Censored Comments From Asymptotia

Warning: There’s not much science in this posting, just mostly people behaving badly. You would be well advised to skip this one, unless you find this kind of thing entertaining…

Long ago, as a public service, I set up a posting to hold comments censored by Lubos Motl, since his preferred way of dealing with people who make comments he finds hard to answer is to delete them. It appears that now a place for inconvenient comments censored by Clifford Johnson at his blog Asymptotia is also needed. If you have a copy of a substantive comment deleted from there or want to discuss one of these, you can use the comment section here.

Since the first thing censored was one of my comments, I’ll provide a little background, then reproduce the censored material I have access to.

This exchange began with this comment from Clifford, which seemed to me to be little more than an out-of-control personal attack and rant, so my only response to it was:


As time goes on and the failure of string theory becomes more apparent, you are starting to rant in a manner which is converging with that of your junior colleague at Harvard. You should get a grip.

Not very long after I wrote this comment, the following comment appeared from Lubos Motl:

Dear Mr Woit,

your answer to Prof Mark Srednicki is absurd. The quark theory that Mark was writing about talks about physics at essentially the same energy scale as the effective theories with hundreds of hadrons from the first part of his story, namely hundreds of MeV. Also, the quark theory would be hard to test using the normal experiments at the QCD scale – which is essentially a low-energy scale – because one would have to calculate very complicated properties about bound states of quarks, and there are many of them etc. QCD is only easily testable at higher energies where it becomes weakly coupled.

Mark’s gedanken experiment was designed to be isomorphic to the situation of string theory and if there is a difference, then the difference is that the natural scale of string theory is way above the observable scale so that the gap in string theory is greater than in the nuclear story, not in the other way around as you incorrectly wrote. Every physicist who has read Mark’s comment knows it and understands it. The only reason why you argue that there is a significant difference between the two examples is that you don’t understand how these theories actually work.

The fact that you find quantum gravity uninteresting is not surprising for me at all. At any rate, the key arguments – the mathematical robust ones – about questions such as the information loss came from string theory and everyone who was interested in these things – such as Stephen Hawking – knows this, too. Hawking admitted that the information is preserved primarily because of the AdS/CFT correspondence.

Concerning the anthropic principle, every scientist who has a sufficient talent and who has looked into it understands that there have emerged all kinds of reasons – not just pure string theory research – to think that the anthropic picture could be correct which is why this possibility must be seriously investigated, together with other possibilities. The people who are completely ignorant about everything could of course share your simple-minded and radical opinions but I think it would be a very bad idea if the people who are ignorant were deciding about the direction of the research done by the people who are not ignorant. You are effectively confessing that your goal is to manipulate people who can be easily manipulated – because they know nothing about the current state of knowledge in high-energy physics – and use them as a political force. I think it is deeply immoral and unscientific.

Dear Clifford, your value has increased in my eyes after the individual above compared you to me!

All the best

This was followed by a similar comment attacking Smolin for what he had written about the black hole information paradox, and Smolin responded with a short and polite answer (I don’t have copies of these).

Clifford has edited my original comment, removing “in a manner which is converging with that of your junior colleague at Harvard”, and replacing it with “…snip … – personal reference deleted -cvj”. He has also removed the comments from Lubos and the response by Smolin, replacing them with this comment. Here he claims to have deleted these comments without reading them, since, for undisclosed reasons, he has a policy of deleting all comments from Lubos. Whatever the reason for this policy, he does want to make clear to everyone that he has a high opinion of Lubos as a scientist, and for his work at the Reference Frame “widening the discussion” about physics:

Since I have a great deal of respect for his ability as a physicist, however, if he was making a physics point in his comments, perhaps he might make it on his blog and link to this discussion via trackback. I thank him for his physics contributions and widening the discussion.

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35 Responses to Censored Comments From Asymptotia

  1. Chuckles says:

    You are quite correct of course; as demonstrating things to be true, or deduction from axioms and postulates is the province of mathematics and hardly that of science – even less of the wildly speculative endeavor in physics known as string theory. Perhaps Johnson misunderstood your point. Though how he could have is beyond me – since you pointed out so generously that logically consistency is hardly the defining feature of good science.

