Suggested readings, #133

Here it is, a rundown of interesting articles I’ve come across recently, to consider for your weekend readings:

Homeopathy doesn’t work. So why do so many Germans believe in it? Behind an arched stone facade in Heidelberg, Germany, Natalie Grams spent years welcoming patients into bright rooms with plastered white walls and hardwood floors. As a homeopathic physician, she listened to their concerns and prescribed tinctures, ointments, and little white pills for their ailments. People trusted her, and Grams was certain that these nontraditional treatments (echinacea for colds; arnica for muscle pain) made them better. For her, homeopathy was more than a profession. It was something she accepted on faith and an essential part of her identity. She treated herself homeopathically and her young family, too. “I was convinced that homeopathy could heal everything, really everything,” Grams says. … (Bloomberg)

Who’s killing physics? On a recent visit to my mum’s place, I searched through my old stuff for something my children might like. One book that caught my eyes was (the German edition of) James Trefil’s Dark Side of the Universe. It’s about cosmology, the Big Bang and the expansion of the universe, Einstein’s theory of general relativity, and speculations about what dark matter might be. Trefil’s book was published in 1989. Back then, I found it tremendously exciting. But much of it could be published in 2021 without change – we’d just have to add that the cosmological constant is back. Then again, the cosmological constant was Einstein’s idea, so it’s not exactly new. … (Cosmos)

Inhumans vs. X-Men: race, class, and the right to have a story. Ever since Disney bought Marvel, there has been a noticeable shift in the latter’s storytelling. By all appearances, Marvel has been promoting and elevating its lesser-known properties (like Guardians of the Galaxy) while seemingly giving characters who have been mainstays in the Marvel Universe (like the Fantastic Four) a far more reduced role. Many (rightly?) paranoid fans believe this is a shrewd business move by Disney to monopolize the characters whose movie rights it owns over those owned by other studios. The X-Men are a casualty of this tendency. Believe it or not, it was the X-Men, not the Avengers, who were the money-makers for Marvel back in the 90s before the company went bankrupt. Marvel sold the movie rights to its most popular properties to various movie studios, with the X-Men and all related titles and characters going to Fox. Marvel is not able to use the X-Men or even the term “mutant” in any of its own movies. In response to this reality, Marvel has elevated the Inhumans and sought to make them the stand-in for mutants. … (and Philosophy)

Examining miracle claims: philosophical and investigative approaches. A miracle is usually defined as an event supposedly unexplainable by nature. But such a definition is predicated on a logical fallacy called arguing from ignorance—that is, from a lack of knowledge. It is like saying, “We don’t know; therefore, we do know.” Anglican writer C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) succinctly defined a miracle as “an interference with Nature by supernatural power.”1 But this begs the question: What supernatural power? One cannot explain one mystery by invoking another. Philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) argued that miracles did not in fact occur. He stated in his Treatise “Of Miracles”: “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established those laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.” … (Secular Humanism)

Physics needs an aesthetic revolution. What is beauty? The poet John Keats, in his Ode on a Grecian Urn, responded with his enigmatic ‘“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ Although there isn’t agreement among scholars about the poet’s intentions in writing these lines, in scientific circles they came to signify a general epigraph for a Platonic take on Nature: that beauty, understood as mathematical symmetry and proportion, is the pathway to the truth, that is, to our final unveiling of Nature’s deepest secrets. I am here to argue against this belief—for it is a belief—from bottom up. … (IAI News)

Published by

Massimo

Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at platofootnote.org and howtobeastoic.org. He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

14 thoughts on “Suggested readings, #133”

  1. Yes, physics does need an aesthetic revolution, just not the kind discussed here. “It is also essential to how life works, given that all proteins are made of “left-handed” amino-acids, as Pasteur discovered in the mid-1800s. Again, the origin of this “homochiral” asymmetry remains unknown.” Quibble: it was in tartrates, not amino acids, that Pasteur studied chirality. Serious point, while we don’t know whether the actual homochirality is due to subtle selection, or is just a frozen accident, its presence is no mystery: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/chir.5 Homochiral imperative of molecular evolution, Jay S. Siegel. Abstract: An evaluation of some common misconceptions of the racemic state in combination with an articulation of principles for the spontaneous generation and amplification of chirality leads to the conclusion that homochirality in nature is a stereochemical imperative. Chirality 10:24–27, 1998.

