Apologies for too much recent posting here about the tired topic of the string wars. I hope to soon make amends by writing about something new I learned about geometric Langlands.
The summer 2015 issue of Perspectives in Science has an excellent article about the debate over string theory entitled Contested Boundaries: The String Theory Debates and Ideologies of Science (also available here), by Sophie Ritson and Kristian Camilleri. It deals with the debate from a point of view bringing together aspects of history, philosophy and sociology, while staying away from the technical aspects of the controversy.
The article has an interesting take on the debate, not taking sides as to who is right or wrong, but examining what the central issues have been and the ways people involved have chosen to make their case. One point made that I’d never thought of is that while this debate concerns an issue that comes up often, that of the boundary of what is science and what isn’t, here the usual roles are reversed:
In most scientific controversies in which we find scientists engaging in boundary work, the boundary dispute is generally over whether an unorthodox or minority view or approach should be regarded as science, pseudoscience, or pathological science. UFOology, parapsychology, intelligent design, and cold fusion all represent cases of this sort. The “ideological attempts to define science,” as Gieryn explains, are largely motivated by the desire “to justify and protect the authority of science by offering principled demarcations from poachers or impostors” (Gieryn 1999, p. 26). However, in the case of string theory, it is the dominant research program in a well-established field of science that has been forced to defend its credentials as “scientific” (Taylor 1996, pp. 177–9).
This presents an intriguing departure from most studied episodes of boundary work. String theory currently enjoys a privileged status by virtue of being the dominant paradigm within theoretical physics. Yet string theorists have found themselves forced to defend the scientific legitimacy of their research against charges that it has degenerated into a form of “metaphysics,” “non-science,” or “bad science.” In doing so, string theorists have attempted to “loosen” the methodological definition of science, while critics try to impose a stricter definition.
The emphasis of the article is on the string theory debate, not the multiverse, and I’m (accurately) quoted as defending string theory as “scientific”. When I wrote about this in my book back in 2002-3, I had no idea that multiverse pseudo-science would take hold among prominent theorists, a situation that raises issues I never thought would come up (the sort of thing Steinhardt is hoping for help with from the philosophers, see the last posting). The parts of the book about the “is it science?” question are ones I would write differently today, based on both recent history and new things I’ve learned about the philosophy of science.