I have had the misfortune to encounter many terms for psychological dysfunction in many venues. Cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, the Dunning-Kruger effect – I have witnessed them all, all too often, both in the context of science and elsewhere. Those of us who are trained as scientists are still human: though we fancy ourselves immune, we are still subject to the same cognitive foibles as everyone else. Generally our training only suffices us to get past the oft-repeated ones.

Solution aversion is the knee-jerk reaction we have to deny the legitimacy of a problem when we don’t like the solution admitting said problem would entail. An obvious example in the modern era is climate change. People who deny the existence of this problem are usually averse to its solution.

Let me give an example from my own experience. To give some context requires some circuitous story-telling. We’ll start with climate change, but eventually get to cosmology.

Recently I encountered a lot of yakking on social media about an encounter between Bill Nye (the science guy) and Will Happer in a dispute about climate change. The basic gist of most of the posts was that of people (mostly scientists, mostly young enough to have watched Bill Nye growing up) cheering on Nye as he “eviscerated” Happer’s denialism. I did not watch any of the exchange, so I cannot evaluate the relative merits of their arguments. However, there is a more important issue at stake here: credibility.

Bill Nye has done wonderful work promoting science. Younger scientists often seem to revere him as a sort of Mr. Rogers of science. Which is great. But he is a science-themed entertainer, not an actual scientist. His show demonstrates basic, well known phenomena at a really, well, juvenile level. That’s a good thing – it clearly helped motivate a lot of talented people to become scientists. But recapitulating well-known results is very different from doing the cutting edge science that establishes new results that will become the fodder of future textbooks.

Will Happer is a serious scientist. He has made numerous fundamental contributions to physics. For example, he pointed out that the sodium layer in the upper atmosphere could be excited by a laser to create artificial guide stars for adaptive optics, enabling ground-based telescopes to achieve resolutions comparable to that of the Hubble space telescope. I suspect his work for the JASON advisory group led to the implementation of adaptive optics on Air Force telescopes long before us astronomers were doing it. (This is speculation on my part: I wouldn’t know; it’s classified.)

My point is that, contrary to the wishful thinking on social media, Nye has no more standing to debate Happer than Mickey Mouse has to debate Einstein. Nye, like Mickey Mouse, is an entertainer. Einstein is a scientist. If you think that comparison is extreme, that’s because there aren’t many famous scientists whose name I can expect everyone to know. A better analogy might be comparing Jon Hirschtick (a successful mechanical engineer, Nye’s field) to I.I. Rabi (a prominent atomic physicist like Happer), but you’re less likely to know who those people are. Most serious scientists do not cultivate public fame, and the modern examples I can think of all gave up doing real science for the limelight of their roles as science entertainers.

Another important contribution Happer made was to the study and technology of spin polarized nuclei. If you place an alkali element and a noble gas together in vapor, they may form weak van der Waals molecules. An alkali is basically a noble gas with a spare electron, so the two can become loosely bound, sharing the unwanted electron between them. It turns out – as Happer found and explained – that the wavefunction of the spare electron overlaps with the nucleus of the noble. By spin polarizing the electron through the well known process of optical pumping with a laser, it is possible to transfer the spin polarization to the nucleus. In this way, one can create large quantities of polarized nuclei, an amazing feat. This has found use in medical imaging technology. Noble gases are chemically inert, so safe to inhale. By doing so, one can light up lung tissue that is otherwise invisible to MRI and other imaging technologies.

I know this because I worked on it with Happer in the mid-80s. I was a first year graduate student in physics at Princeton where he was a professor. I did not appreciate the importance of what we were doing at the time. Will was a nice guy, but he was also my boss and though I respected him I did not much like him. I was a high-strung, highly stressed, 21 year old graduate student displaced from friends and familiar settings, so he may not have liked me much, or simply despaired of me amounting to anything. Mostly I blame the toxic arrogance of the physics department we were both in – Princeton is very much the Slytherin of science schools.

In this environment, there weren’t many opportunities for unguarded conversations. I do vividly recall some of the few that happened. In one instance, we had heard a talk about the potential for industrial activity to add enough carbon dioxide to the atmosphere to cause an imbalance in the climate. This was 1986, and it was the first I had heard of what is now commonly referred to as climate change. I was skeptical, and asked Will’s opinion. I was surprised by the sudden vehemence of his reaction:

“We can’t turn off the wheels of industry, and go back to living like cavemen.”

I hadn’t suggested any such thing. I don’t even recall expressing support for the speaker’s contention. In retrospect, this is a crystal clear example of solution aversion in action. Will is a brilliant guy. He leapt ahead of the problem at hand to see the solution being a future he did not want. Rejecting that unacceptable solution became intimately tied, psychologically, to the problem itself. This attitude has persisted to the present day, and Happer is now known as one of the most prominent scientists who is also a climate change denier.

