Robin V. Sears was national director of the NDP for seven years and managed three national campaigns. He is a principal of the Earnscliffe Strategy Group and a fellow of the Broadbent Institute.
Related Letters and Responses
Paul Adams Ottawa, Ontario
There may be no one better or worse situated than Robin Sears to review my book Power Trap: How Fear and Loathing Between New Democrats and Liberals Keep Stephen Harper in Power—and What Can Be Done About It on the future of the federal Liberals and NDP. No one better because Sears has spent a lifetime in the higher echelons of party politics and played a role in the abortive Liberal-NDP coalition talks in 2008.
No one worse because Sears is a charter member of the party professional class whose tribal rivalries are the obstacle to a united progressive effort to replace the Harper Conservatives.
Strangely, if you leave aside Sears’s patented condescending sneer and several misstatements about my views, he seems to agree with the thesis of my book. That is, the Liberals and NDP are now competing largely for the same voters. Under our first-past-the-post system that gives the Conservatives an unearned advantage.
Indeed, in his review Sears adds further chapter and verse to the subtitle of my book.
Our main point of disagreement seems to be how progressive Canadians will find unity. He recasts himself and his backroom friends as the heroes of the story, working behind the scenes to mend rifts and build bridges—in perfect obscurity except when, well, Sears writes a book review.
I agree that men and women like him may eventually be the midwives of a new party. Still, at various times Sears, Brian Topp, Jamie Heath, Eddie Goldenberg, Nathan Cullen, Ed Broadbent, Bob Rae and Jean Chrétien have all advocated party collaboration. Yet nothing much has happened. Public debate about party merger has been desultory in the NDP, and non-existent among Liberals.
Meanwhile, a recent Ipsos Reid poll suggested that more than half of NDP supporters and nearly two thirds of Liberal supporters favour a merger.
It may be that when the history of the coming years is written, we will learn that the Harper government was defeated by a progressive political force crafted entirely by political insiders, and perhaps the book will be entitled The House That Robin Built.
But in the meantime, I don’t think that the rest of us should be told that this is none of our business. Sears says leave it to the party pros. I say that citizens and supporters of the opposition parties should also have a voice. Parties are not the sole property of those who run them; the voters they purport to represent also deserve a voice.
Matthew Kleban New York City, New York
“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.
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.