The Baffling, Frustrating Ignorance of John Horgan

Sigh… I’ve been taking a bit of a break from reading and/or thinking about politics during the last 10 days or so (I know, I know– ironically the past week has been full of some of the year’s biggest geopolitical headlines!) and had decided just to concentrate on science, physics, and a new origami technique I’m learning. The whole thing has been very relaxing. Granted, I’m usually one who enjoys a good debate, and hence tends to enjoy reading people’s opinions about politics, because even if it’s some one stupid making shockingly fragile arguments, I get a weird rush from thinking about all they ways I could expose their intellectual osteoporosis if I ever got to go toe to toe with them in a battle of wits. Unfortunately, it seems to me that something about the increasingly high political tensions in America today has caused even people with access to the mass media to say incredibly, insultingly idiotic things, regardless of whether they themselves are actual idiots. And there’s something about that which spoils the fun for me, because if these people are too smart to sell the kind of partially-hydrogenated snake oil* they’re traficking, then I can’t comfort myself by imagining a fantasy world where I get to rebut their arguments right before their eyes and convince them of their own ignorance. These people are sharp enough that they should have been able to see through their lies and elisions as easily as I can, so they must either be peddling falsehoods on purpose or else their subject to some kind of mass delusion. Either way, I don’t think anything I could say to them would affect their thinking in the slightest, so I just end up wishing they’d loan me their spare brain cells if they aren’t going to be using them for their own purposes.

So anyway, it was precisely because I’d had enough of smart people saying braindead things that I had been restricting my reading list to science blogs and textbooks lately. And then I encountered this piece by John Horgan, which was actually published last year but had recently been republished in the campus newspaper of the Stevens Institute of Technology and thus made it’s way into my daily reading. On the plus side, I guess it helped convince me that I might as well start reading about politics again.

Let me just say off the bat, lest my frustration prevent me from remembering to say it later, that John Horgan is by all accounts a smart man, and has been in many ways a valuable contributor to the field of science journalism for many years. I’ve taken issue with some of the things he’s written in the past, but on the whole I would say his career is that of a man who is passionate about bridging the divide between scientists and nonscientists, if not a man who is passionate about science itself. He is a good writer, and typically a thoughtful person. And in light of this, the evidence I’m about to present of his apparent partial-lobotomy is all the more tragic.

Horgan begins his piece by telling us that the American Anthropological Association recently voted to remove the word “science” from their mission statement, a decision which has been widely criticized by practicing anthropologists, and which, it is strongly implied, Mr. Horgan disagrees with as well. This is certainly fair enough, as far as it goes. I’m a bit taken aback by this decision as well, although there does seem to be a bit of intellectual complexity to it that at least warrants discussion.

It is also strongly implied that Mr. Horgan was writing the opening two paragraphs whilst making his way towards the deep end of a swimming pool, because having completed them, he promptly jumps off it.  With the sentence “The irony is that parts of physics are less empirical and more speculative than the most humanistic anthropology,” Horgan begins a long and shockingly poorly-informed attempt to persuade his readers that, now that the physics of “everyday life” is well-settled, we’ve entered a new era in which most theoretical physics is intellectually equivalent to a bunch of Star Trek writers sitting around trying to invent a new plot device. This particular reader was not amused.

I suppose I should say, in the interest of full disclosure, that I am a little biased here. I hope that not more than a few years will pass before I can call myself a theoretical physicist. But I don’t think that particular fact disqualifies my from mounting a rebuttal. So here goes.

Horgan begins his case with an example of  a physicist engaging in what he deems “ironic science”– something he defines as science that “makes assertions that are more akin to literary criticism or even literature than conventional science.” As it happens, he concluded his case the exact same way, because this is the one and only example that he offers. This is excellent news for, say, an angry protoscientist with a background in speech and debate, because it is a truly terrible example for his case.

What Horgan holds up is a conjecture called the “cyclic universe theory,” which Roger Penrose had proposed in the past and which he and George Gurzadyan have recently revived. The basic idea is that it is possible that our universe was born out of another universe dying, and that the “big bang” was in fact caused by the collapse of another (or some similarly cataclysmic event in another universe). Horgan hears this idea and says that it’s nuts, and that consequently, most of theoretical physics is as unempirical as wine tasting.

There are several problems with this. The first is obvious: the fact that one or two theoretical physicists (even a well-known one like Roger Penrose) might have said something fanciful and entirely beyond the realm of science does not mean that all physics is approximately on the same level. I assume this doesn’t need any further explanation. Granted, Horgan seems to hope that he can give us this example and than ask us to take his word for it that there are many others; after all, he may not be a scientist but, as a science journalist he might reasonable be expected to know a lot about how science works. That’s clearly not the case, as I hope to convince you shortly.

