Einstein and the Motives of Scientists

I just got a shout out from The Legal Watchdog, Michael Cicchini for a post I did on dark matter and the speed of light. His response to my criticism of his original posts here and here shows that he missed the point of my criticism. I’ll grant him that I may have come off as “condescending”, and that my “stick to law” comment could be interpreted as more than the strategically exaggerated tone used in a blog. So what about his original post and his reply do I find problematic?

In his reply Mr Cicchini directs me to address the specific issues with the authors, and in his original post he says that he’s “only begun exploring the relevant issues”, and that he’s “delving into matters that are way over [his] head”. Then, he makes claims like:

  • we create the concept of dark matter “to allow us to cling to Einstein’s theory of general relativity”

  • “physicists seem to try and substantiate, rather than question, his [Einstein’s] work.”

  • physicists should “abandon Einstein’s quest of unifying the quantum with the cosmic”

The problem is at least twofold:

  1. Although Mr Cicchini claims to be in over his head, he writes as if he is an authority, or that he understands the authorities when in reality he doesn’t

  2. He is making many claims about motive with no evidence whatsoever

The Motives

These are both mixed up with a profound lack of understanding of the methods of science. Let’s put it this way:

  • Is it true that physicists will first look for ways in which the anomalous mass measurements of galaxies and the current best theory of gravity, Einstein’s general theory of relativity (GR), can be made to be consistent even if it means proposing a never-before-observed quantity “dark matter”? Yes!

  • Does this imply that they are are unwilling to question GR, in deference to Einstein or for some other reason? No!

If you had a theory that has yet to have an exception, in over 100 years, and has made predictions accurate to many many decimal points, and has been shown to predict other unforeseen objects (such as black holes), then it is entirely rational to proceed as the cosmologists have. It is not dogmatic to assert your confidence in something that has a dedicated track record. It is also never the case in science that we “start from scratch” when we have an anomalous observation…we only abandon a theory when we have something better in its place…and we don’t in this case.

In addition, the “dark matter” problem is not just a problem for 100-year-old-Einstein’s theory but for 300-year-old-Newton’s theory! So, if your advice is for scientists to “start from scratch”, then you’re essentially suggesting that we ignore almost everything we’ve learned in physics for the past 300 years. I have a big problem with that.

The Science

So, the motive is wrong, but is the science correct? I’d say, “no” to that as well. In the second post, there is a reference to the latest faster than light measurements. Mr Cicchini directs me to writer Brian Vastag concerning the experiment. In that article, there is this:

The physicist, Dario Auterio, made no sweeping claims.

He did not try to explain what the results might mean for the laws of physics, let alone the broader world.

After an hour of technical talk, he simply said, “Therefore, we present to you today this discrepancy, this anomaly.”

Notice how the physicists in this experiment are not making the claims that Mr Cicchini is making, and they show a humility that is the hallmark of true science. Sure, scientists will put down clearly wrong ideas with a harshness that is not common in regular speech. But when they are dealing with events beyond their understanding the humility exhibited by scientists is far greater than in any other human endeavor. Even Christopher Hitchens, who was not known for his humility, would demonstrate it whenever he dealt with science topics on the outskirts of his understanding.

On the authorities Mr Cicchini chooses to represent his case, we have the following problems:

  • Brian Vastag is a science writer, and makes the correct claim that, if true, the faster-than-light measurements could possibly overturn relativity. It could also be that if true, the measurements would cause only a small modification of relativity, as I outlined in the previous post. It could also be the case that the experiments, or the analysis, are wrong in some way. That’s where my money is. Is that dogmatic? No! It is based on the many preliminary violations of relativity over the last century that were shown to be erroneous either in measurement or in analysis. Could I be wrong? Of course! And that would be pretty cool. But I’m not going to be convinced until the dust settles for a while. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

  • Lee Smolin, who wrote a book The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next. I have not read this book, but his claims about string theory (from the quotes) don’t seem too bad…he essentially is pointing out that string theory is currently lacking any predictions which differ from quantum chromodynamics and general relativity. Mr Cicchini quotes Smolin “The dark matter hypothesis is preferred mostly because the only other possibility – that we are wrong about Newton’s laws, and by extension general relativity – is too scary to contemplate.” I would guess that this is exaggerated language, referring to the fact that any theory to replace Newton’s laws and Einstein’s theory would be formidable indeed! It does not, however, immediately imply a dogmatic “clinging” to Einstein’s theory, although I’ll admit I need to read the book to tell for sure.

