28 July 2013


Jim Baggott. Farewell to Reality. Constable, 2013.

Alexander Unzicker and Sheilla Jones. Bankrupting Physics: How Today’s Top Scientists are Gambling Away Their Credibility. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

We are used at Magonia to hearing complaints that 'Western materialist science' is stifling imagination and a sense of wonder. Now here are two books saying the opposite; that theoretical physicists are letting their imagination run away with them and are engaging in metaphysics, which is the sort of stuff that has been denounced by writers in Magonia as 'deserts of idle speculation', or perhaps 'backyard theology'.
This is true hard-core scepticism and is actually tackling the big boys and girls and not the sort of candy-snatching and telling the children that Santa Claus doesn’t exist that we tend to get from CSICOP. It will be interesting to see how the 'skeptic' community will react to this neo-scepticism, which gives an indication of being something of a movement. In the case of String Theory in particular it is interesting to note that the kind of quasi-theological arguments between believers and sceptics, which had previously been almost the private preserve of the paranormal and Fortean fields, are starting to develop in something much more mainstream.

In the first part of his book Baggott examines the scope of more or less established modern physics, the sort of stuff, which however weird it gets, does have solid experimental support. Baggott argues that science can never reveal absolute metaphysical reality because it describes the world revealed to our scenes, either directly or through our instruments. This is a difficult section, but well worth persisting in. Baggott discusses the various problems associated with quantum mechanics, and the apparent paradoxes produced, such as the notorious Schrödinger’s cat.

It is when science goes beyond what can be experimentally tested that Baggott draws the line, and his ire is drawn by a range of modern speculative physics including string theory, M-theory, 'branes', the multiverse, many worlds and the anthropic principal. Not only are many of these theories currently untestable, argues Baggott, but they do not lead to any predictions which are specific enough to be even theoretically testable. He appears to have a particular animus against Stephen Hawking and the late Carl Sagan, though the latter was not associated with any of these topics.

Unzicker is even more scathing than Baggott, often resorting to personalities. His book is easier to follow, in that he or his co-author/translator has cut it up into bite sized sections. He shares Baggott’s lack of enthusiasm for string theory, but sets his critical net much wider, ranging from the existence of the Higg’s particle, all the way through to the existence of quarks, and dates what he sees as physicists fundamental breach with experimental reality much further back, to the development of quantum electrodynamics in the 1940s, which he sees as the start of the takeover of physics by mathematicians.

Unzicker argues that a kind of herd mentality is operating in physics, backed up by the censorship of dissident opinions by the major online peer reviewed physics site ar.Xiv.org. He also notes the role of individuals and organisations which give grants for research such as the Templeton Foundation and Yuri Milner.

Both main authors are outsiders in the field. Baggott was once a lecturer in chemistry and is now a freelance “business consultant”, while Unzicker has studied physics, law and neuroscience and is now a gymnasium (i.e. equivalent to a UK grammar school) teacher. Whether this is the result or the cause of their dissatisfaction with the mainstream is not clear.
It would appear however that there is a growing dissident movement within physics, and it will be interesting to see where it leads. Perhaps this is where the Fortean and 'Skeptic' finally meet. -- Peter Rogerson.


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