Why I’m Hesitant to Become An Academic

September 4, 2016

I’m very near graduation and many of my family members are encouraging me to finish my PhD in physics.  I definitely love physics; that isn’t my problem.  However, the more I learn about the academic world, the less enthused I am to become a part of it.  There was an excellent article written in The New Atlantis which I’d recommend everyone check out.  In it, the author talks about how the academic world is currently in a crisis.

The science world has been buffeted for nearly a decade by growing revelations that major bodies of scientific knowledge, published in peer-reviewed papers, may simply be wrong. Among recent instances: a cancer cell line used as the basis for over a thousand published breast cancer research studies was revealed to be actually a skin cancer cell line; a biotechnology company was able to replicate only six out of fifty-three “landmark” published studies it sought to validate; a test of more than one hundred potential drugs for treating amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in mice was unable to reproduce any of the positive findings that had been reported from previous studies; a compilation of nearly one hundred fifty clinical trials for therapies to block human inflammatory response showed that even though the therapies had supposedly been validated using mouse model experiments, every one of the trials failed in humans; a statistical assessment of the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map human brain function indicated that up to 70 percent of the positive findings reported in approximately 40,000 published fMRI studies could be false; and an article assessing the overall quality of basic and preclinical biomedical research estimated that between 75 and 90 percent of all studies are not reproducible. Meanwhile, a painstaking effort to assess the quality of one hundred peer-reviewed psychology experiments was able to replicate only 39 percent of the original papers’ results; annual mammograms, once the frontline of the war on breast cancer, have been shown to confer little benefit for women in their forties; and, of course, we’ve all been relieved to learn after all these years that saturated fat actually isn’t that bad for us. The number of retracted scientific publications rose tenfold during the first decade of this century, and although that number still remains in the mere hundreds, the growing number of studies such as those mentioned above suggests that poor quality, unreliable, useless, or invalid science may in fact be the norm in some fields, and the number of scientifically suspect or worthless publications may well be counted in the hundreds of thousands annually. While most of the evidence of poor scientific quality is coming from fields related to health, biomedicine, and psychology, the problems are likely to be as bad or worse in many other research areas. For example, a survey of statistical practices in economics research concluded that “the credibility of the economics literature is likely to be modest or even low.”

Few people realize that entire fields of academia, including most of neuroscience, economics, psychology, and many other fields, are complete garbage.  They write lots of papers, they have peer-reviewed journals, and they appear to be scientific and credible, but most all of it is unreliable.  These days, when you read news articles telling you about what is and isn’t healthy to eat, or hear claims about human nature (men or women), or even ideas about why different economic trends are taking place (effects of policies, etc), you shouldn’t take it all that seriously.  It doesn’t matter if they have professors and studies, and papers to support their arguments, it’s all garbage.  In many of these disciplines, only a third of these studies are close reproducible.  So much of it is a joke.  They have tiny sample sizes, make huge wide sweeping conclusions from tiny effects, they pursue their research in a biased manner, and so on.

You may say, but Jason, physics isn’t that way!  Yes, I agree, physics is actually real science.  If we publish a paper telling you that a material conducts electricity and heat in such a such manner, it does exactly that.  If we tell you a metal becomes superconducting at 32 Kelvin, it really does.  We are known to publish some crazy theoretical papers sometimes, especially in fields like cosmology where it may be difficult to confirm our ideas with experiment, but we make it quite clear that we’re speculating and are awaiting experiments that can confirm or disprove our ideas.

However, the same forces which create crappy science in other fields are all present in physics departments all across the nation.  As the biologist E.O. Wilson points out, a modern academic, “will need forty hours a week to perform teaching and administrative duties, another twenty hours on top of that to conduct respectable research, and still another twenty hours to accomplish really important research…. Make an important discovery, and you are a successful scientist in the true, elitist sense in a profession where elitism is practiced without shame…. Fail to discover, and you are little or nothing.”  No wonder so many professors push you out of their office when you go to ask them questions!  There’s a lot on their plate.

