Saturday, March 02, 2019

Check your Biases

[slide 8 of this presentation]
Physics World recently interviewed the current director of CERN, Fabiola Gianotti. When asked how particle physicists address group-think, Gianotti explains instead why some research avenues require large communities.

You would think that sufficiently much has been written about cognitive biases and logical fallacies that even particle physicists took note, but at least the ones I deal with have no clue. If I ask them what measures they take to avoid cognitive biases when evaluating the promise of a research direction, they will either mention techniques to prevent biased data-analysis (different thing entirely), or they will deny that they even have biases (thereby documenting the very problem whose existence they deny).

Here is a response I got from a particle physicist when I pointed out that Gianotti did not answer the question about group think:

(This person then launched an ad-hominem attack at me and eventually deleted their comment. In the hope that this deletion documents some sliver of self-insight, I decided to remove identifying information.)

Here is another particle physicist commenting on the same topic, demonstrating just how much these scientists overrate their rationality:

It is beyond me why scientists are still not required to have basic training in the sociology of science, cognitive biases, and decision making in groups. Such knowledge is necessary to properly evaluate information. Scientists cannot correctly judge the promise of research directions unless they are aware how their opinions are influenced by the groups they are part of.

It would be easy enough to set up online courses for this. If I had the funding, I would do it. Alas, I don’t. The only thing I can do, therefore, is to ask everyone – and especially those in leadership positions – to please take the problem seriously. Scientists are human. Leaving cognitive biases unchecked results in inefficient allocations of research funding, not to mention that it wastes time.

In all brevity, here are the basics.

What is a social bias, what is a cognitive bias?

A cognitive bias is thinking shortcut that has developed through evolution. It can be beneficial in some situations, but in other situations it can result in incorrect judgement. A cognitive bias is similar to an optical illusion. Look at this example:
Example of optical illusion. A and B have the same color.
Click here if you don’t believe it. [Image source: Wikipedia]

The pixels in the squares A and B have the exact same color. However, to most people, square B looks lighter than A. That’s because there is a shadow over square B, so your brain factors in that the original color should have been lighter.

The conclusion that B is lighter, therefore, makes perfect sense in a naturally occurring situation. When asked to judge the color on your screen, however, you are likely to give a wrong answer if you are not aware of how your brain works.

Likewise, a cognitive bias happens if your brain factors in information that may be relevant in some situations but can lead to wrong results in others. A social bias, more specifically, is a type of cognitive bias that comes from the interaction with other people.

It is important to keep in mind that cognitive biases are not a sign of lacking intelligence. Everyone has cognitive biases and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. But if your job is to objectively evaluate information, you should be aware that the results of your evaluation are skewed by the way your brain functions.

Scientists, therefore, need to take measures to prevent cognitive biases the same way that they take measures to prevent biases in data analysis. The brain is yet another apparatus. Understanding how it operates is necessary to arrive at correct conclusions.

There are dozens of cognitive biases. I here merely list the ones that I think are most important for science:
  • Communal Reinforcement
    More commonly known as “group think,” communal reinforcement happens if members of a community constantly reassure each other that what they are doing is the right thing. It is typically accompanied by devaluing or ignoring outside opinions. You will often see it come along with arguments from popularity. Communal reinforcement is the major reason bad methodologies can become accepted practice in research communities.

  • Availability Cascades
    What we hear of repeatedly sounds more interesting, and we talk more about what is more interesting, which makes it sound even more interesting. This does make a lot of sense if you want to find out what important things are happening in your village. It does not make sense, however, if your job is, say, to decide what’s the most promising experiment to make progress in the foundations of physics. Availability cascades are a driving force in scientific fashion trends and can lead to over-inflated research bubbles with little promise.

  • Post-purchase Rationalization
    This is the tendency to tell ourselves and others that we have not made stupid decision in the past, like, say, pouring billions of dollars in to entirely fruitless research avenues. It is a big obstacle to learning from failure. This bias is amplified by our desire to avoid cognitive dissonance, that is any threat to our self-image as a rationally thinking individual. Post-purchase rationalization is why no experiment in the history of science has ever been a bad investment.

  • Irrational Escalation
    Also known as the “sunk cost fallacy” or “throwing good money after bad.” Irrational Escalation is the argument that you cannot give up now because you have invested so much already. This is one of the main reasons why research agendas survive well beyond the point at which they stopped making sense, see supersymmetry, string theory, or searches for dark matter particles that become heavier and more weakly interacting every time they are not found.

  • Motivated Reasoning
    More collectively known as “wishful thinking,” motivated reasoning is the human tendency to give pep talks and then actually believe the rosy picture we painted ourselves. While usually well-intended, motivated reasoning can result in overly optimistic expectations and an insistence to hold onto irrational dreams. Surely particle physicists are just about to discover some new particle, the next round of experiments will find that dark matter candidate, etc.
There are practical measures you can implement to alleviate these biases, both in your institution and in your personal work-life. In the appendix of my book I list a few. But the most important step is that you acknowledge the existence of these biases whenever you evaluate information and at least try to correct your assessment.

The more people have told you that a crappy scientific method is okay, the more likely you are to believe it is okay. Keep that in mind next time a BSM phenomenologist tells you it is totally normal when a scientific discipline makes wrong predictions for 40 years.

The easiest way to see that particle physics has a big problem with cognitive biases is that members of this community deny they even have biases and refuse to do anything about it.

The topic of cognitive biases has been extensively covered elsewhere, and I see no use in repeating what others have said better. Google will give you all the information you need. Some good starting points are:


  1. Are there communities that you feel are especially good at avoiding cognitive biases? I've encountered a few that focus quite a bit on identifying them, but don't seem substantially better at avoiding them in practice.

    1. Hi Matt,

      At least in my limited experience, philosophers of science are better at avoiding logical fallacies, and it seems to me that this helps reduce the impact of cognitive biases.

