This Week’s Hype

Quanta Magazine has over the past couple years been establishing a well-deserved reputation as the smartest and best science journalism around. At the opposite extreme, over many years of interacting with science journalists, the most embarrassingly incompetent one I’ve run across has been KC Cole, so I was surprised today to see that Quanta has published a piece by her.

Back in 2006 she wrote a review for the LA Times, basically explaining that Lee Smolin and I shouldn’t be listened to because we were incompetent embittered failures who didn’t understand the beauties of string theory. When I contacted her and the LA Times to complain that her review had completely misrepresented what I wrote in my book about neutrino physics, she wrote back to explain to me that I didn’t know what I was talking about, whereas she was an expert on neutrino physics. Her other main evidence for my ignorance was this:

As for Woit’s claim that string theory has “absolutely zero connection with experiment,” experiments already planned for a new European particle accelerator will look for the existence of extra dimensions and extra families of particles — both predicted by string theory. In fact, many statements about string theory in these books are plain wrong.

The topic of her new article is The Strange Second Life of String Theory, which makes the claims that string theory has failed as a theory of quantum gravity (which will be news to a lot of string theorists), but that “it has blossomed into one of the most useful sets of tools in science.”

The article has all sorts of interesting quotes from experts about the state of string theory these days, mostly indicating that people have given up on it and are trying to figure out how to move on. For instance:

David Gross: “After a certain point in the early ’90s, people gave up on trying to connect to the real world,” Gross said. “The last 20 years have really been a great extension of theoretical tools, but very little progress on understanding what’s actually out there.”

Robbert Dijkgraaf: “But now we have this big mess.” “Things have gotten almost postmodern.”

“Nobody knows whether to say they’re a string theorist anymore,” said Chris Beem, a mathematical physicist at the University of Oxford. “It’s become very confusing.”

At last year’s big annual string theory meeting, the Stanford University string theorist Eva Silverstein was amused to find she was one of the few giving a talk “on string theory proper,” she said.

Juan Maldacena jokingly defines “string theory” as “Solid Theoretical Research in Natural Geometric Structures.”

Like many of his colleagues, [David] Simmons-Duffin says he’s a string theorist mostly in the sense that it’s become an umbrella term for anyone doing fundamental physics in underdeveloped corners. He’s currently focusing on a physical system that’s described by a conformal field theory but has nothing to do with strings.

I’m amused to hear that according to Maldacena and Simmons-Duffin, it appears that I’m a string theorist. One thing Cole gets right is that most theorists are now working on questions about quantum field theories. Sean Carroll objects to this:

It’s the kind of work that makes people such as Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, wonder if the field has strayed too far from its early ambitions — to find, if not a “theory of everything,” at least a theory of quantum gravity. “Answering deep questions about quantum gravity has not really happened,” he said. “They have all these hammers and they go looking for nails.” That’s fine, he said, even acknowledging that generations might be needed to develop a new theory of quantum gravity. “But it isn’t fine if you forget that, ultimately, your goal is describing the real world.”

It’s a question he has asked his friends. Why are they investigating detailed quantum field theories? “What’s the aspiration?” he asks. Their answers are logical, he says, but steps removed from developing a true description of our universe.

Instead, he’s looking for a way to “find gravity inside quantum mechanics.” A paper he recently wrote with colleagues claims to take steps toward just that. It does not involve string theory.

Cole tells us that

Like many a maturing beauty, string theory has gotten rich in relationships, complicated, hard to handle and widely influential. Its tentacles have reached so deeply into so many areas in theoretical physics, it’s become almost unrecognizable, even to string theorists.

According to her, string theory has made “essential contributions to cosmology” (this likely is news to cosmologists), especially by revealing the multiverse, which is now “taken for granted by a large number of physicists”, one of whom you might think is David Gross, since she writes:

Inflationary models get tangled in string theory in multiple ways, not least of which is the multiverse — the idea that ours is one of a perhaps infinite number of universes, each created by the same mechanism that begat our own. Between string theory and cosmology, the idea of an infinite landscape of possible universes became not just acceptable, but even taken for granted by a large number of physicists. The selection effect, Silverstein said, would be one quite natural explanation for why our world is the way it is: In a very different universe, we wouldn’t be here to tell the story.

This effect could be one answer to a big problem string theory was supposed to solve. As Gross put it: “What picks out this particular theory” — the Standard Model — from the “plethora of infinite possibilities?”

Silverstein thinks the selection effect is actually a good argument for string theory. The infinite landscape of possible universes can be directly linked to “the rich structure that we find in string theory,” she said — the innumerable ways that string theory’s multidimensional space-time can be folded in upon itself.

The piece ends with a different genre of hype:

Arkani-Hamed believes we are in the most exciting epoch of physics since quantum mechanics appeared in the 1920s.

I actually spent much of the day down in Princeton at the IAS, attending some of the talks at the Natifest in honor of Nati Seiberg’s 60th birthday. Lots of different ideas were discussed by the speakers, with essentially no mention of string theory. A serious journalist who talked to all the people Cole did would likely have noticed the obvious and framed the same material quite differently: string theory hasn’t worked out and theorists have moved on to other things, with the center of gravity of the subject now the deeper study of quantum field theory.