  2. Ari Heikkinen says:

    “I thank him for his physics contributions and widening the discussion.”

    Heh, I thought his main contributions have been to denounce most of his colleagues (other than string theorists) as crackpots, idiots or otherwise incompetent people (kind of strong claims considering when you walk in say any city and look around there isn’t anything that would have anything “string theory” in it).

  3. Chris Oakley says:

    I am posting this comment in the hope that it will be deleted, along with the other comments, and remainder of the post. Sorry, Peter, but I am sure that you have got better things to do.

  4. Hmmm says:

    I question any self respecting scientist whose policy it is to leave up a Lubos comment…..regardless of what is says.

  5. Nigel says:

    The following sentence among others ‘snipped for brevity’ from my comment http://asymptotia.com/2007/03/23/questions-and-answers-about-theories-of-everything/#comment-34707

    ‘What’s completely unique about string theory is that it has managed to acquire public respect and credulity in advance of any experimental confirmation.’

    I’m not upset about this. It should have been written differently:

    ‘String theory is completely unique in science because

    (1) it’s based entirely on unobservables (unobserved spin-2 gravitons, unobserved supersymmetric partners for all observed particles for unobserved unification near Planck scale, unobserved extra dimensions, unobserved branes),

    (2) it fails to predict anything checkable after decades of research,

    (3) it is hyped and celebrated in advance of success.’

  6. Peter Woit says:


    Yes, that was my point. One can have rigorous theorems telling one about the properties of the mathematical formalism one is using to model the real world, but you can’t have a “theorem” about the real world. You have to do experiments to test whether your formalism accurately models the real world.

  7. tomj says:

    It seems to me that the problem is exactly in widening the discussion. Maybe the tipoff should have been wide terms like ‘theory of everything.’ There is no method to distinguish what is in or out, that very idea seems to be the only thing not accounted for in the ‘theory of everything’. Maybe string theory is ‘wide science’, much better than exact science.

  8. Peter Woit says:


    I don’t want to encourage you or others to write repetitive critical comments about string theory either on Clifford’s blog or elsewhere. If you do this on my blog I’m likely (depending on how busy I am…) to delete it, so I certainly don’t criticize Clifford for deleting this kind of thing from his.

  9. Theo says:

    Surely the “great deal of respect for his ability as a physicist” comment referred to Smolin, who was the most recent antecedent?

  10. relativist says:

    “… he has a policy of deleting all comments from Lubos”. Seems eminently sensible to me. Greatly improves the tone of the discussion.

  11. DB says:

    I think Clifford’s comment refers to Lubos, not Lee Smolin, as it goes on to mention “his blog”. AFAIK, Smolin does not have a blog.

  12. Carl Brannen says:

    What I’ve been surprised by him in the recent tempest has been his willingness to criticize books that he’s never read based on his reading of comments made by people who also refused to read it. I’m amazed that Clifford puts up with me as much as he does. Maybe it’s because I’m a big Clifford algebra fan.

    I might as well ask for you to add LaTex in comments like Clifford has. (Makes whining sound.)

  13. Peter Woit says:


    It’s quite clear he is referring to Lubos, not Smolin, partly because of the reference to the blog (Lubos has one, Smolin doesn’t).

    Despite repeated attempts, I never was able to get Clifford to criticize in any way Lubos’s behavior as a string theory defender of the faith. It seems he approves of that, just can’t tolerate what he sees as Lubos’s racism and sexism. Many string theorists seem to find Lubos very sound when it comes to physics, a crackpot on other topics. Personally I find him rather consistent.


    There is LaTeX in the comments (if not in the preview), but I’m a much less tolerant guy than Clifford when it comes to off-topic comments, even if they are about one of my favorite topics, Clifford algebras.