Even worse than all of that is how the overall funding and research process works.  The central problem is that it is all individualistic.  We’ve all heard the saying that you either publish or perish, and as E.O. Wilson pointed out, if your research isn’t a big deal, making some sort of ground breaking revelations, you’re nobody.  So, in order to advance your career, get tenure, raise more money, etc., you have to let on like every bit of the research you’re doing is going to change the world.  So, there is a huge pressure to overstate the results of your findings, making wide-sweeping conclusions, claiming you’re on the verge of something huge!  Who wants to publish a paper and say, “Well, we did all this work, and it turns out we were totally wrong and all of this leads to nothing.”  Honesty is not rewarded in this system; your funding is going to dry up in a second!  So, even if you find nothing, it’s still remarkable, worthy of everyone’s attention, and has led you one step closer to some grand result.  If you combine all of this with news networks which are hungry for something sensational, you have a recipe for disaster.

Each scientist is his own little thing, only barely connected to the scientists in his or her field.  In fact, the scientists in his own field are his competitors for research money, and everyone ends up pitted against one another.  Who can publish their findings first?  It becomes some sort of stupid race.  It may sound like healthy competition, but this sort of thing is really destructive.  There’s no team work.  Despite what everyone wants to believe, big things are rarely accomplished by individuals on their own.

Our culture is way too focused around the individual.  We lift up figures like Albert Einstein, the lone genius who discovers the secrets of the universe through his brilliant mind alone.  But that’s not how science actually works.  I really recommend you all read the article I linked to above.  It talks about how the major discoveries in science over the last 150 years actually took place, such as computers, jet engines, medicine, etc.  They didn’t come about through lone geniuses, but instead were birthed slowly by countless scientists and engineers, working in unison on common projects and common goals, all being well managed and held accountable both to the public, and to managers overseeing the projects.

Most of the great technological things we enjoy today have their roots in scientific projects which originally started with the U.S. Department Of Defense.  Computers and all our modern electronic gadgets, for example, were originally all military communications systems, and that sort of thing.  When these projects were being researched, there were military generals overseeing large teams of nameless scientists, and success was not personal career advancement, but actually building technology which works.  It was a team effort.  You weren’t in competition with the guy next to you, but were his ally to help solve a common problem and protect your nation.  Very few scientists were individually doing anything “ground-breaking”, but were instead doing all the tedious grunt work and calibrations to build this stuff.  Each person did their small part, but collectively, together, when well managed and organized, their combined work led to some really great accomplishments.

I really admire that.  That’s the kind of work I want to do.  I don’t care about tenure, or becoming “well known”, or being invited to give talks, or having a long list of government grants I’ve brought in on my resume – I want my work to mean something in the larger scheme of things.  I don’t want to create abstract knowledge in some journal that nobody reads or cares about.  I don’t care if anyone knows me or who I am, or what I even did.  I’m just fine with being the guy who designed some sort of super-conducting material which made some new generation of quantum computers and advanced AI systems possible.  There might be thousands of us who worked on the project in different ways.  Fine by me, just so long as we get amazing new technology which changes our lives.

However, the current mindset governing science research today is,  “the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown.”  Many scientists feel that they are above accountability and being properly managed.  They are all lone Einsteins, and to have lesser mortals try to intervene in their “ground-breaking” work is just getting in their way.  And what does this lead to?  Entire fields where 3/4 of the work is unreliable garbage.  In physics, it leads to people working on abstract, theoretical crap which doesn’t necessarily have any sort of purpose or tangible results.  Nothing is organized.  You have thousands of little people, all going their own way, and nothing is getting done.

