Bad Boys of Physics

Scientific American is running a Bad Boy of Physics story (also see here) in the July issue, about Lenny Susskind. Here’s the “nut graph”:

Physicists seeking to understand the deepest levels of reality now work within a framework largely of Susskind’s making. But a funny thing has happened along the way. Susskind now wonders whether physicists can understand reality.

In the interview, Susskind explains that he was a bad boy as a youth, but “just so much better than anybody else, including the professor.” In recent years he has been the most prominent promoter of the string theory multiverse, and now claims that this pseudo-science convincingly dominates the field (SciAm seems to agree…), with the situation just like in the early days of QCD:

A large fraction of the physics community has abandoned trying to explain our world as unique, as mathematically the only possible world. Right now the multiverse is the only game in town. Not everybody is working on it, but there is no coherent, sharp argument against it.

In 1974 I had an interesting experience about how scientific consensus forms. People were working on the as yet untested theory of hadrons [subatomic particles such as protons and neutrons], which is called quantum chromodynamics, or QCD. At a physics conference I asked, “You people, I want to know your belief about the probability that QCD is the right theory of hadrons.” I took a poll. Nobody gave it more than 5 percent. Then I asked, “What are you working on?” QCD, QCD, QCD. They were all working on QCD. The consensus was formed, but for some odd reason, people wanted to show their skeptical side. They wanted to be hard-nosed. There’s an element of the same thing around the multiverse idea. A lot of physicists don’t want to simply fess up and say, “Look, we don’t know any other alternative.”

Susskind had a distinguished career as a theorist for many years, and has managed to do quite well with his multiverse campaign for quite a while now. There has been a lot of coverage of this story on this blog, for some high points, see here, here, here and here.

In other news, the media has been full of stories about another physicist who has been a bad boy, David Flory. He started his career as an HEP theorist back in the late 1960s, as a student at Yeshiva University, and collaborator there with Susskind. Like a huge number of other people, he got his permanent academic job in 1969, and has been at Fairleigh Dickinson University ever since.

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44 Responses to Bad Boys of Physics

  1. anon says:

    maybe Flory was working on G-string theory.
    oh, that joke is bad.

  2. Lee Brown Jr. says:

    Susskind now wonders whether physicists can understand reality.

    So, Susskind thinks that if he can’t understand it, then nobody can.?

    BTW: SciAm also celebrates the main sequence of stars in this issue. Great article. In fact, if you look closely enough at the depiction of the “periodic table of the cosmos” you can see Susskind’s ego grouped in with the supergiants.

  3. In Hell's Kitchen (NYC) says:

    obviously, working at FDU for 30+ years isn’t good for you !

  4. Bernhard says:

    The way Susskind sees the history of QCD can be put into context using David Gross´s Nobel lecture introduction:

    “The progress of science is much more muddled than is depicted in most
    history books. This is especially true of theoretical physics, partly because
    history is written by the victorious. Consequently, historians of science often
    ignore the many alternate paths that people wandered down, the many false
    clues they followed, the many misconceptions they had. These alternate
    points of view are less clearly developed than the final theories, harder to
    understand and easier to forget, especially as these are viewed years later,
    when it all really does make sense.”

    Of course QCD does make sense and we now do know it is correct. But we know it because (after asymptotic freedom rescued it) we could be guided by experimental data. This is the only reason there is any consensus among physicists, same can be said about the Big Bang or even more basically quantum mechanics. I´m appalled to see Susskind trying to push the argument that consensus is just a sociological phenomenon among scientists: “The consensus was formed, but for some odd reason, people wanted to show their skeptical side” Really? Meaning what? We don´t want to swallow the untestable multiverse “theory” just to play hard ball? Give me a break.

  5. Chris Oakley says:

    David Flory seems to have run a web site similar to http://www.ratemyprofessors.com, except rating whores instead of professors (incidentally there is a http://www.ratemywhore.com – I just checked – but this is not obviously connected with David Flory). Curiously, Professor Flory is not well reviewed is http://www.ratemyprofessors.com – maybe he had more important things to think about than teaching physics.

