Take the Bad with the Good

So, the good news is, Gregg Easterbrook is writing about football for ESPN again. His “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” columns are some of the most entertaining football writing around. Here’s hoping he can make it through the whole season without saying something stupid to get himself fired.

The bad news is, Gregg Easterbrook is writing about science for Slate. Actually, Gregg Easterbrook writing about anything other than football is bad news, but science is particularly bad. His knowledge of the subject always seems to operate at the Star Trek sort of level– like he’s read the glossary of a bunch of general science books, but never really understood how it all fits together.

The basic article is a “string theory is a bunch of crap” piece (and Peter Woit is just thrilled), with the problematic paragraph being this one near the end:

Today if a professor at Princeton claims there are 11 unobservable dimensions about which he can speak with great confidence despite an utter lack of supporting evidence, that professor is praised for incredible sophistication. If another person in the same place asserted there exists one unobservable dimension, the plane of the spirit, he would be hooted down as a superstitious crank.

There are a lot of things to dislike about this, starting from the fact that it’s recycled. Most of the commentary on this paragraph, from the usual suspects, has complained about Easterbrook having the temerity to say anything positive about religion, but that’s not what bug me. he’s a religious guy, he can say nice things about religion if he likes. Hooting him down as a superstitious crank is sort of pointless.

The problem is, he’s chosen a particularly idiotic way of working religion into his column. I’m sure he just about dislocated a shoulder patting himself on the back for this zinger (he liked it so much, he used it twice, after all), but it works only because he uses the word “dimension” to mean two different things in the same sentence. In the context of string theory, “dimension” has a precise scientific meaning– roughly, “a direction of motion perpendicular to all other directions of motion.” In the context of religion, “dimension” is a metaphor.

Equating the scientific and “spiritual” meanings of dimension, the way Easterbrook does, makes about as much sense as saying “A big drop in stock prices could lead to a bear market, which would be bad because bears ripped apart that guy in Grizzly Man.” It lends a wonderful Lemony Snicket quality to the article, but doesn’t exactly mark him as a Deep Thinker.

(Drawing a parallel between this and the war-on-science misuse of terms like “theory” or “uncertainty” is left as an exercise for the reader.)

I wish people would stop hiring Easterbrook to write serious pieces, because I really enjoy his football stuff. Every time he writes about science, though, he comes off as a pinhead.

Comments

  1. #1 Jeremy Henty
    September 17, 2006

    Chad, your comment that “Peter Woit is just thrilled” is not true. If you read his blog you’ll see he pretty much agrees with you. Here’s a quote:

    The biggest mystery of all is why places like Slate and the New Republic have him writing about science, a topic he seems to know nothing about, and be actively hostile to. For once, Lubos Motl’s paranoid rantings about “anti-science” people who dislike string theory do actually have someone they legitimately apply to.

  2. #2 Chad Orzel
    September 17, 2006

    The “just thrilled” comment was sarcastic. Again, I lament the lack of a good way to signify that in text.

  3. #3 Jeremy Henty
    September 17, 2006

    The “just thrilled” comment was sarcastic.

    Oops, sorry. Since Woit is notorious for being critical of string theory it was an easy mistake to make.

  4. #4 Bill Hooker
    September 17, 2006

    Again, I lament the lack of a good way to signify that in text.

    An online community of which I used to be part uses what they call “in-line tags” as follows:

    @comment@ = schadenfreude; I’m poking fun at you
    ^comment^ = rimshot; I’m going for teh funny
    ~comment~ = bald faced lie; I mean pretty much the opposite of what I’m saying
    %comment% = confession; I’m owning up to something

    So, on that site, you could write “Peter Woit is ~just thrilled~” and your meaning would be crystal clear and unambiguous. The system does not, in practice, result in less subtle humour, because once you start using the tags there are all kinds of ways to subvert their meanings. It does, though, serve to reduce ambiguity. I rather wish it would be more widely adopted.

  5. #5 Patrick
    September 17, 2006

    The part I really love is how he claims the “plane” of the spirit consists of one dimension. I guess they define geometrical objects differently over there in the spirit world.

  6. #6 Clark
    September 17, 2006

    Years ago in high school my friends and I started adopting sarcasm tags like HTML to denote our intended meanings, but that’s just too much typing. Later on, in college, someone introduced me to the “sarcastion mark” (~!) as end punctuation. It’s simple, and since the ~ and the ! are next to each other, pretty easy to type.

  7. #7 Robert McNees
    September 17, 2006

    Easterbrook has a long history of saying stupid things about science. And, like you said, he’s really fond of his “plane of the spirit” bit. After reading his post on Slate I ended up posting in their discussion forums, mostly to respond to the part you mention:

    >>If another person in the same place asserted there exists one
    >>unobservable dimension, the plane of the spirit, he would be hooted
    >>down as a superstitious crank.

    No, they wouldn’t. They would politely tell the person that they are in the wrong building, and point them towards the divinity school. If the person persisted, maybe some sort of friendly debate over a cup of coffee would break out.

    In all of my years in physics departments, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of someone being “hooted down as a superstitious crank” just because they have religious beliefs. This is so, so dumb.

    >>But string theory seems to contain significant helpings of blather
    >>designed to intimidate nonscientists from questioning the budgets
    >>of physics departments and tax-funded particle accelerator labs.

    What? He really, honestly thinks physicists are trying to hide something from him. If he wants to know what we’re up to, I’ll be happy to explain it to him. But you know what? I will probably, at some point, have to use something more complex than NFL metaphors. That doesn’t mean I’m trying to intimidate him.

    Okay, wait, I’ll try:

    Dear Mr. Easterbrook,

    If we naively apply QFT to GR and try to predict the value of the cosmological constant, we get an answer that is really, really wrong. We are off by a factor of 10^120. To give you an idea of how big that number is, by the time “SuperBowl 10^120″ rolls around even the Lions will have won it at least once. So now you understand why it’s so important to study quantum gravity.

    Why do they keep letting him write about science?

  8. #8 Melissa
    September 18, 2006

    He also seems less-than-spiffy with counting: “Today if a professor at Princeton claims there are 11 unobservable dimensions about which he can speak with great confidence…”
    Now, I’m no physicist, but I thought for sure we had a fairly strong grasp on four of those “unobservable” dimensions.
    It’s these pesky details, I know…

  9. #9 Gary
    September 18, 2006

    As a mathematician with some little knowledge of the math used by string theory if not the physics that purports to be behind it, I would say that this:

    In the context of string theory, “dimension” has a precise scientific meaning– roughly, “a direction of motion perpendicular to all other directions of motion.”

    is a wee bit misleading if technically correct. rather I would simply leave it as saying dimension is something like a measure of the number of degrees of freedom needed to describe the situation i.e. more precisely we are told we need R^11 to describe the geometry that strings live in and no lower dimensional embedding into R^n, n<11 is supposed to exist.

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