mechanisms that allow different political concepts to compete, that statistically eliminate the bad ones more often than the good ones, and that force all of them to get improved or disappear.

What drives real progress of the society - and what was necessary for you to write your communist utopias today - has always been the free market of ideas and products. Exactly the things that you want to attack, deny, and abandon.

Best wishes
Lubos

Lumo said...

Dear Bee:

"The decision making I was refering to is about the funding, whereas Lubos is concerned we might end up voting on whether quantum mechanics has hidden variables."

It is the very same thing. When a committee subscribes to Lee Smolin's proposal that crackpot theories about hidden variables should get a larger part of funding that is defined as funding for theoretical physics, for example to hire several new people who have done nothing else and who are just supposed to work on this hidden variable silliness, then it means that the committee is defining that the crackpot theories are likely or promising. Of course they won't change the scientific fact that these theories have already been ruled out and they're just wrong.

But they will contaminate the perception of the truth within the scientific community. They will intimidate scientists and they will make them afraid to say something that is obvious to anyone who understands these things - that hidden variables are a stupidity.

Such a political pressure in science is always wrong. The committees always use less scientific criteria than an honest scientist who is not under any dirty pressures. And the committees are almost always looked for by worse people than those who can actually do something useful.

Lumo said...

By the way, I am not really hypothesizing. I am myself under significant pressure from large groups of crackpots and an effectively infinite sequence of online idiots, many of whom are anonymous and possibly using many pseudonyms to improve their case according to optics of people who are not capable of independent thinking and who judge the truth according to the number of pseudonyms signed under a particular opinion, without realizing that one Motl signature is still more than 50,000 signatures of idiots.

Others are just scientific zombies without any new ideas who are just trying to transform everyone to the same vampires as they are.

Every person in the field knows that they're crackpots. Experience shows that they have never had a good influence on research, much like that Catholic bigots in the 16th century who did not like heliocentrism - also very reasonable people, right? - and what you're proposing is to institutionalize this intellectual bottom of the society and give them official power. You don't expect that I am gonna support such things, do you? What you effectively propose is a project to exterminate science from the society and replace it by a democratic system controlled by power-thirsty idiots who only have opinions but no ideas, abilities, or knowledge.

Peter Woit said...

This endless verbiage from Lubos is all just diversionary. There's really only one issue here and everywhere for Lubos: string theory vs. the "crackpots" who don't believe in it.

Right now the committees that decide on resource allocation in this field are heavily controlled by people who think somewhat like Lubos (although in more moderate form). As the failure of string theory becomes more apparent, he is afraid that string theorists will no longer be able to so heavily dominate these committees. He's doing a good job moving this along, making it quite obvious to everyone exactly how serious a problem for the field quasi-religious string theory fanaticism actually is.

His latest rantings here are just completely paranoid and delusional. I don't see why anyone bothers to try and have a serious discussion with him.

Lumo said...

Dear Peter Woit,

your impression that the battle between crackpots like you and high-energy theoretical physics is the only example of these issues is an artifact of your extremely limited knowledge, intelligence, and partially a consequence of your attempts to promote yourself.

There are milllions of crackpots just like you who are loosely grouped into hundreds of groups. There are crackpots who don't believe that there exist black holes and I spent one hour in the morning with a telephone call because of them. There are crackpots who don't believe quarks. There are crackpots who don't believe relativity, probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechanics, Darwin's evolution, electromagnetic waves, heliocentric system, Universe older than 6,000 years.

Every insight in science has its own crackpots who don't believe it because they are just too stupid. Your illusion that you are special in any way is really just an illusion. You are just one of many millions.

We were talking about much more general a problem.

Best wishes
Lubos

Bee said...

Dear Lubos,

since I am a 'legally admitted alien without dependents' I will not discuss my political convictions here. Neither do I comment on yours, which btw are quite naive.

I have had my share of completely useless discussions about black holes or GR, so I understand your concern to be run over by people who don't have the proper education. To go back to the origin of this dispute, this is one of the reasons why I said it's not good the issue is discussed by laymen on such a low level in public as it has been the case.

Who qualifies to be called a 'theoretical physicist' is one question that can be discussed.

If you want your opinion to be more important than that of others, then you have to argue for it on a scientific level (not necessarily here). If you had a proof why LQG is wrong, I would really be interested to see it. So would various other people. As long as this is not the case, imo the approach of LQG is reasonable and worth pursuing.

If you want to argue that you don't have the time to proof every crackpot wrong, great, then hire someone to do it.

If a crackpot - regardless whether he has a PhD in physics or not - says that relativity, evolutionary biology, or string theory is wrong or not even wrong, it may be his "opinion", but it is not a contribution to science, just a stupidity, and as long as science remains science, such things can't have any power to influence where science is going.

So who would want to have such a person in a committee?

science cannot work well under these pressures. You are apparently trying to join the idiots which is far from encouraging.

Science is currently working under much worse pressure. I hope to encourage all those postdocs out there who are afraid they don't find a job because they didn't graduate at Princeton, were supervised by Mr. Important, and don't have > 10 publications on string theory, co-authored by Mr. Important. It might shock you, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are stupid.