      The economists I know also tend to be aware of the impacts that cognitive biases have, but by and large it doesn't seem to help their discipline all that much. (Also, the sample of economists I know is pretty skewed. Everyone I can think of seems to have a background in physics - probably not very representative.)

      The big issue here is that while it is possible to prevent some cognitive biases by oneself, alleviating social biases is ultimately something that requires an organizational change.

      (I believe it is impossible to entirely avoid cognitive biases, but scientists could certainly do better than they do now.)

  2. Hi Sabine
    Nice work (as ever). I would add the ``Halo effect'' where we have some cult of personality elements at work.

    1. Hi Arennie,

      I mention the halo effect in my book. It certainly plays a role in public discourse, but I think it is less at play in particle physics. At least I cannot think of any example.

    2. Sabine, what does Edward Witten think about that?

  3. "This is one of the main reasons why research agendas survive well beyond the point at which they stopped making sense, see supersymmetry, string theory, or searches for dark matter particles"

    why do you say string theory and dark matter and SUSY has reached this tipping point? could you say LQG, CDT, asymptotic safety, or inflation et al, are also in the sunk cost fallacy threshold?

    1. neo,

      neo, The only way to answer this question is to take steps to alleviate the impact of cognitive biases and see what happens.

  4. I know that I'm biased, but I still like big colliders. The professionals (not me) have a more important bias, self interest. For my taxpayer money though, I think the most promising big money physics projects are in cosmology - trying to understand dark matter and dark energy.

    PS - I think the term "dark energy" makes sense despite your objections because of the way it enters the equation of state and the Friedman equation.

  5. "The easiest way to see that particle physics has a big problem with cognitive biases is that members of this community deny they even have biases and refuse to do anything about it."

    This is completely circular logic...

    1. Fx,

      Go on, explain why it's circular. Also please tell us who you are.

    2. If Sabine had said "big cognitive biases", that would be circular logic. The "big problem" is the fact that the biases are not seen and addressed.

  6. Hi Sabine,

    in your answers to some of my questions, you clearly state that the next thing to find will be particles and fields.

    Please can you show me why this is not a bias?

    Thanks, nice post again.

    PS: I loved the "documenting". I shall use it in my own field...

    1. Huh? I surely did not say any such thing. It does not express my opinion.

  7. Happily enough cognitive biases are made purposefully and not accidentally.

  8. Hi Sabine,
    I agree 100% with your comments. I have left the field for the very same points you make. A large collaboration develop a culture of its own and feeds on itself. It tends to be a closed environment that reinforces the views that are often disconnected from the society. Sometimes even disconnected from the scientific communities.

  9. I finished reading Polchinski's two volume set on string theory. I even worked a good number of the problems that are in these texts. I am knowledgeable of string theory, and now somewhat more so, though I do not consider myself a string theorists in particular. My take away on string theory is that it, and in particular superstring theory, may be a sort of sideline to the foundations of physics. I suppose it is analogous to a revision of history where the complicated rules for atomic transitions and Hartree-Fock type of results were found before the actual quantum theory. So it would have appeared that nature has this very complicated structure without some greater general principle. The volume I by Polchinski gives a nice overview of the relationship between the bosonic string and complex numbers and holomorphy. While I am more disposed to supersymmetry as a part of foundations than string theory, I have to say that superstring theory has always struck me as rather contrived. It is also extremely complex and does not close into some compact result. It may be a part of quantum gravitation and gauge fields, but it might not really be as central as many people think.

    Biases are always around us, and no matter what we have them. We can reduce them and maybe more importantly acknowledge their existence. A part of the problem is that physicists have little where else to turn. Supersymmetry intertwines bosons and fermions in such as way that it produces spacetime Lorentz symmetry. The bias has been to look for light supersymmetric particles, but the problem is there are aspects of SUSY that suggest it really is more an aspect of quantum gravity than TeV level physics. The connection between quantum statistics and spacetime symmetry may well means that SUSY appears at extreme energies. The bias here is based on the adage about looking for keys under the street lamp because at least light is there.

    1. Lawrence,

      "A part of the problem is that physicists have little where else to turn."

      This is a sociological argument. It stems from your assessment of the information that is available to you and from the decisions that other people have made about their research directions.

    2. Maybe I should have said physicists feel they have little where else to turn. Of course there are other directions to go, but that requires turning away from current models and even harder it means thinking in new ways.

      The apparent implosion of the minimal supersymmetric standard model (MSSM) is one of the biggest intellectual collapses in history. The MSSM has failed to produce any prediction found at the LHC. There have been hundreds of degrees conferred to students for theses on MSSM and the literature is packet with it. All of this literature may be worth little more than recyclable paper. So obviously people are going to fight like hell to keep this alive.

  10. Seems a corollary to these general biases ought to include Feynman's admonition:
    "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself -- and you the easiest person to fool."

    -- TomH

  11. It's always interesting to see how willing people are to go straight to ad hominem consciously - as in the Twitter thread above - and do so in public. They obviously feel that with a certain level of support within their tribe, it just doesn't matter. In many fields of discourse these days, ad hominem is worn as a badge of honor. And as others see it done, and rewarded, they join the fun.

    1. I think emotion (anger, expressed with insults and vindictiveness) comes into play when we run out of rational arguments, or when valid rational arguments are rejected out of hand, and in particular when somebody seems to be a threat to one's beliefs or livelihood. Like the biases themselves, that's just evolution talking.

  12. Sabine, I believe that many people will confuse 'consensus' with 'cognitive bias'. Clearly consensus must be a part productive research, and so adding your perspective on their differences, and pros-and-cons, would be helpful.

  13. While we're on the subject of cognitive biases, there are a few very important ones you didn't mention, which come from our tribal instincts. These are the well-documented tendency to lump everybody in the "enemy tribe" together into one uniform hivemind (i.e. outgroup homogeneity bias), and to believe that everybody in this "enemy" group is out to get you.

