08 July 2006

Another hoax in physics?

Ask to a physicist working with gravitational waves to write some questions about his area and then ask another physicist and a social scientist to answer those questions. Deliver the answers to a group of physicists and researchers in human sciences and ask them to find out which is the real physicist. Surprisingly, the physicists group could not recognize his real partner while the human scientists did much better. This was a front page matter of Folha de São Paulo (in Portuguese and subscription required) today. It reminds the Sokal affair, when the physicist Alan Sokal published a pseudo-scientific paper in a humanities journal, and the Bogdanov affair, a controversy about some papers on the Big Bang published by the Bogdanov brothers in respectable physics journals. They all raise serious questions about the strength of the peer-review system that selected the research for publication.

Fortunately the gravitational wave affair is not a hoax but the result of a study made by Harry Collins and collaborators at the Cardiff School of Social Sciences. Collins is a sociologist which works on the nature of scientific knowledge and has some interest in physics. He wrote the book Gravity’s Shadow , where he presents a sociological view of the search for gravitational waves, discusses the nature of knowledge, the processes of scientific discovery and the nature of sociological research (as stated in his website; I did not read the book). In his paper , which he says is to be published in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 37A, 4 (2006), he reports on his new work described above. The questions made by the gravitational wave physicist are not trivial. Some of them are:

Is a spherical resonant mass detector equally sensitive to radiation from all over the sky?

State if after a burst of gravitational waves pass by, a bar antenna continues to ring and mirrors of an interferometer continue to oscillate from their mean positions? (only motion in the relevant frequency range is important).

Imagine that the end mirrors of an interferometer are equally but oppositely (electrically) charged. Could the result of a radio-wave incident on the interferometer be the same as that of a gravitational wave?

Of course, if you know some physics you can justify any answer, be it right or wrong. The questions were answered by a physicist and by Collins himself. Then 9 physicists were asked to see the answers and to point out who was the real physicist. Just one chose the real physicist, 7 chose Collins and one could not reach any conclusion. In the other group, 8 researchers, mainly from humanities, analyzed the answers. Five of them chose the real physicist, 2 chose Collins and one could not decide among the two.

So what can we learn from all this? This is similar to a Turing test where you have to decide if a computer has intelligence. You ask questions to a computer and to a person, without knowing who is who, and analyze the answers. If you can not decide who is the person then the computer has developed intelligence. What Collins is showing is that even if you have a general knowledge of some area but are not completely immersed in it, you can make comments and even give suggestions as if you were a specialist. In fact, sometimes we do that when refereeing papers or proposals in areas close to ours. This is what happened in the Sokal and Bogdanov affairs. Folha de São Paulo reports that Sokal said that he is strike by Collins work. I can understand why.

I have now found out that this was also published in Nature. A subscription is needed and I can not read it from home. Anyway, here is the link.

UPDATE: Folha de São Paulo article (in Portuguese) can be accessed here. There is also some comments by Marcelo Leite (in Portuguese) published yestarday which can be accessed here. Nature is not accessible unless you have a premium subscription (my instituion doesn't have one).


Michael said...

But do these questions admit a right or wrong answer? And if so does the article mention whether Collins (and the physicists) answers were right?

Victor Rivelles said...

Dear Michael,

Some of the questions are yes or no questions and, of course, you can elaborate on the answers. Other questions need some justification. See the paper. It brings the questions and answers. But recall that Collins has a good general knowledge on gravitational waves because of his work at LIGO.