Fake Physics

2016 so far wins my lifetime award for most depressing and disturbing year ever (on the front of the larger world one reads about in the newspaper and elsewhere, personally things are fine, thanks). Perhaps the most disturbing thing has been seeing the way in which people’s access to information about the larger world has become more and more dominated by what has become known as “Fake News”: stuff which is not true, but which someone with an agenda successfully gets others to believe. This is a problem that goes far beyond obvious nonsense fed to rubes on Facebook, to the point of including what a lot of my well-educated colleagues believe because they read it on the front page of the New York Times.

I have no idea what to do about this larger problem and no intention of further discussing it here. I’ve started to come to the conclusion though that the most disturbing trend in theoretical physics of recent years may best be understood as a related phenomenon: “Fake Physics”. The first few weeks of 2017 are seeing a flood of examples of what I have in mind, including for instance:

Note that the above examples are just ones written by physicists or reporting claims of physicists, there are also philosophers, theologians and others putting out similar articles, although without the claims to scientific authority coming from the physicists.

Fake Physics VII just appeared and is rather bizarre. It essentially argues that the idea of assuming a Multiverse and using it to make statistical predictions doesn’t work. But instead of drawing the obvious conclusion (this was a scientifically worthless idea, as seemed likely to most everyone else), the argument is that we need a “revolution in our understanding of physics” that will make the idea work.

Fake Physics shares several characteristics with Fake News:

  • It’s clickbait. While getting anyone to pay attention to the solution of a difficult technical problem in quantum field theory is likely to be nearly impossible, topics like “What happened before the Big Bang?” and “Did you know that there’s someone exactly identical to you somewhere else in the multiverse, and they’re dating Scarlet Johansson?” are sure crowd-pleasers. This motivates some physicists, and even more journalists, with the latter having the much better excuse that their livelihood depends on getting people to click on their stories.
  • It’s a propaganda tactic designed to mask failure. The main reason for the current mania for the Multiverse is the failure of the string theory unification program. Some who have invested their lives in this program have decided to use this sort of Fake Physics as an excuse to avoid admitting failure.
  • The group driving this is small but determined, ideology-driven and well-funded by rich people with an ax to grind. The majority of the community is unwilling to take on the unpleasant and unrewarding task of challenging them. While Multiverse Fake Physics plays a large role in media coverage of fundamental physics, partially because of funding from the Templeton Foundation, there are very few actual papers on the subject and “research” in this area is a small fraction of what theorists are doing. Most physicists just hope that if they ignore this it will go away.

Unfortunately Fake Physics is not going away, but becoming ever more widespread. While I don’t know what to do about Fake News, I think there still is a chance to successfully fight Fake Physics and hope others will help with this.

Update: There’s more

  • Fake Physics IX explains that the Many Worlds multiverse and the cosmological multiverse are one and the same. Sean Carroll is featured.
  • Fake Physics X includes the following from Carroll:

    David Chalmers does a wonderful job at making an important point: “A virtual world is just as real as a physical world.”… what’s real to one person might be virtual to someone else.

People at Hacker News are discussing this. There I’m accused of “misleading people” by making them think the cosmological multiverse is the same thing as the Many Worlds interpretation. Oy.

Update: Thanks to a commenter for pointing out Fake Physics XI, courtesy of Science Friday. As usual, the same vigorous ideologues promoting Fake Physics, the same dearth of voices pointing out the problems with it.

This entry was posted in Fake Physics, Multiverse Mania. Bookmark the permalink.

61 Responses to Fake Physics

  1. Another Anon says:

    In defence of Nautilus, this is a great article:

    http://cosmos.nautil.us/short/90/we-have-pushed-physics-too-far

  2. Peter Woit says:

    Another Anon,
    I’m afraid I disagree, wrote about why here
    http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=9027

    That piece is not fake physics, but it’s a point of view (very crudely put, physicists should become humble and give up on hopes for certain kinds of progress in fundamental physics) that is a side-effect of the nihilistic Fake Physics campaign. It’s also a point of view that fits very well with the Templeton Foundation one: mankind should be humble before the glory of God (again, this is a crude caricature).

    This kind of thing is analogous to one tactical goal of the ideologues behind Fake News: use it to discourage your opposition, even when they realize it’s not true.

  3. Another Anon says:

    Yeah, now I read what you said about it earlier, you might have a point.

  4. NoGo says:

    What I still don’t quite understand is how Templeton’s money can be at work with regard to Fake Physics: I presume (and you say, if I am not mistaken) that the physicists involved actually believe in their theories, and anyway it’s hard to imagine prominent scientists taking money to misrepresent their work. It is easier to imagine such money influencing the media to “amplify” already existing “signal”, but again it’s hard to imagine reputable journalists and publications taking money directly, so it must be somewhat subtle… Can you elaborate on this a little bit?

