Monday, July 19, 2010


This report is in two parts. Part one discusses the subject in a general way. Part Two on THE VOODOO SCIENCES AND THE TWO CULTURES began as the C. P. Snow Memorial Lecture given in Ithaca, NY and was later revised for publication. Both discuss the subject as so are included here, but of the two, the second is the better known. I consider both important. (JEP, 2007, with a comment in 2008.)



 (I wrote this a long time ago. Alas, it remains relevant.)
(Footnotes added June 23, 2006

Mail notes added July 19, 2010

 I have appended a brief exchange of views about this essay from Mail at the end of the essays and notes.



"I wouldn't know anything about politics," my friend said the other day. "I'm only an engineer."

He happens to be a very good engineer, but he named his profession as if he were ashamed of it. I see this a lot. The social scientists are automatically assumed to know more about society and politics than the hard scientists--even when the subject matter is something like nuclear power.

I wouldn't be so sure.

* * *

During the Reagan Years we heard a lot about "voodoo economics." The term was usually employed by Democrats in reference to President Reagan's economic policies, but I've also heard professional economists use the term "voodoo economics" in a way that implies there is a real science of economics in contrast to "Reaganomics."

Certainly the official policy is that economics is a science. We have by law a Council of Economic Advisors to report to the president, while the Congress has its own staff of economists to tell them what they should do.

From all the evidence I've seen, we'd do as well to give the president a Council of Voodoo Practitioners, and let the Congress consult its Chief Astrologer. In fact, I suspect that a chief hungan and mambo would do less harm than our present economists: we'd be less likely to take them seriously. However much our Chief Voodoo Advisor protested that his work was scientific, we'd demand some kind of track record, some evidence that his predictions might once in a while come true; while we impose no such burdens on economists, which is just as well, since their track record is one of universally dismal failure.

One of the first things they teach stockbrokers is to stay out of the stock market. Brokers make their pile from selling advice, and from commissions on stock transactions. They can't predict the market, and few risk their own money. They, at least, only affect their clients' fortunes. Economists, though, can ruin the lot of us with their advice--yet if no science can predict a relatively closed system like the stock market, how the devil are you going to "fine tune" something a large as the American economy? I'd think it arrogant to try; as arrogant as the man with three illiterate drug-addicted spoiled brats writing a book on parenting. (1) (6)

But there's worse to come: to the extent that there is a "science of economics," its practitioners must behave in ways that other professions would brand unethical. Example: The Corporate Economist of a large aircraft company is going to give a speech. He has made his analysis (cast lots? examined tea leaves?) and he foresees nothing but bad news. We're in a "downside cycle" and ain't much to be done about it. So he goes to a meeting of, say, the airline owners, and of course when asked for his predictions he gives his honest professional opinion--

In a pig's eye, he does. If he told what he thinks is the truth, he'd be fired. Worse, the Securities and Exchange Commission would look at all his financial records and possibly charge him with manipulating the value of his company's stock. It would be sure to fall, and if he'd prudently sold any shares recently he would likely go to jail.

No: his speech is predictable. He'll give some nodding acknowledgement to current hard times, predict an upswing, and tell his audience they better be prepared to buy a lot of airplanes.

Dr. Milton Friedman has a Nobel Prize in economics; one assumes he must know something about the subject. He once said, "Every economist knows that minimum wages cause unemployment. That's not a principle, it's a definition."

The logic seems clear enough, at least when applied to home economics: if I can get the yard cut for a couple of bucks, I'll pay it; raise the minimum wage to $17.50 an hour, and I'll cut it myself. Whomever I'd have hired will go jobless.

Of course not all economists agree with that. After all, it's not only possible, but likely that the Nobel Prize in economics will go in alternate years to people who disagree on nearly everything fundamental. I have a textbook on macroeconomics, and every chapter essentially cancels out the last, as each "school" presents its theories--and proves the others wrong.

