Jumping the Shark

Over at bloggingheads.tv today, John Horgan and George Johnson discuss the various excesses of recent physics news reporting covered here over the last week or so (Lisi-mania, evidence of other universes, observation of the CC causing ours to end, etc.), entitling their segment Jumping the Shark. I think this term came up in the comment section here at one point, but for a definition one can consult Wikipedia, where it is described as referring to an episode in the popular US TV series Happy Days in which Fonzie jumps over a shark while water-skiing:

Since then the phrase has become a colloquialism used by U.S. TV critics and fans to denote the point at which the characters or plot of a TV series veer into a ridiculous, out-of-the-ordinary storyline. Such a show is typically deemed to have passed its peak. Once a show has “jumped the shark” fans sense a noticeable decline in quality or feel the show has undergone too many changes to retain its original charm.

Jump-the-shark moments may be scenes like the one described above that finally convince viewers that the show has fundamentally and permanently strayed from its original premise. In those cases they are viewed as a desperate and futile attempt to keep a series fresh in the face of declining ratings.

Horgan and Johnson discuss the idea that, with the latest silliness, press coverage of fundamental physics has finally “jumped the shark”, in response to a decline in substantive new results coming out of the subject.

I suspect that most physicists feel that, as a scientific idea, string theory conclusively jumped the shark with the advent of the anthropic landscape. The last year or so has seen an increasing amount of shark-jumping by string theorists desperate to find some way to address the problem of declining ratings. For the latest shark-jump, see this month’s Physics Today, where the first article is entitled String Theory in the Era of the Large Hadron Collider. Much of the article has nothing to do with string theory, describing the standard model and its problems, and how they may be addressed by the LHC. Oddly enough, the abstract of the article doesn’t mention string theory at all, whereas the subtitle (“The relationship between string theory and particle experiment is more complex than the caricature presented in the popular press and weblogs”) makes explicit the goal of responding to claims made here and elsewhere that the anthropic string theory landscape is not really science since it can’t predict anything.

The article heavily promotes the anthropic landscape and the idea that it “predicts” the right value of the CC, claiming that “The landscape and its explorations are exciting developments”, but it really takes shark-jumping to new heights in the final paragraph:

A few years ago, there seemed little hope that string theory could make definitive statements about the physics of the LHC. The development of the landscape has radically altered that situation. An optimist can hope that theorists will soon understand enough about the landscape and its statistics to say that supersymmetry or large extra dimensions or technicolor will emerge as a prediction and to specify some detailed features.

I’ve never before heard of anyone making this kind of claim that string theorists will soon be predicting detailed features of LHC physics. LHC results should start coming in 2-3 years from now. Dine and others have been trying to address the question of whether among the known string backgrounds there are more with high or low supersymmetry breaking for nearly 4 years already (see here), and the answer so far seems to be that this is not possible. Even if it were possible, there is no reason to believe that all classes of string backgrounds are known. There is also no understanding of the cosmological mechanism producing our universe, and thus it remains unknown whether counting backgrounds is even relevant.

For a discussion by Dine of the issues involved here aimed not at the public but at his colleagues, see his talk last year at the Santa Barbara string phenomenology workshop, discussed here.

Update: Lubos weighs in to praise the Dine article for what he sees as its message that the only good phenomenology is string phenomenology:

Right now, it is extremely important for an idea about new physics to be reconciled with the solid cutting-edge picture of reality that is available, namely with string theory. In the absence of doable tests, this is pretty much the most important criterion that decides whether an otherwise conceivable idea is worth research or not.

Update: Here is Chad Orzel’s take on the Dine article in Physics Today. Chad characterizes my attitude towards this sort of thing as “snarky”, while for him the situation is that

You’ve got serious physicists running around jabbering about this sort of stoned dorm-room bull session material…

Oops, I fear that was a snarky comment…

Update: Cern Courier joins Physics Today this month with yet another feature article promoting the multiverse. I’m trying to think of a snarky comment, but I’m too depressed.

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37 Responses to Jumping the Shark

  1. Alfonso Martinez says:

    Dear Peter,

    I remember the article on Lisi which appeared in The Economist. It was instructive reading because one could not avoid thinking that the author was the same person who gave a very good review to your book. I say so because, next to the hype (or Lisi-mania) you mention, he also argued that Lisi’s ideas were somewhat more scientific than string theory, being at least testable. I don’t know whether he meant to be ironic, but I am afraid he was serious. And it would not be surprising that he probably got this idea from your insisting on it.

    This brings me to the point that, undoubtedly, many scientists boldly exaggerate their claims, especially when they are writing research grant applications or books for the general public. But this may also be somehow the source of the problem. Why would physicists want, or need, to share their discussions with the general public? I don’t think there are many civil engineers, to randomly name another group, who want to join any public discussion on the truth of the world. Not even many philosophers do that. Physicists may be good at doing science, but the jury is still out to decide whether thay are any good at properly shaping the opinions of the general public.