  14. LDM says:

    I tend to agree with Chris Oakley …

    HOWEVER, Blogs are a new phenomena…and as many people put stock in what they read in blogs (not just physics blogs for that matter), there could be some real value in a site that tracks deleted comments to Asymptotia otherwise you can get this mechanism:

    1) Somebody (a journalist?) searchs Google , finds Blog A
    2) He finds some statement on Blog A that answers his query
    3) Accept this answer as fact because he found it on the internet (sad, but this happens)

    …but, now add:
    4) Peter’s proposed site would presumably show up in a Google search and thus be a partial remedy to 3)

    Granted, this may not be Peter’s original motivation, but such a site would be useful.

  15. John Baez says:

    I find it a bit tendentious to use the term “censorship” to describe what people are doing when they delete unwanted comments on their blogs. Maybe it’s true according to some definitions of this term. But, at least in the United States, “censorship” has a connotation of “violation of the First Amendment right to free speech”. This right is not violated when Prof. X deletes Prof. Y’s comments on Prof. X’s blog — just as it’s not violated when a newspaper refuses to publish a given letter to the editor.

    Of course, it’s somehow more annoying to put a comment on a blog and then have it deleted, than it is to submit a letter or article for publication and not have it accepted. It’s there — and then it’s gone! Censorship!!!

    This annoyance is part of the price we pay for a quick exchange of comments. The older, slower system of moderated newsgroups was closer to newspapers, where articles must be accepted for publication before anyone sees them.

    But even in the old days, when I was moderating sci.physics.research and I’d refuse to accept an article, I’d sometimes get accused of “censorship”. I found that a bit tiresome. Hence this mini-rant.

    Go ahead — censor me. 🙂

  16. Peter Woit says:

    Hi John,

    The “censorship” thing here is a bit tongue-in-cheek, maybe I should put smileys in there or something. Like you I’ve had all too much experience trying to moderate on-line discussions, have done plenty of “censoring” in my time, and think a certain degree of it is healthy and necessary.

    This posting isn’t really about “censorship”, but just a little documentation of Clifford Johnson’s behavior, which a few people fanatical enough to follow the details of some of these obscure battles in the string wars might want to know about (didn’t you read the “Warning” at the top?)

    Personally I thought it was pretty funny late last night, when, after responding to Clifford’s Lubosian rant (“Do you actually teach any young people physics? Or any science? I dearly hope not.”) by pointing out that it was, well, Lubosian, Lubos immediately wrote in with more of the same and a message of support for Clifford. Clifford’s reaction to this, deleting my comment, claiming not to have read Lubos’s, and praising him for his talents as a physicist and for “widening the discussion”, was, as he says, priceless. I couldn’t help myself, I had to share.

    I keep telling people my next book is going to be a comic novel, cut and pasted from various blog entries and e-mails. I really need to keep this material somewhere….

  17. roy says:

    I really do think that you’re making a fuss out of nothing here. Clifford is perfectly correct in removing personal attacks. If he does not do that consistently you could accuse him of hypocrisy though. Otherwise I think these string discussions are becoming more and more like pointless rants; someone–all of you– need to drag it back squarely to physics. It is not nice to see scientists wallow in this sort of personal attack laden filth. And Lubos should be kept away from all discussions– he is simply incapable of writing anything without insulting someone, and it seems, people like to write equally silly things about him.(Including probably this comment!) That said, I don’t see why he should not be respected as a physicist. His papers are all right.

    Please, please, all of you, get back to physics and mathematics and stay there. Much nicer that way.

  18. Peter Woit says:


    Clifford is not “removing personal attacks”, he is making them (“Do you actually teach any young people physics? Or any science? I dearly hope not.”). You could ask him, but I’m pretty sure the reason he removed Lubos’s comments (which were similar in tone to his own) had nothing to do with them being “personal attacks”, but because he feels that Lubos is a racist and sexist (and it’s pretty embarassing to have someone like that appear on one’s blog, behaving in much the same way as oneself…).

