Neil deGrasse Tyson blows it big time

This episode smacks a bit of internet drama, which I try to avoid, but it also bears on scientific discourse, censorship, and civility, and I wanted to say a few words.

According to the “Arts Beat” site of the New York Times, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who organized a prestigious debate on the origins of the universe at The American Museum of Natural History, subsequently withdrew an invitation to one participant: the physicist/philosopher David Albert. Last April I wrote about how Albert had given a pretty negative review to Lawrence Krauss’s new book, A Universe from Nothing: Why there is Something Rather Than Nothing (a book that I wasn’t too keen on, either, but for different reasons). And, sure enough, Albert and others—including Krauss—had been invited to debate the topic of how something comes from nothing at the Museum.  Then came the rude gesture:

The annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate is the American Museum of Natural History’s biggest public event, drawing sold-out crowds for an evening billed as bringing together “the finest minds in the world” to debate “pressing questions on the frontiers of scientific discovery.”

But this year’s installment, to be held March 20 under the heading “The Existence of Nothing,” may also be notable for the panelist who disappeared.

Among the speakers will be several leading physicists, including Lawrence M. Krauss, whose book “A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing” became a cause célèbre in the scientific blogosphere last spring after a scathing review in the New York Times Book Review by the philosopher David Z. Albert.

But Mr. Albert will not be onstage, having been abruptly disinvited by the museum several months after he agreed to take part.

Not only was Albert disinvited, but he was disinvited by a hero to many readers: Neil deGrasse Tyson:

The museum originally planned to take the fight inside. Last October, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, sent Mr. Albert an e-mail inviting him to take part in a discussion exploring the “kerfuffle” surrounding his review. The panel, he said, would probably have two or three physicists on it (including Mr. Krauss), a philosopher (Mr. Albert) and another person, to be determined.

But in early January, Mr. de Grasse Tyson sent Mr. Albert another e-mail rescinding the invitation, citing changes in the panel that shifted the focus “somewhat away from the original reasons that led me to invite you.” An invitation was issued shortly afterward to Jim Holt, the author of the recent best seller “Why Does the World Exist?,” which surveys the ways philosophers, cosmologists and theologians have answered the question.

Mr. Albert, who teaches at Columbia, noted in an interview that neither the title of the panel nor its basic composition — it also includes the physicists J. Richard Gott and Eva Silverstein and the journalist Charles Seife — had changed.

Note that Tyson was anticipating a “kerfuffle,” but both Albert and Krauss can be civil debaters, and both have stuff to say on this issue. Albert maintains, among other things, that Krauss’s definition of “nothing” wasn’t really nothing, and that Krauss ignored the source of physical laws that shape a quantum vacuum. (There were other issues on the value of philosophy that I’ll ignore here.) At any rate, I would have loved to see a lively discussion of these issues by the two men, both practicing physicists. I’ve always been curious about those laws of physics, as well as about “nothing”, and though I’m a tyro—and realize that the answer to “why are the laws of physics as they are?” is simply “we don’t yet know”—this would have made for an interesting if contentious discussion. But I’m sure it would have been civil. Krauss and Albert are adults and well known academics, and with that (usually) comes the ability to control oneself onstage.

So why did Tyson withdraw the invitation? For no good reason, apparently. His explanation given above seems quite flimsy given that the topic of the debate remained unchanged.

“It sparked a suspicion that Krauss must have demanded that I not be invited,” [Albert] said. “But of course I’ve got no proof.”

Mr. Tyson, in an interview, said he had withdrawn the invitation out of concern that the event (which will be streamed live at amnh.org/live) had drifted too far from the Asimov core purpose of “exposing the frontier of science as conducted by scientists.”

“I was intrigued by his argument with Krauss,” he said of Mr. Albert. “But once the panel was assembled, I took a step back and said it can’t just be an argument with Krauss.”

Mr. Krauss, who teaches at Arizona State University, said via e-mail that decisions about the lineup were Mr. Tyson’s but reiterated that he “wasn’t impressed” by Mr. Albert’s review. “If it were up to me, I wouldn’t choose to spend time onstage with him,” he added.

This is unconscionable, and reflects poorly on both Krauss (who could have stood up for Albert) and, especially, Tyson.  The event was a debate, Tyson anticipated a “kerfuffle” (i.e. an academic disagreement), and both men have things to say on the topic, which is, after all, “The Existence of Nothing.” If they were worried that the Krauss/Albert debate would dominate the symposium, well, that’s what a moderator is for. To extend an invitation and then withdraw it is not only rude but insupportable, depriving the public of what could have been an enlightening exchange of views.

Withdrawing invitations on such flimsy grounds is simply not done in academia, and reflects poorly on Tyson and The American Museum. I will let Tyson know this, and refer him to this post and any comments. I am appalled at his behavior, and, though I am not by any means in Albert’s corner, the foundation of science is free and open debate. By contravening that, Tyson shames himself and his employer.

h/t: Sean Carroll

___________

Note: Some readers may say I’m too hard on Krauss because of his recent objection to debating the Muslim apologist Hamza Tzortzis at University College London after Krauss found out that audience seating was segregated by gender (males on one side, females on the other). Krauss’s threat to walk out was indeed an admirable gesture, but was later devalued, in my opinion, by his return to the forum and participation in the debate when the seating still remained segregated (only three men moved to the women’s section, and security guards threatened to eject those three). Had I been Krauss, I would have walked out at the beginning given that the segregation wasn’t mentioned to the speaker in advance. I agree with Richard Dawkins, who, writing about the episode on the RDFRS site, said:

Unfortunately in my opinion, Lawrence agreed to return. It was a decent gesture on his part, but I can’t help wishing he had refused and generated maximum publicity for this disgraceful episode. I suspect that he too now regrets his bending over backwards to be polite, and to return. I also regret that more people didn’t move along with the three men, and it’s a bit of a shame that no women, in the spirit of Rosa Parks, moved to the men’s section.