I hope to encourage you to be more constructive in your criticism.

What drives real progress of the society - and what was necessary for you to write your communist utopias today - has always been the free market of ideas and products. Exactly the things that you want to attack, deny, and abandon.

Well, I really hate to point it out, but you are the one claiming that only his opinion is the right one, whereas I emphasise that we need more variety, and less constraints in our search for truth.

Best, B

Bee said...

Dear Lubos,

When a committee subscribes to Lee Smolin's proposal that crackpot theories about hidden variables should get a larger part of funding that is defined as funding for theoretical physics, for example to hire several new people who have done nothing else and who are just supposed to work on this hidden variable silliness, then it means that the committee is defining that the crackpot theories are likely or promising. Of course they won't change the scientific fact that these theories have already been ruled out and they're just wrong.

If I were to decide on a proposal titled 'hidden variables in quantum mechanics' I would at least try to find out if it has addressed the obvious objections. If the proposal has reasonable scientific content and arguments why the common proofs fail, or don't apply, for the scenario under investigation, I would indeed consider supporting it.

It certainly is not advisable to discard proposals because Lubos Motl feels offended by words used in the title.

Best, B.

Bee said...

Dear Peter,

thanks for the comment. It is quite obvious that Lubos is concerned about the future funding in string theory.

I am also concerned that, if left alone, things will go wrong into the other direction. It might sound weird b/c I am a phenomenologist, but I don't want to discard every approach that is not able to make predictions within a funding time of 3 years or so. Thats why I am trying to point out that we need a reasonable base to judge on promising research projects.

Best, B.

Christine said...

String "theory" and LQG are not theories but approaches towards a quantum theory of gravity. As far as I know, there is no proof whatsoever that one is correct and the other is not. (Is there a proof? I really would like to see it.) Both developments could be plain wrong. It is a completely unscientific attitude, given that there is no proof, to declare and almost irrationally defend the idea that just because he or she believes that a given approach is the correct one than the other(s) is(are) crackpot delusion(s). I find this quite disturbing, and coming from a scientist, such an attitude would itself look like a form of crackpotism. It is difficult to believe that a highly intelligent and capable scientist would allow himself to such a lack of scientific wisdom. So I want to believe that other factors are at stake here.

(OK, Lubos Motl, go ahead and say that I am the crackpot here. I would not feel disturbed to enter to your list of crackpots; given the names of some of them you have explicitly cited, the company doesn't seem that bad.)

Bee, congratulations for the job, and I must say you are a very, very patient person.

Best wishes,
Christine

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Bee - Welcome to the Lumosphere. If this is your first trip, you might want to observe basic protection of sanity measures.

You say (to Peter): thanks for the comment. It is quite obvious that Lubos is concerned about the future funding in string theory.

I think you are not correct here. Lubos is not motivated by such crass considerations. He has the same pure devotion to many other causes: global warming (disbeliever), women in science (ditto) and so on. Not self serving personal gain motivates him, but the pure jihadist fire of the true believer. He imagines himself a seeker of truth, but death and destruction of the infidel is his true aim.

Lumo said...

I am not so much concerned about the future of any funding because I am leaving Academia soon and I never cared about money much anyway.

Moreover, I am also a leading expert in loop quantum gravity so that switching funding to LQG would not affect me even if this question were relevant. ;-)

What I am primarily concerned about are aggressive crackpots who have no idea what they're talking about and who attempt to distort science as such and force scientists to share their idiotic beliefs, just like the religious bigots in the 16th century wanted to stop scientists from doing their work, and sometimes they did so rather efficiently.

Sorry to say but the list of these bigotic individuals also includes Christine who just told us that she believes that string theory is not a "theory". What is it? Apple juice? Have you lost your mind?

Sorry to say but I have just seen far too much about her so that I must conclude that Christine is clearly just a plain stupid person. Every sufficiently well trained parrot can say these simple sentences that XY theory could be plain wrong, and all these things. But the difference between parrots and scientists is that the scientists don't say far-reaching statements without evidence, and they are quantitatively able to estimate their real uncertainty, uncertainty that something is correct or incorrect, and their chances that something else is right.

Creationists also say that evolution is just another "theory" that is perhaps not even a "theory", and when they promote their idiotic agenda, they also start with the indications that the evolution and creationism are equally uncertain - just like Christine wants to spread her dumb impression that string theory and loop quantum gravity are equally uncertain.

It's a matter of strategy and all crackpots have the same strategies of "asymmetric war". The ultimate goal is clear: to flood physics departments with crackpots who are doing various "deep discrete theories" and make them 1/2 of theoretical physics if not more. The attempts to promote the idea that LQG and string theory are equally uncertain is just a beginning to a far more far-reaching plan to destroy physics.

The two theories are extremely far from being equally uncertain or promising. Even if we imagine that string theory is uncertain, it is more likely to be correct than its ridiculous alternatives at least by 25 orders of magnitude. Experts know why, laymen don't. But science is done by experts, not laymen.

Christine is a layman who has no idea what she's talking about and she just wants to pollute science by her ignorance. Whenever the mechanisms allow ignorants to contaminate thinking in this way, they will always do so.

