Conference Organizers Should Not Live in Caves

A sad and sordid story from the Times Higher Education following the rescinding of invitations to a conference on quantum foundations:

Details of the conference in August for experts in quantum mechanics sounded idyllic. Participants were due to discuss “de Broglie-Bohm theory and beyond” in the Towler Institute, which is housed in a 16th-century monastery in the Tuscan Alps owned by Mike Towler, Royal Society research fellow at Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory.

Last week, any veneer of serenity was shattered. Conference organiser Antony Valentini, research associate in the Theoretical Physics Group at Imperial College London, wrote to three participants to say their invitations had been withdrawn.

The physicist and science writer David Peat, biographer of David Bohm (co-founder of de Broglie-Bohm theory), was considered tainted because of his books on “Jungian synchronicity” and “connections between Native American thought and modern physics”.

Brian Josephson, head of the Mind-Matter Unification Project at Cambridge, was rejected on the grounds that “one of his principal research interests is the paranormal”.

You have to read down to the end of the article to find that the third uninvited person was Jack Sarfatti. Sarfatti is the first to chime in with an indignant comment, though, so there’s that…

I suppose there’s an ethical question raised by inviting people to what sounds like a pretty sweet deal, and then rescinding the invitations. The bigger question, though, is how did these people get invited in the first place?

I mean, you don’t have to be paying a great deal of attention to know that Brian Josephson is into ESP– he’s battling it out with Kary Mullis for the title of “nuttiest living Nobel laureate.” And it doesn’t take a great deal of Googling to discover that Jack Sarfatti is all over the weird. Not that it should require Google– I instantly recognized those names as associated with disreputable ideas, and I suspect most of my readers in physics would as well.

If you object to having people invited to your conference who are associated with “the paranormal,” then you should make sure you don’t invite them in the first place. Before you send out the official invitations, type the names into Google, and look at the first few pages that come up. It’s not like the list of participants in that workshop is all that long. And they do have the Internet in Tuscany, yes?

The THE story makes it sound like they’re backing down from the uninviting of two of the three, which just makes matters worse– if you’re going to make a move like this, you need to stick to your guns, or you look even worse. On the bright, side, though, this does leave a slot open, and I’m pretty sure I’m free that week. Sure, I don’t know much about de Broglie-Bohm theory, but I’m willing to learn. And I promise not to say anything crazy…

30 thoughts on “Conference Organizers Should Not Live in Caves

  1. Maybe they overbooked the conference 😉 I actually find the invitation business complicated: You have a finite budget and a limited program time, so there’s an upper limit to the number of speakers you can invite, and you want to use it as best as you can. Just that you know that some of the invited speakers will decline, and some of them might wait weeks or months even bothering to decline. During that time, you shouldn’t invite more people than you can afford/fit, but the longer you wait the lower your chances anybody can come.

    So you do it like the airlines do: you estimate how many people will decline and overbook. Maybe Valentini misestimated the errorbar…

    In any case, it’s totally inappropriate to uninvite these people. This should never have happened. So one of these guys believes in telepathy? Well, just don’t invite him to speak about it, and otherwise he’s probably going to be interesting. This sort of behavior only makes people ever more afraid to damage their reputation by saying something most of their peers might not approve of. You start with telepathy, next year you’re not allowed to be interested in Bohmian mechanics or higher order gravity. Careful, careful.

  2. I’ll agree that this little debacle certainly shows poor judgment. However, I don’t think we should be too critical without knowing the full details of how the invitations came to be made in the first place. I am pretty sure that Anthony Valentini would have known the views of the three people mentioned, as they are well known to those in the foundations community. I can only assume that they were invited without his knowledge. I can understand why he reacted in the way he did because quantum foundations conferences are often awash with people who hold extremely cranky positions, which doesn’t help the discussion at the conference or the image of the subject as a whole. That said, retracting invitations once they have been made is certainly a bad idea.

  3. Sure, you can argue that not to inviting these guys in the first place would have been better than rescinding invitations. But if it results in pissing off Jack Sarfatti, I’m not seeing a down side here.