  6. Peter Woit says:

    Bernhard,

    I think Susskind’s comparison to QCD is absurd, and evidence that the man really has lost his marbles. From the beginning QCD made all sorts of precise predictions, and some were tested decisively early on. Unlike the string theory multiverse, it was a well-defined theory from the beginning, very closely related to the rest of the standard model. In 1974 it was very new and people were just starting to understand how to deal with such an unusual theory, weakly coupled in the UV, strongly coupled in the IR (and, to this day there’s a lot we don’t understand). The fact that, months after its discovery, people were not sure that a new unusual theory was the final answer is neither surprising, nor has anything at all to do with the string theory multiverse (which now has been around a decade or so, with no sign of prospects for predicting anything at all).

  7. Eric habegger says:

    “Flory told police he did not make money off of the (prostitution) website and instead saw it as a hobby”

    He obviously was aware that he was one of the more fortunate professors in being tenured and seemingly financially secure. All men need a good hobby.

  8. So I guess H.P. Lovecraft was right then? The multiverse is incomprehensibly alien and vast, far beyond our puny attempts to rationally understand it. Is this is where the Enlightenment ends, and the new dark age of Cthulhu cults and hyper-dimensional string theories begins? Why do I have this strange image of physicists like Susskind wearing black robes and supplicating beneath the stars in some black rite of submission before the vast, inscrutable Cosmos? Oh never mind, I’m probably just crazy. Hahahahhahaahahhahahahahahahahah….

  9. abbyyorker says:

    L. Susskind. Guilty by association (40 years ago)? Please say that’s not what you mean….

  10. Peter Woit says:

    abbyyorker,

    No, obviously the fact that Susskind collaborated with and/or supervised as a student Flory 40 years ago has zero to do with Flory’s recent activities.

    After 40 years the two of them ended up in very different places. I suppose you could argue about what is more morally noxious, promoting pseudo-science or promoting prostitution…

  11. Mystic says:

    Physics is dead! Long live the new physics! Physics has died, and reincarnated as religion! This is the dawn of a New Age!

    Welcome to Reality!

  12. anon says:

    Do you think Flory asked a post doc to write the software, or he programmed it himself? It sounds very similar to math-stack to me.

  13. anon says:

    Maybe it should be titled “Senile Boy of Physics”

  14. anonymous says:

    LHC will blow them out of sight and into oblivion.

  15. Off topic and in bad taste:
    The Susskind – Flory first paper was on Hadronic Currents. Kind of says it all. Second word close to what he was offering to rent, first word close to what it took to rent it. Published in 1969. There is a tide to the affairs of men which taken at the flood …

  16. ateixeira says:

    “I suppose you could argue about what is more morally noxious, promoting pseudo-science or promoting prostitution…”

    Really?! WOW!

    Susskind has really lost his marbles… Too bad, I guess.

  17. Pingback: One game in town? | chorasimilarity

  18. Fred Tucker says:

    Peter, Flory hasn’t been convicted of a thing. He could well be innocent of all charges. Doesn’t seem right to provide a forum for people to spread nasty rumors about a respected physicist.

  19. tristan stefan says:

    After seeing this blog entry I looked at some stories relating to the investigation, it seems pretty unlikely he’s innocent in the sense of caught by mistake. On the other hand, is he guilty of an actual crime, ethically? It looks like he was rating prostitutes online and sharing info about them. In my opinion promoting pseudo-science is just as bad.

  20. Joe Ruski says:

    The new look is acceptable. I want credit for having suggested the archive widget. You owe me, forever.

    I’ve been following the lulzsec hackings. You might want to get rid of your meta “login” link and change the name of the php login file. In general, I’ve been thinking about passwords, answers to security questions, etc., thinking about security in general.

