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String Theory and the Crackpot Index

By glor in Science
Thu Nov 02, 2006 at 10:08:39 PM EST
Tags: string theory, crackpot index, popular physics (all tags)

Recently two books, by Peter Woit and by Lee Smolin, have been published questioning whether the enormous theoretical effort applied to the problems of string theory has been fruitful. Both books have been reviewed in several popular publications, and generated substantial discussion both inside and outside of the physics community.

One response was published several days ago by Briane Greene on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times (also here). A famously grouchy observer called the editorial a long, wistful plea for patience. But what struck me most as I read it was its similarity to the crackpot index maintained by John Baez. So, for fun, I scored it.


I feel a little dirty having done this. Part of me feels compelled to point out that I know this is a newspaper editorial for general consumption, rather than a "scientific" document. But I think the fact that a comparison with a crackpot index has any traction at all says something important and unpleasant about string theory's role in physics.

Points awarded (or considered) are listed below.

  1. A -5 point starting credit.
  2. 5 points for each word in all capital letters (except for those with defective keyboards).
  3. The initial all-caps is a newspaper tradition. No points awarded.
  4. 10 points for pointing out that you have gone to school, as if this were evidence of sanity.
  5. Only Professor Greene's present academic affiliation is mentioned. No points awarded.
  6. 10 points for beginning the description of your theory by saying how long you have been working on it.
  7. It's at the end, not the beginning: "I have worked on string theory for more than 20 years because I believe it provides the most powerful framework for constructing the long-sought unified theory."
  8. 10 points for each statement along the lines of "I'm not good at math, but my theory is conceptually right, so all I need is for someone to express it in terms of equations".
  9. "Even so, researchers worldwide are still working toward an exact and tractable formulation of the theory's equations."
  10. 10 points for each favorable comparison of yourself to Einstein, ...
  11. and
  12. 20 points for each favorable comparison of yourself to Newton ...
  13. I'm not sure whether the standard quantum gravity discussion of unification as the grand theme of the history of physics qualifies here. Certainly there are not statements of the type Baez generally filters for, where the crackpot writes, "I'm smarter than Einstein." But the implication is that, were Newton or Einstein alive today, they would be working on string theory too.
  14. 10 points for claiming that your work is on the cutting edge of a "paradigm shift".
  15. "Such was the case until the mid-1980's, when a new approach, string theory, burst onto the stage. ... As word of the breakthrough spread ..."
  16. 20 points for talking about how great your theory is, but never actually explaining it.
  17. Another item of questionable relevance in an op-ed.
  18. 30 points for suggesting that Einstein, in his later years, was groping his way towards the ideas you now advocate.
  19. "Even on his deathbed [Einstein] scribbled equations in the desperate but fading hope that the theory would finally materialize. It didn't."
  20. 40 points for claiming that the "scientific establishment" is engaged in a "conspiracy" to prevent your work from gaining its well-deserved fame, or suchlike.
  21. "Finally, some have argued that if, after decades of research involving thousands of scientists, the theory is still a work in progress, it's time to give up." (One might ask whether this question gets a pass, too, since such opinions have in fact been expressed by reputable people.)
  22. 50 points for claiming you have a revolutionary theory but giving no concrete testable predictions.
  23. "To be sure, no one successful experiment would establish that string theory is right, but neither would the failure of all such experiments prove the theory wrong."
Certainly, Dr. Greene has been been working for a long time (10) on a paradigm shift (10), towards which Einstein struggled on his deathbed (30). For his effort, his theory has no equations (10) and no tests (50). With the starting credit, that much makes 105 points.

Is Dr. Greene a crackpot? No. But is this how physics should be presented to the public?

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o by Peter Woit
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o crackpot index
o Also by glor


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String Theory and the Crackpot Index | 126 comments (121 topical, 5 editorial, 0 hidden)
Access to Greene's editorial (none / 1) (#1)
by glor on Tue Oct 31, 2006 at 04:19:52 PM EST

Since the editorial itself has slipped into the for-pay zone of the Times' web site, I'll put its text in a reply to this comment.

--
Disclaimer: I am not the most intelligent kuron.

Universe on a String (3.00 / 9) (#2)
by glor on Tue Oct 31, 2006 at 04:21:32 PM EST

                   Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
                               The New York Times

                            October 20, 2006 Friday
                              Late Edition - Final

Reprinted without permission.

Universe on a String

By Brian Greene.

    Brian Greene, a professor of physics and mathematics at
    Columbia, is the author of ''The Elegant Universe'' and ''The
    Fabric of the Cosmos.''

SEVENTY-FIVE years ago this month, The New York Times reported that
Albert Einstein had completed his unified field theory - a theory of
nature's forces into a single, tightly woven mathematical
tapestry. But as had happened before and would happen again, closer
scrutiny revealed flaws that sent Einstein back to the drawing
board. Nevertheless, Einstein's belief that he'd one day complete the
unified theory rarely faltered. Even on his deathbed he scribbled
equations in the desperate but fading hope that the theory would
finally materialize. It didn't.

In the decades since, the urgency of finding a unified theory has only
increased. Scientists have realized that without such a theory,
critical questions can't be addressed, such as how the universe began
or what lies at the hart of a black hole. These unresolved issues have
inspired much progress, with the most recent advances coming from an
approach called string theory. Lately, however, string theory has come
in for conciderable criticism. And so, this is an auspicious moment to
reflect on the state of the art.

First , some context. For nearly 300 years, science has been on a path
of consolidation. In the 17th century, Isaac Newton discovered laws of
motion that apply equally to a planet moving through space and to an
apple falling earthward, revealing that the physics of the heavens
later, Michael Faraday and James Clerk produce magnetic fields, and
moving magnets can produce electric currents, establishing that these
two forces are as united as Midas' touch and gold. And in the 20th
century, Einstein's work proved that space, time and gravity are so
entwined that you can't speak sensibly about one without the others.

This striking pattern of convergence, linking concepts once thought
unrelated, inspired Einstein to dream of the next and possibly final
move: merging gravity and electromagnetism into a single, overarching
theory of nature 's forces.

In hindsight, there was almost no way he could have succeeded. He was
barely aware that there were two other forces he was neglecting - the
strong and weak forces acting within atomic nuclei. Furthermore, he
willfully ignored quantum mechanics, the new theory of the microworld
that was receiving voluminous experimental support, but whose
probabilistic framework struck him as deeply misguided. Einstein
stayed the course, but by his final years he had drifted to the fringe
of a subject he had once dominated.

After Einstein's death, the torch of unification passed to other
hands. In the 1960's, the Nobel Prize-winning works of Sheldon
Glashow, Abdus Salam and Steven Weinberg revealed that at high
energies, the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces seamlessly
combine, much as heating a cold vat of chicken soup causes the
floating layer of fat to combine with the liquid below, yielding a
homogeneous broth. Subsequent work argued that at even higher energies
the strong nuclear force would also meld into the soup, proposed
consolidation that has yet to be confirmed experimentally, that there
is no fundamental obstacle to unifying three of nature's four forces.

For decades, however, the force of gravity stubbornly resisted joining
the fold. The problem was the very one that so troubled Einstein: the
disjunction between his own general relativity, most relevant for
extremely massive objects like stars and galaxies, and quantum
mechanics, the framework invoked by physics to deal with exceptionally
small objects like molecules and atoms and their constituents.

Time and again, attempts to merge the two theories resulted in
ill-defined mathematics, much like what happens on a calculator if you
try to divide one by zero. The display will flash an error message,
reprimanding you for misusing mathematics. The combined equations of
general relativity and quantum mechanics yield similar problems. While
the conflict rears its head only in environments that are both
extremely massive and exceptionally tiny - black holes and the Big
Bank being two primary examples - it tells of a fissure in the very
foundations of physics.

Such was the case until the mid-1980's, when a new approach, string
theory, burst onto the stage. Difficult and complex calculations by
the physicists John Schwarz and Michael Green, who had been toiling
for years in scientific obscurity, gave compelling evidence that this
new approach not only unified gravity and quantum mechanics, as well
as nature's other forces, but did so while sweeping aside previous
mathematical problems. As word of the breakthrough spread, many
physicists dropped what they were working on and joined a global
effort to realize Einstein's unified vision of the cosmos.

String theory offers a new perspective on matter's fundamental
constituents. Once viewed as point-like dots virtually no size,
particles in string theory are minuscule, vibrating, string-like
filaments. And much as different vibrations of a violin string produce
different musical notes, different vibrations of the theory's strings
produce different kinds of particles. And electron is a tiny string
vibrating in one pattern, a quark is a string vibrating in a different
pattern. Particles like the photon that convey nature's forces in the
quantum realm are strings vibrating in yet other patterns.

Crucially, the early pioneers of string theory realized that one such
vibration would produce the gravitational force, demonstrating that
string theory embraces both gravity and quantum mechanics. In sharp
contrast to previous proposals that cobbled gravity and quantum
mechanics uneasily together, their unity here emerges from the theory
itself.

While accessibility demands that I describe these developments using
familiar words, beneath them lies a bedrock of rigorous analysis. We
now have more then 20 years of painstaking research, filling tens of
thousands of published pages of calculations, which attest to string
theory's deep mathematical coherence. These calculations have given
the theory countless opportunities to suffer the fate of previous
proposals, but the fact is that every calculation that has ever been
completed within string theory is free from mathematical
contradictions.

Moreover, these works have also shown that many of the prized
breakthroughs in fundamental physics, discovered over the past two
centuries through arduous research using a wide range of approaches,
can be found within string theory. It 's as if one composer, working
in isolation, produced the greatest hits of Beethoven, Count Basie and
the Beatles. When you also consider that string theory has opened new
areas of mathematical research, you can easily understand why it's
captured the attention of so many leading scientists and
mathematicians.

Nevertheless, mathematical rigor and elegance are not sufficient to
demonstrate a theory's relevance. To be judged a correct description
of the universe, a theory must make predictions that are confirmed by
experiment. And as a small but vocal group of critics of string theory
justly emphasize, string theory has yet to do so. This is a key point,
so it's worth serious scrutiny.

We understand string theory much better now than we did 20 years
ago. We've developed powerful techniques of mathematical analysis that
have improved the accuracy of its calculations and provided invaluable
insights into the theory's logical structure. Even so, researchers
worldwide are still working toward an exact and tractable formulation
of the theory's equations. And without that final formulation in hand,
the kind of detailed a definitive predictions that would subject the
theory to comprehensive experimental vettingremain beyond our reach.

There are, however, features of the theory that maybe open to
examination even with our incomplete understanding. We may be able to
test the theory's predictions of particular new particle species, of
dimensions of space beyond the three we can directly see, and even its
prediction that microscopic black holes may be produced through highly
energetic particle collisions. Without the exact quotations, our
ability to describe these attributes with precision is limited, but
the theory gives enough direction for the Large Hadron Collider, a
gigantic particle accelerator now being built in Geneva and scheduled
to begin full operation in 2008, to search for supporting evidence by
the end of the decade.

Research has also revealed a possibility that signatures of string
theory are imprinted in the radiation left over from the Big Bang, as
well as in gravitational waves rippling through space-time's
fabric. In the coming years, a variety of fabric. In the coming years,
a variety of experiments will seek such evidence with unprecedented
observational fidelity. And in a recent, particularly intriguing
development, data now emerging from the Relativistic Heavy Ion
Collider at the Brookhaven National Laboratory appear to be more
accurately described using string theory methods than with more
traditional approaches.

To be sure, no one successful experiment would establish that string
theory is right, but neither would the failure of all such experiments
prove the theory wrong. If the accelerator experiments fail to turn up
anything, it could be that we need more powerful machine; if the
astronomical observations fail to turn up anything, it could mean the
effects are too small to be seen. The bottom line is that it's hard to
test a theory that not only taxes the capacity of today's technology
but is also still very much under development.

Some critics have taken this lack of definitive predictions to mean
that string theory is a protean concept whose advocates seek to step
outside the established scientific method. Nothing could be further
from the truth.  Certainly, we are feeling our way through a complex
mathematical terrain, and no doubt have much ground yet to cover. But
we will hold string theory to the usual scientific standard: to be
accepted, it must make predictions that are verified.

Other detractors have seized on recent work suggesting that one of
string theory's goals beyond unification of the forces - to provide an
explanation for the values of nature's constants, like the mass of the
electron and the strength of gravity - may be unreachable (because the
the4ory may be compatible with those constants having arrange of
values). But even if this were to prove true, realizing Einstein's
unified vision would surely be prize enough.

Finally, some have argued that if, after decades of research involving
thousands of scientists, the theory is still a work in progress, it's
time to give up. But to suggest dropping research on the most
promising approach to unification because the work has failed to meet
an arbitrary time-table for complete success is, well, silly.

I have worked on string theory for more than 20 years because I
believe it provides the most powerful framework for constructing the
long-sought unified theory. Nonetheless, should an inconsistency be
found, or should future studies reveal an insuperable barrier to
making contact with experimental data, or should new discoveries
reveal a superior approach, I'd change my research focus, and I have
little doubt that most string theorists would too.

But this hasn't happened.

String theory continues to offer profound breadth and enormous
potential.  It has the capacity to complete the Einsteinian revolution
and could very well be the concluding chapter in our species' age-old
quest to understand the deepest workings of the cosmos.

Will we ever reach that goal? I don't know. But that's both the wonder
and the angst of a life in science. Exploring the unknown requires
tolerating uncertainty.

--
Disclaimer: I am not the most intelligent kuron.
[ Parent ]

this is totally copyright violation. (2.66 / 6) (#69)
by garlic on Fri Nov 03, 2006 at 05:27:48 PM EST

They own the copyright and don't want people to see the article without paying. You've copyied the entire article (more than what may be necessary for criticism, a fair use) and pasted it here for people to read for free.

HUSI challenge: post 4 troll diaries on husi without being outed as a Kuron, or having the diaries deleted or moved by admins.
[ Parent ]

Agreed. Should it be excised? (3.00 / 2) (#83)
by glor on Sat Nov 04, 2006 at 06:23:32 PM EST

My thought was that it's actually a nice article, and the point that I'm trying to make about it is somewhat subtle.  I felt like making such a point with a disconnected set of out-of-context quotations, to an audience without access to their original context (without paying $8, or subscribing to the Times online, or to some other database, or whatnot), would be hard to do without seeming like I was being petty or unfair (accusations levelled anyway).  So I copied it here, complete with a "reprinted without permission."

The way it appears (as a reply to a comment) makes it, I think, invisible to most web spiders and to casual surfers visiting K5 who don't click its link or change their comment preferences.  So it isn't likely to be spidered up and reprinted elsewhere on the web.  I had originally posted it as an editorial thread, which gets hidden after the story posts, but a Helpful Editor changed it to topical.

The K5 admins (help@kuro5hin.org) have the ability to change this back to a hidden editorial thread, or to remove comment #2, should either be deemed warranted.  I can't unpost it from here, but I understand if it needs to be removed.

