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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Experts Stumble Within Overconfidence Communities

Overconfidence is a huge factor causing errors in fields such as science, politics, government and the military. Some people define overconfidence as if it only pertained to the future. But since the English language lacks any good word meaning specifically “having too high an opinion of what you know or what your skills are,” it seems appropriate to define overconfidence very broadly, as something that may involve both the present and the future. We can define overconfidence as “having too high an opinion of the skills or accomplishments of yourself or others, or the chance of future success of yourself or others.”

By doing a Google search for “overconfidence” you can find various interesting treatments of the topic. But such treatments often simply look at an individual mind, and ignore the social aspects of overconfidence. A large amount of all overconfidence is something that arises in a social context. One of the main reasons why people become overconfident is that they become part of what can be called an overconfidence community. We can define an overconfidence community as a group of people that overestimate their own knowledge or overestimate the accomplishments of people in the group or overestimate the likelihood of future success of the group or some people in it.

It is easy to come up with historical examples of overconfidence communities. In the early 1940's Hitler and the Nazis built an overconfidence community in which it was believed there would be a high likelihood of success when Germany engaged in very risky military undertakings such as the invasion of the Soviet Union. Anyone in the spring of 1941 realistically assessing the odds of Germany succeeding in an invasion of the Soviet Union would have been very cautious or pessimistic, on the grounds that the Soviet Union had a much higher population, a much bigger country, a much bigger army and far more tanks (the Soviet Union had more than 14,000 combat-ready tanks, and Germany less than 4000). But in the community of the Nazi leadership and German army leadership, a belief took hold that victory was very likely. Germany ended up losing the war.

There was an overconfidence community created when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, with many predicting a short military involvement not costing very much in dollars or casualties. This overconfidence was epitomized by the “Mission Accomplished” banner raised on an aircraft carrier President George W. Bush visited shortly after the war began. The invasion led to long years of chaos in the country with endless terrorist bombings and much of the country being taken over by the ISIS terrorist group. US costs (counting interest payments) were in the trillions, with 4000+ dead and tens of thousands wounded. The “Mission Accomplished” banner is now a symbol of overconfidence and hubris.

Overconfidence communities can consist of a group of investors. One such overconfidence community existed just before the stock market crash of 1929. In the summer of 1929, people were thinking that investing in the stock market was a sure-fire financial move. A similar overconfidence community developed involving investors in high-tech stocks in the late 1990's. But then in 2000 there was a great crash in the value of high-tech stocks. Another overconfidence community consisted of investors in real estate and mortgage-backed securities around 2005 and 2006. The community was very frequently warned that a huge “housing bubble” had developed, but the investors paid little or no attention. Then housing prices plummeted after 2006, leading to the Great Recession of 2008.

In the world of organized religion, there are quite a few overconfidence communities. Of course, if you happen to believe that your organized religion and its leaders or scriptures are divinely guided or divinely inspired, you then will not think that your particular community is an overconfidence community. But since there are many organized religions with conflicting teachings which cannot all be right, even the adherent of a traditional organized religion will concede that some other religious communities are overconfidence communities that have too high an opinion of their own state of knowledge.

In the world of politics, there can be overconfidence communities. A prominent example is the group of political pundits who predicted that Donald Trump had no chance of winning the Republican nomination in 2016, and who then predicted after he won that nomination that he had no real chance of winning the presidency.  

And even in the world of scientific academia, there are overconfidence communities: communities that have improperly raised their own "Mission Accomplished" banners. One very large overconfidence community is the community which maintains that scientists have figured out the origin of biological organisms. The explanatory pretensions of this community are mountainous, but its members offer only a tissue-thin explanation to back up their main claim: the idea that incredibly organized biological innovations are explained by random mutations (blind chance variations) and what they call natural selection (the mere fact that fit organisms reproduce more).  Another overconfidence community is the one that maintains that all the astonishing wonders of the human mind can be explained by mere brain activity. Those in this community have no remotely persuasive explanations of how noisy neurons and synapses with very frequent protein turnover can explain things such as accurate instant retrieval of 50-year-old memories, human imagination, and minds that create deep philosophical thoughts. But the community proclaims its “neurons explain it all” dogma as if it were fact, and ignores a large body of evidence conflicting with such a dogma.

Another example of an overconfidence community in academia is one that predicted for decades that a speculative theory called supersymmetry would by our time have been confirmed by the activity of the Large Hadron Collider. That gigantic machine has been running for years, and has found no evidence the theory is true.  Then there is the SETI overconfidence community, which since about 1965 has been speaking as if we are not long away from receiving radio signals from extraterrestrials. Pitchmen of this community (people such as Carl Sagan) spoke so confidently that around 1973 I thought extraterrestrial radio signals would be discovered by the year 2000. 