But I wouldn’t have debated the odious Tzortzis in the first place (see his antievolution views here). To paraphrase Dawkins, it would have looked good on his c.v., but not so much on mine.

82 Comments

  1. gbjames
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 5:35 am | Permalink

    It saddens me to read this.

  2. vHF
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 5:38 am | Permalink

    The CV quip is Robert May’s, not Dawkins’.

  3. MKray
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    This is sad, but only adds to my sadness upon reading Krauss’s book and finding that it didn’t begin to answer the question on the cover… it had all the problems that David Albert and many others had pointed out. His much earlier book on dark matter was a very good popular introduction to that subject. I sometimes wonder whether Krauss is not expecting too much of people’s loyalty to a fellow member of the atheist tribe. (I’m an atheist myself, but I don’t much like tribal behavior.)

    • eric
      Posted March 14, 2013 at 7:03 am | Permalink

      I thought Krauss’ book did a good job of representing his critics’ opinions correctly. He lays out explicitly, starting in his introduction, that ‘nothing’ can have multiple meanings. He addresses each meaning in turn. And he acknowledges that his critics are right that if one uses the ‘ultimate’ meaning of nothing – not even any laws governing anything – that we do not know how QM could’ve arisen out of that state.

      Personally, to me, that last question is a bit of a nonissue. ‘No laws at all’ means no conservation law preventing something coming from nothing, eh? The big why question is only problematic when we assume the initial non-state was governed by some principle of conservation. If there is no initial rule of conservation, something can come from nothing pretty much by definition. Moreover, I don’t see how an initial non-state governed by some ill-formed, vague, qualitative law of conservation of laws wolud be any more fundamental than an initial non-state governed by QM. The philosopher’s nothing is thus no more fundamental than Krauss’ nothing.

      What is more upsetting to me is the thought that Krauss complained/blackballed Albert. He shouldn’t have done that, its a bad mark on him. And if he did, Tyson shouldn’t have acquiesed.

      • Posted March 14, 2013 at 8:37 am | Permalink

        If there is no initial rule of conservation, something can come from nothing pretty much by definition.

        You make a good point, but, further, the usual matter-from-nothing scenarios *do* obey the conservation laws (for example, a Big Bang balancing negative gravitational energy against positive energy density to give a zero-energy Big Bang).

        So, conservation laws are not a problem. The stuff that pops up out of nothing obeys them.

      • Posted March 14, 2013 at 9:46 am | Permalink

        I enjoyed Krauss’ book which helped cement my understanding of some of the more important concepts in cosmology, but I did feel a bit let down over the treatment of “nothing”.

        I’m old enough to remember meeting David Albert when he was a postdoc at Tel-Aviv University working with Aharonov (of Aharonov-Bohm fame), presumably on the philosophy of quantum mechanics which is still, I understand, part of his field (no pun intended there).

      • Posted March 14, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

        ‘What is more upsetting to me is the thought that Krauss complained/blackballed Albert. He shouldn’t have done that, its a bad mark on him. And if he did, Tyson shouldn’t have acquiesced.’

        I agree – that is what upsets me as well. The differences between the two should have been explored in public. That would have been interesting.

        Things like these ‘spats’ do a lot more damage than anyone assumes at the time.

        Sad and disappointed in both these men.

        • Posted March 14, 2013 at 10:01 am | Permalink

          You will have to get used to it. We are at the stage of angels and pins. There is a lot of politics/religion in current regressive physics and its offspring, cosmogony.

        • ladyatheist
          Posted March 14, 2013 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

          I’d rather see a spat between two people be aired in a discussion between just those two people. If this guy hadn’t been disinvited would the other participants have been reduced to bit players?

  4. Barry
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    It all sounds like Much Ado About Nothing to me.

    • morkindie
      Posted March 14, 2013 at 7:10 am | Permalink

      +1 I’ll take Tyson’s word.

    • Christopher
      Posted March 14, 2013 at 8:42 am | Permalink

      Seconded.

      • John Perkins
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 10:07 am | Permalink

        “Thirded”

    • sigh
      Posted March 14, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      Agreed. This made me think of the first world problems meme.

  5. ageofreasonxxi
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    I don’t see why Tyson’s did something shameful in retracting the invitation. Maybe he has come to regard Albert’s critique to be seriously misguided or even silly and doesn’t want him in the debate. Maybe he just finds Albert annoying (for whatever reason). The point is that Tyson has every right to change his mind and I don’t see what’s wrong with that, except in sending an invitation in the first place (not that I don’t agree with Albert’s review). As for Krauss, if he feels he has nothing to discuss with Albert (and maybe he’s annoyed, too), how is that shameful?

    • gbjames
      Posted March 14, 2013 at 6:30 am | Permalink

      Are you kidding?

      It is impolite to invite someone to your party and then call back and tell them not to show up.

      As for Krauss’s (presumed) objection to being on the same stage, then HE should withdraw himself, not get the other guy bumped. (Assuming that is what happened, which may not be true. I, for one, don’t really know.)

