Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Why Phil Falcone is like the most loopy left-wingers in America

Alan Sokal, a Professor of Mathematics at University College London and a Professor of Physics at New York University published this in Social Text - a peer reviewed left-wing journal of post-modern thought published by Duke University Press.

But deep conceptual shifts within twentieth-century science have undermined this Cartesian-Newtonian metaphysics1; revisionist studies in the history and philosophy of science have cast further doubt on its credibility2; and, most recently, feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the façade of ``objectivity''.3 It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical ``reality'', no less than social ``reality'', is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific ``knowledge", far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities. These themes can be traced, despite some differences of emphasis, in Aronowitz's analysis of the cultural fabric that produced quantum mechanics4; in Ross' discussion of oppositional discourses in post-quantum science5; in Irigaray's and Hayles' exegeses of gender encoding in fluid mechanics6; and in Harding's comprehensive critique of the gender ideology underlying the natural sciences in general and physics in particular.7

It was of course a hoax, part of a long and very funny article titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity".

To Sokal the article was a modest (though admittedly uncontrolled) experiment: Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies -- whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross -- publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions?

The answer was unfortunately yes.

And it was self-evidently nonsense. The quote I give you above includes that physical "reality" [and note the "scare quotes"] no less than social ``reality'', is at bottom a social and linguistic construct. Sokal invites "anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of [his] apartment. (He lives on the twenty-first floor.)

I will observe when the physics has something useful to say and its an argument between left-wing social theorists and conventional physics the physicist wins. Conventional physics is (at least within the distances and energy levels we can measure) very settled science - and to say novel things you need to go to minute sizes or massive energy levels (as per the Large Hadron Collider).

The Sokal hoax was funny - but it was hardly necessary. The social sciences whose response to hard science is to deny it are best ignored. Unless you have Alan Sokal's sense of humour it is not even that much fun teasing them.

Anyway - this sort of anti-science based obscurantism has historically been the province of the Left. I mean who other than a left-wing loopy intellectual would think that the reality described by conventional physics is a social construction - a conspiracy of physicists. And a physical reality they can save you from by deposing the hard (and testable sciences) so they can install themselves as a priest-class who understand this social construction stuff (not to mention the obscure jargon in my opening quote).

Oh I know who gives these self-indulgent and self-important left-wingers a run for their money. The new anti-science conspiracy theorists are on the right. Evolutionary biology is a conspiracy of godless liberals who want to undermine God's laws. Climate change is a conspiracy to allow Government more control over your life.

It is funnier when it is a bunch of academics. History has a way of sending the loopy ideas of academics to the obscurity they deserve. It is less funny when it is politicians.

But this is not a blog about the anti-science elite in politics and academia. Its a blog mostly about financial markets and their goings on and all the crappy things you can invest in.

When people in financial markets behave that way - believing their socially constructed reality over physics - then it is time to go short them.

There are few technology companies out there (and sorry I will not name names because I don't want to make the shorts crowded) whose basic premise seems to conflict with the second law of thermodynamics. [Not understanding the second law of thermodynamics is to science what not being able to read is to literature.]

But when you see this stuff in markets you have just got to short it. I know rich people who are usually smart who invested in Blacklight Power. I just could not work out a way of shorting it.

It requires a special-brand of delusion to construct your world such that basic science does not apply to you. Its the brand of delusion that the fools from Social Text have. Its the brand of delusion that some of America's more loopy right-wing politicians have.

Alas it is also the brand of delusion that Phil Falcone has. It was the brand of delusion which powered Lightsquared.

The physics of radio interference is settled. This is physics at ordinary distances and ordinary energy levels. (To find non-settled physics you need to shorten the distances and raise the energy levels as per the LHC.)

We know this stuff.

We know that if you put a low power radio station near a high powered radio station the high-powered station causes interference. We understand resonances between different frequencies.

As I said - this stuff is settled.

But that did not stop Phil Falcone investing his clients money in a loophole - an attempt to take spectrum which was allocated to low-powered devices (satellites) and wish to use it for high-powered devices (mobile phone towers) and to think everything would be OK. I wrote about it recently - but have had the view for some time. And it was in contradiction to physical reality (and this time I did not put "reality" in scare quotes because that reality is really real).

