Scott Aaronson has adopted a sensible attitude towards the controversy over string theory, announcing in a new posting entitled Mercenary in the String Wars that his allegiances in this “War” are for sale to the highest bidder. I encourage all my extremely wealthy financial backers to take him up on this.
He seems to have reached this decision after enjoying an all-expenses-paid vacation in the Bay Area courtesy of the Stanford string theorists, despite having a great deal of sympathy for the criticisms being made of string theory. While there, he gave a talk for which he makes his notes available, on the topic of Computational Complexity and the Anthropic Principle. It’s quite entertaining, although the fact that anyone is seriously debating the kind of issues Scott discusses is a good indication of how far off the rails string theory has gone.
Scott seems surprised to discover that, in private discussion, string theorists are far more reasonable than he expected from their writings, from the behavior of string theory bloggers like Lubos, and from his conversations with Greg Kuperberg, who is convinced that string theory critics are “intellectually non-serious” (I forgot to mention in my last posting that Kuperberg was someone else I had in mind when quoted in 02138). His experience agrees with my own, that in private conversation I find that most string theorists and I agree much more than one would guess. In such a context I’ve just about always found them more than willing to admit that the current situation of string theory is disturbing, progress has ground to nearly a halt, and that the whole landscape business is extremely problematic. That these attitudes are not well reflected in the public utterances of string theorists I think is due to several factors. Given the problems facing the theory, many find it best to just avoid being quoted publicly, and those who do talk to the press feel that their field is to some extent under unfair attack in the media and they should make their best effort to defend it. Those who spend their time vigorously defending string theory as a healthy research program, attacking its critics on blogs and elsewhere, often represent only a tail in the statistical distribution of views and behaviors of the string theory community.
I also suspect that one reason Scott found the Stanford string theorists behaving more reasonably than he would have guessed is that the last year or so has not been kind to their early hopes that statistical calculations would allow some sort of real predictions to emerge from the anthropic landscape. It has become increasingly clear that this kind of idea just can’t work, for reasons that have been extensively discussed here.
I predict a lively discussion in the comment section over at Scott’s blog, and encourage people to use that venue. Already John Preskill has weighed in with what he thinks is an unintentional double entendre about Susskind: “When I listen to Lenny Susskind, I really believe that information can come out of a black hole.”
Update: Scott is pretty funny, but I have to admit that Lubos is completely hilarious.
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