      • @eightyc
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 6:51 am | Permalink

        +1

      • ageofreasonxxi
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 9:23 am | Permalink

        Sure, it’s not very polite, but if Tyson felt having them both on stage would not benefit the discussion, he can choose whom to dis-invite. Still, he should’ve thought of that before he invited Albert.
        I don’t know what role Krauss had in all this, so it’s pointless to speculate further.

        • gbjames
          Posted March 14, 2013 at 9:58 am | Permalink

          You’re making a legalist argument. Sure Tyson can dis-invite. He can call the whole thing off if he decides to. But doing so shows him to be disrespectful of his colleagues. It is unprofessional. It is not illegal.

          • Heber
            Posted March 14, 2013 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

            ^^ Exactly my thoughts. Nobody is saying he CAN’T do it. Of course he can; so much so that he actually did. We’re saying that it was crass, impolite, and disingenuous for Tyson to withdraw the invitation. Especially if the reason was that it would spark too much debate…. at the debate!! WTF

      • Matt Bowman
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 10:47 am | Permalink

        Frankly, I find this news particularly annoying because Tyson is making the decision. Tyson should not have retracted the invitation to Albert. In fact, Tyson is one who is always calling for debate to continue. That is part of his stance on why he calls himself an agnostic, and refuses to call himself an atheist. I’m surprised he would do this.

        I’ve found Tyson to be very controlling during talks and debates. I find that he often chews up more time than necessary. In a conversation about science with Tyson and Dawkins, I found Tyson’s tone a little condescending, especially for someone who portrays a humble image.

        I have to include this aside, when Tyson and Dawkins first met, Tyson gave Dawkins some constructive criticism. I’m sure most of you have seen the exchange on youtube. Tyson told Dawkins that he heard a “a sharpness of tease” in his commentary. And that Dawkins is a “a professor of the public understanding of science, not professor of delivering truth to the public.” Tyson then proceeds to “educate” Dawkins on how to educate and converse with the public.

        Dawkins’s response is a classic. He “gratefully accepts the rebuke” and then quotes an editor for New Scientist magazine, “Our philosophy at New Scientist is this, science is interesting and if you don’t agree you can fuck off.”

        • Filippo
          Posted March 14, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

          “Tyson told Dawkins that he heard a ‘a sharpness of “tease”‘ in his commentary.”

          Dr. Tyson could stand to examine his own sharpness of commentary, what with his less than charitable remarks directed at K-12 educators in The Humanist magazine during the last couple of years. If he wants to learn/create raps for the sake of science communication/education, he himself can have at it, not me.

  6. @eightyc
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    Big fan of Krauss. Not sure who Albert is (will look him up). Big fan of JAC.

    I didn’t even know of this kerfuffle until now.

    So I will have to just go with how JAC described it and I agree from the excerpts that the reason for the dis-invitation is on shaky ground.

    It IS an academic discussion, so any personal feelings between Krauss and Albert should be irrelevant (due to the book review). It actually would be a good venue for them to actually discuss their disagreements on what “Nothing” is. And as JAC said, a moderator can be put in place so that that conversation doesn’t dominate the entire panel discussion.

    • Michael Johnson
      Posted March 14, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      Hey wo/man, if you don’t know Albert, but are serious about looking him up, I highly recommend “Quantum Mechanics and Experience.” Lucid beyond belief. Just my opinion, but it isn’t a long book, and it’s worth checking out.

      • Posted March 14, 2013 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

        Second this opinion. Albert’s books are amazingly cogent, zero-BS discussions of things that anyone who’s interested in physics has wondered about. I put Quantum Mechanics and Experience on the short list of best physics books I’ve reead.

      • Nick
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

        He might be a lucid writer, but IMO he is a horrible speaker and I wouldn’t want to take a class from him or listen to any debate he takes part in… and I love debates.

        I just viewed parts of a Big Think, an interview with Sean Carroll, and a recent debate on Quantum Mechanics and he seems disorganized and takes twice as long as he should to say what he means. He also has an irritatingly whiny delivery.

        So I support Tyson’s decision completely, and the hell with “politeness”.

  7. Sidd
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    I never understood the criticism that the “nothing” to which the title of Krauss’ book refers isn’t really “nothing”. Yes there are physical phenomenon happening in the “nothing” which means it is not “nothing” according to another definition of “nothing”, but that other definition of “nothing” is a physical impossibility. It is like trying to make an argument by citing square circles.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted March 14, 2013 at 10:44 am | Permalink

      But that’s precisely the point Krauss didn’t (adequately) address. Instead of showing clearly why alternate definitions of “nothing” are incoherent, he just said, This is the definition I’m going to use — which, conveniently for him, was the one that gave the answer he wanted.

      Of course refuting those alternate definitions would have required philosophical argumentation, and Krauss is on record as thinking that philosophy is a waste of time. So I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that he did a poor job on that aspect of it. But then he shouldn’t be surprised when people call him on it.

    • Tulse
      Posted March 14, 2013 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      that other definition of “nothing” is a physical impossibility. It is like trying to make an argument by citing square circles.

      No, your example is a logical impossibility, not a physical one. It is completely reasonable to ask where the laws of physics, including those governing the Kraussian “nothing”, came from.

      • Posted March 14, 2013 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

        It is completely reasonable to ask where the laws of physics, including those governing the Kraussian “nothing”, came from.

