Wednesday, June 3, 2015

String Theory and Obamacare

Sometimes we must take people's word for it. No, that's not true. Nearly always we take people's word for it. The unreliable data accumulated by our five flimsy senses account for very little of what we know. Virtually all knowledge is second-hand, yet we strangely persist in assuming that our conclusions are our own.

But then there's string theory, the ultimate brick wall for glib opining. Even the slickest poseur can't bluff an opinion, because every part of string theory is hermetically ungraspable without years of training in advanced math. Einstein once said that if a concept can't be explained to a six year old, that means you, yourself, don't understand it. But it's possible that Einstein's dictum doesn't disprove string theory; rather, string theory disproves Einstein's dictum (much as it's turned out that God does, in fact, play dice).

If you, like me (and a sizable number of physicists), are inclined toward Einstein's take, and feel a visceral sense that the tortured complexity of string theory stems from a titanic kludge perpetrated by blinkered, math-happy cosmologists, check out this very interesting Quora answer from physicist David Simmons-Duffin, who takes an interesting tack. He doesn't attempt to explain, much less defend, string theory. Rather, he meta-explains it, by conveying a sense of how it looks to those with the mathematical skills to really understand it.

Rather than argue the theory's merits, Simmons-Duffin eases us past the suspicion that it's a labored kludge. Since we can't be convinced by the hard facts normally used to support scientific arguments, he offers us a right-brained, non-scientific treatment which opens us to the possibility that his side of the argument at least merits serious consideration. It's a remarkable feat for a scientist, really; not what you'd expect from someone "blinkered".

An evocative look at an expert's perspective is far more helpful than piddling attempts to help us grasp the theory itself. With no hope of understanding, it's that much more obvious that our only course is to decide whose conclusions to accept. It may be more important to cannily vet our experts than to weightily consider the facts.

There's a political analogy. Practically no one has read through, say, The Affordable Care Act, yet everyone seems to hold a staunch opinion. We line up behind trusted experts on nearly everything, yet, again, we presume our conclusions to be our own. Maybe we ought to spend less time indignantly putting forth our borrowed opinions, and more time considering which experts we ape. This choice very often stems from confirmation bias, so ideally we'd choose to listen much more sympathetically to experts who don't share our assumptions.

1 comment:

shel emm said...

Obamacare is a huge, somewhat scary undertaking and a landmark achievement, But it is still a compromise. Very much a Republican solution co-opted by Obama. Not sure there is any other way to look at it.

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