In point of fact, economists don't have the foggiest notion of what's wrong with our economy or what to do about it; and the very best economics textbooks have almost nothing to say about science, engineering, research, development, and technology.(7)

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. recently said, "The collapse of economic forecasting, where experts generally disagree with each other and nearly all of them turn out wrong--a circumstance that, alas, discourage neither economists from making forecasts nor the rest of us from believing them."

So: will someone tell me what, other than one's political preferences, is the difference between "professional" and "voodoo" economics? And why we pay a Council of Economic Advisors while neglecting to have a Chief Astrologer?


Go to any U.S. university. You will hear lamentation and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Washington has become unfeeling and stupidly refuses to support higher education: don't those idiots on the Potomac know that education is a investment in the future? Don't they know that human resources are our most valuable resources, that public higher education is necessary preparation for a democratic future? That we must invest in the future?

But now wander about the campus, and look at how our typical university allocates that all-important investment dollar. You will find that the "social science" departments are far larger than the "hard sciences," and indeed have more students than are enrolled in liberal arts. You will find that even in states with tens of thousands of unemployed teachers, the Department of Education is among the very largest departments on campus.

The social sciences will be large and important departments, with many members of faculty and much classroom space. One wonders what it is that graduates in the social sciences are prepared to do. It must be an important skill; we are spending a large part of our scarce but all-important investment funds to acquire it. Oddly enough, though, we're not training so many engineers and scientists, physicists and mathematicians. Why?

But of course the answer is well known. In most universities, our education investment funds are allocated by entering freshmen. They go to a kind of oriental bazaar, where they are seduced into choosing a major; the number of majors then determines the department's share of the university's budget funds. It does seem an odd way to allocate an important resource.

One might suppose a better way: that the legislature, or other public authority, determine the number of engineers, biologists, physicists, medicos, sociologists, etc., that might reasonably be required in the future, and allocate public funds among the departments accordingly. Students wishing to declare various majors could do so; but when the number that the taxpayers will support is exceeded, the next student to enroll in that major gets to pay tuition accordingly. If tax-supported higher education is an investment--and what other theory justifies sending the tax collector, policeman, and eventually the public hangman to extort the funds from the taxpayers? -- then might we have some care in the way that investment is allocated? The present scheme looks like a bad parody invented by an inept science fiction writer. Who'd believe it if it weren't happening?

At least, though, the present scheme should give us plenty of social scientists, as well as lots of professional teachers. With all those behavioral scientists we shouldn't have any problems teaching the young to read and write: even if the teachers have problems, the sociologists and psychologists can devise a scientific education program.

Only they don't. They don't even try. And when someone does succeed, as for example Marva Collins of Chicago who built quality private schools in what she called "the allegedly fetid ghetto," the "professional educators" put out reams of material calling her a "hoax" who was "carefully constructed as a media event." It really infuriates the educational professionals to find someone able to do the job they claim they can do.

Mrs. Roberta Pournelle taught in a juvenile detention facility for better than a decade. Her students were teenage illiterates. Most of them came with five pounds of paperwork that definitely proved that these kids cannot possibly learn to read. The schools, the psychologists, the educators haven't failed; there's something wrong with the kid. Roberta threw the paperwork away and taught the kid to read. She rarely failed. (2)

Then there's the court system. In the history of trials, there must be about three cases in which the prosecution's psychiatrist said an accused pleading not guilty by reason of insanity was nuts, and none at all in which the defense's psychiatrist said he wasn't. Yet we continue to pay for this all-too-predictable "scientific" expert testimony.

This is professionalism?

And yet: we not only excuse gross incompetence among social scientists including Professors of Education, we let them give real scientists and engineers an inferiority complex. Somehow we've swallowed whole the myth that you can be a well-rounded, educated person without knowing any science and mathematics whatever; but engineering and science majors are automatically uncultured boors, hardly fit for polite society.

We have a Council of Economic Advisors, and we debate economic policy, and everyone listens as these soothsayers pontificate about monetary policy; and meanwhile the president's Science Advisor is a low-ranking White House official, there is no Engineering Advisory Council, and there is no cabinet-level post held by an engineer. More than a majority of the seats in every major legislature in the land is held by lawyers, but there are about two engineers in Congress, and no cabinet-level post held by an engineer or scientist.

