Aaron Bergman Review of Not Even Wrong

Aaron Bergman has written up a review of my book and posted it over at the String Coffee Table. It’s quite sensible and makes reasonable points, so I’m very glad he wrote it. Here are a few comments of my own about the points raised in the review. I don’t have time to discuss everything in it right now, but if someone feels that I’m not addressing an important point of Aaron’s let me know.

It’s true that the book isn’t “even-handed” in the sense of repeating many of the arguments made for string theory. One reason for this is that I assumed that essentially all my readers would have read at least something like one of Brian Greene’s books. I originally intended my book as something that would be published by a university press and be aimed at people with some background in the subject. The fact that it ended up being published by a trade publisher wasn’t my first choice, and the wide attention it is getting from people who know little about physics is a surprise to me, something I wasn’t counting on.

Instead of repeating many of the what seem to me highly over-hyped claims made for string theory and spending a lot of time explaining exactly how and why they’re over-hyped, I decided to just write down as accurately as possible how I see things. The black hole entropy calculations are an example of what I mean. I do mention these, but I think Aaron’s description of them as a “holy grail” vastly overestimates their signficance. It’s also true that string theorists still have not been able to do calculations for the case of physical 4-dimensional black holes. A truly honest description of the situation would require a detailed examination of exactly what has been calculated, and what remains still not understood. This is a highly technical business, not easy to extract from the often hype-filled literature, and I just didn’t think that even if I put the effort into doing this well, it would work as part of the book. Similar comments apply to the AdS/CFT story, where sorting through the hype and clearly distinguishing exactly what has been achieved and what hasn’t would be even more difficult.

People can compare what I have to say to what string theorists have to say, and see that there’s a different point of view on many things. If they have some expertise, they can look into these more deeply and decide for themselves. Aaron describes the book as “tendentious”, but I think it’s much more scrupulously accurate in its descriptions, honest and even-handed than any of the many books promoting string theory, essentially all of which contain vast amounts of misleading hype designed to give the reader an inaccurately optimistic view of the theory.

About the CC and supersymmetry: I re-read that section after Lubos’s review complained about it, and it was not clearly written. But the argument that I’m not giving SUSY credit for being wrong by 1060 instead of 10120 doesn’t make sense to me. Both are obviously in the same category of being completely off-base in a very fundamental way. The situation with SUSY is actually worse than non-SUSY, because in a non-SUSY theory the vacuum energy is not something that you can calculate even in principle. In a SUSY theory (before you turn on gravity), it’s the order parameter for supersymmetry-breaking, so has to have a scale of at least 100s of GeV to explain the lack of superpartners. Your theory of quantum gravity is supposed to ultimately explain the CC, and, for doing this, supersymmetry not only doesn’t improve the situation, it introduces a huge new problem you have to find some way around.

About the section on mathematics, and that I’m being petty about denying credit to string theory. Again, I think what I write is far more honest that just about anything string theorists have to say about the relation of string theory and mathematics, much of which is based on alotting to string theory purely QFT results.

About S-matrix theory, Chew, Capra. I think the lesson of what happened with S-matrix theory is an incredibly important one, and suspect that someday history will repeat itself. Before asymptotically free theories, people were convinced they had a good argument that QFT couldn’t be fundamental, just as many people are now convinced that problems with quantizing gravity imply that QFT can’t be fundamental. The arguments from Chew and Capra about getting rid of symmetry arguments and QFT in favor of the bootstrap are all too similar to things one hears these days from some string theorists. As for the denial of reality by Chew and Capra, post-QCD, there is no analog yet in the case of string theory. But, if someone finds a better way of quantizing gravity and getting unification, I’m willing to bet that, just like in the case of S-matrix theory, most theorists will move on, but some will refuse to ever give up on string theory and deny reality. We’ll see what happens. Eastern religions are a lot less popular in the US these days than they were in the 70s, so I don’t think there will be a new “The Tao of Physics”. But, already, if you take a look at Susskind’s “The Cosmic Landscape”, it holds up as science no better that Capra’s book.

About describing string theory as a cult with Witten as its guru. I believe Joao Magueijo in his book explicitly does this, and I can think immediately of three well-respected physicists or mathematicians who have, unprompted, used this description in conversations with me. Based on my experience, I’m pretty sure that if you sample non-string theorist physicists, you’re going to find many people who would describe the behavior of string theorists as “cult-like”. This behavior is described by Lee Smolin as “groupthink” and he has a lot to say about it. I wrote that I don’t think it’s useful to describe string theory as a religious cult, because the phenomena are significantly different, but I would characterize the behavior of some string theorists in recent years as “cult-like”. Some people exhibit a disconnect from the reality of the problems of the theory that is much like the way members of a cult behave in face of evidence contrary to their beliefs. Lubos is an extreme case, but there’s lots of others, of varying degrees. Describing Witten as the field’s “guru” I think is actually uncontroversial. There’s nothing wrong with having “gurus”, as long as you realize they are sometimes wrong. People who have demonstrated great amounts of knowledge and wisdom deserve to be listened to very seriously, but no one is ever right about everything.

About the Bogdanovs. The main reason I wrote about the Bogdanov story, (besides for its entertainment value), is that I think it shows conclusively that in quantum gravity in general, many people have lost the ability or willingness to recognize non-sense for what it is. Sure, this is not specifically a string theory problem, but it’s also not a problem specific to non-string theorists doing quantum gravity. This was swept under the rug at the time, and attributed to a few lazy referees, rather than dealt with as a serious problem that needs to be addressed if the field is not going to drown under an increasing tide of crap, and I think this was a big mistake, with the tide rising since then. I don’t apologize at all for writing about it in the book. As for the inclusion of the e-mail describing the reaction of the string group at Harvard, I don’t know its author, but I was assured by its recipient that it was legitimately from someone who was visiting there at the time. One member of the string theory group at Harvard is Lubos, and he has repeatedly defended the work of the Bogdanovs on his blog as legitimate science, no worse than much else of what is published in this field.

About Hagelin. Again, I wrote about him in the context of a chapter examining the difficulties involved in deciding what is science and what isn’t. More specifically, how do you tell who’s a crackpot and who isn’t? There are plenty of people out there whose ideas about physics are uniformly incoherent and easy to dismiss, but there are also cases like Hagelin, who combines excellent research credentials with crackpot ideas about science. How do you decide who is a crackpot and who isn’t? What about Lubos, what about Susskind? Many string theorists seem to hold the opinion that I’m one. Lacking the normal sort of discipline that comes from confrontation with experiment, a scientific field is in a very tricky state, and needs to be careful to enforce high standards of what makes sense and what doesn’t, and not let pseudo-science take over. Aaron notes that most of the audience at the Toronto panel discussion voted against the anthropic landscape, but he doesn’t mention that anthropism seemed to be a majority opinion amont the panelists, who are the ones who hold power. This is an extremely dangerous situation for this field. I don’t think the possibility that some readers of my book are going to get the impression that most string theorists are not doing science is anywhere near as much of a problem as the fact that quite a few powerful ones definitely aren’t anymore.