  • Peter Lynds is the third reference from Mr Cicchini. After noting the reference, I read Lynds’ paper, “Time and Classical and Quantum Mechanics: Indeterminacy vs. Discontinuity”. First of all, I wasn’t impressed. It certainly lacks the clarity of Einstein’s 1905 paper, to which it has been compared. It also makes no predictions, as far as I can tell, and certainly hasn’t moved more than a small minority of physicists to even consider it. Is this because of a dogmatic loyalty to Einstein? Not at all. It is due to the usual, and rational, mode of scientific discourse in which new ideas purporting to replace established theories need to demonstrate that they are in fact superior to those theories with actual verifiable predictions before they are considered seriously.

Further, Mr Cicchini’s advice to “abandon Einstein’s quest of unifying the quantum with the cosmic” is ill-informed. He continues that “there is no reason to believe that things on a tiny, subatomic scale would obey the same laws as things on a grand, universal scale.” Let’s put it this way: we have two amazing approximate theories: quantum chromodynamics and general relativity. Each working in their own domains (the really small and the really big, respectively). They look nothing like each other. One is probabilistic and discrete while the other is deterministic and continuous. In some limiting cases, it can be shown that medium-sized events (i.e. events on the scale of humans up to planets) can be seen as limiting case of quantum events. In addition, relativity can be shown to work for gravitational effects on medium-sized objects (i.e. the size of planets). What we don’t have is a good, unified, set of ideas that link the two domains well. Historically, there is a strong precedent for expecting there to be unifying set of laws. The development of thermodynamics and the connection to atomic theory is one example, the development of electrodynamics and its connection to the microscopic effects of currents and magnets is another. So there is every reason to expect that there is a unifying principle. To say “give up, you’ll never find it” is reminiscent of people saying the same thing for the search for extraterrestrial life, given that we’ve never found any.

Silencing the Layperson

Finally, I want to address the charge that I am trying to silence laypeople who speak about science, and that this is bad for science. Mr Cicchini writes:

And shutting laypeople out of science, or urging them “not to speak about physics”-which, conveniently, precludes any external challenges-causes science to take on an even greater dogmatic quality, which science cannot afford.

For me, this has nothing to do with “laypeople” (a phrase I associate more with non-clergy as opposed to non-academic), but with people speaking confidently when their confidence is completely unwarranted. I don’t believe you need a PhD to speak about science in a productive way, but you do have to do your homework. The motive claims described above demonstrate a clear ignorance of the true motivations of scientists. If I were trying to confidently tell lawyers what to do or to impugn their motives, I’d be out of line because I know very little about law…and someone would be absolutely correct to call me out on that. Scientists face this all the time, and thus their tone is almost always very conservative, especially when speaking with other scientists. Just look at the language of the scientists doing the faster-than-light experiments. This doesn’t mean that scientists are above this kind of misplaced confidence…I could still list many examples of scientists speaking out of their area of expertise, but it is considered a real liability in science.

So, the bottom line is that where Mr Cicchini sees a conspiracy, the facts support a rational scientific discourse. Where Mr Cicchini sees an elite academic silencing the criticism by a layperson, the reality is that it is rational to critique anyone speaking confidently of things they cannot be confident of. Where Mr Cicchini sees a dogmatic, unswerving, scientific establishment, the facts support the confidence scientists have in centuries old models of the universe that have withstood the hammer blows of criticism during those centuries, all without buckling. It doesn’t mean that the new ideas are necessarily wrong, but it does mean that we are a lot less confident of them for good reason.

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About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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