5 Things I’ve Learned From Reading About Problems in Physics

One of my favorite things about getting an engineering degree was the amount of basic science classes I had to take. It gave me at least a dilettante’s knowledge of quite a few scientific fields, and I’ve always enjoyed using that background to keep at least half an eye on other scientific fields. Of all of those fields, my particular favorite is physics. I always loved physics in that “I’m so glad to see you, but let’s just be friends” kind of way, and I try to make sure I read at least a book or two a year about it.

A few months ago I read Lee Smolin’s book “The Trouble With Physics“, and was intrigued to read a breakdown of some of the current (well, ten years ago now) problems in the field. It got me pretty stressed out about string theory, which is not a problem I had expected to have that week. I digress. Anyway, this physics anxiety got a little worse when James over at I Don’t Know But posted about how physics needed some new ideas, and then he left me this link about the rather embarrassing 750 GeV diphoton excess incident. He compared the whole debacle to priming studies, which seemed fair. Anyway, since blogging is the primary way I deal with my science and statistics related anxiety problems, I thought I’d put together a post on why I actually love reading about issues in physics.  Ready? Let’s go!

  1. Reading outside your field gives you a new perspective on errors  Most of my working experience is in healthcare, and one of my degrees is in a psych field. When you’re familiar enough with your field, it can be pretty easy to figure out what all the most common errors are. Since professions tend to attract people who think similarly, it stands to reason that fields will all have certain errors they are particularly susceptible to. Reading outside your normal field is a good way of realizing what problems are actually pretty universal, which ones you may never have thought of, and (ideally!) how other fields have dealt with some problems. Additionally, it’s really easy to see the issues in fields that tend to capture headlines (psych, nutrition, etc), while other fields that are less accessible can seem like they don’t have any problems. Reminding yourself this isn’t true is kind of reassuring.
  2. Statistical noise is a problem for everyone One of the reasons I went in to statistics in the first place was the allure of how many different fields had to use it. At the time I loved the idea of learning a topic that basically every single discipline had to use. I still do. The link James mentioned originally was about a topic I won’t even pretend I can explain (750 GeV diphoton excess) but focused on a problem I’m REALLY familiar with: over-interpertation of statistical noise. Yeah, basically theoretical physicists published about 500 papers on a phenomena that appeared to be true but then didn’t replicate.  Oops. In their defense though, it was a really large anomaly in an area that was theoretically plausible and that they’d had success with before, which is pretty much the perfect storm for confirmation bias.
  3. So is failing to check basic assumptions. If I had to make a complaint about the way we teach  statistics to kids, I would argue that the biggest error we make is not emphasizing to them how important it is to check basic assumptions. Textbooks are always reminding you that you have to make sure assumptions x, y and z hold true before you can use certain equations….then they just let you assume all those things for the rest of the class and send you on your merry way. The real world doesn’t work like this.  That was evident back in May when a couple of retraction notices came out from the New Journal of Physics. There was no intentional misconduct, but the authors had assumed the data was symmetrical without checking that assumption. In Smolin’s book, he discusses a few fundamental string theory assumptions (mentioned in the second column on page 2 of this review) that didn’t actually have experimental evidence behind them, despite most people assuming otherwise.
  4. The goal is to push the limits. In my priming studies post, I mentioned that pushing the limits and studying the fringes of a field is a feature, not a bug. That sentiment is echoed in this interesting article about “The Data That Threatened to Break Physics“. It discusses the struggle of a researcher to cope with completely unexpected results that run contrary to conventional wisdom. In the case of superluminal neutrinos, the results turned out to be the fault of a faulty cable, but the lead researcher quite rightly asks what people thought he should have done differently. Suppressing a potentially controversial result is not really something we want to encourage, and the upshot of that may be that we end up with retractions. To quote the lead researcher: “The worst data are better than the best theory. If you look for reasonable results, you would never make a discovery, or at least you will never make an unexpected discovery”.
  5. Even when you stop studying people, you can’t get out of dealing with people. At it’s heart, science is as much about bias management as it is about discovery. It is really difficult to do much of the latter if you don’t do the former. In Smolin’s book, two of the most fascinating chapters were “How Do You Fight Sociology?” and “How Science Really Works” (covered a bit in this review). Smolin reviews how tenure, grant related politics and even just plain old ego and groupthink can influence what scientific theories get money and attention. All this occurs without any outside social pressure, since of course it doesn’t matter to most lay people if string theory is true or not. Smolin proposes that to counter this, universities should reserve some money/positions for those who are actually quite polarizing in their work. He proposes that we invest in scientific ideas like many stock market investors work: put most of your money in safe things, but put some of it on ideas that look a little nuts. Nicholas Nassim Taleb famously calls this “the black swan approach”. I’ve heard worse ideas.

So there you have it, and if you have any good physics book recommendations, I’m always looking!