        Is that really a reasonable question? Worded that way it seems to treat “laws” as entities, agents that tell matter what to do. It seems to me that “laws” are really just descriptions of how matter behaves.

        Thus your question should really be something like: “Why does `stuff’, including Kraussian `nothing’, behave the way it does?”, or perhaps, “Why does the behaviour of stuff include popping up out of nothing?”.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted March 14, 2013 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

          But if we consider Kraussian “nothing” to be a kind of “stuff” with lawful behavior, doesn’t that just beg the question of why there’s any kind of “stuff” in the first place?

          My view is that the question is incoherent. To talk about the absence of even Kraussian “nothing” (or anything like it) is to presume that complete and utter nonexistence is a state of affairs that could have existed. But that very potentiality is itself a kind of “stuff” or “something”, a “thing” that could exist.

          So “nothing” in the ultimate sense doesn’t really mean anything. “Stuff” (in the broadest sense) just is, and that’s as far as we can go down that line of reasoning.

          My beef with Krauss is that he didn’t even go that far. Rather than facing the problematic nature of such questions head-on (as the title of his book promised), he just dismissed them as not worth his time.

          • Posted March 14, 2013 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

            But if we consider Kraussian “nothing” to be a kind of “stuff” with lawful behavior, …

            I think we’re pretty much in agreement. I’d word it that Kraussian nothing really is nothing, and that matter pops into that nothingness because the matter’s internal nature allows the matter to do that.

            Or in other words, what is to stop the matter so doing? By definition there is “nothing” there to stop the matter doing so.

            Once you regard the “physical laws” as a property of the matter, not of the “nothing”, then one mystery about the “nothing” disappears.

            In other words, the only type of matter that can pop up out of “absolute nothing” is matter that is self-contained, in the sense that its behaviour does not require anything preceding it. And that seems to be the sort of matter we do see (given the evidence for things like pair-production, and a zero-energy Big Bang).

      • chemicalscum
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

        Coincidentally I was looking at Andrei Linde’s slide’s for his talk at Stephen Hawking’s 70th birthday celebration meeting earlier today. He has an answer to where the laws of physics come from – human evolution.

        “The reason why Einstein was puzzled by the efficiency of physics and Wigner was puzzled by the efficiency of mathematics is very simple:

        If the universe is everywhere the same (no choice), then the fact that it obeys so many different laws that we can discover, remember and use can be considered as an “undeserved gift of God” to physicists and mathematicians.

        In the inflationary multiverse, this problem disappears. The laws of mathematics and physics are efficient only if they allow us to make reliable predictions. The possibility to make reliable predictions is necessary for
        our survival. There are some parts of the multiverse where information processing is inefficient; we cannot live there.

        We can only live in those parts of the multiverse where the laws of mathematics and physics allow stable information processing and reliable predictions. That is why physics and mathematics are so efficient in our part of the multiverse.”

        Note Linde effectively disposes of even a Deist God here. The talk entitled “A Brief History Of The Multiverse” is also good on “why there is something rather than nothing”.

        http://www.ctc.cam.ac.uk/stephen70/talks/swh70_linde.pdf

        Get to the last slide for the punchline.

  8. Michael Fisher
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    Over here >>> bloggingheads.tv

    Is an interesting video dialogue from July 22nd 2008 between Sean Carroll & David Albert [Albert is somewhat of a gasbag throughout]

    Over at Cosmic Variance Sean described the chat thus:-

    …we started out by laying out our respective definitions of what quantum mechanics “is,” in terms that should be accessible to non-experts. (One user-friendly answer to that question is here.) Happily, that didn’t take up the whole dialogue, and we had the chance to home in on the real sticky issue in the field: what really happens when we observe something? This is known as the “measurement problem” — it is unique to quantum mechanics, and there is no consensus as to what the right answer is

    Subject areas:-
    Defining QM
    Why the Schrodinger equation seems crazy…
    …and a few possible ways to make it seem sane
    Sean on the many-worlds interpretation of QM
    David attacks the many-worlds interpretation
    QM & free will [very briefly]

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted March 14, 2013 at 7:13 am | Permalink

      P.S. Blogging.tv is now off Sean’s xmas card list having hosted ID wingnuts on a couple of occasions since the above chat

  9. morkindie
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    ” The true relativistic-quantum-field-­theoretical equivalent to there not being any physical stuff at all isn’t this or that particular arrangement of the fields — what it is (obviously, and ineluctably, and on the contrary) is the simple absence of the fields!”
    —-D. Albert

    What does it mean to say that there is a field with nothing in it?
    How can one say that there are physical laws without physical stuff? I thought laws described the behavior of the universe, and are not really things.

    • Posted March 14, 2013 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      morkindie:

      Right on!

      Remember, however, that the big birthday guy said that fields were “immaterial.” These guys are just following up with that house of cards. Hope you are young enough to see it crash.

  10. Mary Canada
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    sub

  11. Posted March 14, 2013 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    This snafu just shows how absurd creationism is. The Big Bang Theory (BBT) is no exception. It is amazing that in 2013 grown men still talk of the universe exploding out of nothing. How could the universe not be infinite and eternal? How could it have an end? As I have said before, the opposite of the indeterministic assumption of creation is The Fifth Assumption of Science, conservation (Matter and the motion of matter can be neither created nor destroyed). Otherwise known in its energy form as the First Law of Thermodynamics, there are no known exceptions to this assumption, just as there are no known exceptions to the determinist’s assumption that there are causes for all effects. What we are seeing here is the breakdown of a paradigm destined for the dustbin that includes the “Flat Earth Theory.” The BBT is the last gasp of creationism.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted March 14, 2013 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      Don’t be absurd. “Big bang” cosmology is mechanistic, not creationist. It is also the current cosmology, depending on how you define “big bang” in regard to inflation.