    I’ve thought of a use for twitter for someone who mainly only wants to blog. To promote a blog post on twitter, you would tweet something like this for every blog post:

    “Bad Boys of Physics” [link provided of course] is up on the blog. Comments by twitter are welcome.

    You might also link to the tweet in your blog post so a person could go to twitter.com and reply to your tweet from there.

    There would be several reasons to do this: 1) to allow people to use twitter to get notified of new posts, 2) to allow comments on twitter that you might not want on your blog, and 3) to give people another way to give you feedback; some people might tweet you, but not email you or comment on your blog.

    Twitter comments have some advantages. A person’s comment can only get so stupid when limited to 140 characters, plus your twitter account won’t display comments from people you’re not following. It’s a happy medium. It lets people comment, but you don’t have to host their comments. To find replies to someone’s tweets, people have to do a search like this: http://twitter.com/#!/search/%40lulzsec

    Here’s a guy who uses twitter to promote his blog posts:
    http://gerard.cc/
    http://twitter.com/gerardvroomen

    On his blog, he has a “Tweet” icon below each post, but those links do retweets and searches based on the blog post URL rather than on @gerardvroomen; thus my suggestion above about linking to the tweet in the blog post, so that the twitter replies are synced to the appropriate tweet.

    I’ve had no use for twitter, but people are using it more all the time. It’s taken me a while to see the purpose in people tweeting cryptic messages, but I’ve started to see that some people use it for more than useless and trivial details about their life.

  21. Joe Ruski says:

    I don’t tweet yet, so I don’t know all the ways twitter forces a tweeter to promote those who reply to a tweet. One way is that if you click on the arrow next to a tweet, it’ll show you the replies to that tweet, although I think a person might be able to suppress certain replies on his or her twitter page.

    In case you care.

    It’s not all upside. You wouldn’t want me riding on your coattails, would you?

  22. Peter Orland says:

    I am kind of disturbed by some of the negative comments about Susskind here. I don’t
    care for multiverse ideas, but Susskind made very important contributions to field theory and particle physics (strong-interaction strings, parton models, U(1) problem, Hamiltonian lattice QCD, technicolor). You can have a strong difference of opinion without getting nasty…

  23. Peter Woit says:

    Joe,

    It does seem there’s a lot happening now on twitter or other social media, moving away from blogs. For now though, since I’m already spending too much time on the internet, I think I’ll continue not getting involved in that. It seems quite likely that twitter will either evolve into something interesting or die off within a couple years. I’ll try and wait that out and see what happens…

    Peter O.,

    When people like Susskind, who have a history of real accomplishments, start saying completely idiotic things (like his comparison of QCD and the multiverse), it does create a problem. Do you accurately describe what they are saying as idiotic, or do you politely avoid doing so in recognition of their past history? Susskind unfortunately has gotten and is getting a lot of positive attention for his nonsense, one reason being that most people in the community think it best to politely ignore what he is up to.

    In general my own policy is to stick to serious arguments and avoid personal characterizations of anyone I disagree with, and to encourage the same from commenters. In Susskind’s case, given his history of launching nasty personal attacks on me and on others who disagree with him, I’m a bit less motivated to worry about whether he is getting the proper respect he is due.

    In his case as in quite a few others in recent years as string theory has collapsed, I’m continually suprised not only by the kind of behavior and argument engaged in, but also by the rest of the community’s tolerance of it.

  24. Chris Austin says:

    I thought Lenny Susskind’s story about the informal poll he conducted in 1974 was an interesting historical anecdote.

    But David Gross seems to have given QCD more than a 5 percent chance in 1974: see page 20 of hep-th/9809060,

    “Like an atheist who has just received a message from a burning bush, I became an immediate true believer.”

  25. Anon says:

    The quality of Scientific American is unfortunately not nearly what it used to be in, say, the 70s or 80s. The caliber of journalism in this publication has become, overall, very poor. Even just the first paragraph is illustrative of this depressing downwards trend:

    “And he helped to develop the modern conception of parallel universes, based on what he dubbed the “landscape” of string theory. It spoiled physicists’ dream to explain the universe as the unique outcome of basic principles.”

