Some History of Science

The period of the “String Wars” has now receded far enough into the past that it has become a topic of interest to historians of science. I learned today from Sabine Hossenfelder’s round-up of various articles addressing the history and sociology of string theory that Sophie Ritson has published an article on the 2006 “trackback” controversy. It’s a fairly straight-forward account of that story, based on publicly available sources, emphasizing the interesting issues raised about science blogging.

While the article deals with the 2006 history, what has happened since then sheds some light on the topic, for example making clear that the “active researcher” business was always a red herring. Within a couple years after 2006 I noticed that arXiv trackbacks were appearing to all sorts of sources obviously not “active researchers” (for example, Slashdot articles). I tried to find out what the new arXiv policy was, but got nowhere. At one point I decided to do some experimental work, setting up a fanboy string theory site, trashing string theory critics and enthusing over the multiverse. An arXiv moderator took a quick look, and decided the anonymous author qualified (see discussion here). I realize this was obnoxious behavior, but thought it at least had a chance of goading the arXiv moderators into revealing their current policy. No dice. Every so often I’ve tried again to contact someone associated with the arXiv to ask what their policy is, but this has never led anywhere. Sabine describes the current arXiv trackback policy as “one of the arXiv’s best-kept secrets”. If you look at recent arXiv trackbacks you’ll see that the list is dominated by links from the excellent MathOverflow site, but also includes links from a wide variety of other sources that clearly are not “active researchers” (for instance: New York Times stories, press releases on, MIT Technology Review weekly lists of arXiv papers, and Quanta magazine stories).

Besides the secret nature of the current policy, the odd way in which the “active researcher” policy came to light is rather remarkable. This all started back in August 2005 (see here) and at that point trackbacks pointing to this blog were appearing. A few months later that stopped and, wondering why, I wasted a lot of time trying to contact people associated with the arXiv to find out what was going on. I finally heard from a Cornell administrator that links to my blog were not being allowed for an undisclosed reason, and I wrote about that here. Sean Carroll picked up the story here, and a former member of the arXiv editorial board revealed the “active researcher” policy in a comment at that blog entry. This I gather forced Jacques Distler into a public discussion of the policy here, which I commented on here. The Ritson article covers this part of the story in some detail.

So, bringing 2006 history up to date, I have no idea what the current arXiv trackback policy is, other than that they’ve found some new criterion other than the “active researcher” one to justify blocking trackbacks from Not Even Wrong. I guess this will remain “one of the arXiv’s best-kept secrets”, at least until someone accidentally reveals all in a blog comment somewhere…

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19 Responses to Some History of Science

  1. MathPhys says:

    It’s scary to realize that ‘active researchers’ can engage in clandestine behavior such as described. The varnish of decency is thin.

  2. Inevitably, when a “policy” remains strangely a secret, it turns out to be the arbitrary judgment (i.e., personal “likes” and “dislikes”) of a single or a few individuals. It means you can’t trust the system behind the enterprise.

  3. CIP says:

    Using a combination of intuition and certain ESP-like effects inherent in String Theory, I have deduced the arXiv trackback policy: ” No trackbacks for Peter Woit.”

    That is all

  4. Henry L. says:


    Do you have any suspicions about their reason for blocking your blog, which you would be willing to share?

  5. KJ says:

    It seems to me that someone determined enough to find out the arXiv trackback policy could do so by exploiting the various sources of public funding they receive and open-records laws. Cornell itself is a sort of public-private hybrid. Several public institutions are “members” and get a seat at the decision-making table. Donations to arXiv are tax-deductible, which makes it subject to certain sunshine laws. Surely at least one source of their money makes them subject to an open-records law that could be used to out the trackback policy if one was willing to put enough time into figuring out which one. I am certainly not such a person, but a science journalist or open-records activist interested in the subject might be.

  6. Peter Woit says:

    Henry L.,
    The two people who seem to have something to do with this are Jacques Distler and Joe Polchinski. I’ve never met either of them personally, but they’ve both made clear that they are deeply upset and offended by my views about string theory and the multiverse. As far as I can tell, that’s the reason behind this. As for what excuse they are now using for the trackback business, now that the “active researcher” one seems no longer being used, I honestly have not the slightest idea. And I think that’s intentional, since it means that I can’t argue against it…

  7. Peter Woit says:

    Personally I’ve already wasted too much time on this. I’m in the odd position of having spent a lot of time back in 2005-6 in order to find out the “policy”, it’s hard to get motivated to go through that again, in order to find out the new bogus reason I am unworthy.

