Issues

April 2015

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Re: “Writing About Harper,” by Andrew Coyne

I suppose people can read my book, Kill The Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know, and compare it with Mr. Coyne’s polemic and draw their own conclusions. I remain convinced that Harper has taken this country on a revolutionary course. He has greatly accelerated the deterioration of parliamentary accountability. He has delegitimized the media as an important part of the political process. He has set out to create a sycophantic media under the control of his office (24/7). He has sought out and destroyed the careers of public servants whose findings have challenged this revolution. At the same time, he has tried to recreate Canadian identity from that of a peacekeeping nation to a warrior nation.

If that’s fine with Mr. Coyne, and if criticism of Harper’s actions generate anger and vindictiveness in Mr. Coyne that manifests itself as ink on your pages, that’s fine with me. We’re still a free country. For now.

Mark Bourrie
Ottawa, Ontario


Andrew Coyne is to be commended for his review of Mark Bourrie’s Kill The Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know and Michael Harris’s Party of One: Stephen Harper and Canada’s Radical Makeover. He is quite right that we learn nothing from such works; they serve only as a vicarious confirmation of one’s prior views. To these two books add at least half a dozen other recent titles that fall in the same category: diatribes, with what Coyne calls an “obsessive focus on Harper.”

But unfortunately the problem goes much deeper. Beyond the psycho-therapeutic, there is another and much greater category of books that are positively misleading. All propose what I would call technical fixes to the problems of governance in Canada. All have their own engineering solutions: whether it be introducing some form of proportional representation or empowering backbench members of Parliament, or making senators accountable, or codifying conventions, or making more use of digital technology, etc. All share a fundamental belief in the tenets of liberal democracy. A good example of this type of work is Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government by Peter Aucoin, Lori Beth Turnbull and Mark D. Jarvis. Coyne himself may fall into this category as he obviously equates our system of governance with “institution[s] of democratic accountability.”

Standing out from both these political genres is Susan Delacourt’s Shopping for Votes: How Politicians Choose Us and We Choose Them, which is a positive response to Coyne’s question: can someone add something new to the subject? She is aware that the evils plaguing our governance system are not due to the machinations of some diabolical leader or to a particular political ideology. She has traced the tremendous transformation that has come over all major political parties in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia since World War Two. Marketing and the new science of analytics have turned all of them into monsters that are neither fish nor fowl: that live by neither the rules of the private sector or the public.

Starting from the reality described by Delacourt, the task for us in Canada should be to examine the impact that today’s political parties are having on our specific Westminster system of governance. And by that, I do not mean reciting the shibboleths of liberal democracy or democratic accountability, but rather rediscovering the rich and ancient tradition of jurisprudence that we have been fortunate enough to inherit—a tradition distinguished by the following characteristics: a normative (as opposed to a positive) concept of the rule of law; institutions of intermediation (councils, courts, Parliament and commissions) united in and under the authority of the Crown; and synthetic and responsible decision making by privy councillors and governor-in-council appointees.

 

Paul Benoit
Ottawa, Ontario


Andrew Coyne’s review of Mark Bourrie and Michael Harris’s books on Stephen Harper omitted a necessary discussion of Harper’s religious beliefs. These beliefs provide a major explanation of Mr. Harper’s behaviour.

I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian household and can readily identify many aspects of their behaviour: an absolute conviction that they know the truth, an intolerance for opposing views and a ruthlessness in condemning opponents as evildoers are all normal in the circles of extreme right wing religions. Blind support for Israel is also part of their behaviour pattern based on texts in the Bible.

The religious right in the Tea Party controls a minority of representatives in the US Congress. In Canada, we have given them essentially uncontrolled power over the whole federal government.

Political correctness and good manners normally prevent discussions of a person’s religion but when that religion is the basis for a radical assault on our civil liberties, a police state and the suppression of other peoples’ rights, it is time to call a spade a spade and defend our democracy.

 

Carl Turkstra
Hamilton, Ontario


Re: “Keep in Touch,” by Bronwyn Drainie

In her review of my book Tell Everyone, Drainie suggests “What the social media universe seems to be best at, in terms of the common good, is helping out instantly during enormous physical crises – earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and fires,” but she doubts my contention that the bonds fostered by social media are “the glue that helps societies prosper and endure.”

There is a risk in underestimating the long-term impact of novel forms of social action nurtured by emerging communication technologies. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, few would have predicted it would become a defining moment in the civil rights movement. Though segregation on Montgomery buses ended in 1956, it took years of campaigning before discrimination was banned in 1964. Even then, the fight for civil rights continued.