Now go again to your typical university. Find an engineering students and a social science student. I'll bet you anything you like that the engineer will have read about as much history and literature and genuine liberal arts as the social scientist; while the social scientist will know nothing of engineering and physics, little of biology, and no mathematics. He may protest that he "took stat"; which will mean that he knows how to do cookbook calculations to produce the mean, median, and mode of a bunch of numbers. Given a little help he may also be able to compute the standard deviation; and with a textbook and a bit of luck he might even be able to do a "T" test, although the odds are that he won't have the foggiest notion of what the T test assumes.

Go now to a rally protesting a nuclear power plant. There'll be a lot of students here. How many will be engineers? And how many will be social scientists? Of the social scientists, how many will understand anything of nuclear physics? How many will know the difference between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation?

Engineering students may apologize for deficiencies in "culture." The man who started the People's Lobby, the first of California's mass anti-nuclear groups, used to say proudly, "The only physics I ever took was Ex-Lax."

The fact is that engineers and scientists will have studied far more of the liberal arts than social scientists will have of physics or engineering. (And, alas, neither will know any history.)

Isn't it time we ended this farce? Granted, the social scientists have a tough subject matter; but it isn't made easier by involving us all in a conspiracy to act as if they had skills they just haven't got. It would be a lot easier to respect them if they made their students take hard courses: calculus through differential equations, real probability and statistics, operations research, basic computer science. Of course, it their students mastered these subjects, they'd probably get out of "social science" and into something useful. Meantime, though, they can stop trying to get the rest of us to act as if they know something we don't. (8)

* * *

  The Voodoo Sciences and The Two Cultures.

"Literary intellectuals at one pole--at the other scientists. . . Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension."


Lord C. P. Snow

The Two Cultures on the
Scientific Revolution


The late C. P. Snow was concerned that we were developing two powerful cultures, neither of which understood the other. He thought this very dangerous. Science, with its power over the physical world, is terrifying if not humanely controlled; humanists without science are helpless.

Examples of the consequences of this gap are not hard to find. Consider the following, which seems particularly relevant to science fact and fiction readers.

From Aviation Technical News Volume IX, No. 5, published by Kerr Industrial Applications Center, Southeastern Oklahoma State University, for NASA's Technology Utilization Division. I give an EXACT quote:

Long Time Parking


(From Goddard News Jan. 15, 1983, article by Charles Recknagel)

"The international Sun-Earth Explorer space craft has been parked 1.6 million km from the earth since 1978. During these approximately 5 years the space craft has been suspected at the point where the Earth's and the Sun's gravitational pull are equal, the point is called the ‘Liberation Point.' After monitoring the charge particles emanating form the sun these many years, NASA decided in Oct. of ‘82 that they would crank up the satellite and use if for another purpose. The vehicle will swing within 100 km of the moon's surface Dec. 23 of ‘83."

Note "Liberation Point," and the ludicrous orbital mechanics. One might almost excuse John Holt, a well-known educator and popular lecturer, author of Why Children Fail: How Children Learn; What Do I Do Monday?, except he chose to attack the concept of space colonies in a special issue of CoEvolution Quarterly (1977) devoted to the subject.

In a section entitled Technical Debate Holt says, "It seems that if L-5 is a point where the gravitational fields of earth and moon cancel each other out, any movement toward either earth or moon would lead to further movement in that direction, there being no correcting or opposing force. The effect of these forces might be very slight, so that we could say of a 64 million ton cylinder that it would take many thousands or tens of thousands of years before it finally reached the earth. Still, it would be rather hard for those on earth."

