Presumptuous Blogging

John Horgan at Scientific American today has an interview with Martin Rees in which Rees says:

It’s presumptuous (as some people like Woit and Smolin have done) to deride the way some manifestly brilliant people choose to dedicate their scientific lives.

I generally try and be careful to criticize not people, but the arguments they are making. Rees and others (including a Cambridge University Press referee for Not Even Wrong, who basically thought I had good points, but was presumptuous to be making them) often seem offended that I or Lee Smolin are challenging arguments from those smarter than ourselves. It’s true that there is a problem with this: bad arguments of the kind I’m criticizing should be challenged by the leading figures in the field, not by me. In particular, many particle theorists smarter and more distinguished than myself are well aware of the problem of multiverse mania, but doing nothing about it, as it destroys the credibility of their field. Among the few personal criticisms of some leading theorists that I have is that they’re not doing the job they’re paid for here, and I’m not happy wasting my time trying to (presumptuously) do it for them.

On the presumptuous behavior front, here’s some more of it:

  • Rees’s arguments are the usual multiverse propaganda, including the usual red-herring argument defending the multiverse as science:

    It’s sometimes claimed that domains that are in principle unobservable aren’t part of science. But not even the most conservative astronomer would take this line. We’re in an accelerating universe where distant galaxies will disappear over a horizon, and their far future would never be in principle observable. So it’s natural to suppose that there are galaxies that are already beyond the horizon and so forever unobservable. If you’re in the middle of the ocean, you’d be surprised if its boundary lay just beyond your horizon. Likewise, astronomers are confident that the volume of space-time within range of our telescopes — what astronomers have traditionally called ‘the universe’ – is only a tiny fraction of the aftermath of our big bang. We’d expect far more galaxies located unobservably beyond the horizon.

    As usual, Rees gives no evidence for his claim that those skeptical that the multiverse is science are just ignoramuses who don’t understand the notion of indirect evidence for a scientific theory.

    Multiverse mania goes on and on, for instance here and here.

  • Among the more presumptuous things I’ve done, there’s last week’s talk.
  • I recently noticed here the analysis that:

    I “predict” that if by about 2020 the LHC or cosmology do not show any concrete evidence of supersymmetry or superstrings, physicists will attack string theory the way the Huns attacked Rome. Like the Huns, Lee Smolin, Peter Woit, and Roger Penrose have already started encircling string theory, abiding their time, and waiting for the strike. They seem to have read The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire carefully.

    I’ve never read Gibbon. If one accepts the analogy though, I think it’s conventional wisdom that the String Wars were back in 2006, we didn’t wait for 2020. All the evidence I’ve seen recently is that most string theorists have now given up on the idea that evidence for supersymmetry or string theory will appear at the LHC. Those attempting to defend Rome now are trying to backpedal on their claims from a decade ago. They now argue that finding nothing at the LHC isn’t surprising and doesn’t matter, but this rear-guard action likely will not be effective.

  • More evidence that hopes for LHC-scale SUSY are now pretty much dead can be found by looking at the slides from the recent Aachen workshop on Naturalness, Hierarchy and Fine-Tuning. The debate among theorists has now moved on to trying to figure out what conclusion to draw from the failure of widely-promoted claims about “fine-tuning”. One motivation for such claims was that in string theory-based models the CC and Higgs potential are supposedly calculable, with expected results from dimensional analysis that are exponentially large (Planck scale) compared to observations. On this front, an obvious conclusion to draw is just that these models (which are complicated and predict nothing else anyway) are wrong.
  • I suppose it really is presumptuous to make a snarky comment about a talk by someone clearly more hard-working and smarter than I am. In any case, I just noticed that slides for Nima Arkani-Hamed’s talk Three Cheers for Shut Up and Calculate! are now available here. I had written about this here without knowing what the talk had been about, based on the historical origin of the “Shut Up and Calculate!” slogan (and thus assuming the measurement problem would be a main topic). From the slides, Arkani-Hamed’s talk wasn’t at all about the measurement problem, but largely about quantum gravity, with many slides of speculative claims about new emergent versions of space-time and quantum mechanics (backed by one slide about calculating amplitudes as volumes). I’m quite sympathetic to what he has to say about the importance of prioritizing well-defined calculations over meaningless verbiage, but it seemed to me that in this talk he wasn’t really taking his own advice. I can’t help wondering who it is that Arkani-Hamed thinks should “Shut up” about vague ideas about quantum gravity and stick to well-defined calculations.

