Saturday, July 26, 2008

Blogging Heads: Woit and Hossenfelder

Some weeks ago, David from bloggingheads.tv asked whether I'd be interested in contributing to their program by chatting with Peter Woit. During the last years, I found that Peter and I, we share some interests when it comes to the problems of the current academic system, the role of the blogosphere, and the influence of the media on scientific discussions. So I agreed on doing this 'diavlog', and we had indeed a very interesting exchange that I enjoyed very much. You find most of what Peter and I talked about summarized in my last week's post We have only ourselves to judge on each other.

As you know, I was traveling the last weeks, so for the recording I had to overcome some technical hurdles. I ended up sitting in my mother's study in the attic where a 1.5m Ethernet cable confined my mobility considerably, no power outlet was nearby, the video quality suffered from the bad lighting, and my back suffered from crouching on a chair I'm sure every orthopedist would disapprove of. Somewhere around min 8:40 there appears a blot below my nose that looks quite funny. Anyway, here it is:



See the full video here, and Peter's related post here.

Blog reactions: Secret Blogging Seminar Not Even Blogging, John Hawks Organizing the "idea marketplace", Uncertain Principles: Not Even Backreaction

90 comments:

Plato said...

Unfortunately on dial up, this does not provide for any indication of what was said by you two.

Could you summarize as to the essence of this conversation?

Peter is still "even wrong" about his assessments of string theory.

Bee said...

Hi Plato,

If you go on their website, you'll find that you can alternatively download the video (mp3). As I mentioned, last week's post is a pretty good summary of what we talked about. Best,

B.

Uncle Al said...

A mathematician is appalled by string theory! String theory is profound mathematics. String theory is non-physical.

Becchi-Rouet-Stora-Tyutin/Equivalence Principle are falsifiable. Chemical composition is inert. The proper test of geometry is geometry. Mass configuration remains untested (pdf).

Escape from the failings of classical gravitation versus QFT and the Standard Model versus SUSY requires a relevant question. Ask Rumpelstilzchen.

Arun said...

On funding promising people rather than funding research in specific fields:

The situation being a person who has been doing string theory and wanting to move to condensed matter physics. If the funding is for condensed matter physics, then I will want the candidate who has a track record in that branch of physics and be most likely to produce, and so the string theory person will likely get short shrift.

If we're funding a promising person, then such a person can shift fields.

Sounds like the McArthur genius grants. I think these come with no strings tied. It can be used for whatever, and there is no accountability.

So perhaps, there is a pool of money that people compete for after their PhD. Some select few get these grants - which depending on their life styles can last them 3 to 5 years. Of course, after that period, they will have to find a job like everyone else; but they could have used that period to change fields or whatever. At the end of it they have to have shown themselves to be productive.

Might work. Question is where to find the money for such an experiment.

Bee said...

Dear Arun,

Yes, that is true, there are scholarships that in many cases offer more freedom than an employment, either because they don't tie you to a specific project, or they don't care very much what exactly you do even if you have a specific project. I've been sitting on several scholarships and made use of that advantage, but it comes for a price. The problem is that if you're in a place on a scholarship you're treated very differently than a 'real' postdoc who was hired. You're less likely to work with faculty - after all, they didn't hire you (and possibly you don't even want to work with them). But then it becomes very difficult to get letters of recommendation.

The foundations who offer the scholarships can't provide the letters you need to later stay in the field. So to me, that's a well-meant attempt, but not a solution. Best,

B.

Gordon Pasha said...

The increase in the percentage of postdocs is a very misleading number to interpret. The reason is that there are many permanent positions that are much less desirable than a postdoctoral position from the point of view of doing research.

Therefore the increase in the number of postdocs may actually be seen as a positive thing.

Just think about this: before the 1960's, when the modern postdoctoral position was created, 0% of people went into postdocs.

Was the job situation better? Absolutely NOT.

Regards
Gordon

Bee said...

Hi Gordon,

I did not quote this number to say something about the job situation, instead I used it to say that the weight is shifting towards short term positions which has consequences. Best,

B.

Arun said...

Dear Bee,

People have to know a person to recommend him/her, and for that the best way is to have worked together. I don't see any way around that.

I would have thought that a professor would love to have a good collaborator that he/she does not have to fund or otherwise worry about, so not sure why the scholarships don't work.

Best,
-Arun

QUASAR9 said...

Going live

Bee said...

Dear Arun,

Yes, and that's exactly the problem. What do you do with those people who have never worked together with an appropriately renown senior faculty member? Not having collaborated with any doesn't say anything about a person's qualification, yet this procedure of letterwriting and handing over young researchers creates a pretty much closed society that strongly disfavors outsiders as well as career changers. What to do about it? Well, why no just invite them and make up your own mind?

