More Landscape Looniness

Susskind has posted a new preprint entitled “Cosmic Natural Selection”. It’s just two pages of various attacks on Lee Smolin’s theory of cosmological (not cosmic) natural selection. Smolin’s theory is described in detail in his book “The Life of the Cosmos”, published seven years ago. As far as I know the terminology of “Landscape” entered physics in this book, where Smolin adopts the term “fitness landscape” from evolutionary biology.

Why is Susskind all of a sudden taking an interest in Smolin’s old theory? Well, last Tuesday a preprint by Smolin appeared entitled “Scientific Alternatives to the Anthropic Principle” in which he gives a detailed criticism of the anthropic principle as unscientific. The next day Susskind tried to post a response to Smolin, consisting of a 3 page paper, half of which was just a quote from a summary of his argument that Smolin had sent to him. The one and a half pages that Susskind himself wrote were pretty much incoherent, and showed no sign that he had bothered to actually read Smolin’s article.

This was such a bizarre document that someone responsible for the arXiv actually refused to accept it. I’ve heard of several non-mainstream physicists who have had problems getting their articles accepted, but this is the first time I’ve heard of this happening to a well-known mainstream physicist. Whoever did this was doing Susskind a huge favor, but he then immediately forwarded a copy of the paper via e-mail to a long distribution list.

So that’s why Susskind’s latest begins “In an unpublished note I criticized Smolin’s theory of cosmological selection…” Note that he is not addressing any of Smolin’s criticism of his own work as unscientific, instead he is attacking Smolin’s own speculative ideas. I’ve personally experienced this kind of thing from more than one string theory fanatic. They don’t respond to criticism of what they are doing (because they don’t have much of a response), and instead forcefully and incoherently attack one for any speculative comments one may have made.

This just gets weirder and weirder all the time….

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25 Responses to More Landscape Looniness

  1. Peter says:

    In his initial article submitted to the arXiv he states, concerning Smolin’s article, “I took a quick look at the paper…”, which I take as an explicit acknowledgement that he didn’t read it. What he wrote showed no sign he had read it. Personally, this initial article seemed to me a disgraceful travesty of a scientific paper, for reasons I stated earlier. I don’t know who at the arXiv rejected Susskind’s article, but evidently they agree with me.

    To date Susskind has not publicly answered the detailed criticisms of his use of the anthropic principle contained in Smolin’s article. If he has finally read the article and has an answer to Smolin’s criticisms, scientifically his first priority should be to deal with this issue, not to attack Smolin’s more speculative ideas. Doing what he has done gives the strong impression that he has no answer to Smolin’s criticisms, and instead of confessing to this, has decided to go on the attack. Maybe “thuggery” was too strong a term, but I don’t believe this has much to do with trying to get at scientific truth.

  2. Gil Steinberg says:

    Susskind must have read Smolin’s work at some point, because the preprint “Cosmic Natural Selection” presents significant scientific criticisms of Smolin’s theory, as detailed in my previous post. It is certainly appropriate that such criticisms be made public — this is how science works. I see nothing in Susskind’s preprint that justifies your use of the highly charged terms `thuggery’, `disgraceful’, `beat up Smolin,’ and `attack on Smolin.’ I don’t know what else appeared in the unpublished note, but according to your post it was a `defense of his [Susskind's] own work,’ which again hardly seems to justify your strong language.

    By the way, Susskind is famous for not pulling punches, and he does not distinguish `string theorists’ from non-`string theorists’ when he thinks that someone is wrong. Have a look at his hep-th/9405103, `Comment on a Proposal by Strominger,’ and also his contribution hep-th/0204027 to the Hawkingfest. Susskind’s style is not for everyone, but I believe that it is his way of trying to get at the scientific truth, and I am sure that Smolin will take it in this way.

  3. Peter says:

    Hi, whoever you are at UCSB,

    Let me summarize again the facts about what Susskind did in response to Smolin’s 40 page or so paper containing a detailed and serious critique of the anthropic principle and Susskind’s use of it. Without even bothering to read it, within a day of its appearance he wrote a completely incoherent one and a half page defense of the anthropic principle and attack on Smolin, then tried to post it on the arXiv. This was such a ridiculous document that he was told he couldn’t do this, something which is completely unheard of. A couple days later he stripped out the nonsensical defense of his own work, added a more detailed attack on Smolin, and managed to get this posted.

