Today’s Bloggingheads.tv diavlog features Sean Carroll and philosopher of science David Albert, discussing a variety of issues. Albert tells about his unfortunate experience with the What the Bleep? film, a good example of why it’s not always a good idea to get involved with people doing a supposedly science-related media project. He also discusses the hostility towards study of the quantum measurement problem from within the physics community over the years, a situation that has changed recently. The two also had a long discussion concerning Carroll’s claims about the arrow of time, about some of which Albert seemed to be rather skeptical.
The discussion of criticisms of string theory were on the whole ill-informed, misleading, and devoted to ferocious attacks on straw men. For some reason, only John Horgan was mentioned, with the existence of trained theoretical physicist critics and two recent books on the topic completely ignored. Albert insisted repeatedly on the idea that Horgan and other critics were not acknowledging the “spectacular predictive success” of string theory. He was referring to claims that string theory “predicts gravity”, since it contains a massless spin-two particle (ignoring the fact that it is in the wrong dimension; to quote Lisa Randall “string theory predicts gravity: 10d gravity”). Later on Carroll did explain the problem with this, that string theory seems to allow an infinite variety of ground states with different physics, many of which don’t have 4d gravity. Carroll told about having asked various string theorists if they could imagine any kind of experimental result at any energy that would be incompatible with string theory, and getting the answer “No” from at least some of them. This seemed to rather shock Albert.
There was no real discussion of the multiverse, a topic where philosophers of science might be able to perform a public service by taking a serious look at what physicists are up to and analyzing what they learn. Carroll launched the standard attack on string theory critics as having a “sophomore-level” understanding of the philosophy of science, unaware that there is anything to the problem of what is science and what isn’t other than Popper’s falsifiability criterion. He also claimed that string theory critics have created a “20 year statute of limitations” criterion, that theoretical work must lead to a falsifiable prediction within 20 years or cease to be science, chuckling with Albert about how ignorant people must be who think such a thing. This kind of willful misrepresentation of the views of people you disagree with seems to me to be less than honest. From what I remember of Lee Smolin’s book, there’s a long section about his engagement with the philosophy of science, and his sympathies are not with Popper, but with Feyerabend’s “anarchistic” views on the subject, which are very different. In my book there’s an entire chapter devoted to explaining what is wrong with just invoking falsifiability. I assume Carroll has read at least one of the two books, so it’s unclear why he thinks it’s acceptable to go on like this. He does make one more accurate accusation, that critics of the multiverse are stuck in an out-dated 1960s particle physics paradigm of what it means to test a theory. I suppose this is true enough. Not the first time I’ve been accused of being stuck in the 60s, which, if one has to be stuck somewhere, doesn’t seem like that bad a choice…
Update: Evolving Thoughts has a link to The Ideas of Quine on Youtube, an interview of the philosopher Willard Van Ormond Quine by Brian Magee. The relation of physics and philosophy was one of Quine’s main concerns, and one of the main topics of the interview. I suppose that to the extent my own philosophical views could be characterized by picking one philosopher I find most sympathetic, Quine would be a good choice. Perhaps he’s responsible for my “sophomore-level” philosophy of science, since I took a course from him as a sophomore.
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