--
Disclaimer: I am not the most intelligent kuron.
[ Parent ]

Baez on string theory (2.91 / 12) (#3)
by Coryoth on Tue Oct 31, 2006 at 04:58:15 PM EST

I attended a lecture by John Baez not too long ago discussing the state of physics generally. He did, of course, touch on the issue of string theory. If I recall correctly, his view was that the people working on string theory had stopped doing physics and started doing pure math a while ago. There is, of course, nothing wrong with doing pure math - a lot of interesting physics started out as, or relied upon, deep pure mathematics that mathematicians had pursued for purely mathematical reasons with no recourse to physics or the physical world. And string theory is very interesting mathematics, and definitely worth pursuing. The problem is that these people need to admit that they're doing mathematics, not physics - doing mathematics is nothing to be ashamed about! (Disclaimer: this is my interpretation and recollection of Baez's view)

I think, in the end, the crackpot aspect of string theory is the part where you try to pretend it is a physical theory and not a mathematical one; once you make that stretch you end up making awfully strange claims. The math of string theory in intriguing and powerful in and of itself, and it doesn't need to be anything more than  just pure math. Perhaps, once day, the mathematics of string theory really will form the basis of some solid physics. That day is not today however, and I think pretending its physics in the meantime is just making things worse.

seems a little facile (2.66 / 3) (#4)
by trane on Tue Oct 31, 2006 at 05:02:13 PM EST

For example he says how long he's been working on it but immediately follows that with the claim that he would abandon it if he found any contrary evidence. So his point is not that the length of time he's been working on it should be taken as evidence that it's correct but that he is approaching the subject with scientific integrity. Now he may be lying, but I don't think the way he presents his side is that of a crackpot's. Also he does provide some tests that would provide supporting evidence, even if we can't do them yet. Also the claim is not made that Einstein was working on string theory on his deathbed, just a unification theory.

What is a crackpot, anyway? For comparison you might provide how others rate on this index, like the cold fusion guys perhaps...

Sure, I'm being a little silly. (none / 1) (#8)
by glor on Tue Oct 31, 2006 at 05:32:51 PM EST

I'm sure Brian Greene is a good guy, and I don't mean him any ill.  But until recently, physics has been more about "Hey, look what I can do" than about "We are toiling in a grand intellectual tradition."

The radio show "This American Life" did an interesting story about physics crackpots, http://www.thislife.org/pages/descriptions/05/293.html, act 3

--
Disclaimer: I am not the most intelligent kuron.
[ Parent ]

Crackpots are a tragedy (2.50 / 4) (#13)
by The Diary Section on Tue Oct 31, 2006 at 07:15:19 PM EST

They do it to themselves wilfully. Put it this way, the rules are not exactly secret. You can buy books on design and style, there is no excuse for failing to provide what you must and doing it in the appropriate manner (e.g., this includes the appropriate register used in writing about science). And if you genuinely think 2+2=5 then following a brief and politely worded enquiry, most people would be happy to direct you to a source of information that could disabuse you of your misunderstanding. But for some reason this never happens. I think crackpotism might be funny but is also a fairly serious sign of mental illness or at least social maladjustment. Einstein was wrong = cry for help.
Spend 10 minutes in the company of an American and you end up feeling like a Keats or a Shelley: Thin, brilliant, suave, and desperate for industrial-scale quantities of opium.
[ Parent ]
Agreed, but that doesn't mean it's simple. (none / 0) (#14)
by glor on Tue Oct 31, 2006 at 09:05:13 PM EST

For the problems in physics that attract seemingly-simple-but-wrongheaded ideas, a "source of information that could disabuse you of your misunderstanding" may be an experiment that can't be done.  Or it may take years of effort that the holder of the wrongheaded idea believes his idea makes unnecessary.  If I'm correctly remembering the radio story I linked to above, that guy didn't sound wilfully stubborn or mentally ill.  He just couldn't find anyone to tell him what was wrong in language he could understand --- and not for want of trying.  As one of my professors liked to say, "Nothing resembles a new effect quite so much as a mistake."

Also, of course, Einstein was sometimes wrong.  He famously didn't realize that stationary spacetime is unstable, and missed the chance to predict that the universe must be either expanding or contracting.  Einstein was also involved in an experiment to measure the electron magnetic moment that found the "classical" value (off by a factor of two from the correct value, a calculation that wasn't done by Dirac until long after Einstein's experiment).  Peter Galison talks about the 30 year effort to resolve that discrepancy in "How Experiments End."

Not that I'm disagreeing with you.  A strongly held stupid idea is a real tragedy.

--
Disclaimer: I am not the most intelligent kuron.
[ Parent ]

Oh indeed. (3.00 / 2) (#60)
by The Diary Section on Fri Nov 03, 2006 at 04:24:05 AM EST

I didn't mean to imply it was simple. The advice may indeed be "if you understood the maths then X,Y and Z would be clearer to you. There isn't an easy way to explain this in an analogy. To understand the maths you are going to need to go and get a good education in maths and that probably means a university course or at least doing all the reading that is associated with one". See, at that point the reasonable person realises they are either in over their head and chalks certain matters down to being imponderable (as we all do to some extent given you can't know everything about every field), or seven years later walks out of the door with a "labtan" and a completed PhD. The difference between the crank and the amateur is not the point at which the crank has an idea that intrigues them or writes something to a newsgroup (ie. does something) it is the point at which he fails to follow the reasonable next step (eg. learn the required calculus) and how he responds to either the fact he won't do it or that he can't do it.
Spend 10 minutes in the company of an American and you end up feeling like a Keats or a Shelley: Thin, brilliant, suave, and desperate for industrial-scale quantities of opium.
[ Parent ]
Very useful practical yardstick, and more (3.00 / 2) (#119)
by ralphclark on Tue Nov 14, 2006 at 08:10:38 PM EST

I have an awful personal tendency to get into protracted debates with publicity seeking, er..."alternative thinkers" - one or two of them fairly well known. This has been going on for years.

Clearly the urge to pontificate is as well developed in me as it is in them. So - after going over all the usual ground and getting nowhere, usually these situations devolve to the following problem: having foolishly allowed yourself to get sucked in and having taken a firm stand on basic epistemiological principles, how do you manage to end such discussions without caving in under pressure, and abandoning your aim of, well, getting the last, witheringly patronizing word in (and hence effectively losing the argument).

So I was delighted to find this remark of yours:

"The difference between the crank and the amateur is   [...] the point at which he fails to follow the reasonable next step (eg. learn the required calculus) and how he responds to either the fact he won't do it or that he can't do it."

My, my. Not only is this a useful yardstick for making a positive ID on the crackpot, its also a great body blow ideal for deployment immediately before one's dramatic and poignant exit from a circular conversation (and best followed up immediately by adding the nutcase to your killfile).

[ Parent ]

Well cheers Ralph (none / 0) (#125)
by The Diary Section on Sun Dec 03, 2006 at 01:04:36 PM EST

...glad to be of assistance.

Parent ]

Alexander Abian (3.00 / 3) (#108)
by ortholattice on Mon Nov 06, 2006 at 01:35:47 PM EST

An interesting case was Alexander Abian, a well-known Usenet kook in the '90s who was perfectly serious about curing AIDS by blowing up the moon and reorbiting Venus, as well as his nonsense theory of everything that equated time and mass. However, his mathematics was rarely wrong. A year before he died he posted "Abian's most fundamental fixed point theorem" that was doubted and even derided if you look up the relevant Usenet posts. Nonetheless, after his death his theorem was vindicated with a complete formal proof of its correctness.

[ Parent ]
My new theory of physics (2.37 / 8) (#5)
by b1t r0t on Tue Oct 31, 2006 at 05:04:02 PM EST

...is the "Finger Theory". If you want to see how it works, just pull my finger!

-- Indymedia: the fanfiction.net of journalism.
Our theory of the universe (2.09 / 11) (#6)
by United Fools on Tue Oct 31, 2006 at 05:11:52 PM EST

Things in general have no intelligence.

We are united, we are fools, and we are America!
+1 fp (1.62 / 8) (#9)
by circletimessquare on Tue Oct 31, 2006 at 06:25:33 PM EST

a theory in search of a phenomenon to apply to

therefore, useless

string theory has no practical utility or implications or testable hypotheses, so its more like mythology for physics


The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

Well when (none / 1) (#111)
by Comrade Wonderful on Wed Nov 08, 2006 at 10:18:22 AM EST

we are all laughing at you from the Excellent Dimension of Pure Unending Sex while you are left behind (tm) making indie horror flicks in Manila, I won't say I told you so.

[ Parent ]
more about string theory, please (2.57 / 7) (#10)
by krkrbt on Tue Oct 31, 2006 at 06:30:42 PM EST

Editorial, but topical too...

Why is there such animosity towards string theory?  To me, it seems like it challenges certain notions that old-school physcists hold to be self evident.

The pro- and anti-string theory feud seems to have taken on characteristics of a holy war, when viewed from my humble perch on the sidelines.  Even this piece is characteristic of an ad hominem attack, rating the scientist on a 'crackpot scale'.

Perhaps you could add some more background on the string theory feud.

IT'S A CONSPIRACY! (2.66 / 9) (#12)
by the spins on Tue Oct 31, 2006 at 07:03:57 PM EST

PERPETRATED BY THE SCIENTIFIC ELITE! TRYING TO SUPRESS STRING THEORY!!!

 _
( )
 X
/ \ SUPPORT THE DEL GRIFFITH MODBOMBING CAMPAIGN

[ Parent ]

String theory is beautiful (3.00 / 5) (#19)
by QuantumFoam on Tue Oct 31, 2006 at 09:37:15 PM EST

Mathmatically, string theory is beautiful. Unfortunately, the last I heard, a test of its results would require a supercollider roughly the radius of our solar system, so its unlikely to be proven or disproven in our lifetimes.

Quantum Mechanics started out similarly, and as counterintuitive and silly as it is on the surface, it has borne fruit.

- Barack Obama: Because it will work this time. Honest!
[ Parent ]

More about string theory: (3.00 / 7) (#21)
by glor on Tue Oct 31, 2006 at 10:26:06 PM EST

I didn't go into detail about _what_ string theory is and _why_ some people don't like it because that's a long, complicated story on which many people with better heads than mine have already written at length. Three such people are Brian Greene, Lee Smolin, and Peter Woit. Smolin's and Woit's books I linked to in the article; Brian Greene wrote "The Elegant Universe," which was made into a NOVA special for US public television. I have read and can recommend Smolin's and Greene's books; I haven't gotten to Woit's yet.

The basic idea behind string theory really is compelling: the universe is made of one sort of object, whose dynamics are governed by one sort of rule, and magically that gives rise to all the particles and forces that we see in the world. Unfortunately it gives rise to other things that we don't see, like unbroken supersymmetry: there isn't a particle with unit spin and unit charge with the same mass as the electron. So you have to change things so that supersymmetry gets broken, but there's more than one way to make such a change. In fact there are an enormous number of methods --- more than 10^500, by one count, which is (enormously) more than there are atoms in the universe. So now you have a class of theories, instead of a single theory, that can describe anything but can predict nothing. Both the simplicity and the predictive power are gone.

What's troublesome is that some people in the string theory community have observed this and given up on prediction as a characteristic of a theory. Maybe, they reason, there are lots of universes, and we're just lucky enough to live in one that's hosptitable to life. The problem with such a pronouncement --- the "anthropic principle" --- is that it's entirely untestable, even in principle. Maybe this is what you mean by "it challenges certain notions that old-school physcists hold to be self evident." If the notion is that theories explain things, rather than just describing them, I'm certainly not prepared to give that up.

Smolin writes at length about the sociology of the string community. He presents (anecdotal) evidence that string theorists have developed a bizarrely antiscientific culture deaf to the ideas of "outsiders" and with key results accepted as "proven" without the construction of any actual mathematical proofs, let alone experimental evidence. This is probably what you mean by "the debate has taken the tone of a holy war," and I don't like it either. For example, the review in Nature concludes with

Some of the sociological issues that come into play here are the subject of interesting chapters, based on Smolin's own experiences. A sad aspect is the ad hominem attacks made on those who question the theory, including serious thinkers being labelled by the derogatory term 'popperazzi'. This term makes clear how some string theorists regard their views as so overwhelmingly convincing that it is no longer necessary to retain experimental testing as the core of the scientific approach. Smolin crystallizes what many in the physics community feel about these extravagances of string theory.

Those advocating a focus on 'beauty' and 'miracles' when evaluating their theories don't seem to have thought through the implications. The weakening of criteria proposed by some string theorists will, if accepted, open the doors to many other faith-based enterprises that would be only too glad to be viewed as science. In particular, scientific opposition to 'intelligent design' centres on an insistence that for a theory to be scientific it must be testable, observationally or experimentally. Proponents of intelligent design must surely welcome the freedom from evidential constraints that some string theorists are proposing.

What is crucially needed in developing string theory is a serious attempt to engage with the philosophy of science, developing an approach to theory validation that is adequate where insubstantial evidential support has to be supplemented by other principles of inference. So far, this has not been done.

If this review (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v443/n7111/full/443507a.html) is publicly accessible, I'll add it to the list in the article. But I'm afraid it's subscription only.

As for my own ad hominem: it's not my intent here to disparage Brian Greene, at all. But the fact is that certain fundamental problems in physics attract crazy people, who tend to describe their ideas using a characteristic language heavy with intellectual ideology and quite different from the language typically used by people who've figured out how something works. My point here is that I find it disturbing how this language has leaked into mainstream discussions of science. And it isn't only the string theorists doing that: if I scored Smolin's book the same way as a discussion of loop quantum gravity, he'd still get 80 points or so. He does make at least one testable prediction and refrains from referring to his effort as a "breakthrough"; though he goes on, as I mentioned, for much longer about the "conspiracy" to suppress loop quantum gravity.

--
Disclaimer: I am not the most intelligent kuron.
[ Parent ]

materialism vs. string theorism? (2.33 / 3) (#28)
by krkrbt on Wed Nov 01, 2006 at 01:28:37 AM EST

Thanks for the explanation.  I've read the economist and sciam pages, and they do give a little more background for the uninitiated. I follow your post pretty well, though I come at these things more from the philosophical side.

"it challenges certain notions that old-school physcists hold to be self evident" -- scientists have been searching for centuries for a fundamental piece of matter that everything is made up of. At one point the consensus was that atoms were the fundamental unit of existence.  Then someone found that atoms are composed of protons & electrons.  Case closed.  Then someone else discovered neutrons. All these particles can be broken down further still (they have names, I just don't know offhand what they are), and physicists keep fractioning the old smallest particle to find even smaller particles.  

The reports I've read seem to indicate that scientists expect there to be an ending point, some smallest group of particles of which all matter is composed of (perhaps it is the reporter's bias?).  This is the classic 'materialist' position.