    These cognitive biases affect me personally. I'm just a student fresh out of undergrad. I like discussing and teaching physics, both on the internet and in real life. But lately I've been getting accosted by angry people who accuse me of being part of a conspiracy against the public, or being a mindless sheep. Most of these people, on further conversation, say they got those opinions by reading your blog. That's how I got here in the first place. You write like every physicist is your enemy, which I just don't believe is true, and in response you have decided to make thousands of people mine.

    I don't understand the need for such vitriol. Everybody wants the same thing: a deeper understanding of the universe. And everybody is willing to break with tradition if that's what it'll take to find it. Think smaller experiments are a good idea? Many are working on just that -- there are already almost a hundred such experiments running right now. Don't think the hierarchy problem is a real problem? There are hundreds of models that flat out ignore it. Think models should be as simple as possible? "Simplified models" that just consider one or two new particles are the default way to evaluate the reach of an experiment. Think that weak-scale SUSY has been overdone? The community evidently agrees, given how few papers I see about it on the arXiv. (At my university, SUSY has already fallen from one of the most to one of the least popular classes.)

    I could go on and on. I see many physicists working feverishly on ideas you claim are unpopular and suppressed, and many outright abandoning paradigms you claim they adhere to religiously. So why are so many of these posts written as "me vs. them"?

    1. Kevin,

      "You write like every physicist is your enemy"

      This is incorrect. Correct is that a lot of physicists mistakenly think I am their enemy. Like you, for example.

      "Everybody wants the same thing: a deeper understanding of the universe."

      Great. Then how about you do something to solve the problems I just pointed out in the above blogpost. Because they stand in the way of "a deeper understanding of the universe."

      Yes, I have noticed that now that the LHC has ruled out models by the thousands, particle physicists have moved on to come up with new ways to produce "predictions" for higher energies.

      What I am telling you is that this community should find out what went wrong, and take steps to prevent this from happening again. Otherwise we will see the same story of rotten predictions that get ruled out in the bulk play out again with the next larger collider.

      This self-reflection is not happening. The only thing we see is that they discard models that have been ruled out and hence they are forced to give up. They have still not learned anything.

      "I see many physicists working feverishly on ideas you claim are unpopular and suppressed..."

      This is nonsense. I never write anything about ideas that are supposedly "suppressed".

      I get the strong impression that you didn't try to find out what I am saying to begin with.

    2. Kevin Z,

      You said, "But lately I've been getting accosted by angry people who accuse me of being part of a conspiracy against the public, or being a mindless sheep. Most of these people, on further conversation, say they got those opinions by reading your blog."

      Are you really claiming that you're running into a bunch of random human beings who just happen to be readers of Sabine's blog and who proceed to accuse you of being an enemy of the people??

      With all due respect to Sabine, I am pretty sure her blog is read by a very tiny fraction of the population. It is just not very likely statistically that you are running into hordes of such people: this is especially true given that many (most?) readers of her blog, such as myself, would certainly not accuse you of "being part of a conspiracy against the public, or being a mindless sheep"!

      At most, you would find that some of us do not agree with you on everything.

      Could you dispel my confusion and explain where on earth you are running into these angry "Sabinistas"? Inquiring minds want to know.


    3. PhysicistDave,

      While your assessment is correct for what the general population is concerned, you have to factor in that most of us are online and work in a rather small bubble of self-selected people.

      In absolute numbers my book and this blog are being read by a small share of the population. Hence the utter idiocy of the claim that I wrote my book to make money - the target group is way too small. But in case you happen to be in that group, there is currently pretty much no way around me.

      I know this not so much from my first-hand experience, which amounts to more email and more comments and more calls from journalists, which is difficult to judge in absolute numbers. I know this from closed loops in the network, ie, from people who report that other people speak about me.

      Don't worry, it'll pass soon enough. But when Kevin says he feels like I'm the reason that the the part of the public which he engages with knows from this blog that particle physicists do nothing to remedy the biases that stand in the way of progress in their field, it's probably correct what he says.

      It's also correct that they do nothing to solve the problem, so I'm afraid I'll have to continue to complain about them.

    4. Sabine,

      Honestly, I think that's an unfair response. It looks like you've just quoted three sentences of my comment out of context, dismissed them, and declined to reply to what was in between.

      If the community is not doing self-reflection, then how come I've seen three plenary talks this year that were nothing but hand-wringing and reflection? (Such talks usually come with titles like "the future of particle physics".) If physicists are not learning anything, then how come my advisors were the first to tell me things had to change?

      It is true that a small group of people continue to make models along the exact same lines as before. That is important. It's good to have a few mavericks continue to try an idea, even if it's starting to look less likely by data -- whether that idea is weak-scale SUSY, MOND, or anything else.

      But I'm not one of those people, and _most_ people in my field aren't either. How do you know you aren't engaging in confirmation bias?

    5. PhysicistDave,

      Thanks for the reply! Yes, really, I'm not just making things up.

      This blog is one of the most popular blogs about physics on the internet, and Sabine has written one of the most celebrated books about physics this year. It's especially popular among educated laypeople interested in physics, such as programmers, biologists and chemists, and lawyers; these people make up most of my friend group. As a result, whenever Sabine writes a column, I get several curt requests to read it and do some "self-reflection". When Sabine had that NYT column, her most popular one, I was asked on ten separate occasions to reply to it.

      That's just to illustrate how popular this blog is. I run into most of the actual hostility on discussion groups, such as Physics.StackExchange and r/physics. About every week, we get somebody angry that makes precisely the claims you think are impossible. Last year I started a lengthy correspondence with one, and he got to the point of tracking down my university so that he could complain that I was engaged in "conspiratorial censorship". This year, at the matriculation dinner for my university, I was seated next to a non-physicist who opened by smugly telling me I was wrong about everything, and had to endure two hours of ranting about the subject.

      Of course, I'm not afraid of these people; I like arguing and I'm not offended if people don't agree with me. The problem is that people are coming in with very strong emotions, inflamed by the rhetoric on this blog. It's hard to get any points across at all, because they just pattern-match you to some negative stereotype when you try to argue back, ignoring what you actually said.