Being brilliant never makes us foolproof against being wrong. If anything, it sets us up for making mistakes of enormous magnitude.

There is a difference between the problem and the solution. Before we debate the solution, we must first agree on the problem. That should, ideally, be done dispassionately and without reference to the solutions that might stem from it. Only after we agree on the problem can we hope to find a fitting solution.

In the case of climate change, it might be that we decide the problem is not so large as to require drastic action. Or we might hope that we can gradually wean ourselves away from fossil fuels. That is easier said than done, as many people do not seem to appreciate the magnitude of the energy budget what needs replacing. But does that mean we shouldn’t even try? That seems to be the psychological result of solution aversion.

Either way, we have to agree and accept that there is a problem before we can legitimately decide what to do about it. Which brings me back to cosmology. I did promise you a circuitous bit of story-telling.

Happer’s is just the first example I encountered of a brilliant person coming to a dubious conclusion because of solution aversion. I have had many colleagues who work on cosmology and galaxy formation say straight out to me that they would only consider MOND “as a last resort.” This is a glaring, if understandable, example of solution aversion. We don’t like MOND, so we’re only willing to consider it when all other options have failed.

I hope it is obvious from the above that this attitude is not a healthy one in science. In cosmology, it is doubly bad. Just when, exactly, do we reach the last resort?

We’ve already accepted that the universe is full of dark matter, some invisible form of mass that interacts gravitationally but not otherwise, has no place in the ridiculously well tested Standard Model of particle physics, and has yet to leave a single shred of credible evidence in dozens of super-sensitive laboratory experiments. On top of that, we’ve accepted that there is also a distinct dark energy that acts like antigravity to drive the apparent acceleration of the expansion rate of the universe, conserving energy by the magic trick of a sign error in the equation of state that any earlier generation of physicists would have immediately rejected as obviously unphysical. In accepting these dark denizens of cosmology we have granted ourselves essentially infinite freedom to fine-tune any solution that strikes our fancy. Just what could possibly constitute the last resort of that?

When you have a supercomputer, every problem looks like a simulation in need of more parameters.

Being a brilliant scientist never precludes one from being wrong. At best, it lengthens the odds. All too often, it leads to a dangerous hubris: we’re so convinced by, and enamored of, our elaborate and beautiful theories that we see only the successes and turn a blind eye to the failures, or in true partisan fashion, try to paint them as successes. We can’t have a sensible discussion about what might be right until we’re willing to admit – seriously, deep-down-in-our-souls admit – that maybe ΛCDM is wrong.

I fear the field has gone beyond that, and is fissioning into multiple, distinct branches of science that use the same words to mean different things. Already “dark matter” means something different to particle physicists and astronomers, though they don’t usually realize it. Soon our languages may become unrecognizable dialects to one another; already communication across disciplinary boundaries is strained. I think Kuhn noted something about different scientists not recognizing what other scientists were doing as science, nor regarding the same evidence in the same way. Certainly we’ve got that far already, as successful predictions of the “other” theory are dismissed as so much fake news in a world unhinged from reality.


11 thoughts on “Solution Aversion

  1. “Being brilliant never makes us foolproof against being wrong.” It seems to me that the empirical successes of MOND indicate 1 of 2 possibilities: (1) Newtonian-Einsteinian gravitational theory is 100% correct but appears to be slightly wrong for some unknown reason; or (2) Newtonian-Einsteinian gravitational theory really is significantly wrong. My experience of sending many emails to string theorists might suggest that they are much more likely to create models of MOND-chameleon particles than to consider alternatives such as Bekenstein’s TeVeS or similar actual modifications of Einstein’s field equations. The MOND-chameleon particles would have variable effective mass depending upon nearby gravitational acceleration. In other words, MOND-chameleon articles would have pole masses in general relativity theory and running masses in quantum gravitational theory — the running masses would depend on the nearby gravitational acceleration for the MOND-chameleon particles. The following question needs to be brought to the attention of string theorists: How might stringy models of MOND-chameleon particles be created? I conjecture that there might be a way of making MOND 100% compatible with general relativity theory as follows: Assume that there exist ± alternate-universe-charges (AUCs). Assume that gravitons have + AUCs and gravitinos have – AUCs in our universe, and there exist gravitons with – AUCs and gravitinos with + AUCs in alternate universes. My guess is that there might be a way of using AUCs to create a string theoretical model in which gravitinos are MOND-chameleon particles that have variable effective mass depending upon nearby gravitational acceleration. What are the counter-arguments against the preceding idea?


  2. One of the original selling points of string theory was that gravity “just fell out” of it. And here we are, many years later, lost in a vast landscape of stringy membranes. I wonder whether the failure to converge to a theory of everything is because we’ve been playing solitaire with an incomplete deck of cards. String theorists generally don’t know about MOND, let alone consider obtaining MOND-like behavior a virtue. For all I know, they’ve discovered the right theory and discarded it because it had this strange low-acceleration behavior.