  5. Science Friday this week has an article that appears to be the epitome of ‘woo woo’.

    http://www.sciencefriday.com/articles/why-the-multiverse-isnt-just-madness/

    Science Friday is supported by listener contributions, member stations, and by: Anonymous; Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; Del Mar Global Trust; The Dirk and Charlene Kabcenell Foundation; Macmillan Education; Mellam Family Foundation; Michael J. Connell Foundation; Sedgwick Family Fund at the Cleveland Foundation; Swig Foundation; The Winston Foundation

  6. Peter Woit says:

    NoGo,

    I don’t think there’s anything subtle about $10 million targeted at producing this particular journalism, see:

    https://www.templeton.org/what-we-fund/grant-search/results/nautilus

    $15 million in grant money to physicists isn’t subtle either:

    https://www.templeton.org/what-we-fund/grant-search/results/fqxi

    It has a significant effect on what sort of research physicists decide to engage in, as well as how they choose to communicate it to the public.

    Thomas Lee Elfritz,

    The flood of these things is really depressing, I’ll add that one as Fake News XI. Another depressing thing is that all of these stories quote the same list of proponents of the multiverse, portray them as fighting for a new idea against the conservative scientific establishment, but almost never manage to talk to anyone willing to make an argument against what is going on. The lone exception is Paul Steinhardt. Good for him, but I don’t understand why the rest of the physics community is staying quiet.

  7. Louis Wilbur says:

    Thanks Peter for raising this issue; you are right to be concerned that very speculative ideas are being given a level of coverage and credence that they don’t deserve. The question is how to address it and understand why the scientific mainstream has not pushed back against such speculative ideas. Perhaps it is because they view it sort of like philosophy; it is something they simply don’t want to spend time responding to. But both the popular and scientific press could do some pushback by simply correcting the sensationalism that typically appears in such articles. For example, in her blog on 12/19/15 Sabine Hossenfelder wrote “But the longer the chain of inference, and the less trust you have in the theories used for inference, the less real objects become. In this layered reality the multiverse is currently at the outer fringes. It’s as unreal as something can be without being plain fantasy”. She also wrote in a different blog that the multiverse is something that researchers within the scientific community spend almost no time on.

    This means that the multiverse has not “gone mainstream” and there has not been “a great change in attitude” as some of the stories in your fake news links claim. I think the basic idea that the very early cosmos was dominated by some type of vacuum energy is plausible but the physics of it is completely mysterious. It is grossly premature to say that the mechanisms postulated in traditional inflationary theory are even approximately correct explanations of that vacuum energy. Something like cosmic inflation may have been caused by some completely unknown process, perhaps some kind of quantum black hole foam or some type of QCD-like fluid. For these reasons and others there is no basis at all to claim that such “inflation” is eternal. Another sensational claim is that non-eternal types of inflation are contrived and unrealistic. Actually they are not. For example, Wikipedia writes “In hybrid inflation, one scalar field is responsible for most of the energy density (thus determining the rate of expansion), while another is responsible for the slow roll (thus determining the period of inflation and its termination). Thus fluctuations in the former inflaton would not affect inflation termination, while fluctuations in the latter would not affect the rate of expansion. Therefore, hybrid inflation is not eternal. When the second (slow-rolling) inflaton reaches the bottom of its potential, it changes the location of the minimum of the first inflaton’s potential, which leads to a fast roll of the inflaton down its potential, leading to termination of inflation”. The February 2017 Scientific American article “Cosmic Inflation Theory Faces Challenges” By Anna Ijjas, Paul J. Steinhardt and Abraham Loeb explains some of the problems with traditional inflationary mechanisms.

    So cosmologist who study inflationary theory are guilty of group think and this is the reason why other types of mechanisms underlying an “inflationary” expansion are not being pursued. It also explains why bounce scenarios are not given the greater attention and study that they should be. Such alternative ideas should be pursued since semi-classical gravity and effective field theory are probably inapplicable in the very early universe and a full inventory of nature’s quantum fields and how they are coupled together is lacking. Also lacking is the correct quantized version of General Relativity, how it is united to nature’s quantum fields, and the implications of all of this for the very early universe. There is a lot to vacuum energy that is not understood: the various hierarchy problems, dark energy, and the cosmological constant for example. There should be pushback to the traditional ways of thinking about inflationary mechanisms and pushback to the whole idea of multiverses. Everett’s many worlds multiverse is nonsense and I am baffled as to how and why it manages to get the coverage that it does. For instance, no explanation is given as to where the energy comes from to make all of the split-off universes and no explanation is given as to how a split occurs outside the light cone of a state reduced event. Thank you Peter for the post.

  8. Samuel Keays says:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8ccXzM3x8A

    This was posted today. Kind of interested on what you think about the idea that it is primarily a controversy only in the eyes of the general public, not among the scientific consensus.

  9. Peter Woit says:

    Samuel Keays,

    That’s off-topic, little to do with the multiverse. From a quick skim, it’s garden variety ancient string theory propaganda, pretty much exactly what I wrote my book 15 years ago to counter. The one thing that has changed since then is that string theory is significantly less popular in physics departments (as well as to the general public).

  10. Pingback: 2016 the worst year ever for fake physics? | Uncommon Descent

  11. Pingback: A Big Bang in a Little Room | Not Even Wrong

Comments are closed.