This Week’s Hype

A Leiden University press release headlined Physical Reality of String Theory Demonstrated is being picked up and used to generate news stories in the media.

It starts off:

String theory has come under fire in recent years. Promises have been made that have not been lived up to. Leiden theoretical physicists have now for the first time used string theory to describe a physical phenomenon.

which follows the usual dishonest and misleading template for attempts to deal with string theory’s failure as a unified theory. The idea is to put out a press release announcing that string theory has finally lived up to its promise and shown its critics to be wrong, because of evidence it may work as an approximation method for some strongly coupled condensed matter or nuclear physics model. The fact that this has nothing to do with string theory’s continuing utter failure as a fundamental theory is carefully not mentioned, ensuring that non-expert readers of the press release will be misled.

A common excuse for this is that it is being done by journalists, with the scientists involved having no responsibility for the misleading material. In a news media story, conceivably this could be the case, but a university press release is something different. University researchers have both the right and the responsibility to ask for the retraction of a university press release that mis-characterizes their work. When they don’t do this, they make themselves responsible for actively misleading the public about this subject.

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25 Responses to This Week’s Hype

  1. Marcus says:

    A poster at Physicsforums with pseudonym “Civilized” has taken issue with this post:
    http://physicsforums.com/showthread.php?p=2263776#post2263776
    ==quote==
    On his blog Woit says:

    [The idea is to put out a press release announcing that string theory has finally lived up to its promise and shown its critics to be wrong, because of evidence it may work as an approximation method for some strongly coupled condensed matter or nuclear physics model.]

    I guess he doesn’t know that the AdS/CFT duality is an exact correspondence, not an “approximation method.” String theory consist of equations that describe relativistic quantized strings, and AdS/CFT allows us to test these equations. The only remaining question is whether quantized relativistic strings exist in nature on the scale of the Planck length, and AdS/CFT will continue to be silent on this subject, but the fact remains that the AdS/CFT duality can be and is actively being used to test the exact equations of string theory.
    ==endquote==

    Several things about this puzzled me, one being why wouldn’t the person come here and comment directly? The PF thread had no link to this particular post (although string hype and bad journalism was being discussed.) So it seems like here is a better place to post fulminations against this N.E.W. post and aspersions against the author. It also seemed like a straw man ploy, you didn’t say that AdS/CFT was approximate but he pretends you did and makes a show of correcting your “mistake”. Anyway here it is if you care to reply.

  2. chris says:

    Dear Peter Woit,

    the researchers often have no control over the headline of the press release of their own institute – i know this from bitter experience. and once it got snapped up by some of the larger media outlets it is a very very steep uphill battle to get anything revoked. basically, they won’t do it on the grounds that nobody understands it anyways and retraction is always a statement of sloppy work on the part of the media.

    of course you are right that they should do all they can to stop it anyways, but probably the only way of finding out whether they did is asking them directly.

  3. ManyMe says:

    I am working on a new theory of everything based on the Ising model. It already predicts gravity and I am sure it will contain the standard model and it will also describe supersymmetry and all kinds of new particles.

    So far there is no evidence whatsoever for my new theory, but
    it turns out that the Ising model is very useful in cond. mat. physics, in particular to understand phase transitions of ferromagnets.

    I take this as evidence that I am on the right track with my theory of everything.

  4. anon. says:

    “may work as an approximation method for some strongly coupled condensed matter or nuclear physics model.” – Woit

    “AdS/CFT duality is an exact correspondence, not an “approximation method.”” – Civilized

    Civilized fails to understand that you can use an exact correspondence between conformal field theory and anti-de Sitter as an approximation method to systems that don’t exactly correspond to either. Duh.

  5. ManyMe says:

    I forgot to mention that I will put out a press release about it soon.

  6. Is this that remarkable?

    As I understand, the string theories started out as models of nuclear resonances, mesons, and so forth in the 1960′s. There were and are many empirical observations of nuclear resonance behaviors and properties that can be explained by modeling the nuclear resonances as vibrating strings of some sort of subatomic nuclear matter.

    It is my impression that Veneziano’s original string formula was a model for nuclear scattering data.

    The Lund Monte Carlo which at least used to be heavily used in experimental particle physics to model hadron jets and so forth is based on a string model of the mesons.

    The modern interpretation is that QCD somehow yields a tube or string of flux that connects the quark and anti-quark in a meson. There used to, at least, be numerous theoretical attempts to show that QCD produced string-like behavior either through an exact analytical solution to QCD or some type of approximation.

    While there is little (no?) empirical evidence to support superstrings as a unified field theory, there has been evidence of string-like behavior in strong nuclear forces for forty to fifty years.

    It does not seem surprising that mathematics that had its roots in modeling strong nuclear interactions might be successfully applicable to nuclear physics.

  7. Pingback: Occam’s Machete » Blog Archive » String Theory Explains Something

  8. Peter Woit says:

    chris,

    The problem isn’t just the headline, it’s the entire lead paragraph and context in which the story is put. I haven’t heard of any cases where researchers have tried to get string theory hype about their work retracted and failed. One case I know of where a researcher complained about this, the story was retracted and rewritten, for more, see

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2006/02/27/any-publicity-is-good-publicity/

    If the researchers involved in this case are unhappy about the misrepresentation of their work, there are many ways that they can make that known. I haven’t heard anything…

  9. karl says:

    @ John:

    Yes, string theory was originally intended as a theory of strong nuclear interactions. And now it is back to describe precisely this: QCD in the strongly coupled regime. So is this remarkable?

    Well, YES!
    and the story behind all this is truly revolutionary. Note that there was at least one revolution involved in that story that lead to several Nobel prizes: non-abelian gauge theories. How they first killed strings and now resurrect them, making a sidestep into the fifth dimension is amazing. It took 40 years or so to develop all this (and a community of several hundreds of scientists). It is a complicated story and it is still being written and probably we will not know for another 40 years if it is “wrong”. Is it worth being told? Definitely!

    Many non-string theorists think it is (jan zanen is a condensed matter physisicst). b.t.w. just now, something like the creme de la creme of condensed matter physics is gatherning right now at kitp santa barbara to learn string theory (and to teach condensed matter theory to string theorists).

    Don’t get fooled: science is a tough job. As a scientist you can do a valuable job even if you don’t yet know if your theory is right or wrong!
    After all, the only rule of science is “anything goes”!

  10. Chris Oakley says:

    Karl,

    I am under the impression that fundamental physics nowadays is dominated by hippies and comments like yours do nothing to assuage this belief.

    Anything goes – really? What about if it does not fit known experimental facts? Or even makes no predictions at all? What about if it is mathematically inconsistent?

    And why should researchers in a relatively healthy branch of physics wish to co-opt ideas from a failed research program in another?

  11. David B. says:

    Hi Chris:

    High TC superconductivity has not been solved theoretically. There is agreement that it requires a strongly coupled system, for which very few theoretical techniques actually work.

    The AdS/CFT setup provides new ways to understand strongly coupled systems that serve as toy models for real world physics. The AdS/CFT ideas are not a ‘failed research program’ as you describe it.

    Toy models usually provide insight that is unavailable otherwise. That is why Condensed matter theorists are learning this stuff, and this is why string theorists are learning condensed matter physics.

  12. karl says:

    Dear Chris,

    yes really “anything goes” (P. Feyerabend)!

    and if our theory does not fit any experimental facts, why do you care?
    evolution will take care of us, or at least of our theories ;-)

    (although I admit that last point is more Popperian than Feyerabend)

  13. Chris W. says:

    So, the string theory community (or a portion thereof) has become a collection of applied mathematicians, currently assisting condensed matter physicists.

    Nice to have that cleared up…..

  14. Coin says:

    Ugh, so I made a post in the previous thread which now looks pretty stupid. In that thread someone posted a reprint of this press release; looking around I was able to find the same article printed more or less verbatim on several other websites including sciencedaily, but wasn’t able to find the actual original Leiden University press release they were actually copying. Trying to be charitable, I made a post attempting to pin this on an overenthusiastic journalist somewhere who then got picked up by some other sites. But no, the whole thing was copied verbatim from the Leiden University release Peter linked. Which just… I don’t even know. There really is no excuse for something like this coming out of a university PR department– I realize university PR departments aren’t great but I feel like this article crosses a couple of lines.

    What’s really fascinating me at this point is the thing that tripped me up in the last post– that this press release got more or less literally copy-and-pasted and posted as a story on so many internet news sites with no indication of authorship more clear than, say, (as sciencedaily put it) “Adapted from materials provided by Leiden University”, or “Source: Leiden University”, or other tags written such as might lead the naive or foolish (i.e. me) to assume that the story had been written using Leiden as a source, not that Leiden had simply outright written the article. More interesting yet is that so many of these sites, including a couple that one might think of as at least attempting respectability, printed this article seemingly without even having read it– not only accepting its premises as accurate without stopping to question them, but in most cases not even bothering to proofread it. Is this sort of thing happening more often than I thought?

  15. Peter Woit says:

    Coin,

    Traditionally what a lot of media outlets really do is just take press releases and wire service reports, and print them without much editing. The main function of the editor/reporter is just to sort through the mountain of such things and identify the ones of interest to their readers. These days the web is full of sites that do little but reproduce press releases and stories from elsewhere. This Leiden press release is now on dozens of sites.

    By now I’ve seen a lot of press releases like this, and it’s pretty clear how they get generated:

    1. Press office at university has someone whose job it is to find stories like this to write. Publications like Science/Nature/PRL encourage such press releases, so press office person gets notified that someone at their university has a new result tha might be worth a press release.