Holt's argument against space colonies sounds scientific, and he probably believes he is being scientific. He also objects on "moral" grounds. When Tom Heppenheimer (certainly no soft-spoken advocate) says that Holt's arguments are "largely theological, reflecting bias or intuitive dislike, rather than any semblance of reasoned assessment," Holt replies:

"Again ‘theological.' My objections to this project are variously, ethical, moral, philosophical, political, and economic. (I might add that, according to Gerald Piel, publisher of Scientific American, many scientists themselves oppose this project on moral grounds.) To call such objections ‘theological' is imprecise, and has in it more than a whiff of Dr. Strangelove, or hard-nosed talk about ‘megadeaths' or ‘credible first strike capability' or ‘acceptable risk.' And this may be the point to note that in all of O'Neill's and Heppenheimer's talk about space colonies there is no mention of risks. The risks would in fact be enormous. We have already lost three lives in space, and almost three more; the Russians have lost at least three. This is a death rate of over 6%. But our ventures into space have been very modest, and surrounded by the most elaborate and expensive precautions. It seems altogether reasonable to assume that if we begin complicated mining and industrial operations on the moon, our casualty rate will be higher, perhaps much higher."

When Heppenheimer says that "It cannot be denied that large numbers of people will freely volunteer to live in space, even under austere conditions, when this becomes possible." Holt in footnote #51 (of 56; his annotations are at least as long as Heppenheimer's text: Heppenheimer's text was itself a reply to an unannotated essay by Holt; this is known as the fairness doctrine) says:

"I do deny it--unless, of course, they have been told terrible lies about what life and work in space is really like. I expect that this will happen, and in fact is happening, and is one of my ethical and moral reasons for opposing this project."

The interesting part is that we are listening to scientific-sounding nonsense from a man who does not know high school physics, and seems to know little of probability. He is, however, a "humanist," and thus should know human behavior. Yet I wonder, and call to evidence Shackleton's experience:

Ernest Shackleton was adjutant to the 1901 South Polar expedition. In 1900 he placed the following advertisement:

"MEN WANTED for Hazardous Journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success." When he later reported on the advertisement's success, he said, "It seemed as though all the men in Great Britain were determined to accompany me, the response was so overwhelming."

I suspect I would have little difficulty recruiting qualified people for L-5 colonies, or indeed for an early lunar colony. Perhaps I'm wrong, but unlike Holt I have some evidence, and a smattering of data.(3)

One may believe, as I do, that communications between scientists and non-scientists are in a sad state, and that this is a dangerous situation, without accepting C.P. Snow's picture as accurate. In my judgment the critical gap is not between "scientists" and "humanists," or between the sciences and the arts; the critical gap is between the so-called "social sciences" and everyone else.

This gap is exacerbated to the extent that either scientists or humanists believe there is scientific value in the "social sciences." In my judgment there is very little science in the "social sciences," and the use of the word "science" to describe these disciplines is generally either mendacious or farcical. Alas, it may also be tragic.

The real difference between arts and sciences is the difference between data and evidence; and the "social sciences" don't know one from the other.

Imagine a spectrum. On one end you have science fiction. On the other end, you have hard science. What connects them is the nature of their subject matter.

The scientist requires hard facts. He needs data, ideally in the form of repeatable experiments. Data, to a scientist, is best generated in controlled experiments which can be described, published, and repeated.

The science fiction writer doesn't need any data. Certainly he must use some hard facts, because if everything is contrary to the reader's expectations, the work isn't going to be taken seriously: therefore, the science fiction writer makes use of "facts" not as data, but for verisimilitude and plausibility.

However, science fiction can't "prove" anything about the universe. We can speculate about it, we can try to expand people's horizons and stretch their imaginations; but we cannot, as science fiction writers, add to scientific knowledge, and this goes for "insights into the human condition" every whit as much as for contributions to nuclear physics.

Science fiction can't prove anything because science fiction makes up its data. You can prove anything if you can make up your data.

Example: At an earlier paper given at this very panel (at the Contact! symposium) a panelist uses the speech by the Army major in the film Close Encounters as an example of how the military thinks. This is patently absurd; it is at best evidence of Steven Spielberg's theory of how the military thinks, and it's probably not even useful for inferring that. Once again we have confusion of data, evidence, and plausibility.

The social scientist vaguely understands this fundamental principle, but doesn't really distinguish between data and evidence. Thus when Margaret Mead studied adolescence in Samoa, she was seeking evidence for a theory. Later writers, wishing to challenge the biggest name in the field, have done precisely the same thing. None of them seems interested in gathering data; but anyone who knew Samoan men would have known that Mead's account's were pure fantasy.


