Today I’m sharing a list of blogs that I read frequently. Although I’m ostensibly a political economist, only two of the five blogs below are about economics. The other three are about physics. These physics blogs, however, are interesting because of the sociological aspects of science that they explore. So even if you’re not interested in cosmology or particle physics, it’s worth checking out what these physicists have to say. I think you’ll find that the problems they identify are shared by all areas of science.
Written by the German physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, Backreaction explores ideas in physics as well as general problems in science. Hossenfelder started the blog in 2006, back when blogs were more like diaries (web logs). But over time, she’s turned Backreaction into one of the most-read blogs about physics.
In 2018, Hossenfelder wrote a book called Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray. She explores how the idea that theories should be ‘beautiful’ has led physicists into a scientific dead end. It’s a well-written book whose humorous tone belies its important message.
Hossenfelder explores many of the same issues on her blog. She has recently transitioned into video blogging, but her written blog remains home base. You can watch her videos on youtube and read the transcript on Backreaction. I always find her commentary informative, even when I don’t agree with her conclusions.
On a personal note, I respect Hossenfelder because she’s sacrificed her career to speak out about problems in physics. Although a veteran scientist, Hossenfelder hasn’t yet landed a tenured position. She’s put that ideals of science above careerism. I wish more scientists had the courage to do so.
Written by American astrophysicist Stacy McGaugh, Triton Station is a blog about the science and sociology of cosmology. I read Triton Station for two reasons. First, I love cosmology. There’s nothing that dispels human myopia quite like staring into the immensity of the cosmos. Second, McGaugh explores sociological issues that are common to all branches of science.
Permit me a brief foray into physics and cosmology. Our theory of gravity, you were probably taught, is among our most secure knowledge. Newton’s law of gravitation has been verified to exquisite precision within the solar system. And no experiment has ever contracted general relativity — Einstein’s theory of gravity. These theories, you probably learned, are overwhelmingly supported by evidence.
The problem is that this assertion is simply false. Everywhere we look in the cosmos, Newton’s theory of gravity fails. Pick any of the 100-billion known galaxies and watch the movement of stars. Inevitably, you’ll find that the stars move too fast to be bound by the matter we see. According to Newton’s laws, these galaxies shouldn’t exist — they should have long ago flown apart. And yet there they sit, happily disobeying the laws of gravity.
Our theory of gravity, then, is awash with evidence that contradicts it. This suggests that something is deeply wrong — that we need a new theory of gravity. What’s troubling, McGaugh observes, is that the vast majority of cosmologists don’t interpret the evidence this way. Instead, they assume that our theory of gravity is correct. The fact that stars move too quickly is then interpreted not as a contradicting Newton’s theory, but as evidence for a hidden form of matter — dark matter.
What is fascinating from a sociological perspective (and what is applicable in all areas of science) is the degree to which cosmologists are unaware of their underlying assumptions. McGaugh explores these issues vividly and lucidly. But more than being a good writer and philosopher of science, McGaugh is a great scientist. He’s done ground-breaking work exploring the motion of stars in galaxies. He’s shown that an alternative theory of gravity (called ‘modified Newtonian dynamics’) predicts almost all of the behavior that is observed in galaxies.
As with Hossenfelder, the sociological issues that McGaugh explores are applicable in all areas of science. When reading about dark matter, for instance, I’m reminded of economists’ concept of ‘technological progress’. The neoclassical theory of economic growth fails everywhere that it’s applied. The growth of capital and labor cannot (as the theory once predicted) account for the growth of real GDP. But neoclassical economists are undeterred. They turn this failed prediction into the ‘discovery’ of ‘technological progress’. In cosmology, scientists insert ‘dark matter’ wherever it’s needed to retain their theory of gravity. Similarly, economists insert ‘technological progress’ wherever it’s needed to retain their theory of economic growth.
If you’re interested in the universe, you should read Triton Station. And even if you’re not a cosmology junky, read Triton Station to understand the sociology of science.
What I like about Keen’s work is its eclecticism. He writes about monetary issues (the dynamics of credit), about the role of energy in the economy, and about the economics of climate change. It’s this last topic that I think is most important. Every few years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change writes a report that assesses the state of climate-change science. Included is a report about the economic impact of climate change. The average reader probably thinks that this economic-impact report is hard-nosed science, taking full account of the physical basis of our economy. But it’s not. The report is written largely by neoclassical economists who grossly misunderstand the threat posed by climate change.
Keen has recently devoted much of his time to debunking this fraudulent economics of climate change. His writing is accessible to the lay reader, but the analysis is anything but superficial. Keen brings to light the bizarre assumptions that are hidden deep inside the neoclassical sausage. It should be required reading for anyone who is concerned about sustainability.
Written by physicist/mathematician Peter Woit, Not Even Wrong is a blog about problems in physics. Woit became famous for his book of the same name, which was among the first to criticize the path taken by modern physics (with its fixation on esoteric, but untestable, theories like string theory).
Woit has been blogging since 2004, so there’s an enormous archive to discover. His writing ranges from technical commentary on aspects of physics, to more general discussion about the sociology of science. It’s the latter that I find the most interesting. The blog’s name stems from a comment attributed to physicist Wofgang Pauli. The worst theories, Pauli observed, aren’t wrong. They’re ‘not even wrong‘. They can’t even be tested.
As a social scientist, I’ve come to believe that many of our social-science theories are ‘not even wrong’. They simply cannot be tested. Marginal utility theory springs to mind. It’s a theory that purports to explain all aspects of human behavior — an expansiveness that has seduced many economists. The problem is that this expansiveness occurs because the theory actually makes no falsifiable predictions. It’s impossible to show that someone is not maximizing their utility. Marginal productivity theory is not even wrong.
I read Woit’s blog with one eye on physics and one eye on the social sciences. True, he’s talking about problems in the foundations of physics. But the sociological issues he identifies are applicable to all branches of science. When one school of thought gets entrenched, alternative ideas are suppressed. In physics, the dominant school goes by the name of ‘string theory’. In political economy, it’s ‘neoclassical economics’. But the groupthink behaviors are remarkably similar.
Written by economist Nathan Tankus, Notes on the Crises dives into the financial mechanics that underly governments’ reaction to the COVID pandemic. Tankus is a lucid writer, making what might otherwise be arcane details spring to life.
Reading Tankus’ analysis, you’ll probably assume that he’s a PhD-trained economist. But he’s not. In fact, he has yet to finish an undergraduate degree. Tankus’ story reminds me of Freeman Dyson — one of the great physicists of the 20th century. While Dyson made important contributions to fundamental physics, he never completed a PhD. In fact, for his whole life he was a vocal critic of the PhD system.
There is a certain freshness that comes from not being bogged down by a graduate education. Writing clearly about science involves, in many ways, forgetting what you learned to do in grad school. Out with the obtuse literature review. In with the incisive commentary. Tankus has the knowledge of a PhD-trained academic, but without the accompanying hubris and scholastic baggage. If you want to understand the economics of the COVID pandemic, read Notes on the Crises.
What are you reading?
These are the blogs that I read frequently. There are many others not mentioned that I read occasionally. I’d like to hear what blogs you read. Leave a comment with your own blog list.
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