It seems to me that string theorists (again, just a jester on the sidelines) challenge this position by saying that there's no smallest particle, that there's some other phenomena from which the universe as we know it is projected.  

"the debate has taken the tone of a holy war" -- beliefs are a part of being human. Human scientists have beliefs too, and it seems that the defenders of the status quo (anti-string-theorists) don't want to acknowledge that their beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality diverge significantly from objective reality.  String theorists probably have mistaken beliefs too, else their theory would be more useful.

Religion takes a bad rap today because it's primarily used as an institution of control - getting individuals to behave as sheep, moving in whatever direction their shepard wants. I think it's much more useful to think that classical religion expressed truths as best they could given the language and experience of pastoral populations of 2000 years ago.

There's a new physics emerging - I don't know if string theory will be a part, but I know classical materialist philosophy is inadequate to describe the rich universe we live in. The study of spirit ("religion") and the study of the natural world (science) are due to be reunited, because the split was always artificial. Perhaps this is why the old-school physicists resent string theory so - because acceptance thereof would make room for 'god' again (NOT the angry fundamentalist christian understanding thereof, but a concious source for all that is - see Robert Monroe's second and third books for more on this philosophy).

I've had plenty of experiences that are inexplicable by the current scientific understanding. Take, for example, the FAQ question on places where things seem to roll uphill.  I've been to the Oregon Vortex, and what goes on there is definitely more than "an optical illusion". But a 'scientist' who believes the 'laws of physics' don't allow for such things will find their own explanation for the phenomenon, and the Oregon Vortex is dismissed as a simple optical illusion. (The Oregon Vortex is said to be the largest/strongest Vortex on land; the bermuda triangle is larger.)

I stopped by the Vortex on a trip to see a practitioner trained in Donna Eden's approach to Energy Medicine. Donna was given up on by mainstream medicine, and re-discovered many principles (known to ancient traditional chinese medicine practitioners, for example) while finding her own way back to health. She has 'seen' subtle energies all her life, and used this ability to find her health again. Her clairvoyance has predictive abilities, but that's another post.

Donna Eden is said to love the vortex, because she can 'see' (clairvoyantly) the magnetic (?) anomolies that cause the distortions in human perception. The lady I visited can see energies too. I experienced this when she read me like an open book, so I'm inclined to believe Donna's ability to see the vortex's distortions. Someone who believes "subtle energies" are fantasy would dismiss these reports because they conflict with their cherished beliefs.

It will be interesting to follow the string theory debate. Met a guy four years back who was working on a doctorate in 'cold fusion physics' (an explaination for a non-physicist).  Haven't seen him recently, but I just heard that he just completed his PhD; if/when I see him again I'll have to ask about string theory so I'll be able to contribute more directly to the topic at hand.  :)


[ Parent ]

This is all very post modern of you (3.00 / 4) (#37)
by JetJaguar on Thu Nov 02, 2006 at 01:11:24 AM EST

I assume you are aware of the Sokal incident? Sokal's questionable motivations aside, the response to Sokal by the post modernists was pathetic to say the least.

The fact is and where your misunderstaning lies is that science has never been strictly limited to materialism. However, non-materialist theories have a tendancy to run up against brick walls.

The scientific process is pretty simple:

  1. Observe a phenomenon.
  2. Devise a hypothesis that explains it.
  3. Make a novel prediction based on that hypothesis.
  4. Test the prediction
  5. Revise or throw out the hypothesis based on the results of the test
  6. repeat steps 3-5 ad infinitum

Notice that nowhere in this list of steps are non-material causes explicitly excluded. However, non-material causes seem to run into trouble at step three. You have claimed that there is something "special" about your vortexes. Ok, fine. Please answer me this: What are these vortexes, and in what other testable, and reproducible ways do these vortexes manifest themselves? And what causes these vortexes in the first place?

By the way, instructions for making your own "vortex" in your backyard can be found here. Now just explain to me what is going here that is not "more than an optical illusion." I am fully open to an explaination that goes beyond "materialism," but you must get to step 3 before I think that you have anything interesting to say.

[ Parent ]

Not familiar with Sokal (none / 1) (#50)
by krkrbt on Thu Nov 02, 2006 at 03:25:29 PM EST

They are not "my" vortexes.  The Oregon Vortex is a specific manefestation of the vortex phenomenon, of which there are many.  Today it is mostly a tourist attraction - like the house of mirrors at the fair, but better (imho).  I paid $8.50 for a tour, and experienced it myself.

It's obvious that the page you link to is an optical illusion because the board is obviously at an angle to the viewer.  If you examine the pictures  here, the board at their feet appears to be perpendicular to the camera.  Also see the picture where they remove the background

I've been to the Vortex in Oregon, and all I'm staying is that something strange is happening there.  I wasn't interested in their "notes and data" booklet, so I left without spending any more than I had to.  The Bermuda Triangle vortex is infamous - do you think this infamy is without cause?  

I'm not ignoring your three questions, I just don't know their specific answers.  An explanation is not necessary for observations, and I'm simply sharing my experience.  I seem to recall that the explanation offered by previous Oregon Vortex researchers was that it has something to do with magnetics.  I'd appreciate your explanations for the existence of the earth's magnetic field, why it moves, and why it periodically reverses.  


[ Parent ]

Camera tilt and ground tilts (3.00 / 2) (#54)
by JetJaguar on Thu Nov 02, 2006 at 10:09:12 PM EST

In my looking at the picture, I note that the board is in fact at an angle. The angle is not as exagerated as it is on Randi's site, but of course that's also the point. I also note that the ground doesn't look entirely level either.

Finally, I don't see anything in those pictures that can't be accomplished via clever camera tricks and photoshop.

As for the "magnetics" explanation. You are attempting to conflate different questions about magnetism to bolster your explanation, but it doesn't work. Now it's true that the generation and evolution of the earth's magnetic field is not something that is well understood by science, but such questions are totally irrelevant to your contention. There is no evidence that magentism effects objects in a way that would explain these pictures. Magnetism doesn't work that way, and if it did, it would be a violation of Maxwell's equations amoung other things...which would mean that more likely than not you wouldn't be able to utilize electricity in your home they way you do, and that would really only be the tip of the iceberg.

I realize that you probably didn't know the answers to the questions I posed, but that was exactly my point. If you don't know the answers to those question it's a sure bet the most people don't know the answers to those questions, and probably didn't even think any further about it. And that is precisely what the people running the "Oregon Vortex" at $8.50 a head are counting on.

Richard Feynman once said that science is a way trying not to fool yourself. And the first thing you have to realize is that you are the easiest one to fool.

I don't mean to dismiss what you experienced out of hand, I really don't. It's just that being a human being, and a scientist, I've learned how easily I can be fooled, and that's even after having a strong training in the sciences. If something *really* mysterious were happening at these "vortexes," half the physics community would be falling over themselves getting out to those sites and trying to explain it. Really! They would be. They don't fall over themselves checking these places out, not because they are afraid that what they find will threaten the status quo, but because there are *so* many much better and more plausible explainations than that there is really some new bizarre physics going on there.

[ Parent ]

on the completeness of the physical model (none / 1) (#58)
by krkrbt on Fri Nov 03, 2006 at 01:36:02 AM EST

There is no evidence that magentism effects objects in a way that would explain these pictures.

And yet the place of which the pictures were taken exists. While you can explain the pictures away, I cannot dismiss what I experienced as an 'illusion'. Vortices are the evidence that something is as yet unexplained about how our little world operates.

The New York Times travel article says that the former owner of the property spent many years investigating what was going on. Whether an individual is able to consider the evidence is another matter entirely.

"You can find scientific survey maps of the United States and the planet that show both magnetic and gravitational anomalies," said Michael A. Grizzel, a chemical engineering and biotechnology researcher at the University of Maryland, who started the Enigma Project in 1978 to investigate claims of paranormal and unexplained phenomena. "That's not to say they represent anything of real high strangeness, but that possibly leaves the door open for some type of bona fide mystery." (NYT article linked above)

Magnetism doesn't work that way, and if it did, it would be a violation of Maxwell's equations amoung other things...

There are exceptions to every rule. Newton's laws of motion are pretty good, but they do break down at the ends of the scale. Doesn't relativity break down too, in specific cases?

which would mean that more likely than not you wouldn't be able to utilize electricity in your home they way you do,

Non sequitur.  :)

The book of physics is as yet unfinished. Many like to believe that there's only a few pages missing, but my experience tends to support the notion that whole chapters are unaccounted for.

-krkrbt

[ Parent ]

But are you sure you know where the edges are? (none / 1) (#61)
by JetJaguar on Fri Nov 03, 2006 at 11:37:07 AM EST

I do know where the edges are.

And yet the place of which the pictures were taken exists. While you can explain the pictures away, I cannot dismiss what I experienced as an 'illusion'.

Reread what I said about trying not to fool yourself. Why can't you dismiss what you experienced as an illusion? You speak as though you are afraid to even consider the possibility. Why? What makes you so sure you are right? Are you claiming that you can't be fooled?

There are exceptions to every rule. Newton's laws of motion are pretty good, but they do break down at the ends of the scale. Doesn't relativity break down too, in specific cases?

Yes, but do you understand why they break down? The reasons and circumstances under which these theories break down is well understood. What happens beyond these edges is open for debate of course, but your not even getting close to the edges here.

Non sequitur. :)

Not at all. You don't seem to understand. If magnetism had any hope of operating in a way that is claimed to explain these pictures, these effects would necessarily manifest themselves in many different places, including electricity transmission. For example, a reasonable prediction would be that one should see similar kinds of effects if you were standing near a large power transformer. The magnetic fields surrounding a transformer are considerably greater than the earth's magnetic field or any magnetic or gravitational anomalies.

The book of physics is indeed unfinished, but not in the way that you think it is. There are most certainly great mysteries yet to be uncovered, but they will not be uncovered by ignoring what has come before and making stuff up to make the mundane seem mysterious.



[ Parent ]
experience is the greatest teacher (none / 1) (#65)
by krkrbt on Fri Nov 03, 2006 at 12:37:29 PM EST

Vortices are certainly more than a magnetic anomoly. I don't know specifically what causes the phenomena.

Why can't you dismiss what you experienced as an illusion?

Because there is consistency in my experiences, and the Vortex fits in nicely. See the reference to Donna Eden's work in the comment you originally replied to. I've met many people who can see subtle energies, some almost as well as she can, some (possibly) more so. Sometimes I see auras too, but only occasionally (I know why this is so, and finding the 'fix' has been quite a challenge :).  

You speak as though you are afraid to even consider the possibility.

I believed as you do once. Experience has forced me to move on. Not interested in getting into my personal story again today.

That is all.  g'day.

[ Parent ]

Consistency (none / 1) (#70)
by JetJaguar on Fri Nov 03, 2006 at 06:06:26 PM EST

Sigh,

If it's really as consistent and repeatable as you claim, then I recommend that you apply for James Randi's 1 million dollar prize. If you can consistantly prove that you can indeed sense "energy fields" whatever they may be, then why don't submit yourself to a real honest to goodness test? You would be opening up a whole new field of study to science, and reaping some nice personal and monetary rewards. Or are you too afraid to have your perceptions critically examined?

I believed as you do once. Experience has forced me to move on. Not interested in getting into my personal story again today.

Funny, you don't really know what I believe, and ultimately you really didn't answer my questions. Consistency by itself, isn't really a very good measure of what I'm talking about. And then you move the goal posts when I pretty handily (imho) disprove that magnetism can possibly have anything to do with it.



[ Parent ]
quoting myself... (none / 1) (#72)
by krkrbt on Fri Nov 03, 2006 at 08:25:57 PM EST

If it's really as consistent and repeatable as you claim, then I recommend that you apply for James Randi's 1 million dollar prize.

Ahem, to quote myself:

Sometimes I see auras too, but only occasionally (I know why this is so, and finding the 'fix' has been quite a challenge :).  

(emphasis added)

Besides, a few of the people who've met the man report that he's a fraud anyways, and has no intention of parting with his money. See some of the comments to "Virtual Worlds and ESP" (from earlier this year, iirc) on slashdot.

And then you move the goal posts when I pretty handily (imho) disprove that magnetism can possibly have anything to do with it.

Ahem, to quote myself again:

I seem to recall that the explanation offered by previous Oregon Vortex researchers was that it has something to do with magnetics.

(emphasis added)

I set no "goal post".

Funny, you don't really know what I believe

You've given me a general idea. Beliefs are personal. You have yours, I have mine, and they conflict. I believe in an objective reality, and one of us is closer than the other.  

g'day.  :)


[ Parent ]

Objective reality? (none / 1) (#87)
by JetJaguar on Sat Nov 04, 2006 at 07:21:32 PM EST

In all of your posts, you speak of your experiences, and your beliefs, or the beliefs and experiences of someone else. You haven't written a single thing that can be objectively verified. And in fact, your entire thesis seems to based on the hope that science and spirituallity will somehow merge. And yet spirituallity is probably the absolute most subjective and unshareable experience that people have! Do you see the contradictions in your own words?

Given that you seem to accept my contention that vortexes cannot have anything to do with magnetics, and vortex "researchers" do make this claim, why would you put stock in the words of "researchers" whose claims are so trivially easy to refute?

Whether you believe the contention that this is just an optical illusion or not, do you not agree that the there's a good chance that these "researchers" don't have a clue what they are talking about? If they can make such a wrong headed assumption right off the bat, don't you think it's reasonable to question the rest of their claims? If you don't think it's reasonable, please answer why? What makes their claims "special" and the claims of accepted scientists worthy of immediate dismissal?

Just because of your beliefs? That's not very objective is it?

[ Parent ]

semantics & personal experience (none / 1) (#93)
by krkrbt on Sat Nov 04, 2006 at 11:54:22 PM EST

I think we've reached the semantic limits of our exchange. It would take quite a bit more time than I'm interested in investing to specify what I mean when I talk about "experiences", "beliefs", "objective", "subjective", "spiritual", etc.

And even if I did invest the time, you still wouldn't have been to the Oregon Vortex.  That being the case, you wouldn't be able to counter-argue from your own experience thereof, to provide your own personal interpretation of the roadside attraction. Looking at other people's digital pictures doesn't count.

A few final points, though.  :)

Spirituality is not subjective.  Our experience thereof, certainly, but the universality of human spiritual experience indicates that there are objective principles applicable to all members of our species - even avowed atheists have Near Death Experiences (a specific type of "Out of Body Experience"). Robert Monroe's Gateway program is but one example of a training program that helps the individual to discover these universal truths.

Given that you seem to accept my contention that vortexes cannot have anything to do with magnetics,

The vortexes certainly have magnetic phenomena associated with them.  I accept your contention that the vortex phenomena might not be caused by magnetism directly, but Christopher Columbus' log did contain "bizarre compass bearings in the area" of the Bermuda triangle.

...

