String Wars, Part Deux

Yesterday at the KITP in Santa Barbara, George Johnson gave a second talk and led a discussion on the subject of the “String Wars”. The rather remarkable first session was discussed here, here and here. This time people were much better behaved, and the main topic was the media coverage of physics in general, and the past history of the media interest in string theory, and what effects this might have had.

Johnson has put on his web-site copies of various articles from the NYTimes about string theory. The first mention of superstrings was in a piece by Walter Sullivan back in May 1985, just a few months after the “First Superstring Revolution” really got going. This piece included cautionary comments from C.N. Yang about the lack of even “a single experimental hint” and from Michael Green that “I’ve seen many bandwagons come and go.” Interestingly, already at this time the main suggested test of string theory was astrophysical or cosmological, with the Times referring to a recent Nature article about the possibility of seeing effects of the “shadow matter” that one gets from the other E8 in the E8 x E8 model popular back then (and still popular to this day).

Much of the KITP discussion concerned what effect news stories and popular books promoting string theory have had, with several people noting that they think they have been responsible for the large number of students they have seen wanting to do graduate work in string theory. Someone in the audience also pointed out that the continual use of the modifier “super” seems to get people’s attention, with students showing up wanting to study “supersymmetry” even though they didn’t know what it was, and it was much harder to get them interested in, say, “diffractive scattering.”

The latest Nature Physics has a fairly sensible editorial (Tied Up With String?) about the string theory controversy. Popular promotion of string theory continues today at Stanford, where the Wonderfest Festival of Science is featuring Raphael Bousso and Leonard Susskind discussing “Is the World Made of Strings?”

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76 Responses to String Wars, Part Deux

  1. Tony Smith says:

    Bee says that she “… believe[s] that many researchers have just lost track of their original motivations to become a scientist …
    There is something at odds with the values in our society, more seriously though in the US …”.

    As to my opinion about “how the present situation can be improved”,
    I am (in my dark view) pessimistic,
    here is my best guess at a course of action:

    Some institution (not an individual) should set up a program (maybe for 3 to 5 years duration) to study and compare and evaluate ALL approaches to constructing unified physics models.

    All the really obviously wrong ones should also be evaluated. Since it is easy to specify flaws in obviously wrong models, not much time would really be wasted doing that, and it would guarantee that EVERY approach got some consideration.

    The only rules would be:
    the evaluator should not be a worker on the approach being evaluated (thus eliminating self-praise)
    the evaluator should actually listen to (or read) and understand the approach (at least enough of it to be accurate in making an objection to an approach)
    an approach advocate should be allowed to append a supportive statement (the only limitations being as to length and being in a reasonable format such as pdf or LaTeX).

    The evaluations (including statements etc) should then be put up on an evaluation web site for the world to see and make comparisons.

    Such a project would create some physicist jobs, which is good.
    It should be made clear that an evaluator gets as much credit for working on a flawed approach (and showing its flaws) as for “discovering” some approach that turns out to be useful and realistic.

    I don’t have enough experience in the world of grants to know how much it might cost,
    but here is a rough guess:
    50 jobs at $200,000.00 per year total cost including overhead, taxes, benefits, etc, would be $10 million per year;
    for a 5-year program, that would be $50 million.

    Since JoAnne Hewett said over at Cosmic Variance about the HEPAP committee on which she serves:
    “… our committee is only charged at looking at experiments that cost $20 Million or more. …”.
    it seems to me that $50 million over 5 years is a reasonable, even cheap, amount to spend to get some sort of objective evaluation of the various approaches to unified theory models.

    Of course, if the dominant paradigms of superstrings and LQG were really successful now, such a program would not be necessary,
    as John Baez said (and Bee agreed): “… Both string theorists and their opponents are secretly miserable over this failure … to find a theory that goes beyond the Standard Model and general relativity. …”
    such a program might uncover a realistic prospect that is currently off-the-radar of the physics community.

    Tony Smith

    PS – As to what institution might be good to do such work, I don’t know.
    A problem with the biggest and richest North American universities and institutes (Harvard, Stanford, Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, Kavli Institute at Santa Barbara, Smolin’s Perimeter Institute)
    is that their theoretical physics groups seem to be effectively monocultures for Superstrings (or
    Loop Quantum Gravity / Spin Foam in the case of Smolin’s Perimeter Inst.),
    so they may be unable or unwilling to undertake a fair comparative evaluation.
    Maybe the work could be done outside North America, say in Brasil or Japan or Europe … ???