    As for aesthetics, we need to add enjoyment of the drama of contingency to the more Platonic delight n symmetry. As physics has in fact been doing ever since Prigogine.

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    1. Paul, thanks for the clarifications, but I’m puzzled when you say “not this kind of aesthetics.” I think the point of the article is that physicists too often go for notions like beauty, symmetry, and simplicity, which do not guarantee anything and are not natural requirements. Sabine Hossenfelder has written a whole book about this. What sort of aesthetics did you have in mind?

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    2. Perhaps it’s the anti-Platonist in me. The article focuses on generality, symmetry and simplicity, explicitly Platonic criteria of beauty, but there is also beauty in the individual structures that inevitably emerge when, far from equilibrium, contingent deviations from asymmetry act as the seeds for deeply interesting structure. The grandest example of this is the development of our Universe’s highly non uniform distribution of matter from the quantum fluctuations recorded in the cosmic microwave background. On a smaller scale the semi-crystalline precipitates that I used to study, or skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow, or organisms, or landscapes – you get the idea

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  2. Brief thoughts on all, in order:

    1. I think homeopathy’s popularity in Germany goes back to the pre-Nazi nature movement that started shortly before the First World War. Some of this infused one strand of early Nazism, especially those most interested in neopaganism rather than a presumed atheism with a veneer of Xianity, like Hitler.
    2. Sorry, Sabine, but we know QM works. Strange anthropomorphism to call it “the root of evil.” Otherwise, Massimo, maybe you need to pass her a copy of Horgan’s “The End of Science” and she needs to, per Stanley Kubrick, stop worrying and accept that!
    And, as far as her reference to the the Frauchinger-Renner paradox, doesn’t one’s take on that, or maybe even one’s acceptance of it, depend on which baseline interpretation of what QM is a person accepts?
    And, as for the measurement problem, to riff on Horgan, in one sense it’s a problem only if you think the universe “owes” (yes, anthropomorphism) humans a complete explanation.
    3. An aesthetics revolution? Isn’t the quest for that another anthropomorphism? (Including in the QM referenced above?)
    4. Per Nickell, the best approach is back-and-forthing the top-down and the bottom-up, or to but it in science terms, the deductive and inductive, in something akin to applied abductive reasoning. Joe can thank me later.

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    1. Agreed, about both homeopathy and Nickell.

      Regarding Sabine, she does mention Horgan explicitly. I think she knows what she’s talking about. QM works, but it’s also known to be incomplete.

      As for aesthetics, sure it’s anthropomorphic. Then again, it is a species of anthropos that does science…

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  3. That one didn’t work with WordPress account, either, so …

    True on Sabine reading Horgan. That said, I still disagree with her on the “measurement problem.” I think it’s just something you accept. Einstein himself couldn’t accept it, and the world of QM moved on just fine.
    Per what you said at Patreon the other day about quantum particles not really being both particle and wave at the same time, I think that ties to this, and to what I noted above about which interpretation of QM one accepts. Wiki lists more than a dozen.
    Also, having read Horgan’s plaints about learning QM, I’m not so sure he claimed that QM “isn’t the end of the story.”
    And, a “measurement problem,” or, what I say is the real issue, an “interpretation problem,” doesn’t mean that QM isn’t the end of the story, either.
    It just means that we haven’t firmed up our understanding of QM enough yet.
    To confuse the two?
    Well, if I want to go Sabine’s path and bring in philosophy, old Gilbert Ryle could say that’s a category mistake.
    And, even if QM is indeed not the end, there’s the assumption that we will know what the end IS. And, this is something where Horgan says “maybe we won’t,” so, even if she references Horgan’s book, I don’t think she accepts its conclusion.

