This Week’s Hype

The Stanford string theory group is not taking the attack by Harvard’s Cumrun Vafa lying down. After an arXiv barrage of papers defending KKLT (see here), they’ve now enlisted the Stanford press office, which has produced a five part promotional series about the scientific glories of the string theory landscape. The first part of the series is online today, the rest to come soon.

The great thing about having your university press office write stories like this for you is that they will just print whatever you want, unlike journalists, who might ask your critics what they think and even quote them. Even better than not having to hear from your critics, you can try and discredit them as close-minded reactionaries unethically thwarting the search for truth, by misrepresenting their arguments:

“One dominant view in the community is that believing in the Landscape might have the negative effect of leading people away from fundamental physics, so we shouldn’t even discuss it,” said Shamit Kachru, who holds the Wells Family Directorship of the Stanford Institute for Theoretical Physics (SITP).

I’ve never heard anyone argue that “we shouldn’t even discuss it”. There is a dominant view in the field that what the theorists at Stanford are doing is not science, but the arguments for this are scientific, not arguments about what is or what isn’t good PR. Will we see any of these arguments in the rest of the series?

Update: All five parts of this are now on-line. No critics of the string landscape are named and their serious arguments are ignored (they are described as “hating” the idea, creatures of their out-of-control emotions). In the context of the old arguments of the string wars, two things to note are

  • This could be accurately described as a campaign by people who are losing in the scientific marketplace of ideas to, instead of doing science, start a PR effort aimed at the public.
  • It’s once of the best examples of the kind of extreme tribalism and “group-think” Lee Smolin was pointing to that I’ve ever seen. Stanford is portrayed as uniformly of one opinion about this, other opinions are wrong and only held elsewhere. If you are (or want to be) at Stanford and have a different opinion, especially if you’re a postdoc or grad student, it’s being made very clear that you best keep this to yourself.

Update: For those who want to follow the latest on the “Swampland” challenge to the Stanford/KKLT landscape program being promoted by the Stanford press office, there’s a conference later this week in Madrid, talks here. Among the roughly 100 participants at the conference, no one from Stanford. Not invited? Invited, but refuse to participate in any scientific discussion critical of their program? Inquiring minds want to know…

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19 Responses to This Week’s Hype

  1. clayton says:

    Yikes — I get the feeling that quote is going to haunt Shamit…

  2. Peter Woit says:

    clayton,

    I think Kachru was conflating two true things (and adding the silliness about “we shouldn’t even discuss it).

    1. Taking “community” as physicists in general, a “dominant” view would be that this is pseudo-science and discrediting science in general, so people shouldn’t do it.
    2. Taking “community” as string theorists, I don’t think this is “dominant”, but if you look at the video in the linked posting, you see that Vafa is arguing that acceptance of KKLT vacua and the Stanford landscape claims is discrediting string theory in particular (as unpredictive). Vafa’s conclusion though is the opposite of “shouldn’t even discuss it”, instead he’s trying to encourage discussion of the technicalities, hoping that these will show inconsistency of the KKLT vacua and remove the problem for string theory posed by the Stanford landscape philosophy.

    I think the reason we’re seeing a PR campaign from Stanford right now, given that there has been no recent progress on the landscape stuff, is just the perceived need of a response to the bad PR coming from press coverage of what Vafa is doing.

  3. Atreat says:

    Part 2 is out: https://news.stanford.edu/2018/09/11/cosmic-symphony-vibrating-strings/

    We depressing learn that we are a part of the Multiverse, but not how our particular universe came into being. What is tee’d up to describe this? Inflation and Andrei Linde are next. Here comes conflation of the string theory landscape with Linde’s inflationary multiverse…

  4. Roger says:

    Off topic but maybe relevant for a future post:
    http://www.hyper-k.org/en/news/news-20180912.html .
    It looks like Hyper-K is taking a big step forward towards approval.
    I don’t know what this means for hosting the ILC in Japan.

  5. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    It’s very disappointing to see such misinformation repeated so persistently. It’s simply not true that most who disagree are perplexed by a modern analog of the Copernican Revolution. I think it’s gone on long enough that we can dispense with niceties like “misperception” and call it what it is: a lie.