  19. Roy says:

    I agree Peter, Clifford should have removed that bit as well. It was nasty and personal. I think in general it would be a good idea if people could simply control their tempers. I’m not taking any sides here– too many people are looking at this thing as something of a trench warfare.

    On Lubos, even if Lubos weren’t sexist or racist, he should be prevented from spewing his juvenile rants on anything. He has an uncanny ability to reduce a discussion to a brawl. That alone merits removal of his comments. One should perhaps give Clifford a benefit of doubt on the Lubos point.

    All I am trying to say is that people should be a bit more respectful when in a scientific discussion– after all this is not, and should never be, personal.

  20. Peter Woit says:


    I do agree with you that personal attacks don’t belong in scientific discussions. When people start making them, it’s often a sign that they’re on the weak side of the scientific argument. I’m sure I’ve too often responded intemperately to a lot of the attacks that have come my way, I wish I had the much more even-tempered demeanor of Lee Smolin, who manages to respond politely no matter what sort of abuse he is subjected to.

    But I really do wish people would read my warning, and only those who enjoy this nonsense would bother to pay attention to this posting.

  21. Chris Oakley says:


    Since the post is still here, let me expand on what I was saying earlier, probably supported by LDM above. The battle (deflating ST hype) is won … when journalists write something about String Theory now, they generally call you or Lee Smolin up for the “sceptical” view. They did not do that before. The only purpose served by getting into pissing contests with String Theorists in the blogosphere is in getting them to reveal themselves as more crazy than those who criticise them. With Lubos that battle also is won. With the others I really do not think it is not worth the extra stress. Far better just to keep us updated on what is happening in the world of physics, plus your own efforts to use representation theory to solve QFT problems. I personally am sceptical of the latter, so prove me wrong!

  22. woit says:

    Oh no. If you don’t find this entertaining Chris, it looks like I’ve lost what I thought of as my hard-core audience.

    OK, no more. Off to Princeton to learn about the latest developments on the representation theory and QFT front….

  23. Chris Oakley says:

    For a blog to be good it has to be entertaining, informative, or both, and Not Even Wrong normally scores highly on both. I still savour the discussion about galactic-scale superstrings. The background noise here – which was considerable – mostly only enhanced the entertainment.

  24. tomj says:

    The Clifford post had this statement: “No-go theorems (and things in that spirit) are often the starting point for wonderful discoveries in science.”

    I’ve been wasting my time reading Einstein’s _Relativity_, which says something of the antithesis of this. I’ll quote in a second, but I just want to also ask if Peter believes that physicists don’t have theorems, or if theorems are the same as theories? My concept is that we start with observation. This leads to speculation and maybe curiosity and prediction and more focused observation. Maybe a theory falls out. This is a process known as the scientific method. String theory, as described here and everywhere is stuck somewhere in this loop, but has never completed even one cycle, there is no feedback as of yet. So we have to have a theory to advance beyond where we are, but how to advance? Shouldn’t we start with data which doesn’t fit our current theory, or some principle which is easy to verbalize or quantify which could be applied to current theory. For instance, the anthropic principle doesn’t fall into this category because there is no unexplained data, and it isn’t clear how to apply it to current theory.

    The quote from _Relativity_ (pg 66):

    “No fairer destiny could be allotted to any physical theory, than that it should of itself point out the way to the introduction of a more comprehensive theory, in which it lives on as a limiting case.”

    The link between current theory and a future theory must be done via the clear statement of some principle. It is speculation if the principle is useful. But the starting point should be the immediate recovery of the current situation. It should explain why we are deluded to think our current theory is incomplete. There must be some benefit, maybe even some beauty.

    I’m not sure why anyone has to understand string theory to ask for the principle upon which it is speculated to rest. It is like being given a map but not knowing where you are on the map.

  25. amused says:

    Peter, don’t worry, some of your audience finds this stuff most entertaining. We want more! 😉
    If stringers sling mud at you it is perfectly natural and appropriate to sling some back…

    One thing I find striking in these “discussions” is the contrast between the knee-jerk reactions and simplistic views/arguments of the younger hard-core stringers (Aaron Bergman is an exception)
    and the more reasonable, balanced and intelligent responses of senior stringers such as Polchinski and Harvey. Anyone have a theory for why that might be?

