THE PHYSICS / PHILOSOPHY HOWLER: "I can repeat and recite what he said!"

TUESDAY, JULY 13, 2021

Krauthammer's second opinion: In one of his lesser-known poems, Robert Frost said he had "a lover's quarrel with the world."

(The statement became a bit of a trademark. In 1964, the Academy Award for Best Documentary film went to a biography/profile, "Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel with the World.")

Decades later, in June 1988, the Washington Post's Richard Cohen had a somewhat jocular columnist's quarrel with the nation's book reviewers. His columnist's quarrel concerned the warp and woof of the world.  

Stephen Hawking, one of the world's greatest physicists, had written a wildly popular book designed to explain modern physics to general readers. Hawking's book started with Einstein, then moved on from there.

According to Cohen—and yes, he provided quotations—reviewers had sworn that Hawking's best-seller was lucid, accessible, clear, comprehensible, even easy to read.  As we noted yesterday, the querulous columnist now complained that the book was anything but. 

The lucid and accessible book was "incomprehensible," the querulous columnist said.  Cohen even seemed to suggest that he'd been misled. 

He had believed the reviews he read! As a result, this happened:

So I turned to the book itself. Surely a book read (or at least bought) by so many would be accessible to me. But it wasn't—not fully, not so I could stand in class and tell the teacher what I had learned. I understood some of it but not, I think, the parts that really mattered...

In his book, Hawking refers to theories or discoveries that scientists claim in their own name...I have one for Hawking himself: the Hawking Limitation. It is the inability of the ordinary person, the ordinary educated person, to understand what in heaven scientists like Hawking are talking about.

These scientists today! According to Cohen, even educated people could no longer hope to understand what they were talking about.

As he continued, Cohen worried about certain public policy consequences of this state of affairs. Five months later, a second columnist at the Post offered a second opinion concerning's Hawking's book.

By now, the book was a massive best-seller, but Charles Krauthammer wasn't sure why. He'd won the Pulitzer Prize one year before. But now, it had come to this.

Like his colleague Cohen before him, Krauthammer had tried to read (and understand) Hawking's best-selling book. But on December 2, 1988, right at the start of his column, Krauthammer said he'd tried to understand the book—and he seemed to say he'd failed:

There are two great mysteries in this world. First, how did the universe begin? Second, how does a book that attempts to answer that question—a book about muons and gluons, about thermodynamic arrows and space-time singularities, about quantum gravity and superstrings, a book that argues convincingly against the existence of Einstein's cosmological constant—become the No. 1 best seller for 20 weeks in a row? Having now twice read Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time," a smash popularization of modern physics, I am preoccupied with the second question and no closer to an answer for the first than I was when I started.

By now, the book had topped the best-seller lists for twenty consecutive weeks. Krauthammer said that he'd read the book twice. Later, he said he'd devoted 13 hours to the Sisyphean task.

Krauthammer had given the old college try. Defeated, he offered this verdict:

"The problem with Hawking's book is that it is utterly incomprehensible."

No, really. That's what he said!

Five months later, this second opinion comported with the first. But where Cohen had tended to fret and to fume, Krauthammer offered a (slightly puzzling) account of his reading experience.

At one point, Cohen had said this: "Most of us believe that anything, if written clearly, can be understood by a reasonably educated reader." At least for Cohen, Hawking's book had brought that long-held idea into question.

Krauthammer went further as he described his experience. With apologies for the lofty language, he began to describe the phenomenology of his thirteen hours:

[The book is] incomprehensible in a very interesting way. Hawking's language is simple. The syntax is clear. The exposition is careful, at times even graceful. With the exception of E=mc2, now a staple of subway walls, not a single equation appears in the book. (Hawking was persuaded of the well-known rule of thumb: every equation cuts your sales in half.)

If given enough attention, every sentence makes sense. But when you have registered all the sentences, you realize in the end that you understand nothing. It is not Hawking that is beyond comprehension, but modern physics.