    This applies to string and anti-string partisans, to writers of books on the first minutes of the universe or to books that claim that the universe is a computer. As scientific claims, these ideas are fine and subject to open scientific discussion. But the scientific merit of putting them forward to the general public is more difficult to see. Apart from the sociologic value that the authors, as human beings, may be moved by the objective of extracting some professional/psychologic/economic benefit from them, of course.

  2. Michael Gogins says:

    As a non-scientist, but one who is deeply interested in philosophy, philosophy of science, and fundamental science such as physics and biology, I must say I much prefer reading books and articles about science intended for the general public, or for scientists in other fields, that are written by the scientists themselves.

    Furthermore, I see a number of writings that are evidently written by specialists for specialists, but in an accessible style, or with introductory or discussion sections that are accessible to non-specialists.

    Finally, I note that a number of truly great scientists, including most notably Einstein, wrote accessible works about their research.

    I think that leaving it up to science journalists and popularizers to do this is going to leave people like me much more in the dark…

  3. Coin says:

    A few years ago, there seemed little hope that string theory could make definitive statements about the physics of the LHC. The development of the landscape has radically altered that situation…

    I’ve never before heard of anyone making this kind of claim that string theorists will soon be predicting detailed features of LHC physics.

    Maybe the idea is that the development of the landscape has taken us from “little hope” to “no hope”?

    Ba dum ching

  4. Dear Alfonso,

    you really did a random pick with civil engineering, but you could have picked medicine or biochemistry and your point could develop the same way. The thing is, it is mostly those who do pure research in physics who feel the responsibility to educate the general public on the need to push for answers to the very fundamental questions, as well as the urge to fight an anti-scientific revolution that is always on the verge of erupting – for a simple example read the latest encyclical by Pope Ratzinger, which warns against the horrors of marxism just as much against the dangers of illuminism.

    You might perceive Ratzinger as a poor old chap with a hobby, but he ca reach several hundred million people. Unfortunately, I seldom see civil engineers take a stand for the need of scientific thinking and the advancement of science. Do you ?

    Cheers,
    T.

  5. Peter Woit says:

    Alfonso,

    I doubt that writer got from me the idea that scientific ideas need to ultimately be testable. If he got from me the idea that string theory is not testable, that’s accurate, and so much the better. As for Garett’s theory, I certainly haven’t claimed that is testable and I don’t see how he could have gotten that from me.

  6. Chris W. says:

    Maybe researchers in the early stages of any kind of serious work at the frontiers of fundamental physics should all start treating the media the way they presumably treat telemarketers calling at dinner time. Perhaps quite a few already do, and we just don’t hear about it.

    (These days, when I answer the phone and detect the telltale delay suggesting that somone in a call center hasn’t noticed that I’ve picked up yet, I just hang up.)

  7. Aaron Bergman says:

    Well, that (the Bloggingheads segment) was depressing. I mean, whatever you want to say about Lisi, it has next to nothing to do with loop quantum gravity. And Lisi’s theory predicts new particles in the pretty much the exact same sense that string theory does. Why Lee finds it so interesting is probably best left as an exercise for the reader.

  8. milkshake says:

    Not quite in the exact same sense: Lisi was claiming his model had no fudge parameters. He came up with just one prediction. He was not saying “…and if the things turn out just the opposite way then I can fit that too.”

  9. Aaron Bergman says:

    He came up with just one prediction.

    And what prediction would that be? Just for reference, a prediction of a new particle should probably include the mass if you want to say that LHC will see it.

  10. dragon says:

    PW said: “the anthropic string theory landscape is not really science since it can’t predict anything.”

    Well, all the people who want to make predictions are working on geometric langlands, right? Oh, not yet? How many years do you want? A lot less than twenty, presumably………

    As for jumping the shark: that happened to this blog quite recently, when you started launching unprovoked attacks on the work of serious scientists like Robert Brandenberger, Sean Carroll, Laura Mersini-Houghton etc etc etc.

  11. ? says:

    I also find it interesting that Dine writing an article for Physics Today is equated with advertising to the “general public”. Last I checked, this was the journal of the American Physical Society, and Dine was most likely writing precisely for his colleagues, who are in a far better position to judge the merits or defects of his statements than “the general public”.
    Which includes most readers (and, from what I can tell, participants in commentary) of this blog.

  12. milkshake says:

    You know this better than I, how long it took for QCD to be developed to the point of calculating anything quantitative – such as the masses of the known particles (not mentioning the masses of newly predicted ones). The problem of “how to get the numbers out of the theory” continued long after it was generally agreed that it was most likely a good model – one that explained the known species of the particle zoo and predicted new ones.