Part of the way in which overconfidence communities preserve overconfidence is by shielding their members from facts that might shake their overconfidence.  For example, it was recently reported that a Russian person with a university degree in engineering (who worked decades as an engineer, and reported no difficulties) had been found to have lived his life with only half a brain. This news matched the finding of a previous scientific paper finding that someone with half a brain had above-average intelligence. But this news item (tending to disrupt confidence in "brains make minds" dogma) was not reported on any of the major science news sites beloved by various overconfidence communities.  Such sites also fail to report objectively on evidence of paranormal phenomena. 

One of the key factors fueling the growth of an overconfidence community is what is known as social proof. Social proof is when the likelihood of someone adopting a belief or doing something becomes proportional to how many other people adopted that belief of did that thing. If we were to write a kind of equation for social proof, it would be something like this:

Social proof of belief or action (s) = number of people believing that or doing that (x) multiplied by the average prestige of such people (y) multiplied by how much such people are like yourself (z).

If lots of people adopt a belief or do some thing, that thing, there will be a larger amount of social proof. If some of those people are famous or popular or prestigious or influential, there will be a larger amount of social proof. If some or lots of those people are like yourself, there will be a larger amount of social proof. So, for example, we might not be influenced if told that most Mongolians water their lawns every week, but if we live on Long Island, and we hear that most Long Island residents water their lawns every week, we may well start doing such a thing.

Given these factors, it is rather easy to see how overconfidence communities can get started in the academic world, even when the communities are rather tiny. A physics professor may advance some far-fetched theory, and get a few supporters among other physics professors. These few professors each has a high prestige, since our society has adulation for physics professors. If you are then another physics professor, you may be drawn into the overconfidence community which will already have two of the three “social proof” factors in its favor – because the few adherents are just like you, and are high-prestige people. So even with only a few believers, it may be possible for the overconfidence community to get started. The more people who start believing in the idea, the more of a “social proof” snowball effect is created.

When you belong to an overconfidence community, it can cast a spell on you, and make you accept bad reasoning you would never accept if you were outside of the community. Once you leave the community, there can be a kind of “the scales fall from your eyes” effect, and you can ask yourself: what was I thinking when I believed that?  In the future, as it becomes ever more clear that the members of overconfidence communities in academia are making unsound claims, and pretending to know things they don't actually know, there will be many people who drift out of such overconfidence communities, and experience “the scales fall from your eyes” moments. And in such moments the questions they will ask will be something like “what the hell was I thinking?” or “how could I have believed in something so unbelievable?”

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Exhibit A Suggesting Scientists Don't Know How a Brain Could Retrieve a Memory

Most neuroscientists claim that memories are retrieved by some action of the brain. But they have no coherent credible theories as to how this could happen. As Exhibit A in support of this claim, I refer you to this page on the ResearchGate.net site. The page (dating from 2015) simply asks the question, “How are memories retrieved in the brain?” 

I read the page carefully, hoping for clarification on the seemingly insurmountable problem of explaining how a brain could instantly retrieve a memory.  One aspect of this problem is what I call the navigation problem. This is the problem that if a memory were to be stored on some exact tiny spot on the brain, it would seem that there would be no way for a brain to instantly find that spot. For that to occur would be like someone instantly finding a needle in a gigantic haystack, or like someone instantly finding just the right book in a vast library in which books were shelved in random positionsNeurons are not addressable, and have no neuron numbers or neuron addresses. So, for example, we cannot imagine that the brain instantly finds your memory image of Marilyn Monroe (when you hear her name) because the brain knows that such information is stored at neural location #235355235.  There are no such "neural addresses" in the brain. 

Then there is also the fact that the brain seems to have nothing like a read mechanism by which some small group of neurons are given special attention. The hard disk of a computer has a read/write head, but there's nothing like that in the brain. Then there is the fact that if memory information were encoded into neural states, the brain would have to decode that encoded information; but such a decoding would seem to require time that would prevent instantaneous recall. 

There are 68 "expert answers" on the ResearchGate.net page, but only 1 of them is rated as a “popular answer” by the site. This one “popular answer" is simply to a link to a speculative paper talking about some weird and not-currently-popular “holographic” theory of memory. The paper says this at its beginning:

"Yet, all attempts to describe human memory as a hologram have failed up to now. Hence, the holographic brain hypothesis is simply ignored in neuroscience textbooks. Probably, my attempt will fail too."

