Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Satire strikes back

It's always nice to be back home. Your family does so kindly remind you of your biggest faults, mine being that I can't keep my mouth shut.

Even though I was stuck in a boeing, I couldn't avoid noticing Scott Aaronson's offer

"I have therefore reached a decision. From this day forward, my allegiances in the String Wars will be open for sale to the highest bidder. Like a cynical arms merchant, I will offer my computational-complexity and humor services to both sides, and publicly espouse the views of whichever side seems more interested in buying them at the moment."

and so, here's my comment:

For those readers who don't know what the fuck he's talking about, let me briefly summarize the status Christmas 2006:

Physics can roughly be divided in experimental and theoretical physics. There's a sub-field of the theoretical part which is looking for the unification of the forces that we observe in nature. This unification is generally expected to also solve the question of how to quantize the gravitational sector. A sub-field of that sub-field of that part has an approach based on one-dimensional objects rather than, as currently used, pointlike objects. This sub-field of a sub-field of a part of the physics community has gotten a lot of attention over the last decade, you might have heard of them, they call their approach 'string theory'.

Since funding in scientific research, especially on the theoretical side, is far too short in Europe as well as in North America, it matters a big deal where that money goes, because people go where money goes. And besides chalk, notepads, and coffee, people is what theoretical physics is made of. Therefore, there's always discussion about who gets what amount of money. Presently, there are fairly many people working on string theory, and considerably less on other approaches, esp. regarding the holy grail of quantum gravity. On no front though, there's noticeable progress. Therefore, we found it's a good idea to start accusing each other of having failed, as to distract us from our every day work which isn't going anywhere.

In a time when public advertisement of research has come to play a role in the distribution of financial support, it is unfortunately quite common to point out the successes, and keep quiet of drawbacks. This doesn't only apply for string theory, but also for many other sub-fields of sub-fields, and I'd call that a consequence of capitalism infiltrating science. A mixture that imho is mutually incompatible, potentially fatal for both sides, and unsurprisingly far more advanced in North America. Look, there's a reason why academics have often been pictured as sitting in an ivory tower. That's because you can't just put your stupid equation on the stock market, advertise it, and if sufficiently many people buy your idea then you're on the cover of Times magazine and made it! Nature decides whether you're right, or you're wrong, and let's not forget, theoretical physics is not about the researcher - it's about understanding the universe.

Now it happened in 2006, that a well known blogger with the name Peter Woit published a book which gives a brief introduction into our quest for the theory of everything, and summarizes some weaknesses of the string theory approach. Overall seen I found the book kind of depressing, you can read my review here.

Only some months later, another guy with the name Lee Smolin published another book, which is less depressing on the scientific side, because he smartly advertises his own pet theories that have later been thrown together and dubbed 'alternatives'. On the sociological side, his book attempts to analyze the reasons for the present lack of progress, and comes to the conclusion that the current policy of financial support doesn't sufficiently guarantee independence of researchers. Which is of course absolutely right, the problem here being that hardly anyone read more of the book than the subtitle which contains the word 'string theory' in connection with 'fall of a science'.

The result of that then being a big fuzz about whether or not string theory is science, religion, or merely media entertainment. Some highlights of the discussion are definitely over on Clifford's blog, look for the teacup series. Repeatedly, string theorists have been pictured as a community blinded by science, suffering from 'group think' that makes them immune against criticism, with charismatic leaders that do little than ingeniously advertising themselves in the media. On the other side, repeatedly the very existence of 'alternatives' has been doubted, and people working on it have been called crackpots. The latter word being one of the most frequently used ones in this debate, so keep it in mind if you want to comment on something. Other words that are of importance here are: predictions, metaphysics, glub-glub-glub, falsifiability, and mountain climbing. As Sean over at Cosmic Variance proudly points out, he has given this debate the name 'string wars' which stuck.

