Posted tagged ‘Woo’

Cosmology does note equal Cosmogony — or why Andrew Sullivan has got to stop invoking his cartoon of science when he seeks to defend his faith.

June 1, 2010

Another post resurrected from the month (or so) of my discontent:

From Sullivan, an essaylet on the nature of God and the foundations of faith, which contains this argument:

For me, the core argument for some force behind the universe, revealed metaphorically in Scripture, is affirmed by science as we currently have it. Our universe came from nothing and is still expanding. What conceivable force made this possible?

I know Sundays are slow days in the blogging trade, but this is just awful.  Not as private faith, mind you — Sullivan has repeatedly affirmed his particular form of belief; it clearly is meaningful to him, rich in both emotional weight and in sufficient intellectual plausibility (to him) not to offend his personal experience.  But as an attempt to assert a less particularist claim, awful just begins to describe the rhetorical catastrophe above.

Unsurprisingly, what gets this blog’s goat is the invocation of science in defense of a cosmological Godhead.  Which means I’ll pass over in sort-of silence the bit of sleight of  hand in the first clause of the quoted passage, the notion that a metaphor of God (“some force behind the universe”) is the essence of what the text of scripture reveals of the deity.*

That said, the real sin of thought and word in the passage I quote comes when Sullivan writes the argument for a force behind the universe (whatever that actually means) “is affirmed by science as we currently have it.”

This is a nonsense. What does he mean by a force?  Is it anything like the meaning of the concept as it emerged in the specific science — physics — whose subdiscipline, cosmology, he is about to invoke?

Well, no, obviously.  And to give a little flesh to that blanket dismissal, consider Nobel laureate and my MIT colleague Frank Wilczek’s meditation on the notion of force as Isaac Newton first cobbled it together.

Some years ago, he wrote a three part essay, “Whence the Force of F=MA” in which he described force as a culture, or perhaps better, as a language. [Links here to all three sections] Sullivan would, I think, find some of what Wilczek writes quite comforting:

…the law of physics F=ma comes to appear a little softer than is commonly considered. It really does bear a family resemblance to other kinds of laws, like the laws of jurisprudence or of morality, wherein the meaning of the terms takes shape through their use. In those domains, claims of ultimate truth are wisely viewed with great suspicion; yet nonetheless we should actively aspire to the highest achievable level of coherence and explicitness. Our physics culture of force, properly understood, has this profoundly modest but practically ambitious character. (Essay III in the series)

If laws of morality and laws of physics are kissing cousins, as Wilczek seems to imply, perhaps there could be something to Sullivan’s claim (hope? — ed.) that the force of which physicists speak might have something to do with the Sullivan’s metaphor of God.

I’m putting thoughts in Sullivan’s mind here, of course, but the point I’m making is that analogies are tricky, and the use of implied ones even more so.

But the problem for Sullivan’s case is that Wilczek did not say that the content of  moral or civil laws mirror, even imperfectly, that of physical ones.  Rather, he simply stated that physics, more than usually understood, makes use of one of the most valuable habits of thought in the humanities:  some of what physicists “know” they learn through using an idea, rather than explicitly grappling with its inner tensions.

That’s fine, and true, and it is surely a trick used across lots of different intellectual approaches.  But for all of Wilczek’s kind bob in the direction of another division of the academy, when he gets down to the actual issue of  why such a “soft” concept of force has persisted in the famously “hard” discipline of physics, his answer embraces the nitty gritty of life as physicists actually lead it:

By comparison to modern foundational physics, the culture of force is vaguely defined, limited in scope, and approximate.  Nevertheless it survives the competition, and continues to flourish, for one overwhelmingly good reason: It is much easier to work with. We really do not want to be picking our way through a vast Hilbert space, regularizing and renormalizing ultraviolet divergences as we go, then analytically continuing Euclidean Green’s functions defined by a limiting procedure, . . . working to discover nuclei that clothe themselves with electrons to make atoms that bind together to make solids, . . . all to describe the collision of two billiard balls. That would be lunacy similar in spirit to, but worse than, trying to do computer graphics from scratch, in machine code, without the benefit of an operating system. The analogy seems apt: Force is a flexible construct in a high−level language, which, by shielding us from irrelevant details, allows us to do elaborate applications relatively painlessly. (Essay I)

I don’t want to put Wilczek in the position, even seemingly, of arguing with an essay written years after his.  But the point he makes here makes a mockery of all sorts of woo that follow from the fact that physicists are willing to accept a certain level of imprecision in order to do real work.  (Think Deepak Chopra, et al.)