    We’re perplexed because a “framework” (if “theory” is a misnomer) one can get virtually anything out of is as good as one you get nothing out of, and redefining “science” to somehow make this glaring inadequacy permissible is beyond the pale.

    So please, cut the bullshit.

  6. Peter Woit says:

    Roger,
    To connect to the current topic, anyone unaware of what is going on here can get some clue by looking into the question: “what’s the string landscape prediction for the proton lifetime?” This question won’t appear in the Stanford press office PR campaign.

  7. Atreat says:

    Part 3 is out and the conflation with String Theory is very sad: https://news.stanford.edu/2018/09/12/the-fractal-universe/

    Remember Part 2 told us that Linde would answer how the stringy multiverse was connected to ours. Instead all we get is this warm sauce:

    “Linde took the multiverse idea even further by proposing that each pocket universe could have differing properties, a conclusion that some string theorists were also reaching independently.”

    Next up, Part 4 will tell us how this wholly novel idea – that is not at all like what your average stoner dreams up after a good bong hit – helps to explain dark energy. You see, “dark energy” was predicted by Linde and our String Heroes as those “differing properties” the multiverse explains.

  8. Narad says:

    Kevin Wells must have made a lot of bread in software engineering before starting to make unrestricted grants to Stanford, one of which seems to have produced SITP.

  9. Peter Woit says:

    Narad,
    That is kind of an odd situation with the SITP Executive Director. Normally people in a position to make significant financial contributions to an institution don’t also work in a staff position for the institution (generally, because if they have that much money, why go to work every day doing administrative tasks for a relatively modest pay?).

    https://sitp.stanford.edu/people/kevin-wells
    https://pgnet.stanford.edu/get/file/g2sdoc/highlights/W10_Wells_p13.pdf

  10. quasihumanist says:

    As a mathematician, this all seems very weird.

    I’m used to not understanding anything my colleague next door does. I’m used to having only a dozen people in the world understand or care about the research I do. Having other mathematicians do mathematics that doesn’t look anything like what I do is the normal state of affairs, and we generally regard the wide diversity of mathematics as a strength of the discipline. Some people even go to some pains to make sure their graduate students work on different topics so that they don’t compete with each other in the future.

    Theoretical physicists, on the other hand, seem to think that every other theoretical physicist in the world ought to be studying what they are studying, and regard studying something else as an attack on their work.

    Someone explain?

  11. The landscape is topical again – I give my own take on it on my blog http://www.fickleandfreckled.com

  12. Peter Woit says:

    quasihumanist,

    The culture of theoretical physics is quite different than that of mathematics, and there’s a lot to be said about how that works and the reasons for it.

    The story of the Stanford theorists and the anthropic landscape though is a very unusual and very peculiar one. It’s nothing like anything that I’ve heard of in mathematics, or actually in other areas of theoretical physics What’s going on here isn’t related to what theorists actually work on: at this point, virtually no one (including anyone at Stanford) is trying to pursue the research direction that would connect the landscape to experiment (try to map the landscape and make statistical predictions). Although this looked impossible from the beginning, a few people did work on it, then gave up as it became clear this is a road to nowhere.

    If you look at Joseph Conlon’s blog entry that he links to above, what you’ll see is a pretty typical opinion of string theorists about the landscape business: “far too soggy for physics”, i.e. not really science. The Stanford group has from the beginning been faced by the fact that this is what the great majority of their colleagues believe. They’ve reacted to this by running a rather successful publicity campaign. This campaign has been running out of steam recently, and I suspect it’s hard to get journalists to go along with it. Thus the odd situation of the Stanford press office being used as a promotional tool, even though there’s no advance in the subject to base a story on.

  13. Reg Taylor says:

    Reading the five sections as a whole it seems to me that, firstly, this is a popular exposition of a singular viewpoint – with all that that entails – and, secondly, the writers(s) aren’t fully on the side of the argument. Although ‘pro’ quotes by the main protagonists are used liberally the staff hacks appear to have tried to temper the claims with a degree of scepticism which is at odds with their paymasters; “the String Theory Landscape remains divisive among physicists”, “theoretical physicists at Stanford … sparked a fierce and still ongoing debate about what science is and what it should be”, “critics say the theory is ultimately untestable”.
    Whether the Stanford PR department has produced a useful contribution to the debate is questionable. It won’t offend believers, non believers may well be left wondering about the “odd situation of the Stanford press office being used as a promotional tool” and the rest of us will just write the whole thing off as a PR exercise and, ultimately, pointless.