    Both sentences are strictly speaking false, yet marketed as accepted truth. It exhibits the kind of intellectual laziness you would expect to find in a mediocre high school essay.

    The writers of this magazine should be forced to read the New Yorker for examples of beautifully constructed and intellectually coherent writing.

  26. Peter Woit says:

    Anon,

    I don’t think it’s fair to blame the journalists. They’re just reporting the claims made by some of the most prominent and respected figures in the field of theoretical physics. The two sentences you quote are ones that I’m sure Susskind would describe to journalists as accurate. And he’s far from the only one who would do so.

    People seem to expect that science journalists will do the job that other physicists should be doing but aren’t: pointing out the reasons why this is pseudo-science. You can’t expect journalists to have better critical scientific skills than the people they are covering.

  27. Anon says:

    Other physicists are pointing out that this is pseudoscience.

    If the New Yorker, which is not a science magazine, can have articles of this quality (written by non-science journalists):

    http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/10/02/061002crat_atlarge
    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/07/21/080721fa_fact_wallacewells
    http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/08/28/060828fa_fact2

    why shouldn’t we expect better from SciAm?

  28. Leonard Lerner says:

    I have just read “Not even wrong”, a lot of what it says I suspected but did not know for sure. I also belong to the generation of 1980’s PhDs in particle physics, and recall the great the triumph with which we were told at the 1986 summer school in Durham that string theory has proved that the world is ten-dimensional, because only in that case do its infinities cancel.

    I wanted to comment concretely on what I think is a more general problem, from which much of what the book discusses flows.

    The sharp drop of honesty in physics. And much of this has to do funnily enough with money. On the one hand theres too little, so that only 10% of PhD in particle physics can get a job in what they were trained (as mentioned in the book) on the other hand, there are 20 or so conferences a year in “nice places” for string theorists to choose from. SO money is there, but it is being misspent by those at the top, because of their desire for a certain ‘lifestyle’. They then have to justify the lifestyle by a huge output of papers from their subordinates. This generates a certain lack of honesty, but I will come back to the concrete case I wanted to mention.

    Physics Review Letters has been a premium journal in physics, everyone is proud if their article is accepted there. It has a comments and reply section, by now absent in most other journals, where readers are invited to comment on regular articles published in that journal. If you look at the comments you will find that if they do raise some controversial issues about the original article, there is always a ‘collegial’ responce in the reply, which gives further food for thought to both parties. There is never a comment pointing out a major error in a published article to which the authors have no response. Yet there are rules in PRL stating that if the response can not pass the refereeing process, the comment will be published without a response. Yet no comments pointing out major shortcoming in articles in PRL with no response have ever been published.

    A few years ago I noticed an article in PRL on some work I did a few years previous, and which I put aside considering it of no promise. The PRL article however manipulating the same formulas got a different result, gave it a ‘big’ interpretation, and this constituted ground for PRL publishing it. I re-analysed the formulas, saw the mistake they made (it was to do with treatment of singularities), and then wrote a comment explaining how these singularities should be dealt with, explicitly drawing terms from a sum the aticles authors claimed was irrelevant to their caclualtions, and showing how it spoiled the overall conclusion. I submitted this to PRL and wondered how it would go. The authors submitted a response which was close to nonsense, and went close to calling me names. The first referee of both comment and reply took 3 months to produce 4 pages restating my comment and the authors reply, and then said he had not the qualifications to decide in the matter as it involved complicated mathematics. The editor asked me to review my comment if I wanted it considered further as refereeing the matter was clearly problematic. I did as the editor asked (which enlareged the comment) and asked the editor to go for a second review. This time he disappeared. I waited 4 months, then wrote several times and got no response. I rang several times, his secretary would answer and then would tell me he is ‘not in’. After several such replies she admitted he was ‘in the building’, but not here, he will return my call, or write to me. After 6 months I did get a message from him stating he is very busy, he is not sure about the matter of my Comment, it is not suitable for publication as is, but Im ‘free to submit it elsewhere’. I raised the matter on appeal, which PRL expressly sets out the rules for. After 4 months I got a response. There were two reviews. The first from 6 months ago stating the comment demonstrates serious problems with the published article, but the reply is unacceptable and should not be published. This was followed by a second review which was generated after my appeal. The reviewer stated that what I raised was all very well, but he would really like to see another problem addressed in the same comment. The editor added his verdict, as my comment was already on the borderline in terms of space it has now run out of both space and time, and the matter is closed. After waisting 18 months of my time and effort, I had the article published in a European (also prestigeous) journal. But what this really demonstrates is what I had commented on at the start of my email.

