Thursday, September 29, 2016

Science Denialism: Pot. Kettle. Black.

On atheist blogs you generally see a strong and not unwarranted attack on climate-change deniers, especially those who “don’t believe” in any significant anthropogenic contribution to global warming. 1

The general criticism (of the deniers) has four common planks:

1) The climate-change deniers, though typically not scientists themselves, show utter disregard for the scientific consensus.

2) The climate-change deniers are ideologically motivated, by politics, economics or both.

3) The “science” of the climate-change deniers often is not science at all, but trivial and anecdotal. (Gee it’s cold out, I could sure use a bit of that global warming! Ha ha!)

4) The references provided by climate-change deniers, if any, are often not to scholarly peer-reviewed literature but to unpublished work of fringe scientists or popularizations.

I have seen, for years actually, the exact same pattern of science denialism, often by those making the charges against climate change deniers.

They are cosmological fine-tuning deniers.

Let me give my definition of fine-tuning.

Fine-tuning: It is the observation that the ability of the universe to synthesize heavy elements (heavy = anything beyond Helium, or “metals” to Astronomers), which are necessary for any kind of life, appears to be sensitive, extremely so in some cases, to the values of various physical constants. This sensitivity is across the board: first in the fact that there are any stars at all, then to the range of lifetimes of the stars, then to the process by which stars synthesize heavy elements, and finally to process by which some stars end their lives (by exploding) and thereby seed the universe with those elements.

Or, to summarize it concisely: Our universe appears to be fine-tuned for making rocks.

Here are some facts about fine-tuning:

• It has nothing to do with probability. It has to do with sensitivity. There is nothing in the definition that relies on any assumption of the a priori probability of the constants. They could be random draws (extremely low probability) or unit probability (from some unknown theory of everything). It only matters that the creation of the elements necessary for life is sensitive to the values.

• It is a consensus viewpoint, especially among “in-field” scientific disciplines, such as cosmology, astronomy, particle and nuclear physics.

• It has nothing to do, per se, with religion or “intelligent design”. Sure, it has been co-opted by some, and very stupidly by the ID crowd 2 who, without reason (and ultimately to their disadvantage) hitched their wagon to a “low-probability therefore god” argument. But ideas can always be co-opted 3, such as evolution and genetics being co-opted for eugenics. You have to evaluate the scientific idea on its scientific merits, not on its potential for use by people you don’t like.

• It is considered a serious scientific problem/puzzle (and therefore quite interesting) by scientists of all religious stripes. Some of them quite famous for their atheism as well as their science, such as Weinberg, Susskind, Krauss, Smolin, etc.

The fine-tuning problem is even a very real part of the motivation for a push toward a multiverse theory of one form or another. It is appealing to solve the problem by speculating that there are many (essentially infinite) universes with different constants, and only those (such as ours) with a fortuitous draw have intelligent life pondering their good fortune. 4

This is the state of affairs. It is irrefutable that many scientists, many of them famous atheist scientists, view the appearance of fine-tuning as a serious (and fascinating) problem, one that should not be summarily dismissed because of a perceived ideological inconvenience. No, it is a problem that is screaming for a scientific solution.

Yet If you try to make this point on atheist blogs (I have tried countless times) some of the same people who legitimately attack climate-change denialism will use the same methods in their fine-tuning denialism.

• They will disregard the scientific consensus. It suddenly won’t matter that a majority of in-field scientists think fine-tuning is a serious problem. In fact, pointing out that many scientists think so will often be “refuted” by charges that one is “arguing from authority.” But pointing out that most in-field scientists acknowledge global warming and pointing out that most in-field scientists acknowledge the fine-tuning problem is not an irrational appeal to authority.

• Like climate-change deniers, many of the fine-tuning deniers appear to be motivated not by science, but by ideology. The reasoning, sometimes behind the scenes and sometimes front and center, is “fine-tuning→intelligent designreligionbadtherefore it must be wrong (at all costs).  It connects the evaluation of science (the reality of the fine-tuning problem) with something not scientific (it gives the “bad guys” an advantage)—and that reasoning is always wrong.

Most frustrating to me is that the “rebuttal” of fine-tuning is often trivial. I cannot count how many times someone has given me, in gotcha tones, the Douglas Adams puddle argument, which has no application whatsoever to the cosmic fine-tuning problem. 5 Another kind of trivial response is the “how do we know there couldn’t be life with only hydrogen and helium?” rebuttal.  This ignores the fact that you can’t make anything out of those elements, and that any life, using a non-controversial assertion, needs large molecules to store information. And, by the way, the (effectively) “I saw a creature on Star-Trek who was made of pure energy so who knows?” stated with an assumption of moral superiority overs us matter-chauvinists, is not a scientific response. Another trivial dismissal of the fine-tuning problem is to project one’s own disinterest onto the human population at large. This is the “I just don’t see it as a big deal, we are here and that’s that, just move on” argument. This implies that scientists should just shut up and listen and not consider “how is it that we are here?” to be a question of interest. Finally, some will irrationally attack it because of its name. But “fine-tuning” does not imply a tuner—it’s used a metaphor. Get over it.