  26. Peter Woit says:


    Glad to hear someone else is amused by the spectacle. That people who consider themselves among the smartest in the world would behave this way and make these kinds of arguments seems to me quite a fascinating part of the human comedy.

    People behave very differently in the face of legitimate criticism, a lot of this is just differences in character and emotional makeup. But string theory fanaticism does seem to be at its worst among the young. Lubos, Clifford and Jacques have spent their entire professional lives during the period of string theory dominance, trained in the subject at the heights of enthusiasm for the theory. I think they have a real problem even conceptualizing the idea that some of the core beliefs they were inculcated with could be wrong. To them, anyone claiming that must clearly just be ignorant, or not have learned the subject as well as they have.

    Older people trained during the height of enthusiasm for gauge theory may often have more of a perspective on all this. Another factor sometimes at work is that, at least for some people, as they get older they get a bit wiser, and less often act like jackasses.

  27. A scientist ideologically may be a ‘Platonist’: one who believes reality can be modeled by an ideal, yet-to-be-discovered set of absolutely TRUE, mathematical ‘laws’, which will exactly describe what can be observed;

    or a pragmatist: one who looks at models as provisional guesses, that ALWAYS must depend upon realty checks.

    Cliff Johnson and Mark Srednicki construct arguments that make it appear that they’re Platonists…but not all of the time. If they were, it would be easy to see the source of their chagrin with critics of ST, and there wouldn’t be much point in arguing the matter further.

    I tried this out on them, on Questions and Answers on the Theory of Everything-Asymptotia #36. I wasn’t censored…but drew no response!

    (I was “trained (even before) the height of enthusiasm for gauge theory.”)

  28. King Ray says:

    There is no doubt that string theorists are very intelligent, however they lack physical intuition, an aesthetic sense of beauty and simplicity, and are not independent thinkers (how could so many independent thinkers all think the same way?).

    Einstein always felt that his greatest assets were his nose (physical intuition), his sense of beauty and simplicity, and his ability to think independently.

    You could be the greatest machete brush clearing person in the world, but if you always go off in the wrong direction in the jungle, that is not going to help you. Your ability will just allow you to get further off track more quickly.

  29. JC says:


    Do you remember any prominent bootstrap analytic S-Matrix old timers, being really vocal about string theory after 1984? (I can’t think of any offhand). Folks like Geoff Chew seemed to be relatively silent on the subject of string theory.

  30. Nigel says:

    ‘I don’t want to encourage you or others to write repetitive critical comments about string theory either on Clifford’s blog or elsewhere.’ – Peter Woit

    My point is how unique string theory is in being the world’s only grossly celebrated failed theory! Clifford earlier made the repetitive statement that string theory is not unique, so the controversy over it could equally apply broadly in academic science to funding problems facing any non-mainstream projects.

    This is false since every other known mainstream theory in science has some kind of evidence behind it!

    Therefore, it is a new point – not a repetitive criticism – that string theory is the only known example of a mainstream theory both unfounded on experimental fact and unable to produce checkable predictions, existing anywhere in science. Even the mainstream model of cosmology, the Lambda-CDM, is an ad hoc a fit of general relativity to the observed data, which is checkable to a certain extent by extrapolation and new data coming in. String theory is not even an ad hoc way to explain the standard model of particles, gravity or the small cosmological constant. It’s a religion.

    Has anybody ever emphasized before how unique the mainstream string theory crisis is? If string theorists do succeed in changing the definition of ‘science’ to mean uncheckable mainstream speculations about ‘truth’, this might infect science widely, supporting the merger of religion and mainstream science.

  31. Peter Woit says:


    By 1984 it was 20 years after the heyday of the bootstrap, and the kind of string theory and mathematics being used was completely different than the analyticity techniques of the bootstrap, so the two things had little to do with each other.