Besides, I didn't say that scholarships can't work. There are certainly cases in which they work quite well. The typical example is that of a prof who doesn't have any grants and having his postdocs on scholarships is a way around this. What I was trying to say is that in those cases where the money is there to hire the people one wants to collaborate with, chances for those who weren't handselected this way - maybe work on something different, or aren't willing to work on the faculty's pet topics - are slim. Scholarships open a door, but to go through you'll have to work twice as hard to win the attention and appreciation of some senior researcher. It doesn't solve the problem, it just postpones it to the time when you're too old to qualify for those scholarships (almost all scholarships have an age restriction). Best,

B.

stefan said...

Ah, great, the video is out finally :-)
I'll watch it full-lenght from my new fast internet connection tomorrow

Cheers, Stefan

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

This proved to be an interesting discussion between you and Peter. What I perceived at more of the subliminal level being what I would crudely distinguish as your differences in attitude as it relates to the ivory tower. That is I came away understanding Peter as one of those that would rather maintain things on an elitist level, where it’s not considered all that important or in fact detrimental to promote a broader level of general understanding, while I have always felt that you support such a change.

It’s true that people that only have a little knowledge can often prove more dangerous then those that know nothing and yet that is precisely the point. That is to be the first to sound the alarm when such things are being communicated wrongly and second to set the record straight on what that should have been. I think that the days of the ivory tower as Peter imagines are number and it would be better for all to realize this so that efforts can be made to work more towards what will replace it.

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

That is I came away understanding Peter as one of those that would rather maintain things on an elitist level, where it’s not considered all that important or in fact detrimental to promote a broader level of general understanding, while I have always felt that you support such a change.

Oh really? I did not understand Peter this way. Why else would he be writing his blog, would he have written his book? I for sure do support academia getting closer to the public. Not only so for educational reasons, but simply because I believe that the task of the scientists is one for the the society he lives in. Communicating insights is part of the job. That doesn't mean though every researcher needs to be in public outreach, but that there is the awareness such a communication - a two-way communication - is necessary. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

“Why else would he be writing his blog, would he have written his book?”

First, I have to admit that although I have read Smolin’s book, I haven’t read Woit’s; which I should remedy before I make too strong a statement. In brief though I found Smolin’s book to be more of general assessment and discussion of the overall state of theoretical physic's research, with string theory regarded to be left among those still to remain worthy among other of serious consideration.

My perception of Woit’s book sourced admittedly only from critiques such as yours and others is that it amounts to be simply a straight forward attack on string theory in terms of its viability or being reasonable in the first place. It was this position that prompted me not to at first read it. Frankly, with Smolin’s overall experience being what I consider of greater depth and scope in the matter than Woit’s, this then for the present remains to be my take. That is for me there is a difference between examining the tree and grindings one’s axe.

As for the reason(s) for him writing his blog, in as I haven’t discovered what would amount to be a mission statement within it, it would be both unwise and unfair for me to speculate and as such this question be better left to him.


Regards,

Phil

Peter Woit said...

Phil,

You really should actually try reading my book, I think you'd find it quite different than you expect. One thing I've learned from all this is that when there's a controversy books on the topic become signifiers attached to highly naive and over-simplified positions in the controversy, with most people happily going on about the books with no idea of what is actually in them. More and more, it seems that people still consider books to be important objects, while no longer reading them.

For one thing, much of my book has nothing to do with string theory. A central concern is the relation of mathematics and particle theory. One reason I wrote it is certainly to explain things about math and physics to the general public that I didn't think are explained anywhere else.

I consider writing things for non-experts to be an important thing to do, and spend much of my time doing it. My philosophy about how to do this may be a bit different than many people's. I don't try and write for the widest possible audience, but write at whatever level I think is appropriate for the material I want to discuss. Sometimes this ends up being something almost anyone can follow, sometimes only experts will be able to. As a result, the level of material in the book varies dramatically from chapter to chapter. My point of view is that there's nothing wrong with writing things that include material that may be over the audience's head. Personally, when I read something I'm quite happy if it challenges me and there are some parts I can't follow. If I'm interested enough I'll put more time into trying to follow the difficult parts, and that's the way one learns new things.

As for the blog, the only "mission" is to write about topics in math and physics that I find interesting, that I think it's worth drawing other people's attention to, and where a blog posting is an appropriate format. Again, the level varies widely, with many postings readable by anyone, some only accessible to a narrower audience. I don't see a need for a "mission statement", people can easily flip through the more than 700 postings there to see what sorts of things I'm writing about, from what point of view, and judge for themselves how much of it is worth reading.

