John Horgan’s New York Times Op-Ed Piece

Today’s New York Times contains an Op-Ed piece by science writer John Horgan entitled In Defense of Common Sense. In it, Horgan takes an iconoclastic view of this year’s many celebrations of the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s great work of 1905, writing “In the midst of all this hoopla, I feel compelled to deplore one aspect of Einstein’s legacy: the widespread belief that science and common sense are incompatible.”

Horgan stirred up controversy in 1996 with the publication of his book The End of Science, where he claimed that most of the big discoveries in science have been made, forcing scientists to instead engage in what he calls “ironic science”. By this he means science done in a “speculative post-empirical mode”, something more like literary criticism, where claims are made that can never be shown to be right or wrong. While he saw this phenomenon taking place in many different areas of science, theoretical physics was where he had his strongest argument, pointing to controversies over the interpretation of quantum mechanics which seem to never be resolvable by experiment, and especially to string theory, which he describes in a later book as “science fiction in mathematical form.” Publication of his book made him rather unpopular in the science community and ultimately led to his leaving his position as an editor at Scientific American. At the time I thought he somewhat overstated his case, especially in trying to see the same pattern in a wide range of different sciences, but he had the insight and courage to put his finger on something very important that was going on in physics. Since 1973, the field has been a victim of its own success, suffering greatly from the fact that the Standard Model is just so good that it has been impossible to find experimental results that disagree with it, as well as impossible to find any convincing improvement on the model that would address any of the issues it leaves open. Horgan’s critique of string theory was forceful and on target, although to me his depiction of Witten seemed unnecessarily personally unkind.

I have mixed feelings about this latest piece of his, both strongly agreeing and strongly disagreeing with his defense of “common sense”. This comes down to what one means by “common sense”. One aspect of common sense is basically the standard scientific method and the norms traditionally used by scientists to evaluate what is good science and what isn’t. The sub-headline on Horgan’s piece “Beware of scientific theories that can’t be tested” involves this aspect. It’s just common sense to be skeptical of people who are making grandiose and radical claims unless they’ve got some good evidence for them, and string theory violates this notion of common sense. But I’m afraid Horgan conflates this kind of common sense with a different kind of “common sense”, the common sense about how the physical world behaves that is built into us based on the evolution of our species and our growing up in an enviroment where we interact with the world on a very specific scale of distances. This kind of common sense may not help us at all to understand how nature behaves at the atomic scale, near a black hole, etc., instead quantum mechanics and relativity are required, and these are subjects that don’t fit well with our notions of “common sense”, in the second of the two meanings. But even if they were initially counter-intuitive, both quantum mechanics and relativity were based on a wide range of detailed experimental evidence, something that overcame people’s qualms about whether they were violating “common sense”. Absent this kind of evidence, string theory is a very different story….

On a completely different topic, Lubos Motl has a posting about amazon.com censoring any criticism of a certain crackpot physics book. He’s started a contest, grand prize $3.00, which people may want to participate in.

Update: Lubos seems to have trouble telling apart John Horgan and John Hagelin….

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25 Responses to John Horgan’s New York Times Op-Ed Piece

  1. Nigel Cook says:

    ‘It’s just common sense to be skeptical of people who are making grandiose and radical claims unless they’ve got some good evidence for them…’

    Eddington, who verified GR in 1919 wrote in his 1920 book Space Time and Gravitation, p. 152: ‘The great stumbing-block for a philosophy which denies absolute space is the experimental detection of absolute rotation.’

    The best example of Einstein’s problems was the twin’s paradox, which is resolved by absolute acceleration, requiring general relativity, not special.

    It’s the popularisations of relativity, based on out of date stuff, which discredit common sense. Or else they go with one ‘interpretation’ and quote Bohr (defending Copenhagen Interpretation wavefunction collapse) saying: ‘Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.’

    This means that commonsense approaches, like the simple mechanism for gravity that Feynman discussed in a 1965 BBC lecture (click my name), are not encouraged, even if they give more testable predictions than string theory, and are consistent with general relativity!

  2. GWB says:

    More and more pundits grab upon the oxymoronical phrase “common sense” to justify their weak arguments. Wisdom is valued precisely because, in the face of complexity, sense is never common. So when I read Hogan’s Op/Ed this morning, I was turned off almost immediately by the use of the phrase “common sense”. Advances in science must be arrived at through the scientific method. This isn’t common sense, it’s science.

  3. Arun says:

    “But I’m afraid Horgan conflates this kind of common sense with a different kind of “common sense?, the common sense about how the physical world behaves that is built into us based on the evolution of our species and our growing up in an environment where we interact with the world on a very specific scale of distances.”

    I read Horgan differently. He’s saying because scientists found that physics doesn’t follow “common sense” in the above sense, scientists discard common sense altogether. That is, Horgan is saying that he recognizes the difference, while super string theorists, among other scientists, no longer do so.

    Namely, he says the following is the common exchange:

    Horgan: “Your theory is cannot be tested by experiment and so common sense leads me to say it is dead-end speculation”

    Scientist: “Quantum mechanics and relativity have taught us not to rely on common-sense”.

