Letter to ArXiv Advisory Board

After more than three months of effort to try and get an answer about this, I’ve finally heard officially from the arXiv that trackbacks to my weblog are currently not being allowed by the moderators. I’m sending the following message protesting this to members of the arXiv advisory board.

To the arXiv advisory board:

I was informed two days ago by Jean Poland of the Cornell library that the arXiv moderators will not allow posting of any of the trackbacks to entries in my weblog that I requested more than three months ago. I would like to protest this decision and ask that it be overturned by the arXiv advisory board.

For background on the history of my weblog, my dealings with the arXiv moderators and the arXiv in general over this issue, you can consult the following web-page:


This is a complicated story, and involves a question not of the greatest importance, so you may quite reasonably not want to take the time to get involved in this, but I urge you to consider the two following issues:

1. It has taken me three months of effort to get a simple yes or no answer to the question of whether placement of these links on the arXiv will be allowed. This has wasted a great deal of my time, as well as that of those people who have been kind enough to try and help me get an answer. This is not a professional way of doing business and I urge you to ensure that it not continue to be the way that the arXiv operates.

2. The rejection of all trackback requests by me, requests that refer to postings of very different natures about both mathematics and physics make it clear that the moderators’ policy is to not allow any trackbacks to my weblog. I have not been given any reasons for this policy, and can only guess what these reasons are. Given the history outlined in the web-page mentioned above, it seems clear to me that this censorship is primarily driven by the moderators’ desire to paint as intellectually illegitimate and suppress commentary that is critical of string/M-theory research. This kind of suppression of dissent, accomplished using arguments that I have not been allowed to see or answer, is scientifically unethical and deserves to be condemned. The arXiv is an exceptionally important resource for the physics and mathematics community, and it is important that it operate according to high standards of scientific ethics.

Best wishes,

Peter Woit
Department of Mathematics
Columbia University

Update: Sean Carroll’s posting about this has finally shaken loose some indication of what argument was used to disallow links to my blog at the arXiv. For details, see the comment section of his posting.

Update: Lubos Motl has really outdone himself with his latest lunatic ranting about this blog. Note that, besides the blogs run by arXiv moderator Jacques Distler, Lubos’s is one of only a couple particle theory related blogs that the arXiv moderators allow trackbacks to. That trackbacks to this blog are censored, but allowed to Lubos’s (and almost no others not belonging to an arXiv moderator) should be more evidence than anyone needs that there is a serious problem with the arXiv moderation system, and it is due to the string fanaticism of the moderators.

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112 Responses to Letter to ArXiv Advisory Board

  1. DSM says:

    First: I think the behaviour of the arXiv has been entirely unprofessional throughout this entire process, and I hope that things get quickly resolved in your favour. However, despite the bad blood between you and Lubos, which given what each of you has said about the other by this point is entirely understandable, I think that the following description is unfair:

    This last one [the Reference Frame] is a stew of right-wing, racist and sexist commentary, together with completely fanatical ranting against anyone skeptical about string theory.

    It is unquestionably right-wing, but unless we’re to judge trackbacks by the politics of the authors, this is no more relevant than saying that his blog background is blue. I also don’t believe his commentary is either racist or sexist, both of which — the former especially — are serious accusations to throw around (I suppose if we define sexism as believing that there are no differences between men and women relevant to their observed behaviours, he’s certainly sexist.) One could with equal (in)justice describe you as an antireligious bigot through aggressive and determined misreading.

    He certainly does rant quasi-fanatically against those sceptical of string theory, and I think his over-the-top approach turns a lot of people off, even those who may substantively agree with him on most issues. This may actually be relevant: certainly your tone is usually far more civil than anything Lubos says, so clearly the arXiv can’t argue that it’s anything but the content of your posts that bothers them.

    I’d stick to the high ground here, which but for such comments I believe is unquestionably yours, and avoid needless detours.

  2. woit says:


    You’re right, especially about the racism and sexism part, which has nothing to do with what is at issue here. I’ve edited that page to remove those references.

    You’re also right that the fact that Lubos’s politics are right-wing is not relevant, however the sort of mindless fanaticism evident in his politics seems to me all of a piece with the mindless fanaticism about string theory. That his political fanaticism is right rather than left wing isn’t relevant, that he’s a fanatic is.

  3. Michael says:

    Peter, I’m not sure if you’re looking for an answer or just trying to pick a fight. If you want an answer, I can help you out: We don’t need anyone commenting on string theory papers who hasn’t done any research in the area, has been academically dead since the 80s, and invents things such as the off-diagonal SU(2). It simply isn’t useful to anyone. Of course, you’re free to comment anyway, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the links to your comments won’t be posted on the arxiv. Look, if you want trackbacks, cut a deal with Quantoken.