But there’s a second, better point to be made here. Even if a single case of a theoretical physicist making a claim that is “more akin to literary criticism” were sufficient evidence to support Horgan’s claim, this is hardly a case of such a thing. How do I know this? It’s not because I learned it as a physics student. I learned it from Horgan’s column!

Horgan, you see, in an attempt to make Penrose’s theory seem even more flimsy, says that “other theorists quickly pointed out problems with the hypothesis,” and provides in it the exact same link that I’ve included here. This link refers you to another article in Scientific American, which in turn references three studies that have examined Penrose and Gurzadyan’s claim and found that the evidence they offered in support was not statistically significant.

Now I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember the last time I read a literary criticism in which the first critic made a prediction about how their theory would affect the cosmic microwave background radiation, analyzed seven years worth of satellite data on such radiation and seemed to find a pattern, only to have another critic observe that the evidence might not be statistically significant, based on their comparison of the data to an advanced computer simulation showing how the same fluctuations could be generated by random chance. I guess there was that one time that Elaine Showalter famously proved that Mary Wollstonecraft was insufficiently feminist using data she gathered at the Large Hadron Collider. Unless that’s just some absolutely bonkers thing I just made up in order to make my point in a really sarcastic way. I can never remember.

John Horgan, seen here not bothering to check whether the words coming out of his mouth describe reality or merely the version of it in which he still has something marketable to say about science.

Yes, let me reiterate here: Horgan all but calls Penrose no better than a witch doctor or a soothsayer for having postulated a theory “whose existence, like that of God, cannot be proved or disproved.” And then he links to an article in which three separate groups of scientists discuss the various pieces of evidence for and against the theory. At least he stops short of linking to Penrose and Gurzadyan’s response to the criticism (in which they present more new empirical evidence), but somehow that seems like a hollow victory.

Then, Horgan has the audacity (being a gentleman I changed this from “mendacity”) to sum up with the following. Anthropology, he says, is a harder science than physics because “anthropologists gather data—by observing rainforest hunters in Amazonia, excavating a Neolithic settlement in Jordan, carbon-dating an Ardipithecus jaw bone dug up in Ethiopia—and then try to figure out what it all means.” In contrast, he claims that many physicists merely, “theorize about phenomena that are not only extremely remote in space and time but might not even exist.” These statements are truly jaw-droppingly stupid. And I don’t just mean that in the sense that I’ve decided to drop the fact that t that carbon dating could never be used on something as old as an Ardipithecus jaw.

I am not, not trying to claim that many anthropologists don’t do excellent, empirical science. But I’m pretty sure not every anthropologist spends their time in the Amazon peering at naked brown people through a pair of retro binoculars while wearing whatever sufficiently stereotypical set of tan-colord safari clothes Horgan prefers to picture them in. Instead (since I’m pretty sure I’ve met some anthropologists right here on college campuses) I would guess that there’s a wide range, with some of them sitting around proposing theories based on the evidence that their more adventurous colleagues have gathered. But what are such “theoretical anthropologists” doing when, from their armchairs in Cambridge, they speculate about things that might have happened to protohumans tens of thousands of years ago in the middle of Africa? Why, it sounds to me like they’re theorizing “about phenomena that are not only extremely remote in space and time but might not even exist.”

But of course it’s perfectly fine for them to do that, because they base their theorizing off of empirical evidence that they’ve collected, they use their theories to make predictions about other evidence that might be found, and if other excavations turn up evidence to the contrary they’re forced to modify or abandon their theories. And as Horgan absolutely must know if he wants in any way to call himself a science journalist, physicists–indeed, all scientists, do the exact same thing. Granted, the things physicists theorize about may tend to be a bit further away in space and time. But does he really think there’s some magical dividing line between the two? Where is that line, Mr. Horgan? Can I speculate back 10 million years before I cease to be an anthropologist and start to be a crackpot theoretical physicist? How about 100 million years? Is speculating about microwave radiation recorded in the upper atmosphere really that much worse than speculating about bones found on the other side of the planet? Is it really?

Of course it’s not. And Horgan knows this. He must know it. He’s not moronic enough to get a free pass on this one, I’m afraid. He got a masters in journalism at Columbia.

One last thing (now that I’ve linked to Horgan’s piece, I feel compelled to refute every last intellectually-emaciated claim that he makes just in case one of you goes and reads it). In Horgan’s final paragraph he offers an Andy-Rooneyesque list or things like “strings,” “membranes,” “extra dimensions” and “other universes” that seem to annoy him, on some deep personal level, about the behavior of ‘physicists these days.’ He seems to have the impression that these things are impossible to test and therefore that any scientist who discussed them is instantaneously transformed into the moral equivalent of a tenured astrologer.