People have to come together for a common purpose and goal, something larger than themselves.  That often does not exist in academia.  It’s very likely that your work isn’t really doing much of anything for the world.  So, if I do get a full PhD, I’ll likely go work for the Department of Defense, working on some technology like AI, robotics, nanotechnology, etc., which will be top-secret for a while, but will trickle its way down to normal folks in twenty years time or so.  I’d be working in an organized environment, where things are getting done.  If I don’t work for them, I’ll work for some large corporation which builds and creates technology.  I want my work to actually DO something.  The best way for that to happen is by building actual real world things in an applied manner.  The work has to be directly related to actually building technology which is being used in the real world.  I worry that may not happen working in a university.  I’ll instead be caught up in some system of teaching, grading papers, writing grant proposals, chasing money, etc.  And if I’m going to be a lone wolf academic, of course I’ll just research what interests me personally because what other incentive is there?  That’s not a good thing.

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Donald Trump’s Wall

September 1, 2016

What puzzles me is that the left is making out Donald Trump to be some sort of xenophobic, racist, horrible person for proposing we build a wall to stop the flood of Mexican immigrants into our country.

Trumps Wall

I don’t agree with this policy, but what so many on the left fail to know is that Hillary Clinton supported the exact same policies just a few years ago.  Take a look at this clip.

As a senator she proposed and was pushing Congress to build a physical “barrier” (sounds a lot like a wall to me), she accuses the Mexican government of pushing their people into our country illegally, and she states that we need to take drastic measures to stop illegal immigration.  What is so different between them?  Someone please tell me.

But if you read the news, they act as if Hillary has practically opened her arms to immigrants throughout her career!  They also like to pretend that she cares about Muslims.  Give me a break.  Tell that to the millions of dead Muslims in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, wars all supported and or instigated by Hillary while she was Secretary Of State.   Yeah, I bet she cares.

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Tired Of Media “Racism”

August 21, 2016

I’m tired of the media drumming up racism, especially when it isn’t there.  Take a look at a few screenshots from the Huffington Post.

White Campaign Manager

A headline on their front page reads, “Trump’s White Campaign Manager.”  She’s white, so what?  What does that have to do with anything?  It’s just race baiting and it is disgusting.

I’ve seen some really bizarre ads on their front page.  Like take this one.  It encourages users to download an app which promotes black businesses.  Once again, why just black businesses?   And here’s another article, about an Olympic athlete who was drunk after partying, celebrating after winning a medal, and at one point ended up breaking a few things in a gas station bathroom.  He then had a confrontation with the police.  What, he wasn’t shot down and killed?  He wasn’t beaten to a pulp?  It must be white privilege!  Seriously, give it a rest.

White Privilege

He apologized, fine him, and move on people.  Don’t make this some big racist ordeal.

Or if you go on CNN these days, you’ll see articles like this.  Apparently the Red Cross is racist because they issued this safety swimming pool poster for children.

racist poster

There is nothing remotely racist to that poster.  This sort of stupidity is all over the mainstream media.

I really wish more people were like Morgan Freeman.

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Who Are You People?

August 7, 2016

This is an English paper I had to write for a class.  I was given free reign to write about anything I wanted, as long as it was related to my field of study.   I chose to write about my struggle to escape solipsism, and my thoughts on whether or not the other people around me even exist.  I took quantum mechanics seriously, and delved into the issue with full force.  I basically end up concluding that you have to do some serious mental gymnastics to attribute any sort of “real” existence to an objective physical world, or to other people at all.  I wanted to get into a lot more detail into these problems, but the paper had to be a relatively short length, so I wasn’t able to share everything I wanted to say.  I’ll consider adding an addendum to the end sometime soon.

