Not Even Publishable?

Peter Woit has an interesting post today on his new book “Not Even Wrong.” In the post Peter describes his zigzag path towards publication of the book and the resistance he encountered. My favorite part is where Peter describes how during one round of review, he encountered a referee who

…dealt with the problem of not being able to find anything wrong with what I had written by claiming that arguing against string theory was like arguing against teaching evolution…

Not only are we going to stop teaching evolution in public high schools science classes, but now we aren’t going to teach string theory in these classes as well. On no! The horror! The horror!

17 Replies to “Not Even Publishable?”

  1. String theory is not established fact, while evolution is. So that part isn’t the same. But Woit’s anti-string obsession is about as bad as intelligent design. The common element is that neither party is trying to help any scientists do science.

  2. Hi Greg,
    Dave has done an excellent job of defending me already, but I’d like to reiterate that the central motivation in my criticisms of string theory is to try to help scientists do (good) science. I’m challenging the continued pursuit of what seems to me to be a failed research program in the hopes of creating more opportunities for people to work on other ideas and get a hearing for them.
    From the point of view of mathematics, work on string theory has led to many great things, and there’s not much reason to complain about it. But that it so far hasn’t worked out the way people hoped as an idea for unifying physics seems to me undeniable, and the refusal to acknowledge this
    is a major impediment in the way of any young theorist who wants to try and do something different.
    I suspect that if physicists branch out and start working on a wider range of ideas, this will also lead to more and different kinds of good mathematics. To take a very specific example that has some connection to the kind of mathematics that you work on, aspects of Witten’s Chern-Simons QFT seem to me to be poorly understood, but hard to get physicists interested in since there’s no obvious connection to string theory (unlike the large N behavior, which does have connections to string theory). I don’t really want to go into the details of what I have in mind here, it’s a kind of specialized and long story, but happy to discuss if you’re interested.
    Best wishes,

  3. I don’t think that the Woit diatribe against string theory is any more helpful to research than the Levin diatribe against quantum computation. Both skeptics respond with polemics instead of ideas. Instead of even carefully learning what they criticize. Maybe you (Peter) sincerely think that you’re trying to help; if so, the gap between motivation and outcome could not be greater. And maybe Leonid Levin is equally sincere. But at least he rested his case sooner rather than later.
    It is a good call that I’m not a string theorist. I don’t really know string theory either, but I can see that there is a great deal there to respect. I think that the justification of saving young people from string theory is offensive, if again uninentionally. it’s as irritating as warning young people away from quantum computation — because who knows, it might die on the vine. String theorists don’t have any “monopoly” in physics. If anything, string theorists still run up against uncomprehension in hiring season. There are still physics departments that don’t want to buy into it. String theory and quantum computation are really pretty similar in this respect.
    There are, by the way, plenty of mathematicians and physicists to talk to about Chern-Simons. String theory is no obstruction to that either.

  4. The bottom line is, of course, good science!
    On the other hand, this battle for good science occurs on a human scale and is, hence, susceptable to all the foibles of us evolved monkeys. Thus, while I agree that I think the battle can only be won by scientists doing good science, I am also sympathetic to Woit’s criticisms of the monopoly string theorist hold over certain swaths of theoretical physics. This battle is, I believe, both a scientific one, i.e. understanding the strengths and weaknesses of string theory and what may lie tangential to string theory, and a political one, the argument of how much effort theoretical physics should be putting behind string theory.
    For this reason, I don’t believe that comparing Woit to intelligent design is fair. First of all being those in intelligent design are practicing a form of anti-scientific deception and I don’t believe Woit is doing anything like that. I agree that it would be nice to “just get on with the science.” But I think Woit would argue that the point of his railing is exactly that: can young theorists branch beyond string theory and expect to receive and open ear from the physics community? Is string theory self-critical enough to admit it’s strengths and weaknesses? What is role should the possible experimental verification of string theory play in our search for a quantum theory of gravity? These are valid points to raise, and, while they don’t overturn my worldview, I still find them an important part of the scientific method.
    I would also argue, and I’m sure I’ll get into hot water over this, that if you want to look for intelligent design, you should look no further than the anthropic principle. But that’s a topic for another day (don’t get me started! Why did I even say this? Damn you Stephen Hawking!)

  5. Greg,
    If you want to see a diatribe, take a look at the comment preceding yours. Also please note that, unlike you, Lubos, and others, I try to be careful to have some respect for other people and deal with their arguments seriously instead of just accusing them of ignorance.
    You seem rather proud of your own ignorance about string theory and yet are willing to attack me for not carefully learning the subject. How do you know this, what’s your evidence? I have a Ph.D. in particle theory from Princeton, and have devoted much of the last twenty years to learning as much as I can about the subject, including a great deal of string theory. Arguably I’ve spent far too much of these twenty years trying to learn about string theory, instead of spendng my time on something more fruitful. But I think it is completely pathetic that all you and Lubos can think to do when presented with an informed critique of string theory is to personally attack me, without evidence, as not knowing what I’m talking about. Especially in your case, when you admit that you don’t know enough to evaluate what is going on here.