    On the other hand, the younger people who during the late 60s and early 70s worked on dual models and early versions of string theory were quite enthusiastic about the rebirth of string theory after 1984 (Veneziano, Susskind, Mandelstam, Kaku, etc., etc….).

  32. adam says:

    I notice that Motl’s wikipedia page is again up for deletion. Also that it appears that a mention of Motl can get comments deleted elsewhere or, at least it seemed that way to me when I made a reference to him in a CV comment that seemed to get deleted. But maybe I am just senile and forgot to submit it, or there was something else in my post that was so offensive that it Could Not Stand. Given the ‘he who must not be mentioned’ type of references in comments in, say, Chad Orzel’s April Fool’s blog entry, I guess that I just missed some collective attempt to starve Motl of the ‘oxygen of publicity’.

    I agree with John Baez that deleting blog comments isn’t the Crime of the Century; it is, after all, that blogowner’s own sandpit. I am not sure what is achieved by deleting all of Motl’s comments, however; he might be considered to be unpleasant by many but his manner is not generally as offensive as his ideas (some will feel that that’s damning with faint praise), although he is rude.

    I personally find Motl’s attitude to people that question string theory irritating: he appears like a ‘You puny humans, YOU CANNOT UNDERSTAND!’ movie villian. His social and political opinions, which I generally don’t share, he is generally prepared to debate openly and in a more considered fashion, it seems to me. Clifford may have his objections the wrong way around, if it really is for Motl’s beliefs that he’s deleting the comments, rather than for the way that he expresses them. I don’t know what Clifford’s thinking, however. I certainly have no idea what Motl’s thinking.

  33. Peter Woit says:


    Deleting comments, not just by Lubos, but by anyone who mentions his existence, I think is a tactic designed mainly to deal with the fact that he is a huge embarassment to string theorists, an embarassment that they would like to hide and eliminate any reference to. There is a case to be made for automatically deleting Lubos’s comments because of his behavior, but I don’t see the case for deleting comments that refer to this. The guy is a major figure in the string theory community, with many people in it having a high opinion of him, and not seeming to have a problem with his behavior. Two out of three of the very recent string theory textbooks carry Lubos’s endorsement on their covers, a fact which speaks for itself.

    Clifford Johnson makes it pretty clear that it’s not Lubos’s tactics in arguing for string theory that he has a problem with (he allows personal attacks in his comment section, often anonymous ones, engages in them himself, and writes approvingly of others). He goes so far as to praise Lubos as a physicist and thank him for “widening the discussion”.

  34. adam says:

    Peter: It’s a damn good thing that William Shockley never had access to blogs. He’d probably feature pretty high up anyone’s* ‘evil winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics’ list.

    If Motl really does get comments deleted because his other opinions are embarassing to people in his field, that’s pretty silly. There have always been nasty or otherwise unloveable people in physics and every other area of human endeavour. One thing that is genuinely interesting to me about the string theory debate in which you are engaged is that the phony politeness (at least in the public eye) of the academic physics community is evaporating somewhat as the debate heats up. I know that there have been hot debates before, but this is the first one where I’ve met some of the combatants (rather briefly, in most cases, and not including yourself or Motl).

    *Anyone except Motl, perhaps.

  35. Peter Woit says:


    The nature of the debate certainly has been an eye-opener about human nature. Especially seeing someone mild-mannered like Clifford Johnson descend into irrationality, Lubosian attacks and ranting as his view of the world is threatened has been something amazing to watch.

    The number of people involved is still a small fraction of the string theory community, and the attitudes of most of the string theorists I know (adjusting for how likely they are to be polite in what they say to me) seem to be pretty different. While they’re not happy about my activities, and annoyed especially at some of the unfair public criticism that has come their way because of this, they’re well aware that string theory has serious problems and is not doing well (some are willing to characterize the field as “in crisis”). I’ve not run into any string theorist who, in private conversation, has told me that he thinks string theory research is doing fine.

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