    I think this kind of behavior is disgraceful, and it has nothing to do with doing serious science. Susskind clearly just wanted to beat up Smolin for pointing out that what Susskind is doing is not science. I’ve seen all too much of this kind of thuggery, directed at anyone who dares criticize what string theorists are doing.

  4. Gil Steinberg says:

    Smolin’s paper was explicitly about a scientific (that is, falsifiable) _alternative_ to the anthropic principle. So why are you criticizing Susskind for trying to falsify Smolin’s alternative theory? Susskind’s paper, although short, raises several very valid scientific objections to Smolin’s theory. In particular, Smolin argues that production of new universes at a black hole singularity is on a firmer theoretical footing than production of new universes via bubble nucleation in an inflating universe (as in the landscape picture). Susskind argues that the reverse is true: bubble nucleation is observed in a wide variety of physical systems, and Einstein’s equations imply that vacuum energy makes the universe expand (aside from the observational evidence that our universe has gone through two periods of vacuum-energy-driven expansion); it is hardly speculative to combine these two effects. The black hole bounce is on its face a more speculative thing, and as Susskind points out there are several problems here that have not been addressed: the effect of the Planckian energy densities at the singularity, and the relation to holography and the information problem. Moreover, even if the black hole bounce occurs, Susskind points out that inflation plus bubble nucleation is a vastly more efficient means to produce new universes than the black hole mechanism, so Smolin’s theory is falsified. You are really putting string theorists in a no-win situation: thay are criticized for ignoring alternate theories, and then they are criticized for not ignoring them but instead subjecting them to the same level of theoretical self-consistency that they impose on string theory.

  5. Thomas Larsson says:

    The Ginsparg-Glashow article to which I referred earlier is evidently available on the arxiv. Not much has changed since 1985, except perhaps that we now know that supersymmetry is close to being ruled out by experiments – it requires fine-tuning at the percent level.

  6. Peter says:

    Hi JC,

    See my recent comments on “Black Holes at the LHC”. I agree these models are basically silly, and most string theorists I’ve talked to say they don’t believe them. The motivations for this kind of work are not just to get grants, but something more complicated. For one thing there is a desperation among string theorists to do something that can somehow count as an experimentally testable prediction, so the fact that you can cook up models of this kind that would have observable effects at the LHC is a huge motivation, even though the models are highly implausible and cooked up. A second motivation is that this stuff is technically very easy. You don’t have to know any algebraic geometry, conformal field theory, etc. Much of this work just comes down to setting up and solving simple differential equations. It’s a good subject for undergraduate projects.

  7. JC says:

    Peter,

    Either I’m seeing things or asleep, but I recall seeing a comment on this thread about your view on those large TeV scale extra dimensions models.

    When those models first appeared, I thought they weren’t much more than somebody working out the consequences of some Kaluza-Klein theory, which didn’t seem much more than a hypothetical exercise. After awhile when more and more folks were cranking out papers on this topic, I got the sense the subject was trying to making predictions that looked too silly to be true or even plausible. (ie. It didn’t even pass the initial “laugh” test.)

    After a few years of these large TeV scale extra dimensions models proliferating, I got the impression they seemed fit into the category of “let’s propose these silly models that we know are too outlandish but are nevertheless ‘trendy’, just to get NSF or DOE funding”. On the surface it sure smelled like an excuse for a grant funding grab. At times I wonder what sort of weird things people will propose, just to get grant money from the government, even if they know deep down in their hearts that the work is bogus from the start.

  8. Steven says:

    I read Smolin’s article a few days back and have just finished the Susskind response. I generally think Smolin is a sober and level-headed physicist who usually puts forth interesting ideas and engaging and viable arguments.(Even if you don’t agree with everything he says). I think he puts down a good case here for why the anthropic principle is simply unscientific.

    The Susskind article however, does read like a blog/forum rant and not a carefuly thought out scientific article. He even admits he does’nt understand Smolin when he says” the detailed astrophysics that goes into Smolin’s estimate is extremely complicated–too complicated for me–but the basic assumptions that go into the theory can be evaluated in the light of what string theory has taught us about the Landscape and black holes”. How can he evaluate or respond to the article when he admits he doesnt understand the underlying astrophysical arguments?