This is what all of the "democratic scientists" led by Peter Woit completely miss. You still have not understood what is the difference between science and politics, science and religion, science and comparative literature, science and wrestling, and science and everything else.

It would be a complete catastrophe if people like you could directly influence what's going on with science and with other scientists because it would return us to the era in which unscientific bigots who only had opinions but who could not actually analyze reality rationally were restricting the society and thinking of rational thinkers.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Christine - Welcome to crackpotia. Roger Penrose has the large office on the right. Feynman and Einstein are next door. Pick an office soon. Competition for space seems sure to heat up

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Lumo - I am not so much concerned about the future of any funding because I am leaving Academia soon...

Whoa! That is big news (at least to me).

Are you announcing future plans anytime soon? I can see you at the Cato Institute or maybe the National Review - you would dramatically raise the average IQ without increasing the common sense a whit.

Lumo said...

Dear Pig,

this ("you are next door to Einstein") is exactly what all crackpots think. They always visualize themselves as the next Einsteins or Feynmans, just like you, Jack Sarfatti, and thousands of others.

Except that something is apparently missing. The airplanes don't land.

All of you, Christine, Peter Woit, unfortunately probably also Sabine, and so forth, and so forth, just demonstrably believe that if you have a couple of crackpot friends who have also said that there must be something wrong about string theory, without writing a single formula - just by postulating the holy words - then it is probably correct.

It's just a group of pigs or others who go in some direction because others go in the direction, but there is no underlying rational reason.

In fact, there are about 3 billion people in the world who could say such a thing, if exposed to material about high-energy physics. But these 3 billion people don't have any influence on the scientific truth, and this is what neither of you is able to comprehend.

All of you are just overwhelmed by a few people who submit irrational comments at different places. Neither of you is able to think independently or rationally. All of you are parrots who are just copying unscientific myths from each other, and instead of trying to learn one question or another, you always prefer to keep the answer to the question uncertain, and parrot your fellow crackpots' political proclamations based on irrationally pre-determined value of all ideas.

You never want to learn that one idea is just wrong and another idea is right. Breaking the symmetry between ideas - also known as learning - scares you.

I am sure that deep inside you know that this is completely the opposite approach than Feynman or Einstein had, and that these two guys had the very same opinions about the methods of science as I do, and in the case of Feynman, he also despised crackpots and "democratic scientists" exactly in the same way as I do.

Feynman's explanation why it's completely dumb to try to find the right answer by averaging people who don't look carefully is e.g. here. Search for "nose".

All the best
Lubos

Lumo said...

Judging books by their covers...

This question of trying to figure out whether a book is good or bad by looking at it carefully or by taking the reports of a lot of people who looked at it carelessly is like this famous old problem: Nobody was permitted to see the Emperor of China, and the question was, What is the length of the Emperor of China's nose? To find out, you go all over the country asking people what they think the length of the Emperor of China's nose is, and you average it. And that would be very "accurate" because you averaged so many people. But it's no way to find anything out; when you have a very wide range of people who contribute without looking carefully at it, you don't improve your knowledge of the situation by averaging.

Christine said...

Sorry to say but I have just seen far too much about her so that I must conclude that Christine is clearly just a plain stupid person.

That was more than expected. Lubos Motl, you can do much better.

I have seen more of you than you of me. However, what I think of you is irrelevant. I have asked you a simple and direct scientific question. Why are you so certain that discrete approaches to quantum gravity are wrong? You can write a paper on it. Aren't you competent to do that? I am sure you are.

For the rest, I really do not care about your judgement of me as much as I will never comment about what I think of you. These things are so futile. Come on, can't you just stop attacking people? Why is it so difficult for you?

Best wishes,
Christine

Lumo said...

The reason why it is unacceptable to stop attacking people who say outrageous things as you do is that if I don't attack them, these outrageous things will be viewed as legitimate statements and they will be gaining power - which can already be observed.

Saying that string theory is not a theory is not only incredibly stupid because of the demonstrable facts about the identity of string theory, but it is also an outrageous attack against the community of theoretical physicists who are painted as complete idiots.

The main reason why you say these stupid things - such as that string theory is not a "theory" - is that other people have said similar stupidities before you and you are parroting them, feeling that it is OK and safe to attack science in such an outrageous way. Sometimes, the parrots are "improving" the statements of the previous parrots, so that the result is an ever more outrageous set of stupidities and malicious attacks against science that have ever smaller merit.

It is not OK.

Moreover, after reading your blog, I think that you really mean it, and I know a lot about your worshipping of clearly incorrect papers by Rovelli and others.

This is a disease of a large portion of the blogosphere that contributes to "uneducating" the public. The Internet is literally flooded with this nonsense. When a non-expert looks for the answer to some question, there is a 50% probability that he or she is led, by the search engines, to one of these activist parroting websites that present patently non-scientific myths that would never be publishable in scientific literature, but they are OK enough in the blogosphere because the people who spread this junk are so numerous that they see no obstacles in disinforming the public.

This is a very unwelcome process.

Christine said...

Again, whether I am stupid or not is not in discussion here.