About comments on this blog. Please avoid adding to the noise level by posting non-substantive or off-topic comments, engaging in repetitive arguments that go nowhere, promoting your own ideas that have nothing to do with the posting, or generally making comments that have nothing new to say that hasn’t been said many times here already.

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72 Responses to Aaron Bergman Review of Not Even Wrong

  1. I think that there is an ongoing subthread about comparisons, along several axes, of science, mathematics, and writing for mainstream (i.e. nonscientist) audiences. You yourself comment above: “… it ended up being published by a trade publisher wasn’t my first choice, and the wide attention it is getting from people who know little about physics is a surprise to me…”

    Similarly, the full-page attention of Time Magzine shows a wider audience than this blog might directly reach. I am NOT going off on my own experiences as a scientist/author here, but do think that there is a wider context to be considered with authors such as thos
    scientists,such as Fred Hoyle, Carl Sagan, Robert F. Forward, and Marvin Minsky, who became science fiction writers themselves.

    The question that one must ask is: “Whom am I trying to reach? String Theorsist who mostly resent this message, but might conceivably to turned around to dissenters; ant-string theorists, with whom I’m preaching to the choir; or a wider audience of humans interested in science and its social impact, although not themselves practicing in the field?”

    Perhaps you’ve already answered that question on this blog. If so, I apologize for missing it.

  2. Lubos Motl says:

    Peter, if you thought that such a book could be published by a university press, then you have really lost a contact with reality. Do you understand that the university presses are meant to publish serious scientific work that can be used for years instead of opinionated piles of emotional rubbish written by people who don’t understand what they’re talking about at the technical level and who are searching for the 15 minutes of their fame?

    Everyone who has learned how to work with the theory knows how to extract the content of papers about black holes, AdS/CFT, or anything else – and ignore “hype”. Peter Woit only looks for unscientific themes that he can twist and use for his undemanding readers. He doesn’t find much of them in the research papers, so he adds. 80% of this blog and the book is irrational obnoxious whining and 20% is stuff that is only added to create an illusion that his production is not pure whining. No one is interested in these 20% and the value of the 80% is just in the controversy that they create.

    Witten is a guru because he’s the most achieved theoretical and mathematical physicist alive. But it is only Peter Woit who builds a religion on this. He argues that Witten was and is the right reason to accept string theory. Some people want to be led but it is ridiculous to say that the guru system is a rule. Witten also has (respectful) competitors and they’re not the only ones who view science very differently. Many other people went through a similar development as Witten but independently.

    But even if people were led by Witten, that would be no disaster because Witten is rather bright. I think that many people could improve the quality of their opinions by a few orders of magnitude if they switched from their idiosyncratic rubbish to parroting of Edward Witten; most of these people who are subjects of the previous sentence are not string theorists. I don’t like parroting but in the case of Peter Woit, this would be among my first recommendations. Imagine that he could become a spokesman for Witten instead of writing all this junk.

    The sections about the role of supersymmetry for evaluating the vacuum energy are, once again, completely wrong, much like the rest of the book as I described on 17 pages of errata.

    The main reason why I respect Profs. Bogdanovs from the University of Belgrade more than Peter Woit is their creativity combined with a desire to follow the standards of scientific discoveries, isntead of trying to revise science and cripple it by new kinds of social engineering and irrational emotional moods which is what Peter Woit and Lee Smolin openly want and systematically fight for.

    What the Bogdanov brothers have written arguably makes no full sense to any of us but their work proves that they have spent a lot of effort and time to learn the relevant things and they have rather original ideas. I have been impressed by them given their previous, seemingly unrelated profession. Their ideas about quantum groups suggest that they might really know them better than I do – and I’ve tested them to learn that their mastery of the group SO(4) and its non-compact forms dramatically exceeds Peter Woit’s abilities in the same subfield. 😉

    It is sad that Peter Woit is so jealous that I rate him below the Bogdanov brothers, but this is simply how the reality looks like. They are also more achieved scientists than he is according to superficial social criteria. Guess whose contribution to science is negative and whose contribution to science is at least non-negative. 😉

    Also, if Peter Woit were willing and able to focus on the actual science, I am sure that the frequency with which my name would occur would definitely be lower than it is.

    Magueijo’s book is similar crap as Woit’s book.

    Woit’s arguments that our no-go theorems about QFT behind gravity can fail because other theorems in the past have failed is cute but worthless until someone actually finds a loophole in which they can fail. But this is not how Woit would like science to look like. He prefers to falsify theories by collecting 50 angry crackpots who doom a theory without a glimpse of a rational scientific argument.

    I am sure that most of us including the Bogdanov brothers know that this is not how ideas and theories in physics can be rejected, which is why it is rather legitimate to count Peter Woit as a crackpot regardless of the fact that he would prefer, together with his brainless readers, to choose this title for Lenny Susskind, one of the most original physicists of our time.

  3. bob says:

    Thank you, Lubos, for that enlightening discussion.

    Peter, I think you have identified something important when you mention how difficult it is to distinguish between crackpots and non-crackpots. It’s all too easy for a physicist to pretend that he knows nonsense when he sees it, and behave dismissively of whatever he doesn’t understand. As long as he sees others behave dismissively of the same thing, he is probably safe, and this is where groupthink becomes amplified by immaturity. In an area where nobody understands anything, such as quantum gravity, the ones who behave dismissively at least appear to know something, and those who follow the dismissive ones become string theorists.

    But, as interesting as the sociology might be, there is still the practical question of how to distinguish crackpots from non-crackpots. John Baez’s Crackpot Index, and the dozen or so other documents which claim to provide guidance on this subject are whimsical. They are dismissive and sneering, displaying immaturity and leaving the reader with the message that it is clear and obvious what is nonsense and what is not, and that those who cannot distinguish between nonsense and sense are the fools, deserving of ridicule.

    This behavior is no doubt very amusing for the children in the physics schoolyard, but there must be practical way of determining what is sense and what is nonsense, and it must never be to look at who is doing more ridiculing, John Baez or Lubos or whoever, and suppose that whatever they ridicule is nonsense. Whoever follows that strategy is only pretending to be a physicist, and is in fact too immature to think for themselves, but all ridicule online is performed as an act of theatre before these pretenders. So what is the alternative?

  4. Open Source says:

    Lubos says,

    “Do you understand that the university presses are meant to publish serious scientific work that can be used for years instead of opinionated piles of emotional rubbish written by people who don’t understand what they’re talking about at the technical level and who are searching for the 15 minutes of their fame?”

    Is that why Brian Greene’s books and Kaku’s books on String Theory are published by non-university presses?

    Einstein and Bohr and Newton and Feynman and Dirac all exhibited vast humility because they were physicists who valued Truth above all else.

    We ought to follow their lead.

    http://revver.com/video/48391/21022

  5. bob says:

    And I think we need something more specific than a vague commitment to high standards and scientific integrity and other affirmations which are little more than promises to be good, and which carry little weight because in each case, the crackpot believes himself to have more integrity than his critics, and can claim with full honesty that he, as far as he understands, is making perfect sense.