  14. Lars says:

    *If you look at Joseph Conlon’s blog entry that he links to above, what you’ll see is a pretty typical opinion of string theorists about the landscape business: “far too soggy for physics”, i.e. not really science. The Stanford group has from the beginning been faced by the fact that this is what the great majority of their colleagues believe. They’ve reacted to this by running a rather successful publicity campaign*

    If that is indeed what Stanford has been doing (and I’ll have to take that claim at face value), I’d have to say that they have not been all THAT successful if it is also true that *a pretty typical opinion of string theorists about the landscape business: “far too soggy for physics”, i.e. not really science.*

    If that is indeed the case, why even bother writing about it on a blog?

    Hasn’t it already been decided among scientists? Isn’t that how science is supposed to work?

    Or, if the Stanford press release was intended for someone other than scientists, who might that be? Surely, John Q. Public neither knows nor cares about the string landscape.

  15. Peter Woit says:

    Lars,
    While I think the majority of physicists have a negative view of the landscape business, there are others who don’t, as well as many who just don’t understand what the controversy is about. This is one reason I continue writing about it.

    I think you underestimate the interest of John Q. Public in this kind of issue. Multi-million dollar book contracts are not unheard of for books about this aimed at the public.

    As for the question of who the Stanford PR effort is aimed at, the physicists involved in this are well aware that a crucial audience is not the public, and not practicing physicists, but those who control the money: university and funding agency administrators and wealthy donors. Few people read the output of the Stanford press office, but one of the main targets of that sort of press operation is exactly these people.

  16. Jeff says:

    Lars,

    I wouldn’t be as dismissive of the public’s interest. I think there is a decent percentage of folks who care; unfortunately, some of the interest is being generated by the unsubstantiated, “mind-blowing” claims coming out of places such as Stanford. And scientists don’t arise via spontaneous generation; one goal of the PR blitz is surely recruiting. Another goal is surely shoring up support for funding, most of which is set by non-string-theorists, or even non-scientists in general.

  17. GoletaBeach says:

    Yawn. Old news. The interesting stuff is out among the young experimentalists and phenomenologists grappling with new ways to detect the “darks” and weird new experiments at CERN, FNAL, and elsewhere. Any one of those experiments is quite a bit more interesting than KKLT etc.

  18. tulpoeid says:

    GoletaBeach and Lars, unfortunately it’s not yawn and old news. The part of the public that believes scientists have discovered the multiverse is real (with the aid of the landscape, the many-worlds interpretation and inflation [as if a multitude of unrelated possible causes lends credibility to a made-up outcome]) is growing.

    Personally I think the war is lost for this and the next generation – theoretical physics as a means of enlightenment of the humankind at large is regressing. But we have to keep fighting for the coming ones and also for the unaffected individuals; and after all, when I want to relax I remind myself that science does not equal academia.

    PS: Since you mention them, in general-physics experiments priority of allocation of resources has been determined to a large extent by which theories are deemed popular. Just to say that it’s not a purely philosophical issue, and it’s not only about theories without predictions (which of course affect funding on their own yada yada).

  19. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    Agreed. Other disciplines have their own diseases, but evidence-based remedies have at least a fighting chance of working to counteract them. Not so the multiverse.

    Fundamental physics, despite its daunting conceptual and technical challenges, is actually intensely interesting to many lay citizens. For many, it’s the only branch of the natural sciences they would bother to buy a popular book about and read. Whatever the reason for that, stories about what HEP theorists like Einstein and Hawking think about and do professionally might be the layperson’s most influential exposure to “science”. That this is obviously far too limited a sample to make a fair assessment and people generally ought to know better is both true and moot. For better or worse, the more “mind-blowing” the subject, the more eyeballs will be drawn. I’m as guilty as anyone of having the craving.

    I’m of the opinion the gains of scientific enlightenment can’t be taken for granted, and nearly everything I see in the news these days fills me with alarm. So when the most beguiling of scientific disciplines is infected with mutiverse mania to any degree, it’s a cause for some dismay. Though it should have an insignificant impact on the public perception of science, I tend to think it doesn’t at all. And that could be a serious problem.

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