So the most popular answer on the page is one in which the author does not sound like she has much confidence in her claims.  I will now review some of the answers on the page, going from its top to its bottom. One of the first answers (given by one Richard Traub) states the following:

"I have no doubts at all that the mechanisms controlling retrieval are a collaborating team of high-level cognitive, affective and motorically-influence & influencing subsystems that encode and identify specific circumstantially relevant goals and, in terms of which, index circumstantially relevant sensory circuit assemblies - the computed output of which causes a top-down activation of the decided-upon distributed assemblies and consequent re-representation of their own combined output in the earlier event of analyzing, perceiving and mapping the "live" stimuli upon which a particular episodic memory was originally founded."

This gobbledygook may sound impressive, until we realize that there is no real theory behind it at all, except for the idea that when a memory is recalled the brain is replaying the sensory experience that caused the memory to form. That does nothing to explain how the brain could find the exact location of the correct tiny spot where a memory was stored. We also know that the basic idea of this "replaying sensory experience when you learned something" theory is not correct. When someone asks me how many states are in the United States, my mind does not play back the sensory experience I had when I first learned that the United States consists of 50 states. And if someone asks me who killed Abraham Lincoln, I do not play back the sensory experience of my fifth-grade teacher telling me that John Wilkes Booth did this act.

The next answer is from an Engineering PhD named Mells who admits, “I don't have an immediate answer to the retrieving of 'old' data.” This is followed by a humble answer by Simon Penny that offers no theory or explanation. We then have an answer by Salman Zubedat, who works at a neuroscience lab, but merely refers to speculative theories of neural memory storage, without mentioning any theory or explanation for memory retrieval.

We then have an answer from Herwig Lange, a neuroscientist who says nothing in answer to the question “How are memories retrieved in the brain?” other than, “He who finds out wins the next Nobel-prize.” We can interpret this as a confession that neuroscientists do not currently understand how a brain could retrieve a memory.

We then have an answer from physiologist Sutarmo Vincentius Setiadji who states the following:

"New experience firstly stimulates some components of sensory organs. These organs then stimulates some neural circuits in the higher parts of nervous system and then stimulate one or more primary sensory cortex/cortices. These stimulations go to uniassociation cortex or also directly to multi association cortex. From there through entorhinal cortex go to the hippocampus for being processed for several times. After that from hippocampus will be sent back through entorhinal cortex to multi association cortex as long term memory."

This is not an explanation as to how a brain could find the exact location at which a memory is stored, nor is it an explanation of how any reading effect could occur from such a location. The account above basically amounts to saying that sensory experience causes electricity to start traveling around between different parts of the brain, but that doesn't explain memory retrieval. Moreover, memory retrieval very often occurs without sensory experience being the start of things. For example, I may start randomly recalling my mother, without seeing anything that caused such a memory retrieval.

Then we have Ursula Ehfield offering the not-very-clear poetics below:

"As to my view it is a huge concert of waves and oscillations involved. (EEG are very important as a 'global player'!) Any neurotransmitter population plays its own concert. Sometime the piano starts, sometime the violin, sometimes the trumpets, which ever is resonating first."

We then have a rather long argument back and forth between Ehfield, Setiadji, and Graeme Smith. Within that argument we do not get any real explanation for how a brain could retrieve a memory.

We then have an answer from psychology PhD John S. Antrobus who tells us that memories are not retrieved but activated, and then merely says, “After that, the answer could fill a book.” Later on in the page John gets more detailed, although he isn't really telling us anything. He states the following:

"Lexical recognition of a word is accomplished by the activation of the neurons that represent that word, and the suppression of all others. Auditory word recognition requires another network. The 'meanings,' syntax, motor networks of speech, typing, etc., pictorial representation, values, and other features are accomplished by reciprocal circuits, largely in the prefrontal cortex. Any of these may play a part in activating the lexical representation, and may modify the largely 'bottom-up' recognition network. All, and in different ways, are part of the 'memory' of the lexical representation in that they are able to activate [or] suppress the activation of the neurons that represent a particular word."

This long statement really says nothing at all other than vaguely claiming that some type of activation is going on, claiming that some type of circuits are involved, and claiming that some neurons represent a word. But how could neurons conceivably represent a word? We can imagine no combination of neurons that would represent the word “freedom” or “religion” or “eternity” or “proficiency.” And if there were such a set of neurons somehow storing the meaning of a word, how could my brain ever instantly find that exact tiny set of neurons instantly, as soon as I heard that word? Our author provides no answers.

Since electricity passes around between in the brain, the brain can be conceived rather loosely as a huge collection of circuits. But we don't do anything to explain instant memory retrieval by saying it “is accomplished by circuits,” just as we don't explain something going on in your smartphone or computer by vaguely saying that it is “accomplished by circuits” or “accomplished by components” or “accomplished by electrons.”

