Krauss on Horgan

May 19, 2016 • 12:15 pm
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:

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.

36 thoughts on “Krauss on Horgan

  1. I was waiting for a response to this. Thanks!! Here, I knew I would not be disappointed. Scientists rarely disappoints. Journalists, on the other hand…

  2. Horgan’s piece sounds like an old man sitting on his unwavering opinions writing words that make him feel good in his timeworn armchair.

    I could not discern, at all, what Horgan means by hard targets in science.

    The physics, as Krauss notes, he misrepresented what he thinks he knows as a tool to criticize, unjustly, real science. [I too, aesthetically, dislike string theory, that does not make it bad science.]

    The medicine, cancer research, biology, genetics, and evolution targets are not science. Public policy engineers most of the issues Horgan is concerned in these areas. Mature scientists who work in these fields don’t run around like a bunch of baboons because one of their colleagues makes a sexy title or press release for their work. Real scientists do the work and know what’s fluff and what’s substance.

    Horgan has a child’s mind when it comes to understanding science and he should take some of his own advice and reach for a hard target rather than speaking for the benighted pedestrians of the world.

  3. I will happily leave the speciality of gravitational fluctuations to Krauss. I wish I could do the same with inflationary multiverses:

    “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.”

    I will try to locate Krauss’s recent writings on this, but meanwhile I interpret this as two things after reading sundry papers on the subject (which technical level I of course don’t grok):

    – Detecting gravitational waves from inflation can discern between the two major inflationary regimes that spawn multiverses, Linde’s chaotic inflation and Steinhardt’s eternal inflation, and the ones that doesn’t.

    [Planck data rejects Linde’s chaotic inflation after the BICEP2/cosmic dust dust up. But that may potentially change as more data comes in. Such as gravitational wave detection.]

    – If gravitational waves constrain inflation to eternal inflation, multiverses will be predicted in the same way that black holes once was in GR. To further constrain their properties, such as eternal inflation fecundity, would take further observations of some kind.

    So multiverses being empirically testable may be a condition with some fluidity, as was long the case with black holes.

    [If Krauss reads this and I am wrong, it would be nice to be corrected, assuming he can take the time.]

    1. I can’t find anything recent of Krauss on multiverses, except that his book on gravitationaö fluctuations seems to describe inflationary multiverses as well. Here is a recent (or at least recently time stamped transcript) from Sam Harris interviewing Krauss on these topics:

      A 2014 short video excerpt seems to roughly support my interpretation:

      1. Prof. Krauss is likely referring to his new book which is not out yet, “The Greatest Story Ever Told”. The publishers are holding it until after the presidential election. 🙁

          1. Guess they don’t want to compete with the publicity of the presidential election. Probably won’t be out until March. Can’t believe it’s done and they are *making* me wait for it…lol.

    2. Oops:

      – I forgot the embedding problem! I rushed. Sorry.

      – “gravitationaö fluctuations” = gravitational fluctuations.

    3. see my paper with Wilczek, and my article accompanying BICEP paper in PRL.. where I talk about being able to test inflationary models in principle, end explore, among other things, for eternal inflation solutions..

            1. No probs…I’m actually one of the digital curators for a site on Wakelet with some other volunteers from the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science called “The Ultimate Collections Project”. We’re putting together pages for scientists and science communicators so that people can find more of their work. I’ve been working on Lawrence’s collection (and Christopher Hitchens as well).

              Still works in progress at the moment.


  4. Interesting stuff. I also wonder if Sean Carroll will respond, because I think Horgan’s flippant characterisation of what Carroll said on falsifiability defines the entire hit-piece.

  5. What I found strangest about the cross-check post was the war issue, which is addressed in the next WEIT post.

    Concerning this one, I read the Universe from Nothing with great pleasure and interest and learned a lot. I have to agree, however, that I do not see how it could be said to do what it set out to do, nor how it would ever be possible to achieve that (explaining why there is something rather than nothing).

    One can explain how a quantum fluctuation can make stuff appear from nothing, but that merely raises the question why there are quantum fluctuations, why there is ‘quantum’, why the ‘rules’ are the way they are and not different, e.g. why the rule isn’t that quantum fluctuations cannot happen. In the context of arguing about gods that is not even of concern, as leaving open the question where quantum comes from is surely better than leaving open the question where Jesus comes from, but still.

    1. There will always be a “next level why”. I don’t think we should be too worried as long as we base our answers to these “whys” on real evidence, rather than supernatural cop-outs.

      1. My “why” is, “Why should there be nothing in the first place?”

        All our experience is that “stuff exists”. So why wish for a “time” when no stuff did?


    2. Krauss’s argument was not intended as a hypothesis to explain how our reality really did begin. His intent was merely to demonstrate that staying within the naturalistic view of our reality as revealed by science that a plausible scenario can be constructed of how a universe could be created from the closest thing to nothing that science can infer. It was intended as a direct counter example to the “Something can not come from nothing” premise so adamantly used by theologians and apologists.

      That Krauss’s nothing is not the same nothing conceived by the theologians and apologists utilizing that premise to prove the existence of their god, is part of the point he was trying to make. His conception of nothing is supported by a huge mass of pretty good scientific evidence. The theologians’ conception of Nothing has no evidence to support it. It’s the difference between what nothing actually appears to be in reality and an unevidenced, conceived for the purposes of philosophical contemplation (i.e. pulled out of thin air, . . . Something from Nothing!), conception of reality.

      In other words his intent was never to play the game by their rules, but to stay within the bounds of what we can say with some confidence, due to evidence gleaned and vetted by the practice of science, is real. Why would anyone bound themselves by their rules? Their rules are clearly not a good way to determine “truths” about our reality.

      Of course, the above is merely my interpretation of what Krauss’s intentions were based on reading and listening to what he had to say about the book before and after it was published. I would never try and speak for him.

      1. Again, I liked the book and learned a lot. But what you describe there the ‘other side’ could also characterise as conflation, a dishonest debate tactic. And to put it into the most general terms, avoiding the word “nothing” for the moment, the point was not to find a conception of nothing that agrees with the evidence on what was there in the beginning, but to explain why whatever was there in the beginning was there in the beginning instead of something else. The book doesn’t do that.

        Apart from that, what musical beef wrote. I am not unsatisfied with the book, I am troubled with how it is sold as a “take that, philosophers and theologians” when those who say “wait a second, this doesn’t address what we say at all” are actually right (even if they may be completely wrong about everything else).

  6. Thank you to Professors Ceiling Cat and Krauss for responding to this sort of nonsense. I normally just read the email, but figured I would post a comment to show my appreciation and up the page view so our host knows that the science post are getting read as well.

  7. In reading Horgan (The End of Science as well as the latest screed) the one thing that struck me the most is that while science is self correcting, Horgan is actually quite the opposite.

    In less polite terms he is merely a very loud loon who knows not of which he speaks.
    Such willful ignorance invariably leads to a self sealing belief system that is immune to criticism.

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