Most readers of news outlets about science have begun to notice that most of the conventional semipopular news sources about physics – but also most other topics – are fading away.
They haven't been sufficiently financially rewarded for the quality of their writing so they reduced the quality of the writing and focused on cheap things that were enough for the undemanding readers. That decreased their attractiveness among the demanding readers as well as their revenue which led to a further, forced decrease of the quality because it's increasingly obvious that almost anyone can produce similar low-quality texts.
The actual, especially big shot, professional physicists know that The Reference Frame is arguably the highest-quality medium discussing current events in physics – especially those whose status is being misinterpreted elsewhere – and while they are sometimes cowardly and don't want to associate themselves with your humble correspondent too tightly, most people have noticed that this weblog actually is the spokesman of the world's scientific elite which is a little bit under attack from a coalition of aggressive simpletons.
So the simpletons and their mouthpieces increasingly frequently react to my texts. Well, there are many inkspillers on their side but they're missing a detail: The truth is not on their side.
Less than two weeks ago, I discussed a 43-page-long preprint by Christopher Fuchs who reacted to my texts explaining why QBism doesn't bring any new beef relatively to the orthodox, "Copenhagen" interpretation of quantum mechanics. His long tirade basically claims that the "wonderful added value" of QBism is that Nature issues normative statements and one of them is that you shall or you are obliged to gamble.
Sorry, natural sciences can't recognize normative statements – science cannot answer moral questions – and gambling is in no way a preferred or recommended let alone obligatory way to use the probabilities calculated from quantum mechanics. The bookmakers' jargon has nothing to do with the fundamental laws of physics and its addition to papers about the "interpretations" of quantum mechanics cannot improve the physicists' understanding of Nature by one iota.
Yesterday, several people sent me an article
He starts by mentioning Kepler, Avogadro, and Boltzmann – and a point of the article is that the likes of Lee Smolin and Tim Palmer are in the same league. So the evil establishment should finally celebrate Smolins and Palmers. Skuse apparently thinks that if he omits the comparison of his crackpot pals to Galileo, he won't get the 40 points to his crackpot index according to the rule #35. Well, I am afraid that Kapler, Avogadro, and Boltzmann are enough for those 40 points. You can easily see that Skuse has basically tried to negate several blog posts of mine – he has mentioned my name, with an insulting description of my occupation. Sometimes, my views were attributed to "the string theory majority in quantum gravity". But the text makes it obvious that this guy has only read a few texts like mine, not actual full-blown research articles, let alone the string theoretical ones.
It's also crazy to describe the likes of Smolin and Palmer as brave warriors against the establishment and consensus when these and similar far left activists pretending to be scientists basically control all the relevant scientific space in the old media.
Another amazing fact about the article that immediately stuns you is that the following paragraphs of this "assault on the concept of consensus" is actually a celebration of the ludicrous claim that there is a consensus about the dangerous man-made climate change. He uncritically mentions John Cook's claim that 97.1% of the scientists support these bogus claims.
The number 97% first appeared in a worthless poll among some cherry-picked 77 people, 75 of which agreed with some alarmist assertion. Dropout John Cook's own version of the number came from counting comments on his crackpot server. 97% of the time, he signed his comments with his own name, 3% of the time, he signed as Luboš Motl. By counting the comments, he decided that 97% of the people support the ideology of the dangerous man-made climate change. There is absolutely nothing serious about any of the claims about the 97% consensus and everyone who takes any comment of this kind seriously is a hopelessly brainwashed moron.
Whether it's this episode or others, every sane person knows that the claim about the 97% consensus is rubbish. The number of researchers who think that there is a danger of climate change in the next century is comparable to 1/2 and has already been distorted by the political influence in the discipline, currently the most politicized discipline of natural science. So the percentages just don't say anything about the validity of the claims, anyway. Skuse doesn't understand these basic things – in spite of his pretending that he understands what's wrong with using the consensus as a weapon.