    If you’re just picking a fight, well, you have noticed it already: this is going to be one slow and agonizing fight. Certainly for you. Either way, there’s no point to your complaining. None. At all.

  4. D R Lunsford says:

    Michael, you are such an ass.

    Peter, good luck.


  5. robert says:

    Not so much ass as asshole; Michael’s bitching is so predictable and unproductive, and quite like the reported behavior of ArXiv. There are serious issues at stake here, that have nothing to do with the sniping and sneering that now seems characteristic of forums in which stringy stuff is discussed.

  6. a says:

    It seems that arXiv needs to improve the management of trackbacks. If somebody tried some censorship, at this stage he/she will have realized that it was a stupid idea.
    People like Michael are doing another similar error: this blog gained a wide audience because Peter has a good point, not thanks to Peter’s academical history. Attacking his career will not solve the problem that Peter had the courage to point out.

  7. Chris Oakley says:

    With the attention that this web log gets it seems to me that the ArXiv should be grateful for links from here to there rather than anyone worrying about links going the other way. They should at least take account of the fact that the attacks here are against the ideas and not the people. Not directly, anyway. The same cannot be said of certain physics-politics-ecology-eugenics web logs.

    BTW, while we are on the subject of ArXiv – here is a note for Nigel Cook, who I know reads this and whose e-mail does not seem to work:
    I have never sent a paper to ArXiv, and so I have no idea whether I am on their blacklist. I have not been attached to a university since 1987. This would be a problem if I did want to submit something. Also problematic is the fact that I think it very, very unlikely that universe (multiverse?) consists of tiny vibrating strings in 10 or 11 dimensions. Not to mention the fact that all the QFT work I have done is in 4 dimensions (3 space, 1 time). Or the fact that I can calculate cross sections which agree with experiment.

  8. nigel says:


    ‘We don’t expect you to read the paper in detail, or verify that the work is correct, but you should check that the paper is appropriate for the subject area. You should not endorse the author … if the work is entirely disconnected with current [string theory] work in the area.’

    They don’t want any really strong evidence of dissent. This filtering means that the arxiv reflects pro-mainstream bias. It sends out a powerful warning message that if you want to be a scientist, don’t heckle the mainstream or your work will be deleted.

    In 2002 I failed to get a single brief paper about a crazy-looking yet predictive model on to arxiv via my university affiliation (there was no other endorsement needed at that time). In emailed correspondence they told me to go get my own internet site if I wasn’t contributing to mainstream [stringy] ideas.

  9. Trackbacks open a gate to disputed ideas. The final censorship is always on the hands of the blog´s owner of course. Moderating trackbacks sounds funny. It seems more logic for the arxiv to create their own blog and remove trackbacks from the site.

    Good luck.


  10. axolotl says:

    Well, the whole trackback thing has been a bit of a flop. If they allowed trackbacks from here, then this blog and LM’s would dominate! And the administrators probably think that LM is doing enough damage already!

  11. What is a pity is that this politic of silence is creating a class of “Kremlinnologists” similar to the cold war politic analysts, trying to guess the ArXiv intentions.

    I only payed a small visit to the USA the last century, to New York and Austin. My overall impresion was that payed staff (in generic shops, buses &c.) was not motivated to innovate but to follow orders, very impressive for a country where compulsory military service does not exist.

    Recently we have noticed an increasing of acceptation in preprint submissions; lets hope that the same will happen with trackbacks. After all, there are a lot less invasive (they are even listed in a separate window, not in the main abstract presentation)

  12. MRA says:

    Could you post Jean Poland’s entire message?

  13. woit says:


    I specifically asked Poland whether it was all right to post her e-mail to me, and she asked me not to, so I’ll respect her wishes. To summarize her e-mail, it included apologies for how long it had taken to get a response to me, a description of the trackback system as experimental and with policies still under development, and the phrase I quoted about the decision of the moderators.

  14. Sean says:

    I’m sorry to hear this, Peter. There’s obviously no good reason to prevent you from leaving trackbacks, no matter what your opinions about string theory may be. It’s disappointing.

  15. Dumb Biologist says:

    My understanding is the existence of the arXiv system is predicated to some degree on the notion that this method of communicating physics research and other related discourse has supplanted, and is in any rate superior to, the conventional methods of peer review and print media, which presently exist only to siphon grant money away from science to publishers.

