Scott wrote a blog post about the Kolmogorov option, which is really not a comment about the recent Google affair.
As usual, the comments went in different directions and there was one thread about Galileo. Perhaps this part is interesting enough to get its own blog post here:

i) At the time of Galileo there were basically two different cosmologies, described by Ptolemeus and Copernicus respectively. The first was considered obviously true, but the one by Copernicus was much simpler and used by most astronomers and astrologers (which was to some extent the same at the time).

ii) The invention of the telescope and Galileo's observation of the Venus phases clearly falsified Ptolemeus and this was well understood not only by Galileo, but also contemporary astronomers, e.g. the Jesuits in Rome.
Galileo found even more evidence in favor of Copernicus, e.g. his discovery of Jupiter's moons, and argued that the tides are proof that the earth rotates.

iii) The church insisted that ultimately the truth can only be revealed through the theology of the catholic church as stated by the pope. However, Galileo was given permission to write about the Copernican theory, as long as he treated it as hypothesis only; Urban's favorite argument was that the omnipotent God could produce the same phenomenon in many different ways.
Galileo got into real trouble when Urban was led to believe that the Epilogue to the Dialogue made fun of his favorite argument.

Urban's reasoning is of course correct; we can never be absolutely sure about scientific results. There is always room for an infinity of conspiracy theories, perhaps physics is just an illusion and we only experience some hallucinations inside The Matrix.
This type of argument is becoming more popular recently, thanks to the internet, and perhaps mankind will one day give up on Galileo and fully embrace Urban's view. However, the absolute certainty and power of the church is forever gone in my opinion.

Galileo was not tortured, probably because he had friends in high places (even Urban was one of them before the falling out over the Dialogue).
One should keep in mind that torture was assumed at the time to be a necessary procedure to remove the evil demons from the accused, so that he or she could freely speak his mind. The inflicted pain was not the goal, but a sign that the evil was indeed leaving the body.
As far as we know, Galileo was only "shown the instruments", which was enough for him to confess.
Nowadays, shaming on social media platforms serves a similar purpose.


Lee said...

>> and perhaps mankind will one day give up on Galileo

I don't think there was ever a time where popular culture in any place (country) embraced Galileo. That's frustrating and annoying and can leave one in despair, but it hasn't prevented some relatively small fraction of the population from finding, as Deutsch would say, explanations that have reach. I think that will continue regardless of all the stupidities that will continue to abound.

wolfgang said...

Again, I have only my untrustworthy memories, but in the 70s and 80s science got much more respect than today imho. Perhaps this was natural after the success of e.g. the Apollo program and perhaps a consequence of the cold war.
And I remember tv programs for children that actually tried to teach science ...

Lee said...

>> but in the 70s and 80s science got much more respect than today imho.

Maybe you're right. Or maybe you remember it that way just because you were young and enthralled with science. The reason I say that is because that's the way I feel about the 50s and 60s, but don't have that feeling about the 70s and 80s.

wolfgang said...


I think I do have some real evidence.
Look at high energy physics (for lack of a better term), which was a still Galileo's science in the 1980s: theory + experiment.
Nowadays, theory and speculation are so far ahead of experiments, that they are effectively decoupled. As a result we get people like Michio Kaku, Lee Smolin or Sean Carroll who basically tell us stories which begin with physics and end with some fantasies that may or may not have any relationship to the real world.
We don't know if the world is supersymmetric, I doubt loop quantum gravity is correct and there is zero evidence for a multiverse. But the arxiv fills up with papers about all that, which nobody bothers to check or peer-review and which will never see an experimental test.

In the 1980s accomplished physicists wrote pop.sci. books like Weinberg's 3 minutes or Feynman's autobiography and compare that with what we get now.
Or compare Sagan's Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson's version.

Sci.Am was a pop.sci. magazine that was serious enough that one could reference it in a paper, now it seems to compete with the National Enquirer about who can come up with the more mind bending story.
Meanwhile science clowns like Bill Nye are doing their best to degrade science to just another form of bad entertainment.

Outside of physics it is even worse and from biology to psychology it is a fair assumption that large parts of the literature are simply not reproducible.
And of course there is politics, which invades science more and more, from vaccination to climate change.

But perhaps I am just getting old, yet another grumpy old man who yells at the kids trampling over his science lawn ...
Perhaps I am just nostalgic about the good old times, when physicists used VAX and Fortran instead of iPhones and twitter.

Lee said...

I remember those times very differently. It was a time of linkage of quantum mechanics to Eastern mysticism of some sort. I think Capra's book is still popular. Guys like Susskind and Feynman were hanging out with Werner Erhard and Feynman was giving seminars at the Esalen Institute. New Age and quantum mechanics were linked in the minds of much of the population. I remember the same feeling of despair that I often have now.