    PPS – As an example of current interesting results that seem to be ignored by most of the physics community,
    that might be picked up and evaluated by such a program,
    consider a contribution in the recent Hawaii DPF meeting in a section on Low Energy Tests of the Standard Model by Goran Senjanovic entitled “Grand unification and proton decay: fact and fancy” whose abstract stated:
    ”… I review the minimal grand unification based on SU(5) and SO(10) groups, with and without supersymmetry. I discuss the predictions for the proton decay and show how they depend crucially on the fermion (and sfermion) masses and mixings. …”.

    Since the conventional view has been for years that proton decay experimental observations have ruled out SU(5) GUT, and since I saw no full copy of Senjanovic’s Hawaii contribution, I looked up arXiv postings for him and his coworkers (fortunately they are not blacklisted) and found hep-ph/0601023 in which Pran Nath and Pavel Fileviez Perez say in section 5.6:

    “… For example in a minimal non-supersymmetric GUT based on SU(5) the upper bound on the total proton decay lifetime is …[less than or equal to]… 1.4 x 10^36 years …”,

    so, it seems that neutrino proton decay measurements have NOT in fact ruled out SU(5) GUT,
    contradicting a statement in the 2006 Particle Data Group Review 15. GRAND UNIFIED THEORIES (Revised October 2005 by S. Raby (Ohio State University)):
    “… Recent Super-Kamiokande bounds on the proton lifetime severely constrain … with [lifetimes for varous decay paths greater than]… 5.0 x 10^33 yrs …[and]… 5 x 10^33 yrs …[and]… 1.6 x 10^33 yrs …[and]… 1.7 x10^32 yrs … These constraints are now sufficient to rule out minimal SUSY SU(5) …”
    thus making even non-SUSY SU(5) GUT a viable component for building unified physics theory models.

    PPS – Nothing in the above is intended to be an attack on S. Raby or Ohio State. The above-cited Review by Raby is very interesting and important. Even so, it should be possible for civil people to “agree to disagree”, and any disagreement over how such things as dimension-6 operators work should be seen as furthering understanding, NOT personal competition.
    Also, I like Ohio State and hope they win the USA football national championship (oh dear, now I have to say that I really don’t fundamentally dislike Michigan, Louisville, Rutgers, Boise State, etc).

  2. JC says:


    Most people don’t know what they want out of “life”.

    By default, many people end up choosing obvious things like money, power, etc … In general, it tends to be things which can be “measured”, and which have a “currency” in a particular group of peers, such as citations. Outside of physics, or academia in general, a person’s citation numbers has very little to no meaning. The average anonymous person walking by on the street does not care about how many citations a particular physicist has.

    I don’t have any idea as to what the “meaning” of life is. For me, it is certaintly not string theory nor physics/math these days. I suppose if I still had a “fanatical” mindset, I probably could make something like string theory the “be all and end all” of my life. When I was younger, I was fanatical about all kinds of stupid things like rock bands (ie. Pink Floyd, the Scorpions, KISS, the Michael Schenker band, etc …).

  3. Chris Oakley says:


    What you describe is unfortunate, but is hardly inexplicable. It follows from the fact that most academic research is, indeed, academic: in other words, society does not really care about the result. You will notice that when it does – e.g. semiconductors, or some kinds of medical research, a system more based on results and innovation emerges. The fact that research in theoretical physics is infinitely kind to useless, tenured old fossils and infinitely harsh to bright, young, sceptical people is because the first group have been allowed to dictate the terms.

    Until about 1850 Oxford did not allow dons to marry: when they married they would leave, typically becoming country parsons or lawyers. This was healthy for the research environment, as it kept the average age of researchers down. Whilst I am not recommending a similar system for theoretical physics – which would exclude you already (and I doubt in any case that anything will really change) I have no doubt that a system that gave the whip hand to young people like yourself would produce better research.

    I am only sorry that I am not in a position to do anything about it.

  4. r hofmann says:

    Dear Sabine,
    but I like the cover of Smolin’s book, and in particular ‘t Hooft’s
    comment, and I started reading the book as soon as it became
    available. Otherwise I stand in awe of your honesty.

    Gruesse von Ralf

    P.S. Wir sind uns kurz ueber den Weg gelaufen, als ich anfing, von Frankfurt Geld zu beziehen und Du nach Arizona (?) gingst.