If you really read my blog, you would have verified that I do invite string theorists to comment on the posts without any censorship. Considering your logic, from all the stupidest physics blogs available today, I am certain that mine is one that you should be least concerned about.

The reason why it is unacceptable to stop attacking people who say outrageous things as you do is that if I don't attack them, these outrageous things will be viewed as legitimate statements and they will be gaining power - which can already be observed.

I do not think that is a good strategy. People may find that personal attacks are very entertaining, however, it is a waste of time and a disservice for scientific outreach. You are not really informing people about string theory when you attack other people that do not agree with you.

Saying that string theory is not a theory is not only incredibly stupid because of the demonstrable facts about the identity of string theory, but it is also an outrageous attack against the community of theoretical physicists who are painted as complete idiots.

It is not reasonable to conclude that my previous assertion is intended as an attack to the community. That is your subjective interpretation and is completely irrelevant to the discussion here.

Why string "theory" is a theory? I ask a genuine question. But do not worry anyway. I will not parrot you or anyone. I am carring out my own studies as independently as one is allowed to.

Best wishes,
Christine

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Lumo - I am under no illusion that I am intellectually equal to Einstein, Penrose, Feynman, or even you - as you well know - since we have had this conversation several times, and your memory is excellent. I mention those people as having offices in crackpotia because you have dismissed each of their ideas as "crackpot." You put them there, not I.

I am sure you also know that while I am curious about string theory, I have no opinion about its validity, nor am I qualified to have one, since my knowledge stops at Chapter 12 of Zwiebach. That doesn't stop me from having prejudices about what a scientific theory ought to accomplish, or about how a free adult human ought to behave.

Anonymous said...

Lubos,

What are your plans after leaving academia?

Bee said...

Hi Christine,

thanks for your contribution. I apologize for the insults, since it is my blog I feel kind of responsible for it. I will not delete any of the comments though, the damage is already done anyhow.

Hi Pig,

welcome. I admit I find Lubos quite entertaining. I wish I knew him in person so I could tell how much of his ranting is some online phenomenon. As far as I can tell from reading his blog, he knows a lot about string theory/field theory and particle physics.

So far he is definitely supporting my point that discussing who is stupid and who isn't doesn't get us anywhere.

Hi Lubos,

I never said there must be something wrong with string theory. Indeed, I find string theory a very compelling theory. Actually, nothing of my post said anything about string theory or LQG. It is only you who turns the discussion into this direction.

If you would try to free yourself from the impression that we are all part of a conspiracy of LQG crackpots trying to wash your brain, then maybe we could go back to the question how one can judge which research is worth funding. I don't consider it to be a reasonable way to just ask Lubos each time.

Best, B.

Anonymous said...

In a true "free market", there would be no government funding of anything and no taxes. In fact there would be no government to speak of in a true "free market".

Anonymous said...

Lubos is absolutely right. Where does he find so much time and energy to fight with crackpots? Crackpots should be banned from sci sites. NO MATTER he or she (political correctness, you understand).

Bee said...

Anonymous said...

In a true "free market", there would be no government funding of anything and no taxes. In fact there would be no government to speak of in a true "free market".




Hi anonymous1,

You too are mixing up the political and economical system. No government is usually called anarchy. It's actually possible to have a government that is either unwilling, or unable, to regulate the market. However, this in the most cases does not mean the market is 'free', but most often dominated by the most influential groups.


Best, B.

Bee said...

Anonymous said...

Lubos is absolutely right. Where does he find so much time and energy to fight with crackpots? Crackpots should be banned from sci sites. NO MATTER he or she (political correctness, you understand).


Hi anonymous 2,

Thanks for this very qualified comment. I too wonder where Lubos finds the time to type all these words. Besides that there is still the issue how to decide who a crackpot is.

Best, B

stefan said...

There is a very interesting comment by Georg von Hippel on his blog about the discussion here on advisory committees and decision making in science. Georg compares the current procedures to trial by jury, where a jury consisting of peers has to be convinced about a case. This means that judgments are reached neither by a majority vote - which is obviously complete nonsense with regard to the establishment of scientific results - nor by ex cathedra decisions made by single persons or closed groups of people.

The point is that to get funding for some research project, you have to convince some group of qualified experts. In the ideal case, this would, in my opinion, be some "advisory committee", composed of experienced scientists representing different branches or fields of physics. I have the impression that the allocation of funding in the DFG (the German equivalent of the NSF) roughly works like this - please correct me if I am wrong. And I really do not think that this is a bad solution, or that there is a real danger that these boards could be infiltrated and taken over by crackpots ;-)...

Decision making "by vote of all PhDs in physics" is quite crazy, I think, because, I am afraid, a PhD per se does not qualify for anything in this respect. Let me explain: I do not fear that thousands of PhDs in physics are people who deny special relativity or something similar. Nor do I think that the educational system has completely failed. It seems to me that this is an unavoidable consequence of the diversification of a subject as large as "physics". I mean, nowadays you typically gain deep and expert insights only in a very narrow and specialized subfield. When getting your PhD, you have a thorough education in "1-d anti-ferromagnetic spin chains", or "finite T QCD", or "flux compactifications", or whatever. So, you simply can not know all the facts necessary to make qualified decisions. But, and this is important, ideally you should qualify as a possible member of a "jury", and be able to reach a deliberate decision if exposed to a balanced scientific argumentation. Or am I too naive here?