    (Side note: I became much less a fan of hers when she went on a rant, in my opinion, about some climate science news issues a year or more ago and, in my opinion … committed a category mistake. And that might be polite.

    To use her own language about this https://backreaction.blogspot.com/2020/09/follow-science-nonsense-i-say.html as I did at the time? It shows her to be either too *** dumb or too *** lazy to distinguish news and opinion stories, first, and second, if we followed her logic, could be used to support coronavirus anti-masking because news stories that say science says you “should” mask are wrong and more.)

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  4. I think she’s way wrong. It relates to public health, which is not just medicine, and which is, ultimately, a social science, and an overlap with political science. When “we” (the British) learned that sanitation would largely eliminate cholera 150 years ago, tis true that the research itself wasn’t a “should.” But, it’s an easy step to move to public health and say, should. Ditto when environmental science realized that coal-fired power plants created acid rain. There was no “should” there. But, public health says “scrubbers and higher smokestacks.” Climate change with a recommendation to public health has just as much right to “shoulds.” So does virology with wearing masks for COVID, which is why I said what I did in my first comment and why, with a reasonable intermediate step spelled out, I consider her to have committed a category mistake, to trump her appeal to philosophy with … philosophy.

    I disliked it enough, and found her wrong enough, or maybe Not Even Wrong, that I wound up pulling her off my blogroll.

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    1. Interesting perspective, but, again, I think Sabine got it right. Science provides us with facts, not value judgments. Her point is that we shouldn’t cover behind inane phrases like “follow the science,” because those phrases mask our moral responsibility, shifting it to “science.”

      As she put it, let people clearly state what their priorities are, compare them with the facts of science, and draw our conclusions about their character.

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  5. I largely agree with Hossenfelder. Our university physics textbooks have not needed an update since the 1980’s except with some minor gaps filled in (the mass of the top quark and the Higgs boson etc.). However, there is an area of ‘foundation physics’ she conveniently ignores: the strong nuclear force. This is usual, since at the LHC the strong force is seen as background and is usually ignored while the the exciting non-signal of beyond standard model physics is getting all the attention.

    For the strong forice, the theory and experiment go in tandem and a new large experiment, the electron-ion collider is being built on Long Island at the moment. It is a clear counter example: we do not expect any new technology coming out of greater knowledge of the gluon (the carrier particle of the strong force) yet experiment is driving the theory (and vice versa). Also, the strong force is the standard model force that is most similar to gravity, as the gluons interact with themselves (as also gravitons would be expected to do), so it could have wider repercussions to understand it better. It pushes the fundamental theory that combines quantum mechanics with special relativity, quantum field theory, to the limit. Further, it will give insights in LHC and heavy nuclei physics, which will help us understand collective quark and gluon behaviour better, which will impact cosmology (early universe fluctuations) and astronomy (neutron stars etc.).

    So, in a couple of decades (this machine will take a while to build), the chapters on the strong force in our textbooks will be revised, and we do not know how.

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    1. Also, I think the measurement problem has been solved decades ago (sigh) within the decoherence picture and von Neuman entropy. Everything is connected…

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  6. Well, Massimo, political science (with which things like public health overlaps) does offer prescriptions. And, good humanistic philosophy would accept that.

    I think the REAL problem is that Sabine doesn’t want to hear these shoulds because she’s a climate change minimalist. She doesn’t want to think “we need to do X” cuz she doesn’t believe that.

    Me? While not as alarmist as James Kunstler, I’m more alarmist than mainstream climate scientists like Michael Mann. So, I find her off-putting on the actual issue of climate science.

    As for my degree of alarmism?

    I think if we do EVERYTHING we can right now, reasonably, with mandates, not voluntary unenforceable agreements, 2C is still cooked in the books and hits by 2100.

    I think if the current actual reality continues? About a 75 percent chance of 2C by 2050.

    I think a 10 percent chance of 3C by 2050, 30 percent by 2075 and more than 50 percent by 2100.

    I think a 10 percent chance of **4C** by 2100, and if that happens, there’s the possibility of “runaway Earth” tipping points.

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