In the winter of 2012, social media was critical in turning a moment into a movement, giving rise to Idle No More, the largest nationwide social action movement in Canada since the civil rights movement in the 1960s. As I write in Tell Everyone, it grew from a Facebook page and a tweet into an indigenous-led movement that used social media to rally and engage Canadian and global publics. It is just one example of how activists have appropriated social media as a space to connect, communicate and coordinate in previously unimaginable ways.

It is too easy to dismiss nascent movements like Idle No More. It is part of a new wave of activism, from Occupy Wall Street in the US, to the Indignados in Spain, to Yo Soy 132 in Mexico, where social media has been crucial in uniting people around a cause. On traditional media, such movements tend to be first neglected and then dismissed. On social media, they emerge as vibrant manifestations of the passions and hopes of engaged individuals.

To argue that social media does not matter is to ignore how the power of sharing is transforming how we understand and give meaning to our world. The urge to share is a constant in human history. Technology is not going to turn us into new beings but it does influence the way we think and live. As I write in Tell Everyone, “the marketplace of ideas is being reshaped by the volume, visibility, speed and reach of social media.” And ideas change the world.

Alfred Hermida
Vancouver, British Columbia


Re: “An Imperfect Truth,” by David Orrell

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  From where I sit, modern science is working pretty well, producing such near-magical  marvels as smart phones, nuclear power, and space travel. But Unger and Smolin’s The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time attacks the fundamental scientific notion that nature is governed by a set of immutable, mathematical equations, and proposes an alternative paradigm.

Science begins with a broad set of hypotheses and  proceeds by eliminating those that fail experimental or logical tests, leaving a core of as-yet unfalsified proposals that may be true, or at least useful approximations. The idea that there are immutable, mathematical laws of nature (such that experiments are repeatable with consistent results, and logic can be used to analyze theories) underpins this procedure. Like everything else in science, however, it can be falsified. Scientists are constantly probing natural law, searching for anomalies and exceptions. If the laws of nature change tomorrow or exhibit a feature that cannot be described mathematically, this will likely be discovered, and the discoverer will become very famous indeed. And even if natural law is found to change, quite plausibly the changes themselves would be governed by mathematical laws.

Smolin and Unger’s primary argument for radical change is what they call the “crisis” in modern cosmology. That cosmology is in crisis would come as a (pleasant) surprise to a majority of cosmologists, many of whom are somewhat discouraged by the success of the so-called “standard model of cosmology” that accurately predicted the flood of precision cosmological data that has become available in the last decade. For practicing scientists any anomaly is good news: it provides an opportunity for discovery, and is quickly exploited  by an army of eager researchers. In reality, the latest and greatest cosmological data sets show only faint hints of anything not predicted by the standard theory.

Smolin and Unger have no plausible explanation for the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences” (the title of a seminal essay on the topic by Eugene Wigner). At one point they seek to justify it on the grounds that once collected, experimental data is unchanging and can hence be modeled with immutable mathematics (pp. 445-446).  But this misses the point entirely: as is well-known to all scientists, a theory is truly tested only when it makes predictions about future experiments with as-yet unknown results.

Let me turn to the “multiverse” or landscape of string theory: in Orrell’s review and Smolin and Unger’s book, the multiverse is presented as an example of how scientists’ faith in  immutable mathematics  leads to absurdity. If scientists accept such moonshine as multiple universes, does this not indicate something rotten at the core?

Unfortunately, this argument  is founded on a number of  basic misconceptions. In support of his incredulity, Orrell mentions Max Tegmark’s most radical (“level IV”) multiverse, an interesting but idiosyncratic philosophical speculation certainly not accepted by (or even familiar to) most scientists.

More to the point is the string landscape, a relatively concrete structure believed to follow from the mathematics of string theory.  However contrary to Unger and Smolin’s assertions, recent work indicates that current or near-future cosmological observations – specifically, the detection of positive spatial curvature – would falsify the landscape (if it is false).  Furthermore, the theory can be used to predict the signatures of cosmic bubble collisions:  violent events where two previously separate “universes” collide.  If these signatures are  detected (and cosmologists are actively searching for them) this will provide nearly irrefutable evidence for the existence of the landscape.  Hence the landscape is both falsifiable and makes positive and unique predictions that could  be observed – hardly the “radical departure from normal mechanistic science” Orrell describes. And it is not just string theory that predicts such a multiverse. Even the standard model of particle physics combined with Einstein’s theory of general relativity – two of the most well-established theories in physics – predict a  large landscape quite similar to that of string theory.

Those scientists (myself included) who take the multiverse seriously indeed do so because they believe it is mathematically predicted by the laws of physics.  Faced with a seemingly fantastical prediction, should researchers abandon these laws despite their tremendous success? The history of science is full of examples of scientific theories with seemingly absurd implications, often vigorously opposed by individuals who substituted their  personal notions of what nature ought to be for mathematical logic. But the conventional approach to science, using  mathematical laws to model physical phenomena, works too well to be abandoned. By contrast, rejecting science because one is uncomfortable with its implications has a decidedly poor track-record.

