String Theory and Intelligent Design

The latest Cosmic Log column on msnbc.com concerns Lawrence Krauss’s new book Hiding in the Mirror and the author asked Krauss a question I’m expecting that physicists will be hearing more and more often as time goes on: “Why is string theory science but intelligent design isn’t?”

Krauss gives a response that isn’t completely convincing. He says that “the difference is that Ed Witten and the other good string theorists will, if an experiment comes along that demonstrates that supersymmetry isn’t discovered in a definitive way, be the first to say the theory is wrong.” This isn’t really true. Since the scale of supersymmetry breaking is unknown, one can’t hope to experimentally definitively show supersymmetry is not there. And the question at issue is string theory, not supersymmetry. Will string theorists abandon the theory when supersymmetry is not found at the LHC? We’ll see in a few years, but I already see them hedging their bets and many undoubtedly will not see the lack of supersymmetry at LHC energies as proving string theory wrong.

The behavior of string theorists that Krauss identifies as most like religion is the argument that “the theory is so beautiful it must be true.” I actually don’t hear many string theorists making this argument these days. If the theory actually were beautiful in the sense of providing some impressive new understanding of physics in terms of some simple, compelling mathematical or physical idea, that actually would be a good reason for believing in it, although not a completely conclusive one. All attempts so far to connect the theory to real physics lead to hideously complicated and ugly constructions. Some string theorists such as Susskind, argue that one should believe in string theory anyway, and it is this argument which seems to me to be more like religion than science. It’s my impression that Susskind and others are believing something for sociological and psychological reasons, something for which they have no rational, scientific argument. This behavior is not distinguishable from that of many of the intelligent designers, and if it becomes more widespread it ultimately threatens to do real damage to the public perception of science in general and theoretical physics in particular.

Krauss gets closer to the real difference between string theorists and intelligent designers when he says that string theorists “are trying to come up with predictions that actually do something”. More sensible string theorists are well aware that what they are doing isn’t going to be part of science until they figure out a way to use it to make real predictions that can be tested. In general, given a new speculative idea, it will not be obvious how to figure out all of its implications and see whether it can lead to real predictions. It can take years of work for this to become clear, and this sort of work is definitely science. On the other hand, if after a lot of work, there still is no indication that an idea can produce predictions, the continued pursuit of it at some point stops becoming science and starts becoming something more like religion. Susskind and other anthropic landscapeologists have already gone past this point: they have no plausible idea about how to ever get real predictions out of their framework. String theorists who argue that the theory is still too poorly understood, that more work is needed to understand whether there is some way around the radical non-predictivity implied by the landscape, are nominally still doing science. But at some point, as years pass without any progress in this direction, and evidence mounts that hopes for ways to get predictions aren’t working out, this activity stops being science and it too starts being a non-scientific activity pursued for sociological and psychological reasons. We’re close to that point, if not already past it.

Update: There’s a defense of string theory against the charge that it’s like intelligent design over at Kasper Olsen’s blog. I don’t find it very convincing, since it doesn’t address at all the question of how string theory is ever going to do what a real science is supposed to do: make falsifiable predictions. Much of Olsen’s list actually strikes me as a recitation of a catechism of supposed reasons why string theory is so wonderful, rather than a serious scientific argument. Some of these are also highly dubious (e.g. “the Standard Model can be reproduced in a very simple way”), they’re things that one has to be a true believer to say, since they really don’t accord with reality.

One commenter (Gavin), gave a very good reason for distinguishing string theory from intelligent design: “the former is trying to explain something that is already explained, while string theory is trying to solve a mystery” and he correctly notes that while string theory’s scientific credentials may be weak, the problem is that there aren’t really good alternatives (LQGers may argue with this…). John Baez’s comment about the relationship of math and physics was also quite nice.

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