Fake Physics

By woit

2016 so far wins my lifetime award for most depressing and disturbing year ever (on the front of the larger world one reads about in the newspaper and elsewhere, personally things are fine, thanks). Perhaps the most disturbing thing has been seeing the way in which people’s access to information about the larger world has become more and more dominated by what has become known as “Fake News”: stuff which is not true, but which someone with an agenda successfully gets others to believe. This is a problem that goes far beyond obvious nonsense fed to rubes on Facebook, to the point of including what a lot of my well-educated colleagues believe because they read it on the front page of the New York Times.

I have no idea what to do about this larger problem and no intention of further discussing it here. I’ve started to come to the conclusion though that the most disturbing trend in theoretical physics of recent years may best be understood as a related phenomenon: “Fake Physics”. The first few weeks of 2017 are seeing a flood of examples of what I have in mind, including for instance:

Note that the above examples are just ones written by physicists or reporting claims of physicists, there are also philosophers, theologians and others putting out similar articles, although without the claims to scientific authority coming from the physicists.

Fake Physics VII just appeared and is rather bizarre. It essentially argues that the idea of assuming a Multiverse and using it to make statistical predictions doesn’t work. But instead of drawing the obvious conclusion (this was a scientifically worthless idea, as seemed likely to most everyone else), the argument is that we need a “revolution in our understanding of physics” that will make the idea work.

Fake Physics shares several characteristics with Fake News:

  • It’s clickbait. While getting anyone to pay attention to the solution of a difficult technical problem in quantum field theory is likely to be nearly impossible, topics like “What happened before the Big Bang?” and “Did you know that there’s someone exactly identical to you somewhere else in the multiverse, and they’re dating Scarlet Johansson?” are sure crowd-pleasers. This motivates some physicists, and even more journalists, with the latter having the much better excuse that their livelihood depends on getting people to click on their stories.
  • It’s a propaganda tactic designed to mask failure. The main reason for the current mania for the Multiverse is the failure of the string theory unification program. Some who have invested their lives in this program have decided to use this sort of Fake Physics as an excuse to avoid admitting failure.
  • The group driving this is small but determined, ideology-driven and well-funded by rich people with an ax to grind. The majority of the community is unwilling to take on the unpleasant and unrewarding task of challenging them. While Multiverse Fake Physics plays a large role in media coverage of fundamental physics, partially because of funding from the Templeton Foundation, there are very few actual papers on the subject and “research” in this area is a small fraction of what theorists are doing. Most physicists just hope that if they ignore this it will go away.

Unfortunately Fake Physics is not going away, but becoming ever more widespread. While I don’t know what to do about Fake News, I think there still is a chance to successfully fight Fake Physics and hope others will help with this.

Update: There’s more

  • Fake Physics IX explains that the Many Worlds multiverse and the cosmological multiverse are one and the same. Sean Carroll is featured.
  • Fake Physics X includes the following from Carroll:

    David Chalmers does a wonderful job at making an important point: “A virtual world is just as real as a physical world.”… what’s real to one person might be virtual to someone else.

People at Hacker News are discussing this. There I’m accused of “misleading people” by making them think the cosmological multiverse is the same thing as the Many Worlds interpretation. Oy.

Update: Thanks to a commenter for pointing out Fake Physics XI, courtesy of Science Friday. As usual, the same vigorous ideologues promoting Fake Physics, the same dearth of voices pointing out the problems with it.