    That may be true, and there is no question that, in other fields, even paragons like Science have been deeply wounded by the creakiness of the conventional peer review system. Meanwhile, there’s no consensus that it should be completely abandoned, as some standards of authority are highly desireable, if they can be had practically. To that end, greater openness and scrutiny of the review process itself has been suggested, and it appears some journals are moving in that direction.

    Even without any alteration, and with the complete anonymity most referees currently enjoy, they are obliged under the standards of peer review to cogently communicate their reasons for acceptance or rejection of scientific communication. To do otherwise would indeed be completely unethical, and would never stand. I do not think that anyone, in the wake of several recent scandals involving scientific misconduct, is suggesting the system become more closed and inscrutible.

    So, from the perspective of an outsider to physics (but an insider to publishing and reviewing scientific communications), it does seem disturbing that the de facto referees of what is apparently the most relevant and prevalent means of communication of physics discourse feel no need whatsoever to explain their actions. I don’t want to rush to judgement, as they may have very legitimate practical reasons. They may be swamped with a bombardment of crackpottery, and to explictly reject even the most outlandish communication as such might open a legal can of worms, on top of being a full-time burden.

    It does not appear to my non-expert self, however, that Dr. Woit is a crank. At worst, he’s no more of a crank than a fair number of his colleagues, it seems. One need only read the bitter disputes recorded on weblogs between some Stringy and Loopy investigators to see the contempt some professional physicists openly display for one another, and it does not appear that those communications are being supressed by trackback blacklisting. What are the standards being applied here? How is the appearance of impropriety (albeit even to the ignorant) to be avoided? It’s not at all clear to me, in this instance, why some justification should not be provided. I’m a taxpayer. Just as the increasingly obvious problems with the standard system of peer review of publically funded science concern me deeply, so also, if the arXiv is a publically-funded resource, does its standards concern me. I think such public curiosity is reason enough to simply provide an explanation.

  16. Chris Oakley says:

    Dumb (?) Biologist,

    I don’t know the answers to all your questions, but I feel I should point out that ArXiv is not a replacement for print journals, it’s a replacement for the preprint system. With the latter one would send copies of one’s paper to 200+ institutions worldwide at the same time as one submitted it to a journal. It meant that people did not have to wait months to see what you were up to. SLAC keep scans of every preprint they received, a large number of which never ended up in any journal. A side effect of this system was that after the initial mailing one would get a swathe of preprint requests from universities not on the mailing list (I seem to remember getting many from Eastern Europe and Russia).

  17. Dumb Biologist says:

    OK. My line of questioning was based, to considerable degree, on information provided here:



    “It is ordinarily claimed that journals play two intellectual roles: a) to communicate research information, and b) to validate this information for the purpose of job and grant allocation.

    As I’ve explained, the role of journals as communicators of information has long since been supplanted in certain fields of physics, so let’s consider their other role. Having queried a number of colleagues concerning the criteria they use in evaluating job applicants and grant proposals, it turns out that the otherwise unqualified number of published papers is too coarse a criterion and plays essentially no role. Researchers are typically familiar with the research in their own field, and must in any event independently evaluate it together with letters of recommendation from trusted sources. Recent activity levels of candidates were mentioned as a criterion, but that too is independent of publication per se: “hot preprints” on a CV can be as important as any publication.

    So many of us have long been aware that certain physics journals currently play NO role whatsoever for physicists. Their primary role seems to be to provide a revenue stream to publishers, a revenue stream invisibly siphoned from overhead on research contracts through library systems.”

    (I hope I’m not violating any fair use standards by quoting the above from this source: http://people.ccmr.cornell.edu/~ginsparg/blurb/pg96unesco.html)

    The explicit suggestion is that resources like the arXiv are not just expeditious and inexpensive vehicles for distributing preprints, but that they have rendered at least some physics journals obsolete. Of course my reading may overstate the arXiv’s importance, but it does appear that it has indeed assumed a preeminent and independent role as a means of communicating original physics and mathematics literature. Again, I may be reading too much into this, and I don’t want to be mistaken in my understanding.

  18. woit says:

    Sean (and others),

    Thanks for your supportive comments.


    There are lots of interesting issues about the role of the arXiv as it increasingly replaces the historical role of peer-reviewed journal. But one overriding fact is that it has become extremely important for the math and physics communities, and the people managing it have an increasingly important responsibility.

    The arXiv does need to protect itself against crackpots, and I can see justification for a certain amount of lack of transparency at times because of this. I gather that they haven’t yet figured out a permanent policy for dealing with trackbacks, but I don’t see that an elaborate peer-review process makes a lot of sense here. They just need a moderation mechanism to thwart crackpots, and the problem here seems to be that their moderator(s) is convinced that anyone critical of string theory is a crackpot. The kind of string fanaticism exemplified by people like Motl, Distler and Kuperberg is a minority behavior even among string theorists. My experience has been that most string theorists and I can have a perfectly reasonable discussion of these issues, even though we may strongly disagree about some of them. But those in the string theory community who are fanatics shouldn’t be in the position of making moderation decisions at a crucial institution like the arXiv.

  19. Dumb Biologist says:

    I wish I understood it all better, so that I had more to add now than my hopes for a fair hearing of your grievances. Best of luck!

  20. MathPhys says:


    Why do you (and Motl) connect and write to this blog? Just to tell Peter Woit how much you despise him? It is clear that he hit a very raw nerve.

    I find your behaviour disgraceful. Are you people really scientists?

  21. Quantoken says:


    What’s the point writting a letter to ARXIV? They already said they are not interested in your opinion. Predictable it will take another 3 months before you see any response and the only response you will get is that they ignore you.

    And it is ridiculous for you to defend ARXIV for having to protect themselves against crackpots. They welcome the biggest crackpot of all, the super string theory. I know that till this day you are not willing to consider super string theory as a crackpot, and you still want to consider it as a science. The point is any theory that fails to make a useful prediction is considered crackpot. It doesn’t matter that string theorists are honestly making the effort to try to come up with a prediction. That is simply not good enough to differentiate their theory from crackpot. All crackpot theorists DO honestly hope for a useful prediction.

    Until string theorists can show that they can make meaningful predictions, and that their prediction can be verified by experiments, I think it is fair and square that super string theory be classified as a crackpot theory. ARXIV therefore is a major crackpot depository.

    You might as well instead write to New York Times, or any of the public media.


  22. Haelfix says:

    There is absolutely no good reason Arxiv should ban blogs that are run by faculty at major research institutions. I might disagree with comments here on occassion, but there have been several very enlightening discussions here in the past.

    I do however see how it can get a little annoying responding to the same trackback subjects (eg how bad the landscape is for physics) over and over again. It gets a little tiring at times when its the same criticism at every new paper. I think pretty much the entire physics community, as well as even the general public is now aware of these objections, it has been the point of many coffee table talks and its thoroughly known.

    I am otoh perfectly open to reading healthy and hopefully new objections, and indeed they do show up on occassion.

  23. Juan R. says:

    There is a broad dilated experience of ArXiv administrators to eliminate any dissident from being heard by the rest of comunity.

    It is possible that Quantoken have full reason in that

    “What’s the point writting a letter to ARXIV? They already said they are not interested in your opinion. Predictable it will take another 3 months before you see any response and the only response you will get is that they ignore you.”

    In fact, ArXiv administrators are ignoring to blacklisted scientists since many years. They even do not response to blacklisted Nobel laureates, even when they write a formal letter to Nature journal. Here an excerpt:

    “The cases documented by myself and others show that there is more to the story.”

    “The exclusion of particular individuals and particular ideas from arXiv appears to me to be deliberate.”

    “For example, having stated that a very distinguished physicist’s strong support of a submission carried no weight because this physicist “was not intimately familiar with the work in question”, the moderators simply ignored subsequent support from an endorser with publications on the same subject.

    “The moderators’ attitude to any challenge to conventional thinking is likely to result in the loss to science of important innovative ideas.”

    Has Robertson letter changed ArXiv “moderation” process?

    Juan R.

    Center for CANONICAL |SCIENCE)

  24. Chris Oakley says:

    One possible solution to the “standards” problem in the ArXiv would be to have an area containing papers submitted but not endorsed by the advisory board, preferably with comments explaining why. If anyone finds any of this “crackpottery” offensive, then they could just avoid visiting this part of the site.

  25. Juan R. says:

    Peter Woit

    I recomend you the preparation of an open letter was signed by respected scientists for a better (at least open to external check) administration of the ArXiv.

    This is the only way i can see you can obtain some success. Best desires!

    Juan R.

    Center for CANONICAL |SCIENCE)

  26. Benjamin says:


    I’m neither a physicist nor a mathematician, so I doubt my comments will be worth much to you, but please let me say this. Of course, you deserve the trackbacks from arXiv, but I object to you calling Lubos Motl’s blog a ‘stew’ of ‘fanatical’ politics. I am a political moderate who can be liberal on some issues and conservative on others. I have no axe to grind. Motl’s conservative political views are based on his experience of Communism, and they are not without a great deal of merit. Furthermore, he expresses himself colorfully, which may go over the top sometimes, but is entertaining and thought-provoking. There’s nothing ‘fanatical’ about his views. I think this bit of excess on your part in your otherwise cogent background article that you linked to here does your own worthwhile cause a disservice. However, it is only a slight misstep. As for the validity of superstrings, I too have my doubts, but my opinion is worthless, so I can only say: ‘Let time reveal the truth!’

