# arXiv Weirdness

Some rather strange things are going on at the arXiv, especially in the hep-th section:

Besides the usual string theory papers, which just get more and more pointless as time goes on, some very weird things have started to appear on hep-th. Last night, there was a new paper entitled Amplitude for existence of spacetime points that makes no sense to me. It’s by Monica Dance, who seems to have no academic affiliation, but does have a Hotmail account. Not clear why the hep-th moderator allows this kind of thing. One explanation would be that earlier this year she put Symmetry limitations on quantum mechanical observers, and conjectured link with string theory on hep-th, an equally nonsensical document which presumably was all right because it had “string theory” in the title. Maybe once you get one paper about “string theory” on hep-th, you become an “active researcher” and can put whatever you want there.

Actually, to get to be an “active researcher” according to the arXiv, as long as you’re studying string theory, you don’t need to even ever have written a paper at all. Recall that arXiv trackbacks to this blog have been banned on the grounds that I’m not an “active researcher” (for more about this, go here). But this hep-th paper has a trackback to this blog entry by Nicola Ambrosetti. Ambrosetti’s blog contains some fine entries and having trackbacks to it makes good sense, but he appears to be a student at Neuchatel who has never written a paper, so I would have guessed that according to arXiv standards he wasn’t yet an “active researcher”. Maybe standards are different when your blog entries have titles like Barton Zwiebach Rules!.

Over the last few months I’ve written quite a few blog postings that discuss arXiv papers. In many cases I happen to think that either the posting or the discussion in the comment section is something that someone interested in the paper might find worthwhile. In the case of postings about string theory papers (here and here), non-string theory papers, and non-string theory papers claiming to be string theory papers, no trackbacks to my blog were allowed. This is what I expected, but for some mysterious reason, a trackback to this blog entry about a paper critical of string theory was allowed. So, it seems that the arXiv is allowing trackbacks to my blog entries only when they are about papers criticizing string theory.

None of this makes any sense to me, so I tried politely writing to the arXiv person at Cornell that my logs showed had examined my blog entry just before their trackback system generated a trackback to it, asking about what was going on. No response to that inquiry, as to all my other inquiries about arXiv trackback policy. To find out what their policy now is, I guess I’ll just have to wait for the relevant authorities to get around to posting a blog entry or writing a comment at some blog somewhere, since that seems to be their preferred manner of dealing with this issue.

Update: I did get an e-mail response from someone at Cornell about my enquiry about trackbacks. It didn’t address the question of how hep-th trackbacks are now being moderated, but did point out that the trackback system is still in an experimental state, that they have recently had significant personnel changes, and that sorting out the trackback system hasn’t been one of their highest priorities.

Update: Lubos is even more out there than usual with his comments on this. It seems that my objections to the Dance paper are an example of sexism.

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### 57 Responses to arXiv Weirdness

1. Todd says:

Doing a quick search I found that Monica Dance’s first paper posted on the arXiv was listed under quant-ph in 2004 using the name M. C. Dance. It apparently had something to do with the Holographic Principle. It also appears that she is a policy analyst for the EECA (Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority) in New Zealand.

2. Aaron Bergman says:

She was apparently at Auckland physics if this post is accurate.

3. Peter Erwin says:

I think you may be conflating the nebulous (and poorly defined) “active researcher” status, which is apparently necessary for your blog posts to be linked (except when it isn’t), with the ability to submit papers, for which all you need is: a) to have registered with the arXiv before they introduced their “endorsement” system; or b) to have been endorsed after that time by someone with the endorsement ability.

So there’s no a priori requirement, however well or poorly defined, to be an “active researcher” in order to submit papers anywhere in the arXiv.

4. Charlie Dance says:

A simple possibility might be that spacetime points $x$ have an amplitude of existence $E(x)$ consistent with this. The magnitude of $E(x)$ might be greater or less than 1 at any point $x$; or the relative values of $E(x)$ might be what matters. In a classical limit, a function like $E(x)$ might give the effect of a gravitational metric.

This seems perfectly reasonable to me. Can anybody here explain why $E(x)$ isn’t likely to give the effect of a gravitational metric? Couldn’t the gravitational metric, m, have an amplitude of existence, $E(m)$? Particles have amplitudes of existence, and they even have different amplitudes depending on whether you’re accelerating. Wouldn’t that explain the standard model?

5. Chris Oakley says:

Charlie,

A couple of wacky ideas turned out to be fruitful, namely special relativity and quantum mechanics, and many people have concluded from this that if an idea is wacky enough then it must be correct.