  3. The premise of reductio ad absurdum is there is something wrong with the basics. Possibly a blank sheet approach might be considered and everything is laid out for questioning. If I may lay out an idea I see worth considering:
    We experience reality as flashes of cognition and so think of time as the point of the present, moving from past to future, which physics codifies as measures of duration, but the reality is that as time is an effect of change, it is the events which go future to past. Tomorrow becomes yesterday because the earth turns.
    This makes time an effect of activity, similar to temperature, color, pressure, etc. Duration is simply the state of the present, as forms coalesce and dissolve. Time is asymmetric because it is a measure of action and action is inertial. The earth turns one direction, not the other.
    Simultaneity of the present was dismissed on the ground different events could be viewed in different sequence from different points of view, but this is no more remarkable than seeing the moon as it was a moment ago, simultaneous with seeing stars as they were years ago. It is the energy being conserved as the present, not the information carried by it.
    Different clocks can run at different rates because they are separate actions. Much as a creature with faster metabolism will age faster than one with slower metabolism. The turtle outlives the hare.
    Which all goes to say the premise of spacetime as the physical explanation for the math of General Relativity is as reasonable as giant cosmic gearwheels were for the math of epicycles. (For similar reasons, as narrative is as foundational to our thought process, as the earth is central to our view of the universe.)
    We could use ideal gas laws to correlate temperature and volume, similar to how GR uses the speed of light to correlate distance and duration.
    I could offer up more heresies, such as the possibility of understanding the cosmos as a giant convection cycle of expanding radiation and coalescing mass, but I thought I would see your response to this point.


  4. If I might run a few more ideas by you:

    When it was first understood that all galaxies are redshifted proportional to distance, in all directions, it was realized this makes us appear to be at the center of this expansion, so the argument became that space itself is expanding, based on spacetime being physically real.
    Which overlooks that the speed of light is measured as a Constant in GR. If the light is redshifted because it takes longer to cross this distance between galaxies, then its speed is not Constant to the space. There are more lightyears, not expanding lightyears. As Einstein said, “Space is what you measure with a ruler” and the intergalactic ruler is the speed of light, aka. lightyears.
    So two metrics of space are being based on the same intergalactic light. One, expanding, based on its spectrum and one stable, based on its speed. Making it conventional doppler effect, just overlooking the light speed as still being the Constant/denominator.
    Now we are at the center of our point of view of the universe, so an optical effect would explain why we appear at the center.
    Here is an interesting paper, making the argument that multi spectrum “wave packets” would redshift due to distance, while it is single spectrum “packets” that would only redshift due to recession.
    Here is an interesting experiment showing the “loading theory of light.”
    Whether one considers this, or simply that our telescopes necessarily receive pixels, the light of those distant galaxies is necessarily quantized. Now if they were photons which traveled as particular quanta of light the entire distance, it would seem we would only be able to extract the amount of information carried from its particular point of emission, yet astronomers seem to be able to extract a lot of information from very little light. So it seems reasonable to consider those quanta that our telescopes do receive are samplings of waves and thus multi spectrum, not single spectrum.
    Now if redshift is an optical effect, then the background radiation would be light of very distant sources, shifted completely off the visible spectrum and the solution to Olber’s paradox.
    If this effect compounds on itself, it would explain why the rate of redshift goes parabolic, eliminating the need for Dark Energy. Dark Energy is based on the assumption the very edge of the visible universe is closest to the Big Bang and therefore why it appears receding at close to the speed of light. It was originally assumed this rate of redshift dropped off steadily, but observations by Perlmutter, et al, showed it dropped off rapidly and then evened out. To use a ballistics analogy, it would be as if the universe were shot out of a cannon and after it slowed, a rocket motor kicked in to maintain a steadier rate.
    Yet if we look at this effect from our point of view, then redshift starts slowly and builds, eventually going parabolic. Which a compounding optical effect would explain.
    Now the universe does appear overall flat, so what if it actually is flat and the inward curvature of gravity is balanced by this outward, radiological effect? To use the old bowling ball and rubber sheet analogy of gravity, suppose the sheet is over water, so that where there are no objects pressing down, the sheet pushes upward in inverse proportion. Meaning that what Hubble discovered was proof of Einstein’s original Cosmological Constant; The outward curvature to balance the inward curvature of gravity, keeping the overall universe from collapsing and thus Flat!


  5. It is my suspicion that when the James Webb space telescope becomes operational, far more detail than can be reasonably fit in the time limits of the current model will be observed.