Though mankind has been wondering about the true nature of reality ever since the dawn of civilization, modern conceptions of reality originate with Issac Newton around the year 1700.  Newton’s picture of the world follows human intuition, envisioning space as an infinite three-dimensional box filled with chunks of matter which follow nice, easily visualized trajectories as time flows uniformly, moment by moment.  All of this began to change near the dawn of the twentieth century as scientists were exploring the properties of atoms.  In order to explain things such as why different elements give off distinct wavelengths of light, or why objects at a set temperature give off distinctive signatures of heat radiation, a new theory of matter had to be devised.  This gave birth to the discipline of quantum mechanics, a set of mathematical tools to calculate how matter behaves on the tiniest scales.  This theory went on to become the most successful tool in all of science, calculating the exact properties of atoms down to ten parts in a billion.  However, this theory is also extremely bizarre.  Its equations are no longer deterministic like Newton’s equations which give exact and precise results given a set of initial circumstances; these new equations are instead telling physicists that many different possibilities can happen at any given moment, though some outcomes are more likely to happen than others.  Puzzled, physicists and philosophers began to invent interpretations as to what these equations are saying about reality.  Now a century later, opinions and interpretations still vary.  While a slim majority of physicists subscribe to the Copenhagen theory, which states that reality exists as a set of varied possibilities, described by the quantum wave function until collapsing down to a single possibility upon observation (measurement), this collapsing process is mystical, vague, and incomplete.  By introducing a non-physical Mind which exists outside of space and time, this collapsing process can be avoided, offering a more elegant interpretation of the wave function, and why an observer experiences one particular reality as opposed to the many possibilities inherent to any quantum mechanical description of reality.  However, this type of interpretation comes at a cost as it is extremely difficult to account for other sentient Minds without introducing yet another over-arching Mind which grounds the observers to a common reality.

A central puzzle to the interpretation of quantum physics is that the equations describe many different possible realities on top of one another, smeared across space in a wave, yet when an experiment or observation is performed, only one reality is observed and different observers agree on this reality.  This can be vividly illustrated in a thought experiment created by the Nobel laureate physicist Erwin Schrodinger.  He imagined placing a cat and a vial of cyanide in a special box which is linked up to a radiation detector.  If this detector is activated by incoming radiation, the vial is released and the cat is killed.  He then imagined placing a radioactive atom near this detector.  The key to this experiment is that to describe whether or not a radioactive atom, such as Uranium, will decay and release radiation requires quantum physics, and if one was to model and solve the equations for this situation, he would derive a wave function which would tell him that within a certain time-frame, there is a certain probability that the atom will release radiation, and a certain probability that it will not, but it will not tell him for certain what will happen. This same wave function would also include both possibilities for the state of the cat, which in the case of atomic decay would be dead and in the other case alive.  While intuitively it would seem that the cat must either be dead or alive and cannot be both simultaneously, according to the laws of quantum physics, this is not so.  A very strange thing happens when a person decides to walk up to the box and open it, looking at the cat for himself.  One of the particular possibilities offered by the wave function is chosen through unknown means, and the other possibilities vanish into thin air.  The cat is either dead or alive, based upon whether the uranium atom decayed or not, and there is no way of knowing the outcome for certain prior to looking for oneself.  This rather mystical process, where one of the possibilities is chosen over the others, and all other possibilities disappear, is called the collapse of the wave function.  Schrodinger’s thought experiment weighed heavily on Einstein, making him question whether there was an objective reality at all.  Writing to Schrodinger he said, “You are the only contemporary physicist, besides Laue, who sees that one cannot get around the assumption of reality, if only one is honest. Most of them simply do not see what sort of risky game they are playing with reality—reality as something independent of what is experimentally established. Their interpretation is, however, refuted most elegantly by your system of radioactive atom + amplifier + cat in a box, in which the psi-function of the system contains both the cat alive and blown to bits. Nobody really doubts that the presence or absence of the cat is something independent of the act of observation.”  (Maxwell). Einstein was perplexed by quantum physics, realizing that if it is true, it seems impossible for there to be an objective reality independent of that which is observed by sentient Minds, because the very process of observing and making measurements seems to bring a particular reality into existence.