We then have Paul Michael Guinther PhD state this: “Asking how the brain in some way causes the retrieval of memories involves a lot of metaphor ...and therefore isn't really answerable in any kind of scientifically meaningful way.” This is followed by a long answer from a “Deleted Profile” user who doesn't cast much light on this question.

We then have additional comments by Graeme Smith, who has no credentials in this area, He states the following:

"Output comes in the form of release of neurotransmitters, and in some rare cases actual electric contact between cells. ...A great amount of the storage and retrieval of memories has to be thought of as interpretation of the signals to retrieve the sense of them despite the processing steps taken at the same time as the storage steps. ...Different areas of the Cortex are interpreted differently especially the modal areas which take the inputs from specific sensory zones, and analyse it according to the mode of sensory input those sensory zones respond to. At different stages in the memory different areas in the cortex are activated resulting in processing of different types of outputs. The architecture of the brain, and micro-structure of the tissues, act together to guide information of a specific type through processes of a particular type, to other areas of the brain forming networks that process the information in a pattern that is similar across the brain."

This very much sounds like the talk of someone who does not understand how a brain could retrieve a memory, and who is just tossing around a few vague phrases, hoping that it sounds like something resembling understanding.

We then have an answer from the authority Dorian Aur of the Department of Comparative Medicine at Stanford University. Aur claims, “Fragments of memory are written inside neurons and synapses within molecular structure.” There is no real evidence that this is true. There is no evidence of any information-writing capability in the brain, nothing like the write head of a disk drive. No one has a coherent detailed theory as to how learned knowledge or episodic memories could be translated into neural states. We know that the proteins that make up synapses are very short-lived, having average lifetimes of only a few weeks. There is no workable theory as to how a brain could store memories lasting for decades.

Aur then states, “These structures vibrate and generate a broad electromagnetic spectrum,” and says, “In computational terms, meaningful fragments of information which are stored inside the structure are read out.” This isn't really saying anything. Aur doesn't give an answer to the question or an explanation, other than claiming memories are written and read.

There then follows a long passage by Graeme Smith, who talks about electrical signals crossing synapses gaps, and the artificially produced effect called LTP. This provides nothing to clarify how a brain could instantly find a memory and load it into your mind so that you thought of that memory.

So this finishes my look at the 68 answers the experts have given to the basic question, “How Are Memories Retrieved in the Brain?” I have quoted all the best answers. The answers run to a total of about 8000 words. But the experts provide no real insight as to how a brain could instantly retrieve a memory. The authors toss around their erudition in various ways without any answers to the basic questions. There seems to be an awful lot of “just faking it” kind of verbiage, the type of empty phraseology and gobbledygook that people use when trying to persuade you that they understand something that they don't. None of the main problems are answered, and some of the main problems are not even mentioned.

None of the authors offers anything like a theory as to how instant memory retrieval could occur. The authors speak as if they were completely ignorant of this difficulty. None of them seems to be aware that explaining how a brain could find a memory instantly is 1000 times harder than explaining how a brain could find a memory if it has hours or days to scan though memories stored in it.

None of the authors suggests anything like a theory as to how a brain could read encoded information stored in it, translating that into a thought. The authors don't even offer a suggestion as to some neural effect that could act like a read mechanism.

Quite a few of the people offering answers are guilty of what we may call jargon bluffing, which is what goes on when someone offers dense, jargon-laden prose trying to make you think that he understands something he does not at all understand.  Below is an imaginary example of this type of prose, which sounds like quite a few of the answers that are found on this page:

"The remembrance phenomenon is produced by a complex symphony of interlocking reciprocal causal factors.  Neurotransmitters, circuits, specific synapses and highly specialized neural components all play specific roles in the intricate functionality.  We are beginning to unravel the mechanistic specificity that evokes what we experience as a distinct recollection event. A distinct repertoire of biochemical events involving diverse interconnected cells may elicit a vivid reminiscence." 

A statement like this is just bluffing, and neither shows any understanding of how a brain could retrieve a memory, nor does it describe any real theory as to how such a thing could occur.  We should not be impressed at all by this type of empty verbiage, which is found all over the place on the web page I am discussing. 

But two or three of the writers have spoken honestly and candidly by confessing (in one way or another) that they do not understand how a brain could retrieve a memory.  We get some similar candor in a recent  book Why Only Us? Language and Evolution by the leading linguist Noam Chomsky and Professor Robert C. Berwick. Here is an excerpt (pages 50-51):

"The very first thing that any computer scientist would want to know about a computer is how it writes to memory and reads from memory....Yet we do not really know how this most foundational element of computation is implemented in the brain."