Well I link you here to just one example of a study in which a theory of extra dimensions has been tested experimentally, and I don’t have to link you to evidence of the extra universes being tested experimentally because as I’ve explained above Horgan already does as much for me. It’s all within the body of his random assemblage of words which, if they had any overall coherent point, would conventionally be called an “article.” As for strings and branes, it’s true that we don’t at the moment have a clear idea of how to test such theories. But, in likening them to the existance of God, Horgan seems to suggest that these things are somehow by definition untestable, which is patently absurd. Someday, we will figure out how to make testable predictions about these theories, and then we will find out whether they exist or not. A lot of the brilliant theorists that Horgan saw fit to libelously pass off as geeky daydreamers are working hard at developing such tests as we speak. That we cannot test these theories now is not a reason why we should not discuss them– if that were the rule, then all of what is now the “everyday physics” that Horgan seems to think is so superior would never have come into being. Horgans of the past would have stopped Newton from proposing a “universal” law of gravitation, on the grounds that we couldn’t think of any ways to test the theory anywhere besides the Earth’s surface. They would have derided Copernicus, Brahe, and Kepler and their silly speculations about the motion of extraterrestrial objects which we could never hope to see up close. And I can’t even imagine what they would have said to Wilhelm Weber when, in 1846, he foolishly started speculating about the existence of tiny carriers of electrical charge. Actually I can imagine: it would have been something like this:

As we reach the middle of this new millenium, some ‘scientists’ have seen fit to turn their mental powers to mere flights of fancy, dreaming about tiny particles supposedly called ‘electrons,’ particles so small that no microscope in existence could ever confirm or deny their existence.” What rot.

You get the point. Sometimes scientists speculate about things that seem really “out there,” and perhaps sometimes they really are beyond the realm of science. But in the vast majority of cases, even within theoretical physics, this is not so. The mere fact that a particular phrase like “cyclic universe theory” makes Horgan remember how badly he wanted to be a successful science fiction writer instead of a crappy journalist doesn’t undermine the validity of the theory it refers to. I am inclined to go on, because indeed, there are many more ways in which Horgan’s article is disgustingly self-inconsistent, contradictory, and fallacious. But to speak of it any longer would be to give the false impression that it represents a valid, reasonable argument deserving of extensive scrutiny. The opposite is true: it is absurd on it’s face, to the point that I am convinced even Horgan knows it, and that he is either simply trying to stir up controversy to promote his work, or that he has fallen for the mob-mentality skepticism of science which has settled in on this country. Either way, I won’t be reading any more of his alleged “science journalism.”

__

* Get it? It’s like the usual kind of snake oil people try to sell you, only it’s been artificially processed by some kind of mass-media machinery until it’s left in a state that is somehow both easier to swallow and much, much worse for you. The trans-fats of the world of willful deception.

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About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

10 Responses to The Baffling, Frustrating Ignorance of John Horgan

  1. s says:

    I found that to be a very interesting read. I for one have never read anything by Horgan before, and given your account here I don’t think I ever deliberately will. Personally I’ve always found that the value of debate is in the polemic.

    With that in mind, let’s take a step back and reframe this as a discussion on the merit and prioritization of research. I would find that a much more balanced and valuable discussion.

    • S says:

      Given that you’ve gone to lengths to defend a field in which you are particularly focused, you have a distinct advantage over virtually anyone who could contribute to a discussion about your area of interest. Surely you’re bright enough to understand this yourself, Colin. With your education comes the soapbox of authority.

      “But there’s a second, better point to be made here. Even if a single case of a theoretical physicist making a claim that is ‘more akin to literary criticism’ were sufficient evidence to support Horgan’s claim, this is hardly a case of such a thing. How do I know this? It’s not because I learned it as a physics student. I learned it from Horgan’s column!”

      Now stacking the deck with what I agree is a truly stupid argument aside, this I contest. On this very blog you write about everything from Michael Jackson’s upbringing to supersymmetry. The rest of us measure the quality of information we read here against the credibility we afford yourself. You do an excellent job in almost every case of representing your knowledge fairly, but I guarantee that some of your readers lack the interest, ability, or time to read the primary sources you occasionally link to. Not because they learned these things as students of popular culture or physics, but because they read it on your blog. If the argument was that Hogan is amplifying the stupidity of his audience, then I might be inclined to agree. If the argument, as it appears, was that we should focus exclusively on areas in which we already know a great deal, then I disagree completely. The gap in knowledge representation may well distinguish the Columbia Journalism Review from Rush Limbaugh, but at a certain point these audiences are self-selected.