    What we need is an objective standard, which specifies exactly what criteria an informal argument must satisfy in order to be considered “valid”. Mathematical proofs already have clear standards, but physics has an overlap with philosophy (“at the fundamental level”) and has experimental data and its incrediby-poorly-agreed-upon notion of what constitutes a theory of physics. The objective standard for valid informal arguments must not be “No stupid pseudoscience”, which would be no better than simply declaring oneself to have high standards. The standard should include distinguishing premises from conclusions, and not appealing to any oracles, such as common sense, or what the community believes, in order to justify labelling something as a conclusion instead of a premise.

  6. anon says:

    ‘There are plenty of people out there whose ideas about physics are uniformly incoherent and easy to dismiss, but there are also cases like Hagelin, who combines excellent research credentials with crackpot ideas about science. How do you decide who is a crackpot and who isn’t? What about Lubos, what about Susskind?’ -Woit

    ‘… Woit … prefers to falsify theories by collecting 50 angry crackpots who doom a theory without a glimpse of a rational scientific argument. I am sure that most of us including the Bogdanov brothers know that this is not how ideas and theories in physics can be rejected, which is why it is rather legitimate to count Peter Woit as a crackpot regardless of the fact that he would prefer, together with his brainless readers, to choose this title for Lenny Susskind, one of the most original physicists of our time.’ – Motl

    I think Woit should try to find the time and the patience to explain gently and kindly to Motl that physics is ultimately based on facts, and stringy stuff isn’t. (I’ve tried, but lack sufficient tact to succeed.)

    Stringy Bogdanov published a paper in peer-reviewed IoP Classical and Quantum Gravity, which later retracted its endorsement for the paper because it had no rational argument.

    Bogdanov didn’t have a PhD, but was awarded one for getting his paper in CQG and virtual copy in another journal. He still has the PhD…

  7. Yatima says:

    Lubos Motl says: “Peter, if you thought that such a book could be published by a university press, then you have really lost a contact with reality. Do you understand that the university presses are meant to publish serious scientific work that can be used for years.”

    My goodness. Such Vitriol. Counterexample? One swift grab into the bookstack behind my back produces “Superstrings: A Theory of Everything” by Cambridge University Press, first published 1988 (paperback, Canto edition, printed 1995), which is basically a set of Interviews made for BBC Radio 3. For ‘less scientific’ you would have to get one of the numerous hardcover books on consciousness studies by reputed UPs…

    (The book has interviews with John Schwarz, Ed Witten, Michael Green, David Gross, John Ellis, Abdus Salam, Sheldon Glashow, Steven Weinberg and “old man” Feynman: “They are not checking the ideas hard enough against experiment because of the difficulty in caclulating anything. That means they are up in the air and I don’t have to pay much attention!”)

  8. Lubos Motl says:

    Dear Yatima,

    the book “Superstrings…” is made of “mere” interviews, but they’re interviews with 8 super top physicists of that era. This is why the book has a scientific value as a book about history and sociology of science because it rigorously answers what the relevant people – heroes of physics – think at the time of publication.

    Not Even Wrong is not a valuable book about sociology of science because it only captures bitterness of a particular nobody that won’t be interesting for scholars in the future in any way. Even today, he’s mostly interesting for similar nobodies, most of whom are anonymous like the confused “poster” above Yatima.

    Best
    Lubos

  9. boreds says:

    “The main reason I wrote about the Bogdanov story, (besides for its entertainment value), is that I think it shows conclusively that in quantum gravity in general, many people have lost the ability or willingness to recognize non-sense for what it is.”

    I’m reiterating what AB said in his review, but I don’t think this is a justifiable statement. Who are the many theoretical physicists who don’t have the ability to recognise bogdanov for nonsense? Whoever reviewed the papers had presumably lost the *willingness* to recognise it, but in any case that’s still not `many’ people.

    Don’t think you are help your argument by conflating your other objections about string theory with this story!

  10. anon says:

    Dear Lubos,

    your confusion about Feynman and stringy stuff was predicted and explained by Feynman:

    ‘… I do feel strongly that this [string theory] is nonsense! … I think all this superstring stuff is crazy and is in the wrong direction. … I don’t like it that they’re not calculating anything. … why are the masses of the various particles such as quarks what they are? All these numbers … have no explanations in these string theories – absolutely none! …’ – Feynman in Davies & Brown, ‘Superstrings’ 1988, at pages 194-195

    Feynman said, in his 1964 Cornell lectures (broadcast on BBC2 in 1965 and published in his book Character of Physical Law, pp. 171-3):

    ‘The inexperienced, and crackpots, and people like that, make guesses that are simple, but [with extensive knowledge of the actual facts rather than speculation] you can immediately see that they are wrong, so that does not count. … There will be a degeneration of ideas, just like the degeneration that great explorers feel is occurring when tourists begin moving in on a territory.’

    Sheldon ‘string theory has failed in its primary goal’ Glashow – http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/elegant/view-glashow.html

    ‘Sheldon Glashow has strong opinions about string theory. Like how it has failed in its primary goal of incorporating gravity into the standard model of elementary particles. How its inability to be experimentally tested makes it ‘‘permanently safe’’ from either proof or falsification.’

    Hope you are now less confused.

    Kind regards,
    anon.

  11. John Rogers says:

    As a infrequent reader, I am appalled by the discussion. There is one person (Woit) saying that there are no experimental predictions from string theory, and another (Motl) who says that there are two: black hole entropy and AdS/CFT. For any scientist, it is clear that neither of the two candidates are predictions about experiments. Why does Motl, who is clearly a bright guy, deny this?

    The things which are open to prediction in physics are clear: the fine structure constant, the particle mass ratios, the other coupling strengths (and a few more). None of this is “predcitable” so far. The question is simple: will string theory achieve the predictions?

  12. not-a-fool-arogant says:

    Lubos,
    I am sure PW will be remembered long time after you will be forgotten. If not for scientific achivements, then at least for saying loud and clear: the king is (most likely) nacked.

  13. bob says:

    boreds says:
    Who are the many theoretical physicists who don’t have the ability to recognise bogdanov for nonsense?

    I remember the time. Before John Baez and Ark Jadzyck started interrogating the Bogdanovs. Nobody was willing to say that it was nonsense, because nobody was sure that it was, and anybody who loudly proclaimed in full view of the public that it was nonsense would soon be humiliated in full view of the public if it turned out not to be nonsense. And nobody was really sure, from just reading the papers, whether or not the Bogdanovs were thinking about anything coherent.

    So, I would say that everybody who was aware of it at the time, was unsure about whether it was nonsense or not. If it wasn’t nonsense, it was certainly written in such an awkward way that it was unintelligible perhaps to everybody but the authors. And where is the boundary between those who don’t even know what they are saying, and those who are confused but think they have discovered something, and they may even be less confused than us, but still not right.

