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The Science of Hubris
Math, certainity and whither 'our science'?
Bright B. Simons (baronsimon)     Print Article 
Published 2006-09-07 06:30 (KST)   
Now that they have kicked Pluto out of the solar system without a jot of bother what the rest of us might think -- it is after all a shared solar system, isn't it? -- rather like a posse of Churchmen in conclave settling some matter of doctrine, perhaps our astronomers and their colleague scientists will settle down to the far more urgent issue of sorting out the foundations of the physical sciences, upon which the rest of the scientific system presumably stands.

We all know that science has in the past few decades eclipsed all other branches of learning by claiming a basis of certainty far surpassing all its rivals. Physics in particular has assured us time and time again that its premises are solid, beyond question. Consequently the adjective "scientific" has become the ultimate descriptor of "absolute truth," the label assigned to a proposition that inspires unwavering confidence.

And yet what is the real situation?

Not a single one of physics' most fundamental objects of study: its trinity of holiness: energy, mass and time, has as yet been explained to any real degree of rigor.

With regards to the perplexing puzzle of mass, Dr. Mary and Ian Butterworth of Imperial College admit: "We can't be said to understand the constituents of matter if we don't have a satisfactory answer to this question."

Steve Carlip of the University of California Davis, an assiduous physics web-archivist, considers the energy question unresolved from looking at the experimental and theoretical evidence, and says so at every turn. Indeed scientists must now also contend with the possibility of "dark energy," which if conclusively proven will complicate matters even more.

As for time, I leave the subject to Gary Stix, of Scientific American fame, whose poetic eloquence, far outshining my own, highlights rather than glosses over a worrying situation: "The pace of living quickens continuously, yet a full understanding of things temporal still eludes us." And now that it has become evident that the familiar coupling of three dimensions to time is definitely ripe for revision, only God knows what may yet transpire. Maybe time will tell.

It is widely known that since the last days of Einstein science has been in the grips of a schism, with the two great theoretical systems of physics: general relativity and quantum theory mutually incomprehensible to each other. What is not as often remarked upon is that this quarrel overlaps and envelops many other not-so-minor contentions, dilemmas and enigmas, all of which abrades at the foundations of the discipline.

It has been years since I last held an active interest in the matter; at the time, the fate of mass was being said to hinge on a new particle called the Higgs Boson. It seems now however that Dr. Peter Higgs' fabulous creature may not be the "eureka" revelation some had hoped it was. Or, if it does resolve the issue, something else will pop up along the way to unsettle everything once again. Because it is the very attitude of modern physics to resolve every complication with the "discovery" of a new particle that, partly, has spawned the multiplicity of difficulties.

Since a large number of these particles are too eccentric to be adequately observed experimentally, the "particle picture" of the universe has led to another situation: a domination of the fundamental fields of physics -- high energy physics, phenomenology, cosmology etc. -- by mathematics, and thereby by adepts of math.

When Dr. Faddeev, Chairman of the Fields Committee, was presenting Mathematics' equivalent of the Nobel Prize to Edward Witten of the Institute of Advanced Study(*) in 1990 he had sought to justify the choice of a physicist for the award by reminding the audience of the impact of pure physics on mathematical theory in days gone by. But the real reason, as must have been obvious to anyone present, is that physics now lags mathematics so much, and tugs at the latter's apron strings so tightly, that the brightest physicists increasingly ply their trade in advanced mathematics. Consequently, it is here that they must win their accolades.

Take Witten for instance. In the pantheon of physics' gods, he shares a plinth with Feynmann and Dirac on a mount above the likes of Oppenheimer and Bohr. He is famous for claiming to have discovered a system that holds for all string theories -- a genuine ultimate theory, or as they say in physics, a Unified Theory. He calls it M theory, where M is, like so many aspects of the New Physics, unknown. The hope is that this system will heal the schism in physics and allow a surer basis for the description of the subject as an "exact science."

But right from the beginning, string theory's absolute reliance on the loftiest of mathematical technique had even the most able practitioners of science distressed. Feynman could not hide his discomfort: "I do feel strongly that this [string theory] is nonsense!... I think all this superstring stuff is crazy and is in the wrong direction... all these numbers...have no explanations in these string theories -- absolutely none!" This was Feynman speaking, he to whom even geniuses defer.

That was almost two decades ago. Today, matters have almost come to blows.

Peter Woit, an advanced maths lecturer at Columbia University and the young Lubos Motl, regarded by some as the chief enforcer for the Harvard elite of string theory, which nevertheless defers to Witten's regime at Princeton, have now resorted to slugging it out in cyberspace, not only about string theory but about science itself, what is it, how is it to be conducted. The dispute though currently takes the form largely of personal attacks about each other's credentials with Motl throwing the most vicious punches.

