Solution Aversion

Solution Aversion

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.