    So, Mr. boreds, and Peter, the unfortunate situation is that you can’t just stamp your feet and demand that everybody be immediately able to distinguish between nonsense and genuine science. You have to specify a unique objective procedure which we can always use to analyse something and then say whether it’s nonsense. Perhaps you would claim that you know nonsense when you see it. Should we then bring everything to you, to ask you for help distinguishing sense from nonsense? What will you say of string theory, and, if it is nonsense, how will you convince the string theorists that your nonsense-detecting powers never fail? Will you reveal the procedure for identifying nonsense?

  14. Rickkkk says:

    I actually think Lubos is right about much of what he says in his first comment. Peter certainly isn’t doing any science and shouldn’t complain about the noise-level that accompanies discussing sociology and politics of science rather than actual science. Without having read the book I can assent that Peter resorts to sometimes emotional “salespitching” rather than hard facts.

    However, I’d say that this is understandable, defensible, and certainly not something String Theorists are above. No, as Aaron says and Peter would surely admit, his and Lee’s books are not even-handed, but when taken in the context of other popular science books(especially string-hypers) they do begin to introduce some even-handedness into the whole debate.

    Popularizers of String Theory have seldom been even-handed in their description of the situation, and it’s certainly due time for some uneven rebuttals, for balance if for nothing else.

    As a footnote, pretending to have more dignity than an opponent will only assure your loss. If you’re not willing to stoop to their level then you lose, in any competition. The non-stringers actually need cheerleaders, as the stringers have certainly brought theirs out. I’m considering becoming the non-stringer Lubos, I’m certainly more comfortable with the language and have had enough human contact to make sensical insults. For some reason, Idiom is the hardest thing to grasp when learning English and it shows when Lubos decides to foam at the mouth and invents horrible insults.

    All the same, good “post” Lubos.

  15. Anon says:

    ” I think Woit should try to find the time and the patience to explain gently and kindly to Motl that physics is ultimately based on facts, and stringy stuff isn’t. (I’ve tried, but lack sufficient tact to succeed.)

    Stringy Bogdanov published a paper in peer-reviewed IoP Classical and Quantum Gravity, which later retracted its endorsement for the paper because it had no rational argument.

    Bogdanov didn’t have a PhD, but was awarded one for getting his paper in CQG and virtual copy in another journal. He still has the PhD…”

    First, G.Bogdanov passed his thesis in 1999 and the papers were only published in 2001/2002. It clearly invalids any causality link.

    But what I am saying, though (as some mathematician did on WP) is that “a handful of blogs reactions and a smattering of fora publications do not mean that a rumor turns suddenly into a fact (which is the problem with wow-gee-whiz reporting). Nonetheless, it is wrong to report CQG’s first email as if it was pretty much the only factual one. No matter how many people like the dramatic, exciting story of the mythical Bogdanoff non sense, including lazy physicists, there is no hard or direct evidence of such a non sense”.

    Regarding CQG, its so called “statement” was presented by Baez as an “official document” issued by CQG editorial board around november 1st 2002. However its real source has never been clearly establlished and it was never confirmed by CQG’s editorial board. Instead, on november 11,2002, CQG published an official statement whose content was indeed quite different.

    Here is a link towards an article of the bulletin of the “Physics-Astronomy-Mathematics division of SLA” http://www.sla.org/division/dpam/pam-bulletin/vol30/no3/physics.html

    One finds, in reference n° 13 of the references quoted by the author :
    http://listserv.nd.edu/cgi-bin/wa?A1=ind0211&L=pamnet#11

    One can see the original and official text issued by Andrew Wray and H. Nicolaï of CGQ on November 11 2002, in response to the charges of hoax : http://listserv.nd.edu/cgi-bin/wa
    A2=ind0211&L=pamnet&T=0&F=&S=&P=3647

    As you can see, the authenticity of the so called “official statement” which circulated on SPR and elsewhere was never established . The official text that was clearly released in the public domain sounds quite different but was never known (because it was kept more or less under the carpet by some physicists whose interest was to promote the “negative” version of Nov.1 instead.

    Here is the integral version of November 11. As you can see, it reads quite different from the previous version : http://listserv.nd.edu/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0211&L=pamnet&T=0&F=&S=&P=3647

    “Date: Mon, 11 Nov 2002 10:38:46 +0000
    Reply-To: andrew.wray@iop.org
    Sender: “Archive of slapam-l (PAMnet)”
    From: Andrew Wray
    Subject: Classical and Quantum Gravity
    Comments: To: SLAPAM-L@lists.yale.edu
    Content-Type: text/plain; charset=”us-ascii”

    I’m writing on behalf of the Institute of Physics in response to a recent discussion on this list re the following paper:

    ‘Topological field theory of the initial singularity of spacetime’ by G Bogdanov and I Bogdanov, Class. Quantum Grav. 18 4341-4372 (2001)

    As you might expect, a number of our readers have contacted us about this and it has been widely discussed online.

    Our position is this: Classical and Quantum Gravity endeavours to publish original research of the highest calibre on gravitational
    physics. It is one of the highest standard journals in its field and makes continuous effort to maintain and improve the quality of
    research communication. In common with many journals, we consult among a worldwide pool of over 1,000 referees asking two
    independent experts to review each paper. A third referee is selected if the first two disagree. 45% of submitted articles are rejected
    and almost all accepted articles are revised before publication. The paper ‘Topological field theory of the initial singularity of
    spacetime’ by G Bogdanov and I Bogdanov made it through this review process and was therefore published in the normal way.

    At present, there are no plans to withdraw the article. Rather, the journal publishes refereed Comments and Replies by readers
    and authors as a means to comment on and correct mistakes in published material.

    We have passed this information on to the community and ask that if your colleagues enquire about this, you forward this e-mail
    on to them.

    Thank you for your help with this matter.

    Regards,

    Dr Andrew Wray

    Senior Publisher
    Classical and Quantum Gravity
    Institute of Physics Publishing

    Professor Hermann Nicolai

    Honorary Editor
    Classical and Quantum Gravity
    Albert Einstein Institute

  16. Lubos Motl says:

    Dear anon,

    I agree 100% with Feynman’s comments about the crackpots, and I have written the very same things many times. See e.g.

    http://motls.blogspot.com/2005/08/common-crackpots-errors.html

    where the section about the “Inability to falsify a conjecture by a comparison with the most elementary data” is closest to Feynman’s comments.

    Concerning Feynman’s misunderstanding of string theory, he was just too old and others did the same errors when they were old – like Einstein with quantum mechanics.

    Feynman, however, exceeded all these other guys because he already realized that the reason why he was saying such a nonsense was that he was already too old and a bit senile and slow.

    Glashow is a great guy and I certainly share very many points how physics should be approached with him (together with the date of birth that we also share with Heisenberg) but what he has been mostly saying about string theory is, while charming, technically wrong, too.

    This is a typical example of the breathtaking hypocricy and inconsistency of the “Not Even Wrong” community. Peter Woit criticizes others for being members of a religious cult led by a guru – but his readers and sometimes Woit himself permanently flood the internet with sociological pseudoarguments based on some irrational quotes of well-known physicists.