  4. Nigel Cook says:

    String theorist: “Quantum mechanics and relativity have taught us not to rely on common-sense?.

  5. LM says:

    Ha! When I looked at Lubos’s crackpot book on Amazon, it was paired with Weinberg’s ‘Dreams of a Final Theory’.

  6. rof says:

    “…a more convenient method of being defiant without any insight, viz., the appeal to common sense. It is indeed a great gift of God, to possess right, or (as they now call it) plain common sense. But this common sense must be shown practically, by well-considered and reasonable thoughts and words, not by appealing to it as an oracle, when no rational justification can be advanced. To appeal to common sense, when insight and science fail, and no sooner-this is one of the subtle discoveries of modern times, by means of which the most superficial ranter can safely enter the lists with the most thorough thinker, and hold his own. But as long as a particle of insight remains, no one would think of having recourse to this subterfuge. For what is it but an appeal to the opinion of the multitude, of whose applause the philosopher is ashamed, while the popular charlatan glories and confides in it?” – Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena

  7. Nigel Cook says:

    ‘Bohr was notorious for the obscurity of his writing. Yet … Bohr’s obscurity is attributed, time and again, to a “depth and subtlety” that mere mortals are not equipped to comprehend. Perhaps disclosure of another editorial oversight will demonstrate my point. In a widely used compendium of papers on quantum theory, edited by John Wheeler and Wojciech Zurek, the pages of Bohr’s reprinted article are out of order. This paper (Bohr’s response to the famous 1935 Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen critique of the standard Copenhagen interpretation) is widely cited in contemporary literature by physicists and philosophers of science. Yet I have never heard anybody complain that something is wrong with Bohr’s text in this volume. The mistake, it seems, is rarely noticed, even though it occurs in both the hard- and the soft-cover editions.

    ‘When physicists failed to find meaning in Bohr’s writings, no matter how hard they tried, they blamed themselves, not Bohr.’

    – Mara Beller (Barbara Druss Dibner Professor in History and Philosophy of Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel):
    http://www.mathematik.uni-muenchen.de/~bohmmech/BohmHome/sokalhoax.html

  8. Stephen says:

    “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now, All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”

    http://zapatopi.net/kelvin/quotes.html

    Note the date. Here we go again!

  9. Tony Smith says:

    Peter, you said:
    “… quantum mechanics and relativity … don’t fit well with our notions … of “common sense?, the common sense about how the physical world behaves that is built into us based on … our growing up in an enviroment where we interact with the world on a very specific scale of distances. …”.

    I disagree.
    Quantum mechanics is absolutely required to explain such aspects of our environment on our scale as interference patterns from double slits, not to mention the radioactivity of glowing watch dials and the change of color (red to orange to yellow) of heated iron.
    Relativity is absolutely required to explain such aspects of our environment on our scale as the constant speed of light.

    The only difference between the concepts of QM and R and concepts recognized earlier in human history, such as a sphere, is that children were playing with balls long before humans did double slit and speed of light experiments.

    In fact, I believe that QM and R could be taught to children very early if their parents and teachers would show them how to experience the relevant phenomena.

    Tony Smith
    http://www.valdostamuseum.org/hamsmith/

  10. Nigel says:

    Tony: when they observe interference in the double slit experiment, how do you explain it? Young’s explanation is that two light waves collide at a dark fringe, cancelling one another. Feynman says that nothing arrives at the dark fringes because the interference is caused by path interference with wave effects going through both slits even when just a single photon is used. So Young’s interpretation is false and path integrals are right. This also disproves Copenhagen since they would have the wavefunction collapse when someone sees the light from the interference fringes, when in fact you have to account for the two slits affecting a single photon. I don’t think Feynman used path integrals to explain the interference in his 1963 lectures, but he did after 1965.

  11. Arun says:

    Lubos Motl now has a post on John Horgan’s essay; and it almost perfectly illustrates my point made a few posts above.

    Horgan wrote :

    “The strings (or membranes, or whatever) are too small to be discerned by any buildable instrument, and the parallel universes are too distant. Common sense thus persuades me that these avenues of speculation will turn out to be dead ends.”

    and as expected, to evade this, Lubos Motl goes into a paean of how well-accepted physics defies common sense (i.e., the physical intuition that everyday life gives us). He does not address the common sense idea that the reason we accept common-sense (of the physical intuition type) defying physics is because the experimental evidence is overwhelming; all that Horgan is pointing out is that string theory is deficient in the common sense idea of having experimental support.

    IMO, Lubos Motl has also confused John Hagelin with John Horgan; and in general does everything he can, casting a wide net to examine all of John Horgan’s beliefs, to avoid facing John Horgan’s central point in this essay. The problem as always is that a person can be wrong on many things, but still right on one thing; the wrongness of all the other things does not provide any evidence on the one thing. This way of arguing is distasteful and resembles politicking more than scientific discourse. It resembles using Newton’s theology to discredit his physics.

  12. Simon says:

    I agree with the points Arun just made. Can’t think of anything to add.