  5. Chris Oakley says:

    Apologies in advance for my rotten German, but …

    Ich suchte ein anderes String theory Wortspiel hier, aber war enttäuscht.

  6. Bee says:

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for the link. I think I’ve just learned a new word: to denigrate. I should try to memorize it, it might be useful at some point. Totally off-topic: My first association to ‘strung out’ was this song (which nobody else seems to know). Which is not a bad song, but maybe explains why I find the title totally whack.

    I actually agree that the society mostly doesn’t care about what we do or don’t. I think G. Johnson made a comment like this in the first part of his talks which went like: the public doesn’t care one way or the other. Which caused quite some laughter, he looked pretty puzzled. I don’t think this was meant as a joke.

    But if you look on the ‘large scale structure’ of our daily struggles, and forget about the nasty details, the ‘society’ does of course care about our aims, trying to find questions to answers like: where do we come from, where do we go to, what are we made of? Of course that more general part of our work has to be communicated, that’s why I think Peter Woit, Lee Smolin, Lisa Randall, Brian Greene, etc do a very important job with their books.

    On the other hand, this ‘not caring about the details’ gives us fortunately room to organize our own community, set our standards, and ensure quality – which is hard for the public to judge on. Just that we haven’t payed sufficient attention to that lately.

    Dear Ralf,

    AAH :-) :-) Jetzt faellt der Groschen! Klar, Du hast mal an Stabilization of RS models gearbeitet und in Frankfurt irgendwas ueber Kinks erzaehlt (und keiner von den Heavy Ion Fritzen wusste wirklich worums geht)? Spaeter waren wir zum Nach-Colloq Dinner im Bastos? Bist Du noch in Frankfurt? Gibts das Bastos noch?



  7. anonymous says:

    Various people here complain that the job market is too tough. But this is the same as complaining that salaries are too high: the two things are linked. Positions that would allow joung scientists to do long-term research without worrying of being competitive must have a salary a few times lower that what Tony Smith suggests. Otherwise people would start competing for these positions.

  8. Who says:

    Ralf Hofmann says
    but I like the cover of Smolin’s book, … Otherwise I stand in awe of your honesty.

    the color is the blue of links. If you look at the date underneath the poster’s name—right here—the book is that blue.

    about things that matter, I admit she is awesomely honest, but if it doesn’t matter she is able to feign insults for reasons of diplomacy and vocal balance.

    when you point out ‘t Hooft’s mention of “the sweet vagueness of quantum mechanics” you cause me to admire your ear for English style

    high regards

  9. Bee says:

    Hi JC,

    Most people don’t know what they want out of “life”.

    By default, many people end up choosing obvious things like money, power, etc …

    Yep. Many people go where money goes. That’s why there’s a discussion about the funding in theoretical physics… I don’t know what I want out of life either, but I think that many scientists have a pretty good idea what they want out of science. Just that they don’t have the opportunity to realize that. And sometimes just are afraid to speak out, in order not to appear naively idealistic, unrealistic, philosophically biased, or – well, maybe ”pot-smoking hippies” ;-)

    I don’t have any idea as to what the “meaning” of life is.

    Maybe its better this way. What if you knew the meaning of life but didn’t like it?

    There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened. ~ Douglas Adams

    Hi Who,

    the color is the blue of links. It’s not. It has a definite green shade, I think its close by RGB#009dfc. In fact, I think there’s an oil color that comes close: Coelinblau (sorry, don’t know the English translation).



  10. TheGraduate says:

    further update: it means “Cerulean blue” (a greenish blue pigment)

  11. a.k. says:

    to quote Bee:

    “Just that they don’t have the opportunity to realize that. And sometimes just are afraid to speak out, in order not to appear naively idealistic, unrealistic, philosophically biased, or – well, maybe ‘’pot-smoking hippies.”

    I remark that I disagree to the implicitly given perspective that the main problems of modern physics root in the problem of formally preventing scientists to transform their original ideas of what ‘life’ should be into ideas of what ‘science could be’. The search for an answer to ‘large scale questions’ of life or existence by using the method of ‘exact sciences’ could in itself be the germ of corrupting both the method and the aims. I tend to cite Horkheimer and Adorno in these respects who already objected 50 years ago a tendency of ‘modern rationality’, of the phenomenon ‘Aufklärung’ itself, to contain in a sense self-induced and inevitable regression, the point where it is undecidable where science turns into mythology and mythology turns into science. I strongly support the viewpoint that high energy physics today, i.e. string theory have an inherent tendency to represent mythological symbols of human existence in a quasi-rational language and that it is to a large degree undecidable where the scientific methods being constrained by falsifiablity and predictiveness, turn into belief. In this sense, I support the more radical view of Bert Schroer in his judgement of the state of string theory or JC’s viewpoint of identifying a ‘fanatical mindset’ to judge the borders of what can still be called science and believe at the same time that these borders will define what was originally meant to be ‘progress’.

  12. Bert Schroer says:

    Fortunately the “perfect” world of Bee never took hold of physics, not now and certainly not in those days of great progress in particle physics of Pauli, LSZ et al.
    The big difference from pre- ST times and now is that irony, sarcasm and good polemics served the course of particle physics. When my boss Harry Lehmann told us (at the time when the Heisenberg nonlinear spinor theory entered the media): great news, the spinor theory was able to successfully compute the relative sigma-lambda parity up to a sign. Pauli was know for his acid humor, his own personality included. 4 weeks before his death, after a beautiful colloquium he gave in Hamburg, when he worn out and tired sat in his rotating chair which he used in the 20s (called the Pauli chair) and fell into his swaying movement like an orthodox Jew (the Pauli eigen-frequency) obviously in physical pains (4 weeks later he died of stomach cancer) he said: “I think that Heisenberg lies still heavily in my stomach”. This was the condensed form of his previous withdrawn support of Heisenberg’s spinor theory which he still presented and defended during a previous lecture tour through the US and it had more scientific content than 1000 words.
    In the times of ST this has been substituted by foul language (“crackpot”) void of any meaningful content. Can you imagine Witten using irony? Even Lee Smolin’s “bel-esprit” soft-spoken style is a new phenomenon. Contrary to the pre-ST ways it is verbose and often repetitive. No Bee, I prefer not to be part of your nice new world.

  13. Bert Schroer says:

    I forgot to add:
    without the information-laden irony of Pauli, the title of Peter’s book would be at least as long as that of Lee Smolin’s. There is nothing in the ST nomenclature which could match this, even the new ironic use of “a theory of everything” does not quite match the old style (and runs the risk of being misunderstood by the young ideologues).

  14. Bee says:

    Oh, great, I see you’ve promoted me into proclaiming the perfect world. I should maybe go and sympathize with the pot smoking hippies?

    Dear Bert,

    Fortunately the “perfect” world of Bee never took hold of physics,

    The big difference from pre- ST times and now is that irony, sarcasm and good polemics served the course of particle physics. [...] Pauli was know for his acid humor, [...]In the times of ST this has been substituted by foul language (”cra*kpot”) void of any meaningful content. Can you imagine Witten using irony? Even Lee Smolin’s “bel-esprit” soft-spoken style is a new phenomenon. Contrary to the pre-ST ways it is verbose and often repetitive. No Bee, I prefer not to be part of your nice new world.

    I completely fail to see how our personal sense of humor influences the way science works. I hate to point it out, but did it ever occur to you that sense of humor, and the way to lead arguments, differs from country to country? Your problem might just be that the particle physics community has changed in its composition. E.g. if you considered your text to be ironic, I am afraid I’ve been in the US for too long. On the danger of distributing prejudices, in my opinions Americans are just POLITE (in capital letters), and if I should describe their sense of humor, I’d call it nice and naive. I definitely do prefer British humor. Imo Lee Smolin’s “bel-esprit” soft-spoken style isn’t so much a new phenomenon, but an American phenomenon. You wouldn’t believe how many times I stepped on somebody else’s toes trying to make a joke I considered to be fairly innocent, but which was perceived as plain offending (or not a joke at all).

    I’ll give you another example where cultural differences play a big role. As I had to learn some while ago (correct me if I’m wrong), it’s apparently not polite for a Japanese to say ‘No’. So, they’ll try to get around saying so in a straightforward way. If you don’t know how to interpret that, you’ll get a completely different impression of their way to answer questions, which might come off as incompetent. On the other hand, they’ll likely be pissed off because they feel misunderstood.

    Another point: yesterday there was a seminar here, which I missed, but several people excitedly reported to me that X had a fairly loud argument with Y. So. Back in Frankfurt that happened all the time. I’ve seen Russians working together, which apparently just wasn’t possible without yelling at each other, and occasionally slamming doors. Go try that with an American, and say good bye to your paycheck (alternatively, you might end up in therapy, not a joke, I know a case where that happened).