    It does not matter that they’re famous. What they’re saying is nonsense as everyone who knows these things at the technical level can check which is why these pronouncements don’t have much effect. But at least, they’re famous and they have earned a lot of credit in the physics community that they can freely spend by saying bullshit about string theory. Glashow could write hundreds of Woitian articles against current physics and he would still have positive account balance. On the other hand, Peter Woit has no credit. Trash is the only thing he contributes.

    Best
    Lubos

  17. anon says:

    ‘Feynman, however, exceeded all these other guys because he already realized that the reason why he was saying such a nonsense was that he was already too old and a bit senile and slow.’ – Lubos

    Dear Lubos,

    Feynman was still sensible enough the same year to expose (1) the o-ring failure cause of the Challenger disaster cause, and more to the point, (2) the role of GROUPTHINK in causing scientific tragedy when false hype about low risks occur, see http://www.ralentz.com/old/space/feynman-report.html

    String tragedy is the same; wishful thinking and suppression of dissent on pseudo-scientific grounds (just as well NASA didn’t reject Feynman as senile).

    Bests,
    anon.

  18. Jeremy says:

    How is what Glashow says wrong?

  19. TheGraduate says:

    I think it is fair to say that what is being discussed here is the sociology of science rather than science itself. However, it seems to me that this is precisely the domain of the issue that Peter wishes to address.

    I think the issue can be summarized as whether fewer resources should be allocated to string theory or not. There is no way to address this question that removes the human element. I do not think the scientific method can be used to definitively settle such a question. We must therefore look to some other investigative method.

    Individuals can be subject to biases but even if they were not, it is usually unreasonable in most contexts for one individual to allow another to decide for him or her simply because the decider claims to be more knowledgeable. There should in most cases be good reasons to defer.

    Usually, one asks for objective, real world criteria or neutral third parties and other resources of this nature.

    Peter alleges that the string theory community is dysfunctional. The string theory community is free to ignore him. However, I think it is time to acknowledge that without a neutral third party or recourse to the sort of neutral and general criteria that could be applied to any field of science, it will be difficult to move forward.

    I think for example the argument that very intelligent people support string theory is an OK argument for an individual to make when trying to convince himself but it is a horrible argument to use when arguing with a heterogenous group of scholars.

  20. Jimbo says:

    When it comes to Glashow, Lubos’ comments are clearly, N.E.W.

    If Feynman was “senile” in the few years prior to his death, I’ll choose senility anyday, compared to LM’s babbling rants, as string’s principal cheerleader. One wonders if this time next year, when prelim evidence starts to accumulate from the LHC, if he’ll be
    nearly as vitriolic ?
    Lenny’s book was really a `shot across the bow’ for theoretical physics & science, as it put all on notice that when it comes to the 3-centuries old scientific method, “We must all hang together, or else we shall all hang separately” – B.Franklin
    There can be no capitulation to the stringers, without experimental predix followed by expt. proof.

  21. Aaron Bergman says:

    (Beware the Bogdanov sock puppets….)

    Anyways, as for

    I remember the time. Before John Baez and Ark Jadzyck started interrogating the Bogdanovs. Nobody was willing to say that it was nonsense, because nobody was sure that it was, and anybody who loudly proclaimed in full view of the public that it was nonsense would soon be humiliated in full view of the public if it turned out not to be nonsense. And nobody was really sure, from just reading the papers, whether or not the Bogdanovs were thinking about anything coherent.

    this just isn’t true. I was willing to say it. Jacques was willing to say it. John Baez was willing to suggest that it was a hoax after reading it. This is all archived on the internet.

  22. Lubos Motl says:

    Dear anon,

    sorry to say but looking at an O-ring, while impressive, is not enough to judge a theory at the Planck scale. It was a cute old Feynman but a different Feynman that one who discovered the Feynman diagrams, and he realized it very well.

    If there is a great example of groupthink, then it is the groupthink – or more precisely group-non-think – of the community on this particular blog.

    Anyone who says something that this mob doesn’t like – i.e. everyone who says something that makes sense – is immediately under coherent fire of this uniform clan of people whose brains are turned off most of the time.

    When I talk about Glashow saying nonsense about string theory, I primarily mean the silly comments that string theory is divorced from experiments.

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/elegant/view-glashow.html

    Everyone who knows what string theory does in phenomenology knows that it is a nonsense. Buy the new phenomenology book of Michael Dine when it’s out. You will see that string theory is the only framework to think about virtually all possible experimental observations in the future at a deeper level than the level “look, we see something”: supersymmetry, axions, dark matter, details of grand unification, small black holes, and so forth, and so forth.

    It is clear that many string theorists are more mathematically oriented, but it is a completely logical and correct approach in an era when we simply don’t have too many new experiments that could directly lead us. I think that Glashow misunderstands this point, too.

    String theory has been gaining importance exactly because it uses strategies that turned out to be most useful for progress in theoretical physics. Even if nothing else than the “details” about the possible braneworld scenarios, AdS/CFT correspondence, mirror symmetry, and a few other mathematical and phenomenological things were the only results in the last 15 years, string theory would clearly beat any other subfield of high-energy physics in this era.

    Various discrete gravity people only achieved complete mess that is not interesting for anything. Pure phenomenologists didn’t have almost any new ideas – at least no new good ideas that would be unrelated to string theory – either. String theory is the way to go because it gives us both deep mathematics as well as completely realistic new phenomena that are interesting and we would hardly discover them without the beacon of string theory.

    That’s why it’s been naturally growing and it is bad if someone misunderstands how the evaluation of ideas work in the free market of ideas. All the Sean Carrolls and others who try to dictate how much mathematical reasoning vs. how much experimental dreams should be included in theorists’ research show that they completely misunderstand that the theorists must use whatever is the best guide at a given moment, and there can’t be any verse of the Bible that would define what the best path is forever. They just don’t understand science.

    Best
    Lubos

  23. Lubos Motl says:

    Dear TheGraduate,

    indeed, Peter Woit tries to address – and to cripple – the sociology of science. But he has no credentials to do something like that and the scientists generally don’t think that there should be sociological committees that would manipulate with science in the way that Woit dreams about in his perverse dreams.

    Woit’s opinions are both completely flawed as well as unsupported by any scientific credentials, so there is indeed no reason why a serious publisher should print this kind of material as science or as social science.

    Dear Aaron,

    Baez’s statement that Bogdanovs’ papers were a hoax was a lie, and it was a very malicious lie. I would personally guess that the real reason why Baez wanted to damage the brothers was that they are more successful in many respects than he is. If the same paper were written by two anti-war janitors, I am sure that Baez would never criticize the authors.

    I am still unconvinced that we are so sure that there is nothing interesting about their ideas. What all of you are showing is groupthink. All of you are heroes in saying that you know for sure that the work has no sense whatsoever – simply because you are hiding behind others and if all of you are wrong, the individual wrong people will be forgotten. The same groupthink as the groupthink of the left-wing blogosphere that is “sure” about a wide variety of things, for example that the differences between abilities of various groups have a social origin, not a biological one.