      It's frustrating. There are certainly ways to challenge dominant paradigms without such emotion. I have read lots of papers that were far more radical than the ideas discussed here.

    6. Kevin,

      I did read your full comment.

      I am sincerely sorry that you feel personally beleaguered. But as I have said many times before, public pressure is the only way I can see that will lead to change in the scientific communities.

      Those people who upset you, they are aiding progress. They do exactly what they are supposed to do when they point out that particle physicists continue to use methods that have not worked for decades. They point out, correctly, that this is not sound science, and that it ever came to be accepted as sound science is a vivid demonstration of communal reinforcement.

      If you want to aid progress too, you shouldn't take your frustration out on me, you should take it out on your senior colleagues.

      "If the community is not doing self-reflection, then how come I've seen three plenary talks this year that were nothing but hand-wringing and reflection?"

      Yeah, how come, what do you think? Maybe more importantly, what came out of it? I have seen nothing whatsoever coming out of it. The only thing I see happening is that particle physicists are busy trying to come up with new ways to shift "predictions" to higher energies. Because papers must be written.

      Look, I understand that you are probably annoyed because you did nothing to cause the problem. You just inherited a problem that originated before even I was born. But for better or worse, if you want to continue in the system, you will have to deal with it.

      The current system rewards people for continuing to use bad scientific methodologies as long as those methods are productive and popular. Everyone who has half a brain knows this. Everyone knows it, but no one does anything about it, because everyone thinks it's somebody else's problem.

      It's not a problem in particle physics in particular, of course. It's the same problem that underlies the continued p-value hacking in psychology and sociology. It's the same problem that underlies the continued use of mislabeled cell-lines and the reproduction crisis in the life-sciences.

      So why do I pick on particle physicists in particular? Because they tend to be smart people and I hope they'll understand this has to change.

      (Feel free to email me if you want. Google will tell you.)

    7. Kevin wrote to me, "This blog is one of the most popular blogs about physics on the internet, and Sabine has written one of the most celebrated books about physics this year. It's especially popular among educated laypeople interested in physics, such as programmers, biologists and chemists, and lawyers; these people make up most of my friend group."

      Thanks for your reply: I'm astounded that a book like Sabine's is being that widely read! Here's hoping that she might end up actually making some money off of it.

      And sorry if people are insulting you personally: people should be able to disagree without being nasty.

  14. Can you be more specific about what bias particle physicists suffer from?

    I think that there is only one bias, the believe that to understand fundamental physics we must probe higher energies. There is a reason, why it is called High Energy Physics.

    I think that this bias is well founded in our understanding of Quantum Field Theory and Effective Field Theory. You may disagree with this approach. We can argue about it. But I do not think that having this bias represents any failure of the community.

    1. Udi,

      All humans have cognitive biases. Particle physicists are humans. Therefore they have cognitive biases. You don't need to be genius to follow this argument.

      Cognitive biases influence decision making unless measures are taking to alleviate them. There are not currently any such measures in place. Not in particle physics and not in any other scientific discipline.

      You asked for examples. I list examples in my post. I have added links at the bottom that contain more examples.

      High energy physics isn't the same as collider physics. You know this of course, just pointing out you are conflating two different things.

  15. Sabine,

    What is the cognitive bias Upton Sinclair alluded to in his famous quip: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." The point is not that people are consciously mercenary; rather, they really do sincerely come to hold beliefs that just happen to advance their occupational interests.

    That seems to me the core issue with HEP physicists.

    For what it is worth, as someone with a Ph.D. in HEP theory (Stanford) who is no longer in academe, I'm pretty generally in agreement with the points you have made about future colliders. Indeed, I remember a SLAC Summer School back around 1980 where one of the main themes of the summer school was that we could not go on building larger and larger colliders forever and had better come up with some other approach.

    Of course, since I am no longer in the academic world, my agreement with you can simply be dismissed as that of an unqualified outsider -- even though I worked for or with Burt Richter, Roy Schwitters, and Marty Perl at SLAC and took classes from Dick Feynman, Steve Weinberg, and Kip Thorne.

    It is an interesting world where the only people deemed "qualified" to judge whether a multi-billion dollar (or Euro) expenditure is worthwhile are those who would personally benefit from the expenditure!


    1. Physicist Dave,
      re. Your last paragraph. Ultimately CERN funding comes from the participating countries. The UK Committee on CERN (UKCC) meets before each CERN Council meeting, which take place in March, June September and December each year. The purpose of these UKCC meetings is to discuss the items likely to appear on the agendas of the CERN Council and Finance Committee with all relevant parties, to get direction and where possible to agree the UK line.
      The UK CERN committee is made up of civil servants and scientists - not exclusively Particle Physicists. It is chaired by the Deputy Director of our Business Energy Industry Strategy group - a senior civil servant and includes members of the Science and Technology Facilities Council.
      In summary - for the UK there is a range of people 'deemed qualified' to judge on our contribution to CERN.

    2. RGT,

      I am not disputing the procedures established by the UK or CERN to decide how to spend their money.

      However, I have found in public debates that those of us with Ph.D.s in HEP who do not currently hold positions in the field are dissed by those who do hold positions on the grounds that we are not qualified to discuss such matters.

      That's absurd. If anything, as people familiar with the field who do not have any financial interests one way or the other, physicists such as myself and Sabine are actually more objective than those physicists who stand to gain financially from certain funding decisions.

      An obvious point, I would think.