For Sullivan, there are all the usual sins of woo-mongers here.  There is sloppiness of language.  He writes of a “force behind the universe” — which means … what?  Is it the quality that has powered the expansion of our observable patch of the universe since the Big Bang?  If so, it ain’t “behind” anything.

There is the mixing of categories.  Is he talking about a question of origins, of what triggered the current expansion?  More likely, I think, though Sullivan is, as is usual for writing that attempts to draw this kind of false connection between a specific problem in science and much broader question in some other domain.  If so, then Sullivan is mistaking a partial lack of knowledge for affirmative evidence of an immanent purposefulness to weight the scales our way, towards a universe in which we could emerge.

But this form of the old God of the Gaps argument misses the real action in modern cosmology.  For the point is that however much some questions may be incompletely understood  — the nature of the inflaton field, perhaps, or the implications of the certain concepts in Brane Theory and related studies for the question of the uniqueness of the Big Bang —  Big Bang cosmology is driven by a combination of theory and observation that works to describe the phenomenon(up to a point…which is why there are still jobs for cosmologists).

All of which is to say that just  because Sullivan cannot actually grasp the structure of contemporary physics, that does not mean he is free to ascribe any interpretation that makes him feel happy to what he thinks physics is talking about these days.  (By “free” I mean plausible, even remotely correct.  Obviously he, like me and any of us, is free to spout whatever nonsense we choose).

Even so, Sullivan is at least on familiar, if very shaky ground, when he asserts that a metaphoric interpretation of modern physics offers comfort, at least, if not outright confirmation, to a metaphoric vision of some concept of wholeness which we may conveniently call God.  That could fall, I guess, within my “whatever gets you through the day” category, as long as I am not asked to assent to any specific claim about the human condition based on the latest work on extra dimensions or the arrow of time.  (Hi, Lisa!Hi, Sean!)

But then there is this :

The second question is the nature of that force. The core revelation of Jesus – and the Buddha, for that matter, in some respects – is that the force is good, not evil. There is hope. Death is not what it seems. Love prevails. In this tragic, fallen, cruel world, this is not an easy doctrine. It cannot be inferred from the evidence. Which is why it is the gift of faith, from some source so deep, so great and so benign it defies any human description. Even metaphor fails.

[lease note that I have not cut anything from this passage — the two quotes above follow immediately one to the other.]

Most of this is just embarrassingly bad writing. (See, e.g. the phrase “some source so deep, so great and so benign it defies any human description.”  To me, at least, this reads like the religious version of Regency Romance prose — lots of heaving and heavy breathing around but not on the point at hand. But maybe I’m just in a bad mood…)

Still, whatever you think of the prose here, the claim that because Sullivan cannot imagine a purely physical account of the origins and evolution of the universe, therefore his prior assumption must be the correct interpretation is an appalling lapse of logic, an argument so bad it makes me wonder if all the stuff we hear about the Oxford Union as Parris Island for debaters is pure nonsense.

Here’s Sullivan’s syllogism:  Science tells us that there is a mysterious force within the universe.  (Assumption not in evidence — at least in the spiritual sense.) That force is good (ditto) — which I know, because Jesus told me so.  (But that’s what you wanted to confirm, I thought, independent of scriptural assertion).  Therefore, I’m not going to really die, and the world, despite all the evidence we have, is one in which love triumphs.  (Errr, no.  Not on the evidence as presented here.)

I mean, I get it.  I do.  Andrew Sullivan believes in the traditional promise of Christianity.  In that promise, Jesus was more than a man; his death was transformative of the reality of death for all humanity.  That transformation establishes the fundamental predominance of love over evil in the universe, for no matter what grotesqueries may overtake us on this earth, redemption will be found in the next.