Christine said...

Hi Bee,

I have downloaded the whole video and it is interesting, despite that there isn't much of a novelty in all that you have exchanged, considering what readers of your and Peter's blogs already know so well.

A special passage for me was the synthesis that you offered at around 00:58 or so, where you comment on freedom of research. I called my hunsband and showed him that passage and his reaction was: "both of you would make quite good friends". Indeed, we appear to have a similar philosophy towards what research is supposed to be; why some people choose the arduous way of devoting themselves to it; and why it should be an unconstrained activity for the unconstrained human mind.

Thank you very much for that passage. I needed to hear that today and reminded me of the following passage of a well-known song:

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our minds.
(Redemption songs; Bob Marley).

That is what we, scientists, need -- to free ourselves from the system, to become truthful scientists, because only the free minds can face the abysm of nature.

Thanks a lot.

Best,
Christine

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Peter,

I thank you taking the time to address what I emphasized as being merely my own perceptions and will admit they may require some adjustment, particularly after I read your book; which you suggest I should and I acknowledged earlier intend to.

I will say I concur with your position that in writing such books things should be attempted to be made clear by the simplest possible methods, yet not to the extent as to sacrifice its meaning in the process. I also agree that all well written science books, where the more general reader forms to be the focus, should in part both serve as a challenge and direct the reader as to where to learn more and thereby not to be left with only a superficial insight. Penrose for instance has done it with all his books, including his latest which I have admitted previously, will most likely simply remain as a challenge.

However, with this said, it has been made clear to me, by way of reading your blog that you in many respects both firmly believe and also actively promote that theoretical research would be better served if it abandoned string theory. While I myself, with admitted limited understanding have never been all that comfortable with the theory, I think it only wise as it pertains to such matters, that it only be considered dismissed by means and as a result of those strictly limited to and considered as methods of science. Too often in the past avenues ceased being explored for sometime, merely as a result of a philosophical shift or fashion change, rather then as a consequence solely based on their scientific merits and or assessment.

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Christine,

Yes, for those who have been reading my blog for a while there isn't much new in it. I admittedly feel sometimes like I spend a lot of time repeating myself even here. However, I thought it a good opportunity to reach more people and I believe that everybody whose attention we can draw to these problems can make a difference if only because it raises awareness, which is a necessary though not sufficient condition for change.

Thanks for your encouraging words which I appreciate very much. I also often feel that we see the same problems and possible solutions. Best,

B.

Plato said...

Bee

I think I get the general sense from the link provided to understand what the talk was about.

I think in terms of security and productivity, this has to be answered in the sense that such security in positions would allow for a greater sense of participation without having to produce, being under the gun.

I think this sense of security provides for a greater "creativity flow from it's participants" if the support in living can be answered without having to know where the next job will come from.

I think I know where this comes from when writing in this context, and I think I may be answering it in this context as well Bee as you seem to be on the market.


Peter:I don't see a need for a "mission statement", people can easily flip through the more than 700 postings there to see what sorts of things I'm writing about, from what point of view, and judge for themselves how much of it is worth reading.

Whether you would like to think your attitude does not come out as a some "mission statement" it has been quite clear, and I would suspect, if a consensus was taken, you would find this pointed out on your stance. Just no way around it, no matter what's said. Sure there will be a lot that support you but there are a lot who are quiet that don't

Because of that stance, I have refrained myself from even considering to read your book, while thinking now then, that in the context of Bee's work, that free from, and in relation to mathematics and particle physics, I would maybe have a look as well.

It is easy to shape things according to the censorship one would like to portray subject wise. I have monitored enough of the conversations with the experts to know what can eventually unfold. At least Lee was willing to consider and still, encourages the program under PI's research status.

Best,

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

Well, I think one of the reasons for Peter to write the book (that I believe he mentions in that diavlog) is that the presentation of string theory to the public has not been very balanced and he wanted to restore that balance. In this regard I think the aim of his book is close to Lee's, it is a clarification directed at the public. I would call neither of the books 'a straight forward attack on string theory' - they don't attack, they just explain the pros and the cons as should have been done all the way. In both cases the reader gets to know the reasons for where the fascination with the topic stems from, as well as the problems.

I am also very puzzled of your remark that it has been made clear to [you], by way of reading [Peter's] blog that [Peter] in many respects both firmly believe[s] and also actively promote[s] that theoretical research would be better served if it abandoned string theory. I admit on not very closely following Peter's blog but I can not recall a single instant in which he said something in this direction, neither on his blog, nor in the book, nor in exchanges I've had with him. Neither Peter nor Lee (nor I for that matter) have ever argued that string theory should be abandoned. It is without doubt an interesting research program that has lead us to many insights.