  4. Details are on my website above and on Josephson’s. Valentini and Towler of course knew about our views on the paranormal ahead of time. However, we were not there to talk about those topics. I have an of-cited conventional paper on application of Bohm’s quantum potential to practical problems in quantum chemistry with Creon Levit of NASA AMES winner of the Feynman Prize in nanotechnology. Also my suggestion of direct back-action of the matter hidden variables on their quantum potential, cited by Towler in his Cambridge Bohm Lectures online (unless he redacted them since the scandal) anticipates Valentini’s “signal nonlocality” violating the no-cloning theorem under conditions of non-equilibrium of the hidden variables. The allegation that Bohm’s theory is untestable like much of string theory shows the ignorance of the savants who profess that view. The disinvites were due to political pressure from more senior people who simply dislike anyone who ventures outside the conventional group think and believes the kinds of smears expressed by Ambitwistor above. Of course, we should not have been invited in the first place if Towler and Valentini were afraid of our views. Once invited they should not have done what they did in the way that they did. The cure was worse than the disease.

  5. Although Towler had a general intent to hold such a Bohm conference I was the
    instigator catalyst that collapsed his wavefunction so to speak. Here is the true
    story that Towler has been busy re-writing. I have the e-mails to prove my version
    for any historians of physics interested.

    I caught wind of Towler’s excellent on-line lectures on Bohmian physics in which he
    cites my idea of “back-action” that I gave in two talks at Stuart Hameroff’s Tucson
    Conferences on Consciousness in the late 90’s – published in their abstracts. The
    idea is that Shimony’s “passion at a distance” the detente between entanglement
    and no signaling across spacelike intervals is understood in Bohm’s theory as the
    fragility of the quantum potential Q. This means that Q pilots the trajectory of the
    hidden variable but the hidden variable does not directly back-react on Q. In other
    words, this is the “test particle” approximation for the hidden variable similar to
    the situation in General Relativity. In terms of the de-Broglie-Bohm-Vigier
    stochastic approach this is sub-quantal thermal equilibrium of the hidden variables.
    Therefore, my idea anticipates Antony Valentini’s “signal nonlocality.” I proposed in
    Tucson that all living matter has such direct back action (no action without direct
    reaction so to speak). Obviously, living matter is not in thermal equilibrium in the
    key degrees of freedom but are dissipative structures in Prigogine’s sense. I then
    suggested that our inner conscious qualia is the effect of this self-organizing
    creative two-way spontaneously self-organizing feedback control loop.
    Furthermore, as shown by Roger Penrose in his semi-popular books (e.g. Emperor’s
    New Mind) discussing Libet’s presponse, there is an element of retro-causality
    consistent with the old Wheeler-Feyman idea.

    Towler cites me for the above in his Cambridge lectures as a “celebrity nut job”
    that I took with good humor. He later wrote that his colleagues call him a “nut
    job” – presumably because of his interest in Bohm.
    Well I contacted Towler by email and by August of 2009 we were talking about
    having a meeting on Bohm in 2010 and I contributed to bouncing around some
    rough ideas with him before Valentini was even in the picture.
    I stayed at Trinity College Cambridge for a week in September 2009 where Towler
    and I met and discussed the idea further with Josephson. Towler was on his way to
    Perimeter Institute where he said he would discuss the idea with Valentini. I also
    said that I would try to get some funding for the meeting – there was never a quid
    pro quo that my attendance was contingent on me getting money for Towler. Also I
    told Towler that I was mainly interested in listening not talking at that workshop.
    My main interest was Valentini’s idea of signal nonlocality, which in Valentini’s
    words, could be used for “espionage” and breaking quantum cryptography security
    words, could be used for “espionage” and breaking quantum cryptography security.
    I am an informal “senior advisor” to Dr. Ronald Pandolfi, of the Science &
    Technology Directorate of the CIA and the MASINT program. Indeed, I was
    Pandolfi’s guest at a JASON meeting at General Atomics in June 2008 in La Jolla.
    Therefore, for Towler to tell the Times Higher Education Supplement that I
    thought Towler was in the pay of the CIA was blatantly false and I had previously
    admonished Towler not to spread that false story to the press.
    So that’s how it started the rest is history. Of course both Towler and Valentini
    were aware of our unconventional views from the beginning. Updates on this
    situation are at my blog.

  6. First, Chad, I am grateful that you are covering this fractal scandal.

    Second, I find David Bohm very interesting and have often pondered his ideas, though I am not familiar with David Peat’s biography. Nor can I reject out of hand “connections between Native American thought and modern physics” given that it’s been at least folklore in the Science Fiction community that Navaho uses the same word and concept for Space as for Time, and a famous story was based on taking that literally.