This is in fact a possible and important role I see for physics blogs like this one: That it offers the opportunity to explain important concepts and issues to fellow physicists from other departments, and thus, inform them in a competent way about subjects they are not familiar with from their original education. Are there any comprehensive studies about who are the readers of physics blogs? I could imagine that a big share are in fact graduate students and postdocs who are looking not only for gossip and entertainment, but also for interesting science to learn about.
The sad fact is, I fear, that the average heavy ion physics graduate, for example (like me ;-), probably does not know much more about string theory than what can be learned from popular books or feature articles in the Scientific American.

So, for example, if I read the list of Top 10 String Theory Results, I would appreciate a more detailed discussion and explanation of these results, especially the more technically ones which are usually not mentioned in popular books. Why, for example, are these questions important, and how are they answered in string theory, and are there no other answers known, etc. In a blog of physicists for physicists, this could be done in a more technical way than somewhere else, perhaps on the level of colloquium talks. For some of the 10 points, there are discussions available (for example about AdS/CFT ;-), and I guess that there are many more distributed over the blogosphere or university servers offering slides and videos of talks. Providing links to such discussions, or the discussions themselves, could be a very important and constructive contribution of blogs, in my opinion. And it could help everyone to learn to better distinguish between plain crack-pottery, crazy ideas, and serious results.

Best, Stefan

Bee said...

Dear Stefan,

Thanks for the contribution, and for the interesting link.

I have the impression that I might not have made clear what I was talking about. Or it might have gotten lost.

I am not talking about peer review of proposals, which certainly should be made by experts specialized on the field under consideration. To decide whether or not a derivation is correct, a project scientifically sensible, or a theory is consistent, is not what I am worried about.

What I am talking about is the general direction support goes into, or should go. What and who is worth supporting? How does science work best? It was in this context that I mentioned an advisory committee that could give guidelines. Not as laws, but as advises. Physicists, who are qualified to judge on the current status, and who have insights into the way science works best, and progress is likely.

You might compare this to the 'Sachverstaendigenrat der Wirtschaftsweisen'.

(Sorry, is there a similar link in English?)

E.g. the science foundations have various programs through which they support what they consider to be promising for progress in science. I know that in particular in Germany proposals are frequently declined when they are not related to an already existing and running project. Is that good?

Is it good that proposals are best written when you actually already know all the details of a work you plan in the next 5 years, including the results? Must a project be finished within a certain timescale? Must it have applications? Phenomenological implications? Must the person applying have prior knowledge in the field? How important are publications? Citations? Connections? How important is innovation? Continuity? Diversity? The age and education of the applicant?

These are points to be addressed before you go to the peer review process.

Then you can ask who would sit in such an advisory committee. And who decides who does. That was the context in which I mentioned that imo you qualify as a theoretical physicist if you have a PhD.

Hope that helps, thanks for the feedback. I think I should write another post to clarify the issue... if I find the time. Best,

B.

Anonymous said...

dear all, I think that this sociological discussion can be summarized as: we need experimental data.
Attempts of attaching quantum gravity with pure theory progressively degenerated into hype, philosophy, and now insults. At some point, even ancient greeks got bored of their attempts

Arun said...

Well, taking Luboš's concerns seriously, as a first step, we have to end all public financing of science, or risk falling into the communist abyss.

Market funds however, always seek a return. The day when the great industrial labs, like Bell Labs, supported research with no practical applications are long over (and such labs were funded with monopoly money).

Otherwise, there has to be a group of people who decides how much public money to spend (e.g., Congress), groups of people who decide how it is to be spent (various scientific committees who take applications for grants), and a group of people checking whether the money has indeed been spent successfully (ideally, different from the first two groups, because these two may not want to own up to their mistakes). This third group doesn't exist today, IMO.

Ultimately, all three groups are answerable to the people from whose paychecks contributions are being taken towards the scientific enterprise. Here the attitude that the people are morons to whom nothing can be explained and from whom nothing sensible can come, is certainly extremely productive.

Christine said...

Dear Stefan,

I am adding some links to that post, but I need the help from the string theory experts so that the links refer to good introductory/expository papers.

Christine

Arun said...

FYI:

http://www.epw.org.in/showArticles.php?root=2004&leaf=02&filename=6801&filetype=html

Perhaps captures the confusion of non-scientists?

Christine said...

Hi Bee,

Just some remarks.

I have never said string theory is wrong. I am completely open to the possibilitity that it is correct. What I have said is that ST is under development (that is why I have called it an "approach"). In my conception, it will be a scientific theory de facto if it survives experimental testing.

Also, I have never said that ST and LQG are equally uncertain. I did say they could end up proven equally wrong, eventually. Nobody knows that now.

These are my layman impressions. I am just an astrophysicist from an underdeveloped country trying to make sense of these things. I am not an expert and anyone who reads my blog has clear access to my "disclaimer" pages (viz.,"about this blog").