I think that will be all.  g'day.  :)


[ Parent ]

All personal experience based (none / 1) (#95)
by Coryoth on Sun Nov 05, 2006 at 12:17:35 AM EST

even avowed atheists have Near Death Experiences (a specific type of "Out of Body Experience").

Yes, even atheists have Near Death Experiences. They can even have them reproduced under controlled conditions in the lab. All you have to do is put the brain under sufficient stress, such as blacking out due to lack of blood to the brain in a G-force simulator for pilots: NDE experiences have been repeatedly and consistently reproduced with no risk of death in exactly those conditions.

The simple reality is that people's experience of the world is fundamentally subjective, so no particular experience, or even set of experiences, necessarily provides any objective information - thus we can't really know objective reality. To be at all convincing you need data other than personal experience, because personal experience alone simply cannot be relied upon. It might convince you, but it doesn't convince us.

[ Parent ]

incoherence is not semantics (none / 1) (#104)
by JetJaguar on Mon Nov 06, 2006 at 12:30:15 AM EST

You're devolving back into the incoherence of post modernism again (or maybe your hiding behind it). You're trying to redefine "experiences," "objective," "subjective," and "spiritual" into something that you can't define coherently in order to make your position sound more profound than it really is. You may not even realize that you are doing it, but the fact is, you are. This isn't an issue of semantics, it's an issue of you intentionaly refusing to accept objective reality because you don't like it (for whatever reason).

Spirituality is subjective, the tenets that people hold to may very well be based on something that can be objectively measured... For example, you can objectively measure how religion (regardless of what the beliefs actually are) is able to bind communities together to various degrees under certain circumstances. And we can even hypothesize that having the same beliefs within those groups probably gave them some benefit by reducing the amount of social friction within the group, however, *what* they actually believe may or may not be particularly important. And how each individual expresses those beliefs within the group is done subjectively according to the whims of the individual.

Finally, as I've said here I have visited a number of these places (though not yours specifically) and I have never had this spiritual experience you claim to have. So please go ahead and continue you to accuse me of not having spent any time on this. I have, and I've spent enough time to know that what you're spouting is bollocks.

[ Parent ]

closing thoughts (none / 1) (#105)
by krkrbt on Mon Nov 06, 2006 at 02:41:56 AM EST

The Oregon vortex was not a 'spiritual' experience for me - it was just an interesting place that I was reminded of by going beyond the 'crackpot index' link. I am somewhat familiar with the places in Sedona (though I have not visited them), and while they are similar in some regards to the Oregon Vortex, my understanding is that the vortex phenomena in Oregon are much stronger. Consider pulling off if you happen to see the Oregon Vortex billboard on the side of I-5.

I'd say more, but this loop has already played itself out, and I've reached the limits of my experience. So this is all. For real this time. :)

[ Parent ]

Except (3.00 / 4) (#52)
by Scrymarch on Thu Nov 02, 2006 at 05:23:23 PM EST

... no scientist actually works in such a stultifying fashion. In practice scientists try to solve problems at hand, and then cast that inherently haphazard process into a canonical form (your list of steps) so that other scientists may formally criticise their results.

I couldn't agree more about Sokal though; have you read the old k5 article?

[ Parent ]

Ha ha ha. You made my day (3.00 / 3) (#49)
by joto on Thu Nov 02, 2006 at 02:24:57 PM EST

It seems to me that string theorists (again, just a jester on the sidelines) challenge this position by saying that there's no smallest particle, that there's some other phenomena from which the universe as we know it is projected.

No. The string theorists say that the universe is built up of strings. But they aren't saying what the strings are built up of. It's just another step down the ladder, they've found one more turtle, but they haven't proved it's turtles all the way down.

and it seems that the defenders of the status quo (anti-string-theorists) don't want to acknowledge that their beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality diverge significantly from objective reality.

I don't know what planet you are from. But string theory is the status quo! And it has been the status quo for decades. There aren't many physicists publicly claiming that they believe string theory is bollocks. And popular media, such as popular science books, magazines, tv-shows, etc... have all been made trying to explain string theory to the public. The current media debate is a reaction against the status quo, not a reaction from it.

String theorists probably have mistaken beliefs too, else their theory would be more useful.

No shit, Sherlock!

The study of spirit ("religion") and the study of the natural world (science) are due to be reunited, because the split was always artificial.

Calling religion the study of spirit, is like calling dancing the study of anatomy. I'm sorry, we already have a study of "spirit", it's called psychology. And while it has problems of it's own, at least it tries to be a science. Religion doesn't try to be a science, and it isn't a science. That doesn't mean that religion is a bad thing; dancing isn't a science, but most people consider it a good thing (perhaps except from some religious people). The "split" between religions and science is in no way artificial.

I've had plenty of experiences that are inexplicable by the current scientific understanding. Take, for example, the FAQ question on places where things seem to roll uphill. I've been to the Oregon Vortex, and what goes on there is definitely more than "an optical illusion".

I'm sorry. The FAQ explains this perfectly. The fact that the optical illusion is so convincing doesn't change the fact that it's still an optical illusion. By the way, magicians doesn't really make stuff (dis)appear either. It's just an optical illusion.

I stopped by the Vortex on a trip to see a practitioner trained in Donna Eden's approach to Energy Medicine. Donna was given up on by mainstream medicine, and re-discovered many principles

Yeah, I'm sure Donna can "see" the "energies" all around her. But does she even know what "energy" means, or even that it is measured in Joules? Try to replace each use of Donna's "energy" with another word, such as "temperature", "acidity", "field density", or maybe even "spirits", and see if it changes the meaning.

Met a guy four years back who was working on a doctorate in 'cold fusion physics'

That seems about as likely as somebody working on a doctorate in chemistry in 'gold conversion alchemy'. Ok, perhaps not that bad, but this description sounds more like something coloured by your worldview than an honest attempt from him at explaining what he did. Perhaps he just gave up talking to you, and said something that would make you happy.

[ Parent ]

Science starts with experience. Do you have any? (none / 1) (#51)
by krkrbt on Thu Nov 02, 2006 at 03:40:55 PM EST

I'm sorry. The FAQ explains this perfectly. The fact that the optical illusion is so convincing doesn't change the fact that it's still an optical illusion. By the way, magicians doesn't really make stuff (dis)appear either. It's just an optical illusion.

Have you been to the Oregon Vortex specifically?  How about one of the smaller vortexes (the FAQ offers a list)?  No?  What basis do you have for claiming that the Oregon Vortex is an Optical Illusion?  The gift shop (tourist attraction) sells a booklet of notes & data written by John Litster - a scientist who investigated the Vortex phenomenon.  Have you looked at Mr. Lister's data?  See my cousin reply to comment for more on the vortex and its pictures.

Yeah, I'm sure Donna can "see" the "energies" all around her. But does she even know what "energy" means, or even that it is measured in Joules? Try to replace each use of Donna's "energy" with another word, such as "temperature", "acidity", "field density", or maybe even "spirits", and see if it changes the meaning.

Do you have Donna's book?  Have you been to any of her workshops?  Have you watched her interact with people?  Do you know to what specifically she refers when she uses the word 'energy'?  (Words do have multiple definitions, you know.)  Have you ever met someone who's very clairvoyant (not just a little pyschic)?  From what you've said so far, I'm forced to believe that you're just a foolish scoffer on the intarweb, who probably believes in a flat earth too, and that X-Ray imaging is a scam that can't possibly work. (oops, wrong century).    

That seems about as likely as somebody working on a doctorate in chemistry in 'gold conversion alchemy'. Ok, perhaps not that bad, but this description sounds more like something coloured by your worldview than an honest attempt from him at explaining what he did. Perhaps he just gave up talking to you, and said something that would make you happy.

It was at a seminar on 'influence', and the trainer also teaches remote viewing, and ass-whooping too.  The physicist was a long-time client of the trainer.  Before he started his training, he worked at Taco Bell.  This particular trainer helped him blow out the crap in his past that was holding him back, and here 10 or 15 years later he's just finished a Ph.D in Physics at a reputable accredited university.  

These are my experiences.  It is intellectually dishonest for you to dismiss them because you don't believe that such things could happen.  I was just sharing my experiences, and won't get into a pissing match.  

[ Parent ]

Science starts with critical thinking. You lack it (3.00 / 3) (#59)
by joto on Fri Nov 03, 2006 at 04:08:41 AM EST

Have you been to the Oregon Vortex specifically? How about one of the smaller vortexes (the FAQ offers a list)? No? What basis do you have for claiming that the Oregon Vortex is an Optical Illusion? The gift shop (tourist attraction) sells a booklet of notes & data written by John Litster - a scientist who investigated the Vortex phenomenon. Have you looked at Mr. Lister's data? See my cousin reply to comment for more on the vortex and its pictures.

I haven't been to the Oregon Vortex, or any of the other places listed in the FAQ, but if one were close to where I live, I would definitely go, as it sounds like a fun way to spend a day off.

However, in order to say it's an optical illusion, all I have to do is to use common sense. People who have been to these places give extraordinary claims about them, claims that, if they were true, would completely change our view of some of the most fundamental laws about nature we know about. So take my word for it, qualified scientists have investigated. The result you can read about in the FAQ.

By the way, John Litster is not a reputable scientist in any way. He is the person who built the Oregon Vortex, and is therefore more correctly described as an entrepeneur and showman.

Do you have Donna's book? Have you been to any of her workshops? Have you watched her interact with people? Do you know to what specifically she refers when she uses the word 'energy'? (Words do have multiple definitions, you know.) Have you ever met someone who's very clairvoyant (not just a little pyschic)? From what you've said so far, I'm forced to believe that you're just a foolish scoffer on the intarweb, who probably believes in a flat earth too, and that X-Ray imaging is a scam that can't possibly work. (oops, wrong century).

I am not stupid enough to spend money on Donnas book, nor any of her workshops. I'm sure she is great at interacting with people, otherwise, they would never fall for her quackery. Most likely, she probably believes in her quackery herself. Whatever Donna refers to when she says "energy", I have no idea, but I guess it's something she imagines herself.

The word "energy" has a precisely defined meaning, both in science and daily usage. It's the capacity to perform work. If she means something else, she should use another word. If I start talking about "water" and mean something completely different, I would expect people to get confused. And so should Donna.

I have never met anyone who is clairvoyant or psychic, and I don't expect I ever will. Organisations with much larger budgets than me have spent decades searching (e.g. CIA and KGB), and so far, they haven't had any success. James Randi is also offering a nice sum of money to anyone who is willing to submit themselves to rigorous testing, and succeeds.

From what you've said so far, I'm forced to believe that you're just a foolish scoffer on the intarweb, who probably believes in just about anything people tell you, whether it's fairies coming out of crystals, or that homeopathy really works.

It was at a seminar on 'influence', and the trainer also teaches remote viewing, and ass-whooping too. The physicist was a long-time client of the trainer. Before he started his training, he worked at Taco Bell. This particular trainer helped him blow out the crap in his past that was holding him back, and here 10 or 15 years later he's just finished a Ph.D in Physics at a reputable accredited university.

I'm sad to hear that you lost your money on a charlatan holding seminars about his/her superstiticious beliefs. I'm even more sad to hear that someone clever enough to get a PhD in physics is paying for it. But the thing that makes me most sad is that your money also fund his courses in ass-whooping, or what the rest of us would refer to as child abuse. Now, it's possible that this charlatan is also a great people-person (at least for adults), and that that's what helped the physicist. But it surely wasn't any of his "influence" or "remote viewing" crap.

These are my experiences. It is intellectually dishonest for you to dismiss them because you don't believe that such things could happen. I was just sharing my experiences, and won't get into a pissing match.

No, it's not intellectually dishonest to reject the beliefs of someone, whose beliefs contradict everything I (and anyone with a scientific background) know about how nature works, through centuries of scientific research. At least unless that person also brings evidence powerful enough for me (and everyone with a scientific background) to throw away all those centuries of scientific knowledge.

And you didn't just share your experiences. You shared your interpretation of them. And it's your interpretation that I reject. Feel free to avoid any pissing match. Unless you're a troll, there's no way I would even consider anything but pissing downwards.

[ Parent ]

my apologies (none / 1) (#62)
by krkrbt on Fri Nov 03, 2006 at 11:48:11 AM EST

so sorry to have challenged your world view. I will endeavor to not challenge your cherished belief systems too much any more.  

By the way, you might want to look up "energy" in a dictionary. I use m-w.com.  The first definition there is more than just the capacity to perform work.

Ingo Swann (of CIA Remote Viewing fame) has said that their program had to get results, right from the start, because the CIA spooks always hated the implications of what they were sponsoring. The only reason they started the program was because their intelligence got word of a Soviet "psychic spying" effort (later they learned it was a mistranslation - "bio-information transfer" would've been more accurate), and they needed a corresponding program to perform a threat evaluation.  The only reason the program was allowed to go on for as long as it did was because they got useful information that couldn't be obtained any other way. Once the soviet union was gone, the U.S. government's remote viewing program followed soon thereafter.

Ingo says that one day he was sitting on his porcelain throne at SRI when two spooks walked in to visit the altars.  He overheard one say to the other, "wow, there's some really neat stuff going on here."  The other replied, "yah, and the next thing you know they'll be reading our minds."  "I knew then that our program was doomed." (paraphrased)

As for James Randi, several people over at Slashdot have met the man, and have shared their opinion thereof.  If you search for "james randi site:slashdot.org" at google, it'll turn up several stories with comments about him.  As I recall, "Virtual Worlds and ESP" had several good threads debunking Randi's challenge.  Summary: Randi has structured his challenge such that it is unwinnable.

[ Parent ]

Fake apologies not accepted (none / 1) (#66)
by joto on Fri Nov 03, 2006 at 02:00:33 PM EST

I have no respect for people who choose to disguise their insults as a faked apology. If you want to say that you don't like me, you can do so in the open. And you don't need to be afraid to challenge my worldview. The reason my worldview is predominantly coloured by rationality is because it's what works. It's not the first time I've encountered claims like you have, and I have often wished them to be true. But when you start to believe something is true because you wish it was true, you have already started walking down the path from sanity to insanity.

I looked up energy in m-w.com, and I'm surprised to see that you found a supporting viewpoint. A search for define:energy at google supports my viewpoint better. But I guess I'll have to award you one point here. After all, it was only a matter of time before the crystals and healing crowd would get their superstitious beliefs into a dictionary.

I'm quite aware that many of the remote viewing people still believe it works. This is no different from christians believing they will be saved in the afterlife because they believe in Jesus, dowsers who think it makes any difference to wave a stick to find groundwater (which is everywhere), or gamblers who continue to loose money but believe their lucky [item] will help them this time. Aside from that digression, remote viewing doesn't work. Their "successes" is a result of wishful thinking, wrong experimental setups, and lack of statistical understanding. And their funding ended, for good reasons. The fact that the program was allowed to go on for as long as it was, was probably because the decision-makers was involved in wishful thinking. I'm sure the program would have gone on for even longer, if you had been in power to decide it. Most likely some people with your worldview already was in position to create this waste of taxpayer money.