Most physicists largely ignore the problem of wave function collapse and choose to adhere to the Copenhagen interpretation which brushes the problem under the rug.  This Copenhagen position was explained best by the physicist John von Neumann in his classic book Mathematical Foundations Of Quantum Mechanics.  Von Neumann states that quantum mechanical systems must evolve by two separate laws.  When no measurements are taking place, the physical system evolves according to the wave equations of quantum mechanics.  However, when measurements are taking place, the system follows the postulate of wave collapse, and no longer follows the wave equations. (von Neumann).  The central problem is that he never precisely defines what constitutes the “measurement” process, and the very idea of making a distinction between “measurement” and other activities feels clumsy and artificial.  All measuring devices, even people themselves, are made of atoms and those atoms should obey the same laws of physics.  Also, physics is a precise science, yet this method leaves it ambiguous as to whether a system should be collapsing or further evolving according to the wave equations.  Physicist and philosopher David Albert of Columbia University addresses this problem in his book Quantum Mechanics and Experience, walking the reader through every known attempt to pin down what this measurement process actually is.  He concludes by saying, “there hasn’t ever been so much as a shred of what you might call normal experimental evidence that the quantum state of any isolated physical system in the world ever fails to evolve in perfect accordance with the linear dynamical equations of motion. And so there seem to be a number of good reasons for looking for a different angle on this whole business.” (Albert).  In other words, there is no evidence for this Copenhagen approach and its distinction between measuring and not measuring.  There is also no reason to believe a wave function collapse ever takes place at all, and every attempt at even defining this ill-defined concept is problematic.

A more elegant approach proposes that the Mind exists outside of space and time, that it is not subject to the laws of quantum mechanics, and that it picks out one possibility available from the wave function through something akin to concentration.  This position is argued by Dr. Casey Blood of Rutgers University in his paper “A Primer On Quantum Mechanics and Its Implications.”  In this view, there is no need for wave function collapse.  The Mind peruses eternal, timeless quantum fields, where all possibilities are already pre-written, similar to movies which have been pre-recorded onto holographic plates.  The Mind connects to certain field patterns it is compatible with, such as the human brain, and flies through these fields, playing them like a special projector which allows the viewer control over the direction of the movie and plot.  A common objection to this type of dualism is that it is difficult to establish how a Mind existing outside of space and time can communicate with matter.  However, in this case it does not need to.  The Mind is only perceiving these fields and it does not ever communicate any sort of force on reality.  As Schrodinger himself said in his book Nature and the Greeks, “The observing mind is not a physical system, it cannot interact with any physical system.” (Schrodinger, Nature and the Greeks) Another objection is that proposing such a Mind is unscientific because it could never possibly be observed.  But consider that there are many things which are commonly agreed to exist which seem to exist outside of space and time.  Take the color red or the number four for instance.  They do not exist in any particular place in space and time.  This also seems to apply to all subjective experience.  A physicist or neuroscientist may be able to lay out a complex pattern of neural electrical signals and claim it is the subjective experience of listening to an opera, but if one directly compares subjective experiences of sounds with brain-matter pulsing with electrical signals, they are two entirely different things.  There may be some sort of correlation between the two in time, but they cannot be one and the same thing.  And more importantly, the world described by physics is nothing but mathematical vibrations and waves, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to say mathematical waves are equivalent to subjective conscious experiences.  As Schrodinger once said in an article he wrote for the Observer, “Although I think that life may be the result of an accident, I do not think that of consciousness. Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else.” (Moore) This view is bound to be unpopular with scientists who demand proof for all things by observation and experiment, but this then puts pressure on them to explain wave collapse; their vague conceptions of “measurement” are equally mysterious.

