Beware of geeks bearing predictions…

(Chapter draft)

Beware of geeks bearing predictions

Sometime in 2008 the World had a rude awakening. We learned about how abstract Wall Street investment instruments like Derivatives and Credit Default Swaps threatened the economy. Some of these were actually designed by physicists and mathematicians who saw a new fertile field in the financial arena to apply their skills. The renowned investor Warren Buffett wrote to his shareholders:

Constructed by a nerdy-sounding priesthood using esoteric terms such as beta, gamma, sigma and the like, these models tend to look impressive. Too often, though, investors forget to examine the assumptions behind the symbols. Our advice: Beware of geeks bearing formulas.

Our discussion thus far has been about experimenters. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the Big Bang theorists are blameless. But they are very much a party to the grand deception. So let us talk about the priesthood in cosmology.

Now, if I were a theoretician and had made some theoretical studies to predict that the star Alpha Centauri is made of antimatter, I would have a good gut feeling about how well-formed this prediction is. Is this an idea that can be handed over right away to the experimenters? Is this an idea ready for the investment of tens of millions of dollars of public funds? My conclusion would be that this is a very long shot, not worth spending great funds on. I would not want to be responsible for such a commitment. If some hotshots from big name universities came to me and said they wanted to make experimental verification of my prediction and that they would have no problem getting funds, I would gently dissuade them. That is what a theoretician’s responsibility is: To know in his physics gut what he has produced and not to oversell it and not to sit passively as funds are solicited by others for this purpose.

The Big Bang theoreticians likewise make theories and predictions. But when men like Alan Guth and Andrei Linde encourage – actively or passively – the lavishing of public money to verify their predictions, they are being irresponsible. For they have to know full well that their fanciful omphaloskepsis does not merit this expenditure. Either that, or they have no physics in their gut at all.

To make the above point more concrete, let me cite what Andrei Linde – in a recent unguarded confessional moment – said about his idea that the BICEP2 team was trying to verify:

I always live with this feeling: What if I believe in this just because it is beautiful?

And yet he condones the spending of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on his private fantasy.

Suppose in the example about Alpha Centauri, some people went ahead anyway and collected satellite evidence that I am right. Would I exalt over it? No. I would have grave doubts even though it is my own theory that has reportedly been verified.

But the inflation theorists gloried (in the noble way they glory) when they heard about the BICEP2 confirmation of their ideas. Again, Andrei Linde’s comment here is revealing:

If this is true, this is a moment of understanding of nature of such a magnitude that it just overwhelms,…

We have here scientists that have been prematurely put on such lofty pedestals that they could not develop a sense of an intellectual’s responsibility vis-à-vis the society down below.


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