The fine-tuning deniers have their authorities that they believe should end the argument. First and foremost is the late Victor Stenger. Because Stenger (who, to be fair, had a good idea, to show that the fine-tuning is an illusion)  published a popularization—well that settles it, doesn’t it? But the fact is that Stenger, in attempting to show fine-tuning is an illusion, did sloppy work, work not published in peer-reviewed journals, and you do not find those scientists who consider fine-tuning a serious problem (like the atheists I mentioned) now saying: “OMG, we were worried about nothing! Stenger solved it for us!” Because Stenger did nothing more than a few back-of-the-envelope calculations and then wrote a popularization in which he claims to have solved a serious problem. He didn’t. He had a good idea that he failed to run with scientifically—he has, instead, marketed it adroitly. (For a competent takedown of Victor Stenger, read Luke Barnes.)

As an example of someone who is willing to look stupid to deny science just because it bothers him ideologically, consider P. Z. Myers. He was aflutter over a piece in the New York Times that was concerned, in part, with fine-tuning. (And its close cousin, the weak Anthropic Principle, which is essentially what the multiverse proponents, in lieu of any experimental data, are invoking to explain the fine-tuning.) Myers wrote:
Alas, Davies also brings up the anthropic principle, that tiresome exercise in metaphysical masturbation that always flounders somewhere in the repellent ditch between narcissism and solipsism. When someone says that life would not exist if the laws of physics were just a little bit different, I have to wonder…how do they know? Just as there are many different combinations of amino acids that can make any particular enzyme, why can't there be many different combinations of physical laws that can yield life? 
Which shows complete ignorance of the subject he attempts (with an epic FAIL) to criticize. He doesn't seem to grasp that if the constants are tweaked a bit there will be no elements to produce amino acids or any other molecules necessary for any kind of life. And he is saying: Hey Weinberg, hey Susskind, I, P. Z. Myers, am here to assure you that you are worried about nothing. You can go home now.

Why is P.Z. so dumb? Because he can't grasp that fine-tuning is a metaphor. He is a afraid that it gives to much ammunition to the theists.

He reveals this when he doubles down on his stupidity:
I'm also always a bit disappointed with the statements of anthropic principle proponents for another reason. If these are the best and only laws that can give rise to intelligent life in the universe, why do they do such a lousy job of it?
Forgetting that, again, it's a metaphor, he is essentially making the irrelevant value statement that: if there is a fine-tuner, why then he is an incompetent dolt? We can ignore that criticism (which is metaphysics, not physics) and point out the obvious. The fine-tuning problem in no way, shape or form says that we are in the best possible universe for intelligent life. It says only that the habitability of our universe is sensitive to the constants.

To summarize I think that, on blogs at least, there is a massive case of Pot. Kettle. Black. when it comes to science denialism. You can find many commentators bashing climate-change deniers out of one side of the mouth while from the other side they spout the same denialist unscientific tricks when it comes to the cosmic fine-tuning problem.

1 My own position on climate change is this: I am a nuclear physicist. I have no expertise in the field of climate change. So just like any other scientific argument that is out of my field, and for which I have no time or interest to ramp up, I accept the scientific consensus.  I have confidence that the checks and balances inherent in science mean that, when you don’t know and can’t evaluate on your own, it’s a good bet to accept the consensus view of in-field scientists. Or stay quiet.

From a strategic viewpoint (and from a theological one) the ID crowd is wrong to adopt a “low-probability implies god” position. A low probability universe is exactly what the scientific community argues is to be expected in the multiverse.  Any multiverse theory is perfectly happy to acknowledge that our universe is mind-boggling in its rarity.  On the other hand, a “theory of everything” with no free parameters (which isn’t going to happen, but let’s pretend) would be on the other end of the probability spectrum (the constants would have unit probability) and, coupled with sensitivity to those constants (fine-tuning) would make the best prima facie case for a designer. It would mean that habitability was built into the fabric of space-time. Short of God making a personal appearance, there is no better result that theists could wish for. It always surprises me that the IDers do not see this.

3 I find it useful to point out that ideas can simultaneously be co-opted and distorted. Thus when genetics is co-opted for eugenics, or statistics for bell-curve intelligence arguments, or Bayes’ theorem to comment on the existence of a historical Jesus, or fine-tuning for supporting ID, it does not imply that those doing the co-opting are using the ideas properly. Nor does it imply, in and of itself, that they aren’t.