Update: I took a look again at the KC Cole review of my book, the second page of it is here. It was even more dishonest and unethical than I remember. She takes my

superstring theory has had absolutely zero connection with experiment,

and turns it into

Woit’s claim that string theory has “absolutely zero connection with experiment,”

Note how pulling a phrase out of sentence, you get to do fun stuff like change the tense of the sentence.

On the neutrino issue, Cole writes:

To say, as Woit does, that fundamental mysteries about neutrinos are being ignored will come as news to the dozens of physicists who’ve been working on these problems for years.

This is based on the fact that on page 93 of the US edition I write, after giving a description of the things the standard model leaves unexplained, including a parameter count that ignores neutrino masses:

One complication that has been ignored so far involves neutrinos.

and then go on to explain about the experimental evidence for neutrino masses. The “ignored so far” obviously means “ignored so far in this chapter”, not “fundamental mysteries about neutrinos are being ignored” by physicists.

When I contacted her to complain about this, her response was that there was nothing wrong with what she had done, and that, unlike me, she was an expert on neutrino physics.

The Quanta article has lots of her characteristic “quotes”, words or phrases pulled out of context. I’ll bet that lots of those misrepresent what the person being quoted actually said. I’d urge the Quanta editors to re-fact check this piece, asking for full quotes, in context.

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25 Responses to This Week’s Hype

  1. Johannes says:

    A Natifest without string theory? Is Seiberg now the only string theorist remaining on Earth?

    More seriously: Peter, what ideas were presented? What are people at the IAS doing exactly?

  2. Another Anon says:

    “String theory hasn’t worked out”. This is it in a nutshell. It’s not like it was ever going to die overnight, we’re seeing it slowly morphing and fading.

  3. cgh says:

    As someone who has been quoted in the press more than a few times, it has been my experience that quotes will be used contextually, and sometimes practically altered, to support a larger narrative or theme that you’re unaware of at the time the question is asked. Just a couple of months ago I agreed to an interview, which I agreed to be attributable, on two different subjects. Granted, this stuff is complicated, and the job of reporting and conveying clearly is not easy, but I was very surprised by subsequent published piece as 1) it conflated the two separate responses as if they applied to the same topic and 2) the context of the story rendered their usage non-sensical.

    It sounds like KC Cole approaches this stuff with a bias.

  4. TS says:

    Nowadays, string theory is cited as an example of science gone wrong to explain failure in other fields. Here (PDF) you will find recent economics research being compared to string theory, and that is not meant as a compliment.

  5. Asaint says:

    Can someone explain what Nima means by:
    “Every aspect of the idea that we understood quantum field theory turns out to be wrong. It’s a vastly bigger beast.”

  6. Peter Woit says:

    David Appell,

    But she told me she was an expert in neutrino science?

    More seriously, a lack of formal training in science isn’t necessarily a problem, some of the best science writers I’ve met don’t have this. On the other hand, lacking any interest in accuracy and being in love with ridiculous hype are problems. Someone back in 2006 pointed me to this account of Cole’s advice to other science writers, which encourages them to eschew objectivity and quote out of context

    “Really good science writers need to lie, cheat, and steal, said K. C. Cole in the first plenary of the workshop. She outlined 15 rules for writing in her talk, but focused most on the value of lying.”

  7. Peter Woit says:

    You can follow the conference via a live-streaming link here
    and I would guess that slides from talks will be posted.

    The talks are covering a lot of different topics, many with some relation to Seiberg’s work on getting non-perturbative information about supersymmetric qfts (with the Seiberg-Witten work on N=2 d=4 SUSY a high point of that subject).

    My impression is that there has been a lot of interest recently at the IAS in problems of low-dimensional QFTs related to condensed matter physics. Some of this started with attempts to use AdS/CFT to say something about condensed matter, but seems to have moved on from there to more basic questions purely about QFT, often with some relation to topological quantum field theory.

  8. John says:

    “Really good science writers need to lie, cheat, and steal, said K. C. Cole in the first plenary of the workshop. She outlined 15 rules for writing in her talk, but focused most on the value of lying.”

    This seems to apply to about 90% of all journalists in any field or subject. Problem today is journalism isn’t reporting anymore. It’s telling of a story and that requires a bias, else the story is too boring most of the time. This is how journalism is now taught in most universities.

  9. Peter Woit says:

    I don’t know about journalists in general, but my experience with science journalists is that the great majority of them do try and get things right, in an unbiased way, with Cole an unusual exception. This is especially true of the writers at Quanta, since that publication is not advertising driven, and thus more focused on producing high quality content, not clickbait.

  10. Bernhard says:

    It’s been a while since I last read so many embarrassing statements about science in the the same piece. Wow.

  11. Curious Mayhem says:

    Who *is* working on string theory, as such, these days? Wasn’t all the progress, such as it was, using quantum field theory and funky symmetries, some new, some not?

    This stuff from KC Cole (whom I never paid much attention to) is astonishingly ignorant. String theory isn’t a maturing beauty, but a bad idea that died some time ago and no one wants to talk about too loudly and in public — like those embarrassing Facebook pictures from Florida spring break you wish you hadn’t posted.