    I would summarize it by saying that globalization has changed the scientific community. If we don’t take cultural differences into account, it won’t work. In that respect, scientific research isn’t so much different from the industry. Again, this is another point where our community needs a management that’s missing (how about giving seminars on cultural differences to your international coworkers and how to acknowledge these).

    But that’s definitely not the problem I tried to point out, and it seems to me you’re talking about something different altogether.

    I agree with you that our community suffers from a lack of criticism. The reason for which I see in the necessity to advertise the own work as good as possible, to make a big fuss about successes, and keep silent about problems. Read a randomly picked abstract of a paper. How likely will you read a sentence like: We’ve tried the approach zing-zong to the problem soundso, and show that it doesn’t work for the reason blahblahblah. Trial AND ERROR is a big part of science, but in times of short funding it’s become common practice to just not mention any drawbacks (or if so, then not in public) .

    That is a problem. And it’s a big one. I agree on that. It is necessary to have constructive criticism. But it’s definitely not necessary to do that in a specifically ‘Paulian’ way.



  15. Bee says:

    Bert, regarding humor, see also The Stupid Title List. Maybe we’re not such a hopeless case, eh*?

    *trying to feel Canadian

  16. Bee says:

    Hi a.k.

    I remark that I disagree to the implicitly given perspective that the main problems of modern physics root in the problem of formally preventing scientists to transform their original ideas of what ‘life’ should be into ideas of what ’science could be’. The search for an answer to ‘large scale questions’ of life or existence by using the method of ‘exact sciences’ could in itself be the germ of corrupting both the method and the aims.

    Did I say that? If it came across as such, this is a misunderstanding.

    What I tried to communicate is that I strongly oppose to shoulder shrugging when one faces a mismatch between ‘that what is’ and ‘that what could be’, by attributing it to an undefined concept like ‘human nature’. Thereby one implicitly assumes that the own opinion is a minority opinion, and as a single person one can’t do anything about it one way or the other. It’s like cursing capitalism because the health care of low-income families sucks, but then shrugging shoulders and saying ‘that’s the way it is, and capitalism is in the human nature’, instead of remembering that democracy means you can do something about it.

    To come back to science, when I talk to colleagues I notice that there is a broad consensus that ‘what is’ is not ‘what could be’, but then again, who does something about it? This applies to issues raised in Lee’s book (eg. who hires whom how, and are the presently used criteria optimal? why has it become necessary to work on ‘hot topics’ with somebody-famous), but in every day’s work also e.g. to the peer review problem, or the completely ridiculous requirement that research proposals essentially have to explain what results you will have after 5 years. The recurring question about what the citation index actually says. Or, to come back to what Bert has addressed: that the importance of constructive criticism isn’t sufficiently acknowledged.

    It is in this context that I think most scientists do indeed have an original idea that is currently in conflict with reality, and I want to encourage them to do something about it. My remark above referred to the way science is pursued, not to the content of actual research fields (in which I agree that a scientist’s original idea can very well be in conflict with reality, and that matching the one with the other would mean corrupting both the method and the aims)



  17. Bert Schroer says:

    Well Bee, that’s really funny especially in those cases where the humor is involuntary. In Sid Coleman’s case it is probably functional humor related to the content, one remembers very nice titles of his work in the 70s like “the double well done doubly well”. In Susskind against Laughlin it is probably an attempt to ridicule an unloved detractor of ST (but I did not open the article).
    In your previous blog you put to much weight on US hypocritical behavior. Although you do not use this term it is precisely this what you have in mind. That is of course quite singular because it is such a normal everyday behavior in the US that it almost goes unnoticed. When Bush says after Abu Ghraib in front of international cameras with this slight cough in his voice: “we don’t torture, the US does not torture” and the surprised rest of the world asks itself: well if the US did not do it, who was it? Didn’t they have the supervision over Abu Graib?
    this is an illustration of hypocrisy driven to perfection; the guy does not even notice the contradiction between his claim and the facts. However this sort of behavior I have never experienced during my 10 year stay within the academic surrounding in the US; and although one may criticise string theorists in the way of Phil Anderson, I do not think they can be accused of hypocrisy this is not part of the US academic cultural traditions. Japanese politeness is a cultural trait which includes academia but it has nothing to do with hypocrisy. Russian academic discussion tend to be a bit more rough than German, but as a result of the long reign of the Soviet system there was always a private political frankness. During the time of the Russian Afghanistan campaign it would have been inconceivable to be told by a Russian conscript in private that he fights in Afghanistan for the protection of his country or any other “just” course. But when the preemptive war in Iraq started probably most of the GIs internalized that they were bearers of freedom and democracy; even Witten believed that the war was justified by the argument of regime change.