But a central problem to this Mind interpretation of quantum mechanics is that it is extremely difficult to account for other Minds, as any other person experienced seems to be an illusory construct, similar to a character on a movie screen.  To deal with this problem, Blood has to resort to introducing yet another Mind, an over-arching Mind. “Instead of each individual Mind being separate from all others, each Mind is a fragment or facet of a single overarching MIND. Each individual Mind is that aspect of MIND that is responsible for perceiving the state of the associated individual physical brain.” (Blood).  Every individual must be aspects of the same Mind in order to be connected to one another in a common reality.  They cannot co-exist in a common space and time, because there is no objective space and time, so this appears to be the only way to keep them grounded in a common reality.  This view initially seems absurd, but a carefully prepared thought experiment can at least support the idea that these Minds truly are connected and are aspects of one and the same thing.  Imagine two people laying down on an operating table.  Their skulls are cut open and their brains are exposed.  A mad scientist then begins to wire the two brains together through some very sophisticated technology, sharing the sensory inputs, memories, and emotions between brains.  Before long, the two brains seem to operate as one, and it would seem reasonable that what was once two consciousness Minds has now been merged into one common Mind.  At first glance, subjective consciousness between individuals seems to be an inseparable barrier, and many religious traditions assume that each individual has his own spirit, which is absolutely separate and fundamental.  But this thought experiment illustrates that this unity of consciousness, which is always experienced in the singular, can strangely absorb other Minds when brains are wired up to share information.  When Schrodinger was formulating quantum mechanics, he was heavily influenced by Eastern philosophy, where these ideas are not uncommon.  In his book My View of the World, he says, “Vedanta teaches that consciousness is singular, all happenings are played out in one universal consciousness and there is no multiplicity of selves.”  (Schrodinger, My View of the World) But even if this thought experiment helps to illustrate how this could be possible, it is still extremely confusing and unintuitive.  All people are somehow one and the same Mind, interconnected in some inexplicable way, yet they are all still individually choosing an individual experience, and even more bizarrely, this Over-Arching Mind somehow brings individual Minds to agreement on a common reality; unfortunately, this unsatisfactory alternative to wave collapse is the logical conclusion one is led to when postulating Minds outside of space and time which must somehow agree on a common reality. Otherwise one falls into solipsism.

The famed physicist Richard Feynman once said, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you do not understand quantum mechanics.”  These strange equations describe physical reality with absolute precision, allowing the modern world to build much of its modern technology, including computers, all electronics, and even pharmaceutical drugs, yet physicists and philosophers have no idea what they actually mean.  They describe a strange reality, where multiple possibilities exist at every turn, yet strangely, each sentient observer only seems to perceive one common reality which everyone he perceives agrees on.  No matter which interpretation of quantum mechanics one takes, mystery and confusion are soon to follow, and thinking hard about these questions can easily make one lose touch with reality.  It is not likely that the world will see a commonly accepted interpretation of quantum mechanics anytime soon because these questions get to the very heart of what the human experience actually is, and the second one thinks he has the universe figured out, it likes to put him in his place.

Works Cited:

Albert, David Z. Quantum Mechanics and Experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1994. Print.

Blood, Casey. (2010, Jan 10). A primer on quantum mechanics and its interpretations.  Retrieved July 27, 2016, from the arXiv database.

Maxwell, Nicholas. “Induction and Scientific Realism: Einstein versus Van Fraassen Part Three: Einstein, Aim-Oriented Empiricism and the Discovery of Special and General Relativity.” The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 44.2 (1993): 275-305. Web.

Moore, Walter John. Schrödinger, Life and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. Print.

Schrödinger, Erwin. Nature and the Greeks. Cambridge: U, 1954. Print.

Schrödinger, Erwin. My View of the World. Cambridge: U, 1964. Print.

Von Neumann, John. Mathematical Foundations Of Quantum Physics. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press. 1996. Print.


Topics: Philosophy, Physics | No Comments »

Wikileaks Proves Primary Was Rigged Against Bernie

July 24, 2016

I wrote a post a little while ago about how the Democratic primary was rigged against Bernie.  I had several people make fun of me, claiming I was engaging in “conspiracy theories”.  I even had another send me a video from College Humor, where they had dimwitted students trying to prove Bernie was actually winning with “Bernie Math”.  Well, now these people can go read the 20,000 leaked emails from the DNC acquired by Wikileaks.   The entire organization was doing everything they could to thwart Bernie.

For example, they were working hand in hand with the mainstream media, such as MSNBC, trying to come up with tactics to destroy his popularity.  They even resorted to having plants within his campaign, trying to find ways to sabotage him.  They were even illegally funneling money to Hillary, money that was supposed to go to the nominee.  The list goes on and on.  I really wish people were not so naive.

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