DEMOCRACY IN SCIENCE
In my 158 science papers to date, I have talked a lot about the physical and mathematical problems of the 20th century, but I haven’t yet addressed a political problem that underlies them all. That problem is the intrusion of democracy into science. I will have nothing to say about democracy as a theory of government: I will stick to the point and talk only about democracy as it affects science. Many will take this as an opportunity to attack me as an aristocrat or to tar me with with some other unsavory term of modern abuse, but they might as well not bother. They would be better off reading the paper before them than attacking me for a paper I did not write.
First of all, I will state something that should be obvious: science is not government. Yes, we have administration in science, which could be called a sort of government, but science itself is not the administration of science. Science is one thing and administration of science is another thing. That being true, we should also see that science, as science, is not “democratic.” Or, to be more rigorous, it is not egalitarian. No, it is hierarchical. The entire history of science is proof of that. The history of science is a history of great individual thinkers, of Archimedes and Leonardo and Galileo and Kepler and Newton and Einstein. It is not a history of committees and peer groups. Galileo did not succeed by a vote. Newton did nothing with the authority of a majority. Just the reverse. All these great people did what they did against the majorities of their times. You only have to study their lives to see that, in science and other hierarchies, the majority is always wrong. In both society and in science, the majority is always staunchly arrayed against anything new. They always were and they still are.
That alone destroys the rationale of peer review, since a person with a new and better idea has no peers. He or she has the idea and no one else has it. And, in most cases, the new and better idea is not immediately comprehensible to those who did not have it: if it had been immediately comprehensible to them, they would have had it themselves. Only in the case that the peers had been right on the edge of having the idea, would they be able to comprehend it. And if they were right on the edge of having it, they will not be happy that someone beat them to it by a hair.
Considering all that, it is amazing that science ever gets done. In fact, science rarely does get done, and that is the reason it doesn’t. Science, defined as progress in science, is very rare. Even before the 20th century and the quick rise of democracy, science rarely got done. What you got was a lot of squabbling and a little science. Most people weren’t too good at doing science, but they were pretty adept at building walls to keep other people from doing science. If the Vatican or the Inquisition weren’t trying to trip you up, your colleagues were. But in the 20th century, we found a way to get rid of a lot of the squabbling. How? We democratized science. We encouraged people to work together, to publish in groups, to avoid public battles, and to submit to peer review. Sounds great except for one thing: getting rid of all the squabbling got rid of all the science, too. Where before we had very little science, we now have almost none. The groups and committees quashed all the new ideas, as not in keeping with equality, and the top of the pyramid was lopped off completely. What the Vatican could not do in nine centuries, peer review now does on a daily basis: it stops all progress in science.
You will say that we still have hierarchies, since we still have the famous theorists at the top of the pyramid. But that is a manufactured pyramid. Those people aren’t the best in the field, they are just the best that is left after the best have left. Physics needs these famous names, for reasons of publicity, so that it has someone to give prizes to. But these people aren’t the cream of any crop. They can’t even do highschool math, and they have to be hiding behind some chair or some pile of money or some big blackboard all the time. When you get them at a podium they can’t speak two sensible sentences together (see below).
How did we get here, you may ask. I asked myself that question, and I found some surprising answers. When I began to theorize that democracy was the cause, I saw the first problem was the timeline. I will be told that democracy has been viable or ascendent since the late 18th century, but physics didn’t completely fall apart until the 1920′s, according to my argument. Why the lag? What happened in 1920? Well, democracy as a theory may have been viable since 1776 or 1791 or whatever date you like, but as a form of government, it didn’t begin to reach fruition until women were given the vote, in, yes, 1920. You can claim to have a democratic government, but as long as you are disenfranchising more than 50% of your population, your claim doesn’t hold much water.
Let me rush to confirm that I am not blaming the crash of physics on women. Women becoming physicists had nothing at all to do with it. Women’s suffrage just gives us a way to judge the success of the democratic principles in the air. Before 1920, the principles were in the air. After 1920, the principles were in action. It is not women in science that crashed science, it is democracy in science that crashed science. In other words, if science had remained hierarchical, women could only have helped it. They would have helped it in the only way they could, by their own merits.
You will say it would be very hard for women to be welcomed into science without welcoming them into the rest of society, but you are missing my point again. I am not saying that women shouldn’t have been welcomed into government or science, I am saying that while they were being welcomed into both, science might have remained hierarchical, as it must be to remain healthy. It is not equal opportunity that has doomed 20th and 21st century physics, it is the intrusion into science of the modern small-minded interpretation of democracy, whereby all people are equal at all times. It is this interpretation that allows people to think they are making a strong argument when they attack me for a “lack of humility.” They say something like, “The sign of the crackpot is that he thinks he knows something that ten of thousands of trained physicists don’t know.” That argument rests upon the idea that all scientists are equal as scientists. If all people are equal or nearly equal, then one person cannot be right where ten thousand are wrong. But their reasoning rests on a fallacy: all scientists are not equal as scientists. All they have to do is study history to see that it is filled with examples of one person knowing what a million or a billion people did not know. For this reason, it is a mistake in logic to argue categorically against new ideas. Some new ideas will come from crackpots, and will be wrong. Some new ideas will be right, in which case the person with the new idea will have known what nobody else knew at the time.