As I've tried to communicate previously, it is of course complete nonsense that string theorists are somehow different from other theoretical physicists. Overall seen, in my experience, they are as smart, stupid, or stubborn as the rest of us, see e.g. my post about the inverse problem. To come back to the reason of this writing, Scott has met some of this species in person and, to his surprise, noticed that indeed they are fairly reasonable and some of them even nice. Now he's confused and wrote a post about his confusion, which contains the quotation above. As one might have expected, his post resulted in several responses, over at Cosmic Variance, at Not Even Wrong, and obviously at Lubos' blog.

Where I think Lubos took Scott's writing too serious, Scott himself maybe wasn't serious enough. I admit that his offer to support whoever bids the highest amount of money did upset me as well. This type of thinking is exactly what will kill science, and I don't find such a statement particularly amusing. Whether or not we support a research branch should not be based on the amount of money they are able offer. If you are a theoretical physicist, your decision to work on a theory should instead be based on a well qualified opinion on the status of that theory.

I have a lot of understanding for people who are in need of a job, and therefore agree to work on other peoples ideas, in many cases this is the bare necessity of life (especially when with family). The way the hiring process is dealt with right now is one place where I locate the problem: researchers are most often selected for a certain task rather than for their qualities. Especially when it comes to postdoctoral researchers, there is the constant need to work on a field where positions are, and a field that gives you the chance to find a position afterwards. In many cases this means you better do what your supervisor finds interesting, or you'll end up without a helpful letter of recommendation, or without prominent co-authors, or both.

However, there is another place where I locate the problem. It is definitely true that people go where money goes, but to a less degree - and with an unfortunate time delay - money goes where people go. Therefore, I have absolutely no understanding for people who sell their scientific opinion for money easily. If anything, then this is my indicator that ethics in science seriously needs to be thought over.

Each time you nod when you want to shake your head you kill a piece of science, each time you say 'interesting' when you want to say 'bullshit' you kill a piece of science, each time you sell your opinion for money, you push us deeper into the dead end. If you don't have an opinion, then say so, or keep your mouth shut.

Merry Christmas.


Gina said...

I comlpetely agree with you, Bee.
When I read Lubos' reaction (or more preciselly grand overreaction) to Scott's offer I got really worried. Lubos expressed his frustration that parts of academia are built on corruption, and other negative things and cited it as "one of the reasons why I am so looking forward to be gone". Putting Scott's offer aside, my reaction is that for sure every negative aspect of human nature exists also in academia, but the great advantages of academia are first that "the stakes are so low" and second that there is still a substantial amount of objectivity in the scientific reality that cannot be subject to any corruption. Anyway, I hope (mainly for his own sake) that Lubos will "take it easy" and be more kind and tolerant to more aspects of the human experience than he is. (As I hope others will try to be more tolerant to his, at times untolerable, views and actions.)

On the other hand, sharing your firm belief in Scott's own integrity, Bee, I also share your view that Scott's approach of 'it is clearly a joke, as my own integrity is beyond all doubts' is not a healthy approach.

Bee said...

Dear Gina,

Thanks for your comment. Yes, as I had to notice myself, especially in the blog scene sarcasm and cynicism is difficult to deal with responsibly. There are always people who don't really read or understand the context, and just take with them some few sentences. The paragraph from Scott that I quoted left a really bad taste in my mouth. I've had to many encounters with people who - if you want to put it cynically - do exactly this, and this lack of integrity is in my opinion a source for many problems that I don't want to see encouraged, whether meant as a joke or not.

Best regards,


Aaron Bergman said...

Which is of course absolutely right, the problem here being that hardly anyone read more of the book than the subtitle which contains the word 'string theory' in connection with 'fall of a science'.

I don't think that's fair at all. Plenty of people read the book. There was a long thread on the title, but that was hardly the only discussion about its contents. The book is, unfortunately, wrought with misunderstandings and falsehoods, and is deeply unkind to those who choose to work on string theory.

And outside of a certain person, the word 'crackpot' has very rarely been used in this debate, so I don't think that's fair either.