    Third, I have had many delightful and profound conversations face-to-face with Brian Josephson, and remain in email contact. Whatever your prejudices about parapsychology (the final word is not yet spoken), it is a fact that he is taken very seriously by many other Nobel Laureates, and the Nobel foundation itself. Further, that Cambridge did prevent him from (before he retired) having grad students or postdocs, for fear that he would infect them with fringe ideas. This is, to me, violative of academic freedom.

    Fourth, I have had a few delightful and profound conversations face-to-face with Jack Sarfatti, and remain in blog and Facebook contact with him.

    Fifth, so what’s wrong with having controversial, even outrageous people speak at a conference? Isn’t the Scientific Method based on controversy, publication, hypotheses, and Scientific Revolution triggered by anomalies?

    Who knows which of these people will be forgotten in the 22nd Century, and which elevated to iconic status? Not having a working Time Machine, I prefer to keep an open mind.

  7. I have been toying with the idea of organising a “fringe” physicists conference for a number of years now. Not so much because I want to hear what they want to say (I can get that from their web sites and papers), but more because I would like to put faces to the names. Hell, I’d even invite Lubos, provided that he was frisked for weapons and sharp objects.

  8. That would be the first conference with people with tranquilizer darts surrounding the audience, and a splash shield in front of the speaker podium.

  9. I would like to make a public statement about this.

    The fuss stemmed from a private email that I wrote to Prof. Brian Josephson on the 19th April 2010, regarding a conference (about the de Broglie-Bohm interpretation of quantum mechanics) which I am co-organising with Dr. Mike Towler. The matter has recently erupted into the public domain with the publication of a rather misleading article in Times Higher Education.

    Conference organisers are sometimes required to make difficult judgements, and of course mistakes can and do occur. The email I wrote was an attempt to deal with a difficult and complex organisational problem internal to the conference. It was not intended as a literal statement of my views about the scientific status of research into the ‘paranormal’. Nor did the wording accurately convey the nature of Prof. Josephson’s early association with the conference.

    For the record, and contrary to what many are claiming: I am not in principle opposed to the careful and scientific investigation of alleged anomalies, whatever they may be. This view seems to me entirely obvious and uncontroversial.

    Some will ask why I wrote an email apparently ‘dis-inviting’ a participant. Normally, such a step would of course be a regrettable breach of basic etiquette, and the recipient could reasonably complain strongly (and in private) to the organisers. However, as many will have learned from Dr. Towler (who started planning the conference before I got involved), certain alleged ‘invitees’ were in fact never formally invited.

    Even so, some may ask why certain people became associated with a conference that is outside their domain of expertise, and which was never intended to be about the paranormal. Others feel driven to suggest that I was forced to write the email by a sinister power, and attempt to portray this episode as a bigoted attempt to suppress radical ideas. Some have simply concluded that there were probably good (if obscure) reasons for my writing the email, while others have seen fit to make comments without knowing the full (and private) facts behind the case.

    In my view, if I may say, these matters are the business of the conference organisers and not of anybody else.

    Prof. Josephson took the regrettable step of posting my email, in full and with author signature, on his website. (The author information and some of the text has now been removed.) This act encouraged a storm of protest from some of Prof. Josephson’s associates, partly in the form of a large volume of misleading emails sent to all the conference participants as well as to dozens of others (including journalists) and partly in the form of postings on various websites, including one that by any reasonable standard can only be described as deliberately defamatory.

    Private correspondence (whether by conventional or electronic mail) should be treated as private, and should not be placed in the public domain without the author’s consent. The internet is an evolving medium, and one can query the suitability of standard constraints in this context. However, I suggest that we all take a deep breath, and ask ourselves if it is wise to blur the distinction between private and public correspondence in this way.

    It is my view that a private matter between Prof. Josephson and myself has been brought into the public domain in a manner that is inappropriate and improper, as well as unhelpful and deeply misleading.

    Some will regard my attitude as old-fashioned. For the other side of the argument, I can recommend a book by Lee Siegel, whose title speaks for itself: ‘Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob’.

  10. “nuttiest living Nobel laureate”

    It’s impressive that you feel comfortable belittling Nobel laureates. I’m sure your Nobel Prize is right around the corner- arrogant and closed minded folks like yourself have always made important contributions to the field. 🙂

  11. It’s impressive that you feel comfortable belittling Nobel laureates. I’m sure your Nobel Prize is right around the corner- arrogant and closed minded folks like yourself have always made important contributions to the field. 🙂

    This assumes that “nuttiest” was intended with normative connotations rather than in a purely descriptive sense. But there’s nothing in Prof. Orzel’s statement that indicates that he sees anything wrong with nuttiness.

