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The Grand Design and other Explanations without Explanation

  1. Sep 11, 2010 #1


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    Explaining without explanation

    Go into any bookshop (at least in the UK) ad under Popular Science you will find Science majorly represented by things like String Theory and then maybe Cosmology and Prime Numbers or very fundamental (particle) physics and then quantum philosophy. There is far less interest in things you might suppose concern the citizen (or should) say DNA technology, cloning, genetic engineering, environmental and climate change issues. In other words they are not representative of present day Science as a whole. (That said, popular science magazines cast their net much wider. But they would soon run out of material otherwise.)

    Possibly my impression is unbalanced because I myself am a sucker for these books. At one time I seemed to have bought about half of all of them.

    I would not even be too snobbish about this. As I say I am a sucker myself. Why something non-mundane appeals was explained by Hardy. You have to remember why some people get interested in science at all. There is nothing to be gained by telling the public ‘most of it is duller than that’.

    But what gets to me after a bit is the amount of what I call ‘explanation without explanation’. Handwaving. I doubt that anyone not a physicist who already understands the theory in a professional way can really understand the popular 'explanations' of the Standard Model, though you get to know the music, there are these quarks that have ‘colours’ and you, well they, can make certain predictions which are/are not verified. How these things can be predicted, renormalized – you meet a lot about that and just learn it is done- no idea how. The worst examples I have seen are pop number theory. Several books recount the story of how two Japanese famously conjectured that all snarks are boojums (might as well be that) and that leads through many equally semi-defined steps and terms to proving Fermat’s last theorem.

    I do not say this is all bad. It informs the reader what has been going on important in the mathematical/scientific world or a sector of it. Rightly what it is about and that is something (and something most scientists are bad at BTW). You get the interesting biographies and human stories and it is made personal which is good not bad. It is fascinating to read even when you aren't really told what a snark or a boojum is; perhaps handwaving is more fascinating than real science.

    But there is a problem. No doubt it has all to do with mathematics. But I wonder if better explaining jobs could not be done.

    For example
    Anyway I have had enough. I don’t think I’ll buy any more books like that. A book I intend not to buy, which seems the worst handwaving is The Grand Design which as everyone knows is by Stephen Hawking and some other guy.

    There is a masterpiece of a review of it here which attacks this sort of thing http://www.economist.com/node/16990802

    22 years ago “then we would know the mind of God.” But the professor didn’t mean it literally. God played no part in the book, which was renowned for being bought by everyone and understood by few

    Whereas now cosmological “string” …if it is confirmed by observation, “we will have found the grand design.” … And once more we are told that we are on the brink of understanding everything.

    The authors may be in this enviable state of enlightenment, but most readers will not have a clue what they are on about. … whenever the going threatens to get tough, the authors retreat into hand-waving, and move briskly on to the next awe-inspiring notion.

    Like the explanations without explanation there are jokes … only without the laughs.

    Philosophy – tables turned Another point I lurved in this reviewer his knowledgeable counter-attack on the authors’ very amateurish philosophy. We often get straw man attacks on philosophy on this site and of course scientists in academia are prone to it too. Often in the form of telling someone asking fundamental questions sometimes, as well as others asking stupid ones, that they are 'doing philosophy not science’. You get the impression that they imagine philosophy must be roughly the same thing as bad poetry.

    The quotes:
    The authors rather fancy themselves as philosophers, though they would presumably balk at the description, since they confidently assert on their first page that “philosophy is dead.”

    It is hard to evaluate their case against recent philosophy, because the only subsequent mention of it, after the announcement of its death, is, rather oddly, an approving reference to a philosopher’s analysis of the concept of a law of nature, which, they say, “is a more subtle question than one may at first think.” There are actually rather a lot of questions that are more subtle than the authors think. It soon becomes evident that Professor Hawking and Mr Mlodinow regard a philosophical problem as something you knock off over a quick cup of tea after you have run out of Sudoku puzzles.

    … Once upon a time it was the province of philosophy to propose ambitious and outlandish theories in advance of any concrete evidence for them. Perhaps science… has indeed changed places with philosophy

    Could we do a bit? We do not have a specific book review sector here though suitability for persons of different books are often discussed. Perhaps room for reviewing pop books too?

    Just some ideas for reaction.
    Last edited: Sep 11, 2010
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  3. Sep 11, 2010 #2


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    Last pop sci book I read was Elegant Universe by Brian Greene. That was about five or six years ago. The discussion on newton's bucket in the beginning was interesting, but then it became more of a book on "alluring consequences of unconfirmed theories" which wasn't very alluring.
  4. Sep 12, 2010 #3
    Hawking seem to provide the very opposite of an explanation without an explanation; he is trying to explain the universe by reference to unintelligent and unintentional natural processes.

    When he talks about how "philosophy is dead", he may mean the unempirical or sometimes anti-empirical forms of philosophy or theology.

    The review you are citing was written by an upset theist who could not on an emotional level accept the statement that we can explain the universe without resorting to a cosmic designer. Hawking did not state that no such designer exists, rather that science can explain reality without it. This should be no more surprising than the fact that science can explain clogged toilets without referring to anything supernatural. Sure, in theory, maybe clogged toilets are caused by satanic agency, but science can explain and make predictions without having to resort to such entities.
  5. Sep 12, 2010 #4


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    What he has actually objected to is not that we could explain the universe but that the man who purportedly has done so, or something like, fails to explain the explanation to us.

    And that it is "physics by sound-bite".

    "unempirical or sometimes anti-empirical forms of philosophy or theology." is in my opinion a straw man. Theology was not mentioned in the article. The concept of "law of nature" is a typical subject for philosophical examination whether you call that empirical or not.

    Two things that struck a chord for me were explanation without explanation, and the tendency of scientists to erect a strawman and call it philosophy.

    One does not need to go into subjects with obvious theological fallout for the first of these, I have mentioned the Standard model, renormalisation (possibly too technical to explain, still as it is remarkable to turn something infinite into something finite I would like to see more of attempt to explain the idea of how you do it) and the Shimura and Taniyama snark-boojum conjecture and what is built on and around it.
  6. Sep 12, 2010 #5


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    I know nothing about the specific case, but I agree that, in general, scientists make a lot of assertions in pop sci books that they wouldn't (shouldn't?) be able to make in the research papers they submit.

    But such pop sci books are well accepted as entertainment-only in my mind.
  7. Sep 13, 2010 #6


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    It is a very helpful idea. I wonder how limited some explanations with words must be.
  8. Sep 14, 2010 #7
    As much as Hawking criticizes philosophy he also can't seem to stop himself from making philosophical statements and, invariably, they are so piss poor it boggles the imagination. For example, he once stated that he believed in fatalism, but it would be insane to act as if we don't have free will. To quote Will Smith in "I, Robot"
    he has to be the "Dummest smart person I know!"

    Unfortunately most physicists that I've run across don't really know much about philosophy but, interestingly enough, most of the greats in history like Einstein and Heisenberg were quite decent philosophers. We don't expect most philosophers to be great physicists so I don't consider it reasonable to expect all physicists to be great philosophers either.

    The last really good pop science book I read was Machio Kaku's "Hyperspace" which I enjoyed as much for its literary merits as anything else. He also had the most concise description of Standard theory I've ever come across which is no small feat.
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