Science Sundays with John Duffield: Secret Police

When you think of secret police, you tend to think of some skull-faced ugly guy wearing a black peaked cap with a skull on it. He’s also wearing his jackboots and either his black tailored uniform or his black leather coat. But either way he’s got a big black swastika on his big red armband. And when he marches into the hall flanked by his henchmen, everybody freezes and conversation stops. Got the picture? Wrong picture. The whole point of secret police is that they’re secret. If they do their job right Joe Public doesn’t even know they’re there. Of course the people they’ve arrested know, but they aren’t in a position to tell anybody about it.

When you’ve been involved with science for a while, you come to understand that physics has a secret police too. They come in all shapes and sizes, but they’re often called “moderators”. You find them on discussion forums. As we all know, on the internet  anonymous trolls disrupt discussions and hurl abuse. Hence the need for moderators. Got the picture? Wrong picture. Because all too often the people hurling the abuse are the moderators. It’s a bit like what I was saying about Joy Christian last week, and a bit like what I said about peer review. Those moderators like to portray themselves as the experts, and  they don’t like some guy proving them wrong. They’ll wax lyrical about string theory or the multiverse or some other fantasy physics, and woe betide the guy who points out a problem. His comments get deleted, and he gets banned. And unless Joe Public is sharp, he’s none the wiser. If that isn’t going to work because the moderators weren’t fast enough and deletion will be too obvious, they resort to character assassination and chicanery. One cute trick is to use a sockpuppet to hurl really bad abuse and then ban the guy for answering back. Another is to say show me the maths, then when the guy does, they say aha, the maths is wrong even when it isn’t. How’s Joe Public going to know?

Yes there are physics forums where moderators are civil, but they tend to use the educational website ploy to stifle serious debate. They say things like we cater for young and impressionable students, and things like hence we only allow discussion of mainstream peer-reviewed science. That sounds reasonable enough. But when you’re in the know, you know that there’s a cosy Catch-22 at work. You know of bona-fide physicists who can’t get their rock-solid papers into a journal because it will embarrass the “leaders of the field”. What do we get instead? Stuff like what my mate Zapper pointed out on his blog. The holographic universe that splits like an amoeba. Wooooo! Stuff that’s pure speculation, with absolutely no evidential support. Stuff that isn’t science, but pseudoscience instead.

The arXiv has moderators too. It’s pronounced “archive”, and it’s an online repository of scientific papers that other scientists and the public can read. The idea was that it would be a shining emblem of free speech in open science. Got the picture? Wrong picture. Because you can read about archive freedom and how the list of suppressed scientists even includes Nobel Laureates. You can read about covert censorship, and why viXra was set up by Philip Gibbs. You can also read about blacklists, along with some pretty ugly case histories, including the downright Kafkaesque: I can’t upload my paper. You now need an endorser. OK Hans Bethe endorses me. Sorry, not good enough. OK I’ve found another guy to endorse me. Aha, we’ve revoked his endorsement capability. It’s the usual story. The arXiv moderators aren’t moderators, they’re thought police. And once you know a bit of physics, you know it for sure.

Because then you know that the coordinate speed of light varies in a gravitational field. The coordinate speed of light is the speed of light down there measured from up here. It’s lower at lower elevations, so much so that at a black hole event horizon, it’s zero. You also know that black hole escape velocity is the speed of light, so if you drop an electron from a great distance into a black hole, it’s going at almost the speed of light when it reaches the event horizon. Bzzzzt. Rewind. If the falling electron is going faster and faster, but the speed of light is getting slower and slower, surely there’s some crossover point? Surely an electron can’t fall faster than the local speed of light? Surely something bad has to happen? You don’t have to know much physics to know about gamma-ray bursters. They’re associated with black holes devouring a star. So you wonder if the infalling matter gets annihilated and turns into gamma radiation. And then you wonder why you haven’t read a paper on that.