    It is an irrational political movement. The anti-Bogdanov hysteria is another example of it. There are hundreds of papers a year submitted to the arXiv and journals that make as much sense as Bogdanovs’ papers or less but they are not subjects of this hysteria. All of this hysteria is rotten. And Peter Woit is the last one who has the moral right to criticize the Bogdanov brothers because what he has written about science in the past we remember is much more transparent crap.

    Best
    Lubos

  24. woit says:

    Aaron is right about the Bogdanov history, many people (including myself) immediately upon reading their papers agreed that they were full of nonsense, and expressed this opinion in public forums. Especially anyone with any expertise in TQFTs could see that the statements the Bogdanovs were making about them were incorrect.

    The alternate editor’s note pointed out by one commenter is quite interesting. I would very much like to know what the true story is about this. There seem to be two very different versions of this note, the first one claiming there was a problem with the paper, the second denying this. Which is right? If anyone knows the true story here, please let me know.

    bob,

    Distinguishing sense from nonsense is sometimes easy, but often not. The mechanisms for doing this are well-understood: scholarship and rational discussion. In the case of the Bogdanovs, there are many places where scholars have rationally gone through what they wrote and explained what is wrong with it. John Baez especially did a careful job of this.

    In the case of string theory, there’s a disturbing level of refusal to engage in this process. The most extreme example around is Lubos, who chooses not scholarly debate, but ideological ranting unmoored from logic and evidence.

    As for Lubos, I’m of two minds about his comments. On the one hand, they’re perfect examples of the problems with how some string theorists are conducting research in their field. The Harvard string theory group anointed him as their choice for the best young person in the field, and, from all the evidence I have, continues to support him, so he’s not some random person who has lost his marbles. On the other hand, he generates reams of idiocy, encouraging other people to respond to it, and this is likely to keep reasonable people from participating in the comment section here. It’s also true that he has banned me from commenting on his blog.

    So, I’m just not sure what to do…

  25. Chris Oakley says:

    Not directly relevant, but …
    Science collides with a Big Bang, by Jonathan Leake.
    This is an article in today’s Australian about cosmology, focusing on disagreements between Neil Turok and Alan Guth. To quote the last paragraph:

    The academic world is often thought to be one of reasoned debate rather than vitriol.†
    What is driving the heated emotions? Peter Woit, an advanced maths lecturer at Columbia University, in New York, believes he has an explanation for the present fury: the physicists are simply getting bored.

    ————–
    † Who thinks that? (No-one I know). What planet is he on? (Maybe one of the newly-classified ones).

  26. Aaron Bergman says:

    It’s very easy to put forth vague ideas like “the signature of spacetime might fluctuate”. To publish a paper, you need to actually calculate something or somehow put some scaffolding around the idea. The problem with the Bogdanov’s papers is that almost every technical statement in their papers is either unoriginal or nonsensical. The papers should have never been published.

  27. woit says:

    Chris,

    I talked to Leake on the phone the other day, and don’t recall saying that this had anything to do with being “bored”. What I did say was that scientists often behave less than rationally, but under usual circumstances, experimental results often adjudicate arguments among theorists. The lack of any experimental results relevant to string theory is one cause of the heated controversy there. I pretty much refused to comment on controversies in cosmology since I’m not especially well informed about them. If he’d replaced “bored” by “frustrated”, it would have been a more accurate characterization of what I said to him.

  28. Santo D'Agostino says:

    One of Lubos’s problems is with the English language. Consider his comment:

    “Feynman, however, exceeded all these other guys because he already realized that the reason why he was saying such a nonsense was that he was already too old and a bit senile and slow.”

    There is a rather large difference between admitting that there is a chance, however small, that one could be wrong, and realizing that one is senile. Lubos does not seem to understand this difference; perhaps he does and is purposely misrepresenting, but I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. One hopes that once he becomes more familiar with English idioms he re-reads the Feynman interview with greater understanding.

    The same misunderstanding of English, however, cannot forgive Lubos’s posting of comments on the Not Even Wrong manuscript at the Amazon web site, and passing them off as a review of the book. (His later posting of a long list of errata on his own web site proved that the comments were indeed about the manuscript.) He mentioned in his “review” that his comments were about a “different edition,” when there was only one edition available. Even someone whose first language is not English should realize that these actions are unscholarly. In this case they are also despicable.

  29. Chris Oakley says:

    Hi Peter,

    My limited experience of journalists tells me that you were lucky that he wrote something that was even close to what you told him on the phone.
    I was reassured when I tracked down an article about the elopement of my great^3 grandparents that the journalist in question had managed to mis-spell both their names.

    BTW: Please don’t ban Lubos. He’s the best entertainment on the internet.

  30. David says:

    Dear Lubos,
    You say often that ideas should stand or fall on the basis of evidence not on who proposed them. If you believe this, why do you attack people on the basis of credentials or what is, in your opinion, lack of scientific success rather than hard facts? BTW, speaking of hard facts, we are still waiting for your reply on your famous things that have been “more or less rigourously proved wrong” from your 17 page critique of NEW. Here’s an opportunity for you to explain why the book is wrong. Further, statistics is a good subject if you’re really interested in science. Check out the people part of the Stanford Stat Dept website for papers that provide some great reading.
    David

  31. Lubos Motl says:

    Dear Aaron,

    I tend to agree with you even though I don’t think it is completely trivial to ask questions like “can the signature fluctuate?” I don’t remember anyone else asked it before them. What’s your answer, by the way? This is about causality in quantum gravity. Of course, the question is only meaningful if one believes that the metric tensor is a good variable even for fluctuations of order 100% which it probably isn’t because you need the rest of string theory in this regime. 😉

    Whether or not the papers are published depends on the referees but do you believe me that they were far from the only paper that could be labeled as unsuitable for publishing by many physicists? I am ready to list examples because it is just wrong if everyone thinks that it is desirable to attack Bogdanovs all the time while no one would dare to say something similar about similar papers.

    Why is there so much hysteria about it? They were just trying to add another paper about very difficult questions that was expected not to break the mysteries given their being outsiders. They were not trying to argue that all of physics is wrong or something like that which is what some of their colleagues try.

    Best
    Lubos

  32. Aaron Bergman says:

    There are plenty of crap papers on the ArXiv as everyone knows (although I’d say that there’s more outright nonsense in these papers than anything I’ve seen in a long time). The reason why the Bogdanov’s got so much attention was mostly because of the initial rumor that it was an intentional hoax, but also because the papers got past the refereeing process.

  33. Rickkkk says:

    Peter, I think Leake was simply extrapolating that no experimental results leads to boredom. I think it’s a correct statement, but perhaps not quite concise. Metaphorically speaking, the lack of experiments have allowed these arguments to flourish in a way that idle hands cause problems. It’s subtle, but a still accurate metaphor.

  34. Chris Oakley says:

    The reason why the Bogdanov’s got so much attention was mostly because of the initial rumor that it was an intentional hoax, but also because the papers got past the refereeing process.

    I think that you will find that their having a prime-time science TV show also had something to do with it.