  27. woit says:


    I don’t want to get into a discussion of Lubos Motl’s politics, but there is a reason I needed to bring up the issue of his fanaticism and how it is expressed on his weblog. The arXiv will not inform me of the reason it is censoring links to my weblog, so all I can do is try and guess what the reason might be and see if it fits with the evidence given by looking at the other weblogs they do allow links to. Although I would challenge this, I can see how someone might accuse me of at times being insufficiently polite to certain people, or holding fanatically one-sided views. The fact that links to Lubos’s site are allowed indicates that this can’t possibly be the reason.

    While my own political views aren’t those of Lubos, my father and his family were Eastern European refugees from Soviet communism and I grew up understanding well their point of view and respecting it. None of them ever behaved in the slightest like Lubos; they were civilized people and capable of treating views they disagreed with with respect. Lubos is a fanatic and an extremist, both in his political and scientific views: you always know exactly what he is going to say about any issue, he goes on and on about how anyone who disagrees with him about politics or string theory is an incompetent fool, and does whatever he can to suppress any such disagreement.

    One could argue that fanaticism of this kind is harmless, but the problem is that the moderators of the arXiv, while lacking Lubos’s political fanaticism share his scientific fanaticism. This form of fanaticism has done a huge amount of damage by now to theoretical physics, and promises to do much more in coming years unless people take a stand against it.

  28. Benni says:

    Dear Peter,
    I think you are banned, because you do not scientific work. You only criticise stringtheorie in a rather “public” manner.
    When you have real arguments against stringtheorie(for example if it fails to reproduce an observed physical effect, nonlocal quantum effects could be such cases) then write it in mathematical form to a paper and publish it.
    I think you had to wait for an answer because there were discussions on the moderator board.
    And they might have decided, that someone, who only wants the general public to inform with short comments that stringhtheorie is not as goog as it is, has nothing to do with a scientific discussion, but only with a person producing himself.
    It seems that the Arxiv wants to be a board for scientists, and not for discussions addressed for the general public.
    Everyone in stringhteory knows about the landscape, and there is no need, to tell a scientist on this problems. So Arxiv blacklisted you.
    Even if I have nothing to do with the moderator board, I think if you write a number of serious papers (maybe 10-20) with your own Ideas, publish them in journals and post them to the arxiv, and make your blog more of scientifically interest (stop stupid mentioning of the same problems everybody knows, post original ideas, come up with new! criticisms on strings which no one thought before), your situation would be much better.
    At this time for now, you can only be seen as a man who doesn’t produce own ideas, but only himself for the general public with repeated criticism of a theory which is in a crisis (what everyonein stringtheorie knows).
    It might be that what you do is very good for students and newbies, who want to start their carrier in theoretical physics. And I think you know, you do it exactly for them.
    But for science it is nothing, perpetually mentioning that a speculative theory that has 10^500 solutions instead of one. And Arxiv is for science, not for students or newbies.

  29. Patrick says:

    I’ve been lurking here for a while but never posted before. This is slightly off topic, but I’m in the same boat with Dumb Biologist in that, in my own field (biophysics), we don’t have anything comparable to ArXiv. I’m a bit curious about the role it seems to be assuming in the physics community. My question is: to those of you who have been involved in hiring/promotion decisions, do papers on ArXiv carry any weight or are they completely discounted as not “real” until they appear in a peer reviewed journal?

    Just wondering.


  30. woit says:


    Well, I actually have published 9 papers, one in a conference proceedings, the other 8 in Phys. Rev. Lett., Nucl. Phys. B. and Phys. Lett. B. Actually it would be 10-20 if you count hep-th/0206135. I haven’t submitted that to a journal, since at this point I don’t much see the point of journals. If the arXiv moderators want to set a standard of 10-20 peer-reviewed publications by a blogger before allowing links to their blog, they should say so. I don’t think a few more peer-reviewed publications on my part would make any difference.

    Your characterization of my blog is quite inaccurate. There are postings on a wide variety of topics of scientific interest and many physicists and mathematicians, including quite a few string theorists clearly find them worth reading. The evidence for this comes both from what people have told me and from the large number of daily connections to the blog, very many of them from leading research institutions.

    Yes, I do cover in detail the continuing controversy over the landscape, I think it is an important story. The moderators may agree with you that my emphasis on it is unwarranted, and that would justify their not allowing a trackback to my posting about Weinberg’s article. It doesn’t justify their decision to censor any and all links to my blog, including the ones about John Baez’s paper and about the Freed-Hopkins-Teleman theorem.