    3. Dave,
      In your previous comment you said
      "It is an interesting world where the only people deemed "qualified" to judge whether a multi-billion dollar (or Euro) expenditure is worthwhile are those who would personally benefit from the expenditure!"
      This is imprecise as it applies only to the public debate.
      It's obvious that there is a difference between the public debate as carried out in e.g. this blog and other social media and the 'political' debate which involves the bodies which allocate funding. Whether those involved in the public debate are 'qualified' to judge on funding is open to question and will to a degree depend on one's personal bias. The best that can be said is that everyone is entitled to express their point of view.
      But whilst the public debate may influence to an extent the thinking of the funding bodies it is these bodies not CERN employees, the particle physics community or the public which control the funding. We could argue that only these bodies are 'qualified' to make a judgement on funding. And, as I pointed out previously, for the UK the responsible body comprises a selection of scientists, engineers and civil servants the majority (or possibly all) of whom have no financial interest - if CERN closed down tomorrow not one of these folk would be out of a job.

    4. RGT said, "We could argue that only these bodies are 'qualified' to make a judgement on funding. And, as I pointed out previously, for the UK the responsible body comprises a selection of scientists, engineers and civil servants the majority (or possibly all) of whom have no financial interest..."

      Well, I take your point, but how do these assorted worthies make their decisions?? I know lots of engineers, ranging from civil engineers (e.g., my sister-in-law) to EEs. Almost none of them remembers almost anything from their very basic QM course: I've found that they do not even know that energy conservation in QM is basically resonance (they tend to think it is a separate, independent hypothesis).

      They certainly have no concept at all of how superstring theory works, of preons or technicolor, of LQG, or of whatever your favorite BSM model is.

      So, how do they decide how valuable some proposed research program in physics is? They have to ask physicists. We're the only people who have any inkling of what is going on.

      And, at least when I was in HEP, it was taken for granted that anyone in academic HEP who was not a booster for more spending, especially bigger colliders, was a traitor to the field.

      Do you think I am mistaken? If so, can you show anyone currently active in academic HEP who publicly agrees with any of the points Sabine has made?

      I left academic HEP some years ago, and Sabine recently made the decision to end her academic involvement, so we are both free to say what we think. My credentials are better than most in the field: BS Caltech, Ph.D. Stanford, studied under or worked for Feynman, Weinberg, Perl, Richter, Schwitters, etc.

      Do you think the HEP establishment is encouraging funding agencies to listen to people like Sabine and me (there are, after all, thousands of us who have Ph.D.s in the field but who are no longer in academic HEP)?

      When I was at SLAC, I found out a bit about how you get to be on the advisory committees (e.g., HEPAP) that recommend funding priorities. Hint: advocating for less funding is not the way to get on HEPAP; furthermore, I knew of no one who had expertise in the field but who was not in the current academic structure who got on HEPAP.

      I'm frankly amazed that Sabine actually is having an impact on the debate from outside the academic establishment. I would have told her it was impossible!

    5. “But how do these assorted worthies make their decisions? I know lots of engineers, ranging from civil engineers to EEs. Almost none of them remembers almost anything from their very basic QM course: I've found that they do not even know that energy conservation in QM is basically resonance. They certainly have no concept at all of how superstring theory works, of preons or technicolor, of LQG, or of whatever your favorite BSM model is. They have to ask physicists. We're the only people who have any inkling of what is going on.”

      Mightn’t implicit understandings of the fundamentals of Einstein’s gravity and Noether’s theorem from before their formalizations yet be of worth? And with those five less items of subsequent baggage, mightn’t one more easily skip over at least four of the five above listed obstacles? Wishful thinking notwithstanding; standing alone in a world of questionable information, that one surely has worth.

    6. Emmette Davidson asked me:"Mightn’t implicit understandings of the fundamentals of Einstein’s gravity and Noether’s theorem from before their formalizations yet be of worth?" Hmmm... I'm not sure I understand your point. If you're suggesting that engineers understand those concepts, they don't. (I've known some very, very bright engineers, but they're not physicists.)

      I stand by my point that policymakers are necessarily going to have to gather advice from physicists concerning proposed physics projects, and academic physicists currently involved in HEP tend to be a tribe that self-consciously defends their own tribal interests.

    7. While it could be true that almost no engineer remembers almost anything of all the many questionable things they’ve learned, certainly all the physicists in the all the world holding all encyclopedic knowledge of it cannot now resolve our esteemed host’s problem: "Why do we still not know what dark matter is made of?”; else there’d be a grain of wheat in that googol of chaff. So it might well be wondered, who of motivated physicists or wistful engineer is now best to to resolve the outstanding matter imagine the world’s unique, comprehensible and fundamental reality, i.e. the sublime construct of beautiful Emmy’s dark bridge to griefful Albert (as sure as dinosaurs are dead).

  16. There are couple of really good popular books on the Psychology of cognitive bias that are written for non-psychologist’s. “Thinking, fast and slow.” By Daniel Kahneman. Who won a Nobel prize in economics for his work with Amos Tversky (deceased at time of Daniel’s nominations) on Behavioral Economics. Another good book on cognitive bias is “Predictably Irrational” by Dan Ariely. Ariely even goes so far as to explain how he sometimes falls prey to cognitive biases that he has researched, experimented with and published about. So even though he is an expert on the subject he still sometimes gets tripped up by the oddities of how the human brain is wired. Both books are well written and very interesting to read.

  17. I know I have cognitive biases; but I don't know what they are. How can I learn to recognize when I'm being misled by one of them? What are the telltale signs, in my thinking or behavior?

    1. Jim,

      I am afraid there is no one method that works in general. Really the best you can do, I think, is to look at the known cognitive biases because that will help you recognize them.

      I know it looks like a long list, but many of them are actually quite similar, so you'll get the hang of it quickly. As some other commenters have pointed out, there are also a variety of popular science books that have been written about the topic (Kahneman's ahead of all).

      Also, a lot of cognitive biases go hand in hand with logical fallacies, so learning the most common logical fallacies also helps. (Again, Google will give you a pretty good start.)

      Let me add that I think one can overdo it. Especially in situations that require social skills, cognitive biases can actually be a good thing.