The complete lack of any workable theory for how memory recall can occur so quickly is admitted by neuroscientist David Eagleman, who states the following:

"Memory retrieval is even more mysterious than storage. When I ask if you know Alex Ritchie, the answer is immediately obvious to you, and there is no good theory to explain how memory retrieval can happen so quickly." 

I offer this ResearchGate.net web page as Exhibit A that modern neuroscientists have no understanding at all as to how a brain could instantly retrieve a memory. The lack of any credible theory of how instantaneous memory retrieval could occur is one of the major reasons for rejecting the claim that the brain stores memories. Many other such reasons are discussed at this site. 

On the "How Stuff Works" site, which often has pretentious and dogmatic answers in which writers pretend to understand things they don't understand, we have a five-page answer with the title "How Human Memory Works." The author is the neuroscientist Richard C. Mohs.  Engaging in speculation for which he provides no references, evidence or citations, Mohs states the following:

"Each part of the memory of what a 'pen' is comes from a different region of the brain. The entire image of 'pen' is actively reconstructed by the brain from many different areas. Neurologists are only beginning to understand how the parts are reassembled into a coherent whole."

The last sentence gives away that Mohs isn't actually referring to something that is known here, and we have no actual evidence that such a claim is true. If Mohs' speculation were true, it would make it many times harder to explain a memory retrieval -- for explaining instantaneous retrieval from "many different areas" would be harder than explaining instantaneous retrieval from a single area. 

At the end of the first page, Mohs promises, "On the next page, you'll learn how encoding works and the brain activity involved in retrieving a memory."  But the pages that follow do nothing to explain such things. The page entitled "Memory encoding" does nothing to explain how a brain could possibly translate conceptual knowledge or episodic memories into neural states, a gigantic unsolved difficulty as great as the difficulty of explaining memory recall. No neuroscientist has a coherent detailed theory on this matter, and Mohs certainly does not state one.  On the page entitled "Memory Retrieval," Mohs writes about 500 words that do nothing to explain how such a thing could occur in the brain. He presents no theory and no speculation, and says nothing specific about the brain. 

Our neuroscientists do not understand how a brain could encode a memory, do not understand how a brain could instantly retrieve a memory, and do not understand how a brain could store a memory for decades despite rapid protein turnover in synapses which should prevent stored memories from lasting in synapses for even as long as a month.  If a neuroscientist ever gives you the impression he understands such things, it's a sham or a bluff, or a case of self-deception in which someone has deluded himself into thinking he understands something he doesn't. 

This morning I had a good example of the type of memory recall that is inexplicable through any theory of neural recall. Turning to the TCM channel, I saw for the first time the 1951 movie The People Against O'Hara.  The movie was in its middle, and there was a scene in which a witness delivered testimony. Looking at the actor, I instantly identified him as  the little-known actor William Campbell.  But I had only seen William Campbell in two other movies or TV shows, those being two Star Trek episodes made in 1967.  I was able to instantly identify him even though he looked 16 years younger than I had ever seen him, and even though I should have by all rights forgot his name (a name I cannot recall thinking about, reading about or hearing about in the thirty years previous to today).  No one will ever be able to explain how such instantaneous recollection of very obscure memories (not accessed in decades) could occur if memories are stored in the brain. 

biology word cloud
Modern biology word-cloud

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Bothered Skeptics Make a Toothless Attack on Parapsychology

The Skeptical Inquirer has recently published an essay entitled "Why Parapsychological Claims Cannot Be True."  The essay by Arthur Reber and James E. Alcock fires only blanks.  

The paper starts out by complaining at length that the American Psychologist (the flagship publication of the American Psychological Association) last year published a paper summarizing the evidence for psi effects such as ESP (extrasensory perception).  The paper (entitled "The experimental evidence for parapsychological phenomena: A review") concluded the following:

"The evidence provides cumulative support for the reality of psi, which cannot be readily explained away by the quality of the studies, fraud, selective reporting, experimental or analytical incompetence, or other frequent criticisms. The evidence for psi is comparable to that for established phenomena in psychology and other disciplines, although there is no consensual understanding of them."

Reber and Alcock state that this paper "bothered us on several levels." We can understand why that would be true. Both Reber and Alcock have spent decades crusading against the overwhelming empirical evidence establishing psi phenomena such as extrasensory perception.  We can understand why they would be deeply irritated that this very solid scientific evidence is getting a little bit of the mainstream recognition that it richly deserves. 

Hard to judge fairly when you're this "bothered"

The authors then start off their attempt to discredit such evidence by stating, "It is not a matter of reviewing the existing database, scratching at the marginal and highly suspect findings of meta-analyses for something that passes the '< .05' cutoff point.This statement clearly attempts to suggest that the evidence for phenomena such as extrasensory perception is only statistically marginal evidence that just barely passes the level of statistical significance.  Such an insinuation is extremely misleading. The laboratory evidence for psi is overwhelming, vastly greater than merely a marginal result. You can see extremely dramatic examples here,  here, here and here.  For example, in the Riess remote test of ESP, a subject scored with 73% accuracy on guessing 1850 cards, in a test in which the expected chance result was only 20%. 