However, I do have a high sense of responsability and dignity, and these are things no one can take from me. I am a scientist and treat any scientist colleague as such. I am not at all offended by Lubos Motl public attack on me, because I know he often does that to other people as well, and if he choses to drive his life this way, well, that is how his conscience works.

I do not wish to spend my time on such discussions, which in fact were never intended.

Best wishes,
Christine

amused said...

Hi B,

A few thoughts on this topic: In principle I agree with Lubos that research
funding shouldn't be distributed "democratically" in the sense that the
amount of funding for a particular area is correlated with the number of
people with PhDs (or n number of publications, or whatever) who favour that
area. I agree with him that it is better instead to "leave the selection of
good ideas to free mechanisms in science". But probably Lubos and I would
disagree about what this means in practice. Imo the selection should work in
an analogous way to the selection of papers for publication in a broad
physics journal such as PRL: Funding applications should be assessed by
expert referees, who rate them according to the quality of the applicant's
track record, research proposal, etc, and then funding is awarded to all
those with ratings above some cut-off point.

There is an important role for a committee in this, namely as the analogue
of journal editors and advisory board. The committee should *not* have the
role of ensuring that funding gets distributed among various areas according
to some democratic principle (Lubos' arguments against this are valid imo).
Its sole role should be to ensure that the applicants have been rated in a
fair and balanced way. I would like to see a large committee whose members
cover the whole spectrum of theoretical physics. Then, to maintain their
current dominance, the string theory members would have to explain to their
colleagues in condensed matter and atomic physics why string theory
applicant X, whose publications consist of 5 joint papers with his famous
advisor Y, is more deserving than non-string applicant Z who has published
papers on her own in PRL. Hopefully they would have a hard time with this
;-)

(I envisage a discussion along the following lines: String theory committee
member A: "X is a student of famous string theorist Y, and Y has declared
that X is brilliant!" To which non-string committee member B replies: "Do
you expect us to take that at face value? You guys are notorious for hyping
your own brilliance. Just look at the examples of people who went from
struggling nobodies to feted hotshots after switching to string theory - if
they are so brilliant as string theorists how come they weren't equally
brilliant in their previous fields? If X really is so great, tell him to go
prove it by publishing a couple of single-author papers in PRL, and then
apply again afterwards.")

What I'm advocating is basically the same as the "trial by jury" advocated
in a post by Georg on the `life on the lattice' blog (mentioned by Stefan
above). It's also the system used for various fellowship schemes, such as
the EU's Marie Curie fellowships. But it would be bad to use this system at
postdoc level without using it at faculty level as well - it will just give
false hope to people who don't have a long term future in physics because
their research topic and background (i.e. where they did their PhD and
postdocs, who their advisor was, etc) don't have a politically correct
alignment.

stefan said...

Hi amused,


I would like to see a large committee whose members cover the whole spectrum of theoretical physics.

That is exactly what I had in mind, but then that someone

would have to explain to their
colleagues in condensed matter and atomic physics why string theory [...]


should, of course, not be restricted to string theory, but concern all subfields of physics. It may help avoiding group thinking, and it probably could contribute to the unity of the physics community.

On a more down-to-earth level, my idea is that physics blogs could do more to contribute to this kind of explanatory communication, by addressing fellow physicist from other fields, for example condensed matter theorist.

As a side remark - two weeks ago I listend to a colloquium talk about the current status of the theory of high-Tc superconductors. There, after 20 years of research, the final breakthrough also seems to be still missing. The community is smaller than in string theory, but my impression was that there is a similar communication problem, to make clear to nuclear theorist, for example, which progress on which issues has been reached and why f-wave ans├Ątze or things like that are so cool...

But I think Bee had something different and more general in mind, not the specific allocation of funding, but maybe the formulation of broader visions and strategies for the physics community as a whole... I am not sure, perhaps she will explain that in more detail sometime...


Best, Stefan

nige said...

Dear Lubos,

"... I am leaving Academia soon..."

But you are in extra dimensional fantasy land now, which is hardly academia! How can you leave somewhere you are not? Stringy speculation has no connection to reality and hyping that it does, is not really academic. Except as metaphysics.

Perhaps you are muddled and think that you are in real academia now, so that you can leave it? Will you leave Harvard University reputation in tatters, when you search out a better job elsewhere? (you would make a good well-paid opinion writer at a newspaper or a good politician).

"Sorry to say but the list of these bigotic individuals also includes C... who just told us that she believes that string theory is not a "theory". What is it? Apple juice? Have you lost your mind?"

Lubos, you do not say this of Professor Gerardus 't Hooft, who won a Nobel Prize for theoretical physics, who says in Woit's NOT EVEN WRONG, that string theory is just a hunch. The reason is it lacks any equations which describe physical reality, it lacks any checkable facts/predictions, and it is flooded with speculations like STRINGS, EXTRA-DIMENSIONS, GRAVITONS, BRANES, SUPERPARTNERS, and other unobservable belief systems. It is a religion. It suppresses alternatives because they threaten to hurt it's branewashing of the masses.

Notice: a hunch is not apple juice. Has Professor 't Hooft lost his mind, or have you?