Matthew Kleban
Associate Professor of Physics at New York University
New York City, New York


The Science Games

In his response to my review, Matthew Kleban takes a quote out of context. I did not say that multiverse theory was a “radical departure from normal mechanistic science.” I said it might appear that way, but “in many respects it is better seen as a continuation of that theme.” That’s the whole point: multiverse theory is trying to look like conventional science.

The greatest successes of science have come from making predictions that are later confirmed by experiments. And the most effective justification for scientific research is that it leads to successful technologies. So scientists naturally try to align themselves with these aims. But what do you do for a highly speculative area of theory which has no track record of producing either technological innovation or accurate predictions? A common answer is to imitate such outcomes by playing what we might call the technology game, and the prediction game.

The technology game is to argue that a particular field of research promises useful spin-offs, or vicariously take credit for past successes, even where the connection is remote. “From where I sit,” writes Kleban, “modern science is working pretty well, producing such near-magical marvels as smart phones, nuclear power, and space travel.” So, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The implicit message is that opposing the current approach towards fundamental research, of the type that brought us string theory and multiverse theory, is equivalent to being anti-progress. In fact, as I showed in Truth or Beauty, despite the popularity of this argument, commercial spin-offs from fundamental physics have been rare (don’t expect a Higgs boson ray gun). And our ability to design a smart phone, which relies mostly on solid-state technology, certainly says nothing about our ability to determine the number of universes (we can’t actually call them up), or about Unger and Smolin’s point that cosmology is in crisis.

The prediction game can be played a number of ways. One is to say that a theory predicts something which everyone knows about (see Ed Witten’s claim that “String theory has the remarkable property of predicting gravity”), although this suffers from the drawback that it isn’t what prediction means. Another way to play is to make a bold prediction of some new phenomenon but leave it vague enough that it cannot be falsified. So far for example string theorists have predicted that every particle has a supersymmetric twin – thus doubling the number of particle types in existence – while remaining flexible about their exact properties such as mass. None has yet to be observed, but that isn’t a problem because it could just be that we need a larger accelerator to see them.

Cosmology is an even safer ground for playing the prediction game because it isn’t possible to run controlled experiments, and signals are often weak and elusive, more suggestion than hard proof. As in a children’s playground, all the surfaces are soft and forgiving. Scientists can stake out some open-ended predictions about a future experiment, and if the results are reasonably consistent, it is taken as a thumbs up, even though the results could be similarly consistent with any number of theories (developed or not). But if the prediction is proved false, again that doesn’t irreparably break the theory, because it can always be adjusted. It’s a game where you can win, but you can (almost) never lose. An example was the “detection” of gravitational waves which last year was touted as convincing evidence of cosmic inflation (a key component of many cosmological theories) but which turned out to be a mirage produced by space dust (the theories of course survived intact).

Here we learn that “the [string landscape] theory can be used to predict the signatures of cosmic bubble collisions.” Indeed that would be quite a find, as would a portal to a parallel universe, but it should be mentioned that so far, no related experiments have shown any such signals. I would be interested to see if the detection of positive spatial curvature actually falsified the theory – wouldn’t it just adapt? And the statement that “the standard model of particle physics combined with Einstein’s theory of general relativity … predict a large landscape quite similar to that of string theory” is news to me, and another interesting use of the word “prediction.”

Of course, real predictions are central to science. If the experiments mentioned do produce “nearly irrefutable evidence” of multiverse theory or string theory, as promised, or for that matter of Unger and Smolin’s singular universe, then that will be something to look forward to. Another possibility is that the prediction game will be allowed to run indefinitely, with none of the competing theories (which largely reflect aesthetic choices) gaining a conclusive advantage.

To see how this can work, note that the most sophisticated players of the science games are mainstream economists, who similarly take credit for all economic progress. According to an article by Peter Foster, kudos for mobile communications technology is really due to Adam Smith: “The Invisible Hand gives you the iPhone.” Economists even invented a theory, the efficient market hypothesis, which “predicts” that markets are unpredictable, thus providing a permanent excuse for their inability to foresee cosmic explosions such as the 2008 financial crash.

It is true that “rejecting science because one is uncomfortable with its implications has a decidedly poor track-record.” But that’s not what is going on here. String theory and multiverse theory are being rejected by many scientists because they have not provided a useful explanatory model of the universe. And holding on to theories that repeatedly fail to deliver doesn’t have much of a track record either.

David Orrell


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