When this was put to Dr. Paul Bohannon (5), dean of the School of Social Sciences at the University of Southern California, he replied that Mead's value didn't lie in her data-gathering. She stretched imaginations and made people think larger thoughts.

Granted this may be true, but it seems more the job of a science fiction writer than a scientist.

As art forms, the social sciences may or may not be useful; but they are not content as art forms. Whenever anything of social significance happens--a riot, for example--the TV screens are filled with learned social scientists giving us both explanations and advice.

On their advice, for example, the police have been withdrawn from riot areas. The results have been uniformly disastrous, but this doesn't prevent the social scientists from advising the same remedy the next time.

You can prove anything if you make up your data. You can prove nearly anything if you are allowed to select your evidence and forget embarrassing facts.

The social sciences have made an art of forgetting embarrassing facts. If a fact doesn't fit the theory, leave the fact for another discipline. Sociology has nothing to learn from anthropology, which has nothing to learn from social psychology. None of these has anything to learn from the mathematics, physics, or chemistry departments.

The solution to C. P. Snow's dilemma seems clear. Scientists must learn something of the humanities. That, I think, is done rather more often than not. Scientists do read books. I have met the maniac scientist bent on discovery no matter the harm far more often in literature than in the laboratory.

Secondly, the humanists must learn something of science. This is less common, but it does happen. It isn't necessary that the humanist become a scientist, or even learn how to do science; it is necessary that he learn the principles of scientific reasoning.

I would be far more willing to believe that the two cultures could coexist, however, were it not for the contamination of the "social sciences," which pose as sciences to the humanists, and humanities to the scientists, but which are not in fact much good as either. The poet who believes he knows something of science having taken "Sosh 103" and "Ed Stat" is far more dangerous than ever he would have been if he had remained ignorant.

Meanwhile, novelists have as much right to be called "experts" on human behavior as any social scientist, which is to say we can learn as much about our fellow humans from a good novel as from a sociological treatise; and I know which I would rather read. Similarly, the poet may find beauty in the theory of probability, and will learn something of the difference between data and evidence while studying it; "Stat for Social Scientists" teaches nothing, and is dull in the bargain.

When the social scientists are challenged as unscientific, their usual plea is that their subject matter is very complex and thus the methodology of physical science won't work. This is an interesting argument, but it would carry more weight if students of social science knew something of physical science's methodologies. Granted that the "social sciences" have an intrinsically more difficult job; is this any reason to abandon the tools of science?(4)


In summary we have: novelists, who are only required to make you believe their stories are or could be true. Advocates and Lawyers, who are required to present all the evidence that helps their clients, but have no obligation to go find evidence that falsifies their theories; and scientists who are required to make falsifiable hypotheses; seek evidence that shows their theories to be false, or at least say what evidence would falsify their theories; and to account for all the evidence known, whether favorable to their theories or not.

Many scientists today are at best advocates, and sometimes don't even rise to the level of a good novlist. NASA and academia are full of voodoo scientists even in the hard sciences. This is very disappointing.



and see these discussions:  Heinlein and social science; Voodoo science and schools

See Also Fred Reed on Peer Review

 ===========  NOTES =========

(1) (2006) During the Big Boom and the Dot Com Boom in the 90's many economists and stockbrokers invested heavily, Most went dot bust with the rest of the investors.

(2)For more on Mrs. Pournelle's reading program and how you can make sure your kids know how to read, see her reading page.

(3)(2006) The Lunar Society once began a registry for potential Lunar Colonists. Colonists could return only at the necessity and convenience of the Lunar Company, and life-threatening medical conditions were explicitly not sufficient grounds. Colonists had to be married, of child-bearing age, and go in couples. Each couple had to provide $100,000 to the Company. We gave the project up after we were overwhelmed with volunteers.