I do not agree with this. The idea that spacetime points may or may not exist according to some probability amplitude is certainly wacky, but without some examples of how the idea clarifies that which was unclear before, one has to put it in the same category as those insights into the nature of the universe which are gained when under the influence of recreational chemicals.

6. absolutely says:

I think Charlie was attempting humour, or else he’s the actor of same name genre-hopping.

7. Ali Yegulalp says:

Sometimes the web can be a very small place…

Monica Dance was a physics graduate student at Princeton in the early 90’s (same time as me). She went back home to New Zealand after about 3 years without finishing the PhD program, started studying medicine, and then I don’t know what happened after that. I knew her quite well in Princeton, but I haven’t heard from her in years.

8. abc says:

Maybe once you get one paper about ‘string theory’ on hep-th, you become an ‘active researcher’ and can put whatever you want there.

If this is the case the String Illuminati failed.

Judging from the references given by M. Dance it seems that as far as this is nonsense it is nonsense inspired by alternatives-to-string-theory (TM).

Which may happen…

9. anon says:

“In this model, the closer an object is to a mass or energy source, the more paths through spacetime might be available to the object in the direction of the mass/energy, or the higher the amplitude associated with such paths.” – Monica Dance

What part of this doesn’t make sense to you? Bring two objects together and anybody can see there is more space between and around them for path integrals.

It is not as if bringing things closer together will reduce the space for interactions … (I’m being sarcasm)

(I’ve got my own personal pet theory that is just slightly more radical. Perhaps if I FIRST write a positive constructive stringy paper on arxiv, they won’t delete a second later paper on the topic?)

[extensive off-topic material deleted]

10. Steve Myers says:

Quick respone to Monica Dance’s paper: it’s a joke, right? She’s showing the Arxiv will print anything (almost). As for $E(x)$?! Come on.

11. Sam says:

Oh no! Not another former Princeton Physics graduate student gone bad? Let’s all pile on about how stupid she is.

12. sunderpeeche says:

I was going to suggest that the Monica Dance paper may be a practical joke.

13. woit says:

Steve + sunderpeeche,

The problem with the idea that this is a joke is that it’s not funny.

Peter Erwin,

I was using “active researcher” in the arXiv sense of the term. They have announced that it doesn’t mean “active in research”, but is a term that cannot be defined (attempts to define it foundered when it turned out the hep-th moderator didn’t qualify as one). In practice it seems to mean “someone the hep-th moderator approves of”, and that’s how I was using it.

I’m well aware that there’s supposed to be a difference between the endorsement system for papers and the “active researcher” standard for trackbacks. The “active researcher” term is a piece of dishonesty created by the hep-th moderator, who announced that the usual endorsement system could not be used for trackbacks, since Peter Woit would “game the system” by getting endorsed. His other justification for this was that unlike papers, blog entries could not be individually moderated. The Monica Dance papers evidently were individually moderated and approved.

14. Sam says:

It’s not just hep-th. All the archives are drowning in trash papers. Look at hep-ph or gr-qc.

Clearly, their moderation system is a failure.

15. woit says:

Sam,

I think you’re right. Part of the problem is that when leading figures in theoretical physics start writing pseudo-science (e.g. the anthropic string theory landscape), it becomes impossible to have any rational standard that will allow them to keep publishing, but keep out other crackpot papers.

16. Sam says:

“Part of the problem is that when leading figures in theoretical physics start writing pseudo-science …. it becomes impossible to have any rational standard that will allow them to keep publishing, but keep out other crackpot papers.”

Yes, like the bird flu, string theory has destroyed, not just hep-th, but all branches of theoretical physics.

17. Lubos Motl says:

Nothing against Monica Dance personally, but I am pretty certain that these papers are completely nonsensical. Whether or not such papers or the previous papers by the same authors have “string theory” anywhere in the abstract is unphysical. (Lee Smolin’s also have “string theory” in them.) What matters is the content. The content is not string theory. It is an alternative to string theory – the kind of hypothetical stuff that Peter Woit and Lee Smolin call far.

Stuff that does not exist, and even if it exists, it is impossible to see it from the current state of knowledge.

The main message is that even in periods when progress is slow, it is very important to distinguish papers that are based on knowledge of existing phenomena and theories and that want to explain more about them, and papers that don’t. Dance’s paper is an example of the latter category, much like Sundance’s papers (with or without Lee Smolin).