We can excuse Reber and Alcock for being ignorant about such results, for they confess their refusal to examine the evidence on this topic.  The authors state the following:

"We did not examine the data for psi, to the consternation of the parapsychologist who was one of the reviewers. Our reason was simple: the data are irrelevant." 

I can only say that such a confession is completely consistent with the impression I got from reading Alcock's book entitled Belief. In reviewing that book, I noted that Alcock  "seems to show only a slight knowledge of the evidence for beliefs and alleged paranormal phenomena he criticizes."  But this is par for the course, since virtually no skeptics of the paranormal show any signs of having deeply studied the relevant literature. In this regard, they're like someone who doesn't know the difference between a fastball and a curve ball lecturing you on the impossibility of anyone ever hitting a home run.

There then follows the author's case attempting to argue that the effects so abundantly observed by parapsychologists in careful, controlled experiments cannot exist.  The authors say, "We identified four fundamental principles of science that psi effects, were they true, would violate: causalitytime’s arrowthermodynamics, and the inverse square law."

Let's look at their statements about each of these things. 

Causality.  After a paragraph that merely evokes the principle that things have causes, the authors write the following:

'Within the study of psi, there are no causal mechanisms, and none have been hypothesized. Worse, there is virtually no discussion over whether the claimed effects have singular or multiple causal mechanisms or why the purported findings lack coherency. If psychokinesis affects the roll of dice in a psi lab, why not at craps tables? If telepathy exists, why are our brains not constantly abuzz with the thoughts of those around us? To maintain that the future puts in appearances—but only in psychology labs at Lund or Cornell—is to strain credulity to the snapping point. There are no patterns here. As we noted in our paper,  'It is as if actors from a dozen different plays have appeared on the same stage in a discordant farrago.' ”

The first statement is completely false.  Those who maintain that there is evidence for psi (things such as ESP) do not at all maintain that there are no causal mechanisms that might produce such a thing. A parapsychologist will typically maintain that we do not understand the causes of psi, but that is not equal to maintaining that there are no causes for it. It is also completely false to claim that "none have been hypothesized."  Parapsychology literature contains many speculations about possible causes of psi effects.  A simple hypothesis commonly made is that humans have a soul, and that psi effects are an aspect or capability of such a soul.   

The questions asked are simply unanswered questions. It is not at all true that something violates causality if we don't understand how it works. For centuries, people observed earthquakes, without having any understanding of what caused them; and for centuries people observed plagues without having any understanding of the microbes that cause them.  There was no valid causality argument against claiming that earthquakes or plagues existed prior to our understanding of them, and there is no valid causality argument in regard to psi phenomena such as ESP.  Such phenomena do have a cause, but we don't understand their cause.  It is very common in the history of science for things to be observed before we understand what caused them. As for the suggestion that parapsychologists claim that precognition only occurs in laboratories, it shows an ignorance of the literature, since there is much evidence suggesting precognition occurring outside of laboratories. 

Time's Arrow.  The authors state, "Within parapsychology time is turned upon itself, most glaringly in precognition."  This argument is toothless, because it is completely inapplicable to ESP (extrasensory perception). ESP or telepathy does not involve any "knowing the future" effect.  As for precognition, there is no clear case to be made that most results we have got suggesting precognition violate anything we know about the nature of time.  We don't understand the exact nature of time, and a wide variety of different theories about it are advanced by theoretical physicists.  The authors veer a little into a discussion of quantum mechanics. I may merely note that interpretations of quantum mechanics are rather "all over the map," so it is not at all clear that anything we know about quantum mechanics rules out experimental evidence for precognition. Clumsily, the authors quote physicist Richard Feynmann as saying, "It is safe to say that nobody understands quantum mechanics." That quote argues against the claim they are trying to establish, that physics rules out precognition.  The authors don't have any formal training in regard to the very deep, subtle and esoteric topics of quantum mechanics and the nature of time, so there's no reason why we should think their opinion on these topics has any weight. 

Thermodynamics.  The authors (who are not knowledgeable about thermodynamics) do not say anything in their paragraph about thermodynamics that argues the slightest bit against psi phenomena, precognition or extrasensory perception.  