Update: For more presumption, see the latest at Backreaction.

Update: Lee Smolin has been edited out of the list of the presumptuous in the Rees interview, but I’m rather proud to be presumptuous, so I’m still there, and a link has been added to this blog posting.

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28 Responses to Presumptuous Blogging

  1. paddy says:

    If anyone knows “presumptuousness” ’tis the likes of Martin Rees. [Pardon the ad hominem and delete as you see fit.]

  2. Peter Orland says:

    Sorry to be officious, Peter, but the title of Gibbon’s multivolume monograph (which I attempted, but never finished, back in my youth) is “A History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”. “Rise” is absent from the title.

  3. Preston Burkett says:

    This is just so depressing. The vindictiveness string researchers display in their replies to standard empirical questioning is telling. It seems like they have this grab bag of talking points & fallacious arguments that enable them to evade criticism by making their critics look like ignorant naysayers.

    By the way, I don’t think there’s anything quite as presumptuous as saying that you shouldn’t question intelligent people because they’re smarter than you. That seems to imply infallibility, or at least that smart people are less fallible, & we know that’s just not true (there’s even data to support it!). There was at least one smart man who said “I know I’m intelligent because I know I know nothing”, which to me implies that people who make opposing statements are flattering their own intelligence (as well as advocating explicit elitism).

    I’m sorry if this comes off as a rant. I’ve always loved science & seeing the opportunity for novel ideas squandered like this makes me sad. I hope a team of creative thinkers can break the mold & bring us new theories before too long.

  4. Anindya says:

    Regarding Rees’ quote about the multiverse, I think he makes a very sensible point in the previous paragraph:
    IF we have a theory that accurately models what happened in the very very early universe and IF that theory predicts a multiverse, THEN we would have to take the multiverse idea seriously.

    I am always surprised that multiverse proponents never emphasize the obvious fact – that no such accurate theory currently exists !
    Somehow, nobody seems to hold them down to this important point.

  5. Patrick Orlando says:

    I just finished reading Nima’s slides, very good, he really has a way of getting to the heart of the subject. I only have a B.S. in Physics from Columbia but I learned a lot from his slides. Again Excellent job.

  6. Tim May says:

    I’ve enjoyed Nima Arkani-Hamed’s talks for many years now. I especially liked the 5-part Messenger Lectures at Cornell, which I’ve watched twice now. (And three times for Parts 4 and 5, the more speculative pay-off at the end.)

    I haven’t seen much snark nor ad hominem from him. Like Edward Witten, he seems to stay above this.

    I favor that kind of avoidance of trash-talking. I’m skeptical that string theory is a theory of everything, but I think it good that some people like Arkani-Hamed and Witten are working at a high level on this and related ideas. (And pretty clearly Witten has contributed a lot to math, even if the experiments to test string theory have not worked out too well, at least not as of yet….and probably not in any of our lifetimes, as near as I can tell.)

  7. Peter Woit says:

    I should make clear that the only one I’m accusing of being snarky here is myself.

  8. katzeee says:

    Although one shouldn’t take analogies too far, I find it interesting to compare String Theory to the Roman Empire, the single dominating Power in its sphere of influence for a very long time…

  9. Philip says:

    Peter, if you had to direct someone to a single, undergrad level, explanation of the weakness of the String Theory concept and the Multiverse what resource would you recommend?

  10. tulpoeid says:


    The seemingly increased number of people who try to make it appear as if you are the only person defacing string theory and the like for incomprehensible reasons, only speaks about their anxiety and lack of arguments.

    Or maybe they really leave in their shell, totally blind of the fact that about half of particle physicists (including both flavours) wouldn’t give a cent for their toys.