4 Susskind was asked by Amanda Gefter at New Scientist: “If we do not accept the landscape [multiverse] idea are we stuck with intelligent design?” Susskind responded (rather clumsily, in my opinion): “I doubt that physicists will see it that way. If, for some unforeseen reason, the landscape turns out to be inconsistent - maybe for mathematical reasons, or because it disagrees with observation - I am pretty sure that physicists will go on searching for natural explanations of the world. But I have to say that if that happens, as things stand now we will be in a very awkward position. Without any explanation of nature's fine-tunings we will be hard pressed to answer the ID critics.” I only bring this up as an example of scientists using the fine-tuning problem as a motivation, at least in part, for their multiverse research.

5 The puddle argument (a sentient puddle observing just how perfect the universe (a pot hole) is for its existence, ergo god) is perhaps relevant for privileged planet debates (isn’t our planet just perfect for human life?) but not for cosmic fine-tuning which addresses the very building blocks (heavy elements) for any kind of life.


  1. Sorry: edited for clarity and reposted.

    What evidence is there that universes can only be built by tweaking the fundamental constants? It seems to suggest an extreme paucity of the imagination on the part of physicists, so probably I am missing something.

    Then again statements like "any life, using a non-controversial assertion, needs large molecules to store information" seems to suggest that the only way you can think of for universes to contain life is that those universes must necessarily contain molecules much like our universe's molecules. But why must this be the case? Why couldn't they contain self-reproducing florbs with completely different chemical and physical properties?

    For example, Conway's game of life seems like a toy universe in which self-reproducing life is possible. Where can we see this in the physicists's distribution of possible universes?

    Software experiments suggest that extremely simple universes can generate self-reproducing configurations with relatively high probability, such as Koza's paper "Artificial life: spontaneous emergence of self-replicating
    and evolutionary self-improving computer programs". Where is Koza's model in your distribution?

  2. Jeffrey, your comment is so bizarre that I don't know if it is tongue in cheek. Are you seriously proposing computer life as anything more than interesting in its own right? You realize, I'm sure, that computer programs presuppose a real universe with complex chemistry and physics upon which the hardware can be constructed.

    Still, if you want me to "narrow" my claim, I'll oblige. I'll limit it universes like ours. The kind proposed by any reasonable multiverse theory. The kind that start with something like the big bang of expanding space, but with a different set of constants. Among those universes it appears to many that habitability, merely based on the relatively non-controversial assumption that any kind of life will require complicated chemistry and physics to produce large structures to store information (e.g., DNA) may be, by far, the exception rather than the rule, based on the single observation that the habitability our universe appears to be highly sensitive to our particular values of the constants.

  3. Well, I'm glad to see that you have no answer. Indeed, it seems like you don't even understand the question.

    Your "reasonable" multiverse theory presupposes a universe that's just a tweak of the one we see. Yet you have no reason to believe that this represents all possible universes.

    I am not proposing "computer programs". I am proposing some sort of completely foreign chemistry and physics in which the rules that we implement Conway's game of life actually take place in the foreign chemistry and physics. There are new sorts of particles that interact exactly the way Conway's rules specify. How can you say such a universe couldn't exist?

    You have confirmed that physicists really *do* have a paucity of imagination. If they seriously propose that every universe arises just by taking the known fundamental constants and changing them slightly, then it's no wonder at all that their conclusions can be safely ignored.

  4. Jeffrey,

    "You have confirmed that physicists really *do* have a paucity of imagination. If they seriously propose that every universe arises just by taking the known fundamental constants and changing them slightly, then it's no wonder at all that their conclusions can be safely ignored."

    Ignoring the fact that I never said the constants of other universes only vary slightly (indeed, I would expect that most universes have a cosmological constant that is ~100 orders of magnitude different from ours) I have to say that you have nailed us. You have demonstrated that "physicists really *do* have a paucity of imagination" and that "their conclusions can be safely ignored." I mean, I'm like totally convinced.

  5. Interesting. Thanks.

  6. You have no answers, only sarcasm. I sure hope Luke Barnes' forthcoming book is a little more candid in addressing this issue.

  7. To repeat, what I'm looking for is some justification that all universes even have to have a "cosmological" constant. Why does there *have* to be a weak force in all universes with life? Indeed, why do there even *have* to be atoms like ours in all universes with life? Why can't there be something, call it "florbs", that behave as in Conway's game of Life?

    You're obviously a really bright physicist, so why not explain it like I'm a prospective undergraduate you're trying to recruit, instead of avoiding the issue using sarcasm?

  8. Jeffrey,
    There is no answer to a question that is pure speculation. You are permitted to speculate on universes that consisting of "florbs." As I stated upstream--and it wasn't sarcasm, I am staying mainstream and considering universes of the same species as ours: something like quantum foam -> big bang -> inflation -> universe where slightly different i.c. lands you in a very different minimum with different (likely very different) physical constants. Whether atoms or nuclei appear depends on those constants. And, it appears to some, that whether or not stars even appear depends on the precise values of the matter density and expansion rate.

    So we can stipulate that there may be universes with "florbs" operating along the lines of the Game of Life. I have nothing to say about that. I am saying, in my lack of imagination, that it seems plausible that there will be many universes of our of our variety the majority of which are sterile.