The problem is just that the field has grown out of proportions and one has to wonder whether the support it obtains is appropriate to the promises it holds - it is a matter of balance. That I think is why people now feel they have to repeat drawbacks of this research program (ad nauseum). I would think that these drawbacks have been in the mind of researchers in the field anyway, but there is - not only in string theory - the tendency that a problem becomes just 'well-known' and loses in relevance. You wouldn't believe how many times I've heard people replying to questions with 'But that's just the well-known problem of so-and-so' - notice use of the word 'just'.

There also is the tendency to fool oneselves and others through advertisement and suppression of criticism, which can powerfully distort opinion making processes as I have argued repeatedly.

Anyway, I think this is kind of a misunderstanding of Peter's intentions.

Hi Peter,

Well, to say the least, Phil is one of our most loyal commenters and has proved again and again to be incredibly literate, so not typically the kind of person who comments on books not having read.

As to the "mission" of your blog, one thing that is interesting about your blog though is that it attracts people interested in string theory - either interested because they like it very much, or because they dislike it very much. It is in a certain sense a boundary with a lot of turbulences.

Best,

B.

Peter Woit said...

Hi Sabine,

Thanks for pointing out that "research on string theory should be stopped" is not an argument I have ever made. For one thing "string theory" refers to a huge number of rather different things by now, some valuable, some not. This is one reason it's a main topic of the blog: there's a lot of material there... Many string theorists do follow the blog, partly because they find news and information there about corners of the subject they didn't know about, partly because they even often agree with me on some of the polemics, especially on the anthropic landscape issue.

I wasn't specifically criticizing Phil. Thinking one knows what is in books one hasn't read based on reviews and their role in a controversy is something most people do, I'm sure I even do it myself. Being on another side of it and seeing how many people do this was kind of eye-opening. Also eye-opening is to see how many book reviewers don't bother to read the books they review. Some reviews of my book (including quite positive ones) characterized it as an attack on string theory as overly mathematical, which couldn't be farther from the truth.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

First let me say I never meant it to be understood that I have reason to be actually critical of Dr. Woit. What I wrote was intended primary to point out what I perceived as to be the differences in focus and therein perhaps intent between what I admittedly weakly understand to be his take and that of Smolin. After reading his book it may well be discovered that I was entirely wrong in this regard. So therefore, let it be known that I extend my sincere apologies to Peter if indeed he considers this my intent.

I do believe however that the name of his blog and with it the promotion of his book should have some bearing on the matter as considered. That is I haven’t seen Smolin or others maintain a blog which is in part dedicated to this subject. Some would contend perhaps that’s good, while other would say it’s not.

As for me, I have always believed that openness must be preserved, despite what one feels and none should be silenced (within of course the confines of reasonable respect and decency). My question actually comes down to this, which is; when is such to be merely considered as a healthy exchange of the facts and viewpoints, based strictly on and within the limits imposed by science and when should it be considered not to be so? As I said I am far from being qualified to answer such a question, therefore my true intent was in the hope to hear from those I consider so able. In this regard I have heard from both you and Peter and am thus grateful, yet also would be interested to hear from more which are so qualified.

Best,

Phil

Plato said...

Sorry...but the link feature to Aaron Bergman's review did not seem to work? If it still doesn't work type in google "Not Even Wrong and stringt theory."

700 posts? Tell you what, let's try a little experiment.

Use the "search feature" on his blog and type in string theory?:)If it' more then 50%, then? If it's 40% well okay, all in fairness then.

As to string theorists participating, yes, it's true. Notice how they are aligned in the index on his site?

Cults?

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that Dr. Woit has a ‘blog’ on the internet entitled “Not Even Wrong”. As he describes in his book, it is largely devoted to his critique of string theory. I have frequently posted material in the comments section of his blog, and much of the discussion here has also been discussed there......The comparison to cults is made more explicit at the end of the chapter 14:

I have heard another version of this worry expressed by several physicists, that string theory is
becoming a ‘cult’, with Witten as its ‘guru’. ... Some string theorists do express their belief in string theory in religious terms. For instance, a string theorist on the faculty at Harvard used to end all his e-mail with the line ‘Superstring/M-theory is the language in which God wrote the world.’


String theorist and author Michio Kaku, when interviewed on a radio show, described the basic
insight of string theory as ‘The mind of God


Sure, I have made note of Clifford's Stringevangelism.:)

I have listen to this rant for a while now, and the relationship of intelligent design?