(4)(2006) Sometime after I wrote this paper, parts of which were presented at the CP Snow Memorial Lecture in Ithica, New York, and which formed the basis of my Contact! presentation at the 1988 Contact! meeting, I expanded the spectrum to include lawyers. Novelists need to be plausible; lawyers need evidence but can select the facts that fit their case; but scientists must work with data -- repeatable hard facts -- and must account for all the data, leaving none out.

(5)(2007) Dr. Bohannon died in July, 2007.  Biography here.

(6)(2008) There have been changes. Brokers and banks started investing in volatile markets, creating bubbles. The government arranged a bailout of Bear Stearns because the investment bank was too large to be allowed to fail. Big brokerage offices bet the company on the market. People began taking economists seriously, with disastrous results. We also have "reforms" of the market like Sarbanes Oxley; they make the situation more complex, muck up the "science" of economics even more, make the market dependent on lawyers, and did nothing to prevent the 2007-2008 crises we are experiencing now.

(7)(2008) I wrote all this in the late 1970's, well before the electronics explosions showed that no one one, certainly not economists, understood much about the relationship between technology and a real economy. Well before globalization, the Internet, etc. I note that the professional economists didn't do any better than anyone else in seeing what was coming.  As for me, I got into the computer journalism business and did very well indeed out of it. McGraw Hill paid me very well...

(8)(2008) And since I wrote this, college costs have skyrocketed. It's nearly impossible now for a middle class kid to graduate without a lifelong share of debt. Meanwhile, the universities teach even less, there is a plethora of "social science" on campus; education in the technical professions and useful arts has slowed, not grown; the education establishment has convinced everyone that they must have credentials in order to succeed, and to get the credentials you must take out student loans and become a serf. Salve, sclave!


 Mail with answers. This is from the mail archives, Mail 384.

And someone took me seriously about The Voodoo Sciences:

Dear Dr. Pournelle.

I am (among other things) a High School science and math teacher, in Toronto, Ontario.

I am slightly north of 40 years of age, and when I was much younger, I was an avid reader of Science Fiction. Therefore, more that two decades ago, I knew of you as an important, insightful, and highly entertaining author of SF. But that's all.

About two weeks ago, by the sort of random occurrence that happens so often in Cyberia, I stumbled across your website, Chaos Manor.

I was surprised to learn, as I rambled through the many links within your site, to see how very accomplished you are in so many other areas besides writing top-tier hard SF. I wouldn't have imagined that you also had a political career, and, never having read BYTE, that I can recall, I didn't know you also had a side-line as a computer guru.

I guess the above paragraphs are intended as admissions of ignorance. But I like remedying ignorance, my own and that of others -- probably that is why I am a teacher, and certainly that is why I've enjoyed reading your many website articles -- those at Chaos Manor that I have got to so far, at any rate...

So, I've been rambling around your website discovering all of the very interesting (if unconventional) things you & your many correspondents have had to say or share about so many topics.

And I finally just got to your essay The Voodoo Sciences <http://www.jerrypournelle.com/science/voodoo.html>  .

I realize the intent of your essay, is a critical attack on the lack of intellectual rigour in such fields as anthropology, sociology, economics, and social psychology.

But it seems to me (and has seemed to me for a long time, for I have thought about these same issues since long before I ever knew about your website, or this essay of yours), that these very same sorts of criticisms can be applied to all the so-called "hard" science as well, or at least to certain subdisciplines among them.

For example, modern physics features such nonsense as "dark matter" and "dark energy", alleged objects lacking -- at least in their extreme incarnations -- all properties except the magical ability to make certain "elegant" equations balance, regardless of what the actual data says, and without regard for an effort to infer the existence of properties, the testing for which, would allow an actual experimental proof or disproof. Indeed, I think it is not at all unreasonable to assert, that modern theoretical physics in many respects almost open contemptuous of the idea of objective data, and of an objective universe.

Anyway, I came to your website, and read this [/...]:



 (I wrote this a long time ago. Alas, it remains relevant.)

  "[...] The real difference between arts and sciences is the  difference between data and evidence; and the 'social sciences' don’t  know one from the other.

 Imagine a spectrum. On one end you have science fiction.  On the other end, you have hard science. What connects them is the  nature of their subject matter.