Phil Falcone is almost certainly smarter than the idiots who edit Social Text. But years of success and the strange cocoon of being a Wall Street billionaire got Falcone to the point that he thought that reality did not apply to him.

He became just like the most loopy of left-wingers.

Still Lightsquared is dead - the FCC has now determined that the conflicts with GPS are not able to be resolved. That is a fatal blow to Lightsquared (and I am glad). It means that parts of the government (like Defence who value their GPS) still have a say and that anti-science obscurantism is not everywhere - just on the far-left, far-right and in the minds of some particularly self-indulged Wall Street types.

There is hope in the world.



Anonymous said...

As Max Born said: "theoretical physics is actual philosophy".

Anonymous said...

Did Steve Jobs not create an exception to Newton's law of universal gravitation?

H.Z. said...

"We know that if you put a low power radio station near a high powered radio station the high-powered station causes interference. We understand resonances between different frequencies."

This is not nearly a given as the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In general physics does not prevent you from filtering out the high powered station. The propagation media (air) itself is extremely linear and one frequency never mixes with a different one. Mixing is caused by non-linearity in the receiver components. At RF the selectivity of the filter is limited. If you can't filter enough you will need highly linear amplifier to reduce mixing or amplify less. High linearity is not hard to achieve but does use more power so is a problem for portable consumer devices. Less amplification could reduce radio sensitivity. At the IF stage (esp the zero IF) high-powered nearby bands can be easily filtered out. So the trade-off is how much linear amplification at RF and what kind of sensitivity can you achieve.
Lightsquared claimed that current GPS devices do not meet spec. Is that true? Are they also seeking to raise the in-band power limit of their band?
If they are not raising the power limit in their bands GPS devices meeting spec should be able to handle the interference, as it is clear that they don't propose to raise their out of band emission. If they are raising the power limit in their band that could be a problem even for GPS devices meeting spec.
As cheap consumer GPS devices have proliferated in recent years it is very plausible that most of them don't meet spec. But it is interesting that FAA is also concerned which leads one to think that Lightsquared is seeking to raise in-band power limit. Of course the sensitivity of even a well designed radio could still be affected a little so all users have incentives to have quieter neighbors rather than noisier ones.

I agree with the general principle that the spectrum should be used as intended. Otherwise it should be auctioned off to the highest bidder . Lightsquared's investment premise of exploiting loopholes on a multi-billion dollar scale was faulty from the beginning.

Anonymous said...

'Climate Change?' The climate is always changing. CO2 levels used to be 10-20x higher and Manhattan was covered by a sheet of ice 2-3km thick.

What happened to the darling daughter of the Loop Left, 'Global Warming?' There must be some reason they changed their verbiage after dozens of papers in Geophysical Review, Atmospheric Science Letters, Geophysical Research Letters, Climate Dynamics, JAMSTEC, and others have poked every hole available in the theory of AGW, as well as admitting no models can properly account for water vapor, the most important greenhouse gas.

As Phil Jones of CRU-fame himself said to the BBC, from 1995 to the present there has been no statistically significant global warming.

And the GISS data contained a massive software bug until other researchers like McKitrick pointed out the absurdity of the changes they were showing...NASA had to go back and correct the values but didn't even bother to issue a press release about their error which showed that the 1930s was the warmest decade in the US, not the 1990s.

Temperatures rose from the lows of the mid-70s until 1998, and have been flat to down ever since.

Even some of the AGW alarmists like Stott, et al, say that up to 40% of the warming could come from solar forcing. The most recent Svensmark research at CERN [which the alarmists tried to supress] goes a lot further towards proving his theory of cloud formation and warming than the absurd 'simulations' at PSU and other places where they jointly 'hide the decline.

The CO2 increase has been shown in several scientific papers to have lagged the rise in warming by 800 +/- 200 years - the AGW alarmists have been forced to admit this a while ago.

No real scientists send emails to others telling them to delete their data to avoid complying with federally mandated FOI requests. Using taxpayer money to hide and delete and 'lose' the original data should be punishable by prison time, just like fraudulent CFOs.

Richard said...


I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you let that last post through to prove your point.

Anonymous said...

John, you cast out your line and wove a net before it hit the water... Great piece!