    The problem is of course that devoting our time into defense against fake science will (i) take time from working on the good stuff, (ii) will not buy us any recognition or academic status, (iii) it will most probably do the opposite. So, to an outsider it might appear correct that there are no other opponents, which couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s just that the rest of us don’t manage to gather enough self-sacrificial courage to go through all this on a consistent basis (I’m slightly exaggerating of course, since there are several others on it both in the blogosphere and in their local groups). The problem lies with us though, it’s a full-blown battle for the future of physics and by staying out we already pick a side.

  11. Gregor says:

    Ress writes “We’d expect far more galaxies located unobservably beyond the horizon.” Peter, this is indeed a point that many astrophysicists make. And indeed, it is a misleading or non-scientific statement. Why then is it so widespread?

  12. Chris Oakley says:

    You do not need to be a genius to realise that anthropic reasoning is a cop-out. I expect that grant-giving bodies are well aware of the fact and soon this will have a tangible effect. The advantage of Peter continuing the fight rather than, say, me is (i) he has a foot in the academic door and (ii) he writes well. In some of the long online conversations that have involved him I tend to skip the oft-rambling diatribes of his adversaries and read only what he has written himself. Sticking to the point is key.

  13. Peter Woit says:

    There’s my book, Lee Smolin’s, and Jim Baggott’s “Farewell to Reality”. Also entries on the FAQ page here, and endless blog postings in the “Multiverse Mania” category.

    About the multiverse though, perhaps the best advice to anyone is to just pick up any pro-multiverse argument and try and find a well-defined theory and evidence for it (you won’t find any). Someone should write a book or article explaining why the multiverse is pseudo-science, but the problem with this is that it would mainly just consist of noting that multiverse advocates have no viable theory or evidence for one.

    Relevant here (and also to tulpoeid’s comment) is the quote I found here

    ““The amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”

  14. Peter Woit says:


    I don’t think it’s a non-scientific statement. We have a well-defined, tested model that implies existence of objects we can’t observe. It is scientifically reasonable to say that we have indirect evidence for such objects. The problem with the same argument in the multiverse case is that we don’t have a sensible model with any evidence for it.

  15. Michael says:

    Dear Peter

    Do you conduct research in particle physics/cosmology? If not what areas do you work in? While I have a certain sympathy (though rarely total agreement) for a lot of what you say here, I find it somewhat depressing and uninspiring to constantly read criticisms without any positive contributions offered. As they say, its easy to criticise.

    I would love to read about some of your research, in addition to your concerns regarding the direction of post 70s theoretical high energy physics. A nice example is Scott Aaronsons blog, where he strikes a fantastic balance between discussions of technical research issues, and more controversial opinion pieces.

  16. Shantanu says:

    Peter, have you or others asked string theorists ” what happened to predictions made pre-LHC era that detection of supersymmetry will vindicate string theory?”
    If not, I suggest all of you do this the next time you attend a talk on string theory

  17. Peter Woit says:

    The answer they will give to this question is clear: low energy SUSY was always a “prediction” in the sense of a possibility, not a sure thing, and, in general, our use of the term “prediction” isn’t quite the standard one…

  18. Peter Woit says:

    This is off-topic and adding to my time wasting problem by discussing it more here doesn’t really help, but a few comments:

    Most of my time is spent not on this, but on working these days on a project that I started writing about long ago here:
    I hope to have a vastly expanded and improved version of that later this year, and will do some blogging about it then, but it’s clear that for something like this, what’s needed is a well-written paper, not blog entries. No, I don’t do research in cosmology, and don’t actually blog about it that much other than to try and help cosmologists from having their field overrun by pseudo-science.

    Today though I’m spending much of my time going to talks in this workshop

    hope to write more about this in another blog entry.

    I’d love to be as productive as Scott Aaronson, but that is never going to happen.

  19. Philip says:

    Thanks very much Peter, apologies for not looking a bit harder re FAQ etc.

  20. Well, Horgan declared that science is done, so he should also be well calibrated about presumptuous statements. Snark aside, it is just sad that someone with Rees’ standing would imply that it’s somehow wrong or inappropriate for people who aren’t leading high energy theorists to be critical.

  21. Dave Miller says:


    Section 9.2 of your BRST paper mentions, without comment, possible connections to the Atiyah-Singer Index Theorem. I assume this section will be expanded in the future? Do you have any ideas that will help make the proof of the Index Theorem more transparent?