    As for the combination of arrogance and closed-mindedness being associated with making contributions to physics, I think it’s well-established that arrogance alone is in no way a hindrance to making important contributions to physics. In fact, as far as I can tell, it’s more commonly accepted that arrogance is virtually a prerequisite for making important contributions to physics.

    As for the question of closed-mindedness, I am not sure that many readers would perceive a willingness to label a Nobel laureate as “nutty” as particularly closed-minded. And even if it qualified as a single instance of closed-mindedness, then there’s the question of whether one can infer from it a consistent broad trait of “closed-mindedness” that would have a bearing on the likelihood of making important contributions in physics. But we can leave all that aside for now.

    Note that Prof. Orzel merely described Josephson as in the running to be “nuttiest” among the living Nobel laureates. Assuming ‘nuttiness’ can be measured by a real number, then there must indeed by a “nuttiest” living Nobel laureate (or more than one in a tie at the same level of nuttiness). That is, anyone who thinks nuttiness can be ranked must believe (if their beliefs are at all logical and consistent) that there is a non-empty set of the nuttiest living Nobel laureates.

  12. Valentini’s version of the timeline of the invitee process, like Towler’s is false and self-serving and I have the emails to prove it. Also, when an injustice is done, that trumps any privacy issue. Also Valentini fails to mention the pressure he and Towler were put under to make the disinvites. More details are at Professor Orzel has committed libel against Josephson.

  13. PS I had told Towler at the Cavendish and in email that I did not plan to give a formal talk at this conference. I was mainly there to try to pry into Valentini’s mind on signal nonlocality that has great national security importance. Fortunately, Valentini will be in America at Clemson University.

  14. >”PS I had told Towler at the Cavendish and in email that I did not plan to give a formal talk at this conference.”

    Here’s the email in question (Sarfatti to Towler, earlier this year):

    “Would like 1 hour to discuss


    Back From The Future Physics

    Short Abstract:

    Combining Wheeler-Feynman-Cramer transaction with Bohm’s pilot wave theory, Aharonov’s destiny state vector, Valentini’s signal nonlocality, applications to the ‘tHooft-Susskind hologram conjecture and dark energy cosmology.”

  15. Are you being serious vnv? Of course the term “nuttiest” was used in a pejorative sense. Let’s not be dense. Have you looked around his blog? Notice his recent enthusiasm for Dawkins? Belittling and marginalizing those you disagree with is par for the course with the Dawkins/JREF crowd- of which I am guessing you are one based on your ridiculous defense of the term “nuttiest”. But let’s let Orzel explain for himself if he meant the term “nuttiest” as a slight.

  16. Nice, I just noticed the term “kookiness” is one of the tags. I’m sure that is also not meant to marginalize Professor Josephson. You stay classy Professor Orzel.

  17. Antony’s letter clearly involved matters of public interest; this was a whistle blower action. And there had been no request ‘please don’t tell people I told you people with an interest in the paranormal shouldn’t attend conferences’, and if there had been I would felt it legitimate to ignore it.

    To spare Antony’s blushes, I soon deleted the more embarrassing parts of his letters that were originally on my web page, and his own email address was never there.

    How is a participant to distinguish between an invitation and a ‘formal invitation’. Was I supposed to ask Towler, just in case his apparently inviting me should not have been taken at its face value ‘do you mean what you told me, or am I not really invited? Is it OK to go ahead and book a flight’?

    Antony’s letter stated something at variance with what he actually believes, apparently. Is that OK in Imperial College Physics Department?

    A ‘rather misleading article’ in THE? Really? In what way?

    I have in fact published on Bohmian QM (in Foundations of Physics), and what I am working on at this time may well be relevant to the conference: I dispute the assertion that this field is outside my area of expertise.

  18. Dear Dr, Orzel,

    As I’ve already expressed my feelings on this matter over at Dr, Woit’s blog, I will spare everyone by not repeating them here. The reason for my chiming in is to hope that you are invited to the Bohmian Conference, as you may discover that the Bohmian approach privides you a more solid foundation from which to reasonably support the action and role of decohernce in respect to quantum mechanics. However. in as David Bohm in his time was branded as first a traitor, to then later to being simply a crack pot, I find no reason to have it understood that much has changed since then among the majority of his peers..



