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.