      Mostly, there is no problem with thermodynamics. The universe is zero energy, as it must.* This is why we know it is spontaneously created, fiddle around with all the variants of the thermodynamics of zero energy systems and you can see that, and this is something Krauss especially has spoken to on the web since 2009-ish. He has an excellent youtube you can google up.

      The current inflationary standard cosmology was just tested on its last outstanding observation in the 9 year data release of WMAP, that of resolving inflation enough to be an observation.

      Since it is our first self consistent cosmology, and it has no contenders that are nearly as predictive, it will alos likely be our “last”. Expect improvements, not wholesale rejection.

      If you insist that the freewheeling expansion is “big bang”, it has that. If you insist that the first spacetime volume where we can see particles and well defined temperatures and pressure is “big bang”, it has that. If you insist on a singularity, it may have that – inflation is past-time incomplete.

      * Seems all cosmologies with a spacetime (and a largish, i.e. isotropic enough, volume) must be such. But it is especially easy to see for our inflationary standard cosmology. Say, inflation can *only* happen if the spacetime volume has the negative potential energy of gravity balancing all the other positive contributions.

    • Posted March 14, 2013 at 11:24 am | Permalink

      Dear Glenn,

      I was about to reply to your comments about Big Bang cosmology but then took a look at your website and decided it probably isn’t worth doing so.

      You describe yourself as the “Director” of the “Progressive Science Institute”. Does this “institute” have any real scientists and do any real science, or is it just a crank website?

      (Sorry, Jerry, if asking this violates your policy on civility to fellow commentators.)

      • Marta
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 11:52 am | Permalink

        Based on these comments by Dr. Borchardt:

        “This snafu just shows how absurd creationism is. The Big Bang Theory (BBT) is no exception.”

        and

        “The BBT is the last gasp of creationism.”

        I think your queries are more than reasonable.

      • Posted March 14, 2013 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

        Coel:

        We have some of the top scientists in the world–except that they don’t subscribe to relativity and the Big Bang. If you really think that there are four dimensions and that the universe exploded out of nothing and expect to be employed in the mainstream, then you would be wise to avoid PSI. Changing paradigms is not easy. That is why we clearly state our beginning assumptions. You will either like them or hate them. That is because most of us have grown up with indeterministic assumptions that we must overcome. What I like about Jerry is his support of determinism (the first step in philosophy), even though it is classical rather than univironmental.

        • Marta
          Posted March 14, 2013 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

          Pardon? Are you saying that you challenge relativity–EINSTEIN’S relativity–also? I’m no physicist, but surely no serious person in the science business challenges RELATIVITY? I think even my cat “subscribes” to relativity!

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted March 14, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

          Who are these “top scientists” whose names do not appear on your “About” or “Contact” pages or on any of the papers available from your site?

        • gbjames
          Posted March 14, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

          Top Men?

          I’m convinced.

        • Posted March 14, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

          We have some of the top scientists in the world …

          Feel free to tell us who they are. Would any of them be accepted by others as among the worlds’ top? Websites from real institutes would be up-front about who was involved and their scientific standing.

          That is why we clearly state our beginning assumptions. You will either like them or hate them.

          I don’t agree with *any* starting assumptions. Such things should always be open to revision given data and evidence. If you are ruling out relativity and the Big Bang purely because of starting assumptions that you have made, then may I suggest that your starting assumptions might be wrong?

  12. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Netiquette is to always take people on their word, unless there are compelling reasons to believe otherwise.

    I can accept Tyson’s point, which is valid in the context. Noting that moderation helps is not the same as “pre-loading” (constraining) the debate by adopting participants with a certain idée fixe.

    I can also accept Krauss point, that discussing physics with philosophers is a generic waste of time. Maybe not so much as public outreach, which weakens Krauss’s point I think. But see below.

    Philosophers are not the experts, and while they can always ask for clarification or criticize the field from without, their opinion counts for nothing unless they become peers. (By peer review publishing.)

    Now, Albert happens to be a peer, a PhD in physics but his expertise is not cosmology and particle physics but quantum physics. But he appeared in “What the Bleep Do We Know!?” and “Down the Rabbit Hole”, which must count as a public outreach problem.

    So maybe Krauss took it personally, or consider Albert’s quantum mechanical viewpoints inconsequential. Then his response is clear, and as professional as the academic wars permit. Nothing like hitting with a back swing. =D

    and realize that the answer to “why are the laws of physics as they are?” is simply “we don’t yet know”

    It isn’t quite as dire as that.

    Time is an analogy, since we don’t understand it much, but we do know its behavior in the universe as spacetime.

    Similarly we know something about laws, as expressions of symmetries and symmetry breaking. We also know of parameter less action principles for dynamics which follows out of quantum mechanics dynamics. (Feynman’s path integrals in quantum mechanics leading to minimizing distance in classical mechanics.)

    What we don’t understand is ““why are the parameters (and so the set) of parametrized laws of physics as they are?”.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted March 14, 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      I think Jerry’s point is that even taking them at their word, Tyson’s and Krauss’s stated reasons are not sufficient to justify backing out of their deal with Albert. They might be good enough reasons for not inviting him in the first place, but not for withdrawing the invitation once offered. Calling it off does more damage than going ahead with the debate would have done.