Also - please keep giving it to the loopy lefties. It is a startling and curious function of mankind (particularly the lefty who has a propensity for it) that at the border of their knowledge base they invent a conspiracy or myth.

Matthew said...

I would just like to second H.Z.'s remarks. The problem with the LightSquared proposal isn't that it couldn't in principle coexist with GPS devices. Rather, it is that it is seems that it cannot coexist with some fraction of current GPS devices. It isn't physics that is preventing this; it is engineering.

I think that the more telling objection is that while it might be desirable to re-allocate some spectrum to additional wireless data use, that should be done explicitly through the normal regulatory process, not through the use of loopholes and waivers, which both establishes a bad precedent and deprives the public of proper compensation for the use of the very limited spectrum resource.

Anonymous said...

Its SokAl, btw.

Blissex said...

«physical "reality" [and note the "scare quotes"] no less than social ``reality'', is at bottom a social and linguistic construct. Sokal invites "anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions»

But the non-extreme version of the claim is entirely correct: the laws of physics express the social context in two different ways:

* The formulation of physics depends very much on the specific political and social history we have had.

* The mental categories we use for physics are very much the product of a specific political and social history.

The *numbers* we get out of the above must be the same in any path-dependent social and political context, but we can get there in very different ways.

For example it is hard to deny that Laplacian/Hamiltonian approaches are the direct outcome of the 19th century fascination with "engine boom" that happened at the time, and that mental framework still surprisingly influences even quantum physics. Every technological era has a dominant metaphor, and it is not by chance that in ours computational rather than mechanical engines are that, and thus Wolfram's attempt at what he calls a new kind of science (formalism).

Similarly even the popularity of infinitesimals in maths is far from the only possibility, and we could have had very different maths as a basis for physics.

In other words the mental frameworks with which we approach "reality" could be very different, down to basic categories like "matter" and "energy", or "truth" or "falsehood" which some cultures don't use that much.

Quantum physics has of course challenged a lot of political and social traditionalism (at the scale of an electron the world does not resemble an orrery or an engine that much), but it is remarkable how much of it is a stubborn attempt to reframe quantum phenomena into inherited categories.

The laws of physics are certainly «social conventions», even if not «mere» ones, as their usefulness depends on how well they approximate or compress physics which is the something that is not a social convention.

Anonymous said...

Climate change is real, however human contribution to current climate change is rather insignificant

Anonymous said...

most of the scientist are left by your standards.. but most of the anti-science guys are religious far-right folks. so the generalization it this post is plainly stupid.

Eric Titus said...

"I mean who other than a left-wing loopy intellectual would think that the reality described by conventional physics is a social construction - a conspiracy of physicist?"

It doesn't seem so bizarre a claim to say that science is based in reality but also a social construction. Kuhn makes the argument far better than I can, but don't quantum physics, newtonian mechanics, and special relativity have irreconcilably different views of reality? I am a leftist "social scientist" though, so maybe these are just my postmodern instincts kicking in.t

Anonymous said...

"...this sort of anti-science based obscurantism has historically been the province of the Left."

Are you kidding? Remember Galileo? Or was the Roman Catholic Church part of the left? Who has been denying the validity of evolution for the last 150 years? Not the left. Huxley debated an Anglican bishop not Marx.

General disclaimer

The content contained in this blog represents the opinions of Mr. Hempton. You should assume Mr. Hempton and his affiliates have positions in the securities discussed in this blog, and such beneficial ownership can create a conflict of interest regarding the objectivity of this blog. Statements in the blog are not guarantees of future performance and are subject to certain risks, uncertainties and other factors. Certain information in this blog concerning economic trends and performance is based on or derived from information provided by third-party sources. Mr. Hempton does not guarantee the accuracy of such information and has not independently verified the accuracy or completeness of such information or the assumptions on which such information is based. Such information may change after it is posted and Mr. Hempton is not obligated to, and may not, update it. The commentary in this blog in no way constitutes a solicitation of business, an offer of a security or a solicitation to purchase a security, or investment advice. In fact, it should not be relied upon in making investment decisions, ever. It is intended solely for the entertainment of the reader, and the author. In particular this blog is not directed for investment purposes at US Persons.