    Thanks for the book

    Leonard

  29. Shantanu says:

    Interesting post, Leonard. Can you point to a copy of the article you are referring to?

  30. David Bailey says:

    “I don’t think it’s fair to blame the journalists. They’re just reporting the claims made by some of the most prominent and respected figures in the field of theoretical physics.”

    Blame is possibly not the right word, because journalists are only responding to their editors, who are in turn trying to market a magazine.

    I see the problem – which I am sure goes much wider than physics – is that magazines like New Scientist and Scientific American have tried to sell themselves to a larger and larger audience. One way to do that (and it may not be an explicit conscious decision), is to pick incredibly grandiose theories, and present them in a shallow way. Explaining that other physicists don’t agree, and quibbling over the details, would just spoil the story!

  31. Roger says:

    Anon, you might like the writing style of the New Yorker, but those science and math articles are pretty horrible for their content.

  32. Jack Lothian says:

    I agree with Anon. I subscribe to SciAmer & have for 30 years. The quality of the writing & editing started to declined in the late 80s & the quality of the articles has dramatically plunged in the last 10 years. I pay a lot for the subscription & each year I debate about dropping it because of the lack of interesting articles. I read a lot of math journals as well & in the last few years I have seen a decline in quality. Scientific & math publishing is becoming exclusively a profit business & appealing to the masses brings in more profits. I do not see this trend reversing. I disagree with Peter on this one, it is the owners of journals who are steering the editors towards mass appeal articles. There are still lots of good physists & mathematician’s out there but they lack mass appeal.

  33. peterg says:

    I do think it’s fair to blame ‘the journalists’.

    Even before Peter published his book, a decent journalist could and should have known that String Theory as a description of measurable reality runs into huge problems. Around 2000-2001 I met a friend who worked in High Energy Physics in the 70s and 80s and who turned to ST somewhere in the 90s. “So, how do you like String Theory?” I asked him. He replied: “It’s great! But it’s not physics and I have no idea how we could turn it into physics.”

    Not to mention that little fact is bad journalism. Susskind apparently says that “there is no coherent, sharp argument against (ST)”. “It’s not physics” seems to be a pretty sharp and coherent argument to me.

    However, having been a journalist myself, I think I understand what’s happening.

    1) ST is the only game in town, and you’re flooded with news about it. You can’t keep quiet about it, because everybody else will be writing about it.
    2) Many Great Names have put their weight behind it. You need some courage as a journalist to criticize people like Susskind. You know that your editor is going to ask: “Who the f!ck are you?” or “So, how many Nobel prizes did your friend win?”(*)
    3) Claims about ST are very sexy and impressive for a lay audience.

    Added to this are a few other factors.

    4) There’s a tendency to limit journalism to ‘reporting’, without providing much context. The idea is that readers are mature enough to sort it out by themselves.
    5) Commercial pressure and lack of time.

    If you can’t live with this situation – and no good journalist can, in my opinion – you’re weeded out. Only the mediocre and the bad ones are left at the end. So yes, I think it’s fair to criticize the journalists. You probably won’t be criticizing the good ones.