I may not be as literate, or an exceptional student, but I know what I am talking about. Not saying, Phil doesn't:)

While one may think this sceptical position of Peter's has been to serve toward a balance a educational system, the string theory subject was specific to areas of research. The subject was pigeon holed, on the assumption that such a stance was needed like that of a Michael Shermer? Thought to provoke new research?

I think every scientist knew that it had to be falsified. Oui?

This is not how it came across and instead, has undermined the pursuance of the subject. Because Hooft has decided to follow another agenda, in no ways deters the essence of the work that continues? Or, even Lee's Book.

Trust me when I say that it is not I that should be speaking for those in in string theory work. They already know what needs to be done.

Best,

Peter Woit said...

If you look at the section of my book referred to by Plato, you'll find it quotes Glashow and Magueijo about string theory being "theology" or a "cult", then the next paragraph starts:

"Personally I don't think the categories of cult or religion are especially appropriate in this circumstance..."

One thing I plead guilty to doing in the book and on the blog is quoting (accurately and in context) some of the sillier things string theorists write. I suppose that's a form of maliciousness, albeit a rather mild one.

Lighthouse keeper said...

Bee said: "in those cases where the money is there to hire the people one wants to collaborate with, chances for those who weren't handselected this way - maybe work on something different, or aren't willing to work on the faculty's pet topics - are slim."

This is something that every aspiring researcher should be told and told again: if you are not *very* sociable, and if you are totally averse to any kind of ass-kissing, then you should really forget about pursuing this career unless you are convinced that you are an absolute genius. In particular, the notion that your work should speak for itself and that you won't need people to write nice things about you apart from "look at his/her publication list!" is completely wrong-headed.

I speak from experience: I love physics research but I don't like to collaborate. I like to think by myself and I don't particularly like to talk about my work. I have published over 50 papers in top journals; in most cases I have discussed them with nobody. I hate conferences because I don't like being bored and I have zero interest in all that back-slapping etc.

The end result of this is that despite having a far, far better publication record than almost anyone in my department, I have been passed over for promotion numerous times. Because I have no contacts who can pull strings for me or write letters; people don't write letters on behalf of people they don't know. It's really rather depressing, but the fact is: nowadays especially, scientific research is as much a social activity as being a banker or an insurance salesman. If people find that disgusting, they had better find another line of work.

Andrew Thomas said...

Lighthouse Keeper said: "I speak from experience: I love physics research but I don't like to collaborate. I like to think by myself and I don't particularly like to talk about my work. I have been passed over for promotion numerous times."

Weeellll, a job is a job at the end of the day. And being able to communicate and interact with other people is an essential part of any job (being a lighthouse keeper is the only exception). I'm sorry, but communication and collaboration are important elements of any job and I think it's entirely valid to consider those skills when evaluating candidates.

Your viewpoint seems rather misanthropic. That's not healthy.

Giotis said...

Hello,

The issue is which is the most promising candidate for a Quantum Gravity theory. LQG or Strings?
If Strings is not that theory then shouldn't be abounded as a whole? What other big purpose this theory might serve?
So it's not just about giving LQG a bigger piece of the pie, regarding funding. If the trend is changed in favor of LQG then i don't see how String theory could survive and 30 years of work (together with many job positions) will go down the drain. That is why i think String people will not give up so easily; it is a matter of survival. They have key positions in the Academic establishment and it would take more than two popularized books to change things.


Regards

Andrew Thomas said...

I'm not convinced the problem is choosing between LQG or string theory, I think a major problem with any of these theories is the lack of potential for producing useful applications. Relativity and quantum theory brought us semiconductors, nuclear power, lasers, computers - our modern world, basically. I think unless physics can somehow show it retains some sort of promise for providing things which people are actually going to use then it's just going to disappear into a self-referential backwater in academia, like philosophy.

Meritocrat said...

"Your viewpoint seems rather misanthropic. That's not healthy."

That is true, but irrelevant. The question is whether the excellence of one's work should be the *only* criterion for tenure etc. The fact is that it is not: all kinds of "social" parameters are as important or more important. That is outrageous, whether or not the victims are "healthy".

Andrew Thomas said...

Well, I don't think it's "outrageous" to consider social skills and ability to communicate. Certainly, your research output should be the main factor, but it's not the only factor. A university full of people with no interaction, ability to communicate, or social skills would be a poor establishment (and I don't think it would be conducive to good research, either).

