John Horgan was a respected science writer years ago up until he wrote a book entitled The End of Science, which essentially argued that much of physics had departed from its noble traditions and now had ventured off into esoterica which had no relevance to the real world, and would result in no new important discoveries—of course, this was before the discovery of an accelerating universe, the Higgs Boson, and the recent exciting discovery of gravitational waves!. Since then I and most of my colleagues have ignored his writing, but I’m violating that rule because Jerry asked if I wanted to add something about physics in a response to Horgan’s attacks on the work of other respected colleagues in different fields.
In his tract Horgan alludes to past criticisms he has echoed of some physics ideas in my recent book. I was amused when he admitted that he hadn’t actually read it when he met with me for dinner last year after a dialogue I had on stage with his partner Robert Wright in NY. I spent much of that dinner explaining to him that the claim that I merely equate nothing with quantum fields in empty space was wrong—a criticism that a number of people who also hadn’t read the book, including the Archbishop of Sydney, have repeated with the same lack of understanding. In particular, near the end of a book primarily devoted to discussing 40 years of revolutionary empirical discoveries in cosmology, I explored the idea of how quantum gravitational fluctuations might allow spacetimes themselves to spontaneously appear, and in so doing could produce universes that resemble our own. In this case space, time, and everything that now comprises our universe simply wouldn’t have existed in advance—and in this case the use of ‘in advance’ is colloquial because time itself might not have existed in our universe before such a fluctuation. This fascinating possibility might occur independent of whatever else might or might not exist in other spaces. I explained the details to Horgan, but the next day he just repeated the old claims in writing, apeing Robert Wright’s confusions and not even mentioning our discussion. Empirical data doesn’t seem to get in the way of his writing.
In this regard—and happily having nothing to do with my own work—Horgan egregiously repeats in his piece an ignorant comparison of string theory and multiverses to astrology. He correctly notes that these ideas can’t be experimentally probed at present, but incorrectly claims they are not falsifiable. It is of course true that at the present time these ideas cannot be directly probed, but the same was true of the Higgs Boson in 1964 when it was proposed, or of dark energy when we first argued it might actually dominate the energy of the universe, or of gravitational waves when Einstein proposed their existence in 1916. String theorists, whatever one might say about the hyperbole that has been associated with their work, have been working very hard for several decades to find ways to connect their work to the real world. The fact that they have not yet been successful does not diminish the significance of the effort, nor the fact that, unlike astrologers, they are attempting to extend very successful and beautiful theories that do work into new domains. Moreover the phenomenon of inflationary production of multiverses, as I recently wrote about at length and explained to Horgan at dinner, might actually be empirically testable if we can detect gravitational waves from Inflation. Horgan’s sensational claims demean the efforts of hundreds of scientists who are doing good science—which may not succeed. But science is never guaranteed in advance to succeed! This, it seems to me, is the nobility of the effort. Horgan’s mind, however does seem to be made up in advance—not the sign of a credible journalist but rather a blogger with an axe to grind.
Lawrence Krauss, Michael Shermer, and Steve Pinker have written responses to John Horgan’s splenetic Scientific American blog post arguing that skeptics are criticizing the Wrong Things. Lay off Bigfoot, homeopathy, global warming, and GMOs, he says; we should be going after physics, medicine, and—war! (Horgan seems to have overlooked pervasive skepticism of physics and medicine.)
One of Horgan’s targets was Lawrence Krauss. Here, Krauss responds; quoted with permission: