Fit To Be Tied

This week’s Science News has a quite good article about the string theory controversy by Peter Weiss, unfortunately available on-line only to subscribers. The title is “Fit to be Tied: Impatience with string theory boils over”. There’s nothing much in the article that will surprise anyone who has been following this story here. It includes some accurate quotes from me and some from Lee Smolin, with the string theorists represented by Zwiebach, Polchinski and Strominger.

Polchinski claims that experiments will soon probe some elements of string theory, promoting the possibility that the LHC will observe extra dimensions. Zwiebach points to work on black holes: “In string theory, the black hole can be seen as built from strings and branes. It’s a spectacular insight.” Strominger on the one hand is quoted as finding it inappropriate that Smolin and I are criticizing how string theory research is conducted, while also saying he thinks that the way string theory has been promoted has given the public the wrong impression: “I’ve felt for a long time that the general public’s impression of what string theory had accomplished and how much of it was correct was too positive.”

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8 Responses to Fit To Be Tied

  1. ObsessiveMathsFreak says:

    “I’ve felt for a long time that the general public’s impression of what string theory had accomplished and how much of it was correct was too positive.”

    I think the general public deserve a little more credit. I’ve spoken to many “lay” people who regarded the string theory programs or newspaper reports they read with a good degree of skepticism.

    Now, the general public does regard things like Relativity and Quantum Mechanics with skeptisicm when they first hear about them(who doesn’t), but at least in these cases they can be shown experiments and effects which give credance to the theory. Show anyone the double slit or Michealson-Morely experiments and they can at least appreciate that the universe is not always as logical as we think it is.

    But with string theory, there are no experiments. It really is all just symbols on paper, with only its supposed mathematical “beauty” holding it aloft. Faced with this, all that can be presented to the public is 3D animations of vibrating strings, and appeals to various scientific authorities(minus Feynman). Increasingly, more dishonest methods like violin concerts and cooking shows used as well.

    But I think general man on the street is not as guillable or as confused as certain people take him to be.

  2. r hofmann says:

    I entirely agree with the statement that the general public in a more or less working, technologically, morally, and culturally highly ambitious society should not be regarded as an unknowing, unsuspecting, and uncritical something that scientists can impose their fashion-of-the-day ideas on while standing on a disconnected, elevated platform. After all, scientists, being themselves a part of society, enjoy the privilege to unadulturatedly conduct their research just because the broad public is materially supporting them. The only way to leave a lasting impression on our collective conscience is the unearthening of scientific truth that, by definition, is backed up by strong empirical evidence, that is, by numerous and independent experimental confirmations of theoretical predictions (Smolin’s ring of truth) and that, by historical experience, turns out to feed back into future everyday life in one way or another.

  3. anon says:

    ObsessiveMathsFreak, I disagree.

    I’ve had many friends approach me on this subject (I rarely initiate these discussions on my own devices) and my general impression is quite the opposite. The people I have discussed this with are usually people with a broad set of interest and usually with some basic knowledge of math and physics and good knowledge in say economics or history.

    My perception is the opposite, I am usually received with a lot of distrust and sometimes down right disdain when I say that string theory:

    *hasn’t had any kind of experimental verification (both direct and indirect) attributed solely to it
    *doesn’t replicate all previous physical theories, not even a reasonable subset of those (uniquely at least)
    *is not a coherent theory with a well set of fundamental principles, but so far only a set of rules glued together in an ad-hoc way

    The reaction is usually one of the following:

    *If it’s so bad, why is it so popular? Seems to me you are just ignorant about it and just dismiss what you don’t know of (I am far from knowledgeable about string theory but I think what I wrote so far is essentially true)
    *If all these uber-smart people and prize-winners do it, things can’t be as you say
    *But I read an article in a top notch newspaper/magazine where it said string theory explains almost everything

    I’ve even had one you didn’t know of the standard model (not serious sonce this was not his field) but thought that what explained all those particles was string theory and not the standard model (now this is serious).

    The truth is, humans are generally stupid about things they have barely any expertise on (myself included, and sometimes even about things they have expertise on) and usually rely on authority to make judgements about the validity of those subjects (this I try not to follow).

    Sad but it’s the reality of things..

  4. TheGraduate says:

    One of the more interesting aspects of this debate has been the frequent appearance of anti-democratic tendencies. Basically, one designates a population whom one thinks is too ignorant to comment and then any comment from that group is unwelcome. I suppose my point is that, there is nothing god given about who gets to decide who is too stupid to possibly have anything useful to say. The defacto result is that whoever has the power decides.

    The only recourse for those excluded from the conversation, if they so choose, is to make overt attempts at control such as using the media to amplify their agenda.

    In other words, without conversation one is left with an environment where ‘might makes right’.

    The other points I would like to make are:

    1. Too many people perform a bait and switch in this argument where they claim it is about the good of science whatever that means. *This debate is about money and resource allocation.*

    2. Essentially string theorists argue that they deserve their allocation due to their brilliance. Those opposing argue that 20 years without testable results negates this argument.

    3. Those opposing argue that equally failed (experimentally unsupported and unverifiable) theories should be funded equally.

    Overall the structure of the argument is very simple even if the details are admittedly complicated. Even somebody with no background in physics should be able to understand the flow of this argument.

  5. Arun says:

    Sorry for the digression, but there is no open thread here. Delete if appropriate. I’m posting this because Richard Dawkins is invoking the anthropic principle as an explanation (and as an explanation much superior to God. IMO, the anthropic principle is no more scientific than God).

    “We explain our existence by a combination of the anthropic principle and Darwin’s principle of natural selection. That combination provides a complete and deeply satisfying explanation for everything that we see and know.”

    Because the arguments are all mixed up with religion, Peter may not want to talk about it here. But it hardly constitutes the “complete and deeply satisfying explanation for everything we see and know”.

  6. Bert Schroer says:

    My comment: atheism is no protection against amok running metaphysics. To the contrary, mixed with ST it even seems to facilitate the rise of metaphors at the expense of scientific autonomy.

  7. Ajax Minor says:

    This recent paper by Anthony Zee and collaborators might be appropriate to point out in this thread (or maybe in the one about ST phenomenology),

    Does string theory predict an open universe?
    Authors: R. Buniy, S. Hsu, A. Zee
    It has been claimed that the string landscape predicts an open universe, with negative curvature. The prediction is a consequence of a large number of metastable string vacua, and the properties of the Coleman–De Luccia instanton which describes vacuum tunneling. We examine the robustness of this claim, which is of particular importance since it seems to be string theory’s sole claim to falsifiability. We find that, due to subleading tunneling processes, the prediction is sensitive to unknown properties of the landscape. Under plausible assumptions, universes like ours are as likely to be closed as open.

  8. Juan R. says:


    Your collection of reactions is very interesting and highlights one of the true problem of string theory; i mean social issues and misinformation of people and noticeable consequences such as lack of funding of promising (but not so popular) approaches and others.

    I think that we can offer a reasonable reply to each one of reactions you listed. Peter woit, maybe this could be interesting for the FAQ.

    *If it’s so bad, why is it so popular?

    Popularity is not synonim for scientific trust. Electromechanical classical models of atom were very popular, but all popular models failed and just a single revolutionary model fitted exp. data.

    *If all these uber-smart people and prize-winners do it, things can’t be as you say

    Smartness and prizes are not proofs for scientific statements. The history of science is full of Nobel winners and other smart guys were wrong regarding some scientific statement. There is also well documented cases of entire comunities of brilliant scientists promoting a wrong vision of the world. The next paradigm is then labelled like scientific revolution.

    *But I read an article in a top notch newspaper/magazine where it said string theory explains almost everything

    The same that above. People also read in top magazines about Pons’ cold fusion but it was a sound scientific fiasco.

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