According to Krauthammer, the language was simple, the syntax was clear. On its own, each sentence made sense.

He seemed to say it wasn't Hawking's fault! But in the end, Krauthammer said, the reader of this best-selling book is going to understand nothing.

At that point, the columnist's logic turned on itself, but what he said was important. In our view, the Pulitzer winner introduced two key words into the conversation:

For example: I understand, and if asked can readily repeat, the current notion of superstring theory that the universe has 10 (or 26) dimensions, all but four of which are curled up into tiny little balls. But what can that possibly mean?

I can also recite Hawking's solution to the age-old question: Did the universe have a beginning, or has it existed through an infinity of time? Hawking proposes a finesse: space-time is finite in extent but has no boundary or edge. Meaning: space-time is like the surface of the earth, which also is finite (197 million square miles) but round and enclosed, so that you can go around forever without reaching a beginning or an end. A universe of no beginning and no end, but no infinity. I understand. But what does it mean?

Krauthammer said the could "repeat" the various things which Hawking said. He could "recite" his formulations.

He could repeat and recite the author's key formulations. But in the end, Krauthammer said, "What could [those formulations] possibly mean?"

In our lexicon, if you can repeat a claim but you don't know what it means, then you don't understand it. For some reason, Krauthammer started saying that he did "understand." He just didn't know what Hawking's recitable claims could possibly mean.

Krauthammer said he could repeat and recite; could that be what reviewers were doing? Were the reviewers simply reciting, then imagining that they were able to understand?

Tomorrow, we'll return to Walter Isaacson's joke—the joke he offered right at the start of his widely praised biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe.

We'll also return to the bowling ball on the trampoline—the metaphor which is endlessly used to explain Einstein's claim about the curvature of "space-time."

There's a bowling ball on a trampoline, and then some smaller balls come in. As we noted yesterday, Isaacson employs this metaphor very early, on page 4 of his book. After that, he offers his very good joke.

Everyone repeats and recites this well-worn trampoline hook. It's meant to explain the curvature of space-time, whatever space-time is. 

Everyone knows how to repeat and recite it. But does anyone actually understand what it actually means?

Tomorrow: "We're no Einstein," he jokingly said


26 comments:

  1. Krauthammer blames physics, not Hawking, for his lack of comprehension.

    The problem here is that Krauthammer has no referents for the words used. Neither did Einstein or Hawking, because those aspects of physics are not observable, not visible to humans, are abstract and must be imagined, not seen or otherwise experienced. We generally use metaphors, analogies, Einstein's thought experiments, to visualized things we cannot see or directly experience. Love is represented by a heart, freedom by a soaring eagle or a liberty bell. We know that these things exist but they cannot be seen so we use metaphors for them. Physicists do the same.

    If someone cannot use such substitutes for concrete meaning to think about abstracts such as multiple dimensions, and is unwilling to take the descriptions on faith, then he will find himself in Krauthammer's situation, Cohen's impasse.

    These two men, with their complaints, seem to be limiting their difficulties to only Hawking's book, but it seems likely they may have had similar difficulties with other material. It would be surprising if it were only this book when there are many other forms of abstraction that someone with such a limitation would find difficult.

    Somerby frequently complains about nitpicks that seem to arise from a similar concreteness, an excess literality. This seems to be a mild form of what some autistic people or people with frontal lobe deficits experience, akin to the difficulties those with Parkinson's encounter. I suspect that something like this may be the source of Somerby's problems with understanding, as well as Cohen's and Krauthammer's. Cognition is complex and people can have such subtle defects without realizing it until a situation arises where the problems become apparent. Some people have a lot of trouble learning algebra because they cannot understand the concept of a variable that can take different values. This is a form of that problem and it resides with Somerby, Cohen and Krauthammer, not physics or the universe or Hawking.