But that has nothing to do with science, with physics, with that branch of physics and allied disciplines that studies the history of the cosmos.  It has nothing to do with the concept of force as it is used within that inquiry.  There is nothing to support this fervid hope within the anisotropy map produced by the WMAP satellite.  No measurement, no mathematics can tell you that Jesus left his tomb before three days passed and walked among his disciples, bearing his good news about the ephemeral nature of mortality.  (I’m not even going to go into the bizarre reading of Buddhism that Sullivan compresses in so few words; it ain’t worth it.)

Sullivan might respond that this is what he means when he talks of the “gift of faith.”  But if that were truly what he meant, then why the claim that science “affirms” this view of the spiritual nature of the forces that have shaped the physical universe?

Because, I think, he knows that what he’s really saying is that this is something he feels very deeply, and that it therefore must be true — and he wishes he had something more to convince his readers (and perhaps himself) that it is so.

But it doesn’t, which is or ought to be fine:  if faith has any meaning it is that it is an individual commitment.

I’ve belabored this enough, I think.  Sorry to natter on so long.  I just hate these attempts to claim the authority of science in support of what I think of as the Dorothy mode of thought:  click your heels hard enough and any magic can come true.

*All I’ll say is that Sullivan is correct when he asserts that metaphoric interpretations are the only contemporary readings of scripture that are compatible both with modern scien and what is often termed the “problem of evil.” But despite what seems to me that obvious truth, the countervailing fact is that a very large number of religious people, including the hierarchy of Sullivan’s own church, not to mention many in the rabbinate that leads the tradition in which I grew up, do not see the Bible as exclusively, or even centrally metaphorical.  In those settings, God did tell Abraham to kill Isaac;* Jesus really did rise from the dead.

Certainly, there is no shortage of metaphor even within a plain reading of much of the Bible, and plenty of sophisticated and subtle religious thinkers have recognized the central importance of using metaphor to interpret scripture.  (Read the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’s reeadings of Talmud if you want to see this kind of exegesis performed at the highest level.)

But I still think it is not so much disengenous as it is internal evidence of Sullivan’s own religious difficulties that he leaps to the metaphor whilst ignoring more direct readings of the scriptures and the teachings of his faith as he seeks to avoid the implications of purely materialistic accounts of the fate of mortal humans in this universe.

All that’s a fancy way to say what I and others have said before: ascribing to particular religious beliefs the qualities you wish they had doesn’t actually change the nature of such religious claims as they actually make their way into the world.  And if you haven’t noticed that for an awful lot of people these days the term “God” is a simple literal descriptor, then you aren’t (or are choosing not to) pay attention.

Images:  Michaelangelo, “The Last Judgment” 1537-1541.

John McLure Hamilton, “The Billiards Match,” before 1936.

WMAP data mapped onto an ecliptic projection, five years of data, 2008.

He’s got a lot of nerve: George Will commits science wankery of high order.

January 7, 2010

Thanks (sic–ed.) to nutellaontoast over at Fire Megan McArdle (now there’s a blog to love…ed.) I clicked through to Will’s meditation (FSM, I hate it when you link through to the Post — ed.) on cosmic scales of space and matter-density…which led him somehow to solar system dynamics…which led him to the divinely ordered (sic) glories of the federal constitution and the very profligate divinity that achieves change in creation through mass murder.

Don’t believe me?  Then consider this:

…in 1787 other people — Americans call them the Founding Fathers — who were influenced by Newtonian physics and the deist idea of God as cosmic clockmaker, devised a constitutional system of separated powers, checking and balancing one another, mimicking what they considered our solar system’s clocklike mechanics.

Today, we know there is a lot of play in the joints of the Constitution and that every 40 million years or so asteroids more than half a mile in diameter strike Earth. Yet the Constitution still constitutes, and the fact that flora and fauna have survived Earth’s episodes of extreme violence testifies to the extraordinary imperative of life.

Uh, is it just me that wonders at someone who conflates events that transpire over a couple of hundred years with those that require tens of millions to play out?