Wonder no more, because last week on Peter Woit’s blog a physics professor called Friedhardt Winterberg posted a comment related to a black hole workshop. Woit deleted it, but not fast enough. Winterberg said he wasn’t allowed to post his paper on the arXiv, and it was rejected by the “moderators” a whopping nineteen minutes after he filed it. When Winterberg queried this, one Jacques Distler allegedly said “I can assure you that your manuscript was reviewed by multiple arXiv moderators”. In nineteen minutes? You find out that Winterberg’s paper was about matter being destroyed on the way into a black hole. And that it’s related to a paper he wrote in 2001: All matter would be converted into zero rest mass particles which could explain the large energy release of gamma ray bursters. Sounds reasonable. That fits. Why haven’t I heard of that paper before? And what’s the problem with his new paper?

Maybe the problem is that if Winterberg is right, all those people who’ve been talking about things like the black hole information paradox and the firewall paradox look like chumps, charlatans, cranks, or crackpots. And there’s some big names in the list. Does this sound familiar? Dig around a bit and there’s Winterberg in the Wikipedia firewall article: “The proposal is often referred to as the ‘AMPS’ firewall, an acronym for the names of the authors of the 2012 paper. However, the occurrence of this phenomenon was proposed eleven years earlier by Friedwardt Winterberg, and is very different from Hawking radiation”. You bet it is, because Winterberg’s firewall leaves Hawking radiation looking decidedly iffy. Because the coordinate speed of light at the black hole event horizon is zero, remember? That’s where gravitational time dilation goes infinite. So how long does it take Hawking radiation to happen? Forever? So it hasn’t happened yet, and it never ever will? The Niels Bohr Institute credits Winterberg with laying the foundation of GPS. He’s the guy who predicted firewalls. But firewalls now are totally different to his concept. And now he can’t put a paper on the arXiv? Get the picture? Right picture.

Oh what a tangled web we weave.

8 comments on “Science Sundays with John Duffield: Secret Police

  1. therealguyfaux
    September 9, 2013 at 6:48 pm #

    Most of the discussions of the physics per se are just so much Double Dutch (with a Greek accent) to me. My interest in reading this is less about who IS right and who’s wrong, but rather, in who’s allowed even to hazard an opinion. One wonders if this isn’t the scientific version of the fabled “swearing matches” of old in the courts, where each side would bring in the proverbial “dozen Bishops” to offer evidence through expert testimony.

    In a different field of science, I recall some years ago when the whole field of gastro-enterological medicine was turned on its head because “everything we ‘knew’ about duodenal ulcers is wrong,” as a result of the confirmation that ulcers can be caused by ingested bacteria, which can be treated with antibiotics. The Gandhian “First they ignore, then they mock” applied to the scientist working on investigating this theory, as I recall, because his working hypothesis seemed a bit outlandish at the time– but because it dealt with relief of human suffering, and was easily tested and replicable, he got the old, “Oh, WTF” and he got his funding. The difference here is that in his case, he then got plenty of proof of his theory, and the health care establishment was perfectly willing to go along with it; Big Pharma, so long as they produced the medications, didn’t much care whether patients paid in dribs and drabs for relief of bad flare-ups of symptoms, or paid all at once for the antibiotics which would kill the thing stone cold dead, they were going to be paid roughly the same in any event. MD’s, who could offer only symptomal relief at best, would now be able to wipe out a whole segment of chronic patients from cluttering their waiting rooms. Surgeons now had fewer chances of being sued for malpractice as a result of a bad outcome of a stomach operation. Basically, once the scientist proved his point and the Establishment saw there was no real threat to them, financially or prestige-wise, the new paradigm in the field took over.

    Which gets to the question I’m going to ask here– I can see that a heterodox opinion would, if proved to be a better theory, set these physicist-censors back prestige-wise, as the new one in medicine would not have done to those in that field; how much of a financial component is involved as well (of course there has got to be one, I take that for “granted,” if you will)? Is there a finite amount of funding which is zero-sum — the less for them if the “heretic” is thought to have at least enough there to justify at least a seed grant of sorts? And who is it that is intended to be affected by the censorship– the “heretics” themselves, as discouragement of even making the attempt to have their theories recognised and commented upon, or the funders, to “protect” them from having their heads turned by possible “mountebanks”? And to what extent is extra-science politicking in play here?