Therefore, I may or may not be a crackpot, but you will not be able to decide that question based on my confidence or the fact that I think I know something. If I am factually wrong about everything, I am a crackpot, no matter how confident I am or am not. If I am factually right about some important things, I am not a crackpot, no matter how little you like my style. To put it another way, the truth is not up for a vote. It is not a personality contest. The majority has nothing to say about it, since the majority knows nothing about the question at hand. We might as well put Tiger Woods’ final round in the Masters up for a vote. “Do you like Tiger’s demeanor today, and his choice of pants? Call in and tell us whether he should shoot 65 or 85!”
But back to the larger argument. Some will find this all a bit nebulous, so I will give some more concrete examples. If 1920 is indeed some kind of dividing line, then we should see some real change after that date. And the last name of my list of great physicists above gives us that real change. Einstein before 1920 is different than Einstein after 1920. How, you may ask. Before 1920, Einstein published papers alone. After 1920, he began to publish with others. Think of the famous EPR paper (1935), for instance. That stands for Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen. Despite his stature, Einstein felt he could use the other names next to his as ballast. His colleagues were by then almost always publishing in groups, so he must have felt some pressure to do likewise. Another example is Einstein’s feud with Physical Review Letters. Those who argue for peer review rarely mention that Einstein was personally offended by the heavyhandedness of US peer review, and this offense took place after 1920. Before 1920, Einstein got published despite not having a big name. His most important papers in the first decade of the century were passed by the jurors (in Germany), despite arriving from the patent office and despite being very revolutionary. His papers to Physical Review after 1920 were refused despite the fact that he was Einstein and they were not. Enough said. Einstein saw this as a small example of tyranny of the majority, and refused from then on to submit to Physical Review. Physical Review still has that to answer to, in my opinion.
We see this again just by studying current journal authors. Almost none are singular; it is always Soandso et al. Why? Because people are now hiding in groups. Why? Because, in a time when everything is decided by counting heads, you want to have as many heads around you as possible. If you have five other authors, you immediately have five other people who can vouch for you. Vouching is very important when democratic principles have become overgrown. Newton didn’t need anyone to vouch for him. He was capable of vouching for himself. But everything now is decided by how many friends you have.
And we see this again in the importance of the book introduction. Why should it be so important that my book is introduced by a NASA astrophysicist? As a matter of science, such a vouching should be both unnecessary and illogical. As a matter of science, the book must either stand or fall on its own merits, and no amount of praise or censure will matter in the long run. My papers are either true or false, and if they are true, it will not matter who thinks they are false. If they are false it will not matter who thinks they are true. Introductions are useful only for those who can’t comprehend the book itself. They then judge the contents by the introduction. It is science by vouching.
You will say, “Maybe, but I still don’t see what this has to do with women’s suffrage.” Well, in order for women to convince men that they deserved the vote, they had to convince them that all people were equal in principle. They had to convince them of that very thoroughly: not only as a pretty thing to say at parties, but as a thing you actually believed. Apparently, a majority of the men in the all-male Congress in 1920 did believe it, or they believed that a majority of their male constituents believed it: otherwise the 19th amendment would not have passed. Well, just as we may assume a majority of those men believed it, we may assume a majority of the men in science believed it as well. All good so far, except that neither the men or women in science or out of it were able to differentiate between equality under the law and equality in fact. They were pushed by so many speeches to accept equality under the law that they came to accept equality in fact as well, not seeing that the second step was much bigger than the first. Equality under the law is a fine principle; equality in fact is neither a fine principle nor a true principle. In fact, it is demonstrably false. People are not equal in fact. People are extremely unequal, in every way imaginable. Even in science, where everyone is relatively smart and well educated, we see that some scientists are very poor, some are mediocre, and some are competent. Only a very few are excellent, by the definition of excellent. If you excel at something, you do it better than others, which means you all cannot be equal. And, as in every other field, the bigger numbers are in the lower levels. The poor and mediocre are the majority, while the competent are a minority. The excellent were always just a handful, and now they are probably not even that.