 The scientist requires hard facts. He needs data, ideally in the  form of repeatable experiments. Data, to a scientist, is best  generated in controlled experiments which can be described,  published, and repeated.

 The science fiction writer doesn’t need any data. Certainly he must  use some hard facts, because if everything is contrary to the  reader’s expectations, the work isn’t going to be taken  seriously: therefore, the science fiction writer makes use of  'facts' not as data, but for verisimilitude and plausibility.

 However, science fiction can’t 'prove' anything about the universe.  We can speculate about it, we can try to expand people’s horizons and  stretch their imaginations; but we cannot, as science fiction  writers, add to scientific knowledge, and this goes for 'insights  into the human condition' every whit as much as for contributions to  nuclear physics.

 Science fiction can’t prove anything because science fiction makes  up its data. You can prove anything if you can make up your data.  [...]"


[.../] and it made me suddenly realize that the rot in modern physics may go far deeper. Perhaps.

I mean this: isn't your main argument, in the above, also an indictment of the Einsteinian gedankenexperimenten? It's not as if Einstein actually rode atop a beam of light, after all. (Nor did he send lab rats on that errand, etc.) It was purely an exercise of the imagination.

And yet much of modern physics rests on the foundation of such non-empirical experiments. I think the clash of the two concepts here is interesting, because I am reminded of what the Philosopher Leonard Peikoff once absentmindedly said in a speech (and, no, I am not an Ayn Rand groupie, though I do know all about her, and Peikoff):

"Philosophy has veto rights over science."

He was asked to explain, and said this (I paraphrase from memory; I vaguely recall this as having occurred, at a talk he gave at the University of Waterloo in the 1980s, which I attended -- I could be wrong about that, but it was him, in some capacity, at some venue, around then ...):

"Well, think of the Big Bang, which claims that the universe started at a moment in time. Now, philosophy says, that the universe is the totality of that which exists. Time exists. Therefore, the universe is not in time; rather, time is in the universe. Therefore, the universe simply can't have started at some moment of time. And that is not a scientific argument, but a philosophical one. And I [Peikoff] put it to you that it is also a sound argument."

So, if Einstein and Peikoff are right, then it follows that a lot of good science (i.e., proofs or disproofs of the existence of certain objects, properties or relationships in the objective, material world) can, after all, be done on a paper pad, with a pencil, using "made up data", as it were.

Alternately, if "making up data" is uniformly antiscientific, it would follow (I think), that Special Relativity is a crock, and so on. I am tempted to go on and on with other examples, but this e-mail is probably inappropriately long, already.

All I really wanted to do was two things:

° First, to suggest that this admittedly old/dated essay of yours may perhaps have engaged in a sort of special pleading, on behalf of "hard" sciences, which it must be admitted are in fact rather runny in places, rather than actually hard;


° Secondly, to thank you for both the interesting, thought-provoking essay, and for all of your many brilliant SF books, which I remember very fondly from so long ago.


Tim Macneil, Toronto, Ontario.

Thank you for the kind words.

Physics at bottom rests on experimental verification, or, more strictly speaking, on experiments which might falsify hypotheses but when performed do not. Thus Einstein's Relativity remained a theory capable of explaining an observation: the change in the perihelion of Mercury; but it was still a controversial and less than widely accepted theory until the eclipse of 1919 (I believe that is the date) showed gravity bending light waves as Einstein predicted. Had the experiment not showed that, the theory would be right out.

And Trinity demonstrated once and for all that e does equal mc squared, and the old Newtonian physics principle that matter can be neither created nor destroyed was falsified. Matter was destroyed, and turned into energy. Einstein never dealt with quantum effects and the Unified Theory escapes even thought experiments; but he explains more than Newton did. (This isn't to denigrate Newton who was one of the giants on whose shoulders Einstein stood.)