I mean, if it’s all just numbers, let me assure Will of one thing.  In a few billion more years or so — maybe a hundred, perhaps fewer “generations” of asteroid-strike mass extinctions, following Will’s assumption — we may be sure that both Constititution and life on earth take a final bow.  And of course, if you use more sane measures, say median species survival time, it will be rather less — a few million years or so. (I couldn’t lay my hands on the right number fast, so I asked my secret advisor on all things biological if that’s the right scale, and with the caveat that it varies from group to group, I have dispensation for the claim. 😉

And so on. But why bother.  This is just freshman bloviating taking up space on what should be one of important arenas for public discourse  in the world.  The real message, the not even barely veiled subtext is one of Will’s usual themes.  Science is at best decoration — nice wallpaper to surround the serious thoughts of real intellectuals.

It is a terrible, destructive trope, this use of science as background music, and never an intellectual end in itself. Trope is too grand a word; it’s a trick, really.

Will knows just enough to recognize that science as an enterprise has a particular kind of authority, one eroded but not destroyed by the sustained attack he and others have led on the whole notion of expertise instead of ideology as a guide to statecraft.

He wants that authority; he and others who use the language and images of science to argue against its methods seek to appropriate it to provide cover for all the assumptions-not-in-evidence and teleological reasoning that passes for elite punditry these days.

And yes, all this is truly an over reaction to a lazy, mail-it-in piece of crap from a columnist long past his sell-by date.  The real story underneath Will’s desperate attempts to opine with and on technical matters is that he hasn’t a clue, and it shows.

Here, amidst his mumble of veiled climate change denialism (see, e.g. this: “The discovery, two decades ago, of a bed of dinosaur fossils on Alaska’s North Slope suggests that temperatures may have been warmer long ago, before there were human beings to blame for that…”) and the musings about asteroid strikes and a folksy account of the expanding universe (“Into what is it expanding? Hard to say.”)  what ultimately emerges is the realization that Will has heard about all this stuff somewhere, or an intern has come up with a half dozen or so stories or the like, and Will merely mashed all this together into something he hoped no one would notice made no sense whatsoever.

And even if that’s the likeliest explanation for why this thing appeared, I’m still pissed.  We — and by this I mean everyone who tries to make sense of the worlds we live in, political, material, historical, whatever — have a duty of care.  And by everyone I mean all of us from your humble, though not pajama clad blogger to those titans who possess leasehold on irreplaceable media real estate.

You, me, and damn sure George Will are obligated, at the very least, to make sure we don’t leave our audiences stupider after they’ve read our stuff than they were before. Will routinely fails at this minimal task.  This is just one more example.

Image: Rafael, “School of Athens,” detail with Plato and Aristotle, Heraclites and Diogenes, 1509.

Why Friends Don’t Let Friends Read HuffPost “Science”

December 11, 2009


I confess that I have an instant gag reflex to the work of any author who permits this kind of bio line attach to his/her name:

Robert Lanza, MD is considered one of the leading scientists in the world.”

But that’s only a symptom of the real problem here.  As are such telling but on one level superficial errors like mistaking the physical unit for energy.*  (It’s joules, not watts, as Lanza repeatedly mistakes.  Watts are units of power:  one watt equals one joule/second.)

There is a critique (demolishment) of Lanza’s “argument” for the nonexistence of death (sic!) that’s pretty easy to construct, of course.  The mush of badly garbled physics and windy speculation on the true nature of time and so on makes both a familiar and plenty broad target.  See this post and thread from PZ Myers.

Rather than recapitulate that hive-tome, (and not to anticipate any physicist with time on her/his hands who can more powerfully than I eviscerate the quantum-and-mulitverse nonsense purveyed by the handwaving Dr. Lanza) I just want to pick up on the implications of the kinds of rhetoric described above.

That is:  this is typical of one of the ways in which scientific illiteracy infects culture — not in the outright denial of obvious truths, but in the appropriation of the language of science to mask idiocy.

You see this often in blunt ways.  In Sarah Palin’s now infamous WaPo op ed. on climate change and the notorious emails, she “writes”*

What’s more, the documents show that there was no real consensus even within the CRU crowd. Some scientists had strong doubts about the accuracy of estimates of temperatures from centuries ago, estimates used to back claims that more recent temperatures are rising at an alarming rate….