    Also, string theory has not really given any insights into real black holes or cosmology and is not in a sufficiently developed state to do so (many string theorists would actually agree). The Strominger-Vafa paper and other (admittedly interesting )papers in the 90s dealt with extremal black holes in string theory–not real astrophysical black holes. Similarly, string theory simply can’t deal with deSitter space and a very small positive cosmological constant/accelerating universe despite the artifical constructions of the Stanford group.

    Basically he seems only interested in promoting his own string-based agenda, even though it can’t actually connect to anything in the observed universe, and any argument that does not conform to his dogma/agenda must be wrong in his eyes. I do find the whole thing somewhat strange. The pro-anthropic camp will have to really do a lot better if they are to maintain credibility. I really wish Susskind would produce one detailed cleary thought-out journal quality article carefully and rigorously promoting his ideas at least. (Papers he wrote years ago I found both interesting and informative, I just don’t get this recent trend of his).

    I think the arXiv is a double edged sword:one can instantly access the latest ideas/research in physics from anywhere but at the same time it is filling up with resume padding, career/grant maintaining, ego messaging stuff too. I try and stick to stuff in the Arxiv that at least has a journal acceptance/submission also. Peer review seems to have broken down in hep and string theory especially and I think it is going to be a problem for the field in the long run. I think it is fine for the people like Witten or Weinberg to just post their stuff but I think most others need the conventional journal route. String theorists should actually be the strongest critics of each others work rather than be a mutual admiration society (which is the impression I often get, whether that’s right or wrong). Every other branch of science, engineeering, medicine has to go through the very rigorous “old fashioned” peer-review process via paper journals with subsequent online access. Although it is not perfect I think all scientists (whether students or established professors) still need the discipline/feedback provided by that or else the archive will end up like a ranting open physics forum. If the archive is going to be more rigorous in their acceptance criteria now then that could be a good thing.

  9. Peter says:

    I wasn’t aware that the arXiv did any screening other than by author’s affiliation, and wonder how often they reject papers from people with sponsors or with academic affiliations. Danny’s story is a bit scary, I would have thought that some reason would have to be given to reject a paper, especially if it is sponsored.

    But I think the right thing was done in rejecting Susskind’s article. The arXiv shouldn’t become like sci.physics.research, where people post comments of all sorts. It should remain a place where people post scientific articles of the sort that will ultimately appear in a peer-reviewed journal. I can’t believe any such journal will ever publish the kind of thing Susskind has been putting out recently, so arguably others of his articles should also have been rejected. In any case this isn’t an example of censorship of non-mainstream ideas, since Susskind is certainly part of the mainstream. His paper was rejected not because of his ideas, but because of its embarassingly incoherent and unscientific nature.

  10. D R Lunsford says:

    NEWS FLASH – Direct CP violation in B0 -> K+ pi- decay. Big news in real physics.

    The gravity experiment (does antimatter fall up in the gravitational field of matter?) NEEDS to be done!

  11. D R Lunsford says:

    All I know is, I got a sponsor, the paper was submitted and a number assigned, it appeared in the archive and was then immediately removed. Never got an explanation, nor did the sponsor.

  12. Chris Oakley says:

    I was not aware that ArXiv was subject to any filtering at all other than the requirement that the sender should be at, or be sponsored by someone at a higher education establishment. If it is then that is a pity as instead of being a representative snapshot of the state of the art, it becomes a party political tool for whoever runs it.

    The advent of the internet has enabled one to see what a physics discussion that is a complete free-for-all looks like. I am talking of course about the sci.physics forum. I like this newsgroup because of its entertainment value, but the serially-spamming crackpots and the immune reaction that they engender (headed by “Uncle Al”) become predictable after a while. Having said that, “Uncle Al” can be very funny.

    I think that the lightly-moderated sci.physics.research is about the level that ArXiv ought to aim for. If people want to make fools of themselves in public, then they should be allowed to do so, provided that they stay on topic and keep the personal abuse to a minimum.