    People differ in their abilities to absorb complex abstract material. Somerby needs to get over it and enjoy the world on his own terms. He shouldn't be seeking to deny that the rest of humanity can understand Hawking's book, instead of insisting (as he seems to be doing) that no one can understand and they are all lying, if he himself doesn't get it. I know that I myself am not Hawking or Einstein, and it doesn't trouble me. I am content to leave physics to the physicists. Why isn't Somerby?

    Next her will be insisting that someone should be able to read a novel in its original French after just 13 hours of "study" or else the novel is crap. Today's criticism is about as unfair as that one would be.

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  2. >If someone cannot use such substitutes for concrete meaning

    You didn't establish this.

    >unwilling to take the descriptions on faith

    Strange thing to mention, this should be the default position of course.

    >there are many other forms of abstraction that someone with such a limitation would find difficult.

    Not established, and worse you take it as true and build a further argument with that assumption.

    >People differ in their abilities to absorb complex abstract material.

    People also differ in their ability to explain complex material.

    >Next her will be insisting that someone should be able to read a novel in its original French after just 13 hours of "study" or else the novel is crap.

    Nice, you built a tower out of straw on top of a flimsy foundation.

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    Replies
    1. Your demand that I establish things that are part of the discipline of cognitive psychology suggests you don't know much about how thinking works. You might start with a textbook on cognition.

      Here is a basic introduction:

      https://www.healthline.com/health/concrete-thinking#delay-of-abstract-thinking

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    2. I'll quote you in full since we are not on the same page.

      >If someone cannot use such substitutes for concrete meaning to think about abstracts such as multiple dimensions, and is unwilling to take the descriptions on faith, then he will find himself in Krauthammer's situation, Cohen's impasse.

      I'm saying that you didn't establish that this is true for Krauthammer and Cohen.

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    3. Also from healthline:

      "Some neurological conditions may interfere with your ability to think abstractly.

      o Autism spectrum disorder. Researchers have found that some people with autism spectrum disorder may have trouble with concepts and problem-solving.
      o Schizophrenia. Some forms of abstract thinking, particularly those involved in interpreting social situations, may be limited by schizophrenia.
      o Traumatic or organic brain injuries. Injuries from accidents and prenatal exposures, including fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, can impact the areas of the brain that make abstract thinking possible.
      o Intellectual disabilities. Individuals with intellectual impairment often have difficulties using and understanding abstract thinking skills.
      o Dementia. Often the parts of the brain involved in many types of dementia are the same parts that control abstract thinking skills."

      Somerby may once have been liberal, but I see problems with his current thinking that are consistent with deficits in abstract thinking. When Somerby complains that these books are difficult to understand, that is essentially what is going on. He is unable to engage in abstract thinking necessary to understand what is being said in such books. Some people have that problem due to lack of intelligence. Because Somerby was smart, I think it is more likely either the result of dementia or some disease that affects cognition, such as Parkinson's or stroke.

      He must have once enjoyed abstract thinking or he wouldn't have been a philosophy major or a comedian. That doesn't mean he is still the same person he was in those days. Wittgenstein gives Somerby permission to blame others for changes that are likely personal to him. And today he recruits Cohen and Krauthammer to reassure himself that it isn't him but the books that are the problem.

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    4. It is idiotic for a layman to think that he will be able to understand theoretical physics after reading a single book. I don't know what is going on with Cohen or Krauthammer, obviously, but I have been reading Somerby since 1990, every day except Sundays.

      If you notice that someone is being excessively literal and complains about inability to understand abstracts, that doesn't tell you what is wrong with them, just that they are having a problem that is a symptom of a variety of possible problems. And, of course, sometimes obtuseness is willful. This may be just a continuation of Somerby crusade against expertise in all forms, consistent with conservative anti-intellectualism, and not a symptom of brain injury at all. But I would be inclined to consider a change from liberal to conservative in later life to be a symptom of some age-related change in thinking ability, perhaps a precursor to dementia, just as any abrupt personality change would be a signal of possible deterioration.

      Delete
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  3. I'll explain a little more to head off further misunderstandings.