Inverse square law.  The authors state, "In telepathy, the distance between the two linked persons is never reported to be a factor, a claim that violates the principle that signal strength falls off with the square of the distance traveled."  This generalization is not correct. Anecdotal reports of extrasensory perception among family members living nearby are actually far more common than reports of extrasensory perception between people living in different continents.  So you do have a hint of a kind of an "inverse square" effect going on.  Since we do not understand how telepathy works, there is no reason why it has to follow an inverse square law.  The issue of "dropping off with distance" has received little attention by parapsychology researchers, so we don't have any clear verdict in the literature about whether ESP does or does not follow an inverse square law. 

We also know of physical effects involving quantum entanglement that do not follow an inverse square law.  The authors comment on this, but any attempt by them to assert any expertise on this very subtle and obscure matter is not credible. They are not physicists or mathematicians, and their opinion on quantum entanglement carries no weight.

Judging from their statements, the authors are apparently unaware that two of the four fundamental forces of nature do not follow an inverse square law.  While gravitation and electromagnetism follow an inverse square law, neither the strong nuclear force nor the weak nuclear force follow an inverse square law, as is made clear on this expert answers page. Since there is no rule of physics that effects have to follow an inverse square law, it is fallacious to argue that psi effects such as ESP or mind-over-matter cannot exist because they do not follow an inverse square law.

Closing their argument, the authors state, "In short, parapsychology cannot be true unless the rest of science isn’t." That claim is false, and the authors have done nothing to establish it.   They have not established that any single finding of science would be overturned if psi effects such as ESP exist. The authors then veer into some very weak reasoning:

"Moreover, if psi effects were real, they would have already fatally disrupted the rest of the body of science. If one’s wishes and hopes were having a psychokinetic impact on the world—including computers and lab equipment—scientists’ findings would be routinely biased by their hopes and beliefs. Results would differ from lab to lab whenever scientists had different aims." 

The existence of psychokinesis (mind-over-matter) certainly does not imply that scientists would be unconsciously influencing the machines or subjects they are working on by subconsciously using psychokinesis.  And it is actually largely true that the results of scientists are "routinely biased by their hopes and beliefs" and that results "differ from lab to lab whenever scientists had different aims,"  regardless of whether mind-over-matter does or does not exist.  So as a reductio-ad-absurdum argument, this argument fails completely.  A good reductio-ad-absurdum argument says, "X must be false because it implies Y, and Y must be false." In this case, the X does not imply the Y, and we know the Y is largely true.  So we have a double failure of the attempted reductio-ad-absurdum argument.

I don't know which is more lame, the attempts of Reber and Alcock to assert generalizations about psi phenomena such as ESP after confessing "we did not examine the data for psi," or their attempts to lecture us on physics, quantum mechanics and quantum entanglement (extremely subtle and esoteric mathematical topics they have never formally studied, and have never written about at any real length). We can find in Brian Josephson an example of a physics Nobel-prize winner who believes in both the possibility and the likelihood of psi phenomena. 

The authors have done nothing to substantiate the claims that psi phenomena are impossible. In particular, the authors have not presented the slightest reason for thinking that the best-established psi phenomenon (extrasensory perception or telepathy) is impossible.  Their only comment relevant to ESP was their inaccurate suggestion that effects must follow an inverse-square law, a suggestion that is false because we know that two of the four fundamental forces of nature (the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force) do not follow such a law. 

Monday, July 8, 2019

“Nature's Deepest Secrets” or Just Mist-Castles in the Clouds?

A new book by Graham Farmelo has a title brimming with triumphalist hubris. The title is The Universe Speaks in Numbers: How Modern Math Reveals Nature's Deepest Secrets. The book is a reverent treatment of speculative physics in which mathematicians and physicists create intricate realms of conjecture that have little contact with empirical reality: things like supersymmetry theory and string theory.

It is rather misleading to be using the term “modern math” to refer to things like string theory and supersymmetry. Speculative and unverified theories in physics should not be called math or mathematics, since those terms have such connotations of certainty. Such theories should be called physics theories that use mathematics. There is no basis for claiming that such theories have in any sense “revealed nature's deepest secrets.” “Reveal” is a word to be used when an observational discovery has been made. There have been no observational discoveries made to support theories such as supersymmetry and string theory.  The universe has not spoken in numbers to give us string theory or supersymmetry theory.  It is merely speculating physicists who have spoken in numbers to give us such things. 

On page 174 Farmelo quotes the eminent physicist Sheldon Lee Glashow as saying, “In Europe, supersymmetry seems to be a religion.” This is a very revealing quote that Farmelo should have carefully pondered, but it seems to have gone in one of Farmelo's ears and out the other. He has no insight into the sociological and groupthink factors involved in the cult-like cliques of modern theoretical physics.