Please don't take this the wrong way, but you do appear to have a little bit of a chip on your shoulder and appear a bit bitter about the way you have been treated. This inevitably affects the way people view you when it comes to promotion, or during a job interview. It's not "unfair" as you appear to think - getting on with people is essential in life in any job. It IS a factor. Every job involves social interaction. You appear to want to opt out of society all together.

I'm only trying to help, honestly I am. Maybe re-evaluate your approach.

Bee said...

Hi Lighthouse Keeper, Andrew, Meritocrate,

Surely communication of research results is an essential ingredient to science, but the question is what level of socializing skills do you expect from people whose prime interest is, and should be, research. Writing papers and giving the occasional seminars is completely sufficient for this.

Sure, there have to be those people who actively socialize, and keep a community well connected, and give vivid and engaging talks in front of large audiences - but within the present system the networking and advertising skills have grown to far too high importance (especially in North America), and this has become one of the main selection criteria.

I wouldn't have put it as extreme as Lighthouse Keeper did, but he has a point with saying

if you are not *very* sociable, and if you are totally averse to any kind of ass-kissing, then you should really forget about pursuing this career unless you are convinced that you are an absolute genius.

There is no place within this system for the quiet and reserved researcher who just, well, wants to do research, period. I know this problem myself, there is a long and increasing list of people who tell me I should 'socialize more'. And I am well aware my hesitation to do so has negatively affected my career options and still does so.

I would not say, as Meritocrate does, that paying attention to socializing skills is completely outrageous. One needs people with these skills as well, just that they shouldn't be of such high importance as they are today, and one shouldn't exclusively focus on these people. Nowadays, if you don't go to the right conferences, and befriend the right people, and 'build your network' you can basically forget about ever being shortlisted (except possible at some private institutions who are trying to counteract exactly this trend).

Andrew says:

This inevitably affects the way people view you when it comes to promotion, or during a job interview. It's not "unfair" as you appear to think - getting on with people is essential in life in any job. It IS a factor.

That is certainly true, but to be honest, these overly 'social' people I have a problem getting on with as well. Maybe you can't relate to this, but a friend of mine once called their behavior very aptly "aggressive friendliness". I have no problem with colleagues who don't fall into the ass-kissing over-social category. I think you are misconstruing what Lighthouse Keeper meant to say.

Best,

B.

@Lighthouse Keeper, if you like, write me an email, I'd be interested to hear your story.

Plato said...

While string theory does not, at this point, predict our world, it can at the very least plausibly encompass it. No other theory has been shown to do that. Aaron Bergman's book review of Peter Woit's

One person's "beauty" could be another person's "ugliness?":)

The ultimate realization could indeed be perceived as a "cult like behaviour," while holding one of these points of view?

What is new and amazing to insight, while not conceived of before in ones understanding of the world, is the way one can now look at the world under this new light. We all remember the first and innuendos and dislikes of the God Particle. Qui?

Yes indeed, some are very poetic about this new set of tools with which to analyze, and from a "ugliness point of view," may see it as God enamoured, and thus atheistic inclined to be declined?

This in no way should reflect on the "character of the scientist," or scientists, who hold to value the ethics and morality that science has taught them too.

There are also points toward the topic of this post, that are in line with Bee's questioning here in regards to Tenure.

Bee said...

Hi Giotis, Andrew,

I don't think either the problem is to chose either Strings or Loops and toss the other, because one is more promising. What I've tried to express in this dialog and also in previous writings is that there is a danger in prematurely abandoning one approach because a different one looks more promising - possibly temporarily, possibly because there's been more progress recently, possibly because the mood of the media goes this way, because it's just fashionable, possibly because of a positive feedback effect, or possibly just by some unpredictable chaotic trend. This isn't a question of do or don't, it's a question of balance.

Andrew hits the nail on the head when saying both approaches have a lack of potential applicability, because this means we have to be even more careful with our judgement and evaluation - while simultaneously experiencing the necessity to justify our research.

Best,

B.

amused said...

Lighthouse keeper,
it sounds like you could be my long lost cousin. Like Bee, I would also be interested to hear more about your story. In particular, given that things are the way you describe them, I'm interested to hear how you managed to obtain a faculty position in the first place (that's a brick wall I've yet to find a way past).

Bee said...

Hi Amused,

To you too, I would be interested in hearing your story, write an email to sabine[at]perimeterinstitute.ca. Best,

B.

Gil Kalai said...

Dear all,

I found the blog debate on string theory quite fascinating. The debate have raised a lot of important issues, ranging from philosophy of science, sociology of science, popularization of science, and relations between mathematics and physics. It demonstrated the strengths and weaknesses of blog discussions, and exhibited the peculiar community of bloggers.