  13. Aaron Bergman says:

    So you’re agreeing that Lisi doesn’t have a prediction, then?

    After all, string theory predicts lots of new particles, too — I just can’t tell you their mass at the moment.

  14. milkshake says:

    He made only one. ST cornered the entire prediction market.

  15. dave tweed says:

    Alfonso said “I don’t think there are many civil engineers, to randomly name another group, who want to join any public discussion on the truth of the world.” This is mixes up the fact that physics (along with philosophy) is “about the truth of the world” and that physicists are talking about their subjects. Most fields are judged more favourably when they can put forward folders of clippings or lists of radio interviews.

    To my mind the biggest problem is that in the general media a story which says “here’s a preliminary calculation that might lead to a more fully developed theory which might then be applicable to the world” is more likely to be unprinted/unread than one that confidently asserts one simple idea is groundbreaking.

  16. Peter Woit says:

    dragon,

    I’ve been attacking media hype by serious scientists on this blog since the beginning, and getting nasty anonymous attacks from people like you since then. If I’ve jumped the shark, it was several years ago…

    The work on geometric Langlands is producing interesting high-level mathematics. I’ve never complained about string theorists who are doing that. The meeting I was describing was a mathematics one, very few physicists were there.

  17. Alfonso – Isn’t there some responsibility of scientists to try to explain to their work to the public since very often the public is paying for it?

  18. LDM says:

    dragon,

    Regarding your statement “As for jumping the shark: that happened to this blog quite recently, when you started launching unprovoked attacks on the work of serious scientists like Robert Brandenberger, Sean Carroll, Laura Mersini-Houghton etc etc etc.

    Not so fast. I have not read everything that Peter has written, but the impression I have from what I have read is that Peter’s “attacks” are attacks on the merits of an individual’s scientific ideas and work, and how these merits are being oversold to the public. This is normal scientific scrutiny and all scientists should be glad for it. Also, a scientist may be “serious”, to use your word, but unfortunately still be wrong. Davies is a recent example. If on the other hand the work and ideas are correct, and are not being overstated, then they can more than withstand Peter’s scrutiny.
    I also hope Peter never tires of this rather thankless task, because I don’t know who else would be willing to step up and do it.

  19. Peter Shor says:

    Reading the article, I also noticed that the pop-up box about supersymmetry claims fairly definitively that if the LHC doesn’t find evidence for supersymmetry, then supersymmetry is dead. The opposite is implied by the main text of the article. Either Michael Dine has contradicted himself or, much more likely, somebody with different views wrote up the pop-up window about supersymmetry, and nobody proofread the whole thing very carefully.

  20. Peter Woit says:

    Peter Shor,

    You’re right that the wording of the pop-up box is inconsistent with the article, maybe Dine didn’t write it. If supersymmetry is not seen at LHC energies, that will show it can’t be the explanation for what stabilizes the electroweak breaking scale, solving what is called the “hierarchy problem”. If supersymmetry is not seen at LHC energies, it could still be there, just broken at higher energies.

    String theorists seem to recently be arguing that if supersymmetry is not seen at the LHC, that means that it doesn’t solve the hierarchy problem, so the way to solve it is just like the CC: invoke the anthropic principle. Presumably once the LHC doesn’t see supersymmetry, that’s what we’ll be hearing from the landscape people.

  21. Peter Shor says:

    You seem like you’re betting that the LHC won’t see supersymmetry. Is this just because there isn’t any other evidence of it yet?

    And apologies if this is drifting fairly far off-topic.

  22. Peter Woit says:

    Partly because nothing at all has shown up so far, partly because I just don’t think that known supersymmetric extensions of the standard model really explain much, while making things a lot more complicated. The underlying idea of supersymmetry is in some ways mathematically attractive, but the specific models people are looking at here are not. Maybe there’s a more interesting one we don’t know about, maybe it’s just not the right idea.

    But this is kind of a large topic that can lead to a complicated and technical argument I’d rather not get into here. There is a chapter in my book where I go over some of this.

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  24. ? says:

    Actually, technicolor and/or warping are also widely viewed as non-anthropic solutions that are reasonable for the hierarchy problem, and that may well show up at LHC. This is true on hep-ph, and from what I know of the hep-th community, true there as well. So it is far from true that supersymmetry not being seen will immediately result in declarations that the weak scale is explained anthropically, from anyone.

  25. Peter Woit says:

    ?

    My comment was assuming that the LHC sees only a SM Higgs. If that happens I do think we’ll hear from string theorists a lot about the “anthropic prediction” of the electroweak scale. If we see some other mechanism such as technicolor/warping, we’ll hear about how this can be accomodated within string theory. I guess this was the point of Dine’s article, as Lubos explicated it: all phenomenology is string phenomenology…

  26. John Campbell says:

    Links between the best scientific understanding and the general public are tenuous. Treatments of science in the media often range from indifference to ‘jumping the shark’.