    (*) It actually happened to me when I was discussing Prigogine with someone. I mentioned a curious phenomenon: the better scientists knew what his ideas were about, the more critical they were. Reply: “So, how many Nobel prizes do these scientists have?” I was lucky and could mention Anderson.

  34. Cosmonut says:

    Regarding SciAmer – Does anybody else get the feeling that all their physics-related articles nowadays seem to be rehashes of things published in the 80’s and 90’s ?

    Apart from a 1998 article on the accelerating expansion of the universe, there seems to be very little which is new and authentic (as opposed to vague speculation).

    I also notice that SciAmer is switching towards more biology/enviornment related articles. This is just an impression – I don’t have any stats.

  35. chris says:

    Leonard,

    i think your story precisely hits the point. these days, there definitely is a lack of Paulis or Feynmans who declare crap to be crap. wrong or misleading work of a large collaboration can survive long enough to support a few nice careers and generate millions in funding money. respected people are forced into situations where it is socially unacceptable to say they were wrong – too many real life things depend on them being correct. so they act accordingly and crap does not get weeded out at the pace it should.

    this is very frustrating, especially for the younger ones. they are held in precarious situations long enough to make them align to the main stream and shut up. it takes some serious nerves today to declare some wrong ideas wrong.

  36. Math Student says:

    Peter Woit wrote

    “It seems quite likely that twitter will either evolve into something interesting or die off within a couple years. I’ll try and wait that out and see what happens…”

    Wasn’t that your reaction to the first string theory revolution? Looking forward to your anti-twitter book in 20 years :)

  37. Peter Woit says:

    Math Student,

    Good point. One major difference though is that, about the fate of twitter, I couldn’t care less….

  38. Chris Austin says:

    chris,

    “wrong or misleading work of a large collaboration can survive long enough … ”

    That is a very startling assertion, and a little bit alarming. Are you thinking of lattice gauge theory or HEP experiment? It really doesn’t seem likely that something like that could happen when you have two competing experiments like CDF and D0, or ATLAS and CMS. Do you know something to the contrary?

  39. G.E. Hahne says:

    Hi Peter,
    Susskind’s beliefs on humans’ inability to solve some current physics
    quandaries have at least one historical precedent: I can’t recall a citation,
    but remember reading that at the Berlin Colloquium in the early 1920’s,
    both Einstein and von Laue manifested scepticism that physicists were
    smart enough to develop a successful theory of atomic structure.

  40. Peter Woit says:

    G.E. Hahne,

    Interesting. Whether human beings will get stuck at some point in their ability to understand fundamental physics is an interesting question. One sure way to get stuck is to react to an idea not working out not by abandoning it and trying something different, but by starting to work on an elaborate pseudo-scientific apparatus to explain why your idea was right even though it couldn’t ever predict anything. I don’t think Einstein or on Laue ever went in that direction…

  41. Leonard Lerner says:

    Here’s the reference to the article. B. Elattari, S.A. Gurvitz, Phys. Rev. Lett. 84 (2000) 2047;. The editor of PRL Comments if anyone is interested was and is George Basbas, who played this funny game with me. I did have my article published, in Physics Letters, but that is not how it should be. Firstly without thoroughly reading my article you would not understand the EG article is flawed. Secondly as it was not now a comment it had to be a positive article – I had to write about quantum dots and the Zeno effect, which is a misconception I would never have liked to write about in the first place. So why did I bother? Well with Basbas help I wasted 18 months and I wanted to recoup my time somehow. But this is not at all how it should be.

    On the same point, there was a flourish of articles (including PRL) a few years ago about hadronization in the light cone gauge. Now as anyone would know QCD is gauge invariant, so you dont expect to find hadrons in the LCG but free particles in another gauge. But with no progress, people are desparet these days, so this continued for a while. I certainly learnt not to pick up pen and paper and write a comment, and I think so have most people.