  18. Bee says:

    In your previous blog you put to much weight on US hypocritical behavior. Although you do not use this term it is precisely this what you have in mind.

    I don’t. I think I made quite clear that I was pointing out there are different ways to argue, and I am not willing to start a discussion about George W and torture here, which doesn’t have to do anything with my concerns about theoretical physics. Best, B.

  19. Bert Schroer says:

    Dear fellow physicists
    I stop and say good by to all who engaged me in interesting discussions. It is not only the spam-filter which irritated me but I find this whole enterprise unworthy, regimented to rules which never were spelled out, and at the end and plainly ridiculous.

  20. Benni says:

    Edward Witten admits indirectly that string theory is in trouble:
    He writes:

    He Writes about, what scientists can answer to critics of science, indirectly referencing the case of string theory.
    He writes, that he cannot answer the critics because this would add fuel to the discussion (maybe because he has no arguments). And explains that he thinks scientists should keep doing what they are doing and he hopes, some kind of science may might even be useful one day. He is clearly indirectly referencing to stringtheory here. And the case that “it even might be useful one day” is not an optimistic one.
    The words from wittel below could be understood as a confession of failure. Or at least, as a not optimistic at all.

    He writes:

    The News Feature concerns radical environmentalists and
    animal-rights activists, but the problem covers a wider area, often involving more enlightened criticism of science from outside the scientific establishment and even, sometimes, from within.

    Responding to this kind of criticism can be very difficult. It is hard to answer unfair charges of élitism without sounding élitist to
    non-experts. A direct response may just add fuel to controversies. Critics, who are often prepared to devote immense energies to their
    efforts, can thrive on the resulting ‘he said, she said’ situation.
    Scientists in this type of situation would do well to heed the advice in Nature’s Editorial. Keep doing what you are doing. And when
    you have the chance, try to patiently explain why what you are doing is interesting and exciting, and may even be useful one day.

  21. Peter Woit says:


    I saw the Witten letter. Hard to know what exactly to make of it, since he’s leaving it very unclear what this all has to do with the string theory controversy. In particular, the argument I’m making against string theory is not that the problem is elitism. I’m actually all in favor of elitism myself.

  22. Benni says:

    I think the sentences on elitism are simply because he seems a little bit depressed on what others say on his beautiful theory. They are simply because he is in bad mood.

    I further think Witten says clearly what he wants. He says that string theorists should not discuss with critics like Smolin (this is the one who makes criticism from within science, because he has published actively on Quantum Gravity).
    String theorist should, according to Witten, not discuss with critics because then, the situation for their subject would even go worse.

    Witten answered to this nature article, because there was advice on scientists what to do with critics. Witten seemingly feared, that some string theorists would answer Smolin…..

    All in all, when the only thing you can do is: proclaiming that “what you do might even be usefull at one day”…
    You are actually saying (with the phrase “even might be”) that there is a very good possibility that it won’t be usefull at all. The man who writes here has clearly lost the last bit of optimism and admitts that he does this only becauese he likes the math.

  23. anon. says:

    “I’m actually all in favor of elitism myself.”


  24. ScienceLover says:

    How can someone be elitist who leads a widely known public weblog? These media are exactly what blurr the distinction between a small elitist, self-selected community and a public audience delivered by press-speakers and mass media journalists. The silent readers as well as the participant form a new kind of public. I wonder a little about Wittens paternalistic attitude. What is science becoming after abandoning the englighted reader? A secret society with clan tattoos and corporatist ideals that tries to fascinate the people by the high fence they are living behind?

  25. Who says:

    ScienceLover you make several good points in a short post. I look forward to seeing more.

    “…paternalistic attitude…abandoning the enlightened reader…fascinate the people by the high fence…”

    To try to answer your rhetorical first question, perhaps one can distinguish between open-debate elites and sheltered inscrutable elites.

    In both cases, the top people get to guide policy and influence how the money is spent, but in the open case top scientists recognize they have a responsibility to discuss differences of opinion in public—to educate the public, to explain, to reason honestly in the open.

    Someone who says he favors the research establishment being run by elite, but who also has a blog that spotlights valid differences of opinion within the expert community and in a sense forces more open discussion, may be acting consistently.