  31. woit says:


    One other thing. You write:

    “When you have real arguments against stringtheorie(for example if it fails to reproduce an observed physical effect, nonlocal quantum effects could be such cases) then write it in mathematical form to a paper and publish it.”

    This misses the whole point about the problem with string theory: it’s not a theory that is “wrong” in a conventional scientific way. It’s “not even wrong”, i.e. you can’t derive an inconsistency or an incorrect physical prediction from it since it isn’t really a theory. What you are asking for is impossible, but in this case it very much is legitimate science to give arguments that string theory (as a theory of unification…) can’t ever possibly predict anything. Much of the criticism of string theory here consists of a detailed argument explaining why various claims that “string theory predicts X” are incorrect. I suppose I could write such things up in more detail, providing equations, and even get them published in some peer-reviewed journals. I don’t think there would be much point to that, and I don’t think it would change the views of the arXiv moderators.

  32. A. nonymous says:


    There’s a section of the arXiv for biophysics. You’ll see papers there by leading researchers in the field, so most likely they read the other papers that appear there too. That means that if you put a paper there in the right section, a reasonable fraction of your peers will see it and it will affect their opinion of your competence, either in a good or a bad way depending on how good your paper is. Also, they might follow up on it if it strikes them as interesting. So it’s effectively published.

    It’s still a kind of a grey area, though, because it’s not the done thing in biology to cite preprints in journal-published papers, so unless you publish in a journal as well, you won’t get any citations. Whether you can disown a paper that you’ve put on the arXiv later if you change your mind is a different question. You can withdraw papers, but the attitude of the arXiv administration is that if you thought in advance that there was a possibility that you would later withdraw a paper, then you shouldn’t have posted it in the first place.

  33. Pudding says:

    “This misses the whole point about the problem with string theory: it’s not a theory that is “wrong” in a conventional scientific way. It’s “not even wrong”, i.e. you can’t derive an inconsistency or an incorrect physical prediction from it since it isn’t really a theory.”

    Which is why string theory, not Petr Woit should be banned from the arxiv.

  34. woit says:


    What I’ve seen of hiring decisions in recent years has been in math, not in physics, where things are kind of different. For mathematicians, the peer-review process is supposed to determine not only whether a result is of sufficient interest, but whether the author has a valid proof. Mathematicians take this very seriously, and so the peer-review process is of greater importance to them than to physicists. The system is under stress though, as it has become harder and harder to find good people willing to put in the amount of time necessary to carefully check a proof. You hear a lot of complaints among mathematicians that the peer-reviewed literature is much less reliable now than it used to be.

    To get hired or promoted, in most cases peer-reviewed publications in leading journals count heavily. This is not always the case: virtually any department in the country would be happy to hire Grigori Perelman based on his arXiv submissions which just give an outline of a proof of the Poincare conjecture and which he shows no signs of wanting to submit to a journal for peer-review.

    In physics, it is becoming increasingly hard to understand why the journals survive. No one I know of reads the journals, everybody just looks at the arXiv. The peer-review process has seriously broken down, for evidence of this consider the case of the Bogdanov brothers. They were able to get several papers consisting of complete nonsense published in a variety of peer-reviewed physics journals, including two rather well-respected ones. I’d also be interested to hear from people involved these days in physics hiring/promotion decisions about how the whole journal issue is viewed.

  35. Benni says:

    Peter woit wrote
    This misses the whole point about the problem with string theory: it’s not a theory that is “wrong” in a conventional scientific way. It’s “not even wrong”, i.e. you can’t derive an inconsistency or an incorrect physical prediction from it

    For example, string theory is formulated as a local field theory. But quantum mechanics is essentially nonlocal.

    In ordinary field theory, it is physically possible to restrict the behaviour to locality, since in particle physics one does not work with experiments dealing with entanglement.

    Entanglement is a macroscopic quantum effect. Even there exists the quantum eraser experiment (here’s an example)
    which deals with entanglement at various time ans space points. It seems that that quantum mechanics is a nonlocal system over space time.

    String theory wants to deal with macroscopic objects like black holes and universes.
    I have seen many entangled quantum systems.

    But never an entangled string!

    It is simply false, when stringtheorists say, all they have to do is to get the standard model.

    I remember, that I have asked this John Schwarz personally in Munich after a lecture two monts ago.
    Schwarz looked at the ground, weaved with his arms, uttering some words, and then he rotated to the table that the audience could not see his face.
    He said: In stringtheory we assume everything local.