  13. SA Gould
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Had not heard about the University College London debate where the Muslims got to set the terms of segregated seating. I am *astounded* at the lengths “reasonable” people will go to be “polite.” Just segregated seating this time? Should have to cover their heads? Menstruating women in the crowd? Ban them? What if the woman in the women’s section has muscles and is wearing short sleeves? Can’t allow that. What if the women looks “butch?” Would that be allowed?

    What is the *right amount* of sanctioned discrimination in the name of politeness?

  14. Marcoli
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    A possible way to somewhat fix this would be for Tyson to apologize to Albert, step aside in having a further role in the upcoming debate, and let someone else step in to that role. That person and Krause and others can then collectively re-invite Albert. There is no entirely satisfactory way to fix this, but right now I am thinking it is the best way to try.

  15. kelskye
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    It’s a shame. If two academics disagree, then all the more reason to get then onstage to discuss why.

  16. Borny
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    What’s wrong with you Jerry? I certainly don’t agree with the bashing you just gave Tyson for something as silly as this. Let him invite whoever he wants. Tyson is an important cog in our fight against stupidity (i.e God). And he hasn’t done anything wrong here.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted March 14, 2013 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

      What’s wrong with me? Nothing–I took a stand for academic freedom and against rudeness. What’s wrong with you is that you can’t disagree without being rude.

      I suggest you hie yourself to other websites where rudeness is encouraged.

    • Grania Spingies
      Posted March 14, 2013 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

      Not sure it’s in any way accurate calling Tyson a cog in the fight against God. He’s a good public voice for science, but he’s done everything to distance himself from atheists and the God question.

      And he’s perfectly entitled to do that. But don’t give him credit for a fight he has long declared himself to be outside of.

  17. ladyatheist
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    Why would any philosopher be invited to a discussion of cosmology? Do philosophers ever invite cosmologists to their events discussing bullshit?

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted March 14, 2013 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

      Maybe you missed Jerry’s account of his road trip with Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennett.

      • Ahab
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

        Maybe you missed the fact that the one who organized and sent out the invitations for that event was the cosmologist Sean Carroll.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted March 14, 2013 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

          I was aware of that. The point is that cosmologists see good reasons to invite philosophers to meetings (even if ladyatheist doesn’t) and apparently feel that philosophers have something to contribute other than bullshit.

          As for the converse, just look at the acknowledgements page of one of Dennett’s books (which are far from bullshit) and you’ll find plenty of evidence that he solicits input and constructive criticism from scientists.

  18. Voltaire 2
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    “I’m what you would call a teleological, existential atheist. I believe that there’s an intelligence to the universe, with the exception of certain parts of New Jersey.” (Woody Allen, in Sleeper [1973])

  19. madscientist
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    I suspect Neil wanted to get the new guy on stage and simply dropped Albert. Making up some lame excuse rather than talking to Albert and Krauss beforehand is pretty poor though.

  20. Ahab
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    I agree that it was a rude gesture on Dr. Tyson’s part. But it’s worth pointing out that the title of the discussion “The Existence of Nothing” is a phrase that is completely devoid of meaning, something which is in itself -even after disregarding the other factors- an ill omen.

    • ladyatheist
      Posted March 14, 2013 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps nobody will show up, yet they will still exist

  21. Posted March 15, 2013 at 5:21 am | Permalink

    I’m impressed by everyone’s interest in what we do in our Hayden programs at the American Museum of Natural History.

    I offer here some clarifying and corrective points:

    1) I was as intrigued as the next person by the flavored media exchanges between Prof Krauss and Prof Albert. That’s in fact what generated my invitation (last October) for Prof Albert to participate in our annual Asimov Panel debate. I had two other philosophers on my invitation list as well, but never got around to inviting them because…

    2) After confronting Hurricane Sandy (from which it took nearly two months for my family to recover – food, water, electricity, phone, computer, damaged car, etc ) I reminded myself that the tradition of the Asimov Debate, forged in annual conversations between me, Isaac Asimov’s widow, and key staff members of my Museum, has been primarily a debate among published scientists on a contested research topic — with secondary consideration given to whether the panelist has a public-level book we can sell afterwards. While there’s been small variation on this over the years, we’ve surely come closet to this ideal each time.

    3) This established profile of the Asimov panel over its thirteen year history has never included debates between philosophers and scientists. In fact, we’ve never had a philosopher as a panelist at all. And so I take full responsibility for this lapse of mission – leading to an embarrassing retraction of my invitation to Prof Albert.

    4) I would subsequently not pursue the two other philosophers, and I would extend an invitation to Princeton astrophysicist Richard Gott and to Writer James Holt, who interviewed both physicists and philosophers on the subject of Nothing, leading to a fascinating summative book on the subject.

    4.5) So in the final mix this year, we have three physicists, a mathematician, and a writer, four of whom have books.

    5) I remain deeply interested in Prof Albert’s views and invited him instead to give a lecture in Hayden’s monthly Frontiers in Astrophysics lecture series, which he has not (yet) accepted.

    So I’d like to think that facts still matter in the world. Unfortunately, newspapers are rarely the source of them any more.

    -Neil deGrasse Tyson, New York City

    • Posted March 15, 2013 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      Neil,

      nobody has a good reason to question your explanation, but with all due respect, this still doesn’t look good, and I think you awe an apology to Albert.