  6. “String theorists generally don’t know about MOND …” It seems to me plausible that there only 2 ways to explain to explain MOND in terms of string theory: (1) string theory with the infinite nature hypothesis and supersymmetry (MOND-chameleon particles?) or (2) string theory with the finite nature hypothesis and the Fernández-Rañada-Milgrom effect. Keep in mind that Witten seems to like supersymmetry. I think it might be a mistake to underestimate Witten.
    “How can quantum gravity help explain the origin of the universe?” — Edward Witten
    http://www.theory.caltech.edu/~preskill/millennium.html Strings 2000 Conference – Physics Problems for the Next Millennium
    Is there a unified theory of mathematics and theoretical physics? Is mathematics that part of human thought which is precise, logically consistent, and fundamentally important? My guess is that, over the next 20 years, string theory will split into 2 distinct disciplines: (1) stringy physics which attempts to make empirically valid predictions and to explain the foundations of physics and (2) stringy mathematics which attempts to prove mathematical theorems with motivations from stringy physics. I make the 4 following conjectures: (1) The Copenhagen Interpretation is philosophically wrong but empirically irrefutable. (2) Bell’s theorem is philosophically wrong but empirically irrefutable. (3) Supersymmetry is philosophically wrong but empirically irrefutable. (4) The string landscape is philosophically wrong but empirically irrefutable. What do I mean by “philosophically wrong”? In terms of empiricism, a theory might be, at the most fundamental level, actually wrong but able to generate mathematical structures that (although mathematically awkward) can model any plausible empirical reality. The Copenhagen Interpretation is remarkably successful in pragmatic terms but does not specify in mathematically precise terms what measurement is, what the fundamental cosmological structure is, how many degrees of freedom there are in nature, or how many fundamentally distinct quantum fields exist. Consider the “Yang-Mills Existence and Mass Gap” problem as specified among the 7 Millennium Prize Problems.
    If the Yang-Mills Existence and Mass Gap Problem has a positive solution in terms of existence then I would bet in favor of string theory with the infinite nature hypothesis. If not, then I would bet in favor of string theory with the finite nature hypothesis. My guess is that, at the Planck scale, the concepts of energy and spacetime break down in terms of 2 possibilities: (1) higher mathematics (i.e. the mathematical symmetries of the string landscape) or (2) lower mathematics (i.e. Wolfram’s cosmological automaton). Note that I have suggested 3 modifications to Einstein’s field equation: (1) a modification corresponding to the alleged Fernández-Rañada-Milgrom effect; (2) a modification corresponding to the Koide formula and the explanation of the space roar; and (3) a modification corresponding to Lestone’s heuristic string theory. Am I completely wrong? Perhaps so — I suggest that there are 2 main possibilities: (1) string theory with the infinite nature hypothesis and modification of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle or (2) string theory with the finite nature hypothesis and modification of Einstein’s field equations in a way compatible with Milgrom’s MOND.


  7. It occurs to me that your analysis of the relative qualifications of the debaters (Nye and Happer) is a bit off. It is true that Nye is in no way qualified to debate Happer on the topic of nuclear physics.
    But climate change isn’t nuclear physics, and, as far as I know, Happer is no more or less qualified in the subject than you or I or Bill Nye. In fact I would claim that they are both equally qualified in the field (more so than you or I) as a result of having done their own reading and writing on the topic.
    I think this is the first time I have found myself seriously disagreeing with you about anything.


  8. Happer is an atomic physicist who has made substantive contributions about the interaction of light with matter. The transfer of radiation through the atmosphere falls in that field. I gave an example of a contribution he made that is relevant outside his field: artificial guide stars. He has a legitimate scientific concern about the opacity of CO2 in the atmosphere. While I doubt this is more than a detail and disagree with him about the issue of climate change, he is more qualified than most to address the subject.

    For myself, radiative transfer through atmospheres, both stellar and planetary, is a fundamental part of astronomy: something you have to learn to be literate in the field. I do not work directly in the atmospheres, but I have worked in the closely related field of nebular physics and, before I went all astronomy, on related subjects in geology (specifically the impact of trees on the carbon cycle. Basically, they pump H20 into the air and CO2 into the ground.) I understand the issues involved in planetary climate a lot better than most people, including most scientists who are not themselves specialists in earth’s climate.

    I do not know Nye’s sources. My point is that he is not himself a source. What he has learned, correctly or not, has been gleaned from reading the work of – or second-hand reports on – the work of practicing scientists: people like Happer and myself. We may be wrong about this or that, but we are legitimate sources. He is not.

    I have nothing against Nye any more than I do Mr. Rogers. I loved watching Mr. Rogers as a little kid. That doesn’t make him an authority on climate change. Nye is an entertainer and science communicator. That is a valuable thing, but it is not the same as being a scientist. I object to people confusing the public face of “gee, isn’t science cool” with actual scientists. People are given more credit for being celebrities than actually being qualified.


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