And, finally, of course, 'string wars' is mine. All mine!

quantum diaries survivor said...

Hi Bee,

your post at a point reminded me of a sentence from a university president:
"Now why does the physics department always requires funds for expensive equipment ? The department of mathematics only requires money for paper, pencils, and waste paper baskets. And the department of philosophy is better still - they do not even ask for waste paper baskets."

Happy holidays

gina said...

Dear Bee,

Thank you for your reply. I must say that I am still puzzled by the blog environment and what it means. It is like a casual conversation on the one hand, and it is also public on the other. Probably the standards and requirements should also be somewhere in between. The response time is often too rapid to allow very thoughtful comments.

A requirement for participants to fully understand the context is often too harsh. The hope is that partial understanding of several people can lead to a better common understanding. But this hope may be too naive. Still, often I did see discussions that I found fruitful and educating.

fh said...

Merry Christmas! ;)

Bee said...

Hey Aaron,

And, finally, of course, 'string wars' is mine. All mine!

:-) You can have all of the string war. May the force be with you.

I don't think that's fair at all. Plenty of people read the book.

Yes, I admit it, I wasn't being really fair here. I was crudely exaggerating the situation, and actually contradicting myself, since I've pointed out repeatedly that the so-called-crisis is a bubble of nothing, and seems important only in some comment sections in the blogosphere.

The reason for this is that I personally am very frustrated that the string part of the book got so much attention, whereas the part that I find important got so little attention. It just bothers me when I talk to my friends who tell me about their problems with supervisors, applications, grants, short term positions and permanent moves, peer review, about their wish to quit physics and just get out of this system for exactly those reasons that Lee writes about. I have seen very good people drop out (many of them women), or see them doing work that they don't believe in. I call that a waste of time and talent. This is unnecessary, and if I had a wish free for Christmas I'd wish more people would take it serious what Lee writes about these issues. I don't think he's offering a realistic solution, but it's a discussion that has to be lead, or we are all going to loose.

In this context, Scott's remark was just an indicator that hardly anybody takes these questions about the ethics in theoretical physics seriously.



stefan said...

Dear Bee,

that's a very nice and concise summary of the debate about string theory!

However, concerning Scott Aaronsons's "indecent offer", I see this whole "affair" a bit differently. I have the impression that Scott sees the whole debate from an outsider's point of view, and that the different camps to whom he wants to offer his views for sale - as he writes in a satirical fashion, I would say - have one thing in common for him (that's my understanding of what he writes): They are, so far, theoretical constructs, and not yet subject to experimental scrutiny. I guess many people will disagree, since there are lots of arguments that can be brought forward to foster this or that theory - but in the end, judgement so far is based on plausibility, consistency, and intuition of first-class scientists, but not yet on ironclad experimental data.

I have the impression that in this situation right now, with a final decision based on empirical facts withstanding, - and just in this situation - it is difficult to gauge for an outsider whose plausibility arguments or intuition should be trusted most. In this limbo, and with at the same time all camps claiming their view as true, the offer to the most-biding makes a sense as a mocking comment - that's how I interpret the Aaronson offer.

Well, it is for sure very misleading when taken out of context, and this is the danger in this affair, but maybe, one should not overreact to it... On the other hand, you are right that there is quite a stale smack to this, since it reminds all too clearly the really bad and unethical cases of "scientific expertise" bought by lobby groups, saying that smoking is not unhealthy, or similar things..

Apropos, concerning something else (and here, maybe I am overreacting)... in my opinion, this whole talking about "string wars" is a bit out of scale - and in fact, quite tasteless, taking into account all the real wars killing people in the real world. After all, as you have said many times, this debate is, so far, about some academic problems, which are not really important outside a quite limited circle of scientists and bloggers...

Best, Stefan.