    2. Dr Steven Novella (on staff at Yale Medical School and host of podcast "Skeptics Guide to the Universe" has this advice (paraphrased) in what is sometimes referred to as metacognition (thinking about your thought process):

      It is important to apply the rules of critical thinking to yourself, but there are barriers to this. Once you invest your ego in a conclusion, motivated reasoning will distort and bias your critical thinking in that direction. In the end, you will still be wrong; you will just be more confident in your error. If, on the other hand, you invest your ego in the process of critical thinking, and not in any particular conclusion, then you will be freer to follow the logic and evidence wherever it leads. You will, in fact, take pride in the ability to change your opinion as new information becomes available.

  18. Bee,

    do you think ed witten genius and his commitment to string theory is a source of these cognitive biases as many of these popular books on string theory mention him.

    what sort of QG research should undergraduate physics majors with no cognitive bias pursue a graduate degree in which QG ?

    1. Neo,

      I've never met Witten. But I recently talked to someone who knows Witten and on that occasion asked what it would take for Witten to give up string theory. The response I got was that Witten likes working on string theory because one can do calculations with it. So, basically, he has no reason to give it up.

      It's an interesting answer in that of course I used "giving up" to mean "no longer consider it a useful description of nature". But I think the answer makes total sense because really neither Witten nor anyone who works on string theory actually cares much about describing nature. They work on it just because there's things to calculate. (The way that other people have frequently put it to me is that it is mathematically "fruitful".)

      I have no major problem with that in principle, except that this isn't science and shouldn't be sold as science.

      "what sort of QG research should undergraduate physics majors with no cognitive bias pursue a graduate degree in which QG ?"

      There are no physics majors without cognitive biases. Everyone has cognitive biases. You, I, even Witten. We will never entirely get rid of those biases, we can only learn to recognize in which situations our brains get mislead and try to prevent those situations from occurring in scientific research.

      Having said this, I am as biased as everyone else and therefore cannot answer the question.

    2. " But I think the answer makes total sense because really neither Witten nor anyone who works on string theory actually cares much about describing nature. "

      "I have no major problem with that in principle, except that this isn't science and shouldn't be sold as science."

      "Having said this, I am as biased as everyone else and therefore cannot answer the question."

      is there any QG that may make contact with experiment say 5-10 years down the road?

    3. neo,

      5-10 years, I don't think so. 20-40 years: I wrote about this here and here.

  19. Hi Sabine - I thought you were going to characterize the response that mentioned "robot bees" as a "false dilemma" logical fallacy. Although it is certainly an insulting (ad hominem) attack, it also pits two AND ONLY TWO alternatives as being possible - either you are wrong or tens of thousands of physicists are wrong. That kind of either/or thinking is frequently not satisfactory.

    1. John,

      I recognize a false dichotomy if I see one, but why steal my commenters all the fun? ;)

  20. Even within scientific communities full of active, curious minds, the inherent limits of human cognition and communication unavoidably make possible the formation of self-propagating, discipline-wide false consensuses and perceptive biases. By a "perceptive bias" I mean an inability even to 'see' certain data as important, let alone assess that data objectively. They are Kahneman's "fast think" mechanism, to use another terminology. Biological intelligences use perceptive biases constructively to help triage sensory data and thus prevent overload. However, such biases can also be misused, especially when the users are unaware of them and so make no efforts to "tune" their data perception and prioritization processes.

    Here's a quote from 1962 that accurately summarizes a deeply entrenched, community-wide scientific bias of that time:

    "[German meteorologist Alfred] Wegener suggested ... that once there was a single, giant continental mass called Pangaea... In time Pangaea cracked apart, and the pieces wandered away from one another to produce the continents of today... [However] Exceedingly precise measurements reveal no lateral motions of the continents whatsoever today... For all these reasons the theory of continental drift was abandoned by nearly all geologists... Theories in science live or die by the sword of experiment, and no matter how attractive they may seem to the layman, unless they agree with observation they cannot be taken seriously." From pages 88-89 of The Earth, Life Nature Library, 1962, by Arthur Beiser.

    In the decade that followed, the discovery and study of mid-oceanic ridges not only confirmed Wegener's ideas, but transformed them into the very foundation of modern geology. Many of the views implied by the quote above were simply not true, but were at that time were accepted as true by most (particularly American) geologists simply because they were so 'obviously' right and incontrovertible, and so universally agreed-to.

  21. @Terry
    Please keep in mind that before the discovery of the oceanic ridges, there was absolutely no mechanism known that could explain the movements of the continents. Wegener himself (at least at some time) favoured centrifugal forces, which is more or less absurd. So actually, there were reasons to dismiss his theory.

    One thing to at least keep yourself on your toes: Whenever you like the outcome of an argument and it confirms what you thought already, be especially wary. Try to put yourself into the shoes of someone who does not like this results and see what they would come up with as counter-argument.
    Whenever I have a new idea in my scientific work, the first thing I do is trying to destroy it.
    Of course this does *not* mean that I'm not biased.

    1. @MartinB: "...centrifugal forces, which is more or less absurd. So actually, there were reasons to dismiss his theory."

      A bad explanation is not a reason to dismiss his evidence, which is what happens when people dismiss a theory and forget that theory was an attempt to explain evidence, which was abundant and no other theory could account for it. The evidence for continental drift included nearly exact matches in age and composition of rock formations, separated by an ocean; too many to dismiss as chance. It also included matching fossils of animals and plant life.

      The only plausible explanation for this is a split, yet that clear evidence was dismissed for decades because "there was no theory."

      Darwin wrote about inheritance of traits with no knowledge of genetics and thus no clear theory for how it might transpire, or how entirely new species might arise, despite the title of his book. But at least to some, his evidence and reasoning was overwhelming.

      The lesson to take away is that evidence should not be ignored because it doesn't fit into the prevailing dogma of the time, even if that dogma is literally (or practically) a religion accepted by nearly all theorists in the field.