    Although bringing scientific understanding to a wider audience is often flawed let’s not forget its central potential importance to all people. As Einstein stated, in his view the most important function of science is ‘to awaken this feeling (the cosmic religious experience) and to keep it alive in those who are receptive to it’.

    Einstein saw the central function of science as its ability to provide us with a kind of cosmic religious worldview free of the supernatural and bonded to truth through empiricism.

    The worldview provided by science is wondrous. Let’s hope that the occasional straying from the path by New Scientist and others does not discourage those scientists who rob time from their research in order to communicate these wonders to the wider public.

  27. Jeff Moreland says:

    As someone with a lifelong interest in science, but who has not worked as a scientist for many years (I used to be a development metallurgist), I’d like to add a heartfelt endorsement to John Campbell’s remarks. A big chunk would disappear from my life if I couldn’t read serious (but non-professional) science and maths books and articles. The level that Scientific American published at about 40 years ago (yes, I’m that old) was perfect for me.

  28. Visitor says:

    The phrase “science as its ability to provide us with a kind of cosmic religious worldview free of the supernatural and bonded to truth through empiricism” is nothing but gibberish. I don’t care if Einstein said it, it is foolish all the same. Science and religion are polar opposites and attempting to attempting to replace religion with science by attaching the word “religion” in any form to science is at best foolish and at worst dishonest.

    And just as an aside, it is debatable that religion supplies or needs to supply people with a sense of wonder. What should be beyond debate, is that is supplies people with a sense of purpose.

    For more of this same kind of foolishness, perpetrated by great scientists venturing, ill-advisedly, out of their fields of expertise and into the regions of social analysis, please read “The Sokal Hoax: At Whom Are We Laughing? – The philosophical pronouncements of Bohr, Born, Heisenberg and Pauli deserve some of the blame for the excesses of the postmodernist critique of science” by Mara Beller and available online at
    http://www.mathematik.uni-muenchen.de/~bohmmech/BohmHome/sokalhoax.html

  29. milkshake says:

    “a kind of cosmic religious worldview free of the supernatural” means the mystery and awe, without the mysticism. The delight and the amazement that feeds the curiosity. The hope that we can figure out all kinds of things about this Universe, startng from few extremely-well hidden and indirect hints. I think this is a worldview which should replace the parochial men-centric religious views. It is also a pretty significant motivator for people who are active in far-out fields such as cosmology – and also for the public that takes delight in learning and thinking about these discoveries. I don’t agree that the ol’ Albert was turning into a New-Agey fool when he said these things.

  30. Changcho says:

    Visitor – the Mara Beller article (“The Sokal Hoax: At Whom are we Laughing?”) originally appeared on Physics Today, Sept. 1998 issue.

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  32. Chris W. says:

    Visitor,

    Einstein didn’t say it.

  33. anon. says:

    ‘Update: Cern Courier joins Physics Today this month with yet another feature article promoting the multiverse. I’m trying to think of a snarky comment, but I’m too depressed.’

    Look on the bright side: if anyone disproves the multiverse (which they can’t even in principle, because it’s not even wrong), Physics Today and New Scientist will just switch to promoting other non-falsifiable speculations. Maybe the physics of the resurrection, ESP, and miracles. So this continuing stringy multiverse hype isn’t completely your failure to communicate the scientific facts. It’s something that would go on even if every string theorist adopted scientific ethos today. The public just want to see sci fi hype supported by PhDs, and there are always some PhDs willing to give the public what it wants, especially when some funding is provided.

  34. I appologise to be getting perhaps even more off-topic, but I’ve seen some comments above concerning the supersymmetry breaking.

    Suppose LHC doesn’t find any evidence of supersymmetry, but, at the same time, suppose supersymmetry still does exist. Is there any at all hint that comes from the theory as to why the supersymmetry breaking should occur at a higher energy than what LHC will have been aiming for?

  35. Eric says:

    Nikita,
    There are really no fundamental reasons why supersymmetry breaking should occur at very high energies, unless you believe in fine-tuning or in some other mechanism (e.g. technicolor) to stabilize the electroweak scale. There are some string theorists, mostly at Stanford, who believe that the landscape and small cosmological constant point towards fine-tuning. These guys expect nothing but the Higgs to be found at LHC. This is called letting the tail wag the dog. On the other hand, there are many good reasons to expect TeV scale superpartners, namely 1) EW stabilization 2) gauge coupling unification 3) natural dark matter candidate 4) dynamical electroweak symmetry breaking.

  36. Eric,

    Thank you so much for your answer.

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