Best wishes,
nigel

nige said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
nige said...

Clarification: where I wrote stringy equations don't describe reality, I'm referring to 3+1 dimensional reality.

Of course, Lubos is genuinely convinced that reality is extra dimensional, so he might claim the stringy equations do describe reality, just as lunatics believe their delusions are real.

;-)

stefan said...

Hi nigel, and all others,


could you please continue your more personally tainted attacks on people not connected to this blog somewhere else...

BTW, nigel, since Bee has published quite a lot about LXD phenomenology, she may not appreciate your last comments ;-)...

nige said...

Hi Stefan,

I've found nobody wants to discuss science since string theory came to town, calling all "alternatives" crackpot.

At University of Gloucestershire in 2002, my arxiv submission was removes within 30 seconds without being read.

So I feel that if they don't permit science, they shouldn't object to this being pointed out!

;-)

Bee said...

Hi stefan, Hi nigel,

I don't mind the comment about extra dimensions. My opinion is roughly: as long as we have no explanation why we live in 3+1 dimensions, there might as well be more, String Theory motivated or not.

and other unobservable belief systems. It is a religion...

Since I have been working on the observables of such extra dimensions, I don't feel specifically offended...

Best, B.

amused said...

Hi Stefan,

You are quite right about the general benefits of the (hypothetical) large committee - I agree completely.

Regarding the contribution of physics blogs to explanatory communication between different fields, I think this is already happening to quite a large extent but certainly there's scope for extending it. In fact the way I originally discovered these blogs was after seeing a paper on the arxives making a remarkable claim that galaxy rotation curves could be explained without invoking "dark matter". The authors seemed to be respectable people, so I was curious to find out to what extent this was considered serious work in the astro-community. A google seach led me to cosmicvariance, where i had the opportunity to ask a question about the paper and get an answer from an astro-expert (Sean Carroll) - that was pretty cool! This is one example of the usefulness of these blogs; another one is accessible descriptions of what's going on in various fields where bloggers are active. The coverage of the different subareas of physics seems a bit uneven at present, but hopefully that will improve as more blogs start up. And then there's the entertainment aspect (string theory punch-ups, Woit vs Motl etc)...

"But I think Bee had something different and more general in mind, not the specific allocation of funding, but maybe the formulation of broader visions and strategies for the physics community as a whole... I am not sure, perhaps she will explain that in more detail sometime..."

I also hope Bee will say more about this. My worry is that this could lead to a prejudging of which directions are going to be the most fruitfull. Better imo to let individual physicists work on whatever they like, without preferential weighing for any particular areas, and simply judge them on the significance of the progress they make.

Bee said...

amused said...

I also hope Bee will say more about this. My worry is that this could lead to a prejudging of which directions are going to be the most fruitfull. Better imo to let individual physicists work on whatever they like, without preferential weighing for any particular areas, and simply judge them on the significance of the progress they make.


Indeed, this is very close to my thoughts. The question is then: how do you 'judge', who 'judges', what is 'significance', what is 'progress' and who decides about that.

Unfortunately, this is not the way it works right now, for reasons I hope to have indicated in the above post.

Stay tuned :-)

Best,

B.

amused said...

Hi B,

I wish that the general framework for making the judgements would be the one described in my original comment. But this still leaves the questions you rightly raised about "what is 'significance', what is 'progress' and who decides about that." This is a tricky issue without an easy answer. For what it's worth, here are my thoughts on it:

In your post you rightly point out that increased specialization in physics "has caused the community to fall apart into many distinct fields. Most often, people working on one field don't know much about other fields." In light of this I think it's crucial to have universally recognised "quality stamps" which evaluations of job/funding applications can be based on.

The usual quality stamps in academia are journal publications. But in physics, or at least hep, the role of journals has been greatly eroded in recent years. These days, when someone produces a paper they put it on the arxives and it gets assessed by the workers in the particular field to which the paper belongs; these assessments determine the person's standing in the field, and consequently the way their job/funding applications are received. Journals play little role: if the papers are half-decent they will usually easily get published in "major" journals. In such journals, high quality papers making significant advances are published side by side with lesser papers making incremental advances. So there is no way for someone outside a given field to know the quality/significance of a paper from the journal it is published in.

Contrast this with the situation in the maths community. They have a strict hierarchy of journals covering the full range from highest to lowest quality. This provides an effective, universally recognised quality stamping system. E.g., publication of an article in Annals of Math. or Inventiones Mathematicae is a quality stamp of the highest order. If someone working in, say, algebraic topology publishes in one of these journals, then, when (s)he applies for a job, a committee member working in functional analysis will be in no doubt about the quality/signiicance of the work even though (s)he does not have the background to directly assess it him/herself. Mathematicians take their journal hierarchy very seriously, and (from what I've heard) there is a tight correlation betwee the quality/significance of math papers and the journals they get published in. This allows for an objective and transparent assessment of researchers track records: you just look at the person's journal publication list and consider the placing of the journals in the hierarchy. (Ok I'm oversimplifying, but you get the picture.)