  35. Peter Woit says:

    Santos and David,

    It’s bad enough having this comment section cluttered with people who want to discuss Lubos’s current nonsense, please don’t try and carry on older arguments with him here.

  36. anon says:

    Dear Lubos,

    ‘You will see that string theory is the only framework to think about virtually all possible experimental observations in the future at a deeper level than the level “look, we see something”: supersymmetry, axions, dark matter, details of grand unification, small black holes, and so forth, and so forth.’

    Sure, stringy stuff is a good framework for planning sci-fi, but it isn’t making unique checkable predictions that could falsify it when tested. The nearest you come is with the soft scattering spectra, but even if that is real, it could just have another cause. The best experimental checks on string theory will be open to other interpretations, because it is so vague. String theorists are careful to kick in new alternative ideas like Smolin’s while they are still infants, before they can grow into a viable threat to stringy stuff.

    Many claimed stringy predictions, such as large 0.1 mm-sized extra dimensions, are just not falsifiable. If the strings aren’t found, maybe you just rule out that sub-version of string theory or else blame the sensitivity of the experimentalists. You dismiss such critics as Feynman and Glashow as senile or crackpot, while asserting uncheckable, speculative, empty frameworks instead of building on facts!

    As for the Bogdanov’s, the tale is that there were two brothers, one of which was failed his PhD examination and was told to get peer-reviewed stringy papers published before he received the degree. After publication, he was awarded the PhD. This story is almost as fantastic as string theory itself, so maybe it’s just half-truths/lies. I’ve abused Woit’s hospitality enough so had better end here.

    Kind regards,
    anon.

  37. Jeremy says:

    Peter,

    Do nothing. I have been moderating online discussions for years. Getting rid of people who say something in opposition, something which is different, or even something which is “merely” hurtful, is rarely a solution.

    From my outside perspective, Dr. Motl doesn’t detract as much from discussion as much as you may think he does (except in not allowing you to speak on his own web site). While his comments could stand to be respectful, the dozen or so I’ve read so far tend to be on topic as regards the posts in which they respond to, though they all share the disrespectful quality. Also see one of my initial emails to you as regards a person’s lifetime work being challenged.

    As to the charge of being tendentious, I am only about halfway through the book right now, but I’ve read nary a statement so far which matches the word. There is certainly the strong point of physicists vis a vis mathematicians, and the title would indicate a large lean towards being against String Theory.

    That a book about the point of view that resources, time and energy should be allocated more towards other endeavours is tendentious is, well, patently obvious. I don’t think Mr. Bergman has made a case for your description of events and explanations being heavily slanted (I would certainly expect there to be some slant). I will, of course, reserve judgement in that respect until I have completed the book.

    Dr. Motl,

    Thank you for your response on Glashow.

  38. bob says:

    Peter said:
    Distinguishing sense from nonsense is sometimes easy, but often not. The mechanisms for doing this are well-understood: scholarship and rational discussion.

    Of course, but these are not objective criteria; they are just labels which anybody can apply to himself and deny to his enemies. Lubos can write what he writes and then say that it’s scholarly and rational, and you can disagree and say that what you are saying is rational and that what he says is incoherent. Everybody can then take sides, insulting one another, and claiming that it is clear and easy for everyone to see which side is right, when both sides are lying about this. It is not easy; it is very difficult, and objective criteria are needed, and “scholarship and rational discussion” are very good indeed if you have specified a procedure for distinguishing between rational scholarly argument and incoherent nonsense.

    But there is no such procedure, or at least nobody has specified one. So instead the situation is that an honest person looks at either side where the people say “The arguments of the other side are nonsense, and this is clear for everyone to see, and anyone who doesn’t see it is stupid”. Neither you nor Lubos can point to any objective standard which could be used to make the decision, though you will both claim that objective standards exist which your opponent fails to meet, but neither of you can specify them.

  39. Arun says:

    Aaron’s review does address “the only game in town” and amends it to the “best game in town”, and gives two cogent arguments from physics (blackholes and AdS/CFT) why it is interesting and also from the math. point of view. He does say he doesn’t have any good idea as to where a better game might come from, and believes and hopes the next Einstein will make his breakthrough regardless of the system of academic research in place.

    I do think the discussion needs to proceed from that point – can we make the “better game” less prone to accident? I certainly don’t mean that good ideas can be produced on demand. But supposing some one does come up with a good idea, how do we make sure it doesn’t perish unheard? It seems obvious to me that there are more hospitable and there are less hospitable environments for good new ideas; do we have have any way of improving the environment?

  40. David says:

    Sorry.

  41. Tony Smith says:

    Arun asked “… supposing some one does come up with a good idea, how do we make sure it doesn’t perish unheard?
    It seems obvious to me that there are more hospitable and there are less hospitable environments for good new ideas;
    do we have have any way of improving the environment? …”.

    My ideas about that (which I have stated before in other comments and elsewhere, so my apologies for redundancy) are:

    No consensus-monopoly view should be allowed to suppress alternative approaches.
    A thousand flowers should bloom,
    and all important institutions (university departments, laboratories, institutes, etc) should encourage active investigation of ALL the blossoms,
    by rewarding grad students, post-docs, etc., for work on whatever they find interesting.
    If a studied model turns out to be wrong, then the work showing it to be wrong should not be considered a worthless negative result, but a useful contribution (like weeding a garden) to advancing physics by cultivation,
    and such negative results should be just as important as positive ones in getting publications, Ph.D.’s, post-doc jobs, and faculty appointments.

    A big problem in implementing such an environment is that it would do away with closed good-ol-boy dominant-paradigm networks in which good-ol-boy A gives postdoc jobs, etc, to grad students etc of good-ol-boy B and all the good-ol-boys (and their grad students etc) always enjoy big barbecues in which all the HEP-theory pork is spread around among the Members of the Club.

    Such Pork Clubs are very hard to get rid of in any human community, whether it be Congress or HEP or anything else. Even if a “Reformer” comes along and defeats the “Entrenched Machine”, most of the time the “Reformer” just becomes a new “Emperor” (which is why Beethoven’s Symphony 3 was not named for Napoleon).

    Tony Smith
    http://www.valdostamuseum.org/hamsmith/

    PS – Even Beethoven had difficulty getting great new ideas accepted by the establishment.
    According to some CD liner notes by Constantin Floros:
    “… When the news was brought to him that one of his [late string] quartets, played by Schuppanzigh, had met with a poor reception, he [Beethoven] said laconically: “One day it will please them.” …”.

  42. Pingback: More Scenes From the Storm in a Teacup, I - Asymptotia

  43. Peter Shor says:

    You say that

    Aaron notes that most of the audience at the Toronto panel discussion voted against the anthropic landscape, but he doesn’t mention that anthropism seemed to be a majority opinion amont the panelists, who are the ones who hold power. This is an extremely dangerous situation for this field.

    Is antropism the majority view among the string theorists that hold power, or just the loud ones? Because it seems to me that there are a few very loud, somewhat crackpot, string theorists, who have discovered that spouting lots of speculative nonsensical stuff brings them publicity. There are also a number of fairly sane string theorists who have relatively little to say right now because the field is only making very slow progress at the moment. And for some reason, the sane string theorists are too polite or too afraid to say anything negative about the loud ones. The sad part would be if, in the current climate, spouting loud, interesting-sounding, nonsense is a good way to advance ones career.