      The simple fact of the matter, Colin, is that science is in a terrible state. With massive drops in funding across the board not only for venture capital and investment for legitimately marketable innovations but also for general research, never before has the prioritization of resources for academic research been more important. With that said, I would have a hard time criticizing someone who had funding cut from their projects. There’s a lot of pain to be spread around the research community right now as well as in the coming years. With the pain comes a lot of cannibalism or catabolism.

      While my formal education on physics now likely pales in comparison to your own, I’ll nevertheless attempt to address the other point you brought up earlier: the apparent conflation of mathematics and physics in current cannon. In this discussion, I expect you could explain to me precisely where I’m wrong about the following premise. That would, in my mind, be a valuable discussion as well.

      Skipping the sophomoric philosophical discussion between knowledge and reality, physics has clung to empiricism to provide proof for its conjectures, theories, and hypotheses. Experimentation, in short, distinguished fact from fiction, reality from fantasy. We have reached a technical barrier where the abstract complexity of the answers to our questions may be more complex than we can appreciate. To say that string theory was uninteresting as an intellectual exercise would be an obnoxious lie. To say that it will certainly produce results which have practical application in a time when resources are becoming increasingly scarce would be an obnoxious lie. Somewhere between these two extremes, the current makeup of the physics community consists on a nearly complete monopoly of academic funding and focus on string theory. Further, string theory isn’t a single concept, method, or even branch of physics, let alone mathematics. Meanwhile other mechanisms for exploring physics concepts are beginning to bloom. Solar sails and adaptive lenses allow us to test long-standing technical limitations in optics, while miniaturization and simulation are bringing the quantum world to the experimental doorstep. So if there are multiple ways of tackling the same problem, why must it be done on a theoretical basis first? Fundamental research is incredibly important. Sometimes it takes a new phenomena we can’t understand to bridge the gap between our current world view and new insights. What if the photoelectric effect had never been discovered?

      • Colin West says:

        Always a pleasure to read your comments, Stephen.

        To your first point, I wouldn’t have said my argument is that “we should focus exclusively on areas in which we already know a great deal.” On the contrary, it’s closer to what you first said, that I think he is willfully amplifying the audience’s (potential) ignorance in this case. One doesn’t have to understand the technical details about the evidence against Penrose’s theory in order to read or write about it, I completely agree. But Horgan chooses to make the claim that basically there is no evidence, or that the evidence there is is unempirical. Then he provides a link to a study in which the empirical evidence for Penrose’ s theory is debated. It’s not even a technical journal article; it’s a piece of popular science writing put together by one of his peers. I do not expect any or all of his readers to click through and see this piece, but this is precisely why it is irresponsible of Horgan to misrepresent it. Perhaps I misunderstood your objection here, but I think we’re on the same side. The whole point of science journalism is to allow anyone, regardless of their technical expertise, to read about the issues being studied by scientists. And yet while I would have thought that even relatively untrained people would recognize seven years of satellite data as a form of empirical evidence, Horgan claims that there is no such evidence while simultaneously criticizing the evidence as faulty. This is at best enormously confusing to his readers and at worst a (clumsy) rhetorical legerdemain.

        The rest of your post also seems to boil down to something I essentially agree with– that there can and should be a real debate about how we should prioritize scientific research, given that it ranges broadly from applied studies which produce immediate results to theoretical investigations whose value may not be known for many years. If you’re chiding me for choosing to hit the softball pitch by criticizing Horgan while not tackling the larger issue, I plead guilty. But I promise, I am actually working on a post about the value of theoretical research and the value of prioritizing it as we speak. Hopefully we can renew this particular aspect of the debate once I get that written.

        On the whole, did I go after Horgan a bit more vociferously than was called for? Probably. Did I invoke technical arguments that unfairly depend upon my reader’s assumption that I know the state of science? I tried to avoid that as much as possible, but at some point it’s inevitable. Nevertheless, that’s precisely why Horgan’s article annoyed me so much. He uses that same strategy constantly, making bold, sweeping pronouncements about the state of theoretical physics today, and expecting his audience to take his word for it because he is a well-known go between between scientists and nonscientists. In this particular article I felt he was (perhaps unintentionally) abusing that trust, saying things that most people could understand are not true without needing a great deal of technical training, just so that he could make some provocative claim. This doesn’t advance the discussion about how to prioritize research, how to decide philosophically whether a theory describes “reality” or not, or about where research funding should be going. It just muddies the waters and makes those debates harder to have.

        Nevertheless, each of those topics is something I hope to write about in the near future, so please hold me to that if I let things like Michael Jackson distract me from it for too long!

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