So what I would like to propose is that the physics community should reverse the current role of journals and move to establish a journal hierarchy similar to what the mathematicians have. This would require some major readjustments, since the cultures of the physics and maths communities are quite different. E.g. referees for physics journals are usually asked to report within 2-3 weeks, whereas in maths the timescale is months; it can be up to a year for journals such as Annals of Math. The short timescale in physics is connected with the volume of papers that we produce, so to implement this proposal it would probably be necessary to significantly raise the threshold for what it takes to get published, at least in the "top" journals. This would allow the refereeing timescale to be extended, which is probably necessary for proper quality control.

A possible objection to this is that the way advances occur in physics tends to be different than in maths: Major advances in physics tend to be the cumulative result of many incremental advances, whereas it seems that in maths the "steps" are often bigger. (Wiles' proof of Fermat's Theorem and Perelman's apparent proof of the Poincare conjecture are examples of this, albeit extreme ones.) So it might not be a good thing to deter papers which make incremental advances; this is a potential outcome of implementing a journal hierarchy stystem, since incremental papers would be awarded a lesser quality stamp. I'm not going to pretend to have any final answer here, but simply offer these thoughts/proposals as a possible starting point for debate on this issue.

Best,
"amused"

Bee said...

Hi amused,

Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

I agree with you that the quality of publications (and the number of citations) is an important factor to judge on research. And a factor which in theoretical physics has become doubtful. However, I also think that this is only part of the problem, and in itself not sufficient to improve the situation.

It tells a lot though that the problem is widely known, yet nothing has been done about it. Though I stumbled recently about this interesting site

Nature's peer review debate

(You might also want to look at my post about Peer Review.)

I also think the timescale of referee reports is so short in physics, because the pressure to publish for the authors is so high. The reason for which is that they are being judged on their amount of productivity, most often due to a lack of better criteria.

But actually that is not the main point I am concerned with. The peer review might work better or worse, but let us for the moment assume being published was a good criterion for quality. Then you still have to figure out if the results of the field actually contribute to our understanding of nature, or if they are just an indicator for high activity on a field circling around itself. That's why I say we should think about what science is. (Or lets make that physics, as I would include mathematics into science, for which I would set completely different criteria.)

Best, B.

amused said...

Hi B,

Thanks for the interesting links.

"I also think the timescale of referee reports is so short in physics, because the pressure to publish for the authors is so high. The reason for which is that they are being judged on their amount of productivity, most often due to a lack of better criteria."

On the contrary, my strong impression is that productivity is not the primary critiria that researchers are being judged on at present. Rather, it is the assessments of the quality and significance of their work by the senior influential people in their fields. The problem with this is that there is no genuine inter-field competition for funding and jobs.
E.g. it is not at all uncommon for string theorists with relatively few publications (most of which typically being joint ones with famous people) to get faculty positions at prestigeous institutions, while people with much longer publication lists in other fields (e.g. low energy QCD theory) struggle to find any job at all. This is simply a reflection of the fact that there is more funding and jobs available in string theory. Are these string theorists more talented/gifted/deserving than people in the other fields? Who knows, maybe they are, but the key point is that they should have to prove it. This is why I think it is crucial to develop a universally recognised quality stamping system which can be used to compare people across different fields. The mathematicians have developed an effective system for this (cf. my previous comment) and I don't see why it shouldn't work for us physicists as well.

"It tells a lot though that the problem is widely known, yet nothing has been done about it."

The powers that be are quite comfortable with this situation; it is not in their interests to change it. The situation makes inter-field competition effectively impossible, so dominant fields face no threat to their dominance of funding and jobs.

"Then you still have to figure out if the results of the field actually contribute to our understanding of nature, or if they are just an indicator for high activity on a field circling around itself."

Yes, but I envisage this as something to be considered on an article by article basis as part of the publication process. Let's judge each article on its merits, each researcher on his/her merits, and avoid anything which moves toward a prejudging of the directions that are or aren't going to be fruitful, or gives preferential weightings to any particular research programs.

Best
"amused"

paul said...

Scientists always think they understand philosophy and political theory but that philosophers cannot understand science. This is a natural outcome of the capitalist state and also deeply flawed. Just like Christianity and Conservatism (of which western science is an offshoot), the more powerful science becomes the more it screams about being threatened, persecuted, and marginalized. It is an excellent tactict but like many good strategies for dominance it is ultimately irrational, revealing a contradiction in science and a scientistic society that like it or not Marx understood better than any western scientist has ever really understood theoretical physics, much less Marxism!

The naivete of modern science with regards to society (and its philosphical discourse) absolutely dwarfs that of society (already highly scientized at a very high level) with regards to science. This is the same dynamic we find between any elite class and the masses which made it possible. Shocking but inevitable I suppose. Thanks

Anonymous said...

I think the reason people are doubting string theory is simple: there are no predictions and no experimental confirmations despite 20 years of research. You don't have to understand string theory to realize that this is a big problem

Science is based on creating models of the world and comparing them to the world to see if they are correct. That is about it.

As for Marx, he had a very poor understanding of economics, science and society. He predicted the impoverishment of the working class due to capitalism. His idea has failed empirical tests. Therefore he is obviously wrong. However Marxism obviously makes a very good religion.