    I would be glad, when someone points me to a paper how he wants to implement nonlocal behaviour in a theory which assumes that all necessary about a particle is a very small quantised string.

    To implement correlations, he must, I think, set up a kind of hidden variable theory, or make the string as big as the universe.

    If I’m not wrong, of course.

  36. woit says:


    You are very confused about these issues. And this is now completely off-topic, no more along these lines please.

  37. Benni says:

    OK, what I mean is simply:

    Is it not possible, to give a proof that string theory fails to reproduce entanglement?

  38. J.F. Moore says:

    “No one I know of reads the journals, everybody just looks at the arXiv.”

    This is interesting, because I would say exactly the opposite. I’ve worked in solid-state physics, materials science, and chemistry groups (all experimental) and not once has the arXiv come up. I’ve heard of it, but I have never personally looked up a paper there for my own research. I’ve only followed links from places like this blog just for curiosity. For research, a few times people trade preprints, but it isn’t all that common. When an exciting new paper comes out in a journal, then we discuss it. It seems to be a very different culture.

    I plan to do some informal polling, concentrating on the physicists. I suspect a lot of them will have no idea about the arXiv or will simply not care. My own feeling is that, frustrations with peer review aside, I don’t want to waste my time reading junk. Not that I’m saying the arXiv is full of junk; perhaps ‘small lab’ experimenters just generate more junk than mathematicians and HEP types so it’s more of an issue. Maybe it’s just a different local minimum to solving the problem of communication in our areas of study. I don’t know.

  39. woit says:


    No, this is not possible. If there there are completely consistent versions of string theory (which is plausible, but remains to be shown), at low energies they should just reproduce the same behavior as in the standard quantum mechanics, including entanglement.

    One reason people are so interested in string theory is that it seems that at low energies it gives you standard quantum theories that we know and love and are well tested, but at high energies is supposed to give you something different.

  40. woit says:

    J.F. Moore,

    It’s interesting to hear how different things are outside of particle physics. The HEP theory preprint and arXiv literature has always had a lot of junk, with the attitude being that part of becoming a serious researcher is learning to quickly tell junk from non-junk. It has also often been very faddish, with people trying to jump on the latest and hottest idea. If you ignored preprints and waited for publications, you’d be out of the game.

  41. J.F. Moore says:

    I see. There is certainly fashion in my area, but I think the timescales are much longer. Actually, it can be maddening how long it takes an ‘obvious’ idea to become accepted by the mainstream.

    I should add to what I said above that theorists of my acquaintance in SS/condensed matter/chemical physics seemed to use preprints and the arXiv a fair bit. What you say makes me want to ask them about the junk factor in their fields.

  42. Patrick says:

    From briefly looking around the biophysics and statistical physics areas of ArXiv, there seems to be a pretty strong theory/experiment split when it comes to posting papers. I’m mostly an experimentalist and I’d never heard of ArXiv until I learned about it through physics websites like this one. In the biophysics section there are papers by some pretty big names in the theory and simulations area, but little to nothing by experimentalists. This might simply reflect the fact that the biophysics theorists are likely to have interacted with other theoretical physicists in graduate school and thus be aware of ArXiv in the first place.

  43. Benni says:

    Of course it is possible to attac string theory.

    You mention in your own essay, that “a simple argument gives rise to a high cosmological constant”. Roger Penrose attacked stringtheory recently in his new book with singularity theorems, and string theorists theirselves put their theory into crisis with mentioning it has 10^500 solutions.

    Also, there seem to be indeed problems with nonlocality. Even in ordinary QFT. A workaround seems to be the well known Schroedinger picture, as H.D.Zeh from Heidelberg writes: http://www.rzuser.uni-heidelberg.de/~as3/nonlocality.html

    But there are other Problems:
    In this (german) manuscript Prof. Dragon at Hannover (he works on relativity and supergravity, some of his colleagues in his department work on string theory)
    writes at page: 100:
    “since string theories contain relation 9.34, they are, in opinion of the author, physically untenable”
    And on the following lines, and the page before he gives fair grounds for his opinion. And states: “This serious problem is ignored by string-theorists”…..
    So, of course it is possible to attack this theory in a scientific way.

    But I see no papers in which you are involved, Peter, that raise any questions. That might be the reason why arxiv has blacklisted you.

  44. I note some catch-22 situation here in some commenters. The owner of this blog does not seem that string theory is a topic worthy to work in, but in order to critiquise it he is asked to give a record of publications on string theory.

  45. Benni says:

    No. What is wanted are scientific publications which criticise string theory.
    Penrose was able to for example.
    String theorists themselves found, that their theory has 10^500 solutions.

