Monday, 27 February 2017

Brian Cox on Ghosts: Reuploaded.

This is a republished version of my previous post: "Brian Cox on ghosts: the truth hurts" which somehow has become delisted.Celebrity physicist Brian Cox recently made some interesting comments on an episode of the Infinite Monkey Show from Manchester, regarding advances in physics and what they quite possibly mean for some more archaic notions regarding the reality of nature. Referring to the work done at the large hadron collider in Geneva and specifically the discovery of the Higgs Boson and how it relates to ghosts, Cox remarked:
"Before we ask the first question, I want to make a statement: We are not here to debate the existence of ghosts because they don't exist. If we want some sort of pattern that carries information about our living cells to persist then we must specify precisely what medium carries that pattern and how it interacts with the matter particles out of which our bodies are made. We must, in other words, invent an extension to the Standard Model of Particle Physics that has escaped detection at the Large Hadron Collider. That's almost inconceivable at the energy scales typical of the particle interactions in our bodies. I would say if there's some kind of substance that's driving our bodies, making my arms move and legs move, then it must interact with the particles out of which our bodies are made. And seeing as we've made high precision measurements of the ways that particles interact, then my assertion is there can be no such thing as an energy source that's driving our bodies."
 To some Cox' approach here may seem harsh, cold even. He seems to have taken very little care in considering the beliefs of others in the statement and it's comparable to statements he made regarding ghosts in the past. Unfortunately, we have to accept that it's Cox's prerogative to approach the subject of ghosts in this manner. As a physicist, Cox works in a domain concerned with formulating an accurate and utilitarian description of nature. Though unexplored areas of physics sometimes involve more esoteric ideas such as hidden dimensions and many worlds, these aren't wild flights of fantasy, they're mathematically sound and provide an explanation for some aspect of reality that has been shown to exist. Cox has spoken without ambiguity on the subject of ghosts, and I think it's necessary for people to do this. I myself offered an explanation of why the laws of physics don't allow for the existence of ghosts last year. I regretted my ambiguity somewhat when I saw people commenting on the post that I stated in my conclusion that ghosts may exist, but ghost hunters and paranormal investigators must try harder to find empirical evidence. I can see how the conclusion given below could give that impression, but it isn't really how I felt:
"To accept the existence of ghosts requires the rewriting of all of the above laws and theories of physics, does that mean that we should stop looking? Not necessarily, but believers must accept that a high standard of evidence is required to start rewriting the textbooks."
The only aspect of the statement made by Cox in which I really disagree to any extent is that the LHC has proventhat ghosts don't exist. It's just made an existence which already bordered on almost utterly unlikely, even more unlikely. That's why I don't really view this comment as offering anything new to the argument. If you weren't already convinced by Newton's laws, the laws of thermodynamics, Einstein's energy-matter equivalence and literally almost all of physics and biology you aren't likely to be convinced by the LHC's probing of ultra-high energy states.

Belief in ghosts isn't generally informed by knowledge, it's informed in acceptance of anecdote as evidence. In a desire to believe. In the effectiveness of psychological phenomena such as cognitive dissonance in protecting weak and ill-formed ideas. Cox's words, like the words of any other scientist, are unlikely to sway believers in ghosts or any other supernatural phenomena. In fact, it's likely to cause them to do what most of us do when our beliefs are threatened, run to our echo-chambers and lash out at perceived aggressors.

Unsurprisingly, this is what is occurring on facebook and other social media right now.

Aside from the insults, accusations of being a member of the Satanic Illuminati, claims that he is an "astormior" (he isn't) who aren't scientists anyway (they are) and threats to curse/haunt Cox, on the various paranormal groups where I've seen this discussed, I've only seen one real attempt to raise a coherent argument against Cox. The idea that lots of people claim to have seen a ghost, therefore ghosts must exist.

Such arguments don't consider that there isn't some critical mass of anecdotal evidence, at which point it becomes empirical evidence. Nor do they consider cultural influences, psychological factors or the fact that some people just lie. All of which, alongside plain old misattribution, can account for such a wealth of sightings. Looking at exchanges such as the ones above I have to wonder who these people are trying to convince? Their "arguments" certainly won't win over skeptics or anyone who believes that concepts should be supported by some level of evidence. Are these simply exercises in self-persuasion? Isn't that the point of some of these groups? To be echo chambers in which flawed ideas won't be challenged?

This idea speaks a lot about the culture we currently live in, Cox has spoken the truth in so much that it is a pretty close reflection of reality, the laws of physics don't allow for ghosts to exist. And the laws and models of physics become more well evidenced and complete every day. Yet speaking this truth has earned Cox ire and accusations of self-appointed superiority. I'm inclined to paraphrase a very pertinent quote offered by Michael Gove last year:

"The general public are tired of experts." After all. They tend to tell us things we don't want to hear.