    You've identified that cause (A) has effect (B). You have identified someone having effect (B). No problems there, however...

    You have not ruled out other causes (or if you did, you didn't show your work).

    I didn't demand anything, I simply pointed out flaws in your logic. By the way that was another flaw in your logic.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You have as much of a responsibility to be clear in your complaints as anyone else here does.

      Delete
    2. When Krauthammer or Cohen complain that they cannot understand a clearly written book, their difficulty is self-reported. I consider that established as much as it is going to be given that they aren't going to be examined by a neuropsychologist any time soon. Somerby's ongoing complaints are well-established here too. I can conclude that his thinking is not normal. I can only speculate about why and refer you to the literature on what typically causes observed deficits.

      Delete
    3. Okay that's fair.

      I don't think there's any argument that the book is clearly written. But does that translate to easy to understand? Maybe a better way to put it: does reading the book enable the reader to better understand the material?

      I think the ability to explain complex material to a layperson is a rare one and undervalued. There are many different types of intellectuals, some with almost no ability to communicate with the average non-expert. In fact, many of that type seem to revel in that and appear to want it to be difficult to explain. They seek to have a sort of "first class curtain" in place to keep out the commoners.

      I've gone on about this a lot in the last few days, hopefully my point of view is clear now.

      And like most things, neither of our viewpoints is likely the "correct" answer but a mix of the two.

      Delete
  4. This is the Richard Cohen Somerby is quoting today. Seventeen years ago, he was doing Bill O'Reilly's dirty work, protecting him from allegations of sexual misconduct:

    "It wasn’t just the lawyers. Mackris told The Daily Beast that she felt traumatized by opinion pieces attacking her credibility by Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen (dismissively titled “The Nonsense Factor”) and the Philadelphia Daily News’ Michael Smerconish (“The case against Bill O’Reilly is bogus,” wrote Smerconish, an occasional O’Reilly Factor guest and substitute host on his radio show) as well as by lurid headlines in the New York Post trashing her reputation (“‘LUNATIC’ O’REILLY GAL WENT NUTS IN A BAR,” screamed one)."

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  5. There’s interesting column Drum did some years ago on Mother Jones about Somerby’s quarrel about these books.

    Drum offers up his analogy of spacetime using the formula of four, but eventually you’re still left dancing in the dark, which most of Drum’s very astute commenters concede.

    There’s no talk of dementia, anyway.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. https://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2016/02/general-relativity-hard-understand/

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    2. Kevin Drum is not a psychologist, he is a guy who makes graphs.

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    3. Right. Drum makes them on the basis of having actually examined his patient- the data.

      Delete
  6. No way to really understand deep physics w/o a profound mathematical understanding. It's a different language, which few can understand. Gives the fundies and skeptics real ammunition when it comes to understandable arguments - why should we believe it if we can't understand it?

    I did learn some things from Hawking's book, like the two-slit experiment, showing the wave-form of individual electrons impinging on a background screen which recorded the impacts. How it was determined by science is an interesting question, which I'm sure can be answered,if it hasn't already.

    Leroy

    ReplyDelete
  7. 'Everyone repeats and recites this well-worn trampoline hook. It's meant to explain the curvature of space-time, whatever space-time is.

    Everyone knows how to repeat and recite it. But does anyone actually understand what it actually means?'

    Pretty much all graduate courses in physics include courses in General Relativity. Several other disciplines in engineering and related fields also include GR courses. There are also graduate degrees/theses in astrophysics and particle physics. Engineers who design satellites and spacecraft most definitely understand GR. In fact, GR is one of the simpler things such engineers have to design for.

    And SR requires no more than high school maths and physics.

    So lots of people do understand relativity. Somerby clearly doesn't. But what is risible is that he seems to think that it's the responsibility of book writers to explain a mathematical concept. Like the Trumptard he is, he seems to think that defending DJT, Roy Moore and others for 4 years is sufficient qualification, and learning math/science is unnecessary.

    ReplyDelete
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