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Rob Sheldon: A deep depression falling over science?

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From physicist Rob Sheldon:

I think if you read the popular press, it would seem that we are making progress–we have to, because that’s what justifies all the spending, all the suppression, all the politics. But if you speak to the leading scientists of any field, if you read the peer-reviewed literature, if you attend the seminars, there is a deep depression falling over science.

For progress is the goddess of materialism, the resplendent queen that shares the dais with the stern king, the one described by the end of Jacques Monod’s book “Chance and Necessity”: “Man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance. Neither his destiny nor his duty have been written down. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose.”

But what is this duty that makes his destiny liveable? What is this kingdom that dwells above the darkness? It is his queen, Progress. Earlier in the same book Monod writes:

“Indeed, it is legitimate to view the irreversibility of evolution [progress] as an expression of the second law in the biosphere.”

The physicist in me wants to jump up and down and scream that this is blatant equivocation on the word irreversibility, and that entropy cannot be so easily turned on its head to mean information! But Monod does it, and gets a Nobel prize in the process. Why? Because progress is a very beautiful queen.

I wrote this in the comments on the UD blog, to Seversky who wants to contrast the progress of materialist science against the stagnation of teleology:

As you saw in Barry’s reply, even a pragmatic approach that eschews metaphysics can be waylaid by definitions, by the words meaning different things to different people. There’s no avoiding metaphysics. Like the old joke summarizing the 3 laws of thermodynamics–“There is a game. You can’t win. You must lose. And you can’t quit.”–so also with metaphysics.

So what is this metaphysical thing called progress, and why is it good? You could talk about it for a very long time, but I think in the end it is a religion. And if it obeys some external calling, if it recognizes some external good (think Plato), if it aspires to some divine perfection, then it is good.

But if it obeys only an internal ethic, if it satisfies only a mob rule, if it justifies a personal benefit, then it is evil. Or more precisely, it becomes evil. For whenever something we define, something we invent, something we desire is called a “divine right”, we have made a god in our own image, we have created an idol.

When we seek for an external good, we have a “negative feedback” search, because if we are heading the wrong direction, we see less of the good. But when we seek for an internal desire, we have a “positive feedback” search, because we keep moving the goalposts to match our location, we keep changing the rules to let us win.

How else do you explain that in the name of progress, Americans eat tasteless “wonder” bread with 35 unpronounceable ingredients that can sit in a plastic bag on the fridge for 2 weeks without either going stale or going moldy, and when they make a sandwich they treat the bread as an untasted wrapper. Progress has turned a major food group, “man cannot live by bread alone” into a disposable glove with no caloric benefit. This is not an anomaly, but our society is full of such ironies, because irony is the name for a positive-feedback element in our language, in our culture, in our life.

Science has lost its way, when in the name of progress, it kept moving the goalposts to what everyone was getting paid to do anyway. Cure for poverty? Cure for work? Cure for cancer? Cure for depression? Cure for teen-age rebellion? At one time these were all goals of progressives, of science, of society. Watch an old Jetson’s rerun. Where did all those goalposts go?

And the biggest driver for turning inward instead of outward? The biggest driver for defining progress as societal rather than as divine? The biggest driver for assuming random motion of uncorrelated particles instead of collective behavior of purposeful design? Materialism.

Lucretius told us this in 50BC. He said it delivered us from fear of external goals, of failing to measure up. I’m sure he would have rejoiced to see this day–like a walk in the park–at night, in Central Park, wearing a T-shirt saying “I carry cash.”

Note from O’Leary for News: Agree re awful bread! Never buy bread that comes prepackaged in a plastic bag.

I keep coming back to Stephen Hawking’s comparatively recent, vulgar attack on philosophy and Richard Dawkins’s unseemly attacks on religion (why?). I am not saying that seminal scientists of the early twentieth century were more virtuous; rather, they were preoccupied with questions in science. Most progress today is actually based on foundational work done some while back.

Today, so many of the science boffins we hear from sound like Bimbette Fluffarelli’s talk show guests on Airhead TV. And who watches Airhead TV anymore?

At some point, the science capital that is not being replaced will run out, especially if unfalsifiable beliefs (the multiverse, for example) catch on.

That’s what got me interested in issues around the multiverse. Wait till that approach starts to work its way through the system down to medicine and bridge engineering.

See also: The bill arrives for cosmology’s free lunch

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17 Replies to “Rob Sheldon: A deep depression falling over science?

  1. 1
    Axel says:

    ‘At some point, the science capital that is not being replaced will run out, especially if unfalsifiable beliefs (the multiverse, for example) catch on.

    That’s what got me interested in issues around the multiverse. Wait till that approach starts to work its way through the system down to medicine and bridge engineering.’

    A very humorous thought, News.

  2. 2
    News says:

    Axel at 1: Not so humorous if you need the bridge. 😉

  3. 3
    Rationalitys bane says:

    Note from O’Leary for News: Agree re awful bread! Never buy bread that comes prepackaged in a plastic bag.

    Point of order Madame Speaker. The “Wonder Bread” mentioned above, the pure white rubberized semi-food that does not go stale for months, is very difficult to find on store shelves today. Even the Wonder Bread brand concentrates on multigrain and whole wheat breads. Still not the best substitute for fresh baked bread, but a vast improvement over the stuff they pawned off as bread to us in the late fifties and sixties. Much better than the bread they served to us in my west Toronto high school.

  4. 4
    kairosfocus says:

    I like to live where you can personally know your baker, who will set aside standing orders for regular customers. (Though I confess to missing Jamaica’s hard dough bread and its spiced fruity bun. For the latter, I once saw a test where from one Easter to the next a loaf — in its sealed package — was put on a shelf then served. It still tasted fresh. Serious spices, those . . . and a telling reminder of what many spices once were. Means of in effect embalming. Similar to, pharmacology studies poisons in small doses.)

  5. 5
    BrianFraser says:

    Science is getting depressed because of its own strongly entrenched beliefs. These beliefs subvert discovery and invention.

    Thomas Jefferson (president, scientist, and statesman) reportedly said that ‘stones cannot fall from the sky, because there are no stones in the sky’–evidence to the contrary (meteorites) not withstanding. If it cannot happen, then it just doesn’t! The issue of “falsifiable or un-falsifiable” does not matter much to the public anymore. Irrational “autonomous” beliefs are beginning to reign supreme.

    The politics of the system are failing us too.

    Years ago, I published a bunch of experiments detailing a method of changing the half-lives of radioactive nuclides and of destroying (not merely storing) radioactive wastes. I used actual radioactive materials, a Geiger counter and a computer. Years later I learned that other people had figured out essentially the same thing–about 40 years prior, and maybe even as far back as the 1920s. There was even a documentary shown on Good Morning America about a similar process with more advanced equipment. I informed Senator John McCain (re: Yucca Mountain repository) and the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future of my results. Prior to all this, Dr. G.H. Miley, wrote U.S. Department of Energy Nuclear Energy Research Initiative (1999), Proposal No. 99-0222 to use a similar method to ameliorate nuclear waste. And you know what happened?

    NOTHING! Utterly NOTHING! Nobody was interested. Companies can earn far more money STORING the stuff.

    It was a depressing experience. (If you are interested in the technical details, they are at “Adventures in Energy Destruction”, http://scripturalphysics.org/qm/adven.html )

    Here are a couple more conundrums for readers:

    1. Suppose someone asserted that the thing that contains virtually all the mass of the atom, and accounts for all the properties of the atom, is really the atom itself, not some sort of “nucleus” of something. That is, the atom does not “have” a nucleus, it “is” the nucleus. Would you, as a university physicist, even consider such a proposition? Or would you just dismiss it out-of-hand as junk science? Would you say, in effect, “Galileo, we do not need to look thru your telescope; we KNOW the EARTH is the center of the Universe!” ?

    2. Suppose someone asserted that “mass can be converted into energy and energy can be converted into mass. Therefore neither mass nor energy are FUNDAMENTAL constituents of the Universe.” That means, of course, there are no “fundamental particles”. Are you willing to consider alternatives that are still grounded in fact?

    Simply put, there are things that just cannot be published in peer reviewed journals. Institutional science is stagnating. It is becoming an exclusive club of atherosclerotic precision mound builders. It promotes “safe” science that does not really matter.

    The real science is being done by the “shadow physics community”. It is there that really exciting and useful science and technology will be developed.

  6. 6
    Bob O'H says:

    I don’t recognise a deep depression in science. Perhaps it’s just in North America, because you don’t have any decent bread.

    (yes, your bread is awful. It’s not just that normal bread is terrible, it’s that it’s so difficult to actually find some decent bread, at least when you’re visiting)

  7. 7
    News says:

    kairosfocus ar 4: I agree. Live where you know the people who bake your bread.

  8. 8
    daveS says:

    Bob O’H,

    I don’t recognise a deep depression in science. Perhaps it’s just in North America, because you don’t have any decent bread.

    (yes, your bread is awful. It’s not just that normal bread is terrible, it’s that it’s so difficult to actually find some decent bread, at least when you’re visiting)

    I’ve long wondered why we in the US tolerate the poor quality of food here. I’m thinking mainly of prepared food, and things you might buy while one lunch break especially. Maybe we’re just used to it?

    I guess things are slowly changing; a couple of decades ago some enterprising Americans discovered you can actually make beer which tastes better than Bud Light and sell it at a profit. “Food trucks” are popping up in more densely populated areas if you want a break from chicken tendies. It’s still a far cry from those parts of the world where you can buy tasty and nutritious food for cheap on the street.

  9. 9

    Bob O’H@#6,
    Read Peter Woit’s blog, Sabine Hossenfelder’s article on the Standard Model. Talk to anyone in the High-Tc superconductor field, any Big Bang Nucleosynthesis sorts, the WIMP searchers, cosmologists & anything to do with inflation, toss in the Royal Society meeting on evolutionary paradigms, origin-of-life researchers, big pharma and antiobiotics, anti-depressants, pain-killers, oh did I mention cancer research? Then there’s Lou Gehrig’s disease, Crohn’s disease, lupus, schizophrenia, autism, asthma.

    The list goes on. Millions, billions spent and apparently for naught. Now they don’t even expect an answer, just continued funding.

  10. 10

    Deep depression may be too strong, but the scientific community is certainly frustrated at not being able to find materialist answers to the big questions in life, and even their cherished Darwinian evolution theory is collapsing, ironically, under the weight of modern empirical science. The materialist answers they seek never come, and the target moves farther away the more they try to reach it.

    Also, charlatans like Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss (to name only a few) have made careers as philosophers posing as empirical-based scientists. They were propped up (often silently) by many in the scientific community who liked the atheist message, but in the end they only brought disrepute to that community.

  11. 11
    Bob O'H says:

    Robert Sheldon – yes, there are unsolved problems, but that’s the way of science. We’re pushing back the boundaries, so of course there are issues we have yet to understand. But deep depression? Sabine (who has access to good bread) might be unhappy, but I’m not aware of a general malaise.

    In evolutionary biology, which I’m much more aware of, I’m not aware of depression with the way things are, if anything the opposite. Genomics is leading to some real advances in our understanding of how evolution works.

  12. 12
    J-Mac says:

    At some point, the science capital that is not being replaced will run out, especially if unfalsifiable beliefs (the multiverse, for example) catch on.

    That’s what got me interested in issues around the multiverse. Wait till that approach starts to work its way through the system down to medicine and bridge engineering.

    I remember very well when Antony Flew was once asked by an arrogant punk about multiverse. Then converted to reality Flew politely responded that the theory has not merit; no foundations in reality.

    The punk pressed on by saying that many leading scientists accept it as a valid theory. Why didn’t he?

    Slightly irritated Flew acknowledged that some scientists accept any theory as long as it is not the one they don’t like.

    The punk yelled out: “That’s s..t man!”
    Flew turned around as he was leaving the stage after his discourse and said something like that:
    “You are right about one thing; the multiverse theory is nothing but s..t. It pretty much claims that if you have enough potties, s..t must appear in one of them eventually”

  13. 13
    ppolish says:

    Many physicists are bummed because fine tuning becoming more and more apparent. Evo biologists bummed because the sacred unguided & purposeless looking more and more like major BS.

    But chemistry field not bummed. Engineering & Computer science don’t seem bummed. The fields rich in codes and designs are just fine thank you.

  14. 14
    Seversky says:

    I think if you read the popular press, it would seem that we are making progress–we have to, because that’s what justifies all the spending, all the suppression, all the politics. But if you speak to the leading scientists of any field, if you read the peer-reviewed literature, if you attend the seminars, there is a deep depression falling over science

    I can imagine. All that money to spend on big toys that allow you to look deeper and deeper into the sub-atomic world or peer ever farther out into space and back in time or on finding new ways to target chemotherapeutic agents against tumors or on developing quantum computers. That’s all pretty depressing.

    I wrote this in the comments on the UD blog, to Seversky who wants to contrast the progress of materialist science against the stagnation of teleology:

    As you saw in Barry’s reply, even a pragmatic approach that eschews metaphysics can be waylaid by definitions, by the words meaning different things to different people. There’s no avoiding metaphysics. Like the old joke summarizing the 3 laws of thermodynamics–“There is a game. You can’t win. You must lose. And you can’t quit.”–so also with metaphysics.