…before concluding that

“Without trustworthy science and with so much at stake, Americans should be wary about what comes out of this politicized conference.”

Palin’s willed misrepresentation of the emails themselves have been well documented…see this for the latest general response to the really damaging deliberate mischaracterization of what those emails do and don’t tell you about climate change, and see this and this for specific rejoinder to Palin’s op-ed.

But the key here is “her”* choice of language.  “Consensus.”  “Accuracy of estimates.” “Trustworthy science.”  “She”* is asserting a claim of reason here, of the use of the very tools that really trustworthy scientists would employ.

It’s obvious why “she”* does so.  Anthropogenic climate change is the object of specifically scientific inquiry, and unless the claims of scientific knowledge from within that inquiry can be denied in their own frame of reference, those who wish to keep their own oxen ungored would be forced back onto the six year old’s argument:  “don’t wanna.”

It’s clever too.  As the tobacco hacks once noted, the product here is doubt — specifically doubt about what is and isn’t known, to what level of confidence.  Given the provisional nature of most scientific claims, that’s a pretty easy product to manufacture, as the tobacco companies did for decades, and as climate denialists and creationists have managed to do for the last many years.

But at least there is the possibility of correction here.  When the enemies of science argue in the language of science, they are on our turf, and, with effort, it is at least possible to demolish their claims.  In cases where time is of the essence, as in climate issues, that may be cold (hot) comfort — and certainly those of us, like my family, who have lost beloveds to RJ Reynolds (Pall Mall Reds, specifically), the decades of delay won by false claims of  uncertainty are unforgivable.  But still, we’re in with a chance when we fight on home ground.

Stuff like Lanza’s, though is more insidious, if less directly dangerous.  Here is someone asserting not the limits or errors of science, but its expansiveness.  He uses words that sound technical-ish — that “20 watt fountain of energy that is operating in the brain.”  (No, I did not make that up.)

He references grand sounding ideas:  “One well-known aspect of quantum physics is that certain observations cannot be predicted absolutely.”

He talks about specific experiments:  “Consider an experiment that was recently published in the journal Science showing that scientists could retroactively change something that had happened in the past. Particles had to decide how to behave when they hit a beam splitter.” (That this is a drastic mistatement of what’s going on in what I infer is the experiment under discussion (there is no reference) can be glimpsed in this account).

And so on.  The point isn’t that Lanza gets lots of stuff wrong — though that’s material as to why this piece is a crock — but that he weaves his woo in language designed to persuade a reasonably trusting reader that this “leading scientist” really knows stuff, that this pseudoscientific mush is actually embedded in a real and significant research program.

And the damage done there is, I think, obvious.  There is a lot of long term damage to the public’s ability to make sense of our expanding understanding of the material world that doesn’t came from people saying specific things that ain’t so — a la the divine Ms. Palin* — but from the confusion about what science is at all that comes from stuff like this.

Lanza is a man in pain. His speculation on the nonexistence of death occurs in the context of the loss of his sister not long after her marriage.  That’s a horrible tragedy to endure, and I condemn no one for seeking solace in that context.

But the truly human trope of seeking meaning in seemingly random disaster is not in itself a reliable source of general claims about the universe.  And when Lanza turs his private grief into a public and  general claims, he does so in ways that both damage his own authority as a scientist (leading or not) and — more important — he directly and significantly damages his readers’ ability to understand what science does and does not do.

The other culprit here, more culpable in my view, is Lanza’s mouthpiece, his venue.  The Huffington Post wants to be a web-center of cultural discourse.  In its ambition it seems to have decided that science can be covered like its media/gossip page.  Fun stuff is more important than real stuff.  I give Lanza, if not a pass, at least sympathy in his pursuit of some formulation that will make his loss (and perhaps his own fear of mortality) more tolerable.

The HuffPo crew?  Not so much

*I confess to some doubt as to whether the temporary governor actually writes that which is published under her name.


William Hope, “A photograph of a group gathered at a seance. ” 1920.

Benjamin West, “Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky,” ca. 1816