Information Loss

A quick exercise:

  1. Think of an area of knowledge where you have acknowledged, real-world expertise.

  2. Think of the last journalism piece you encountered that touched on that area of knowledge.

  3. How accurate was that piece?

I don’t know about you, but more often than not, I dread reading mainstream articles on fields that I know a little something about. Take physics. Okay, yes, I expect to read piles of dreck in my old field of nanomechanics, what with the active campaign to spread dreck and all. But even discounting nanomechanics, there’s no shortage of the dreck in other areas of physics.

Case in point: Brad DeLong recently picked apart a picks apart an article by TNR columnist Gregg Easterbrook on the Stephen Hawking black hole information loss bet. Easterbrook not only attacks physicists as mumbo-jumbo-spouting medieval priests, but also manages to make an appalling number of scientific errors. I’ve actually liked reading Easterbrook in the past, but now I’m wishing I had taken his writing with a much larger grain of salt. If you think modern physics is worth snarking over because The Physics of the Very Large and The Physics of the Very Small does not match our common-sense intuitions about The Physics of Tables and Chairs — well, as DeLong points out, you’re about 300 years too late to that party.

No doubt one of the main reasons The New Republic published Easterbrook’s article is because it behooves them to take a generally contrarian view. And let’s face it, the mainstream take on the Hawking story was pretty darn boring. Cute, gnomish High Priest of Physics pronounces to his fellow white-haired, gnomish physicists that he has lost an old bet about — something wacky, something to do with black holes. Gnomish men scurry off to check their leader’s calculations, muttering that they don’t quite understand what he’s talking about. Cricket and baseball are somehow involved. Those darned physicists! The End.

The sad part is that there really was a non-boring version of the story; namely Jacques’s take, where we learn that A) mainstream theoretical physics solved this problem quite some time ago, and B) Hawking’s concession argument is rather strange and incomplete to say the least! Unfortunately, Jacques wrote his article for people who have at least a passing acquaintance with Anti de Sitter / Conformal Field Theory, a group that probably excludes you and definitely excludes me. Still, there is in fact a real story there.1

If only The New Republic had thought to hire a geniune physicist to write about physics, the way Slate has thought to hire a genuine Wall Street scoundrel to write about Wall Street shenanigans. Oh, well.

1. And the good news is, it can’t possibly be lost! We think.