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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Monday, September 17, 2018

When Scientific Theorists Use “Prestige by Association” Ploys

There is a persuasion technique that we can call “prestige by association.” The technique is used by someone who tries to give himself extra prestige by associating himself with someone or something more respected, famous, rich, successful or admired. Below are some examples:

  1. A person who runs a not-very-reputable investment company will be careful to collect any pictures he can get of himself with well-known or respected people, and to display such pictures as framed photos visible to anyone who comes to his office.
  2. A president or political candidate who dodged military service will favor “photo ops” in which he is seen side-by-side with military heroes.
  3. A person who had some remote connection with a respected institution will make much mention of this thin connection. For example, a person who merely graduated from a community college, but who later wrote a short article in some magazine published by Harvard may frequently refer to himself as a “Harvard-published author.”
  4. An author publishing some nonsensical claims in a book may tell us that the book now resides in the Library of Congress, a claim that may impress people who do not realize that anyone can submit to the Library of Congress a book as long as it is 50 pages long.
  5. If your friend knows someone who knows movie star Jennifer Lawrence, your friend may try to trumpet this connection, almost making you think that he is one of Jennifer Lawrence's inner circle – even if Jennifer would never be able to recognize him.

The same “prestige by association” tricks are often used by scientific theorists trying to build up the reputation of some doubtful scientific theory. The strategy is to make your dubious scientific theory sound more credible by trying to establish some association or mental link with some other scientific theory that has more prestige. Below are some examples of how this “prestige by association” trick was used by various theorists:

  1. When some theorists advanced the extremely dubious idea that human behavior is strongly influenced or largely controlled by genes, they christened this implausible theory “behavioral genetics,” thereby trying to borrow some of the prestige of the well-established science known as genetics.
  2. When theorist Gerald Edelman advanced a complex speculative theory of the brain, he labeled it “Neural Darwinism,” trying to get some prestige by association. But the theory bears little resemblance to anything taught by Darwin.
  3. When theoretical physicist Lee Smolin advanced some weird theory that new universes are being formed when black holes collapse, he called this theory “cosmological natural selection,” trying to get some prestige by association from the biological theory of natural selection (even though there is scarcely any resemblance between his non-biological theory and doctrines about natural selection in biology).
  4. Theorists trying to bolster the prestige of the Darwinian theory of the origin of species by natural selection will often discuss that theory while discussing very prestigious theories such as special relativity and the theory of electromagnetism that make precise numerical predictions that have been exactly verified. The aim is to leave the reader with the impression that Darwinism is in the same class with such exact mathematical theories. No mention will be made of the fact that Darwinism, unlike such theories, does not make exact numerical predictions that have been verified.
  5. The theory of cosmic inflation is a separate theory from the Big Bang theory. The Big Bang theory maintains that the universe arose from an incredibly dense state 13 billion years ago, possibly from a state of infinite density. The cosmic inflation theory is a theory that the universe underwent a super-short phase of exponential expansion during a tiny fraction of its first second. The evidence for the Big Bang theory is pretty good, but there is no good evidence for the cosmic inflation theory. Repeatedly the proponents of the cosmic inflation theory have tried to play “prestige by association” tricks by trying to get people to conflate the fairly well-established Big Bang theory with the purely speculative cosmic inflation theory. They do this by describing the cosmic inflation theory as “the modern version of the Big Bang theory” or “the current version of the Big Bang theory.” Such claims are inaccurate, as the Big Bang theory and the cosmic inflation theory are two separate theories, and evidence establishing the first is not evidence establishing the second. Similarly, proponents of the cosmic inflation theory may refer to it as “the inflationary Big Bang theory,” trying to give their speculative cosmic inflation theory some of the credibility of the Big Bang theory.
Recently the press office of Stanford University has given us another example of scientific theorists playing “prestige by association” games. We have an article in which the author tries to give the completely groundless and entirely speculative “string theory landscape” theory some “prestige by association” by linking it to the Big Bang theory. The article states, “The latest draft of the scientific story of genesis is called the String Theory Landscape,” as if the “string theory landscape” theory was some version of the Big Bang theory. This is entirely false. The “string theory landscape” theory is not a theory of the origin of the universe, and is not a version of the Big Bang theory.