People in theoretical physics must still learn quantum field theory and the non-phenomenological ones also string theory. If the community allows physics to be developed in the direction of these alternatives, it could be a real end of it, after a few years (one year is one decreasing e-folding once these mechanisms win).

18. sunderpeeche says:

A system like the ArXiv with moderators is prone to self-serving rubbish. Not all jokes are laugh-out-loud funny. Poor quality jokes (or poorly written jokes) can be very unfunny. Don’t give the paper more publicity than it deserves.

19. Sam says:

“A system like the ArXiv with moderators is prone to self-serving rubbish.”

Clearly, that’s what’s happened here.

“Don’t give the paper more publicity than it deserves.”

What? No more blog posts about stupid papers on hep-th?

20. woit says:

sunderpeeche,

As physics I don’t think the paper deserves to be publicized, but the fact that the arXiv moderation system is breaking down needs to be discussed and addressed by the particle theory community. This kind of breakdown already was becoming clear with the Bogdanov papers, but no one seemed very interested in addressing it at that time. It has just gotten much worse since then.

21. sunderpeeche says:

“What? No more blog posts about stupid papers on hep-th?”

Why do you want to waste your time on nonsense? Indeed, why am I writing this? Time to quit this thread and wait for something more sensible to be displayed on the blog.

22. Sam says:

“[T]he fact that the arXiv moderation system is breaking down needs to be discussed and addressed by the particle theory community. This kind of breakdown already was becoming clear with the Bogdanov papers…”

Bogdanov papers? On the archives? That’s terrible.

No wonder the archives are drowning in crap.

23. woit says:

Sam,

The Bogdanov papers were not posted on the arXiv. As far as I know they didn’t even submit them to the arXiv. They were published in several peer-reviewed journals, after gettting positive referee’s reports, and it was that breakdown in the refereeing system that I was referring to. That was a different case, but one root cause of the problem is the same.

24. woit says:

OK Lubos, the approval of the Dance papers is the fault of me and Lee Smolin. That makes perfect sense…

25. anonymous says:

You’re all missing the real point: her name is M.C. Dance! How awesome is that?

Seriously though, the arXiv is a pre-print server. Not everything there has to pass peer review. As long as the system works well enough to keep it from being completely overrun with crackpots, I would say it’s not a big concern.

26. Sam says:

“OK Lubos, the approval of the Dance papers is the fault of me and Lee Smolin. That makes perfect sense…”

Just like the idea that the crap papers all over the archives (not to mention the refereed physics literature) are the fault of the landscapeologists.

27. Peter Erwin says:

A couple of points:

I’d hesitate to conclude that all of the arXiv is “drowning in crap”; I wouldn’t say that’s the case for astro-ph, for example. Of course, almost all submissions to astro-ph come with self-labeled quality indicators: either it’s something presented at a conference (possibly interesting, but not well vetted), or it’s been submitted to a journal (potentially OK, but hasn’t been through peer review yet), or it’s already accepted by a journal (better chance of being OK). I admit to a certain bemusement when I glance over hep-th listings and see that the majority have no indication of whether there’s any connection to a journal or peer-review process.

Re Bogdanov and oddball papers showing up in arXiv: the problem is to figure out if there’s more at work than just the Recency Illusion and its cousin, the Frequency Illusion (see here for a discussion in the context of linguistics).

In other words, is there solid evidence that peer review, in general, is letting more nonsense through? Were there cases like the Bogdanov papers in the past, that have been conveniently forgotten?

28. Jimbo says:

I usually side with Peter on most of the topix discussed herein, but me thinks Prof. Woit is sulking a bit about his `inactive researcher’ status/stigma by the admins at ArXiv, and lashing out.
True, Ms. Dance may not have her PhD (neither does Freeman Dyson nor former Livermore NIF chief scientist Michael Cambell, nor many others), but neither PhD nor academic address implies scientifically viable work.
Hep-th needs novel ideas, apart from the standard schlock of mathematical masturbations, devoid of physical relevance, which regularly inundate its nightly postings.

29. woit says:

Jimbo,

Whether or not this author has a Ph.D. or not is thoroughly irrelevant, and not something that I raised. The problem with these papers is that they’re nonsense, not the qualifications or lack thereof of the author.

Yes, hep-th needs novel ideas. But it also needs a moderator who can recognize utter nonsense for what it is.

And no, I don’t think “sulking” is quite the right word to describe how I’m responding to the behavior of the arXiv hep-th moderators. It’s not like I’m not saying loudly and publicly what I think about this…

30. Sam says:

“But it also needs a moderator who can recognize utter nonsense for what it is.”