Skuse's low-quality piece ends up being a hit piece on your humble correspondent in particular and string theorists in general while it celebrates several crackpots – and wrong work by several otherwise credible physicists. Aside from Smolin, the most celebrated person in Skuse's rant is Tim Palmer whose ludicrous talk about the climate Armageddon was discussed last year. I had to laugh out loud when I read:
In contrast to his climate-science research, Palmer’s work in fundamental physics challenges conventional wisdom in its field.So Skuse is persuading us that Palmer lives a double life, like Superman. In one-half of his scientific life, he is the physically strong Superman. In the other, he's a physically weak journalist Clark Kent. This story about a split personality is surely cute but the truth is much more prosaic. Tim Palmer is simply a crackpot and a stupid peabrain in all fields related to science that he tried to touch. The actual difference is the difference between theoretical physics on one side and the climate science on the other side. Theoretical physics still internally respects meritocracy most of the time while the institutionalized climate science has been largely hijacked by junk pseudoscientists such as Palmer.
This is the actual reason why Palmer is taken more seriously by the "community of climate scientists" than by the "community of theoretical physicists". Most of the people counted as the "climate science community" in 2017 are just garbage as scientists. But the value of Palmer's work in both disciplines is pretty much exactly the same – it is zero.
Skuse sketches some weird claims by Palmer about physics. He wants a theory of quantum gravity but he also wants to promote the weather-related sciences so he wants the spacetime to look like a fractal tornado. If there were some justifiable room for fractals in quantum gravity, it would be cool and important, except that no such evidence is included in Palmer's papers. Palmer's papers are on par with Leo Vuyk's comments about the raspberry universe. It's ludicrous for an inkspiller like Skuse to "demand" that physicists take a hack such as Palmer seriously.
Is consensus important in science? It depends on the precise statement you make about the consensus.
Some consensus may be the result of actual evidence that became available and has persuaded most scientists in a field that a certain statement or theory is correct. For example, an overwhelming majority of the scientists has been persuaded that the Earth is not flat. But the consensus may also be the result of political pressures, intimidation, or physical elimination of those who are inconvenient. For this reason, consensus cannot be considered evidence of any statement and whoever uses such soft social criteria instead of the technical ones automatically reduces himself to a non-scientist. A scientist simply cannot decide about his own field by counting the colleagues who have one opinion or another.
On the other hand, if some consensus emerges about a scientific question, it's not necessarily a proof of a pathology. There exists an active community of successful workers in quantum gravity whose majority agrees with the statement that "string theory is the only game in town" when it comes to the theories of quantum gravity and the unification of all forces.
What does this "consensus" actually mean? It means that if you localize a group of some 1,000 or so people who work on successful papers addressing similar questions, most of them agree that "string theory is the only game in town". But this number 1,000 must be compared to millions of scientists or seven billion people on Earth. The people agreeing with the statement about string theory were cherry-picked pretty much tautologically. Those who have the abilities and other intellectual strengths to work on string theory are also those who generally think that it's a uniquely valuable framework in physics.
This is not too surprising. It's really almost a tautology. If you aren't capable of grasping string theory, you will probably underestimate its value and validity. A human may only "really" appreciate things that he understands, at least to some extent. On the other hand, if you have done enough to actually write research papers on string theory, it's probably because you found the theory important. Why would you otherwise do all the hard work – learning, thinking, writing – that is needed to do research in string theory?
So the observation about the consensus in stringy quantum gravity is basically an empty statement. It is almost exactly on par with the statement that most researchers doing the "loop quantum gravity" kind of stuff are in consensus that "loop quantum gravity" is a top promising path towards a theory of quantum gravity. The actual reason why these two "consensuses" aren't viewed as equivalent is that everyone can see that the average as well as total amount of brilliance among the string theorists exceeds that of the "loop quantum gravitists" by many orders of magnitude.
What the Skuses and Smolins actually want is for the brilliant scientists to embrace the cheap, wrong, and junk ideas, and work on them. But without the help of a flamethrower, that is pretty much impossible. They're brilliant exactly because their thinking is sharper than that of the less brilliant ones. So you can't achieve that goal: it is logically self-contradictory. Idiots will generally advocate idiotic ideas and brilliant people will work on brilliant ideas. There are thousands of defenders of loop quantum gravity – a much greater number than the number of string theorists – but their impact in physics is tiny simply because they're not as good as the string theorists.