I'm not going to search google for random slashdot comments. But I've heard similar arguments before. And my take on them is this: So far, nobody has been able to demonstrate psychic/overnatural abilities that can be performed in controlled experiments, in a way that even comes close to dispute the price money. All we have is a bunch of charlatans claiming the test is somehow "unfair", yet fail to deliver anything that even would come close to meet the test criteria. I'm sorry, James Randi is free to set whatever criteria he wants. And his criteria is what he, and I, and many others consider reasonable proof of supernatural abilities. If you don't like the test, put up your own price money.

[ Parent ]

so much for that being the last comment. (none / 1) (#67)
by krkrbt on Fri Nov 03, 2006 at 03:12:21 PM EST

I wasn't going to respond (because you're obviously very secure in your belief system), but then I saw this, and there are other people reading here too:

dowsers who think it makes any difference to wave a stick to find groundwater (which is everywhere),

My father's old house had a capped well in the backyard.  It had been used before city water was available.  When the former occupants got hooked up to city water, they sold off the pump & tank.

Dad decided to re-outfit his well to supply his pond. I talked a bit with the guys who came out to do the work, and mentioned how my grandfather had a water dowser come out for the well at his cabin.  The dowser picked a spot on the one side of the driveway. The drillers drilled a hole, and it was an excellent well - good water quality and rate. But then they lost the pump somehow, and had to drill another hold on the other side of the driveway. That well was not nearly as good as the one they lost - much more iron in the water, and not as many gallons per minute (gpm).

The well driller-guy who was working on my dad's well said that he didn't believe in dowsing. But he was working with an old driller who did it, and he saw a huge difference in the wells drilled. So he, being of a practical mindset, learned how to dowse too. Water is not everywhere - it runs in channels underground. Dowsing allows drillers to hit the streams. He sees other drillers' wells pumping 1/2 gpm (this is in a particularly dry area), and he can usually get 10-15gpm when he dowses.

Try reading about Empiricism.  Dowsing frequently does work, for many different pursuits.

energy:

The use of the word "Energy" in psychological studies is comparatively new. although it was in use, in a casual sense, before the modern scientific concept of energy was fully developed.

...

The word "energy" is sometimes used in a casual sense as a synonym for psychological motivation, creativity, agitation, excitement, or responsiveness. "Fatigue" or a "lack of energy" can be either a result of expending chemical energy in the body, or a psychological condition brought on by an excess of intellectual activity, intense emotional experiences, inadequate sleep, or an imbalance or natural fluctuation in hormones and neurotransmitters. Emotional "exhaustion" is thought to be brought on not by a lack of energy in the body, but by a particular chemical state of the brain.

(emphasis added)

Most likely some people with your worldview already was in position to create this waste [the CIA's Remote Viewing program] of taxpayer money.

It was started as a threat assessment - nothing more, nothing less. Imagine if Roosevelt had scoffed at Einstein & Szilárd's letter - "nuclear fission?  hahaha!!!  that's a good one.  Tell these dipshits to get lost." America might've lost the second world war with a mushroom cloud over Washington. The CIA's threat assessment of Soviet bio-information programs was similarly worthwhile, solely because they would've been derelict in their duties if they hadn't done so.

That is all. :)

[ Parent ]

Empiricism (none / 1) (#71)
by JetJaguar on Fri Nov 03, 2006 at 06:17:39 PM EST

Empiricism is precisely why we don't believe in dowsing. In empirical double blind tests, dowsers are not any better at finding water than random chance.

[ Parent ]
Ok, trying to quit now... (none / 1) (#75)
by joto on Sat Nov 04, 2006 at 05:27:48 AM EST

I've heard many tales of people who believe in dowsing for anecdotical reasons. Still, with a proper experimental setup, and statistical controls, dowsing doesn't work any better than not dowsing. In a controlled test where dowsers were asked to tell when water was running in a pipe, they performed about as good as someone tossing a coin. Other tests have shown similar results.

I believe that perhaps the main reason why superstitious beliefs around dowsing are so prevalent, is because it's still one of the most cost-efficient way of finding water (the other method is to just drill somewhere, and it is equally efficient). There are of course better ways of finding water, but they involve expensive seismic equipment and/or highly educated people, so they are not used, since water can be found anywhere. On the other hand, if you want to find oil, which is harder to find, and can be sold at a much higher price than water, the oil-companies usually go for the scientific method, not a man with a stick.

As for empiricism, it's a way of thinking I have whole-heartedly embraced long ago. Why don't you too?

I agree with the psychological definition of energy. Actually, I had it in mind, when I wrote "capacity to perform work". I've certainly lacked (psychological) energy a few times myself... It's the "energy" described in paragraph 1c from m-w.com I oppose. But given that it's already widespread enough to have gotten there, I now believe this is a lost cause. Much like the hacker/cracker thing some people care about. You won that one.

And you may have a point when it comes to the reason for starting the Remote Viewing program too. There's no way in hell the program would have been started if the Soviets didn't do it (the Soviets did lots of strange stuff like this at the time). But, and this was my point, it certainly wouldn't be started if there weren't some strong proponent of remote viewing creating a proposal to the right authorities. And this person had to be in the right place as well. I doubt CIA would accept such a proposal from anyone.

There's nothing wrong with just testing something to see if it works. And I actually believe the taxpayers should be able to afford even more such experiments (if there's reasonable doubt as to whether something could work). What I'm more against is that the program was allowed to continue for 20 years, despite being a gigantic failure from day one.

[Note: I'm not saying the project was a failure because they failed to produce succesful remote viewers (although it failed in that regard too). I'm saying the project failed because it failed to successfully evaluate it's own progress in a way that would be scientifically honest. Because the people working on the project believed so strongly in it, they were unable to evaluate their own progress in any meaningful way. This alone should have been reason for cancellation.]

[ Parent ]

Remote viewing (none / 1) (#79)
by Coryoth on Sat Nov 04, 2006 at 01:08:13 PM EST

The best analysis of remote viewing I've ever read was in a book by two Psychologists from the University of Otago. They got a bunch of people who  thought they miht have some latent psychic ability and did some remote viewing experiments by sending a "sender" to a site, and having the "reciever" try and draw images associated with that site. What they saw stunned them - in test after test they found all manner of similarities between the drawing and the sites (which were photographed by the sender). Everyone involved was convinced something very interesting was going on.

Just to shake things up a little they collected the drawings and photographs and gave them to another person unrelated to the study to pair up. They too found what they thought were remarkable similarities between drawings and photos - the problem was that they found similarities between the wrong drawings and photos, pairing a remote viewing drawing of one site with a photo of another, and so on. They ran a few more tests with independent people doing the pairing of photo to drawing and found that, in test after test, that the photos were paired essentially randomly with the drawings. There simply was no remote viewing going on.

The interesting part of that is that the people in the experiment were initially quite convinced it was working - it was only with the independent check that the flaw was uncovered. The flaw was what the psychologists termed "subjective validation", which is essentially our ability to look at two things and, if told they are related, find all manner of patterns or correlations between them. Thus knowing that their drawing went with a particular site the people in the experiment (and even the experimenters) found all manner of correlations and were rather convinced. Of course if you told people they had been remote viewing a different site and showed them photos of that then they would still find all manner of correlations and be convinced they had done well.

The key here is that it is quite possible to find something, remote viewing for instance, quite convincing - even when done as a controlled experiment. The psychologists themselves were initially convinced. It wasn't until they went to do proper statistical analysis and remove all possible biases (like knowledge of which photo goes with which drawing) that the problems appeared. The moral was that the human brain is a remarkable thing which is constantly seeking patterns and can find them readily in pretty much anything - thus if you have any reason to believe somethign might work, you can find yourself convinced because to you it really does appear to work. The catch is that your brain can play remarkably convincing tricks on you.

[ Parent ]

when remote viewing, training is important (none / 1) (#88)
by krkrbt on Sat Nov 04, 2006 at 07:55:21 PM EST

They got a bunch of people who  thought they miht have some latent psychic ability and did some remote viewing experiments by sending a "sender" to a site, and having the "reciever" try and draw images associated with that site.

There's a difference between "latently psychic" and "very psychic".  And even people who are naturally quite intuitive become much, much better with training.

From your report of this study, it sounds analogous to putting a kid who showed a little chess aptitude up against a modern computer.  If he's only played a few games he's going to lose against the computer, no matter his 'latent' chess ability.

Many of the Army's remote viewers received altered state training at the Monroe Institute.  Training in general is important to help the viewers control their state better.  Untrained individual's brainwaves fall predominately in the 'Beta' range, or >12hz.  Successful remote viewing happens when the viewer is at a predominately 'theta' range, or 4-8hz.  See Anna Wise's High Performance Mind for a secular take on enhance human intelligence.

A good way to fuck up any investigation of the paranormal is to have someone who fervently disbelieves in the possibility of a successful outcome involved. Beliefs really do matter in these studies. You don't have to believe, but intense skepticism makes the experience fail for the skeptic every time. "Put your skepticism on a shelf behind you, have the experience, then pick up your skepticism again to evaluate what just happened.

[ Parent ]

You're missing the point (none / 1) (#89)
by Coryoth on Sat Nov 04, 2006 at 08:19:12 PM EST

The point is not whether the people selected could, or could not do remote viewing. The success of the experiment was not in showing that some random selection of people couldn't do remote viewing without training, and it doesn't disprove remote veiwing (and doesn't claim to). What it does show is that it is quite easy to convince yourself that remote viewing is working, when in fact it isn't. As noted, everyone in the experiment was initially convinced that it was working - I mean they all agreed that the resulting drawings hd uncanny similarities to the photos of the remote locations. The people runnign the experiment were intially convinced - so there was no skepticism there, they were quite open to various possibilities. The difference was that they were, at least, quite rigorous statisticians, and so when they sat down to do a proper accounting of the results and eliminated any potentially biasing factors (for the sake of having clean and correct statistics) they suddenly found the effect evaporated. They were stunned, so they kept looking. In the end they became convinced that the appearance of success (for this particular experiment) was purely subjective tricks of the mind.

The point is not that remote viewing is false because of this experiment, the point is that, as can be seen from this experiment, it is very easy to think it is working even when it isn't. Unless you are remarkably careful you can easily wind up convincing yourself that it works even when it isn't working. That means you have to be, at the very least, rather wary of claims of remote viewing seeing that its very easy to, without any intention of biasing results, end up looking as if something really interesting is happening, when it really really isn't. Whenever it is that easy to fool yourself, it's worth taking a second look at such claims.

[ Parent ]

An observation on your discussion. (none / 1) (#90)
by glor on Sat Nov 04, 2006 at 08:41:02 PM EST

My point in writing this article was that Greene's language was unpleasantly reminiscent of the language typically used to obscure the problems of pseudoscience.  Apparantly krkrbt apparently has lumped string theory with dowsing, magneto-gravitational anomalies, remote viewing, etc.; and your conversations (this and the other thread) have devolved into an argument about the validity of those questions.  This misassociation supports my opinion that such non-scientific arguments are a bad idea.

--
Disclaimer: I am not the most intelligent kuron.
[ Parent ]

I think the discussion supports my contention (none / 1) (#92)
by krkrbt on Sat Nov 04, 2006 at 11:39:26 PM EST

My original post mentioned the scientific 'holy war', and that would be a good label for what the discussion has devolved into.

I've tried to ground my responses in personal experience, and I've mostly been told that my experiences aren't valid. One person said that he's "learned how easily [he] can be fooled", and suggests that I've been fooled too. Seems like a faulty generalization to me (perhaps, "I was fooled once, therefore all such 'psychic' phenomena must be invalid"), but I'm just the jester on the sidelines...

krkrbt apparently has lumped string theory with dowsing, magneto-gravitational anomalies, remote viewing, etc.

'twas not my original intent. I'm generally unfamiliar with String Theory, and introduced these other concepts to support my original thesis about there being a holy war in the sciences.

[ Parent ]

People can be fooled - that's the problem (none / 1) (#94)
by Coryoth on Sun Nov 05, 2006 at 12:10:55 AM EST

The point people have been trying to make to you is that people are easily fooled, even intelligent people thinking critically about the problem, and without any malicious intent to fool. Our brains work in interesting ways and that can lead us to false conclusions. I don't think anyone is trying to generalise that to say "and therefore you must have been fooled". Instead people are generalising to "and therefore we require more than individual personal testimony to be convinced", which seems only reasonable. Personal experiences are subjective, and it has been demonstrated many times that, when properly scrutinised, they may not actually reflect objective reality. Therefore personal experience is insufficient evidence. You may well be convinced, but you relating your experiences is not going to convince anyone interested in objective reality.

[ Parent ]
find your own experience (none / 1) (#98)
by krkrbt on Sun Nov 05, 2006 at 01:06:04 PM EST

but you relating your experiences is not going to convince anyone interested in objective reality.

I hope to convince people to get their own experience. Maybe someone will be cruising down I-5 in Southern Oregon and decide to see for themselves if there really is something happening there in Gold Hill.

Many here are so wrapped up in their beliefs about how things are that they'd just drive by exit 40/43. Their loss, but not unexpected. How better to concentrate power in the hands of a ruling elite, than to dumb down reality for teh masses? First it was teh church, now schools do the dirty work by indoctrinating teh children in 'scientism'. See Secrets of Power, Vol. 1.


[ Parent ]

Alright personal experiences (none / 1) (#103)
by JetJaguar on Mon Nov 06, 2006 at 12:09:38 AM EST

Just so you know, I have never been to your vortex in Oregon, I have been to a number of different "mysterious" places around the country.... places where cars supposedly run up hill in California, new age harmonic convergence areas in Sedona, etc, etc, and I have never once experienced anything that made think there was something "more" going on beyond the standard physical laws currently known to science.

Does that mean there isn't something "more" going on? No. You could very well be right. However, since our experiences clearly differ, your experiences are clearly not objective. I'm not saying that my experiences are objective, only that they are in line with the standard laws of physics, chemistry, geology, etc, and do not require anything in addition to them to explain what I have seen.

You claim to have experiences that go beyond this, and therefore, the burden of proof rests on you to fully qualify your claims into something that is coherent, repeatable, observable, and not explainable by any other means. That is the only way you will convince us that you are not fooling yourself. Merely stating that you know that what you experienced was not an optical illusion just isn't good enough. And you can trot out all the books and volumes that you like, I've looked at a few of them myself, and all they contain are bald assertions with nothing substantive to back them up.

[ Parent ]

Formal proof against paranormal observer bias (none / 1) (#96)
by joto on Sun Nov 05, 2006 at 04:06:15 AM EST

A good way to fuck up any investigation of the paranormal is to have someone who fervently disbelieves in the possibility of a successful outcome involved. Beliefs really do matter in these studies. You don't have to believe, but intense skepticism makes the experience fail for the skeptic every time. "Put your skepticism on a shelf behind you, have the experience, then pick up your skepticism again to evaluate what just happened.