Was he the referee on the Bogdanov papers, too?

That would explain everything.

31. woit says:

Sam,

No, the problem is not one person.

32. Lubos Motl says:

Dear Peter,

of course that it is your fault and fault of Lee Smolin. It’s two of you, among others, who have been fighting for years to replace string theorists with crackpots. By “original independent ideas” which is how you call these cranks. Accepting papers of the same quality as Monica Dance’s paper or the paper about trinions has always been one of your main political goals.

The staff or arxiv.org accepted these papers to make two of you happier. You don’t like it either. You will complain until the end of your life but the real problem is that first of all, you have absolutely nothing to offer, and second of all, you discourage people from doing serious work.

Best
Lubos

33. I have not objection to bad papers in the arxiv. I have some about *repeated* papers, and worse if they are bad papers. Most emptypots do not innovate and thus the “version replacement” utility of the arxiv is handy to control it, instead of censorship.

34. Shantanu says:

Peter, let’s forget such papers. any comments on hep-ph/0605119
and gr-qc/0602086( which is discussed in http://www.world-science.net/othernews/060514_bouncefrm.htm)

35. SteveM says:

The arxiv really needs to stop accepting papers that are just empty or vague waffle, wishful thinking, philosophising and handwaving. That’s fine for coffee breaks or cocktail parties. Hard concrete and rigorous calculations that actually calculate or rigorously prove some very specific result or important /interesting point are becoming harder to find, and are actually difficult to produce–but that is why physics is hard! Even if you are into the mathematical side of things you still have to come up with some result or theorem or proof.A lot of people talk a good theory in english but then never really put anything into concrete mathematical terms or actually calculate anything; or else they make some general mathematical statements then go on about what they would like to be able to do, like to be able to calculate etc., but it never happens. A minimum criterion for acceptance should be that it contains an interesting result or concrete calculation.

36. Coffee break conversations are important. The path integral was developed as a follow-up of a coffee table conversation at Princeton (I never remember the name of the pub, it was an exotic island or so). Perhaps the physics/ cathegory should be better place than hep, but a lot of people tries first hep because moderators usually forbid cross-announcements (not really cross-posting) from physics to hep-yyy listings.

The use of diverse bulletins plus personal options in the listings (show/not show cross-posting, show/notshow replacements, filter, etc) could do better work. Also note than a lot of arxiv navigation is via SPIRES (or citebase) reference linking.

37. woit says:

Shantanu,

Sorry, but I’m no cosmologist and this isn’t a cosmology blog. Better to look for such a discussion at another place (e.g. CosmoCoffee).

38. Peter Shor says:

Alejandro Rivero’s comment seems to contain the germ of an idea for eliminating crank/vague/philosophical/handwaving papers posted to the arxiv. Somehow direct them to a separate category. (I will hereby preempt the smart aleck who is going to propose that we name it hep-no, short for nonsense, and put all landscape papers in it.)

39. Nigel says:

Can anyone define crank/vague/philosophical/handwaving without behaving like a crank, being vague, being philosophical and doing a lot of handwaving? And can you define these in such a way that they allow today’s 10/11-d string theory as not being crank, etc.

Kelvin’s vortex atom is the best good precedent for string theory. It was full of ad hoc predictions, but couldn’t do anything useful like predict subsequent discoveries. It might have been retained forever if radioactivity and nuclear physics hadn’t been discovered.

40. Lubos Motl says:

Dear Nigel,
google for *crackpot errors* and pick the first reference:

Best wishes
Lubos

41. Carl says:

They must be getting loose at arXiv because they asked me to resubmit my crank paper that predicts the neutrino masses to 6 decimal places (LOL):
http://brannenworks.com/MASSES2.pdf

But they want it in “physics” instead of “hep-ph”. I would guess that the reason for the liberality was that my paper was referenced by this paper:
http://www.arxiv.org/abs/hep-ph/0605074

Carl

42. Shantanu says:

Peter, point noted. However the first one hep-ph/0605119 is about collider particle physics and technicolor and has nothing to do with cosmology.

43. A.Torok says:

I support Lobus(seriously).

44. A Different Peter says:

Distinguishing cranky nonsense from genuine work is difficult for several reasons. One is that genuine, correct, work can appear to be gibberish if one is not intimately familiar with the topic involved. Another is that genuine researchers and Nobel Prize winners are not unknown to issue communications which appear to be just as incomprehensible and radical as the statements of certified crackpots. Another is that those who have made conceptual mistakes, and are now presenting some ridiculous assertion as a result, will defend their assertion for as long as they can, just as any competent physicist presenting a counter-intuitive but correct theory would.