Once you remind people that is the way the world is, they normally say, “Yah, OK,” but they still don’t want to be seen saying it in public. Before 1920, a majority of people, men and women, said what I am saying here, and no one blinked an eye because it was common knowledge. But now you are all but forbidden from stating what everyone still knows, or should know. Politics has become a sort of peer pressure, and there is now pressure to ignore the truth and promote falsehoods. There is pressure to ignore the fact that people are unequal and to promote the idea that they are equal. Such a state of affairs is obviously unscientific, as well as unhealthy. When people are pressured to say things that conflict with their own eyes and their own experience, they lose all respect for what they say and what they see. When your words and your actions don’t coincide—and what is more when there are no consequences for this lack of coinciding—you lose all respect for the truth. You gain a sort of negative freedom: the freedom to say whatever you want and not care, the freedom to read anything, no matter how absurd, and not care. The freedom to drift, driven only by money and maybe the desire to be on TV.
We see this clearly in Lee Smolin’s TED lecture on democracy and science, which was just a short squishy bid for applause from a squishy modern audience. I encourage you to go to ted.com and read the transcript. Don’t listen to the speech, where you will be influenced by social cues, just read the transcript. It is truly awful in its lack of content. In its use of democracy as a method of cheap ingratiation, it reminded me of Dave Hickey and his various flag-wrapping lectures. Smolin uses relationships as the theme of the lecture, tying together physics, Darwinism, and democracy in the quickest, sloppiest method imaginable by telling us that are all “relational.” Relational? That is a meaningless modern word, used mainly as a verbal placebo. But we get twelve and a half minutes on that theme. You can say nothing important in that amount of time, and Smolin does all he can to prove that. I kept thinking, these people in the audience paid $6000 to listen to that? They could have gotten the same amount of modern boosterism for free from a chamber of commerce flier or a new car commercial. I also wondered if he even bothered to write this lecture down. It was the sort of informal nothing you can come up with off the top of your head, especially if you have had a couple of snorts.
He does have time to belittle hierarchies, in passing, as something that went out with Aristotle. He actually says, in talking about how things worked in the time of Aristotle and Christianity and medieval society (his words, not mine), “And the idea is that everything is defined.” Implying that definitions went out with orreries and thumbscrews. I find that interesting because it truly is the way new physicists think. I have commented on it many times before now. They appear to believe that everything is now undefined, that all is up for grabs. This is why they feel free to change not only the mathematical definitions but the definitions of words, every other decade. Everything is free-floating, including the spaces, the axioms, and the rules of consistency. All can be smeared in any direction, like an electron in a probability cloud. And what allowed for this freedom is democracy (cheers from crowd).
Sadly, the meatiest part of the lecture is the first sentence, and it pretty much unwinds from there. Smolin introduces himself to the audience by telling us that he is funded to the tune of 120 million dollars. That’s the real content of the lecture right there, and the rest is a denouement. He should have put a big sign behind him, with that amount on it in tall bright green letters, with flashing lights. Or, even better, he could have lectured while standing in a tub of hundred dollar bills. Once a modern audience sees that, they will cheer you for any series of words or belches.
Smolin’s lecture is a perfect encapsulation of the death of physics, but it isn’t the only one, by far. Just about any article taken at random out of Scientific American, Discover, Nature, Science, New Scientist, Physics Today, or any of the other science magazines will read like Smolin’s lecture. It will have near-zero content and will read more like propaganda than science. And I have already shown in many other papers how this applies to Wikipedia, the current queen of propaganda and disinformation. Because the modern interpretation of democracy has helped to kill physics, these journals and websites have no content to report. Lacking real news, they have to manufacture it, which they do with amazing levels of ingenuity. If anything like the energy that is put into fake science were put into real science, we would be dining off truffles on the Moon, under a baobab tree. Thus we see weekly reports on the famous string theorists, and near daily updates on what Hawking thinks of God. I always expect to be interrupted during the Super Bowl or the Presidential address with a special report on Hawking’s after-coffee musings. I begin to be surprised that his kleenexs aren’t saved and auctioned at Sothebys.
This would appear to conflict with my argument on hierarchies, but it doesn’t. These contemporary “geniuses” are allowed to exist and thrive only because they are a threat to nobody. They are good for business, since they give a face to the propaganda, and they never say anything that isn’t completely absurd or completely senseless. Instead of rattling on about black holes and God, Hawking could be rattling on about fairies and griffins and two-ended flugelhorns. The important thing is that he is talking about things that no one understands or cares about: as such, he is the perfect and quintessential wise man. Society as a compendium of fakeries has always been topped by a fake wise man of some sort or another, and most people aren’t fully satisfied by their ersatz existence unless it is justified by some holy fool, mouthing untranslatable syllables.
Despite this, and against all of the loudest evidence, I remain hopeful. Just as we see from history the general absurdity and inefficiency and waste, we also see that things sometimes get done, against all odds. Even when the tide is rushing with terrible strength to the south, you sometimes see a lonely bird flying just above it, traveling north on steady wings.