Ok, a "normal" phenomenon, such as e.g. gravity, is something that is independent of the belief of the observer. E.g. a hammer falls to the ground whether you believe in it or not. A "paranormal" phenomenon, such as e.g. spontaneous human combustion, is something that happens only if you believe in it.

There are two possible interpretations of this.

Interpretation (A). Someone appears to spontaneously combust to one viewer but not to another.

In other words, paranormal phenomena exists only to those who believe in it. This contradicts your premise, that paranormal phenomena could be proved by removing the skeptic from the experiment, but allow him to review the results later. We are therefore forced to go with the second interpretation...

Interpretation (B). Only people that believe in spontaneous human combustion can become victims to it (and only if they are not observed by someone who doesn't believe in it),

Now, compared to normal phenomena, paranormal phenomena appears quite rare. If there were dozens of ufos humming around our heads every day, or people spontaneously combusted everywhere, then nobody would bother to even doubt these phenomena existed (just like nobody doubts that gravity or cars exists today).

Obviously, something must be causing all the paranormal phenomena from happening. As we continue to use logic to analyze the situation, we will find that the only possible solution is that our society is too densely packed with skeptics. So without skeptics, nature would have more magic!

This seems to correlate well with some historical data. During the middle-ages, science wasn't invented yet, the church was strong, and people generally superstitious. During this period, there was a large number of witches observed, and even executed.

In 2006 however, it would be preposterous to even suggest that your neighbour was a witch, and that she has weekly or maybe even daily flights to Blocksberg at night to eat and sodomize with the devil, especially if her husband wasn't even aware of it.

Similarly, ufo observations have largely increased after the common public has become more receptive to the idea of space travel. A few hundred years ago, such an idea was completely preposterous, and if conceived of at all, it was the stuff of myth and legend, not something people actually believed in.

There is only one problem with this. We do not believe today, that the witches that were burned in the middle ages, really were witches. The common interpretation today seems to be that it was some sort of hysteria that existed at the time, and that it is not something to be proud of. The women were falsely accused, judged, and executed. Sorry, girls!

Conclusion: By logic, and using the premises from your post, we have concluded that the medieval ideas of witchcraft was real at the time, but that those ideas are not real now. This idea seems so absurd, that I think it's safe to say that your premise is hereby disproved.

[ Parent ]

formal response to materialist bias (none / 1) (#99)
by krkrbt on Sun Nov 05, 2006 at 01:08:33 PM EST

I think your logic has holes in it.  Not too interested in challenging your "interpretations", so I'll just respond to your supporting points.  

'Paranormal' phenomena is quite common. Many people start to think about someone, the phone rings, and the person they just started thinking of has called. The counter example is 'wishing' someone would call, and they don't. All I'm saying is that something is happening here, and we need honest scientific investigations to figure out what. If a biased investigator doesn't believe in mental telepathy, they will actively prevent such from occurring in their subjects. An honest scientist can suspend their disbelief for a time, perform the study, and only evaluate the results after all is said and done.

This seems to correlate well with some historical data. During the middle-ages, science wasn't invented yet, the church was strong, and people generally superstitious. During this period, there was a large number of witches observed, and even executed.

Swann says that every time the 'superpowers' emerge (clairvoyance, etc), the social order of the day violently suppresses them.  See his Secrets of Power volume 1. I've met a few modern 'witches' (aforementioned Energy Medicine trainer, for example). Telepathy, clairvoyance, etc - all are natural human abilities that have been and are suppressed. Every so often they re-emerge spontaneously (Spanish Inquisition, Salem, etc), and those poor people died because they threatened the reigning power structure.

Similarly, ufo observations have largely increased after the common public has become more receptive to the idea of space travel. A few hundred years ago, such an idea was completely preposterous, and if conceived of at all, it was the stuff of myth and legend, not something people actually believed in.

I have a couple of the books in W. Raymond Drake's Gods and Spacemen in Ancient ____ series.  Ancient East, Ancient West, Ancient Past, Greece & Rome, Ancient Israel, etc. According to Swann (who corresponded with Drake back in the 60's or 70's), the author learned a bunch of languages to read the primary texts he was studying. The authors of these ancient documents didn't have the language or experience to label phenomena as 'UFOs' so, according to Drake's books, they called these ancient UFO apparitions 'gods'.

There is only one problem with this. We do not believe today, that the witches that were burned in the middle ages, really were witches

You do not believe they were witches. I believe they did have unconventional abilities. Your belief derives from your materialist philosophy, while mine derives from my encounters with modern people who have such abilities. Thoughts vs. experience.  

That is all.  g'day.  :)

[ Parent ]

More already explained phenomena (none / 1) (#100)
by Coryoth on Sun Nov 05, 2006 at 01:31:00 PM EST

Paranormal' phenomena is quite common. Many people start to think about someone, the phone rings, and the person they just started thinking of has called.

Another interesting phenomena of subjective bias and the brain's natural talent for finding patterns and correltions even where there aren't any. This exact phenomena was dealt with in that bok by the Dunedin psychologists (after the remote viewing results they got very interested in the brains ability to find patterns and form beliefs based thereupon).

The phone phenomena is actually fairly simple: we often think of people, and they don't call. That event, however, has no interesting correlations so the brain simply discards it, and we don't remember it. On the other hand, on the rare occasions when we do think of the person and then they call - well the brain immediately red-flags that as an interesting pattern of events so it is firmly lodged in memory. By remembering only the hits, and almost none of the misses we create the belief that the hit is far more significant than it is. They mnaged to demonstrate this effect in action in experiments remarkably well. It's just how the brain works.

Combine that with the well documented tendency of human brains to infer causality and agency even when it isn't there (crack pen any decent cognitive science book), and you get a phenomena that is extremely well explained simply in terms of the quirky ways our brains function.

[ Parent ]

Wow, we digress... (3.00 / 2) (#107)
by joto on Mon Nov 06, 2006 at 01:09:29 PM EST

I've met a few modern 'witches' (aforementioned Energy Medicine trainer, for example). Telepathy, clairvoyance, etc - all are natural human abilities that have been and are suppressed. Every so often they re-emerge spontaneously (Spanish Inquisition, Salem, etc), and those poor people died because they threatened the reigning power structure.

The problem is that modern 'witches' have nothing to do with those being burned at the stake, except for the name. There exist lots of historical documents for the witch-hunts around Europe (which I happily admit to not having read, although I've read books by people who have read lots of them).

The accused witches where poor people (if you were rich, you simply couldn't be accused of something like that). Furthermore, they were typically not involved in any form of activity that could be described as witchcraft, such as practicing natural medicine, casting curses, or using their satanic powers to make their crops better. And they were usually young, often children.

The crimes they were accused of, were usually not witchcraft per se (with the authorities rarely believed in, and often didn't even have laws against), but the crime of having a pact with the devil. The tales the witches (and their accusers) told, bear little resemblance to modern tales of witchcraft, magic, paranormal, spiritual, religious, or supernatural phenomena. Their pact with the devil usually involved going to great parties at Blocksberg, where they would eat great food, and maybe have sex with the devil.

The people most interesting in hunting the witches down, where usually not the establishment. Priests, judges, etc, were often able to see through the superstition of the village hysteria. Not that they cared much, if they had to execute a few peasants to make the village hysteria go away, they would. Unfortunately this strategy often backfired, with executions confirming the villagers belief that the threat of witches was real. And of course, publicly claiming that the whole witchcraft-thing was bollocks would be a political as well as actual suicide, even for a bishop.

Finally, the spanish inquisition probably saved a lot of people from being burned at a stake. Although you may disagree with the catholic laws of the time, the spanish inquisition had real trials, and punishment that fitted the crime. They didn't randomly go around cutting of peoples heads, as many people believe.

[ Parent ]

Yes (none / 1) (#109)
by tetsuwan on Tue Nov 07, 2006 at 06:22:24 AM EST

As you describe it, the witchhunts have more in common with the accusations against children that are common in some parts of southern and eastern Africa. Basically, ten-year olds are accused of casting a curse upon the family, making crops fail and so on. There was a diary here about the repeal of an old British anti-witchhunt law in Zimbabwe here recently. According to the Zimbabwean elite, the old laws claiming that witchcraft is not real were "western imperialist" (paraphrase).

Njal's Saga: Just like Romeo & Juliet without the romance
[ Parent ]

Actually (none / 1) (#116)
by spiralx on Fri Nov 10, 2006 at 06:29:12 AM EST

During the height of the Inquisition when belief in witch-craft was at its highest, the conditions were correct (the Medieval Warm Period) for outbreaks of ergotism across Europe - basically much like a constant low-level exposure to LSD for weeks at a time, and the consequent mass hysteria and visions that go with that. Similar conditions prevaled in the US around the time of the Salem witch-trials as well.

It's a nice explaination for why people were so convinced of the existance of magic.

You're doomed, I'm doomed, we're all doomed for ice cream. - Bob Aboey
[ Parent ]

Observer bias. (none / 1) (#101)
by glor on Sun Nov 05, 2006 at 01:37:21 PM EST

You know, it's possible at least in principle that the various "psychic powers" and whatnot that have been suggested and examined, if they existed, could depend on the atmosphere around the performer.  A more common phenomenon that exhibits this behavior is humor.  I know a lot of people who are very funny; but if you put them in front of a cold audience, no response, then they get anxious, their timing is off, and their funny goes away.  Even people who have made a big name for themselves as comedians do badly for a bad audience.  I can imagine if you kidnapped, say, Jerry Seinfeld, shot him in the kneecap, put the gun in his ear, and yelled, "JOKE, MOTHERFUCKER!", that he'd just pee on himself and you'd be forced to kill him.  

That is, there are real cases where the presence of a hostile observer can disrupt a difficult or subtle mental effort.  Not that I think that dowsers have good luck until James Randi watches and teases them.  But it can't be ruled out in principle.

--
Disclaimer: I am not the most intelligent kuron.
[ Parent ]

Because it's not science (2.71 / 7) (#22)
by godix on Tue Oct 31, 2006 at 10:34:12 PM EST

The scientific method:

1) Observe some aspect of the world.

Yeah, String theory meets this.

2) Form a hypothesis to explain it

Yup. String theory is definitely one hypothesis.

3) Use the hypothesis to make predictions

Nope. String theory doesn't make any predictions. Not a single damned one.

4) Test these predictions

There is not a single scientist doing real world tests to see if string theory exists. There's plenty of scientists writing papers and pushing around equations, but not a one of them has put down their pencil long enough to look around the world and say 'Hey, does all this crap we're doing even come close to reality?' It's like proving that a turtle can't be hit by an arrow. While you can actually prove it in theory that doesn't mean it's actually right.

If you think about it, the bible comes closer to the scientific theory than string theory does. At least it predicts Christ will return and can be tested by looking around to see if Christ is strolling down Main St. So in the end string theory is even less relevant to true science that Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts, and every other bible thumping fundamentalist around.


- An egotist is someone who thinks they're almost as good as I am.
[ Parent ]

... and predictions. (3.00 / 5) (#24)
by glor on Tue Oct 31, 2006 at 10:50:01 PM EST

In fact there have been a couple of measureable predictions, and people have leapt at the chance to look for them, and quickly ruled them out.  For instance there was the realization in 1999 or so by Randall and Sudrum that one or two of string theory's extra dimensions could be large and flat, and that this would produce deviations from Newtonian gravity at millimeter separations.  In the space of a couple years dozens of people built tiny little torsion balances and ruled this out.  There's still effort in this direction as people think of new ideas; most current experiments, I think, use trapped ensembles of neutral atoms, or beams of neutrons.

--
Disclaimer: I am not the most intelligent kuron.
[ Parent ]

So, it's like any other science (2.25 / 8) (#31)
by jxg on Wed Nov 01, 2006 at 04:58:12 PM EST

except without the bad logic and fraudulent data?

I like string theory. It may or may not have any relation to reality, but anything that gets scientards foaming at the mouth like this is worthwhile. It's like watching a mugging.

[ Parent ]

String theory makes plenty of predictions (3.00 / 5) (#36)
by JetJaguar on Thu Nov 02, 2006 at 12:29:43 AM EST

They just aren't easily testable. That is not the same thing as having no predictions at all. String theory is not the equivalent of intelligent design.

Here's one prediction of string theory: String theory predicts that a string could be excited into a state that would make it macroscopic in size, and therefore relatively easy to see with our own eyes. However, the amount of energy required to make that happen is completely beyond our capabilities.

In my opinion, this is what ticks off Smolen and other experimentalists, and why they keep trotting out the "no predictions" canard. It's not that string theory doesn't make any testable predictions, it's that string theory doesn't make predictions that can be tested in an experimentalist's lab. Now this frustration is certainly understandable, and their criticisms are understandable as well, and worthy of some consideration. Should we even be bothering with a theory that makes predictions that are impossible test via any means we know? I think that's a reasonable question, and that is what is at the core of Smolen's argument.

On the other hand, if string theory *is* right, the question of funding is largely moot.

[ Parent ]

Not falsifiable (none / 1) (#97)
by svampa on Sun Nov 05, 2006 at 05:26:57 AM EST

Should we even be bothering with a theory that makes predictions that are impossible test via any means we know?

Until we know a mean to test it, it won't be science. Until such day comes, it will be just an elegant and complex mathematical work of art.

The question should be: Should we bother with a mathematical work of art?

Why not? formerly weird maths, like differential calculus, are now a common part phisics. Thus, we should bother with strings theory; nevertheless, as long as we leave them in the land of mathematics, not in the land of physics.



[ Parent ]
We know how it can be tested (none / 1) (#110)
by JetJaguar on Tue Nov 07, 2006 at 10:13:02 AM EST

Until we know a mean to test it, it won't be science.

But we do know how to test it, the tests are just not within our technological capabilities. This is a new development in science where theory development has outstripped our technological abilities to test our theory, but that is not the same thing as being untestable. Intelligent Design is untestable, but not because it is outside of our means to test it, but because it makes no falsifiable predictions. String theory, on the other hand, does make falsifiable predictions and is testable, at least in principle. And that does make it science. I don't know why string theory critics keep trotting this argument out, because it is a misrepresentation, and they know it.

[ Parent ]

I'm not sure that's the case. See comment #33 (none / 1) (#112)
by glor on Wed Nov 08, 2006 at 10:27:04 AM EST

If you have a specific program of measurements in mind, I'd like to hear about it.

--
Disclaimer: I am not the most intelligent kuron.
[ Parent ]

Two different things (3.00 / 2) (#114)
by JetJaguar on Thu Nov 09, 2006 at 01:29:54 AM EST

That there are many possible string theories and the difficulty in being able to determine which one out of the thousands or even millions is the "right" one is an issue, but it's seperate from the issue of the fundamental concept the string itself.