      If a theory fails to explain clear and incontrovertible evidence in some testable way (like continental drift, or anomalous speeds of outer stars in a galaxy), then the theory is flawed. Bad or untestable alternative theories can be dismissed as well, but the evidence they attempted to explain is still sitting there, awaiting a testable theory.

    2. MartinB, Dr. A.M. Castaldo,

      Thank you both for the well-stated points and discussion.

      Theories typically have two components that should be as loosely coupled as possible, both in their original presentation (e.g. Wegener's) and in the broader analytical searches that subsequently use them to navigate theory space (geological theory circa 1950s and earlier). These are:
      (a) a data fit argument, and
      (2) a mechanism argument.

      Tying these components together too tightly impedes progress by limiting the combinatorial exploration options in theory space. The data fit part of Wegener's argument was the remarkable similarity of certain continental coastlines, plus related geology and biology across those coastlines. The mechanism was unknown, with centrifugal forces as a weak possibility. It is interesting that geologists denigrated the importance of his coastal match argument because it was only approximate, not exact. More realistically, an asserted near-perfect match (e.g. the assertion that tens of thousands of physicists are in full lock-step against one) is actually a contraindication of a good data match. A high-perfection assertion is instead far more likely to generated by a deep cognitive bias against contradictory data, a sort of "methinks the gentleman doth protest too loudly."

      MOND is at present in a remarkably similar situation to Wegener's hypothesis.

      I recall reading an old Scientific American article in which a charts showed how remarkably close the predictions of the MOND hypothesis were to actual galactic motion data uncovered much later. (I don't recall the article title. Anyone?) Dark matter in contrast had to be tweaked and baked and adjusted and modified to get anywhere close to such fits, at a much higher complexity cost ("land bridges sink, land bridges rise"). Strong curve fits are ignored at peril, since the probability of such fits quickly approaches zero as the curve acquires even modest complexity. The message now as then was that such curve fits are ignored only at great peril. As with plate tectonics, however, the exact mechanism behind this particular improbable curve fit remains unknown.

      What a tantalizing theory clue MOND is when it is interpreted as a data-fitting hypothesis!

    3. @Dr. AM Castaldo
      I totally agree. Simply dismissing Wegener was not the right thing to do. However, this story is so often framed in the "dogmatic scientists simply disregarded the obvious explanation" that I always feel the need to counter this impression.

  22. MartinB, yes, always making the effort to see and respect the opposing point of view is so very important. And, also, being wary of that rush of satisfaction when we see it being shot down.

  23. Unaware, unrecognized bias is a basic human function. I'm continually frustrated seeing how much it has slowed and slows scientific progress. The crux of the problem is the self, if you don't think your bias in your work or views you most definitely are. Recognizing just how natural a behavior bias is, and how much effort it takes to limit its influence is a big step in being more objective.

    Telling others how they are bias is mostly a waste of time (guilty). Individuals rarely believe they have any problem; it’s the “other guy”. The scientific method is practiced subjectively, the giants of the past did it and I see no reason to believe this will ever change. It is an extraordinarily rare individual that knows just how bias they are and how much constant effort it takes to try and suppress their own biases.

  24. It all boils down to the money. Optimizing scant resources makes decisions easy. It is all about getting the most bang for the buck.

    There are fields of science that have more commercial promise than other fields. These fields should be where the investments in science should be directed. One of the most commercially exciting of these fields is high temperature hydrides (superhydrides) including ultra dense hydrogen as a technology that enables room temperature superconductivity.

    Illustrating the potential value of this investment, using this technology in a particle accelerator would drastically cut the cost of building this instrument.

    In fact, pumping money into superhydrides might be viewed as a back handed way of funding particle accelerator development.

  25. i don't think anyone has a problem with arguing if we should build a new super higher energy collider. There is a legitimate discussion as to if it makes more sense to go after more indirect ways of probing the universe. I think the problem is when you publicly decide to declare the entire field of particle physics a failure and come close to accusing them of lying to the public for personal and professional gain. Ironically you are the one writing books and profiting . Further you cry fowl any time someone attacks you and cry for public sympathy yet you are constantly making personal attacks and then claiming you really aren't. Grow up.

    1. kbot,

      I did not "declare the entire field of particle physics a failure". That's nonsense which you have fabricated.

      You claim that I have personally attacked someone. Please produce an example for this claim.

    2. @kbot: I think the physicists advocating for a bigger collider will profit a whole lot more than Dr. Hossenfelder will profit from her book. They will profit in the form of years of salary and other perks, like paid travel expenses to conferences, as a result of getting the collider funded. That would likely be several hundred thousand US$ each over the life of the new collider, and likely tens of $millions in profit over-all. or would you rather forget that?

      And "fowl" is a bird. The phrase is "cry foul", as in the game of basketball when somebody breaks the rules, such as illegal physical contact with another player. Everybody should cry foul when it happens, nobody should let others break the rules of the game.

      To the extent Dr. Hossenfelder cries foul, she is legitimately calling out ad hominem attacks (like yours), falsehoods and other fallacies that break the rules in the game of rational argument.

    3. most particle physicists will be paid if they build an FCC or not and continue to travel if it gets built or not. So that is just silly. They would just work on another experiment. No - she is getting rich from spending her time attacking people.

    4. No, it is not silly. Without an FCC, most particle physicists that would have worked on it would then have to, like other college professors, have to write proposals, get grants, and be otherwise far less financially secure. Not to mention they might have to teach, eating up 2/3 of their time to work on research.

      This is a function of collective action; like a hundred men of a village getting together to build a single protective fence around the whole village: It is a far smaller perimeter than the sum total of perimeters if each man built a fence around their own house, so each man has to do less work. Do the math; you can presume they have equal sized houses within the same perimeter as the village fence, and 20% of the interior space is devoted to pathways between houses. Your time starts ... now.

      So no. I don't think Dr. Hossenfelder is getting rich, certainly not on the scale of the SCAM Collider, I think she is doing a service to science by pointing out the ludicrous and false arguments being made by particle physicists as only another particle physicist can.