Sci.Am had deteriorated from a magazine where at least in biology, real science was being published to a popular science magazine. I don't know who Bill Nye is so can't comment on that.

Nothing much new has happened in HEP for at least 40 years. As far as I can tell we're still a very long way away from having a useful theory of quantum gravity and CERN hasn't found anything beyond the Standard Model to help. So what can you expect the HEP people to write about other than highly speculative and almost certainly wrong ideas.

Solid state physics has made significant progress and many of the most interesting physics questions are now in biology. Those areas of physics are way more complicated than HEP. No nice explanatory models where the math is simple enough to work, and not easy to write popular books about. The same goes for chemistry. New knowledge is being created in chemistry all the time, but there are very few popular books about chemistry because it's for the most part not simple.

Politics has always invaded science. The areas it invades change over time, but I can never remember a time when politics didn't play a significant role in which areas of science received funding and which areas didn't. In the 70s they were funding esp research because it was popular with the public because of guys like Capra.

I was old enough that I didn't think the original Cosmos series was that great. But it evidently inspired lots of young people, so I applaud it. If Tyson's version inspires young people then I applaud it too. If Capra's book inspired young people then I applaud it too even though I found it personally repugnant and it left me feeling that ignorance will always prevail.

wolfgang said...


many good points, in particular about interesting physics and science outside of hep.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

You did a bit of a drive by on biology, but I think it is where the action is in science today. The complex networks that make life possible are steadily being unravelled and illuminated. It looks like the problem of the origin of life is getting slightly less murky, and the nature of memory and thought doesn't look as impenetrable as it used to be.

Physics may be stymied, at least for the moment, but cosmology has become a full fledged science with both key discoveries and key mysteries.

wolfgang said...


yes, there is progress in science, but I am worried about the quality and attitude going forward. If Q is the quantity of scientific discoveries and q the quality of research results, my hypothesis is that q is declining, while Q is increasing and soon Q*q may be declining as well. Of course, there will always be mistakes, but I really worry about the attitude of scientists today and even more in the future.

I give you three recent examples: One was reading the book of Nobel prize winner Kahneman; it turned out that several of the "groundbreaking results" he described are not reproducible.

My daughter told me about a study she was part of at her university and unfortunately they have to do it again, because they did not get the results the professor expected.

And finally, take a look at recent comments at Scott's blog, where we witness a well known string theorist, who knows very little about basic statistics beyond the word "sigma".

There are of course good reasons for q declining, let me just mention a few:

i) Mass universities with increasing numbers of students producing a flood of thesis papers, which are just not interesting enough that anybody really bothers to check them.

ii) Specialization, which means e.g. that a string theorist just does not have the time to learn or practise statistics if it is not needed.

iii) Scientific research nowadays requires computers, detectors, etc. and often large teams developing and using them - in other words, science requires more and more money.
It is not surprising that those research teams need to justify their funding with results. Once the million dollar satellite is in space, it better finds the dark matter particle or at least a hint that it could be there ...

Lee said...

>> it turned out that several of the "groundbreaking results" he described are not reproducible.

If you haven't already read the link below, it might be of interest to you. If you do read it, I'd appreciate it if you'd let us know if you think it is consistent with your ideas as you describe them above, or is he talking about something totally different from the thing that bothers you.

Btw, I think that the body of real knowledge in the population is so large that it is impossible for a given individual to be anywhere close to expert except in an extremely narrow range of some sub-field of an area of study. That is part of the reason that a string theorist may not be great in statistics. As you say it's not required, and one has to prioritize because we have very limited capacity.

wolfgang said...


I read the blog post you link to and it is quite amazing - in particular the story about the two parapsychologists, one a skeptic and one a believer, who performed experiments together.

The short version: Experimental science is really hard and becomes harder the more complicated the experiments or the observed phenomenon.

This brings me to my biggest worry: The more complicated our experiments and the more sophisticated our theories become the larger we should make q (which I introduced above as shorthand for quality). But instead I think that we see an increase in Q (the quantity of results) and a decrease in q.

As you write also, the increase in Q causes its own problems: specialization, lack of adequate reviews etc.

Lee said...

>> in particular the story about the two parapsychologists

I think that story should be at least somewhat troubling to anybody trying to do experimental science, and especially I suppose psychology.

>> The more complicated our experiments and the more sophisticated our theories become the larger we should make q

That's very hard to disagree with, but compliance with that ideal is I think extremely difficult for we humans to consistently achieve. For me the real question is among all of the nonsense and confusion in science, are advances in knowledge still being made? I believe the answer to that question is still pretty clearly yes. I'm somewhat comforted by that belief.