If, by some bizarre chance, a string in a highly excited state was observed tomorrow and it was recognized as a string (never mind how it got into that state) string theory, in some form, would be confirmed. That single observation wouldn't tell us much about which theory the universe actually follows, but it definitely would tell us that strings are real.

It's true that having all of those possible string theories does significantly weaken the overall elegance of the concept, but if that's the way the universe is, then that's the way it is. Even if it means that the way our universe actually works is 1 out of a billion different possibilities.

[ Parent ]

Good answer. But (3.00 / 2) (#115)
by glor on Thu Nov 09, 2006 at 10:44:51 AM EST

What defining features of a highly-excited string would distinguish it from a new meson or baryon or ...?  Spatial extent?  Gravitational radiation?  Accelerator experiments aren't really equipped to detect either.  Should they be?  How?

More importantly, what would distinguish an excited fundamental string from a collective phenomenon among a (large) system of point particles?

Single observations are hard to use as convincing evidence.  Consider the magnetic monopole.  The existence of a single magnetic monopole anywhere in the universe is enough to relate the quantization of electric charge to the quantization of angular momentum.  One clear candidate signal was observed, twenty years or so ago; none before or since.  Maybe there really is only one monopole, and it happened to visit our corner of the universe fifty years after Dirac suggested it might exist.  Maybe there is a population of monopoles with a flux, for some reason, of less than one per square meter per century, and the observation of one event with zero expected is a statistical fluctuation.  Maybe the candidate signal was an experimental error.  There's no clear way to decide; you can't prove much with a single observation.

Thanks for your continued explanation, I look forward to your reply.

--
Disclaimer: I am not the most intelligent kuron.
[ Parent ]

All good questions (3.00 / 2) (#122)
by JetJaguar on Tue Nov 21, 2006 at 10:41:47 AM EST

Sorry I didn't reply sooner, work has been keeping me extremely busy recently.

It has been a while since I was up on the subject, so my reply won't completely answer all your questions, but I think I can address the main thrust of your questions, although I do admit my response is pretty thin, highly speculative, and worthy of a giant heaping spoonful of salt.

You are right that a single observation like the magnetic monopole experiment is likely to leave more questions than answers. And if somehow such a detection were made in a particle accelerator, then you are absolutely right that we probably would not have the faintest clue what we were looking at.

However, particle accelerators aren't the only detection tools that we have at our disposal. When I said macroscopic, I meant macroscopic. My understanding is that, in principle, a string could be so highly excited that it would be visible in astronomical telescopes, allowing multiple observations and study over at least some period of time. What would it look like? I'm not entirely sure, and I don't think the theorist that proposed the idea was entirely sure either, but it would obviously have to have some significant spatial extent at the minimum, it would probably be massive as well. Most likely, it would have been created during the big bang, and would have to be in some sort of meta-stable state that prevent it from de-exciting. Beyond that, I'm not sure. At any rate, it's a prediction that is a complete shot in the dark, and the likelihood of making such a detection seems vanishingly small to me, but it's there. If such a detection were made, and it could be positively identified as a string, then I do think that regardless of the issues with the theory itself, we could say that strings do exist. I admit that this sounds more like a sub plot of a science fiction novel, but sometimes even these sort predictions turn out to have some merit to them.

[ Parent ]

Aha. (none / 1) (#123)
by glor on Wed Nov 22, 2006 at 02:01:36 AM EST

I hadn't considered a cosmic-scale superstring.  My memory was that there's not necessarily any connection between fundamental strings and cosmic strings: as with my previous complaint, a cosmic string could have a host of possible causes.  Wikipedia credits Polchinski with the connection you're suggesting.  

Thanks for the reply.  I'm still not sure I agree with you.

--
Disclaimer: I am not the most intelligent kuron.
[ Parent ]

String theory is beautiful (2.25 / 4) (#26)
by QuantumFoam on Wed Nov 01, 2006 at 01:21:43 AM EST

Mathmatically, string theory is beautiful. Unfortunately, the last I heard, a test of its results would require a supercollider roughly the radius of our solar system, so its unlikely to be proven or disproven in our lifetimes.

Quantum Mechanics started out similarly, and as counterintuitive and silly as it is on the surface, it has borne fruit.

- Barack Obama: Because it will work this time. Honest!
[ Parent ]

I blame Scoop (3.00 / 5) (#27)
by QuantumFoam on Wed Nov 01, 2006 at 01:22:41 AM EST

for this drunken dupe. Though it was really my fault.

- Barack Obama: Because it will work this time. Honest!
[ Parent ]

Not really (3.00 / 5) (#29)
by tetsuwan on Wed Nov 01, 2006 at 03:19:43 PM EST

Where is the Stern-Gerlach experiment of string theory? In quantum mechanics, theory and experiment both had leading roles. Sometimes theory would predict the result (Aharonov-Bohm effect), sometimes the theory was nice but wrong (Einstein-Polansky-Rosen paradox, hidden variables), and sometimes new theory was needed to explain the experiment (Stern-Gerlach).

Njal's Saga: Just like Romeo & Juliet without the romance
[ Parent ]

We are just not at a technological level where (3.00 / 3) (#32)
by QuantumFoam on Wed Nov 01, 2006 at 05:10:29 PM EST

such an experiment can happen, as far as I understand it.

For a long time, experiments were simple and could be performed with cheap apparatuses. The 20th century let theory catch up to experiment, and then theory surpassed it.

- Barack Obama: Because it will work this time. Honest!
[ Parent ]

In fact the situation is somewhat worse: (3.00 / 2) (#33)
by glor on Wed Nov 01, 2006 at 05:46:02 PM EST

The discovery of the existence of a "landscape" of string theories, with some 10^500 members, means that even with a hypothetical accelerator that could directly probe distances comparable to the Planck length (where quantum gravity must become an important effect), you could probably _describe_ anything at all.

On the technological side, it may be possible to use ultra-high-energy cosmic rays colliding with the atmosphere as such an accelerator.  Several big projects (I can remember the names AUGER and HIRES, but there are others, too) are under construction or beginning to take data.

--
Disclaimer: I am not the most intelligent kuron.
[ Parent ]

"HIRES" (3.00 / 5) (#42)
by rusty on Thu Nov 02, 2006 at 10:37:35 AM EST

That's awesome. Because what string theory seriously needs is some HIRES proof. There must be some leading physicists reading K5, somewhere.

____
Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]
I can just see the title of the Nature article. (3.00 / 11) (#43)
by BJH on Thu Nov 02, 2006 at 11:26:02 AM EST

HIRES PROOF FOR STRING THEORY, SO STFU
--
Roses are red, violets are blue.
I'm schizophrenic, and so am I.
-- Oscar Levant

[ Parent ]
Subtitle: (3.00 / 6) (#46)
by rusty on Thu Nov 02, 2006 at 12:22:26 PM EST

OMG LOL.

____
Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]
http://xkcd.com/c171.html $ (3.00 / 5) (#39)
by th0m on Thu Nov 02, 2006 at 04:00:33 AM EST



[ Parent ]
The way I see it (3.00 / 4) (#48)
by vadim on Thu Nov 02, 2006 at 02:13:13 PM EST

Mind, this is a quite uninformed opinion, but my impression is that string theory is far too much math, and way too little physics.

While physics are described in terms of math, it doesn't mean that you can just do mathematical manipulations and come up with something that is true in reality, even if it mathematically makes sense.

As an example of this, some guy in Slashdot recently concluded that the center of the Earth is a black hole, since if you take F = G((m1*m2)/r^2), and assume r=0, then the attraction is obviously infinite!

Of course, that completely ignores that the formula is a simplification and doesn't take into account that as you go down into the earth, more and more matter is pulling you in the opposite direction.

My impression is that string theory goes along similar lines. It might be really neat math, but doesn't necessarily has anything to do with reality, especially since it doesn't seem to predict anything at all.
--
<@chani> I *cannot* remember names. but I did memorize 214 digits of pi once.
[ Parent ]

The holy war (3.00 / 3) (#82)
by svampa on Sat Nov 04, 2006 at 06:04:10 PM EST

The string theory is a big mathematical building that hasn't lead to anywhere yet. Despite of the fact that many great minds have been working on it for 20 years.

When you see the characteristics of a holy war in science it is because there is no science. There are no proofs or experiments to state anything. There are no experiments to refute or support virginity of Mary, Jesus' mother, so you have a holy war. There are no experiments to refute or support the strings theory, so you have a holy war.

In scientific researh, you watch a phenomenon, come out with an working thesis, then you propose an experiment to check it (a prediction), and if it succeeds, then you have a theory.

That is what Einstein did. He watched the phenomenon, (the fact that experiments so far showed that light speed was constant), he came out with Relativity theory (still a working thesis then), made a prediction (due to sun's gravity, during and eclipse two stars would look closer than usual). The experiment succeeded... here you have the theory.

The strings theory is different. They watched a pheomenon (properties of subatomic particles and gravity), they are trying to come out with working thesis for 20 years. And the worst thing, they are telling in advance that probably any experiment to check the theory will need more energy than the human kind will ever be able to produce.

Will the string theory ever become a real working thesis? Supporters say "sure we are doing promising advances" and the other side answers "You are doing promising advances for 20 years"

The holy war it is not about if string theory is true, because it is not a theory, it is not even a working thesis. The holy war is about if it will ever will be working theory. That is, if they will ever will come out with anything, and in such case if it will be falsable, that is, if there will ever be posible to do experiment to check if it is true of false.



[ Parent ]
Because it's not really a physical theory (3.00 / 2) (#102)
by rmn on Sun Nov 05, 2006 at 11:39:32 PM EST

String theory doesn't really make any predictions that differ from other theories, cannot be disproved by any proposed experiment, and is not simpler than any of the current theories it proposes to replace.

At best, it's a way to take a lot of different theories and replace them with a single, more complex theory. It's like replacing your toolbox with a swiss army pocket knife that's bigger than all the tools.

It might lead to some physics breakthroughs in the future, but for now it's really a mathematical exercise, not a physical theory.

[ Parent ]

You stole from my diary, asshole.$ (1.60 / 5) (#11)
by V on Tue Oct 31, 2006 at 06:56:14 PM EST


---
What my fans are saying:
"That, and the fact that V is a total, utter scumbag." VZAMaZ.
"well look up little troll" cts.
"I think you're a worthless little cuntmonkey but you made me lol, so I sigged you." re
"goodness gracious you're an idiot" mariahkillschickens
If that's stealing (3.00 / 3) (#15)
by levesque on Tue Oct 31, 2006 at 09:06:22 PM EST

We're all shaking hands with

each other

[ Parent ]

Well, not quite. (3.00 / 2) (#17)
by glor on Tue Oct 31, 2006 at 09:10:25 PM EST

I did use your list of links to the online versions of those reviews, thanks. But I had read them, and some others not as accessible, already. You and I aren't the only people thinking about this, you know.

PS: if you can find a working link to the New Yorker review, I'd like to see it.

--
Disclaimer: I am not the most intelligent kuron.
[ Parent ]

An issue with #10 (2.75 / 4) (#16)
by Vilim on Tue Oct 31, 2006 at 09:09:00 PM EST

I disagree with

#  10 points for each statement along the lines of "I'm not good at math, but my theory is conceptually right, so all I need is for someone to express it in terms of equations".

    "Even so, researchers worldwide are still working toward an exact and tractable formulation of the theory's equations."

All he is saying is "The math is hard, no one can do it yet", which is different than "The math is too hard for me, can you do it for me?".

A paralell can be drawn to the three body problem (or n body problem, take your pick), no one has a closed form solution for it, but does that mean the differential equations describing it are wrong?

Similar arguments can be made for the Navier-Stokes, QCD equations, or even the Helium atom Schrod Eq. We know they are right, but we can't solve them without making tons of approximations/numerical calculations.

I thought about that. (3.00 / 3) (#23)
by glor on Tue Oct 31, 2006 at 10:39:04 PM EST

You're right that in many problems described by differential equations, there is not a known closed-form solution. My understanding is that the case for string theory is rather different: it's not clear there is a closed-form statement of the problem. Some string theorists (though not Greene in this editorial) have supposedly proposed that the a closed-form statement of string theory is simply beyond the comprehension of any human mind. That's part of the attitude about string theory that upsets me --- that it must be right, even if we don't know what it is. So I left that one in.

Thanks, though.

--
Disclaimer: I am not the most intelligent kuron.
[ Parent ]

I think that you may be seeing something (3.00 / 4) (#35)
by JetJaguar on Thu Nov 02, 2006 at 12:13:19 AM EST

that I don't. I'm familiar with what Greene and Witten and a lot of the other string theory players have said about string theory, and not a single one of them have ever said that string theory has to be right. Many, even Steven Weinberg have come out and said that from a historical perspective, theories like string theory often turn out to be right, although not always in the way that we expect them to.

On the other hand, I have heard a lot of accusations being made by Smolen and others, and honestly, the more they open their mouths the more their criticisms sound like people who are more jealous for the attention being heaped on string theory than about coming up with good criticisms of it. Their criticisms are being repeated so much they are starting to sound like canards, even the ones that I consider to be at least partially valid.

I don't think that anyone seriously working on string theory has any illusions about the possibility that string theory could be wrong. On the other hand, all other attempts at coming up with new physics beyond the standard model (ie, quantum gravity) have all pretty much floundered because of all the different problems with them. That's not to say that string theory is workable, but it hasn't run into the sorts of brick walls which theories attempting to extend the standard model have run into.

Another historical perspective... Back when I was a physics undergrad in the late 80's just before string theory really experienced it's popular rebirth, most of my professors of the time were all wondering if the standard model was on it's last legs, not all that unlike what the state of physics was a little over 100 years ago. Physics seemed to be at a dead end until people started beginning to look more deeply at atomic structure (which ultimately changed everything and did result in paradigm shift).

[ Parent ]

I agree with your comment. (none / 0) (#47)
by glor on Thu Nov 02, 2006 at 01:20:31 PM EST


--
Disclaimer: I am not the most intelligent kuron.
[ Parent ]

I read his book (2.66 / 6) (#20)
by BottleRocket on Tue Oct 31, 2006 at 10:07:23 PM EST

He doesn't come right out and say it, but he was definitely fishing for a Nobel Prize.

$ . . . . . $ . . . . . $ . . . . . $
. ₩ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
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$ . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $
Yes I do download [child pornography], but I don't keep it any longer than I need to, so it can yield insight as to how to find more. --MDC
$ . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $
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. ₩ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
$ . . . . . $ . . . . . $ . . . . . $
$B R Σ III$

Well, all physicists aspire to that (3.00 / 4) (#38)
by JetJaguar on Thu Nov 02, 2006 at 01:24:19 AM EST

But even Greene knows that he doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell of getting a Nobel unless he can come up with a prediction that will confirm string theory and is testable with current technology.

Beyond that, I'm not sure what you mean by "fishing." Writing an editorial or a popular book or tv special doesn't gain you extra points toward a Nobel, at least not unless you've been able to accomplish something a lot more tangible than Greene has so far, and I'm sure that Greene knows it.