  19. I just let these ‘nuttiness’ comments wash over me. I suggest a more meaningful poll would be taken from those who attended my invited lecture at Freiburg University’s Institute for Advanced Studies a few months ago. I’d infer from the respectful nature of the questions at the end that few there shared Orzel’s opinion of me.

    I don’t know of any quote to the effect that quite often the biggest advances in science were thought nutty at the time, but that may well be the case.

  20. To give a counter point to the people who say that it’s fine to still invite scientists who hold beliefs that organizers feel are contradictory to the tone of the conference, as long as they are speaking on an uncontentious topic, people probably remember the Kary Mullis conference debacle.

    In 1994, when Kary Mullis, Nobel laureate in chemistry, was scheduled to speak at a medical society conference in Toledo, Spain, despite being scheduled to give a talk on P.C.R., minutes before he went on, he told the president of the society that, instead, he’d be talking about his belief that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS. Sometimes, when you invite a Nobel laureate to a conference to talk about one thing, you get a lecture on AIDs denialism instead, where the “only slides (on what he called ‘his art’) were photographs he had taken of naked women with colored lights projected on their bodies”.

    Conference organizers have the right to choose who they want to speak at their event. I think everyone else out there who has invited a speaker on exoplanets and had it end in a rant about ‘the lies of global warming’ knows to be cautious there.

  21. For the record, to those of you who are irrational about this.

    On Aug 11, 2009, at 3:39 AM, Mike Towler wrote:

    Dear Jack,

    Sorry for the delay in replying – I’ve been busy running a summer school at my Italian institute (a 20 hours a day task) and we just got rid of the last of the students.

    I will indeed be in Cambridge at that time – we should be back sometime around September 7th. I would be happy to chat – assuming you’ve forgiven me for calling you a ‘celebrity nutjob’. If it’s any consolation, everyone round here thinks I’m one as well on account of volunteering to give a lecture course on such a non-PC subject.

    Best wishes,

    |Dr. Mike Towler (mdt26 at Theory of Condensed Matter (Rm 529)|

    [contact information removed per request]

    +———————-: :——————+

    On Thu, 6 Aug 2009, JACK SARFATTI wrote:

    I was with Bohm at Birkbeck in 1971
    I also knew Feynman & J.P. Vigier
    I am Brian Josephson’s guest at Trinity College Sept 20 – 25
    Will you be at Cambridge then?
    I am interested in your Tuscany Institute as well.
    Jack Sarfatti

  22. Addressing Mike Towler’s post above. What’s objectionable about that talk? Nothing about the paranormal or UFO conspiracies or even consciousness. Does Towler insinuate that the hologram theory is “nutjob” pseudo-physics? So far, all the critiques against Josephson and me have been smears without any real intellectual bite.

  23. I note that following Towler’s posting of emails my posting a sequence of emails between us that cast grave doubt on his and Valentini’s version have yet to appear here.

  24. I note that following Towler’s posting of emails my posting a sequence of emails between us that cast grave doubt on his and Valentini’s version have yet to appear here.

    I suspect they were flagged as spam by the comments server, and summarily deleted. Because the comments section of this blog is not the proper location for a core dump of your email correspondence.

    If you really feel the need to share large numbers of emails with the world, put them on your own web space, and leave a link here. The same goes for Towler, Valentini, Josephson, or anybody else who feels the need to expose their mail spool to the Internet at large.

  25. I am not interested in refereeing an email-posting contest. The comments that have gone through will remain up to preserve the record of the conversation (save for the contact information in #22, which I have deleted after a request that I do so); further posting of emails will not be allowed.

    I will be closing comments on this post at noon Eastern time. If you have a burning desire to have the last word on this subject, get it in before then.

  26. Despite #24. #25, #26, #27 etc. I have not posted any emails here, nor has anything I attempted to post here been ‘flagged as spam by the comments server’. My single contribution to this thread was to attempt to correct somebody else’s mistake, as follows:

    In response to Jack’s claim – well a blatant lie actually – that “[He] had told Towler at the Cavendish and in email that [he] did not plan to give a formal talk at this conference”, I simply posted the title, requested talk length, and abstract that he sent me for this talk he didn’t plan to give (though in quoting this I did indeed use the word ’email’). This seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable correction to a mistatement.

    I did not supply any commentary as to the quality of Jack’s proposal, nor do I propose to do so.

  27. OK, last word: ‘an Englishman’s word is his bond’ — formal declarations not are necessary in trusting communities (I’m actually a Welshman but the principle still applies).

  28. Sorry about the inversion — that should of course have been ‘formal declarations are not necessary’.

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