    It has always seemed to me that there must be a more geometrically transparent explanation of why the Index Theorem is true (i.e., without appealing to homotopies of Fredholm operators and all that).

    Anyway, if you do have any insights into the Index Theorem, I hope you will write them up (and mention it here in the blog).


  22. ilovecats says:

    I am confused. During the peer review process, ideas are criticized by anonymous reviewers. If the author is unable to respond to the criticisms, then can the author argue back with the defense that there is no proof that the reviewer(s) (being anonymous) is(are) at least as manifestly brilliant and dedicated (old) as the author?

  23. Marshall Eubanks says:

    The Huns never attacked Rome. The Alaric and the Visigoths sacked Rome in August, 410 AD, and the Vandals sacked Rome in June, 455, but the Huns (in the West) never got South of the Alps.

    (Peter Heather’s “The Fall of the Roman Empire…” is an excellent source for this complicated period in history.)

  24. Peter Woit says:

    Dave Miller,
    That’s a problem that has always fascinated me, but I don’t have anything really new to say about it. The most insightful proof of the index theorem I know of is the one inspired by Witten and supersymmetric quantum mechanics. There’s a sense in which this is a TQFT, with a BRST operator (which is just the Dirac operator), so this story fits well into the story I’m trying to explain in that paper.

  25. Dave Miller says:

    Well, Peter, if you can just go into all the gory details on what you just summarized here (or point to a place where someone else does that), that would help.

    I know of course about the Witten supersymmetric proof, but I’ve never been clear as to how it really works or even if it is really, properly speaking, a proof.

    I have gone through the classic embedding, cobordism, and heat kernel proofs, and, while of course I did not find any errors, I was reduced to just seeing if each line followed from the previous lines: i.e., the proofs did not really click for me. I get the impression that there are an awful lot of people in the same situation.

    It seems to me there must be some approach to the Index Theorem of the sort all of us physicists take to Stokes’ theorem and the divergence theorem: for both of those theorems, we draw the obvious diagrams and point out that the contributions from all the internal lines (for Stokes’ theorem) or internal surfaces (for the divergence theorem) are counted twice with opposite signs and therefore cancel. It is then “obvious” that those theorems are true, and a rigorous proof is just doing all of this much more carefully.

    Maybe the supersymmetric approach is the equivalent way to approach the Index Theorem, but I have yet to find some place where that is explained at a physicist’s level.



  26. Rollo Burgess says:

    Roger Penrose is just as critical of String Theory etc. He’s not dismissed as being presumptuous, presumably because he’s a grandee/bigwig. So I guess he’s tacitly dismissed as being past it…

  27. DrDave says:

    I think it is a fair point that there is some sort of implied hierarchy about aiming only at PW and LS…I see now that LS is mysteriously redacted (with no changelog that I can see).
    “I think it’s important that some people should continue to tackle this “Everest problem” – to seek a testable theory from many perspectives.. It’s presumptuous (as some people like Peter Woit have done) to deride the way some manifestly brilliant people choose to dedicate their scientific lives. [See Woit’s response to this comment.] ”
    This redaction creates this decidedly weird sentence “some people like Peter Woit…”
    It’s nice that the link to this blog is inserted, but this doesn’t seem to me to be acceptable journalistic practice. Is it a quote? Is the whole thing edited with bits removed to change the meaning?
    As far as criticism (let’s all stay away from the term “derision” which is singularly inappropriate), few statements are as flatly critical as Glashow’s comment in The Elegant Universe series. I watched this again after many years and was struck by the clarity of Sheldon’s comments, I wish they had included more–if you haven’t seen it the link is here:

  28. Marion Delgado says:

    When I first read this blog, I was fresh out of physics undergrad and grad math that included math physics. I went to a lot of science presentations then, including some that involved string/brane/M theory and brought friends to them. I also watched many more presentations online. Over the course of time I pretty much started skipping anything that was too string theory-based, and some of the credit for that has to go to Peter Woit and Lee Smolin. I have to add, however, that some of it goes to Michio Kaku and Lubos Motl.

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