After last month’s posting at Cosmic Variance about how String Theory is Losing the Public Debate, Sean Carroll seems to have decided to go on the offensive (or defensive…), with a piece in New Scientist entitled String theory: it’s not dead yet, which he reproduces and has a posting about here.
I can’t really disagree with Sean about either title. Yes, string theory is losing the public debate, and no, it’s not dead yet. Some of Sean’s claims in the New Scientist piece are descriptive claims about the behavior of theoretical physicists:
String theorists are still being hired by universities in substantial numbers; new graduate students are still flocking to string theory to do their Ph.D. work…
Ideas about higher-dimensional branes have re-invigorated model-building in more conventional particle physics… Cosmologists thinking about the early universe increasingly turn to ideas from string theory.
All of these are true enough (although the word “re-invigorated” might not be the most appropriate one), but don’t address the value judgment of whether any of this activity is a good thing or not. One could also come up with other evidence for continuing activity in string theory, such as the large number of press releases being issued claiming to have found new ways to “test string theory”, but the fact that these have all been bogus is relevant to evaluating whether this activity is a good thing or not.
Sean’s positive case for string theory is mostly about its role as a quantum gravity theory, acknowledging that the Landscape is a problem, and that progress has slowed since the mid-90s (although more accurate would be “come to a dead halt, now moving backwards..”). He describes that period as “it seemed as if there was a revolution every month”, displaying the predilection for over-the-top hype that has characterized much string theory salesmanship over the years. His claims about the achievements of string theory vary from relatively modest exaggerations (“The theory has provided numerous deep insights into pure mathematics”) to standard misleading propaganda:
“a promising new approach has connected string theory to the dynamics of the quark-gluon plasma observed at particle accelerators” (connected? wonder how strong the connection is…)
“it is compatible with everything we know about particle physics” (and also compatible with just about everything we know to not be true about particle physics…)
“Michael Green and John Schwarz demonstrated that string theory was a consistent framework” (there’s a lot more to consistency than canceling that anomaly…)
“It was realized that those five versions of the theory were different manifestations of a single underlying structure, M-theory” (would be nice if we knew what M-theory actually was…)
In the comment section Sean explains how string theorists have no intention of standing behind what used to be considered the main “prediction” of the theory, TeV-scale supersymmetry:
If the LHC discovers supersymmetry, string theorists will be happy, but if it doesn’t there’s no reason to give up on string theory — the superpartners might just be too heavy.
So, prospects for string theory remain bright, since with each new experiment the situation is: heads they win, tails doesn’t count.
Also at Cosmic Variance is the latest in an exchange between Joe Polchinski and Lee Smolin, entitled Science or Sociology? (some earlier parts of the exchange are here). I’m mostly resisting the impulse to get involved in various parts of that argument since Smolin doesn’t need my help: the points at issue don’t seem to me central to the claims of his book, and his positions and what he wrote in the book are perfectly defensible.
While I don’t see the point of arguing about things like how conjectural the AdS/CFT duality conjecture is (pretty damn conjectural I’d think though, since no one even knows what the definition of one side of the duality is…), it is interesting to see what it is that Polchinski finds most objectionable about Smolin’s criticisms. In the context of an argument about how much of a problem the positive CC was considered to be by string theorists in the late 90s, he strong objects to Smolin’s description of “a group of experts doing what they can to save a cherished theory in the face of data that seem to contradict it”, going on to describe the work on moduli stabilization that led to the landscape as “a major success” which Smolin is trying to paint as a “crisis”. Ignoring the argument about who thought what back then (although if you really care about this, for some relevant evidence, see the Witten quote), in a larger sense “a group of experts doing what they can to save a cherished theory in the face of data that seem to contradict it” describes precisely the behavior of Polchinski, Susskind, Arkani-Hamed, and many others in the face of the disastrous situation created by the “major success” of moduli stabilization.
The “anthropic landscape” philosophy is nothing more than an attempt to evade failure, and it is an failure of scientific ethics of a dramatic kind. Once one understands a speculative idea dear to one’s heart well enough to see that one can’t make any conventional scientific predictions using it, ethics demands that one admit failure. Instead we’ve seen scientists announcing a new way of doing science, even writing popular books and magazine articles promoting this. Most physicists (including even a sizable fraction of string theorists) are appalled by this behavior. If you don’t believe me, consult a random sampling of the faculty in your nearest physics department, or watch Susskind’s recent talk in Israel where he describes himself as at the center of a circular firing squad.
Polchinski ends by claiming that Smolin’s case for “group-think” and for a “sociological” problem with string theory is “quite weak”. This problem is obviously hard to quantify and a matter of perspective. While I don’t doubt that Polchinski sees himself as not suffering from “group-think”, if he were, he obviously wouldn’t think so. One thing I think is undeniable about the “sociology” of all this is that the blog phenomenon has put a lot of evidence out there for any unbiased observer to judge for themselves, and this is one of the main reasons for what even a fervent string theory proponent like Sean Carroll has noticed: string theorists are losing this debate.
Anyone who regularly follows the most well-known blogs run by string theorists pretty soon becomes convinced that they have a real problem. Lubos Motl is the Id of string theory on uncensored display. The fact that his colleagues promoted him and show signs of only having a problem with his politics, not his behavior as a scientist (if they have any problem with his calls for my death or other attacks on me, I’ve never seen evidence of it) is truly remarkable. Two out of three recent string theory textbooks prominently carry his endorsement. All another prominent string theorist blogger, Clifford Johnson, has to say about Lubos is “I thank him for his physics contributions and for widening the discussion.” This was in the context of an eight-part personal attack on Lee Smolin and me for having written books that Clifford steadfastly refuses to read. The other of the three prominent string theory bloggers is renowned for his sneering attacks on the competence of anyone who dares to criticize string theory, issues press releases claiming tests for string theory that other physicists describe as “hilarious”, while misusing his position of responsibility at the arXiv to stop links to criticism of string theory articles from appearing there. Among those string theorists without their own blogs who choose to participate in the comment sections of others, a surprising number seem to think that it is an ethical thing to do to post often personal attacks on string theory critics from behind the cover of anonymity. Less anonymously, a large group of string theorists at the KITP seem to have thought it was an intelligent idea to act like a bunch of jeering baboons, on video, for distribution on the web.
This kind of public behavior and the lack of any condemnation of it by other string theorists is what has convinced many physicists and others that, yes, string theory does have a “sociological” problem. I have to confess that my experience over the last couple years has caused me to come to the conclusion that the string theory community has a much greater problem with personal and professional ethics than I thought when I wrote my book. The fact that so many string theorists have decided to respond to my book and Smolin’s not with scientific arguments, but with unprofessional behavior I think speaks volumes for the strength of their scientific case, and this has been noticed by their colleagues, science journalists, and the general public. While I applaud Polchinski for behaving professionally in his response to the two books, I suggest that he should take a look at the behavior of many of his colleagues and ask himself again whether or not there might be a sociological problem here.