The article also tries to give a much-needed prestige boost to string theory by trying to link it or associate it with the cosmic inflation theory. There are two reasons why this attempt is absurd. The first is that it's a case of trying to bolster the prestige of one empirically groundless theory by associating it with another empirically groundless theory. For just as there is no evidence for string theory, there is no evidence for the cosmic inflation theory (not to be confused with the more general Big Bang theory). So if you're a string theorist trying to bolster your prestige by associating your theory with cosmic inflation theory, it's kind of like some Big Foot theorist trying to bolster his prestige by joining forces with a Loch Ness monster theorist.

Another reason the attempt to bolster the prestige of string theory by associating it with cosmic inflation theory is laughable is that the two theories are unrelated. Cosmic inflation theorists have churned out nearly 1000 different papers giving versions of cosmic inflation theory, and virtually none of these papers ever relied on the assumptions of string theory. String theorists have churned out more than 1000 different papers giving versions of string theory, and virtually none of these relied on the assumptions of cosmic inflation theory. A New Scientist story talks about a study that “suggests it may be difficult to reconcile string theory with the widely accepted theory of inflation.” It quotes a Princeton scientist saying, “I think the fact that it is difficult to combine inflation and string theory is very interesting.”

The Stanford University article gives us this bad reasoning:

This diversity, they say, is key to explaining certain baffling features of our universe, like the fact that several parameters in physics and cosmology appear to be curiously fine-tuned for life forms like us to exist. Perhaps the most glaring example is the cosmological constant, which relates to a universal repulsive force that is pushing space-time apart. Physicists have struggled to explain why the tiny value of this constant just happens to lie within the narrow band that allows stars and planets to form and biological life to evolve. But if there are innumerable universes, each with differing laws of physics, then it should not be surprising that we inhabit one where the cosmological constant is small – if things were any different, we could not exist to marvel at the coincidence.

But actually, it should be incredibly surprising that we inhabit a universe where some vastly improbable set of coincidences occurred, because you don't change the likelihood of such coincidences occurring in any one of those universes by imagining other universes. The likelihood of something very improbable happening in any one random trial does not change by increasing the number of trials (for example, your probability of winning a million dollars at a Las Vegas casino is not increased the slightest if there are a trillion universes filled with casinos). So imagining the “innumerable universes” other than ours is pointless. What's happened is that our string theorists have made an elementary error in logic, confusing the likelihood of “some universe” being fine-tuned for life with the likelihood of “our universe” being fine-tuned for life.

Such elementary errors in logic are not rare among PhD's, such as when biologists suggest that natural selection is the cause of complex biological innovations, when there is no natural selection effect related to a biological innovation (no “survival of the fittest” effect) until after that biological innovation appears. This is the elementary reasoning error of maintaining that a consequence of an effect is the cause of that effect, which is kind of like reasoning that the thundercloud appeared because the city street got soaked by the thunderstorm. We must always remember that a man who has a PhD is just as prone to commit elementary reasoning errors as someone who does not have a PhD. Our different tribes of scientists (such as the string theory tribe)  are belief communities just as much as the Amish and Sikhs and Scientologists are belief communities, and in many a belief community bad reasoning can be so normalized that it may be hard for a member of the community to see how large a logic error he may have committed.

String theory maintains there are 10 or more dimensions of space. This idea has flunked a recent observational test. A recent headline reports, “University of Chicago astronomers found no evidence for extra spatial dimensions to the universe based on the gravitational wave data.”

LIGO gravitational wave detector

Postscript: Stanford University has now completed its five part goofy exposition of the Fake Physics of the "string theory landscape."  Its more laughable parts include:

(1) Scientist Andrei Linde babbling about infinite copies of you in the multiverse. 
(2) A scientist named Dimopoulos making the silly claim that the "richness" of string theory "tells you that there are many universes."
(3) The claim that the "string theory landscape" with 10 to the five hundredth power universes "elegantly explains why the universe appears to be so eerily fine-tuned for life."  The theory doesn't do that, and if you look up the definition of "elegant" you will see that in a scientific context it means a solution that is simple; but nothing could be less simple than imagining 10 to the five hundredth power universes. 

There's a lesson you should derive from the third example (which repeats an untruth discussed here). It is that when scientists say something about one of their theories, the exact opposite may be true. So a theory described as "brilliant" by a scientist may be very stupid; and a theory described as "proven" by a scientist may be groundless and inconsistent with observations. 

Real physics involves equations, and there is no way to ever write an equation that yields another universe or a multiverse.  You never get another universe doing real physics calculations. Multiverse fantasists may try to impress us by writing papers with equations, but none of their equations ever yields another universe after the equal sign. 

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