      The fact that there is a certain tradition for the Asimov lectures is important, but not really an overwhelming consideration, and of course it still raises the question of why you didn’t think of this before inviting Albert.

      Moreover, you still ended up inviting a person, Holt, who is not a scientist, and in fact much closer to the philosophy side of things.

      We all have lapses of judgment, but don’t blame this on the media, this was your mistake.

      Respectfully,
      Massimo

    • Posted March 17, 2013 at 6:38 am | Permalink

      Dr. Tyson,

      With all due respect, I do not think your explanation is sufficient. True, Professor Albert has not published scientific or popular writing which directly deals with the topic of your panel discussion. That is a plausible reason for not inviting him in the first place, but it does not explain why you would risk public embarrassment and potentially insult Albert by rescinding his invitation. Once he was invited, and since his qualifications are certainly sufficient (if not ideal), we have to imagine you had some other reason for turning him away. This is what you have not yet explained.

      It looks like your main motivation was the desire to avoid a confrontation between Albert and Krauss. Assuming your decision was rational, you must have thought such a confrontation would risk greater public embarrassment, greater insult (to Krauss, of course, since a confrontation would not likely lead Albert to feel insulted) or perhaps something far worse. However, it’s hard to see what worse might have been risked, and it’s hard to see what public embarrassment might issue from a well-moderated public debate between Krauss and Albert. So the most plausible explanation seems to be that you thought keeping Albert on the panel would be such a great insult to Krauss that Albert had to be turned away. Krauss’ public comments about Albert support this interpretation, as well.

      In short, here’s my theory: You insulted Albert and risked public embarrassment in order to avoid the risk of insulting Krauss. I don’t necessarily think you were playing favorites. I assume you just tried to find the least harmful scenario. However, I’m sure you can understand why some corners of the intellectual community would find this greatly disappointing. It is no surprise that ego plays a significant role in our public intellectual life. It would be nice to at least see a straightforward admission of the fact. Moreover, it seems clear that you owe Professor Albert a public apology.

      Respectfully,
      Jason Streitfeld

    • Wayne Tyson
      Posted March 17, 2013 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

      Dear “Son:”

      Well, you could well be my son given the disparity in our ages, but had I been your real father you might not have got the necessary genes to propel you into astrophysics. We freely “adopt” other people’s kids, regardless of their last name or what stripe of cat they are. Besides, my wife thinks you’re one sexy dude!

      I am entirely unbiased, and I trust that you have done the right thing and corrected the “error” with your usual good humor. Beyond that, I don’t think it’s necessary to vex you further (even though I know you’re unvexable). That’s good enough for me, especially since I haven’t heard a complaint from the “injured” party.

      That said, I shall return to trying to figure out what “nothing” means in terms of evolution.

      Best,
      Wayne Tyson
      Yore adapted pappy.

      “The suspension of judgment is the highest exercise in intellectual discipline.” R. M. Gilmore

      PS: I wish I had a copy of the Rog Bollen cartoon from the 1970’s known as “Animal Crackers” (multiple pun) that depicted the lion (King of Beasts) and the dodo (symbolic of dumb) looking at the night sky, their backs to the viewer. “Gosh, Dodo, look at all those stars and planets! Do you really imagine there’s intelligent life out there?”

      “Nope,” said Dodo, sauntering away with heavy lids, the lion looking surprised, “I rather imagine it’s pretty much the same out there as it is here on earth.”

  22. Posted March 15, 2013 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    Some debates are category mistakes. When will science determine if Zeus or Yahweh makes a better tuna sandwich?

    A debate over being emerging from nonbeing, or something emerging from nothing, or different arrangements of being, being nothing or whether a vacuum is nothing or nonbeing is not a category mistake. This is a fascinating integration of philosophy and physics.

    The economics, politics, and social politics of book sales should not be the underlying reality.

  23. Mike
    Posted March 17, 2013 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

    “So why did Tyson withdraw the invitation?”

    Oh, you mean you don’t know? Your acting like you knew. Here I was, thinking you actually knew the reason. You certainly are going on like you know the reason.

    But you don’t. So really, your just pulling it all out of your… All you can really say is you really don’t know the full facts of the matter. Most of the rest is pure speculation on your part. There might have been a very good reason, one that he didn’t want to make public for any number of reasons, including saving the dis-invited guest from embarrassment, or others. I don’t know, you don’t know, and frankly, when Mr. Tyson gives a public explanation, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt over a bunch of people who don’t know the particulars. I have news for you Mr. Carroll, this is not exactly the story of the century.
    This is very disappointing. I expected better from this blog’s author.

    And I really must say, the responses to Mr. Tyson really are disrespectful. Especially the one that starts off saying “with all due respect”. Saying “with all due respect” doesn’t give you license to be a disrespectful. Calling a man a liar in public over an issue in which you have no real knowledge or stake is disrespectful and ignorant. Just plain rude.

    People should note, when your position relies on you reading someone’s mind for motives, your already deep in over your head.

    And how do you know an apology wasn’t tendered? And what business is it of anyone’s but the involved parties, if it was or was not? Mr. Carroll, I’ll give Mr. Tyson the benefit of the doubt. Not because of his stature, not his credentials, not because of his fame, and not just because it’s the polite thing to do, but because this matter is really a private affair between two people, and I don’t see how it’s any of my business, or yours anyways.

    FWI, mistakes happen to everyone. Even astrophysicists and philosophers. Perhaps next you can write details about your neighbors crumbling marriage, or about some strangers affair and attribute motives and guess at the details without any real information.