    What Peter does is: He waits till string theorists find problematic things and then he gives short comments. The sucess of this blog is based on papers of others.
    Everyone could do that -waiting till others struggle and then laugh at them.

    Peter hasn’t found that it is an NP hard problem to find the correct solution.
    Peter hasn’t found that String theory has 10^500 solutions.
    Peter hasn’t found that assumed the additonal dimensions were classical, they would collaps (as Penrose writes).
    He even has not found the problem which Prof. Dragon raised (which is indeed the most simple imaginable).

    All this are scientific things, a real scientist, which criticises stringheorie could have written on his own. A mathematician, he should know that there exists no theory, which is not worth to spend time. It es even physically valuable to show problems of a theory, which put it into question.

    But either Peter does not want to produce scientific work or he is not able to.
    So there’s no wonder, that arxiv which wants to be for science exchange blacklists him.

  46. Geon Oh says:

    Benni is making a very fair comment which I’ve been trying to say since long ago. I’m not a string theorist nor non-string theorist (just an undergraduate student at the moment) but I must admit, I’m kind of sick of hearing that ‘Peter Woit is brave enough to point out string theory is not even wrong!’ It’s not about being brave, it’s an ignorance to decide ‘not’ to study string theory and yet trying to raise a voice about it. My mentor always told me ‘Save your best thoughts, and devise ways to test them’, I can’t believe how Peter Woit, his history tells me he is a very qualified physicist, yet he is wasing time on posting articles like these and finding links so that ‘general public’ can read them. Please stop all the nonsense about Witten being the axis of evil who influence people to take up string theory, at least he doesn’t waste time arguing ‘why am I blacklisted on Arxiv!!’, he’s smart enough to realise he should rather spend time ‘try things out’ rather than ‘sit and cry’.

  47. Geon Oh says:

    Sorry if I sound upset… I just feel strongly about this.. 😀

  48. Peter says:


    If you think I’ve ever claimed that “Witten is the axis of all evil” you haven’t read or understood much of what I’ve written here. I’d suggest learning a lot more about this subject before criticizing anyone else for their views about it.


    I don’t know who you are, perhaps also an undergraduate, but you don’t understand what you are talking about.

    There seems to be something about string theory that encourages people who have learned a little bit about it, but don’t actually understand anything, to spend their time attacking people who actually do know what they are talking about.

    Both of you, please stop posting here until you actually understand what you are writing about. If people who actually understand string theory want to argue with my views about it, I’m glad to do so, but it’s absurd to be spending my time answering attacks from undergraduates who don’t know understand what is going on here.

  49. Richard says:

    Alejandro has an excellent point:

    I note some catch-22 situation here in some commenters. The owner of this blog does not seem that string theory is a topic worthy to work in, but in order to critiquise it he is asked to give a record of publications on string theory.

    There are certain musical forms (i.e., atonal or 12 tone classical, rap, or fill in your own _____) which I feel perfectly qualified to criticize even though I’m neither a musician or a musicologist. I do know enough about music that I feel perfectly qualified to assert that something smells bad and doesn’t advance musical culture at all. Can you imagine being attacked by a musician and told that your opinion is invalid because you yourself aren’t a practitioner? I’m seeing a lot of this sort of blind us-versus-them elitism in some of these posts. I’m not a physicist, and frankly don’t have a strong opinion about string theory, but Peter’s criticism of string theory seems remarkably restrained compared to the rantings, attacks, and wild assertions by Motl and others.

    Peter hasn’t found that String theory has 10^500 solutions.

    This is a criticism of Peter? Are we supposed to jump for joy because there are 10^500 solutions? And solutions to what? Vacuum states? Some of these comments are so inarticulate that I smell real crackpots, in this case, pro string theory crackpots, and why isn’t Motl wading in here and wielding his usual machete to these people?

    Happily going back to doing math tonight where the tone of politics and discussion is a bit more civilized …

  50. Mar says:

    Hi Benni. It is called “string theory” 😉 . And no, there is no apparent reason why it shouldn’t be self-consistent.

    Geon Oh: I think you’re completely off the mark here. As far as I undestand, Peter (like many, many scientists including, but not exclusivelly, Lubos) is quite a fan of Witten.


    You completely miss the point, which was about trackbacks from the ArXiV. These should be allowed no matter if the blogger in question is a critic or not of string theory, tokamak approaches to fusion or anything else. While it’s understandable that the ArXiV should have some sort of “crackpot filter”, I think it’s plain nonsense that, for example, a trackaback to a paper by John Baez is banned while the author himself comments in this very blog.

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