  13. Chris W. says:

    On Cosmic Variance Sean Carroll summarized some recent remarks of David Z. Albert which seem relevant here:

    After some hesitation, David decided to go, and thought very carefully about the talk he would give. I can’t do justice to the precision with which he worded his presentation, but the basic message was essentially this: “When you are trying to figure out how the world works, there are two ways to proceed. One is to invent a story about Nature which serves to say something flattering about yourself. The other is to listen to the story that Nature itself tells, no matter what it may turn out to be. What you are doing is the former; science is the latter.?

    Most appeals to common sense sound like self-flattery, or shallow appeals to conventional opinion. There is a core to common sense which is not self-flattery, and is also at the core of science: When you suppose some assertion to be true, ask yourself, “how could I check this, ie, how could I know if this statement was false?”

    John Horgan is starting to sound like Gregg Easterbrook. When he says “I have also found common sense – ordinary, nonspecialized knowledge and judgment – to be indispensable for judging scientists’ pronouncements, even, or especially, in the most esoteric fields” for what exactly does he take common sense to be indispensable?

  14. Alejandro Rivero says:

    “Common sense” is a buzzword in philosophy of the language, a science that usually gets interesting politic scents. It is not to be confused with “lore” or with “culture” (the “conventional opinion” Chris mentions), and it implies the ability to travel thought logic inferences. To put an extreme example, to swim across Euclid book should be considered an ability of common sense.

  15. Chris W. says:

    From Albert Einstein:

    The years of anxious searching in the dark, with their intense longing, their alternations of confidence and exhaustion and the final emergence into the light – only those who have experienced it can understand it.

    This does not describe the experience of the confident, self-assured professional, or the ordinary man settled in his beliefs and secure in his application of common sense and generally accepted knowledge to the problems of living.

    However, it describes the nature and depth of the problems currently confronting fundamental physics. Much (most?) of the general public is unimpressed and even repelled by such intellectual struggle, and prefers the calm effectiveness of competent professionals acting within their domains of expertise. Ask any physician, attorney, or business executive why they are often so anxious to present such a front, although the underlying realities of medical care, law, and business, not to mention many other fields, are quite different. The professionalization of science has put scientists in the same predicament.

  16. Peter Shor says:

    I’d like to defend common sense a little bit. Einstein’s original derivation of the theory of relativity seems to me to use a lot of common sense (at least it uses intuitive reasoning of the type that somebody as smart as Einstein might consider common sense, as well as several decidedly non-intuitive already-verified facts about physics). And I suspect that people with enough experience in doing quantum field theory calculations can also make some progress using intuitive reasoning. If string theory is so far removed from our intuitive reasoning ability that we can’t make head or tail of it, this may explain the current impasse in string theory.

  17. Luboš Motl says:

    Yes, I confused Horgan and Hagelin. That’s painful but hopefully, others will understand that neither of these two Gentlemen is on the top list of my interests.

    Sorry for the error and tell me if there are other errors.

  18. Arun says:

    Chris W. asked:

    “John Horgan is starting to sound like Gregg Easterbrook. When he says “I have also found common sense – ordinary, nonspecialized knowledge and judgment – to be indispensable for judging scientists’ pronouncements, even, or especially, in the most esoteric fields? for what exactly does he take common sense to be indispensable?”

    It would be nice to be able to ask John Horgan directly this question. The common sense as applied to the most esoteric fields is – where is the empirical evidence? – otherwise, those esoteric fields degenerate into theology. “I’m doing super-duper something which you ignorant rubes can know nothing about” is acceptable from a scientist only if said scientist can point to experiments that bear him out.

  19. Hogan says”
    “In the midst of all this hoopla, I feel compelled to deplore one aspect of Einstein’s legacy: the widespread belief that science and common sense are incompatible.”

    Its preposterous to claim that this was Einstein’s legacy. Horgan uses common sense to justify his argument while my common sense tells me that common sense is a term that doesnt have any definite meaning. If common sense is what is generally and appropriately called intelligence, it is the most important virtue of a scientist and no rational person can defy that in their study of nature. Nonetheless, one can acquire higher understanding and profound insight after persistence. If John Horgan is claiming that to be a bad thing then I must say that that he cannot really distinguish between science journalism and evolution of scientific ideas.
    P.S I posted the same comment in Lubos’s blog

  20. A poor response. Susskind substitutes “common” by “intuitive”, or implies this translation in mouth of Horgan. Can anyone confirm or deny if Horgan does explicitly this equivalence? Susskind corrects himself two paragraphs below, after the main argument has been done under this equivalence.

    Worse, Suskind seems to tell that concepts as force and acceleration are in the intuitive range. (he uses the verbe “to grock”). I could buy about acceleration, but force?

  21. On other hand it is a clue about what is happening with science. Instead of following mathematical and logical deductions, which is possible with common sense, they need to rewire towards the “uncommon sense” invoked in the title. No math anymore, finally the promised High Road that Archimedes denied us is available, just rewire yourself.

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  23. Oh my, finally I have got to read Horgan beyond the introduction and it is horrible, it changes his view of “common sense” two or three times along the article. And the best one he gets is from a notorious non-sensical defender of Darwin (poor Darwin gets bad defenders, that is politics).

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