Bee said...

since it reminds all too clearly the really bad and unethical cases of "scientific expertise" bought by lobby groups

Indeed, that was what was circling in the back of my head. It's just not something one should make joke abouts. In the 21st century, too much depends on the layman's trust in the independence of experts. I know it's easy to forget in our everyday work, but being a scientist, maybe deciding on the future research of a whole nation, is a huge responsibility. Best


Anonymous said...

Dear Bee,

I interpreted Scott's comment as a humorous way of saying that he did not have conceding that he did not have the scientific expertise to have a real opinion on the issue. (I suspect that this is the case for the vast majority of people commenting on the 'wars' who are not technically involved... I will admit that is the case for me ... and I do not comment on the 'wars' aspects. )

The humor is also along the same lines of your joke when you said something along the lines of 'let us lock Lubos and Peter in the same room'. We all know that you are not really going to do that.Similarly, I think we know neither side of the 'wars' is going to pay Scott money. So, it is a nice joke which probably does not deserve the 'indecent' tag. Of course if there was a shred of reality, that would be very different.

Anonymous said...

You seemed to address why you think it is a bad joke in your last comment which got updated after I wrote my comment.

Bee said...

Hi Anonymous,

yes, the comments seems to have crossed.

Of course if there was a shred of reality, that would be very different.

I don't think there's any reality in the above quotation regarding Scott's intentions - obviously his whole post was meant sarcastic. But there's unfortunately sufficient reality in the issue to concern me. As I also wrote above, scientific integrity is very fragile, and I've seen my share of people who keep their mouth shut because it's career-wise recommendable.

Even though I understand the pressure lasting on them, I think many of them give up too easily and should fight harder for the opportunity to follow their own ideas. As postdocs in the mid 30ies with more than 10 years of job experience, most are perfectly able to carry out their own research project with responsibility. It is just a fact that presently many researchers are hired into a specific group with a supervisor to work on a given topic. And if they have worked it out, they will of course explain why this is important and exciting etc. In a certain way, they are selling their opinion to those who pay best. And it makes me very sad to hear them justifying their decision not to follow own ideas with political reasons. Even more sad: they don't even think about what it means for science if they do so, if they adopt their supervisors opinion, if they follow a fashionably topic without questioning it sufficiently.

I am aware that esp. leading scientists claim this is not actually a severe problem, see e.g. Joe Polchinski's review on Lee's book at CV. But then, these top scientists most often only get to talk to the absolutely best postdocs in their field. Among those, I believe it might indeed not be an issue. But what about the other 900 postdocs? Those who aren't dealt as hot, and will be again out on the market next year? (Besides, if you had made it as a postdoc to the KITP, would you tell Joe Polchinski: "Look, I am working on that stuff because its in fashion and I knew it would get me a job, but actually it's complete nonsense.")

So, essentially the message of my above writing is: trust yourself. If you have your own ideas, then you are a very, very, lucky guy, don't waste your talent, follow your ideas. Don't come up with wimpy excuses not to and blame it on 'the system' because it's your system and you make it. If you have doubts about your work, say so, science must allow self-criticism. If you don't have an opinion, say so, science must allow time to thoroughly think things through. If you don't understand something, say so, science must allow you to learn.

And please, please, don't agree on anybody's opinion just because they pay you. It does damage the efficiency (and the reputation) of scientific research.



Anonymous said...

As the 2nd anon, I support the first anon the Scott's comments are in jest and with a bit of sarcastism. I don't think his thinks his offer will be taken seriously, but he expects to generate his share of debate. Keeps his blog interesting.

The sociology issue is not due to capitalism seeping into string research. Indeed, it is the exact opposite - money is distributed based *not* on standard capitalistic measure of return on investment. For the lack of a better word, string research is financed by the rules of communism.

jack said...

SH raises several very interesting points about the malaise affecting the postdociverse, but I was most struck by the following: "On no front though, there's noticeable progress. Therefore, we found it's a good idea to start accusing each other of having failed, as to distract us from our every day work which isn't going anywhere."