I think the debate could only tell us very little about the merits of string theory itself. Peter Woit's claims against string theory are of some interest but are overall familiar and not strong. I don't think we can expect more from any claims of non technical nature. (Peter's blogging about other mathematics and physics is more interesting.)

amused said...

Sure Bee, I'll do that tomorrow. (It's now past midnight where i am.)

Bee said...

Off topic:

Anybody has a clue what this bullshit is?

According to whois the site is registered under the name Andrew Thomas. Is it a coincidence that there is an Andrew Thomas in this comment section? Andrew, if that's not your creation, my sincere apologies, but if it is I ask you to remove this mirror immediately. Best,

B.

Andrew Thomas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Thomas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christine said...

Lighthouse keeper:

I sympathize very much with what you have written. I must say that, although I am usually considered a nice, friendly and collaborative person (although extremely shy), my concept of paradise is a la Borges: my perfect day is that which no one went to talk to me and I could concentrate all day reading, writting, researching and thinking, with absolute no interference. I have a very bad day when I have to talk to many people. It is very, very stressing for me.

I did and do collaborate with a few people (I've never been in large groups), but although everything went/go out fine, I would rather work alone, if I could choose. Eventually, collaboration can also be interesting if it involves only a few people that you know well and have a good relationship for a long time. I think this can only be achieved at some later point in one's career.

I've always been like that. I prefer to stay alone doing my research, and hate to go to meetings, congresses and things of that sort. People consider this behavior very negatively. I have only a very few friends and like it the way it is. I agree completely with you that if someone is interested in this profession (scientist) he/she must understand that he/she will be very much judged on their capacity of being very communicative, to make "connections", and to "sell his/her product". If you don't have such a profile, be prepared.

I have nothing against someone being "communicative", but making this the most desirable quality of a scientist is a distortion and a prejudice against shy or reserved people that work better in a different environment.

Bee said...

Hi Andrew:

Oh, such a real world problem didn't cross my mind. If it helps, feel free to continue. I encourage every act of rebellion against self-declared authorities who constrain individual freedom. I don't quite understand though how it helps? Best,

B.

Andrew Thomas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christine said...

Hi Andrew:

Ha, ha... Most blogs are blocked from my work too. What I did was to subscribe to a service that sends me email with recent comments from blogs that I have subscribed.

http://www.feedblitz.com/

Somehow I can read posts using a RSS reader too.

As I work in a military institute, they trace very closely the sites that people access at work.

Yeah, a "real world" issue, no doubt...

chimpanzee said...

What???

You have said publicly (& privately) that you are not into video blogging (well, in this case "video sharing"). Have you made a paradigm shift, & now getting into Infotainment (Information + Entertainment)..finally? Your face has appeal (like Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island), & your curly hair gives you "character". You are like Kea, very aesthetic package who is "hiding out". Maybe, this will stimulate Kea to "come out" as well. That's the appeal of female-scientists..their UNIQUENESS. All this PC nonsense about Diversity, EOP, et al (reverse discrimination against white males) is the wrong way to go.

Anyway, I'm typing from Hami/China (Inner Mongolian Desert (chasing Aug 1 solar eclipse), near Mongolia border) from Hongde Hotel (10M fiber internet pipe, only $50/night). Here is my solar eclipse blogs:

http://www.caltechscience.com/08solareclipse/index.html
[ Ya, I'm video-blogging! Syndicated over iTunes as well, for a couple ]

I'm in touch with 1 of your German brethren D. Fischer (ties to Univ of Bonn, he is a science writer who wrote a book on NASA/Galileo mission), who is leading a small group (five) to Yiwu (east of Hami) under the auspices of Urumqi Observatory. Because of crazy Olympic hype about security, they had to use their connections to Max Planck Inst to get an official invite from Urumqi Obs. My inviation letter was from a (female..yay girls!) HS science teacher/Hanzhou HS. I even contacted Huang Mei (your & Stefan's acquaintance) @Chinese Academy of Sciences, about some help w/logistics.

Dan & I had 1 day of coincidence in Beijing (July 24), his hotel was south of Tienemen Square..mine was just north. So, I took a taxi down there & we had a "crash" meeting to discuss eclipse strategy.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/chimpanzee/sets/72157606356101935/

My plan (w/my contact) to observe from Gongpoquan (just north of Jiayuguan) got cancelled at the LAST MINUTE, due to Mongolia politics & Olympic security concerns. They didn't want any foreigners (i.e., me) to be north of a certain latitude). So, I'm winging it (with assistance from D. Fischer). I might be joining up with his group as an option. My current plan is to hire a 4x4/driver, & cruise the area searching for eclipse observation site (Yiwu or Balikun area), I leave in a few hrs. Dan & I have been in touch with GSM cellphone (prepaid SIM cards), using voice & TM'ing. He has contact with official NASA meteorologist (Jay Anderson) & I have been scouring Internet with Wunderground weather reports. Eclipse Day (Aug 1) is predicted to be SUNNY!!