  6. Obviously Lubos Motl does enjoy diatribes. I would even agree that his wild diatribe against your essays do not help you any more than your diatribe against string theory helps string theorists. The fact remains that far away from all of this, a lot of string theorists are doing a lot of interesting work. No, I do not know string theory, but I know enough to know that it is important.
    I concede that I shouldn’t speculate on what you know or don’t know. For all I know, most of the exercises in Polchinski would be easy for you. That’s not really the point. The point is that papers such as physics/0102051 do not have any serious physics of any kind. It is no more helpful to physics than William Dembski’s papers are to biology.
    I should also say something about the anthropic principle, since Dave commented on it. First, the anthropic principle is true. Otherwise it would be an AMAZING and LUCKY fluke that we live on a well-protected metallic planet, or indeed on any planet. Second, and on the other hand, the anthropic principle is an intellectually pessimistic form of science that can degenerate almost to “intelligent design”. Third, and most importantly, the anthropic principle is not fundamental to string theory. It is a valid side issue in string theory, just as it is in biology and cosmology and so on. But it could be a corrosive distraction from the real issues and many string theorists really don’t like it.

  7. Greg,
    physics/0102051 was not intended as a positive research contribution, but as an attempt to generate what I saw (and continue to see) as a needed discussion about the problematic current state of the field (which it had some success doing). Note that it specifically was not submitted to hep-th but to a category designed to include articles on things like “Physics and Society”. For a positive research contribution, see hep-th/0206135 which was posted on hep-th. I note that while you continue to insult me and what I wrote by comparing me to idiots like Dembski and other IDers, you aren’t in any way addressing a single one of the serious arguments about the problems with string theory made in the article you are so unhappy about.
    You don’t seem to understand what the anthropic principle controversy in string theory is all about. It’s not that “many string theorists really don’t like it”, actually no physicist likes it. But quite a few prominent string theorists have reached the conclusion that, at a fundamental level, string theory is inherently incapable of making the kind of predictions that people had hoped and only anthropic “predictions” are possible. They believe that anyone who just “doesn’t like it” or thinks it is a “distraction”, is in a state of denial about the fundamental nature of string theory.

  8. What I meant was that string theorists have no monopoly of hiring or funding in physics. Which is true.
    What Lubos meant is that string theorists have a monopoly of good ideas in reconciling gravity with quantum mechanics. That might well be true. Moreover, if someone proved that string theory is the only consistent perturbative theory of quantum gravity, then it would be a permanent monopoly. (At least in the perturbative regime. But maybe the real theory has no perturbative limits?)
    That would be the breaks. Bose, Einstein, Fermi, and Dirac hold a permanent monopoly on particle statistics in 3+1 dimensions. Bright young researchers are sadly cut off from alternatives.

  9. Actually, parastatistics is a beautiful example where theory obviates the need for more experiment. Of course you theory needs experiment — I won’t quarrel with that — but it does not always need more experiment.
    The upshot is that every model of parastatistics is equivalent to either Bose-Einstein or Fermi-Dirac statistics, plus internal degrees of freedom. (Physicists sometimes describe this result as Tannaka-Krein duality, but it is more properly handled in a series of papers by Doplicher, Roberts, and others.) So the monopoly of standard statistics co-opted the parastatistics competitor.
    For that matter, the string theorists have co-opted a lot of “competing” ideas in particle theory and relativity. (I am told that 11-dimensional supergravity is an example.) As long as they can co-opt everyone else’s good ideas, string theorists really never will be proven wrong. Just like mathematicians and quantum computer scientists. Resistance is futile — you will be assimilated.
    (N.B. It would be nice to have a preview button for comments to this blog.)

  10. Dear Peter,
    you seem to misunderstand the difference between mathematics and physics completely. Chern-Simons theory is simply not a theory that is designed as a competitor of string theory to unify the known physics.
    Chern-Simons theory is a theory that admits a similar type of (quantum-field-theoretical) description as some physical theories, but that apparently lacks the physical strength to have anything to do with the observed particle physics.
    Chern-Simons theory is just an effective description of D-branes in topological string theory.
    The main problem of yours is that you have completely lost your knowledge of physics and especially the idea which mathematical ideas may be relevant for which physics. When you talk about the “wide range of ideas” that physicists should be talking when they try to go beyond GR+SM, you obviously don’t know what you’re talking about.
    There exist no general conceptual frameworks to surpass the existing theory except for string theory, and if someone tries to force people to work on these non-existent ideas, he is doing the same job as the Intelligent Designers. It just can’t work. There exist “small” ideas how new phenomena behind the Standard Model could look like, and this is what phenomenologists work on. But there is no unifying deep structure except for string theory. It’s not a theorem yet but it may well become one next year.
    You will never be capable to understand why these alternatives to string theory can’t work – because you’re probably just too old for these things and you have not learned these important technical things in time. But you should at least try to understand that there is a crucial gap in your knowledge that makes all your “big conclusions” totally worthless.
    You just can’t judge string theory without knowing anything about its math, its physical implications, and its uniqueness, and if you try to make big conclusions anyway, then you’re a crackpot.
    Best wishes