  8. Henry L. says:

    I was once proud of Cornell (my undergraduate school). That was half a century ago. Sigh.

  9. KJ says:

    I didn’t really think you would want to waste any more time. But maybe a science journalist interested in the string theory wars would want to pursue it. I am thinking someone who does that kind of thing for a living could do it much faster than you or I anyway, since we are not familiar with the relevant laws and procedures.

  10. Hearing the annals of this “trackback” crisis is quite disturbing to me. It seems the “powers that be” at arxiv want no part in the criticism of string theory. String theory has become, at least by the mid-naughtes, more of a way to publish papers, bring in university funds, and maintain faculty than actual legitimate research. To put it differently, it’s a racket. There are institutional interests at work that want to maintain the strings status quo. Thankfully the field is drying up however.

    Nonetheless, it seems the string theory “wars” are still continuing:

  11. Peter Woit says:

    “Donald R. Pherson= Anonymous Postdoc” is a troll, please ignore. I and others were taken in for a while, leading to a comment thread that I’m afraid you’ll never see unless you have been religiously refreshing comments here recently…

  12. Curious cat says:

    You are lucky, the wayback machine didn’t catch it up for us 🙂*/

  13. Lindsay Berge says:

    Back when I was involved is Physics research, I would occasionally get referees saying, in effect, “this area is not interesting because I would be working on it if it was”. This was no doubt an honest appraisal but unhelpful. Generally another referee could be found who was more open minded or objective.
    It would seem the attitude of some String Theorists is that “this area must be vitally important as I would not be working on if it was not”. This elevates any fundamental criticism to a personal attack. I also suspect that any questions of legitimacy are deeply threatening after years and years of failure to actually deliver on the original heavily publicised promises (Theory of Everything). Any means possible would seem justified to silence those who would undermine the great and noble undertaking and imperil the reputations, careers, and support of the researchers. A truly productive program (like the original Standard Model) would not be subject to the same fearfulness.

  14. Peter Woit says:

    Lindsay Berge,
    People do take criticism of ideas they are invested in personally, I don’t think that’s really avoidable. What is supposed to happen is that rational criticism of ideas should be met by a rational defense of them, leading to a clarification of what is right and what is wrong. This works very well in mathematics, where it generally is not hard to reach agreement on what is right and what is wrong.

    The problem in physics is all about what to do in the “not even wrong” case. Defenders of the multiverse like Polchinski argue that I should not be doing what I’m doing (and thus not linked to by trackbacks), that instead I should be writing scientific papers proving that they are wrong. But the problem with “not even wrong” ideas is that one can never do this, all one can do is point out that their ideas come with no way to ever show that they are wrong. One could try and dress this up as a scientific paper, but it would be a very unusual one, with no equations, not that different from what I write on the blog, and I think people like Polchinski would be no happier with that than with my blog postings.

  15. David Levitt says:

    I am a biophysicist with some background in physics and an amateur’s interest in high energy theoretical physics. I find blog sites such as this one extremely valuable in gaining insight into current controversies. What makes these blogs far superior to the general review article or typical newspaper or magazine survey is the presence of the blog comments. For example, if a post by Peter about some string theory argument was factually incorrect, I would expect this to be clearly pointed out by a string expert in the blog comments. (As far as I can tell, Peter does not discriminate against reasonable critics of his posts). The general lack of such responses is, for me, the strongest argument for the correctness of Peter’s post. This is the unique strength of these forums. The fact that one or two egotistical physicists controlling the arXiv can deprive the arXiv readers of this valuable link is disgraceful and should illicit a strong response from the physics community.

  16. Brathmore says:

    Wait a minute! If this post is about string theory, and string theory isn’t science, then how can this be part of the “history of science?” Shouldn’t it be labeled as part of the “history of pseudo-science?” Doesn’t the inclusion of non-science in a “history of science” diminish one and elevate the other, or tacitly acknowledge that the non-science actually is science? Me thinks we need some better terminology here.

  17. Peter Woit says:

    Just to clarify: string theory is science, just happens to be science that didn’t work out. The multiverse is pseudo-science. Hope that helps…

  18. Anonymous says:

    There is nothing wrong with the ArXiv deciding which sources they want to give the state of a trusted site.
    Neither you nor anybody else has a granted right to get trackbacks approved by the ArXiv administrators.
    I really dont understand why you get worked up about this, as if they were denying you a human right.

  19. Peter Woit says:

    Sure, it’s up to the arXiv to decide this. I’m just trying to find out on what basis they made their decision.

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