I’d really much rather ignore the activities of Lubos Motl, but his unethical behavior recently has sunk to new lows, and it seems necessary to point this out and encourage others to take appropriate action.
When Lee Smolin’s new book The Trouble With Physics first became available recently on Amazon, Lubos immediately posted a “two-star” review of the book, one that immediately had a large number of votes that it was “helpful”, likely generated by Lubos himself. The review is thoroughly dishonest and designed to mislead anyone who might consider buying the book (“Lee reveals his intense hostility against all of modern physics”, “Lee proposes a truly radical thesis that it is wrong for mathematics to play a crucial role in theoretical physics”, “He also denies the difference between renormalizable field theories and the rest”, “one of his rules says that the conclusions must be accepted by everyone if their author is a person of good faith”, etc., etc., etc…). The dishonesty includes the use of two stars rather than one, since Lubos is well-aware that Amazon is more likely to immediately delete one-star reviews.
After a while, another review appeared, a positive 5-star review. At some point, it seems that Amazon deleted Lubos’s review, perhaps because some people had, quite justifiably, clicked on the link that allows one to report a review as inappropriate. Lubos then posted on his blog a rant about this. Later on, he somehow managed to get the 5-star review deleted, and his own one reinstated (and removed his blog posting). At the present time, the only review of Smolin’s book on Amazon is the dishonest one by Lubos. This situation provides yet another example of the kind of disturbing behavior of parts of the string theory community that Smolin has detailed in part of his book. Unfortunately, if people just ignore what Lubos is up to, we end up with situations like the current one at Amazon, so I encourage people to consider what action they can take to do something about this. As for Amazon, the answer to dishonest speech is honest speech, so I encourage people to post honest reviews there of the book, I’ve just done so (and if you want to review my book while you’re at it, that’s fine too…).
Lubos still has up on his blog an offer to pay people $20 for writing bad reviews of my book. I’ve complained to people in the Harvard physics department that this kind of professional behavior by one of its faculty members is unethical and not the sort of thing protected by academic freedom. I’ve also pointed out to them that Lubos regularly publicly claims that his colleagues share his views (most recently in the Amazon review where he goes on about Smolin visiting “us”, and what “we” “mainstream physicists” think). While it appears that at some point an attempt was made by someone at Harvard to get him to suppress his extreme political views, I’ve seen no evidence whatsoever that anyone in the string theory group at Harvard has a problem with his behavior in defending string theory. This is also true of the larger string theory community, which remains almost unanimously (Aaron Bergman is the one exception I can think of) unwilling to publicly criticize Lubos’s tactics. A common recent defense of string theory against its critics is that its proponents hold power because they have triumphed in the “marketplace of ideas.” It’s not a pretty sight to see how this triumph is being defended now that there are other voices in the marketplace.
Update: About an hour and a half after I posted this, my positive review of Smolin’s book had accumulated a bunch of “helpful” votes, Lubos’s a bunch of “unhelpful” ones, and, I’m guessing, a bunch of reports as “inappropriate”. His review then disappeared. My sympathy goes out to whoever it is at Amazon who has to moderate this kind of controversy. Since Lubos is such a poster boy for the problems of string theory, I should say that I’d be happier if his review had not been deleted, but remained there, countered by other, more honest reviews.
Update: I see that Lubos’s “one-star” review of my book is now back up (carrying the original date, why’s that?) with the comment:
My review has been erased four times because the author keeps on encouraging other enemies of science on his discussion forum to report my review as inappropriate. This is not fair and is a reason why I returned to 1 star.
Well, his review is inappropriate, so I can see why people click on the link that reports this. Again, I’d prefer that it stay up there to show how string theorists behave, but that others with more honest reviews submit them also. Besides, like most authors these days, I do periodically check my Amazon sales ranking, and, as far as I can tell, when his review is there, sales improve. Go, Lubos!
Update: OK, now his review of my book has disappeared, and the one of Smolin’s has reappeared. Depressing, my sales should soon head downward, but I’m glad Lee’s will do better.
Update: Lubos is indefatigable, both his reviews are back, mine now says:
My review has been erased five times because the author keeps on encouraging other enemies of science on his discussion forum to report my review as inappropriate. This is not fair and is a reason why I returned to 1 star. Please don’t trust the counter of helpful votes either. It is being distorted by the visitors of Peter Woit’s blog who are directly controlled by the author of this book.
It seems that I “directly control” visitors here. Wow.
I’m guessing Amazon must have some sort of automated system, which apparently deletes reviews that receive a certain number of “inappropriate” votes, but allows the review to be edited slightly and resubmitted.
Update: Lubos seems to have managed to get my review of Smolin’s book deleted, as well as one of the 5-star reviews of my book. I can’t compete with him in terms of fanaticism, so will just have to take people’s advice and ignore what he is up to in terms of manipulation of Amazon reviews. Smolin is a new father and also doubtless too busy for this. People who don’t like this situation are free to try and do something about it, by writing reviews, or contacting Amazon, Lubos’s employer, or the people he refers to as “us” in his review to make them aware of what is going on.