Sabine Hossenfelder is on a tear this week, with two excellent and highly provocative pieces about research practice in theoretical physics, a topic on which she has become the field’s most perceptive critic.
The first is in this month’s Nature Physics, entitled Science needs reason to be trusted. I’ll quote fairly extensively so that you get the gist of her argument:
But we have a crisis of an entirely different sort: we produce a huge amount of new theories and yet none of them is ever empirically confirmed. Let’s call it the overproduction crisis. We use the approved methods of our field, see they don’t work, but don’t draw consequences. Like a fly hitting the window pane, we repeat ourselves over and over again, expecting different results.
Some of my colleagues will disagree we have a crisis. They’ll tell you that we have made great progress in the past few decades (despite nothing coming out of it), and that it’s normal for progress to slow down as a field matures — this isn’t the eighteenth century, and finding fundamentally new physics today isn’t as simple as it used to be. Fair enough. But my issue isn’t the snail’s pace of progress per se, it’s that the current practices in theory development signal a failure of the scientific method…
If scientists are selectively exposed to information from likeminded peers, if they are punished for not attracting enough attention, if they face hurdles to leave a research area when its promise declines, they can’t be counted on to be objective. That’s the situation we’re in today — and we have accepted it.
To me, our inability — or maybe even unwillingness — to limit the influence of social and cognitive biases in scientific communities is a serious systemic failure. We don’t protect the values of our discipline. The only response I see are attempts to blame others: funding agencies, higher education administrators or policy makers. But none of these parties is interested in wasting money on useless research. They rely on us, the scientists, to tell them how science works.
I offered examples for the missing self-correction from my own discipline. It seems reasonable that social dynamics is more influential in areas starved of data, so the foundations of physics are probably an extreme case. But at its root, the problem affects all scientific communities. Last year, the Brexit campaign and the US presidential campaign showed us what post-factual politics looks like — a development that must be utterly disturbing for anyone with a background in science. Ignoring facts is futile. But we too are ignoring the facts: there’s no evidence that intelligence provides immunity against social and cognitive biases, so their presence must be our default assumption…
Scientific communities have changed dramatically in the past few decades. There are more of us, we collaborate more, and we share more information than ever before. All this amplifies social feedback, and it’s naive to believe that when our communities change we don’t have to update our methods too.
How can we blame the public for being misinformed because they live in social bubbles if we’re guilty of it too?
There’s a lot of food for thought in the whole article, and it raises the important question of why the now long-standing dysfunctional situation in the field is not being widely acknowledged or addressed.
For some commentary on one aspect of the article by Chad Orzel, see here.
On top of this, yesterday’s blog entry at Backreaction was a good explanation of the black hole information paradox, coupled with an excellent sociological discussion of why this has become a topic occupying a large number of researchers. That a large number of people are working on something and they show no signs of finding anything that looks interesting has seemed to me a good reason to not pay much attention, so that’s why I’m not that well-informed about exactly what has been going on in this subject. When I have thought about it, it seemed to me that there was no way to make the problem well-defined as long as one lacks a good theory of quantized space-time degrees of freedom that would tell one what was going on at the singularity and at the end-point of black hole evaporation.
Hossenfelder describes the idea that what happens at the singularity is the answer to the “paradox” as the “obvious solution”. Her take on why it’s not conventional wisdom is provocative:
What happened, to make a long story short, is that Lenny Susskind wrote a dismissive paper about the idea that information is kept in black holes until late. This dismissal gave everybody else the opportunity to claim that the obvious solution doesn’t work and to henceforth produce endless amounts of papers on other speculations.
Excuse the cynicism, but that’s my take on the situation. I’ll even admit having contributed to the paper pile because that’s how academia works. I too have to make a living somehow.
So that’s the other reason why physicists worry so much about the black hole information loss problem: Because it’s speculation unconstrained by data, it’s easy to write papers about it, and there are so many people working on it that citations aren’t hard to come by either.
I hope this second piece too will generate some interesting debate within the field.
Note: It took about 5 minutes for this posting to attract people who want to argue about Brexit or the political situation in the US. Please don’t do this, any attempts to turn the discussion to those topics will be ruthlessly deleted.
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