    The crap about the multiuniverse is deeply ignorant. Inflation is consistent with, but does not require, a universe of multiple domains. It has nothing to do with causally disconnected or disjointed realities — no “landscape” of “realizations.” The technical implementation of inflation (the long e-folding needed) is quite difficult to pull off in string-inspired QFT models. The only cases I know of involve a new, extra symmetry. Otherwise, actually, it’s impossible. If the evidence for inflation ever becomes decisive, that would be another nail in the string theory coffin.

    Cosmologists and astrophysicists who understand the QFT side of inflation know this, but they’re generally careful not to say it too loudly. It’s like tripping the archbishop during high mass. Maybe now that string theory has died an overdue, quiet, and deserved death, more people can talk about this openly.

  12. Bai Xiao says:

    Many years ago I attended a workshop at KITP, which ran in parallel with another one on String Theory. KC Cole had been invited by the director (David Gross) as the “in-house journalist” and was invited to lecture us about how to write science better and hype up (I presume) our field.

    This was in 2004 and the field was just starting to take off and attracting more and more attention, especially from condensed matter and HEP theorists.

    After reading the post and the above comments, I am under the impression that some people in the community may have taken private lessons with her. Since then, the field has become increasingly dominated by hype and nonsensical theoretical proposals.

    Unlike String theory, there is still much degree of experimental input, but it is dressed in a heavy cloud of hype and wild speculation. With a few exceptions, experimental results are often reported as “ground breaking”, when they often are textbook demonstrations of well understood quantum mechanical phenomena, or simply new realizations of phenomena that had been already observed in other systems.

  13. Narad says:

    “Like many a maturing beauty…. Its tentacles have reached….”

    That’s quite the mixed metaphor.

  14. David Metzler says:

    This is OT, but some might enjoy a pretty decent write-up by the LIGO people of the process they went through to validate their first detection:

    Careful and important science, written up well for a general audience.

  15. Paul says:

    Peter Woit says:
    “David Appell,
    But she told me she was an expert in neutrino science?
    More seriously, a lack of formal training in science isn’t necessarily a problem, some of the best science writers I’ve met don’t have this. On the other hand, lacking any interest in accuracy and being in love with ridiculous hype are problems…”

    Peter, you’re a Gentleman and a Scholar. One of the many reasons why I enjoy your blog.

  16. Pingback: String theory useful even if unconfirmed? | Uncommon Descent

  17. kwwrona says:

    There are at least two possible explanations for Cole’s expertise in neutrino physics. She once lived in Shaker Heights, OH. And since Frederick Reines was chairman of the Case Tech physics department while he was working on the detection of gamma-generated neutrinos in the atmosphere, who knows? It’s only a couple of miles away.

    And, Shaker Heights isn’t very far from the Irvine-Michigan-Brookhaven neutrino detector at Fairport Harbor on Lake Erie. It’s just off I90.

    So maybe something rubbed off.

  18. Peter Woit says:

    I think she believes she’s an expert in neutrino physics since she wrote an article about a neutrino experiment for the New Yorker.

  19. GoletaBeach says:

    A bit too snarky for me… “not even wrong” is as snarky a comment itself as anything KC Cole wrote into her review… I can’t see anything about neutrino physics in that LA Times review she wrote of “Not Even Wrong”. I didn’t even feel was she was particularly negative to you, Peter.

    Meanwhile, a certain segment of the neutrino community (double beta decay, direct neutrino mass) was up the hill from me this week… nice talks. Wonderful “Livingston” plot of the improvement in sensitivity to direct neutrino mass as a function of time, predicting that around 2020/2030 direct sensitivity will start to get to the level of delta-ms measured in oscillations.

    There is a mild fissure in the experimental community, I think… DUNE is not always appreciated by the LHC guys, and maybe vice versa. A story too true and important to be delved into, I guess. But the DUNE neutrino community is distinct from the nuclear-side neutrino folks up the hill from me this week.

  20. Peter Woit says:

    Goleta Beach,

    I think you probably weren’t seeing page 2 of the review, see

    I went back and looked at the LA Times review again, it was even more dishonest than I remember. Besides the outrageous neutrino business, the way she used another quote, deleting a word to change its meaning, was a piece of sleaze I don’t think I noticed before. I suspect that most of the quotes in this piece are also seriously out of context (often she just quotes a couple words of a sentence, surrounding them with her own). The Quanta editors might want to go back and re-fact check this piece, asking Cole to provide full, in context quotes to check against the quotes she uses.

  21. Peter Woit says:

    I added an update to the posting explaining some of what was going on in Cole’s LA Times review, for the vanishingly small number of readers who might care…

  22. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    Just makes me more and more grateful for Ms. Wolchover.

  23. Roy says:

    I think you’re making too much of the journalist’s error. Doubtful that it’s malicious.

  24. Peter Woit says:

    In the case of ten years ago, there was definitely malice involved (towards Lee Smolin and myself). In the case of the new article I don’t think there’s malice, just incompetence.

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