    These are all rhetorical questions, to be sure, but there actually are answers that need to emerge. Hopefully some of
    those answers will be discussed in this space.

  2. duffieldjohn
    September 9, 2013 at 8:59 pm #

    I’d say the people who are affected are bona-fide physicists offering scientific progress, along with funders and the public… who will find that they CAN understand what those bona-fide physicists are saying. The situation isn’t like medicine, which has delivered great benefits in recent decades. It’s more like the way a bunch of witch-doctors might behave when faced with a pharmacist. You can never understand what the witch-doctors are telling you, but you can understand what the pharmacist is telling you. Provided you get to hear it.

  3. James Eadon
    September 10, 2013 at 12:34 am #

    It’s a religious debate until you come up with the experiment. If I am not mistaken, the ulcers guy infected himself with the bacteria and then he got the ulcer.
    That evidence was why he won.
    Until an experiment can be performed and shown on YouTube and independently reproduced, then there is no telling one witch doctor from another. There ARE no pharmacists without experiment.
    John, the onus is on you guys to prove your ideas right with experiment.
    I say the same thing to James Plaskett, a GM who thinks there’s something dodgy about Darwinian evolution. It’s falsifiable. FALSIFY IT.
    Until then, my sympathy is limited. 🙂

  4. duffieldjohn
    September 10, 2013 at 8:56 am #

    Don’t fall for the ruse James. Those witchdoctors deliberately choose hypotheses that they know are not falsifiable. Try falsifying M-theory. Or the holographic universe. And do you have a micro black hole handy to falsify Hawking radiation? No, and they know it. However you can drop a brick and watch it fall faster and faster. And you can read an interview* featuring David Wineland of NIST where he talks about optical clocks going slower when they’re lower. And knowing a bit about physics, you know that the clock stops at the event horizon. And that it’s an optical clock, one that employs electromagnetic radiation. And that this doesn’t square with Hawking radiation. Look on wiki. See the bit that says “the particle that fell into the black hole must have had a negative energy”. Do you know of any negative-energy particles? No. That doesn’t square either. So you know that something doesn’t add up here. Or you should do. You ought to be able to tell the difference between those witchdoctors spouting mumbo-jumbo that they know you can’t understand, and the pharmacist talking sense that you can.


  5. duffieldjohn
    September 10, 2013 at 9:03 am #

    Sorry, I should have said pharmacologist, not pharmacist.

    • David
      September 11, 2013 at 2:57 pm #

      I’m sorry, I have followed your stuff on the web, and I think you have a bit of a chip on your shoulder to be honest – and you do yourself a disservice, as does J.D when appearing on webcasts run by U.F.Ologists, conspiracy lovers and the like.,,
      I have met physicists that are “outliers” – and you know what they did? PhD’s. Experiments. I also know someone with dissenting views about a certain disease. You know what he does? Sits and writes papers. There is simply no point in saying that because theories are made unfalsifiable, or that the peer review system is “stacked against you”, or that forums delete “crank posts” dissent is impossible.

      I’m with James. Experiment is were it is at, or of course a theoretical paper. The only real barrier to either is money – which of course you will say is in the hands of the secret police.

      However, as I say I know a guy who regular writes critiques of extablished papers – only costs time – submits them – and gets them published. Works from home.

      Much more useful than blogs and forums – as the dude who gave himself an ulcer proved.

      As they say – you do the math.

  6. duffieldjohn
    September 16, 2013 at 7:53 pm #

    I don’t have a chip on my shoulder, David. And I’m not making this stuff up. See for Friedwardt Winterberg reiterating his censorship complaint. I want what’s best for physics, and I’d be grateful if you stuck to the physics instead of casting aspersions that distract from it.


  1. Astronomers should be sued for false advertizing. (3) - Page 15 - Christian Forums - September 20, 2013

    […] really like John Duffield's take on astronomy these days: Science Sundays with John Duffield: Secret Police | __________________ "All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: