Lisa Randall has an Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times entitled Dangling Particles. The title seems to have little to do with the piece, but I suppose it is a play on words on “dangling participle”, a term for a sort of faulty grammar. Randall’s topic is the difficulty of communicating scientific topics, and her comments on the problems caused by scientist’s different use of words and by the complex nature of much science are true enough and unobjectionable.
But I still find the sight of a string theorist lecturing the public on how to properly understand science to be a bit jarring. Randall tries to claim that the difference between the colloquial usage of the word “theory” and the way it is used by scientists is a source of problems with the public understanding of science. She writes
For physicists, theories entail a definite physical framework embodied in a set of fundamental assumptions about the world that lead to a specific set of equations and predictions – ones that are borne out by successful predictions.
Yet she keeps on referring to “string theory”, although the subject is distinctly lacking in specific equations and predictions (she does note that “theories aren’t necessarily shown to be correct or complete immediately”, but the problem with string “theory” is not that we don’t know whether it is correct or complete, but that it isn’t really a theory, rather a hope that one exists).
Instead of devoting their time to writing for the public about the scientific status of issues that they’re not really experts in (e.g. global warming), it seems to me that string theorists would do better to first address the outbreak of pseudo-science now taking place in their own subject. When the intelligent design people get around to noticing how much of the highest level of research in one of the traditionally most prestigious sciences is now being conducted without any concern for falsifiability or traditional norms of what is science and what isn’t, the fallout is not going to be pretty.
Update: Sean Carroll has a posting about the Randall Op-Ed piece over at Cosmic Variance. He quotes approvingly Randall’s claim that Intelligent Designers don’t make a distinction between the colloquial usage of “theory”, meaning an idea not necessarily better grounded than a hunch, and the way real scientists use the term. As for whether string theory deserves to be called a “theory”, here’s a quote from Gerard ‘t Hooft (from his book In Search of the Ultimate Building Blocks):
Actually, I would not even be prepared to call string theory a â€œtheoryâ€? rather a â€œmodelâ€? or not even that: just a hunch. After all, a theory should come together with instructions on how to deal with it to identify the things one wishes to describe, in our case the elementary particles, and one should, at least in principle, be able to formulate the rules for calculating the properties of these particles, and how to make new predictions for them. Imagine that I give you a chair, while explaining that the legs are still missing, and that the seat, back and armrest will perhaps be delivered soon; whatever I did give you, can I still call it a chair?
Update: Lubos Motl has some comments about Randall’s Op-Ed piece and about my posting. As usual, I come in for a fair amount of abuse, but at least this time I’m in good company (‘t Hooft’s views are characterized as “just silly”).
Update:John Baez points out that the article is now up at the Edge web-site. Over at Pharyngula, there’s a posting about Danged physicists. Evidently biologists are not amused at all about Randall’s comments about evolutionary biology. They seem to think that string theorists are arrogant and prone to going on about things they don’t really understand.