Farmelo admits on page 249 that there is no evidence for string theory, saying that “it is disappointing that the framework has not yet made direct contact with experiments.” But Farmelo still supports it. He says on that page, “In my view, it is both wise and prudent to trust the judgment of the overwhelming majority of the world's leading theoretical physicists, who are confident that this theory is well worth pursuing.”

This is the kind of very dubious ad populum argument that people use to try to get you to believe in theories for which there is little or no evidence. Such an argument will typically make some dubious claim about the popularity of some theory among some group of scientists, without providing any actual hard polling data showing that the theory has the popularity that is being claimed. Are there actually any polls of “the world's leading theoretical physicists” in which they assert that string theory is true or “well worth pursuing”? I doubt it. And since Farmelo has told us that a leading physicist said that supersymmetry (a leading physics theory) “seems to be a religion” in Europe, why should we not believe that the popularity of string theory is like the popularity of some religion, something based in sociology and groupthink rather than sound judgment?

On page 251 Farmelo says, “Some undeniably first-rate thinkers – including Gerard 't Hooft, Sheldon Glashow and Roger Penrose – worry from their different perspectives that theoretical physics has taken a wrong turn towards sterile, ultra-mathematical approaches, many of which have become divorced from reality.” But Farmelo ignores such criticism. On page 250 he predicts that supersymmetry will “sooner or later, be demonstrated experimentally to be a fundamental feature of the laws of nature.” He gives no reason at all for predicting this other than saying “such a discovery would help to justify the faith of many theoreticians that beautiful mathematics serves as a useful lodestar,” referring to a star that guides a ship on which direction to move. So we should believe in theories simply because they seem to have beautiful mathematics? That doesn't make sense.

We get a contrary view from physicist Sabine Hossenfelder:

"And not only is there no historical evidence that beauty and elegance are good guides to find correct theories, there isn’t even a theory for why that should be so. There’s no reason to think that our sense of beauty has any relevance for discovering new fundamental laws of nature."

This year cosmologist Ethan Siegel had a post entitled “Why Supersymmetry May Be the Greatest Failed Prediction in Particle Physics History.” Referrring to supersymmetry theory under its acronym of SUSY, Siegel states, “No reasonable person can justifiably conclude that SUSY is supported by the evidence.” He also states the following:

"There's a large and powerful group of (mostly) theorists who will go to their graves as true believers in not only SUSY, but electroweak-scale SUSY, regardless of what the evidence says. Yet with every new proton the LHC collides, we see the same answer again and again: no SUSY. No matter how often we fool ourselves, nor how many scientists get fooled, nature is the ultimate arbiter of reality. The experiments do not lie. As of today, there is no experimental evidence in favor of SUSY."

I guess we can put down Farmelo as one of the true believers who will go to their graves believing that the supersymmetry theory is true. We should note the tendency of certain people in the world of physics to develop life-long attachments to dubious unproven theories, a tendency that also exists very abundantly in the world of biology.

There are several reasons why the “beauty” argument for supersymmetry is not convincing. One reason is that there are always millions of possible ways in which the physics of nature could be configured in a beautiful manner. So if you imagine some hypothetical configuration of particle physics that seems beautiful to you, you have no basis for saying, “This must be how nature really is, because it's so beautiful.” There will be always be a million other possible ways that nature could be configured on a fundamental level, that would be just as beautiful as what you imagined.

Similarly, I may imagine some very beautiful design that Heaven might have, but it would be foolish for me to say, “This is so beautiful, it must be how Heaven looks.” For even if we assume that there must be a beautiful Heaven, there would always be a million other beautiful designs that such a Heaven might have.

The other reason why the “beauty” argument for supersymmetry is not convincing is that supersymmetry isn't really very beautiful at all. The theory has a little symmetry, but it's not very beautiful because it isn't a functional symmetry. The hypothetical “superparticles” imagined by supersymmetry theory are not necessary for our existence. So while supersymmetry imagines a symmetry situation, the situation is not a functional symmetry, so it isn't particularly beautiful.

There actually exists a functional symmetry in the fundamental layout of nature, a beautiful exact symmetry that is very necessary for our existence. This symmetry is the fact that the electric charge on each electron in the universe is the very exact opposite of the electric charge on each proton in the universe. This is both a symmetry and a functional symmetry. If such an exact symmetry did not exist, the laws of chemistry would not work, our bodies would not hold together, and planets and stars would not be able to hold together (as the electromagnetic repulsion of particles in them would overwhelm the gravitational attraction that holds them together).

Our theoretical physicists virtually never talk about this very exact and functional symmetry that we know exists in nature. Instead, they spend a thousand times more time talking about imaginary, non-functional symmetries for which there is no evidence. Go figure.

Not really beautiful, because it's not a functional symmetry