    I dont think the string theorists whom Peter is rightly attacking, are hearing anything they don’t already know. They would be out of a job if what they regard as a cool activity suddenly had to be judged by real world standards. Then articles could be rejected like Peter Higgs article once (unfairly) was, on the grounds that this has no relevance to physics. They would then have to publish in mathematics journals and abide by much higher standards. The truth is that physics has a tradition of accepting lower standards of rigour than mathematics not because physicists care less if something is wrong, but on the tacit assumption that physics is harder than maths beacuse unlike the former you are working with nature where you do not see the whole system. So people publishing in physics on the pretence that this has something to do with the real world, when they make no attempt to make sure it does are cheating this.

  42. coolstar says:

    I agree with anon above along with several others about the decline of SciAm. I don’t remember when their last big editorial change was, probably pre 1998, but that seems to be when the slope became pretty extreme. I stopped buying and reading it soon after. They have one editor I find particularly noxious for his arrogant, right-wing views. I find Discover to have much better science and to be much better written. In the U.K., I’ve found the BBC magazine Focus to be much better than SciAM and I recently discovered Eureka, and it also seems to be better than SciAm, though I think the writing in Discover is still better than in those two.

  43. Anon says:

    I agree with coolstar. I almost always feel that I wasted my time with SciAm, which has become mostly empty fluff targeted at 12 year old ADHD sufferers (what with all those intrusive little summary boxes, lest anyone be expected to concentrate for more than 20 seconds at a time), but I do still read Discover, which most of the time (though not always) tends to have better quality content.

  44. Eric Baird says:

    Back when we were waiting for the LHC to be completed, I saw a number of physicists online complaining bitterly about the low standards of reporting, and criticising articles that frequently used inane headline-grabbing terms like “Big Bang Day” and the “Big Bang Machine”.

    In fact, “BBD” and “BBM” didn’t seem to be media inventions, they were promoted at the media by Brian Cox, who worked at the ATLAS project at LHC (and then got himself a TV presenting gig for the BBC). Cox seemed to be on a one-man mission to turn “Switch-On Day” into a full-blown media event, and if anything, the news reports were a fairly muted version of some of his statements. But the journalists got the blame.

    IMO, a number of scientists have worked out how to “game” the media by building “headline” phrases into their press briefings, and it’s then difficult for a reporter to decide //not// to use the obvious headline that they’ve been fed, on the grounds that they reckon that the scientist was exaggerating. A news editor would say that it’s not the job of a reporter to “correct” a scientist’s statements to make them more scientifically accurate, or less cheesy.

    “Gaming the system” works over the short term, and generates the headlines and media column inches, but unfortunately the readership eventually gets tired of being constantly hit with exaggerated news stories and stops listening. I’ve heard a number of non-scientists complaining about wide-eyed articles on modern cosmology, because, as one of them put it “These guys just make this ____ up”.

    Same thing happened with string theory – to a lot of the general public, string theory is now regarded as a bit of a joke. They may not understand the first thing about what string theory //is//, but they understand how to spot probable B.S., and some of the statements about ST that drifted into the popular press sometimes strayed too far into unintentional self-parody. If a group of scientists make those sorts of grandiose statements, the public tends to give them a few years to come up with something concrete to back those statements up, and if they don’t manage to turn them into something more concrete, tends to regard the whole field as a sham from that point on.

    I think that the public used to give scientists the benefit of the doubt a lot more, but too many groups abused the trust that was given them to get more funding. After decades of too-cheap-to-meter fusion power being always “just around the corner”, and biotech companies promising that that they’d be able to solve world hunger any year now if we just gave them special legal concessions, people increasingly stopped listening.

    Increasingly, I think the general public are beginning to see scientists as just another self-serving lobbist group after public money, who’ll say anything to get funded. I think that sometimes these researchers think that what they’re doing is playing a harmless and neccesary game to get funds, and they don’t always appreciate the damage that they’re doing.

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