April 14, 2022 | David F. Coppedge

How to Become an Expert in Ignorance

A theoretical physicist is proud of all the things she doesn’t know.
Her story points to serious problems in our education system.

 

There’s no doubt that this graduate is intelligent. She had to be to get through one of the most rigorous science programs at some of America’s most prestigious universities. She can work advanced calculus. But what does she know? Not much.

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein describes herself as a “theoretical physicist and feminist theorist.” In a column in New Scientist posted April 13, 2022, she remarked, “I’m particularly interested in how race and gender shape how physics happens.” (We hope that the use of feminine pronouns will not offend her.)

Part of what makes my intellectual life interesting is that I do research not only in physics and astronomy, but also in social studies of science. On the social studies side, I’m particularly interested in how race and gender shape how physics happens, and while thinking about this, I often run into the question of language: how does it influence the ways that people from different communities relate to science? Believe it or not, this is what first came to mind when a reader wrote in to ask why I work on dark matter instead of dark energy.

Scientifically, it is a fair question, but I wondered whether the juxtaposition only existed in the reader’s mind because both contain the word “dark”. In some ways, that is pretty much the only thing they have in common: the use of the word “dark” to say “we as scientists can’t see it and don’t know what’s going on”.

She titled her column, “Why I’m choosing dark matter over dark energy – for now at least.” Reason: she couldn’t figure out dark energy.

In the Dark

In science, pursuing answers to mysteries is a worthy endeavor. Prescod-Weinstein heard that the acceleration of the universe was a mystery. Dissatisfied with giving it a label “dark energy” as a cover for ignorance, she told her thesis advisor she wanted to figure it out. “I want to solve this problem,” she said on her Caltech application. Her choice of career was to lead her into a wonderland where nothing was real or knowable, where she would be surrounded by characters who laugh about how much they don’t know.

She defended a doctoral thesis that the solution to universal acceleration would be found in a theory of quantum gravity, but she has not solved it. “This perspective is still not particularly fashionable, but here I am, clinging to it.” One thing she does not want to consider is fine-tuning, which might imply intelligent design.

This sets us up for a philosophical confrontation that I find to be very distressing. If the cosmological constant had another value, the universe would have evolved differently, and we might not be here. Variations on this theme are often known as the anthropic principle. I hate it, because that doesn’t feel like an explanation so much as resignation.

Eventually, I stopped working on trying to solve the cosmic acceleration problem because I wasn’t having any ideas that were better than fans of anthropics, and anthropics made me sad.

She turned her attention to another “dark” matter, that being dark matter. Is she making any progress there? No. Nor is anybody else; she admits that there has been “zero progress” on the nature of dark matter since she was a student in 2000. Phys.org reported 14 April 2022 on work by Europeans to look for axions, one of the imaginary candidate particles for dark matter. Axions remain elusive, if they exist. The Europeans invented a device called a haloscope that “might” indicate the presence of axions.

This experiment, named QUAX (short for “Quaerere Axions,” where “quaerere” is Latin for “to search”), is not yet sensitive enough to be able to detect axions. “It needs to be scaled up, and more sensitive sensors need to be employed,” says Crescini.

The light just went out.

But is this quackery or science? Believers in dark matter think that dark matter, with dark energy, make up 95% of reality. In other words, they continue to believe that most of the universe is unknown unknowable stuff while they work, like prisoners of reality, within just 5% of what is observable and testable. Decades of searches for dark matter have all failed. It’s not axions; it’s not MACHOS; it’s not WIMPS. Theoretical physicists have no idea what it is, or whether it even exists. The purpose of dark matter is to keep favored cosmological models intact.

Getting back to Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, her video clip on her personal webpage begins by saying that she likes to tell stories. Her favorite story is the big bang theory, “trying to explain how particles came into existence, [and] trying to explain how spacetime came into existence… and how do we get from this whatever particle-soup thing to this room today?” where her audience listens in rapt attention, cognizant of all the observable reality surrounding them in a universe of unknown stuff. The rest of her lecture relates what she and other cosmologists “think” they know, because, as she admits, any paradigm can be blown out by a better one. She calls it “cosmological storytelling.”

Her second favorite story is LGBT activism. She boasts about being part of the Gay Club at the University of Waterloo and a “queer organizer” for the American Astronomical Society, although she shows a picture of herself with her male husband, too. Being interested in philosophy, she also won a $100,000 grant to study “intersections of knowledge production.”

On March 15, 2017  I received the 2017 LGBT+ Physicists Acknowledgement of Excellence Award “For Years of Dedicated Effort in Changing Physics Culture to be More Inclusive and Understanding Toward All Marginalized Peoples.”

This is curious, because she also boasts of her role as a Core Faculty Member in Women’s Studies at the University of New Hampshire. But according to the “T” in the evolving LGBT+ acronym, women don’t exist. If a man can declare himself to be a woman, the category loses its distinction. So yes, that part of her life is quite a story. Like dark matter and dark energy, she would have to file it under science fiction, because she can’t know if “she” exists. She might just be a culturally derived theoretical construct, a made-up character in a plot, playing the role of a person at an intersection engaged in knowledge production.

CPW [abbreviating her name to save space] mentions in the lecture that her post-doc adviser was Alan Guth. She learned well; he was a champion of unobservable things like the imaginary “inflaton” that caused imaginary “inflation” that leapfrogged over insurmountable difficulties in big bang theory, such as the lumpiness problem and horizon problem (1 July 2014). Having learned from the master storyteller, CPW jokes about how theoretical physicists invent new particles to solve their problems. “What do you do when the particle doesn’t do what you want?” she quips at one point; “you just make another one like it, right?” Winding up her story to its climax, she says that maybe, in an apotheosis of pure speculation, there’s a giant invisible quantum blob surrounding us. In theoretical physics, the bigger the whopper, the better. See Guth Goof in the Darwin Dictionary.

We think CPW should get back into the 5% of stuff we observe (which, in fact, might be 100% of physical reality), and stop hating the evidence for design inherent in the anthropic principle. We wouldn’t want to accuse this otherwise smart lady of hate speech against her Maker. We also think she wouldn’t be so sad if she looked for fulfillment in being the person her Maker made her to be.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7).

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