It appears this sad state of affairs is inevitable. The latest stage in the attempt to establish a unified theory of physics -- combining the five or so string theories into a multi-dimensional whole -- is so incredibly abstract-mathematical that few can dare make contributions in the mould of the fertile early debates that carried physics to its dizzying heights.

It is not just a matter of ability, it is also one of imagination, as it should be when dealing with entities that go by names of orbifolds and orientifolds that twist and vibrate according to eccentric rhythms, but above all a matter of whether or not one has spent the bulk of one's working life studying diabolically knotty mathematical details. Thus, only the opinions of ultra-specialists matter.

Imagine then, giving such a background, the uproar when two French former TV science show performers, having enrolled themselves in Ph.D. programs, published a paper in reputable physics journals purporting to address fundamental but unresolved issues in physics such as "inertia." The paper gave the impression, as required nowadays, of pushing the frontiers of mathematics in the service of theoretical physics.

First there was a lull, and then pandemonium broke out. For it soon came to light that while the French scientists -- they are brothers by the way and their surname is Bogdanov -- appeared to have control of the language of advanced mathematics, it was impossible to glean anything of substance, in physics at least, from their paper. One referee who had futilely advised against the publication of the work, a Dr. Hawkins, effectively dismissed their highfalutin flourishes as nonsense. But the work, along with chest-thumping mathematical assertions, had gone to print, and now the matter had to be settled whether it had any connection to physical reality.

You would have thought this would be a simple exercise: the best specialists in the fields touched upon will just come out, intone clearly and authoritatively what is sense and what is nonsense, and then swiftly lead a debate amongst their peers to pass judgement on the output of these two upstart rousers. Alas, no such consensus was to be found amongst physics' brightest.

A number of experts in the areas of controversy entered the fray to affirm the abject incoherence of the Bogdanov paper. John Baez, a noted theoretician, took them on in cyberspace vowing to strip them naked. The Bogdanov brothers weren't going to take it lying down. Clad in an armory of jargon, they fended off any straight request for an explanation of their principal claims by spewing forth copious amounts of mathematical trivia.

Which perhaps, rather than academic integrity, is the real issue of concern. One of the major defensive devices the Bogdanovs employed to disconcerting effect was that many of the central premises of their calculations were "conjectural." The essence of this defense is that to illuminate certain very important processes, one might relax certain physical constraints and proceed as if they didn't exist. This is a useful technique for trying to understand complex systems, but obviously must be used sparingly as they provide "contingent" or incomplete accounts of situations. Yet, it may be argued that much of the current approach to unravelling the universe by way of theoretical physics relies too much on unrestrained "conjectural" reasoning.

To replicate this universe in the rational domain, a whole new universe is created mathematically. Scientists then use this model to systemically and methodically "map" features in the original universe. But when this process is interrupted to allow for further refinements of the model, as invariably happens, and the refinement is prolonged for any reason, the temptation arises to treat the model as a self-contained reality and it becomes less and less clear as time goes on that the original intention was to map the model to its source object, that is the universe as we experience it.

The mathematical esoterica therefore moves from the exotic to the quixotic as multiple translations continue. For instance, when after tiresome and sustained distillation, the crux of the Bogdanov thesis was chained down, it appeared the central contention boiled down, to paraphrase very crudely, to whether a Foucault pendulum swung at the instant of the Big Bang would have had uniform effects. The point seems hopelessly off the rack seeing that the Big Bang did not occur at a particular location or moment but everywhere at the beginning of time itself. But delve a little deeper and the whole discussion descends into a quagmire of topology and non-classical metrics. The discussion decays, echoing Dr. Baez's original summary of the Bogdanov thesis, into a "mishmash of superficially plausible sentences containing the right buzzwords in approximately the right order."

Even hallowed constructs like space-time, popularized most of all by Stephen Hawkin, risk becoming artefacts when their mathematical constraints (as regards dynamical referencing for instance) are taken for granted.

Some indeed question whether the fault lies in the quest itself. Perhaps any mathematical description of the universe will be incomplete fundamentally seeing as even for the simplest of phenomenon mathematics can only "summarize" broad outlines rather than the interesting bits of causal and consequential phenomena. You could conceivably devise a system of equations to describe what is happening in Iraq, but will it seriously amount to a "description" in the philosophical sense of "understanding"?

What is worse, this "mathematicization" could be spilling out of academia into commercial R&D too. Jan Schon, regarded until then as a rising star, utilized mathematical functions to simulate experimental conditions, and then recorded the results as if he had actually conducted the experiments, effectively to cheat. Bell Labs gave him the boot when they found out. But the damage to reputations was already done, as Schon had shown that one could outmanoeuver the system for years upon end with minimal risk of apprehension.

Are we venturing to a stage where even within science itself the ablest experts, together with the community at large, are trapped in a mire of intensifying uncertainty? If so, is this merely a reflection of the fact that the discipline is experiencing turbulent transitional stages that will soon pass, or is it a sign of something more sinister?