  44. Peter Woit says:

    Peter,

    Besides certain loud ones (Susskind), the anthropic landscape is promoted by quite a few less loud but very prominent theorists. Examples include Harvard’s Nima Arkani-Hamed, as well as Joe Polchinski, Michael Douglas, Shamit Kachru. I’m sure there are lots of theorists who are not happy with the anthropic landscape, but at this point I think most of them accept the idea of the landscape, if not the anthropic part. Most remarkably, the only string theorist I know of who seems willing to publicly criticize anthropism is David Gross.

  45. ksh95 says:

    Bob commented:

    Neither you nor Lubos can point to any objective standard which could be used to make the decision, though you will both claim that objective standards exist which your opponent fails to meet, but neither of you can specify them.

    The standard is and always has been clear: in the absense of experimental evidence the group that can accumulate the most power becomes correct.

  46. TheGraduate says:

    I have been reading this blog for a year and a half now. As someone who is considering grad school in a year, I guess I am probably part of the target audience of the recent books about string theory … in that, they have and continue to have an influence on the things I think about studying. They also have an influence on what I say to other people who are thinking about what field they want to go into.

    I am mostly neutral at this point. I still think string theory might be enjoyable for purely mathematical reasons even if the physics thing doesn’t work out but am not one for believing things that have no experimental foundation. My faith in the ‘unreasonable effectiveness’ of mathematics is not that strong.

    Peter

    I was wondering to what extent do you believe the ‘cult-like’ behavior had to do with external monetary pressures and public exposure. Are people unaware of possible deficiencies in their arguments or simply unwilling to admit this in public due to the loss of prestige, power etc? The former would be irrational while the latter is quite rational.

    To my mind, the idea that theory needs to be supported by evidence seems pretty straightforward. Is there something about the culture of theoretical physics that I am missing?

    I would also be curious to know whether people think that US national politics plays a role in this. I have noticed that for instance, at least in the case of Lubos, he is very concerned about ‘anti-science’ attitudes. Is this kind of concern common in the string theory community?

    You see this kind of concern repeated often in national politics from contraversies with evolution, to AIDS, to global warming. Is string theory just part of a larger trend of rocky relationships between science and the public and issues concerning the nature of evidence?

  47. Shamit Kachru says:

    Hello:

    Since I occasionally see responses by active scientists here, I am writing for their benefit:

    You will see many views attributed to prominent particle and string theorists in this blog. (Or Motl’s blog, or other blogs of similar ilk; there are now several). In many cases that I am aware of, these attributions range from outright lies (in more than one case, statements that I never made have been attributed to me), to vast oversimplifications or quotations taken out of context, on issues of significant complexity. In the blog discussions of the “landscape,” I am sure from personal knowledge that many brief summaries of the views of leading theorists (put forth by active bloggers) have ranged from misleading to simply incorrect as representations of the person’s actual opinion. Usually these incorrect summaries of the opinions of others, have served as launching points for polemics (which are a peculiar but common feature of several of the popular blogs).

    Most of the subjects under active investigation in particle/string theory, are not best discussed in blog-level sound bites. This is not unique to particle/string theory, of course. So for any active scientists out there, don’t think what you read here in any way represents the views and activities of your particle theorist colleagues: ask them directly yourselves, to get a better picture.

    Since blogs can be a tremendous time sink, most of us (certainly me) do not usually respond even to those threads that pretend to directly address the goals and merits or flaws of our work. For that reason I certainly won’t make more appearances here; it just seemed possibly useful to inform (remind?) everyone of the obvious comments above.

    Shamit Kachru

  48. John Baez says:

    Peter writes:


    The alternate editor’s note pointed out by one commenter is quite interesting. I would very much like to know what the true story is about this. There seem to be two very different versions of this note, the first one claiming there was a problem with the paper, the second denying this. Which is right? If anyone knows the true story here, please let me know.

    Check out the Wikipedia article on the Bogdanov affair – and also the discussion page for that article.

    According to the article, the editors of Classical and Quantum Gravity issued a note by email saying:


    Regrettably, despite the best efforts, the refereeing process cannot be 100% effective. Thus the paper […] made it through the review process even though, in retrospect, it does not meet the standards expected of articles in this journal. The paper was discussed extensively at the annual Editorial Board meeting […] and there was general agreement that it should not have been published. Since then several steps have been taken to further improve the peer review process in order to improve the quality assessment on articles submitted to the journal and reduce the likelihood that this could happen again.

    If you’re curious about this emailed note, ask Greg Kuperberg.

    According to Wikipedia,

    Later, the editor-in-chief of the journal issued a slightly different statement on behalf of the Institute of Physics, which owns the journal, in which he insisted on the fact that their usual peer-review procedures had been followed, but no longer commented on the value of the paper. In particular the sentences “[…] it does not meet the standards expected of articles in this journal” and “The paper was discussed extensively at the annual Editorial Board meeting […] and there was general agreement that it should not have been published” were removed.”

    In the discussion page, you’ll see that lots of mysterious people – or maybe just one or two, using lots of pseudonyms – tried to change this Wikipedia article. Just like the fellow who posted here, these people tried to downplay the original note. The folks at Wikipedia eventually blocked these changes, deciding they were caused by “sock puppets”: the Bogdanov brothers in disguise. This seems likely, both because it’s they did the same thing to Jacques Distler, and because: who else would bother?

    So, Peter, I guess the Bogdanovs are reading your blog and posting to it. Congratulations!

  49. woit says:

    John,

    I’ve been the recipient of fake e-mails from the Bogdanovs, so did check that the source of this comment wasn’t the same as that of one of those. Looking at the Wikipedia discussion, I see that this has become much more complicated, presumably involving lots of different addresses. The source of this comment is a Paris internet connection, but I have no idea whether it’s from the Bogdanovs or someone else.

    The information in the comment is accurate as far as I can tell. Personally, I was unaware that CQG had changed it’s statement from the one Kuperberg distributed, which acknowledged a failure in the refereeing system, to the later one, which did not acknowledge this. Actually, I find this kind of appalling.

  50. woit says:

    TheGraduate,

    I don’t think the controversy over string theory has anything to do with the political fights going on in the US over science. Lubos’s description of any criticism of string theory as “anti-science” is just ridiculous, part of attempt to attack in over-the-top manner anyone who disagrees with him about the subject.

    The political fights about science have to do with the Bush administration’s embrace of the religious right and its attitudes, and physics pretty much has nothing to do with this. I don’t think the religious right has any opinion one way or another about string theory, and the Bush administration has recently made physics research one of its top priorities for higher funding.

    As to why string theorists so often refuse to acknowledge problems with the subject, I won’t speculate about their motivations for doing this. However I will say that I think it is a big mistake, both for scientific reasons, as well as non-scientific ones. They’re seriously damaging their own credibility and that of the field as a whole.

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