      The collider proponents are being intentionally misleading about the prospects for discovery in order to secure half a career of funding in a single blow for hundreds of them. Working together, that is less work for them individually with far greater rewards individually by sharing the spoils.

      That's why we do things collectively! It reduces our average individual cost and allows much bigger things to be done. Whether the big things we choose to do together are ethically sound or not.

  26. Bias can be good, e.g., the probability of success of a line of research times the probability that you will be the one to first to succeed in that line is a priori low, and still people conduct research.

    1. Bias does have positive influences along with negative however, scientists need to make a much greater effort to understand how much more their work is influenced by it then they realize. It causes them to be unaware their scientific method is corrupted by their own subjectivity.

      The solution is not to point fingers at others but to be more honest with ourselves.

  27. It's ironic that your own bias against particle physics makes many of your arguments hyperbolic and obtuse to those of us who are not in either camp.

    Murray Gell-Man is his review of your book had some good points to make, whereas your response was nit-picky and overly defensive.

    1. Arshad,

      Of course I have biases. I strive hard to avoid them. Please let me know what mistake you think I made and I will correct it.

      I cannot recall Gell-Man reviewing my book. Do you by any chance mean Glashow? Different guy, that. In case that's what you are referring to, I did not "nit-pick", I simply pointed out that the review contains mistakes and assigns opinions to me that I do not hold and have never voiced.

      If you cannot even stand me correcting a Nobel Prize winner about the content of a book I wrote myself, you should Google "Halo Effect."

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  28. I note there appears to be a lot of Anchoring Bias in a lot of subjects. Especially because before everyone has learned the math of a subject, one had already accepted the narrative, which will become a problem unless the narrative is an absolutely accurate translation of the math.

    Alone, this could be fixed in a discussion, but in its "armed with science" variant, things get harder. Here, one goes to great lengths to prove how A, B, C and D follow from observation-supported theory, and then goes on to declare that because of this, E would be absurd (E looking less "natural" than the others), and that would be so obvious that any further discussion would be in vain.

    One is so convinced that the case is ironclad that one neglects an important point: The theory also predicts E, and the scientific way to act would be to change the narrative to conform to theory instead of defending the narrative one has so much faith in.

    This can appear together with the next problem: Wanting to solve problem Z instead of problem A. In its positive form, using one's energy to solve problem Z is useful - as long as one remains aware of what one is doing.

    The negative extreme would be denying problem A even exists - like reacting to "2 plus 3 is 5" with "no, 2 times 3 is 6, you're completely wrong". At this point, it wouldn't even help to say "2 plus 3 is 5, and 2 times 3 is 6" - to the true believer, that would appear like changing your mind within a second and/or swearing contradictions.

    A third fallacy would be to remove something because one expects problems with it, then to realize one would need it and put in a replacement instead of the original - and still expects the results to be trustworthy.

    E.g. one would not use 1/x because there could be problems with undefined results, then finds one needs it - and decides to put in the average value of 1/x which is 0 as a replacement. If x is far from 0 the result would usually be a good approximation - but there were never going to be any problems anyway. The closer one comes to the problem, the more the results become an untrustworthy mess. Again, the scientific way is to drop the narrative and directly look at the original math.

  29. An excellent article dealing with the state of LENR today. See:

    Dr Huw Price is a scientist/Philosopher who has overcome the group think pervasive in science.

    Huw Price is Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy and a Fellow of Trinity College at the University of Cambridge. He is Academic Director of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, and a co-founder with Martin Rees and Jaan Tallinn of the Center for the Study of Existential Risk. Before moving to Cambridge he was ARC Federation Fellow and Challis Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sydney, where from 2002—2012 he was founding Director of the Center for Time.

    1. In this case, the groupthink will have to be overcome by demonstrable practical utility. When you've had to change your name like ValueJet, to try to make people forget that you crashed and burned, you have a big hump to get over.

  30. Late entry to the debate but there's an article titled "Why science needs philosophy" published a couple of days ago in the Proceedings Of The National Association of Sciences (USA):

  31. As an outsider, I can recognize the origin of Sabine's options about the lack of creativity and imagination that currently exists in particle physics. Why is a particle accelerator the only tool that can inform how particles behave?

    Why can't solid state physics be used to develop tools to explore the basic fabric of nature?

    Recently for example, currents of chiral fermions have been generated using the Weyl semimetal Tantalum Arsenide and through the application of photovoltaic stimulation.

    I am sure that you'll can come up with a way to verify the theoretically predicted behaviors that have been made associated with chiral particles without resorting to the use of a county sized particle accelerator just by using a slab of metal and a laser. Some small amount of imagination can save a lot of research money.

    1. Axil,

      "Why can't solid state physics be used to develop tools to explore the basic fabric of nature?"

      Roughly speaking because solid state physics probes an entirely wrong regime of parameter space. Maybe there are ways that it can be done, but I do not know of any. So, I am afraid, this idea is not a workable route.

  32. Perhaps the most fundamental and important cognitive bias is believing that you are right and the person disagreeing with you is wrong and, subordinate to that, believing that the reason you're right and they cannot be is that YOU have reached your conclusion based on a careful and rational examination of the evidence, while THEY somehow have not.

    But the truth is, that of all the things you hold to be true at this point in time, it is a given that you will turn out to be wrong about a certain number of them. You may even turn out to be wrong about what you're arguing at the moment (the flawed logic of "yes, I may be wrong about SOME things, but not THIS" being obvious, one would hope).

  33. Thanks a lot Sabine for raising your head, risking yourself but challenging the top predator of scientific food chain i.e. Particle physics community. That have a very high image of themselves as being an elite force of science. But your book adequately demonstrates where these string theorists are going wrong. May the force be with you in this endeavour

  34. You forgot the "Sabine Hossenfelder Bias." That's the one where people like me hold off judgement on something, e.g., the Muon G-2, until we know what Sabine thinks of it.


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