String theorists don't influence theoretical physics so much because they have hijacked some "powerful tools" such as magazines, political offices etc.: almost all of those belong to the likes of Skuse. String theorists have the influence because they produce actual results and evidence and their brilliance is often self-evident to every impartial, intelligent enough observer. String theorists are generally brighter than loop quantum gravitists. It's a fact that you can't change. And it's not an accidental fact: string theorists are more brilliant because it's their brilliance that has led them to learn, study, and appreciate string theory. If you're brilliant enough, you may become a string theorist. If you're not, you may end up being a champion of loop quantum gravity. It's that simple. For similar reasons, The Reference Frame has a bigger impact on the thinking of the physics community about potentially controversial research questions than Physics World – despite the much better funding etc. of the Physics World – simply because I am right, I know what I am actually saying, and every competent physicist (especially professor etc.) simply sees that. I – and the string theorists – are the David who can beat the Goliath because we're much smarter and because we're right.
Skuse also tries to praise the nonsensical work of Gerard 't Hooft attempting to revise the foundations of quantum mechanics; and Erik Verlinde's wrong statement that gravity is an entropic force. Again, it makes no sense to argue about those things in 2017. Who hasn't been able to see that and why 't Hooft has lost it is simply in a lower league that doesn't meaningfully interact with the cream of the theoretical physics community. In the same way, who can't understand in 2017 that the entropy can't oscillate along with the gravitational potential energy of two bodies (because of irreversibility or the second law) and that the number of microstates can't depend on the distance (because that would cripple the factorization of the Hilbert space and destroyed e.g. the neutron interferometry in gravitational fields), he simply belongs to the broader public but not to the elite of the physics research community. Entropy may be defined in gravitating systems and plays a lot of roles. But Verlinde had made a much more specific statement – that the gravitational force may be presented as an entropic one – and that statement is simply wrong.
Consensus may emerge because of legitimate reasons but also because of illegitimate reasons. The more politicized a discipline is, the more likely it is for the actual reason behind some consensus to be scientifically illegitimate. No actual scientist deciding about his healthy discipline will ever mention consensus as an argument. Inkspillers and activists such as Skuse and Smolin do so all the time. They are trying to distort science by political demagogy all the time. "You have to embrace this idea or another" because "the number of the people who believe it is already very high or it is too low" etc.
What's remarkable about the likes of Skuse and Smolin is that they manifestly use these unacceptable political arguments in both directions – they constantly contradict themselves. Sometimes, they are using consensus as a "proof" that a claim is right and a reason why the consensus should be even stronger; sometimes, they are using consensus as a "proof" that something is wrong and there should be much more diversity. You simply can't have it in both ways. And actual scientists can't have it in either way. Whether there is consensus or not must be absolutely irrelevant for an actual scientist's decision whether he believes a statement or another. A person may sometimes decide according to sociological criteria and even scientists do so – but whenever they do so, it simply means that they're outsiders in that discipline and their opinion shouldn't be counted in any scientifically meaningful poll trying to find the truth.
When a whole discipline becomes dominated by the people whose behavior is affected by such things, the discipline is on a downward trend. That was the case of the climate science 30 years ago when the catastrophicists were still a fringe minority who claimed that their percentage must grow. But the discipline remained profoundly sick when these pseudoscientists represent a majority of that politicized field: the usage of the political arguments is sick in both directions.
Professional high-energy physics linked to quantum gravity hasn't been crippled in this way yet which is why basically every employable person and student knows that the papers by Palmer, Smolin, 't Hooft, Verlinde etc. promoted by Skuse are wrong or at least not very good. For the likes of Skuse to change the situation would mean to destroy this field, too. I hope it will never happen and Skuse's and similar propaganda pieces will only matter for an irrelevant community of brainwashed laymen whose number should keep on decreasing as the old, deteriorating journals lose their impact.