  13. D R Lunsford says:

    Peter-

    I have no idea how arxiv works. What I know about it comes from a friend who was stupidly blacklisted – I mentioned him in the “ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS” section. It could be just that petty, or it could be that a reappraisal of Weyl’s theory in a new context is too much for them to swallow. All I know is – it’s not string theory, it’s not a Kaluza approach, the idea is inherently interesting, the calculations are correct, and the interpretation is as conservative as possible. There is no actual reason to reject the paper, particularly since the older theory lives in it as a first approximation. On the other hand there is a lot in it that is very suggestive of possible ways to make progress in understanding gravity and field theory together, from a conformal standpoint.

    To be sure I never pressed the issue because the whole episode seems sordid in some way.

    The preprint was immediately accepted by CERN without any complaints. In any case I think CERN automatically serves preprints of the usual journals.

    -danny

  14. Peter says:

    Hi Michael,

    I won’t divulge my confidential sources, but a copy of the e-mail Susskind sent out to a large distribution list made its way to my inbox. If you think the tone of Susskind’s arxiv posting was unscholarly, you should see the one that was rejected.

    One unexpected aspect of doing this weblog has been that tricky questions of journalistic ethics arise. Should I repeat things people tell me privately? Probably not without asking them. How much of something that is forwarded to me can I make public if the original sender didn’t intend to put what he wrote on the internet. What if he originally tried to put it on the internet but was thwarted and instead sent it to a lot of people? Shouldn’t I help him out? By making it public or by keeping it private? Complicated questions….

  15. JC says:

    It seems like for many folks, the more indefensible their position is on something that is controversial, the more they resort to personal ad hominem style of attacks when defending their position. I always found it amusing in working up folks of this sort into a huge ad hominem attack frenzy, to the point that they’re about to punch me in the face over it. It may very well be the case that in our human brains, our emotions can greatly overpower our own “logic”.

    It seems kind of weird and amusing at the same time, in watching string theory and loop gravity folks throwing ad hominem personal attacks at one another over various “ideological” type of issues in approaches to doing quantum gravity research.

    Will a huge ad hominem flamefest between string and loop folks, and/or between pro and anti anthropic folks, be the final “end battle” which destroys the legitimacy of string theory and other forms of quantum gravity research as we know it?

  16. Where did you hear that his first hasty reply had been rejected by the arXiv? The new paper certainly seems to be written in a rather unscholarly tone.

  17. Thomas Larsson says:

    Does anyone know where Ginsparg stands on string theory?

    On the one hand, it has been claimed that the Arxiv may in the end turn out to be string theory’s most important contribution to science. So in some sense Ginsparg is a string theorist, and the phrase “Ginsparg archipelago” resonates somewhere in the back of my head (these are probably some isolated c=1 CFTs, perhaps associated with the E’s of some ADE classification). OTOH, I think that he coauthored the infamous “Desperately seeking superstrings” article in Physics today in 1986, after which Sheldon Glashow came out as a string critic.

  18. Thomas Larsson says:

    A year or two ago I commented on spr that Smolin’s review of quantum gravity looked like a declaration of war on string theory. Smolin denied that, claiming that many of his close friends are string theorists. The exchange can probably be found somewhere on the web if you really want to read it.

    Anyway, even if that was true, it is hard to avoid the impression that his last paper really is a declaration of war on string theory in general, and on the anthropic principle in particular. Apparently Susskind draws the same conclusion.

  19. Peter says:

    Hi JC,
    I think it is very unlikely that the powers that be at the NSF and DOE will step in and start defunding this kind of research. They generally rely on a system of peer evaluation, which has allowed string theory to do well as string theorists generally evaluate other string theory research highly. So the real question is whether the united front of string theorists will crack further. How many string theorists are willing to give a low score to grant proposals to do “anthropic” research?

    This is the real significance of Smolin’s recent paper. He is making a strong argument that a lot of people are no longer doing science, and this is a huge threat to them, in particular to their NSF or DOE funding. This is why you see Susskind so upset that he writes bizarre articles and launches attacks on Smolin.

  20. Peter says:

    Hi Danny,
    No, you’re the only example I know of where someone has had a peer-reviewed article rejected by the arxiv. By the way, do you know who it is who is now making these decisions about what to accept and what to reject? Is it Paul Ginsparg, who set up and runs the thing, or someone else?