Actually I think that this "not going anywhere" is the most serious reason for flagging morale, even more than all the financing stuff. Looking at hep-th is a thoroughly depressing exercise these days, for me and for many. However, not everyone sees it that way: Clifford Johnson, for example, claims to be unaware that anything is wrong, and that research in this field is going just fine. Maybe we all need to cultivate an interest in dry technical exercises? The alternative, facing reality, is too painful.

Kris Krogh said...

Hi Bee,

I agree with your take on Scott's offer.

According a Cal Tech colleague, Richard Feynman never joked about physics. Once he was scheduled to give a talk, but left on a Mexico vacation before giving the title. The department needed something to put on the program, and the colleague knew what Feynman was talking about. So he gave them a clever title to use, which was perfectly appropriate and had a funny double meaning.

Feynman got really upset. He's famous for funny stories about physicists and their doings, but was very serious about the science itself and the connection to nature.

I think Scott's humor is funny, but also a sign of not caring. And maybe it appeals to those who see physics as a career game more than a serious exploration of nature.

Bee said...

Hi Anonymous...

string research is financed by the rules of communism.

I have no idea what you mean with that. In a certain regard, all of theoretical physics is financed like in communism given the fact that there's no private property of the means of productions (and what would that be? Our brains?) and that we indeed aren't selling our theories on the stock market. Basis research was and is a luxury of the society, whose taxes pay us in our academic ivory tower.

What I meant with capitalism infiltrating science is
a) an ever growing demand to explain potential importance for applications, i.e. lack of interest in basic research. There's lots of money in nanoscience and biophysics because this is considered 'relevant', whereas understanding the origin of the universe is fun but, hey, we can't buy the results. This is a question of values in the society, and what is meant with 'progress'.
b) All this talk about 'the marketplace of ideas' where the fittest idea wins is a nice theory but has some serious flaws. The one is that such a marketplace doesn't work without regulations on the competition (it will likely end up with some few monopoles that dominate everything). Another flaw is that on the 'real' marketplace advertisement plays an essential role, and this is imo something that should be handled with great care in science.
c) And that was the point that I meant in my post above: scientists themselves orient their research on the optimal payout in a very materialistic and career-istic way. I know I am hopelessly idealistic, but that's just not how it should be. In the lack of an analogue to 'consumer feed back' in science this kind of selection of research directions can very easily go wrong.

Contrary to what people like to tell me focusing on the own career is not 'in the nature of men' but a result of the society we grew up in which values status and income over wisdom. But that's something we can't change easily. What we can change however, is the way the current organization of our community supports this very unhealthy selection of research directions. Since I believe that theoretical physicists today aren't more stupid or smart than in the last centuries, I'd recommend to give researchers more freedom to work out their approach to understand the universe, and lessen the pressure to conformity that is caused by a severely short job market.



Arun said...


Bee said...

Hi Arun,

*harhar*. Whoever made this didn't get the important point, that is exponential growth. The diagram should look somewhat like this

1) Pick problem. If no problem is around, make one. -> 2) Give problem a fancy name and explain why this is the most challenging problem for theoretical physics in the 21st century. -> 3) Attempt to solve problem by cooking up fancy theory that creates at least 3 new problems, whether theoretical inconsistencies or disagreement with observations.
->2) ->2) ->2)


This theory is supported by arxiv statistics and creates at least 3 new problems.



Geordie said...

Bee: There are a large number of critically important basic research questions that can't be handled by individuals acting alone or in small groups. The idea that individuals "should" choose projects to work on based solely on their own ideas ignores this basic fact.

There are lots of examples of this. Any long-term basic research on a big problem that has a technological angle (such as building quantum computers, designing automated programming systems, systems biology, building fusion reactors, etc.) requires significant collaboration, financing, triage of bad ideas and professional management.

Any young researcher who thinks they can make meaningful advances in any field like this by going it alone has been misled by an outdated view of how science is done. Many fascinating problems facing us now are beyond the scope of individuals to attack by themselves.