    2. A story about how your university’s researchers have found a possible new approximation method for dealing with certain condensed matter models doesn’t sound very sexy. Press officer notices the “string theory” angle, knows that “string theory” is sexy, as well as controversial because it has been criticized as not predicting anything about nature.

    3. They talk to researchers, planning to put together a story about how “university X researchers have solved the great problem in the sexy subject of string theory, how to use it to predict something”.

    4. Researchers play dumb. They’re not the ones who wrote the headline…

  16. Roger says:

    I think you’re being a little unfair Peter.

    There are many things researchers should do but, for various reasons, don’t – this is one of them. If it helps them raise their profile inside the university then this type of stuff may still be for the good even if a distorted message comes out. Furthermore, arguing with a PR department to make sure they get it right takes time and energy and is frequently a fruitless task.

    Also, your comments would carry more weight if you took the time to publish and disseminate (inside and outside the community) your own original research instead of just criticising other researchers who do publish.

  17. Arun says:

    Roger, what you’re saying seems to me to be analogous to “don’t criticize credit default swaps, go and create your own”.

  18. Peter Woit says:

    Roger,

    The misleading message of the title and lead paragraph of this press release is not some random distortion introduced by an ignorant journalist that busy researchers don’t have the time and energy to get fixed. Some string theorists have decided that the way to deal with criticism of string theory’s failure as an idea about unification is not to answer it honestly, but to engage in a campaign to mislead the public about the topic. I’ll keep pointing this out as long as people keep doing this.

    I’ve just got back from a trip disseminating my own original research, I’ll write more about this here soon.

  19. Shantanu says:

    Peter any thing interesting from PLANCK 2009, TAUP 2009 or AMALDI 8 comferences?

  20. Tim vB says:

    Hello karl,

    “yes really “anything goes” (P. Feyerabend)!”
    Surely you were joking, right? However, what Feyerabend said in “against method” was that you cannot decide if some activity is science by judging the methods that are used. “against method” should be understood as “against the enforcement of certain methods as the only ones that may be used by scientists”. Feyerabend would say that astrology and astronomy do not differ much in the methods used, but in the results that are obtained (useful or not useful). So, if you get your best ideas by throwing chalk at the blackboard, you do that. But don’t claim that the dots you get are useful results, Feyerabend would not agree :-)

    “evolution will take care of us, or at least of our theories (although I admit that last point is more Popperian than Feyerabend)”
    Thomas Kuhn is your friend here, Popper was always rather idealistic and supposed that a theory dies by falsification, not by loosing all fans due to a plane crash or something like that.
    BTW, I do not want to wait that long! Please? Let’s hope string theorists find a different way than dying in dealing with their research program.

  21. Roger says:

    Arun, I’m saying nothing of the sort .

    Publishing and disseminating work directly exposes a scientist to the machinations of university PR departments. Opinions backed up by direct experience are often more solid than those given by people without direct experience of the processes they’re criticising.

    Peter – I can’t comment on this individual case. However, in my experience, university PR departments jealously guard their right to determine “the message”. I’ve been involved in a few cases where it just wasn’t worth the effort to try to correct their misconceptions.

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  23. nbutsomebody says:

    After all this hype it seems that the paper (arXiv:0904.1993) was indeed wrong as confirmed in arXiv:0907.2694.

  24. Thomas Larsson says:

    FWIW, there is a new paper on the arxiv 0907.4238 that references NEW (ref 82).

  25. concerned cynic says:

    University PR departments have a mission: to get what researchers do be known and talked about, and to increase the likelihood of success of future grant applications by researchers employed by the university. The preceding somewhat pedantic sentence deliberately omits “telling the truth about what researchers are doing.” That’s the job of the researchers themselves, via what they upload to arXiv and eventually publish.

    I learned what I say here when I was first intereviewed by a journalist employed by university PR, in 1986. It quickly dawned on me that the person across the desk had been carefully briefed to promote an agenda. Roger above is indeed right: “university PR departments jealously guard their right to determine ‘the message’.”

    A Montreal category theorist told me a few years ago that the Canadian equivalent of the NSF will no longer award grants to category theorists. String theorists, fearing a similar fate, have enlisted university PR departments in their defence. All’s fair when faced with the prospects of having one’s department closed (yes, simply because physics is not a popular major), of having one’s PhD program shut down. or of having to teach undergrad service courses. To tell, in effet, a natural scientist “You will not be awarded another grant unless you make substantial changes to your research agenda” is akin to banishing him/her to Coventry.

    Those who don’t like Smolin’s book patronize it by saying that Smolin does sociology. Those who don’t like Woit’s book may have similar opinions. But the problem of string theory is as much economic as sociological: the dearth of tenure track positions in theoretical physics. Publishing a lot of papers does not assure one of a job; you need to find a department that also likes your work. And we tend to like work that supports our pet agendas. This puts too much power in the hands of the tenured conformists.