[ Parent ]

Ok true enough (3.00 / 3) (#56)
by BottleRocket on Fri Nov 03, 2006 at 12:42:41 AM EST

But you would need to read it to know what I mean. He harped on the amount of research that went into his contribution to string theory, and all about how he had to seclude himself at Princeton for his work, which he makes sure the reader understands to be groundbreaking.

The book is well written. It's arguments are compelling. One needs to spend a lot of time digesting it before one realizes that Greene's a prima donna.

$ . . . . . $ . . . . . $ . . . . . $
. ₩ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . * . . . . . * . . . . . * . . . . . * . . . . . *
$ . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $
Yes I do download [child pornography], but I don't keep it any longer than I need to, so it can yield insight as to how to find more. --MDC
$ . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $
. . . . * . . . . . * . . . . . * . . . . . * . . . . . *
. ₩ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
$ . . . . . $ . . . . . $ . . . . . $
$B R Σ III$

[ Parent ]

XKCD's take on string theory (2.80 / 15) (#25)
by Entendre Entendre on Wed Nov 01, 2006 at 12:59:42 AM EST

http://www.xkcd.com/c171.html

Well it made me laugh.

--
Reduce firearm violence: aim carefully.

String theorist Lubos Motl gets angry in a review (2.75 / 4) (#34)
by tetsuwan on Wed Nov 01, 2006 at 05:56:07 PM EST

See third review from top.

I especially like this

"And it will never accept Lee's recommendation that the scientists' opinion should be manipulated by the ideological goals such as Lee's "diversity of ideas" by which he really means the narrow-mindedness of those who lack the imagination to learn the diverse insights offered by string theory. "

Njal's Saga: Just like Romeo & Juliet without the romance

Motl is a douche (3.00 / 5) (#44)
by Zombie Ronald Reagan on Thu Nov 02, 2006 at 11:28:34 AM EST

I caught him once saying that some reporter had done enough damage to string theory that he should pay for it with his life. No misinterpretation possible. A couple of hours later it was gone, but what the hell?

He also thinks women are biologically inferior.

Why, if he weren't a right-wing nutter, he could pose as an average muslim.

[ Parent ]

yeah (3.00 / 3) (#81)
by Pavel Vozenilek on Sat Nov 04, 2006 at 02:33:53 PM EST

Motl is such type of guy. Couple of years ago he trolled all over Czech discussion forums about politics and boy, he did it so well. On K5 he would be a star.

[ Parent ]
I developed my own Grand Unified Theory (2.75 / 8) (#45)
by Zombie Ronald Reagan on Thu Nov 02, 2006 at 11:52:03 AM EST

We start with a general Banach spacetime B to which we apply the first and second quantizations. We now construct a contravariant functor from the category of all local events to the category of spacetimes. Using the AdS/CFT correspondence and convulved applications of the variational principle(s), we arrive at d=11. Finally, we Swank rotate around the third (k) quaternion. The resulting space together with the natural int(a,b,ds) Lagrangian merges general relativity with quantum mechanics and reproduces all results of the Standard Model. I humbly propose we call it the Reagan space. This space has the curious feature that it's turtles all the way down.

You had me going until the last sentence. nt (none / 1) (#113)
by Comrade Wonderful on Wed Nov 08, 2006 at 10:27:54 AM EST



[ Parent ]
D00d. (3.00 / 4) (#53)
by V on Thu Nov 02, 2006 at 09:49:03 PM EST

http://physicsbuzz.blogspot.com/2006/10/string-theory-loop-quantum-gravity-and.h tml
---
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Heh! how about that. (none / 1) (#63)
by glor on Fri Nov 03, 2006 at 11:59:51 AM EST

I think I was fairer --- at least I was more specific.  I mentioned somewhere in these comments that if you took Smolin's book as a case for loop quantum gravity, he comes out pretty poorly, too.

--
Disclaimer: I am not the most intelligent kuron.
[ Parent ]

while ST might be wrong.. (3.00 / 3) (#55)
by newb4b0 on Fri Nov 03, 2006 at 12:37:20 AM EST

the new maths we have learned from developing it are  real.

http://www.netmoneychat.com| NetMoneyChat Forums. No Registration necessary. Ya'll.

Physics must make cohesive sense! (3.00 / 4) (#57)
by yllugkcin on Fri Nov 03, 2006 at 01:14:01 AM EST

But how does string theory intermesh with The Time Cube?

I like machine elves better. /nt (none / 1) (#77)
by ksandstr on Sat Nov 04, 2006 at 09:36:09 AM EST



[ Parent ]
I can't place who said this: (3.00 / 2) (#64)
by spooked on Fri Nov 03, 2006 at 12:28:16 PM EST

"It's a brave little theory and quite consistant for a system of five or seven dimensions.

If only we lived in one."

Seriously.
Academician Prokhor Zakharov... (3.00 / 3) (#73)
by Arvedui on Sat Nov 04, 2006 at 01:29:31 AM EST

...in Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri. Goes with the research discovery (approx. mid-game) of "Superstring Theory".

[ Parent ]
Damn! (3.00 / 2) (#106)
by spooked on Mon Nov 06, 2006 at 04:12:38 AM EST

it's sounded all smart and well, real. This is what I get for being raised by video games. Thanks for saving me from sounding like an uneducated dunce.

Seriously.
[ Parent ]
What's wrong with the presentation? (3.00 / 3) (#68)
by cburke on Fri Nov 03, 2006 at 05:00:08 PM EST

Is Dr. Greene a crackpot? No. But is this how physics should be presented to the public?

In his editorial, Brian Greene says that string theory has a lot going for it, including mathematical consistancy which is where most other models of unification have failed.  He describes it as a work in progress, but a promising one.  He also readily admits that the theory lacks experimental validation, and that without such validation it cannot be accepted as the "right" theory.  He also claims that such experimentation is possible, just not with todays equipment (but possibly with equipment coming online soon).

I'm not sure what's wrong with this method of presenting physics to the public.

So he casts his theory in a positive light.  So what?  When it comes down to actual claims, none of them were unscientific, which in my mind is the real test of "crack-poterry".  A real crack pot says his theory is the Truth despite not being able to say how it works or what you could test for.  A real scientist who is excited by his theory's potential says that he's still working on the theory, and that he hopes it can be experimentally validated soon.  It is that desire for experimental validation/invalidation that is the difference between Intelligent Design, Time Cube, and actual science.  And this difference is why I don't see a problem with the way this is presented to the public.

At the risk of satisfying the "favorable comparison to Einstein" criterion for crackpoterry, it took years for a suitable experiment to verify some of Einstein's predictions was performed, and many are still difficult to test for because of the exotic circumstances required.

It's a pivotal point in the history of physics.  We know our models are incomplete, we can even say where and how they are incomplete, but we can't fix the problem.  Regardless of what the real solution is, string theory or something else, the answer is going to take decades to develop, and probably more decades to be able to test it.

It just seems like in the eagerness for the solution, people are forgetting the difference between not science and science that isn't done yet.

I think the thing that bothered me was: (3.00 / 2) (#84)
by glor on Sat Nov 04, 2006 at 07:13:56 PM EST

As I wrote somewhere else in these comments, the tone of the article was more along the lines of "we are working within a grand intellectual tradition" than "look what we've figured out how to do."  The second approach is science.  The first is something else; I don't know what.

"Crackpot" is of course a rude thing to call anyone, for which I've expressed discomfort several times.  In retrospect, the thing that linked Greene's article to the crackpot index was that both addressed the same thing with an attempt at literary flair:  that Einstein was "groping," "on his deathbed," towards a unified field theory.

However, to my mind there is a serious issue with string theory, which is the idea that no experiment can be done to prove it wrong --- even in principle.  Greene repeats this notion in his article, and I called him on it.  A theory that describes the things we already know is only useful if it also correctly describes things that aren't yet known.  But there is apparently enough room within the set of formalisms collectively known as "strings" to describe anything, with no criterion that would make some permitted and some forbidden.  Some predictions that have been made --- like the idea that the extra dimensions could be large, making gravity different at short distances.  Experimentalists have leapt on them and measured nothing, producing strict upper limits on the strength and range of any anomolous gravitational-like coupling.  Meanwhile other phenomena --- the accelerating expansion of the universe, neutrino mass --- have been discovered; my understanding is that string theory can be contorted to accomodate these, but doesn't require them.  So I'd argue it hasn't been terribly useful.

Furthermore, one of the subjects of the debate (which I'm not really qualified to explain, but I can mention that it exists) is the mathematical consistency that makes string theory attractive in the first place.  Smolin has a long discussion in his book about a particular proof of convergence considered in the string community to be more general than it actually is.

If the motivation for pursuing a particular path to quantum gravity is that it would fulfill the dream of a particular smart person who's been dead for fifty years, rather than to see what insight such a unification would give us about the rest of the world, I have a hard time getting on board.  Greene's presentation in his editorial, and the non-predictions that I listed above, suggest the former attitude.

--
Disclaimer: I am not the most intelligent kuron.
[ Parent ]

105 points out of...? (3.00 / 3) (#74)
by Arvedui on Sat Nov 04, 2006 at 01:39:22 AM EST

I wish I'd caught this before voting (if it went through the edit queue at all) to make the following suggestion:

You didn't include how, say, Time Cube or some others rate on this scale for easy comparison. So he scores 105 points, and 80 of them come from only 2 criteria (Einstein-deathbed and no-tests). On the Crackpot-scale, it seems like a score of 105 would be vanishingly small...

Time Cube by the crackpot index: (3.00 / 10) (#80)
by Coryoth on Sat Nov 04, 2006 at 02:25:51 PM EST

7. 5 points for each word in all capital letters (except for those with defective keyboards).

  +(76 * 5) = +380

8.  5 points for each mention of "Einstien", "Hawkins" or "Feynmann".

  +5

13. 10 points for offering prize money to anyone who proves and/or finds any flaws in your theory.

  +10

18. 10 points for each favorable comparison of yourself to Einstein, or claim that special or general relativity are fundamentally misguided (without good evidence).

  +10

34. 40 points for claiming that the "scientific establishment" is engaged in a "conspiracy" to prevent your work from gaining its well-deserved fame, or suchlike.

  +40

36. 40 points for claiming that when your theory is finally appreciated, present-day science will be seen for the sham it truly is.

  +40

37. 50 points for claiming you have a revolutionary theory but giving no concrete testable predictions.

  +50

Which gives a base score of 530 (using the -5 starting score), but then we still have to deal with:

  1. 1 point for every statement that is widely agreed on to be false
  2. 2 points for every statement that is clearly vacuous.
  3. 3 points for every statement that is logically inconsistent.

which would require actually reading the text and counting (as opposed to perl scripts as was used for the "all in capital letters" bonus). Most of timecube.com consists of clearly vacuous statements, and there are an awful lot of statements. At 2 points a pop, I imagine it's probably going to be at least a couple of hundred more points. Similarly for the "widely agreed false" and "logically inconsistent". I think we could hazard a guess that timecube.com is likely to score around 800+.

[ Parent ]
out of &#8734; (3.00 / 2) (#85)
by glor on Sat Nov 04, 2006 at 07:18:55 PM EST

There's no upper limit, but a sensible, level-headed discussion of a scientific idea shouldn't contain any of the things that Baez awards points for. I like the scoring of the TimeCube theory, though.

--
Disclaimer: I am not the most intelligent kuron.
[ Parent ]

erm, out of infinity (3.00 / 2) (#86)
by glor on Sat Nov 04, 2006 at 07:20:48 PM EST

It worked on preview, honest.

--
Disclaimer: I am not the most intelligent kuron.
[ Parent ]

science is gay (1.71 / 7) (#76)
by ghetto pizza on Sat Nov 04, 2006 at 05:48:59 AM EST

no doubt about it.

Re: science is gay (none / 1) (#78)
by kjs3 on Sat Nov 04, 2006 at 12:43:36 PM EST

Just because it's FABULOUS doesn't mean it's gay...

[ Parent ]
I was goin g to say something relevant (none / 1) (#91)
by Chewbacca Uncircumsized on Sat Nov 04, 2006 at 11:24:27 PM EST

Then I remembered I am the science equivalent of the drunk fatass on the couch with a bad back who used to play football in High School. Carry On.

You need more Astroglide! (1.00 / 4) (#117)
by FenAgain on Sun Nov 12, 2006 at 12:41:08 PM EST

Your boyfriend will thank you! By the way, all religious people are crackpots. Far more than any string theory person. Take those two cocks out of your mouth and learn something. Moron.

Don't worry, Jesus will satisfy you greatly in the second coming. He's got BUILT IN LUBE.

String Theory = Intelligent Design (2.66 / 3) (#118)
by Sheepdot on Mon Nov 13, 2006 at 12:34:08 AM EST

As someone below said, the scientific method would seem to suggest that both String Theory and Intelligent Design are in the same boat.

You ask a fundamentalist if there is a God, of course they say yes. You ask them to prove it and they instead say you can't prove he doesn't exist. These same arguments are used by string theory proponents.

Of course, the same is said of Atheists regarding abiogenesis, despite the Miller-Urey experiment being the only actual test of that prediction, and having failed to establish life originating here on Earth.

I guess the point I'm trying to get across is that there are always going to be extremes that are essentially crackpots, and it doesn't surprise me that this guy would be one of the extremes.

However... (3.00 / 3) (#120)
by spooky wookie on Thu Nov 16, 2006 at 04:07:12 PM EST

String theory makes sense. Intelligent design and god does not.


[ Parent ]
Makes sense to whom? (none / 1) (#121)
by glor on Fri Nov 17, 2006 at 09:05:39 PM EST

Making sense to anyone, or to everyone, is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition to describe reality.

--
Disclaimer: I am not the most intelligent kuron.
[ Parent ]

Not to get all elitist or anything... (3.00 / 2) (#124)
by 123456789 on Fri Dec 01, 2006 at 08:00:54 PM EST

... but I think anyone who is commenting seriously on this thread should have to pass two qualifications: 1.) Have read Greene's book, and 2.) Have at least University/College 100 level physics course under your belt.

Having said that, and qualifying for both of those conditions, I would like to put in my two cents. Brian Greene and the others working in string theory are in a unique place in history. They don't know they're right, and they admit as much. But they are trying, very hard, to finish the unified field theory, and so far it's the best thing going. So I applaud them. String theory might turn out to be 100% bogus, but until then it's the best thing going and worthy of serious pursuit until it's either proven or disproven. Nature will reveal itself eventually, once we've done the work.

---
People demand freedom of speech to make up for the freedom of thought which they avoid.
- Soren Kierkegaard
african american content (1.50 / 4) (#126)
by ditkis on Mon Dec 11, 2006 at 12:47:00 PM EST



String Theory and the Crackpot Index | 126 comments (121 topical, 5 editorial, 0 hidden)
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