A part of the problem is that physicists today do not have the time to devote to the unrewarding task of examining the claims of everybody who thinks they have a great idea about physics. Without investing this time and effort, it will be impossible to distinguish crackpots from undiscovered geniuses. It will not be possible to simultaneously satisfy those who want to ethnically cleanse the crackpots and those who want a source of original ideas. If you want to keep out the crackpots without being prepared to talk to the crackpots and discover exactly why they’re wrong, then you’re going to have to reject all ideas which aren’t part of the mainstream.

So the choices are:

1. A slow and tedious process of carefully examining every claim and checking the validity of every argument. This is peer review.
2. Let the crackpots through the filter and some good ideas might come through as well. This is what the arxiv has always been, but it was better when fewer crackpots knew about it.
3. Accept what’s mainstream and reject everything else, Lubos style. If you want to do this, string theory is the theory for you.

Any other ideas?

45. Tony Smith says:

Carl said “… arXiv … asked ..[him]… to resubmit …[his]… crank paper that predicts the neutrino masses …”.

Did arXiv ask by sending an e-mail, or how?

Carl may be right that arXiv changed its mind because his “… paper was referenced by
http://www.arxiv.org/abs/hep-ph/0605074 …”, which is a paper by Yoshio Koide of the University of Shizuoka, “supported in part by the … Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, Japan …”.

Is this the first case of arXiv’s blacklisting causing it to be embarrassed
when the work that arXiv blacklisted as crank
is found to be useful
(in this case, by non-USA Japanese who are outside the USA physics establishment and its consensus-enforcement mechanisms) ?

Tony Smith
http://ww.valdostamuseum.org/hamsmith/

46. Richard says:

Peter Shor said — “Alejandro Rivero’s comment seems to contain the germ of an idea for eliminating crank/vague/philosophical/handwaving papers posted to the arxiv. Somehow direct them to a separate category.”

I recently received an arXiv math daily title/abstract distribution email with a reference to a paper entitled A Concise and Direct Proof of “Fermat’s Last Theorem” (listed as 4 pages long). It was placed into the General Mathematics category.

47. LDM says:

Is it Ms Dance’s paper and its content, or its acceptance by arXiv, that is the problem here…or both?

Ultimately,you are known by your work, and if you want to publish scientific rubbish, then that is the scientific reputation you will develop…

I would suggest http://compbiol.plosjournals.org/perlserv/?request=get-document&doi=10.1371/journal.pcbi.0010057 as an excellent guide to temper overly enthusiastic journal submissions, with emphasis on point 10.

However, I disagree with Woit’s claim, that the article is nonsensical.

I would rather make the objection that the ideas in this paper are so underdeveloped and so loose, that it is not appopriate for a scientific paper…and that this type of communication should continue to be confined to private correspondence (or even blogs)

48. Chris Oakley says:

I would rather make the objection that the ideas in this paper are so underdeveloped and so loose, that it is not appopriate for a scientific paper…and that this type of communication should continue to be confined to private correspondence (or even blogs)

Right. Here is a wacky idea. The author needs to do more to convince us that it is worth taking seriously. Even that wacky idea Superstrings can point to the possibility that they might be able to reproduce GR (although I am still not sure of the situation there).

49. Nigel says:

Dear Lubos,

Kelvin’s ‘crackpot errors’ in predicting the vortex atom are just the same as string theory’s. There were NO testable predictions. (Radioactivity and nuclear structure were totally unexpected, and disproved the vortex atom.) More on grand mainstream cranks:

Helge Kragh, ‘The Vortex Atom: A Victorian Theory of Everything’, Centaurus 44 (1-2), 32-114.

‘Each atom, pictured as a ring with some set of possible oscillations …

‘Here in principle, Thomson [Lord Kelvin] asserted, was the foundation of what we might now call a grand unified theory of light and matter. “Helmholtz’s rings are the only true atoms,” Thomson confidently declared.’ – http://fermat.nap.edu/books/0309090733/html/266.html

50. phenomenologist says:

Motl: “People in theoretical physics must still learn quantum field theory and the non-phenomenological ones also string theory”

What a claim! Is finally lubos accepting string theory has nothing to do with the phenomenological world ???
Or is he promoting a new role for physics?
I wonder what does he consider himself…