  11. Boom! Flames and sparks everywhere! Keep it nice, fine folk.
    I like comparing Greg’s “String theorists don’t have any “monopoly” in physics” with Lubos’ “But there is no unifying deep structure except for string theory. It’s not a theorem yet but it may well become one next year.” (can anyone ever tell when Lubos is being serious? 😉 )
    Like I said, I avoid talking about the anthropic principle. I call this Dave’s anthropic principle. 😉 And yes, it should be pointed out that the anthropic arguement only makes its appearance in a subset of string theory: if I implied otherwise, I apologize.

  12. Greg, I agree if those are the breaks, those are the breaks! I also agree string theorists have no easy career path. I sympathize with all those on the academic party wagon, except I hate to really complain too much, because what we get to do is just so very damn interesting!
    Just for fun, let’s take your statement about particle statistics in 3+1 dimensions. As we are all taught, particle statistics in 3+1 dimensions only allow Bose and Fermi statistics. Oh but wait, is this really true? Well, wait, there are also these things called parastatistics, where higher dimensional representations of the symmetric group appear. In fact, there is a method, if I recall correctly, to formulate QCD using parastatistics! Of course there is no experimental reason to believe in parastatistics! The lesson I take from this is that the only field that can claim anything resembling a monopoly is experiment. And even then, their monopoly is always a monopoly with beautiful caveats.

  13. Another comment about what is going on: William Dembski is not by any means an idiot. He has a PhD in mathematics from the University of Chicago. At some point he became bored with generating research, and turned to generating discussion instead.

  14. I’m aware of Dembski’s background, and have looked at some of his writings. They exhibit obvious flaws in logic, idiocy if you will, which are easy to recognize and point out.
    If you can point out any similar flaws in anything I’ve written, go ahead. If you can’t, then comparing me to IDer’s like Dembski is way out of line.

  15. I don’t see any ordinary idiocy in what Dembski is doing, or even all that many flaws in logic. What I see is a monumental error in judgment. He doesn’t want evolutionary biologists to succeed. His great error in judgment is of course that they already have succeeded: evolution is useful in science to the point of being the plain truth. Even so, he doesn’t want it succeed because he sees it as anti-useful, i.e. a threat, to Christianity. Actually, he is not completely wrong about that — although it is largely a self-fulfilling fear.
    I can only read physics/0102051 as a wish that string theory won’t succeed either. It hasn’t yet succeeded in the same way as evolution, but one day it might. It might not even require new experiments: string theorists might succeed by making new inferences from old experiments. (After all, that is the real source of quantum computation’s credibility.) It’s not quite as absurd as wishing away an established success like evolution, but it’s still an unscientific wish.
    If this wish is not scientific, then admittedly Christianity is not the real motivation. A number of people have denounced string theory, and the only motivation that I can identify is that they don’t want to learn it. You (Peter) have said that you have learned it, but then you also say that you have spent too much time trying to learn it. This is not much better than religious resistance. I haven’t had time to learn string theory either, but I’m not going to be against it for that reason.

  16. Greg,
    You’re welcome to your view that my critique of string theory is the same kind of thing as the ID critique of evolution and that my only motivation is not wanting to learn string theory, but you’ve just convinced me that discussing this any further with you is an utter waste of time.

  17. HOW STRING THEORISTS AVOID THE IMPERFECTIONS OF EINSTEIN Motl: “Einstein may have started the rot”…what string theory is doing is nothing else than continuing in Einstein’s program of theoretical physics, while AVOIDING ALL OF HIS KNOWN IMPERFECTIONS.”
    Divine Albert taught that the speed of light varied with the gravitational potential but did not vary with the relative speed of the light source and the observer, and in Chapter 22 in his “Relativity” explained why this combination of variability and invariability was not an idiocy. Motl and his brothers string theorists agree that the combination is not an idiocy and conclude that Einstein did not start the rot (someone else, perhaps the late Bryan Wallace , must have started it). On the other hand, brothers string theorists suspect that Divine Albert’s combination of variability and invariability, although not an idiocy, is still an imperfection. So they always avoid it by looking for sand, sticking their heads and exposing other parts of their bodies.
    Pentcho Valev

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