Note the difference in physics and the Voodoo Sciences: in physics we can talk of charmed quarks, and Top and Bottom (or Truth and Beauty) and give whimsical names to constructs we have never seen and never will see, but if those constructs don't allow predictions -- do this and look here and you will see this trace in a cloud chamber -- they are right out. In the social science the Wu Lu Masters dance, and it doesn't matter what we observe, they get to go right on dancing. Nothing will persuade most social sciences of the truth about IQ and heredity, and we base social policy on nonsense that has been refuted again and again by observation.

Special Relativity doesn't make up data: it predicts observations (such as the slowing of clocks in orbit); there are many who hate Special Relativity and wish to see a way around its limits. So far no one has done so outside fiction (including my own)...

Social science, on the other hand both makes up data and rejects hard facts it doesn't like.


Subject: Re: Voodoo sciences

Hi Jerry,

Just read your comment on special relativity being responsible for clocks slowing in orbit. This is somewhat true, but I seem to remember long ago doing a calculation to prove to myself that the overwhelming clock slowing effect is due to gravitational redshift, which is an effect predicted by general relativity:


Incidentally, the GPS system would be far less accurate if these effects weren’t taken into account.




Subject: Regarding Mr. McNeil Buffy Willow


I've just read Mr. McNeil's commentary as well as your response.

IMHO, both items are correct, up to a point. There is a wealth of experimental data, some of which you cited, which confirms the Special Theory of Relativity. The Quark model and the related disciplines of Electroweak theory and Quantum Chromodynamics have a strong experimental foundation; the EW theory in particular provides excellent correspondence with a wide array of experimental data. QCD is not as well established (at least, the last time that I had time to dive deeply into the subject) because the unique nature of the theory -- increasing interaction strength at increasing range, limited by the disruption of the interaction via pair production -- makes detailed confirmation more difficult. (While it hasn't been fashionable, I've always believed there are one or two new Nobel prizes waiting in low-energy QCD, in part because that is the realm where one might someday expect to see practical applications of the subject.)

However, the frontiers of physical theory do have a lot of likely dead ends and traps because there is much based on what is fashionable rather than what is known.

Mr. McNeil cites "dark matter and dark energy" in this context, and he is to some extent correct; when what we know about the universe is examined under certain assumptions, the dynamics of the objects that we observe can only be explained by "dark matter" and "dark energy," which are constrained to have properties limited by those assumptions. They are not completely ad-hoc constructs, but have well-defined constraining properties; specifically, they are non-luminous and non-absorbing (becasue they cannot be seen, hence "dark") but they contribute to gravitational interactions (because they are necessary on the cosmological scale to account for the dynamics observed in at the galactic scale). That said, however reasonable the assumptions seem, there is still the chance that they are incorrect, and the whole argument collapses.

It is further true that it may be a matter of inadequate analysis. Philosophically, there is much to be said about modern developments in string/manifold theory. However, prior to these developments, there was a strong move underway to assume another reductionist level in the current quark-lepton schema -- particles such as preons from which both quarks and leptons might be formed. Much of this work has been dropped in the pursuit of string/manifold theory; I personally believe this decision to be premature. Is that a romantic yearning towards the lectures that the Norlamminian savants gave Richard Seaton in "Skylark Three? -- which could be construed as predicting quarks and preons, and relating them to faster-than-light phenomena? What happens when the two studies come together, and/or are futher combined with Joao Magueijo's theories about a variable speed of light in the early universe? Or with Harry Stine's well-reasoned arguments that the speed of attractive gravity (as opposed to gravitational radiation, which may or may not be the same) may be 10E10 c -- interestingly, of the same order of magnitude that Dr. Magueijo assignes to the speed of light in the very early universe. Or my continuing arguments with Dr. Taylor about whether General Relativity or Quantum Theory is more fundamental?

The one thing that is utterly necessary is a theory which explains dark matter and dark energy and which also has testable assumptions. Or new data regarding superstrings, or the nature of the speed of light and the speed of gravity. Or virtually ANYTHING which represents unknown physics, whether correctly guessed by some extant theory or not.

Jim Woosley

We can all hope that the limits of Special and General Relativity will be overcome, and certainly neither is complete, there being no unified theory at all.

Dr. Woosley is far more learned in physics theory than I am -- indeed he's one of my sources...