Wine bores discover physics
But Bog.Bros. remain at large
When irrationality abounds, what can we turn to but science?
The Bogadanov Brother's faux physics breakthrough - detailed here last week - may have proved too hot a potato for the New York Times science editor to pursue, but this minor but sensational story is now gaining some traction with mainstream media. Or at least one reporter, who was brave enough to step on ground where Einstein's biographer dared to tread.
The Bog.Bros are two French TV presenters who have gained PhDs in theoretical physics and successfully published academic papers in the rigorously peer-reviewed scientific journals. Alerted to what looked, walked and quacked like a hoax, last week we posed the question "is this nonsense?" and, we've watched fascinated as the story has unfolded. Or, more accurately, has failed to unfold.
But now the tedious tweedy lit aggregator Arts and Letters Daily - a kind of after hours smoking club for people who haven't yet discovered the oxygen that's Robot Wisdom - kindly linked to our story in its "Note Bene" sidebar (there's a lot of Latin sprinkled around this site, you see, for added gravitas), an emboldened reporter is on the case.
In his terrific investigative report reporter Richard Monastersky adds much valuable material to the public record, citing some damning critiques of the physics establishment's methodologies.
"They're sort of stringing together plausible-sounding sentences that add up to nothing," reports John Baez, who brought the Bog.Bros. to the world's attention in a Usenet newsgroup.
(Ah, well this much we can relate to, with our years of experience dealing with computer marketing representatives, speaking gwana-gwana [scroll to end if you're new to The Register's argot.])
MIT's Frank Wilczek, the editor of Annals of Physics, which published one of the Bog.Bros.' papers, agrees the peer-review system is "ass backwards".
Well, OK - that has a very specific meaning in the bathhouses of my adopted home town, but what can the rest of us deduce from it?
This story is fascinating because it raises a couple of questions.
Firstly, are there so few qualified physics scientists dealing in this abstract realm that a false claim can't be quickly nailed?
And secondly, are there so few mediators - science editors, and the like - who can offer a qualified opinion on the value of this science before the idea passes into popular acceptance?
You've seen how lazy evolutionary psychologists ("we once lived in caves, we raped… we must rape now - it's in our genes!") have perverted Darwinism into a hack pseudoscience fit only for Oprah prime-time TV. See Alas Poor Darwin for the most succinct refutation of this. But we digress only a little.
Almost all of the debunking in the Bog.Bros. case has come from Usenet posters and experts working independently - Dr Arkadiusz Jadczyk (no enthusiastic amateur) has been adding comments each day on his webpage. The traditional intermediaries have remained silent.
In the case of the Bog.Bros., the New York Times looked, and ducked - but if science is to maintain its cherished status against an Internet-full of gibberish and irrationality it needs defenders made of sterner stuff.
Now what this and the Sokhal case both have in common isn't abstract: both are questioning whether we are entitled to say that there's an objective reality. This is a useful construct we can all understand. When, say, you're high and off you're tits on Ya-Ba and about to jump from a fourteenth floor window, for example.
I appreciated the value of objective reality just the other day at the dry cleaners: I was charged only once for cleaning my suit, which was a relief, as I'd budgeted for paying in 25 parallel universes.
The most disturbing quote in Monastersky's report is the following:-
"In hindsight, the weakness is that there were no real experts" on the committee, says Mr. Verbaarschot. "Maybe there are no real experts in what they are doing. What they are doing is so far out of the mainstream."
Irrationality abounds, and you physicists must start making sense.®