    So what is this metaphysical thing called progress, and why is it good? You could talk about it for a very long time, but I think in the end it is a religion. And if it obeys some external calling, if it recognizes some external good (think Plato), if it aspires to some divine perfection, then it is good.

    I think that asking what we mean by “progress” and whether it is always beneficial are perfectly good questions.

    I think that the London doctor John Snow noticing that cholera cases clustered around a particular public water pump and that the simple act of removing the pump handle led to a decline in the incidence of the disease was progress. It was progress because it indicated that whatever caused the disease was waterborne and not airborne.

    I think that Newtonian mechanics which allow us to send a spacecraft to the precise point where a planet will be several years in the future is progress because it’s highly unlikely we would be able to do that without those insights.

    I think that relativity theory which enables us to explain and do things we couldn’t with Newton’s theories is progress.

    I think that filling factories with ever more sophisticated robots and fewer people is questionable. If people can’t earn good money because robots and computers are doing their jobs who is going to buy all the goods being produced so and efficiently by those automated plants?

    How else do you explain that in the name of progress, Americans eat tasteless “wonder” bread with 35 unpronounceable ingredients that can sit in a plastic bag on the fridge for 2 weeks without either going stale or going moldy, and when they make a sandwich they treat the bread as an untasted wrapper. Progress has turned a major food group, “man cannot live by bread alone” into a disposable glove with no caloric benefit.

    On the bread thing I, like pretty much everyone else here, entirely agree.

    Science has lost its way, when in the name of progress, it kept moving the goalposts to what everyone was getting paid to do anyway. Cure for poverty? Cure for work? Cure for cancer? Cure for depression? Cure for teen-age rebellion? At one time these were all goals of progressives, of science, of society. Watch an old Jetson’s rerun. Where did all those goalposts go?

    The goals are still there, aren’t they? It’s just that it’s taking a little longer to get there than we thought. It’s a lot easier to dream up a matter transporter to save time and money on a TV show than it is to design and build one in real life. Maybe we’ll get there and maybe we won’t. We just don’t know. But that’s no reason not to keep trying.

    And the biggest driver for turning inward instead of outward? The biggest driver for defining progress as societal rather than as divine? The biggest driver for assuming random motion of uncorrelated particles instead of collective behavior of purposeful design? Materialism

    And this is wrong exactly how?

    Lucretius told us this in 50BC. He said it delivered us from fear of external goals, of failing to measure up.

    What’s with this measuring your self-worth against somebody else’s goals or measuring up to somebody else’s standards or allowing them to define how your life is or isn’t meaningful? What’s wrong with working out your own purpose, goals and standards?

  15. 15
    BrianFraser says:

    George Gamow, a noted physicist, contrasted the startling progress in physics during the first three decades of this century with progress during the next three decades:

    “We are still waiting for a breakthrough in the solid wall of difficulties which prevent us from understanding the very existence of elementary particles, their masses, charges, magnetic moments, and interactions. There is hardly any doubt that when such a breakthrough is achieved, it will involve concepts that will be as different from those of today as today’s concepts are different from those of classical physics. . . .

    After the thirty fat years in the beginning of the present century, we are now dragging through the lean and infertile years, and looking for better luck in the years to come. . . . In spite of all the efforts of the old-timers . . . theoretical physics has made very little progress during the last three decades, as compared with the three previous decades. . . . Let us hope that in a decade or two, or at least, just before the beginning of the twenty first-century, the present meager years of theoretical physics will come to an end in a burst of entirely new revolutionary ideas similar to those which heralded the beginning of the twentieth century.” (Thirty Years that Shook Physics, Dr. George Gamow, 1966, pp. 4-5,162-163; 155)

    If you are looking for “concepts that will be as different from those of today as today’s concepts are different from those of classical physics” and “a burst of entirely new revolutionary ideas” I suggest you get some practice with “Beyond Einstein: non-local physics” by Brian Fraser (2015). The link is:
    http://scripturalphysics.org/4.....stein.html

  16. 16
    Axel says:

    You write some wonderfully witty and insightful posts, ppolish.

  17. 17
    Phinehas says:

    BF @15

    I read your paper and found it fascinating. I’m just a layman, so I felt some of it was just out of my grasp, but other parts seemed to make good sense. Thanks for sharing it!

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