    It seems to me that rejecting Susskind’s article opens up a whole can of worms for the arxiv, and I wonder what criteria they used to reject it. Up until now they could claim that they were just rejecting based on the lack of certain kinds of academic affiliation, but here they’ve rejected something presumably based on it not being scientific. But if they start really rejecting things from string theorists whether or not they are scientific, this is just the beginning.

  21. JC says:

    Peter,

    It sure seems like many of these anthropic and anti-anthropic papers over the last year or so, read almost like a “Pot Vs. Kettle” competition, especially when it’s between different quantum gravity camps (ie. strings vs. loops).

    What do you think the government grand funding agencies (ie. NSF or DOE) will do, once they catch on to all this anthropic silliness going on in string theory and other quantum gravity research areas?

  22. D R Lunsford says:

    Peter-

    You say you’ve “heard of several non-mainstream physicists” etc. etc. – but do you know of any examples of papers that are already published in reputable peer-reviewed journals being rejected from the archive? I find myself in just this situation, and while I try to maintain a good humor about it and not take it too seriously, still I would not mind having the work properly dissected, particularly since there are mathematical aspects of it that need to be investigated, that are, for various reasons, not in my reach.

    Given that a great deal of the archive in the last few years is devoted to string theory, the collapse of one can hardly avoid impacting the other.

  23. JC says:

    Years ago somebody showed for a joke, the correlation of crashes of the stock market and/or companies, with things like building really tall buildings and/or a company putting their name on a sports stadium. The classic case is that of Enron going bankrupt a few years after sponsoring the Enron field stadium in Houston, Texas. Another classic case is the stock market crashing in 1929, after the Empire State Building construction was proposed. In more recent times the Asian financial markets crashed in 1997 after the Petronas twin towers (in Kuala Lumpor) construction was proposed. They also showed for a joke, how the rises and falls of Donald Trump’s fortunes were highly correlated with the up and downs of the real estate markets in america.

    The rationale that’s usually given to explain this correlation is that many grandiose ideas and stupid things are proposed and done, during times when the economy is booming.

    Another joke correlation was how a company would decline and fall into problems, after when the company’s CEO and other upper management were on the front cover of magazines like Time, Newsweek, BusinessWeek, Fortune, Forbes, etc … During the 1990’s, Bill Gates picture showed up on the cover of Time Magazine and subsequently Microsoft nosedived from the anti-trust case against it. Something like in 1999, Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon.com) showed up as “man of the year” on the front cover of Time Magazine, and the dotcom bubble imploded shortly thereafter.

    In a similar joke-like manner, there’s a spurious correlation between the idea of Zwiebach’s “string theory for undergrads” course & textbook, and the subsequent decline of string/M theory into the anthropic mess. Or earlier from the 80’s era, there’s a spurious correlation between the idea of Kaku’s “intro to superstrings” textbook or Luest & Theissen’s intro to string theory book, and the subsequent decline of string theory around 1990. From the 1970’s era, there doesn’t appear to be any “textbooks” on string theory. The closest I can think of offhand would be Paul Frampton’s book on “dual resonance models”, which looks like it was published just right around the time everybody was abandoning string theory in 1974.

    It seems amusing that a highly speculative field subsequently comes crashing down and declining after a “textbook” on it is proposed and written.

    Perhaps there’s some truth to the notion of

    “history repeats itself, first as low comedy and then as mindless farce”

    (attributed to Karl Marx)?

  24. JC says:

    This sure sounds a lot like a major decline of quantum gravity, falling into a downward spiral into the abyss. Something has really gone astray when the “experts” start to sound more and more like crackpots.

    At times I’ve noticed in politics when somebody’s popularity is falling, many of their press releases become more and more difficult to differentiate from “satire” press releases (ie. Matt Drudge style), or political news stories on “serious” 24 hour news channels (ie. CNN, MSNBC, etc …) starts to resemble the stuff on late night television comedy shows (ie. John Stewart, Bill Mahr, Dennis Miller, etc …).

    It would be interesting to see what will happen to quantum gravity research, if this stupidity persists for several years.

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