I noticed today that Cambridge University Press has recently published Why Trust a Theory?, a volume of articles based on a December 2015 conference held in Munich. The book is available online here (if your university is paying for it…), and preprint versions of many of the contributions are on the arXiv.
The conference had its origins in a piece published a year earlier in Nature by George Ellis and Joe Silk, entitled Scientific method: Defend the integrity of physics. Ellis and Silk made a forceful case that widely advertised but inherently untestable string theory and multiverse research does damage to the public understanding of science and is a threat to the credibility of science at a time it is under attack. The piece suggested:
A conference should be convened next year to take the first steps. People from both sides of the testability debate must be involved.
Looking through the proceedings volume, there’s lots of abstract discussion of philosophy of science and some diversity of points of view on the multiverse. When it comes to string theory though, the organizers interpreted “people on both sides” to mean bringing in one person willing to point out that there is a problem with string theory, and an army of string theorists to defend the theory. On the issue of the problems of string theory, the volume contains nearly 100 pages of pro-string theory hype, from Polchinski (two contributions), Silverstein, Kane and Quevedo. As usual with Kane, there’s a string theory “prediction” of the gluino mass (1.5 TeV +/- 10-15%) which has already been falsified. All I could find on the side of substantive criticism of string theory was in Carlo Rovelli’s contribution (preprint version here), and mainly in a single paragraph:
String theory is a living proof of the dangers of excessive reliance on non-empirical arguments. It raised great expectations thirty years ago, promising to compute all the parameters of the Standard Model from first principles, to derive from first principles its symmetry group SU(3)×SU(2)×U(1) and the existence of its three families of elementary particles, to predict the sign and the value of the cosmological constant, to predict novel observable physics, to understand the ultimate fate of black holes, and to offer a unique, well-founded unified theory of everything. Nothing of this has come true. String theorists, instead, have predicted a negative cosmological constant, deviations from Newton’s 1/r^2 law at sub-millimeters scale, black holes at the European Organization for Nuclear Research(CERN), low-energy super-symmetric particles, and more. All this was false. Still, Joe Polchinski, a prominent string theorist, writes  that he evaluates the Bayesian probability of string to be correct at 98.5% (!). This is clearly nonsense.
I won’t spend more time here discussing the conference and the articles in this volume, mainly because I’ve already written a lot about this in previous posts. For a contemporaneous discussion of the conference and Polchinski’s String Theory to the Rescue paper, see here and here. There are also interesting blog posts about the conference from Massimo Pigliucci, see here, here and here, and a Quanta piece by Natalie Wolchover here. For a discussion of Sean Carroll’s Beyond Falsifiability contribution, see here (and discussion here and here). For a discussion of Eva Silverstein’s contribution, see here.
Update: Looking at the Preface, I notice that the editors claim:
Additional contributions were solicited by the editors with the aim of ensuring as full and balanced presentation as possible of the various positions in the debate.
With regards to string theory, the one additional contribution in the volume is from string theorist Eva Silverstein, so evidently the editors felt that balance required yet more on the pro-string theory side….
Update: I mischaracterized Polchinski’s calculation of the probability that string theory is correct as 98.5%. More accurately, he claims that the probability is “over 3 sigma” (i.e. over 99.73%).
Update: I finally got around to watching the videos of the panel discussions at the workshop (all videos available here). What most struck me about these discussions was the heavily dominant role of David Gross, who was on two of three panels, participating from the audience in the third. On the panels he was on, Gross was speaking far more than anyone else, and rarely if at all would anyone disagree with him. Gross’s point of view is that there is a testability problem with the multiverse, but all is well with string theory (although probably not at Polchinski’s “over 99.73% sure to be true” level). He’s a powerful intellect and a forceful speaker, so it’s not surprising that no one would take him on. But on the topic of string theory I think there are very serious problems with many of the claims he makes (for his arguments of 15 years ago, see the first substantive post of this blog), and the organizers should have found someone willing to challenge him on those.
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