An answer to the above question is important giving the results of some recent studies. The Brazilian newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo in July of this year reported an experiment in which a physicist posed an identical set of questions to a natural and a social scientist and then sent two reports containing their answers: one to a group of physicists and another to a team of social scientists. Amazingly the social scientists did better than the physicists in discerning which answer had come from the natural scientists and which had come from the social scientists.

The growing erosion of certainty within, about and in Science will not have mattered if it wasn't for the socio-political fact that science does subsist on its certainty as a means of leverage in the marketplace of ideas and within the technocratic establishment.

One area where this state of affairs is most evident is in the legal system where expert witnesses ply their trade and in the forensic community where increasingly science is the dominant mode of criminology. In the United Kingdom, for instance, two incidents involving the absolute validity of scientific opinion recently unsettled many policy observers and legal spectators. The first was the Professor Sir Roy Meadow "scandal," in which an eminent pediatrician was accused of having sent many now perceived as innocent women to jail through the sheer force of his theory, the Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. The second is the growing concern about the "assumed infallibility" of fingerprinting science, which came to a head in a January 2004 investigation that suggested that potentially thousands of people may have been wrongly convicted on the strength of such "scientific evidence."

In such circumstances, worries about science's supposed certainty becomes less academic and much more of a socio-political issue. The political nature of doubt and certainty is further illuminated when open rifts among scientists spill over into, as described above, the legal arena. But perhaps, society ought to be just as aware of rifts even when they are largely confined within the scientific community itself.

John Hopkins' Andrew Cheung's outburst, in space daily, at the IAU's decision on Pluto illustrates the growing discomfort within science's own ranks about the creeping rule by committee that threatens to transform science into petty politics, and advises the lay public to be wary of assuming an objectivity of the scientific process that even the practitioners themselves will blush at contemplating.

When "objectivity" is mentioned, the intention is not to allude to the belabored thesis of an underlying randomness about the scientific method, perhaps echoing Kuhn. Science is definitely not becoming like a religion. Religion, being the day-to-day lives of the faithful is a blend of faith, spirituality and doctrine that confers identity as well sustenance.

But the fear is that Science is becoming like a theology. Theology is a rationally-inspired methodological inquiry into the mind of God. Was the soul of Christ partly human or wholly divine? Is the Holy Spirit present in all places and at all times at the same level of concentration or is he more pronounced within the Godhead? It is not surprising that many theologians, especially of the German School, are non-religious scholars dedicated to rigorous study of not only belief but the logic that underlie belief.

When today one eavesdrops on scientific quarrels and disputes, the semblance to early Christian theological squabbling about "heresies" feels all too palpable to be dismissed. Catholic canon law says "the subject-matter of both faith and heresy is, therefore, the deposit of the faith, that is, the sum total of truths." The analogy in science is that this sum total of truths is the organized body of theories which administers research. Any new piece of knowledge must be consistent with the whole scheme. Without the essential difference of modesty about certainty and wariness about affirmation of truth on the basis primarily of hierarchy, the two systems -- the theological and the scientific -- become indistinguishable.

This would not matter much if doing science required just about the same amount of resources as doing theology does, or if the distinction between pure science and technology was as inconsequential as that between theology and religion, in social material terms. This is manifestly not the case: science evokes expectations, and exercises that leverage for economic and political power. So, it will be good all round, for the scientific community as well as for the lay public, if the true situation in science was much widely appreciated.

As the physicist Arkadiusz Jadczyk, of the University of Wroclaw, asserts: "If you are not in the business you do not know the inside scoop. You believe science is 'an all objective process.' The truth is: it is not. The truth is: it is getting worse and worse, and harder and harder to distinguish between a hoax (intended or not) and 'real effort.'"

This is not to denigrate the genuine and obvious brilliance of the good and great of science, or to alarm the many -- cancer sufferers, infertile couples, energy activists -- whose faith are deeply anchored in science's ability to produce wonders. Jadczyk's assertion is to express the reality that science is still an unfinished symphony, a situation that even a mathematical fanfare that succeeds in instilling awe into the lay public and in breeding ecclesiasticism within science itself, can mask only for so long. Until this basic condition changes, the discipline must temper its claims of certainty, and thereby the risk of accumulating unmet social expectations.

For it is unmet expectations that led philosophy to break away from theology, and science to part from philosophy. One should not think for a moment that a realistic science that appreciates the above reality cannot one day be forced to break away from the mathematical idealism now holding sway over the discipline.

(*) A previous version of this article mistakenly identified the Institute for Advanced Study as affiliated with Princeton University. Though the Institute, founded in 1930, was housed in a building on the Princeton University campus while its first building was under construction, it has never been part of the university. OhmyNews would like to thank a representative from the Institute for pointing out this error.

For an introduction to the Bogdanoff affair read here

Find out more about the Bogdanovs' paper here

Read Dr. Hawkins' assessment of the Bogdanov paper that eventually got published here
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Bright B. Simons

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