    Then everyone can pick sides and write in for fun.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted March 18, 2013 at 12:28 am | Permalink

      I expected better from this blog’s author.

      Do you know who that is? Hint: his name is not Mr. Carroll. I suggest clicking the link at the top right labeled “About the Author”.

      And the list of invited speakers at “the American Museum of Natural History’s biggest public event” is hardly “a private affair between two people”. Everyone who bought a ticket to that event has a legitimate interest in knowing why Albert was disinvited.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted March 18, 2013 at 3:17 am | Permalink

      Ummm. . . Mike, apparently you aren’t aware that Dr. Tyson DID offer his explanation IN THESE VERY COMMENTS, which you did apparently did not read. (See comment 21.) His explanation was not satsifactory, to my mind, nor was it to other people.

      And my name is NOT Carroll.

      You have launched a tirade without even the most elementary investigation of the facts, you are intemperate, and you are ignorant. I suggest you monitor other websites (not “blogs”) in the future.

    • Posted March 18, 2013 at 4:42 am | Permalink

      Just for the record, I did not accuse Dr. Tyson of lying. I only accused him of not explaining what some of us feel needs explanation.

      Also, I think you are wrong to consider this just a private affair between two people. This is a professional affair concerning a public appearance. It looks very bad for Dr. Tyson and The American Museum of Natural History to invite highly respected public intellectuals, to have that invivation accepted, to allow said intellectual to prepare for months for the public engagement, and then to disinvite them–unless you have a very good reason which you make available to the public. Without an explanation for this, other public intellectuals have a very good reason not to accept invitations to speak at the American Museum of Natural History.

      Dr. Tyson has not given a good reason for his disinvitation. He’s given a reason why Professor Albert was not his ideal candidate: Unlike Jim Holt (who does not have any apparent scientific or academic qualifications to speak of), Professor Albert has not written a popular book on the physics of “nothing.” Holt’s status as a popular writer with a relevant book to cell trumps Albert’s status as a celebrated popular science writer, Philosophy Professor at Columbia University and PhD in theoretical physics. That is what Dr. Tyson explaiend, and I trust Dr. Tyson to make that judgment. Holt is a better choice for Tyson’s purposes. But that does not explain why Tyson would disinvite Albert. Why couldn’t Holt and Albert both serve as panelists? Why would Albert’s presence cause a problem? Why did Albert have to go?

      It seems to me that Dr. Tyson is putting his and the museum’s reputation on the line for no good reason, which is very unfortunate.

  24. Posted March 18, 2013 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    There’s a deeper issue here that’s motivating me, and perhaps others, to give more of a crap about this whole situation.

    Even though the event’s primary focus is on science, there is good reason to expect a discussion of broader intellectual areas, too. The American Museum of Natural History advertises for the event as follows: “The concept of nothing is as old as zero itself. How do we grapple with the concept of nothing? From the best laboratory vacuums on Earth to the vacuum of space to what lies beyond, the idea of nothing continues to intrigue professionals and the public alike.” But they’ve only got a journalist (Holt, who we can regard as a non-professional philosopher) and a journalism professor (Seife) holding up the non-scientific end of the discussion. Krauss approaches the non-scientific end, too. He has even gone on talk shows getting into supposed theological implications of his work. Both Holt and Krauss are interested in the philosophical implications of the science of “nothing”, but neither one of them can discuss it authoritatively. Holt is a journalist, not an independent, authoritative thinker. Krauss, on the other hand, has a condescending approach to philosophy in general and, from what I can tell, has no interest in engaging professional philosophers on the topic. (His negative attitude towards professional philosophers is partly responsible for all the fuss last year.) While Holt is very friendly with the philosophical side of the matter, I do not think he can defend or represent it as authoritatively as Albert. Albert is perfectly suited to bring an authoritative, sophisticated philosophical approach to the table. His absence will be felt.

  25. Wayne Tyson
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Re: Much (but not all) of this discussion: Too much about personalities, not enough about issues. Too many speculations, not enough facts. Too much ad hominem stuff, too much scolding in general, and not enough responsiveness to points made in the posts preceding. And intellectual honesty and maturity in general–what do you say?

    • gbjames
      Posted March 19, 2013 at 8:59 am | Permalink

      I hope you feel better now.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted March 19, 2013 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      “Too much scolding, not enough about issues.”

      And apparently no sense of irony.

      • Wayne Tyson
        Posted March 19, 2013 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

        Too much.

  26. Posted July 7, 2013 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    There’s an awful lot of bitching, moaning, whining and complaining towards Krauss and Tyson. Lol I see someone needs to get a life. Is this suppose to be a science blog or a Tweens blog?

    • gbjames
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

      For someone so late to the party, your snark about getting a life is triggering my irony alarm system.

    • Wayne Tyson
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

      Thou hast mispelled tweenie! But there are GREAT MINDS at work here, but thou must work for them, like panning out grains of gold dust from hard-packed wet sand.

  27. Wayne Tyson
    Posted July 7, 2013 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    I see that one of my main points at http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/02/22/neil-degrasse-tyson-responds/#comment-464398 has been validated. It remains to be seen if any sort of rational minority will remain members of the choir here or be kicked off (into the arena to be devoured by lions) by some god. Marginalized and ostracized? Absolutely–it’s THE LAW (here in Dodge-City).

    Intellectual discipline, anyone?


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