The right message to ambitious young scientists is close to opposite of your message. If you really want to solve a big problem, you need to find a group of people attacking it properly and join them.

Bee said...

Dear Geordie,

I agree with you. If you read carefully what I wrote you'll find that I suggest young researchers should have the option to work on their own ideas, not that all research exclusively has to be done this way. Neither did I say that work on their own ideas means they are supposed to work alone.

You are of course right that collaborations are an essential part of scientific research, and one that is becoming more an more important the more sophisticated techniques (experimental and theoretical) become. Besides this, I wouldn't mind having a couple of postdocs to carry out some of the things I have in mind ;-)


gina said...

Dear Bee, In the context of this 'sting war' I would like to say a few unconventional things about Lubos Motl. The string war is not really really a war but from all participants I am afraid that Lubos may turn to be a real victim.

1) Lubos deserves tolerance. Some of his views are outrages, but some just seem to be so. Some of his outrages views as misguided as they are, look curiosity-oriented and not hate-oriented. This is a big difference.

2) Lubos deserves (as every body else) that assessing him as a scientists will not be influenced by his politics.

3) Lubos is attacked from all the directions. This is worrying. From the anti-string people and from the string people. Some of these attacks are very extreme (and few are hate oriented). The recent attacks and "analysis" on Peter Woit's blog are utterly outrages.

4) His blog has one of the largest percent of genuine scientific detailed explanations. There, for most parts, he argues on the issues. And he presents interesting technical explanations and scientific insights.
He is quite generous in technical explanations in respond to questions.

5) His 17 pages referee report for Woit's book seems (from the parts I read) reasonable and rather conscientious. His comments on the first half of the book were positive. He pointed out many small typos and some mistakes. It was a report that can be useful for the author even if the author does not agree with the conclusion and with various details.

stefan said...

Dear Gina,

thanks for your comments, but I do not see why you post them here - this is not really the right place for this kind of discussion.

Just a short comment: I guess nobody would reasonably argue about your points 2), 4), and 5). As for tolerance: Bee has, in my opinion, always been very tolerant against the sometimes quite offensive manners of Lubos. We have discussed several times how to react to this, and she was always more tolerant than I would have been. Moreover, she often links to interesting contributions and posts at the reference frame. On the other hand, Lubos in his posts often uses quite heavy artillery, creates collateral damage, and part of this behaviour falls back on him - that's my impression, and maybe one should leave it with that. If you think he is treated unfair on other blogs, maybe you should try to post your comments there.

Best, stefan

gina said...

Dear Stefan,

I posted this remark here because I thought this is in the spirit of Bee's approach who treats Lobos (and others) very fairly (so it was not a criticism at all), and also because I am blocked both on Woit's blog (where this comment really belonged) and on Lobos' own blog. I posted the remark at all because I was genuinly worried (regarding point 3) ). (But maybe this is silly of me.)

Bee said...

Dear Gina:

Why are you blocked on Peter Woit's and Lubos' blog?

As Stefan already said, I don't understand why you leave this comment here, as I think we've been pretty tolerant with Lubos sometimes just plain insulting reactions.

I've just read the comments over at NEW. I find it kind of weird to discuss somebodies alleged psychological problems publicly.

This is a science blog, and I've tried to just ignore the insults Lubos apparently can't live without, but I don't want to discuss his state of mind. If someone is oh-so concerned about the poor guy, why don't they just send him an email.



Peter Woit said...

Gina's comments are blocked on my blog because she was posting a large number of comments there, while most of the time clearly not understanding what she was writing about. At this point, in order to try and maintain some decent signal to noise ratio, a large number of people are similarly blocked. This has nothing to do with whether they agree or disagree with me, most of the people who are blocked are blocked because otherwise they endlessly post mindless comments attacking string theory.

The discussion about Lubos was something I actively discouraged, although perhaps I should have deleted more of people's comments about this than I did.