With cooperative weather, I should be able to report a successful eclipse expedition. Where contacts with various female scientists, were helpful. ALso, where video blogging was extensively used. Somewhere at Sept conference (Science & Society), there must be room for me to report on this great Blogosphere method of interaction: female scientists, video blogging for purpose of Science Outreach.

http://08solareclipse.blogspot.com/>

Well, at least a link from the conference website.

Kea is a "rising star" because her outdoor activities (couple spectacular rescues from near death) are easily saleable to Hollywood film/TV producers. Likewise, your appeal (art/painting/blogging/looks) is also marketable. I.e., both of you need AGENTS. Let them sell your "product" & you just collect a check. That's what Lisa Randall/Harvard is doing, an agent handles all her public appearances.

Get thee educated on video sharing (Youtube, et al) & more importantly video-blogginbg (iTunes). Your situation (like Kea) of scrounging around for job/funding screams for Alternative Models (just like your own physics research is purely alternative). I have very powerful Academic/Industrial contacts. Example:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/chimpanzee/sets/72157606267553008/

Note the book on N. Tesla. My grad school officemate M. Eberhard (co-founder of Tesla Motors) just got his Tesla Roadster. When I get back home, I am delving into some serious proposal writing. Hint: "energy transfer" (as per famous Feynman anecdote about what makes a toy car go) is how to sell HEP to the Public, using a real-life product..yep, Tesla Roadster (converting chemical energy..Li ion batteries to Kinetic Energy). As J. Hewett/SLAC publicly commented on Cosmic Variance, "you [ physicists ] are considered useless unless you have a demonstrable product". Well, now you have one! So, that's why there was the Fiscal 08 funding crisis in US (layoffs @SLAC & Fermilab). I've got some ideas for "blue sky projects" which should attract a lot of funding to promote this Electrical Engineering + HEP combo. Intel (another intern working with M. Eberyhard at our grad-school lab, is now Director of Research & VP of Corporate Technology), Georgia Tech (another grad school officemate of mine & Martin's is now VP of GT & President of GTRI, whose ex-colleague is now President of Caltech), Caltech (my best contacts are here, A. Cocconi was a pioneer in EV/Electric Vehicle development..his parents are CERN physicists).

Basically, your next gig might be something be totally new thing similar in concept to PI (real world product (Blackberry cellphone) funding physics research). BTW, Martin Eberhard appeared with a Tesla Roadster in a Blackberry commercial a while back.

So, get thee to video-blogging!! (you too Kea) My solutions (Strings '07 & SUSY '06) use Blogger to syndicate to the mega powerful iTunes. I can tell you how to start video blogging, with all the software hooks (i.e. special iTunes RSS feeds, etc). Then, I can put in my proposal that I have a couple of "unique" (attractive & smart) female physicists that are about to demonstrate relevance of Physics to Public. Throw in a Tesla Roadster in there, & you have an unbeatable combination. Throw away your Honda, & get into a $100K all electric sports car. You did say you like California, right? M. Eberhard lives only a few miles from me, near Caltech. We need to pay a visit to Caltech/Mechanical Eng dept & start talking about a cross-disciplinary R&D program to bridge the gap between Academia & Industry. The recent Tesla Motors crisis was the result of a lack of R&D program. That's where condensed matter physics (my ex classmate is a UT Austin physics prof who specializes in fractures, who is a UCSB PhD) & Mech Eng professors come in.

Bee said...

Hi Chimpanzee,

Well, I guess you just discovered that I'm not very dogmatic. A dialog is about the only form of conversation I'm comfortable with and in addition to this I was reasonable sure to talk to somebody who wouldn't try to make a fool out of me. (My only concern was Peter might have turned out to have some hard to understand accent.) In addition to this, I didn't have anything to do with processing the video and getting it online and so on. So I thought it would be a good opportunity to get my message across to more people.

That doesn't change the fact that a) I feel utterly stupid talking to a camera, b) I don't have the patience to waste time with video hard and software when I can just sit down and type on a keyboard instead, and c) I am not a video person: You might understand that or not, but I'm not writing to provide entertainment for the reader but because it's part of my thought process. It is great if people like my writing and find it interesting, but to some extend I am always suprised this is the case.

In addition to this I know that what I write is usually much clearer and better argued than what I manage to produce when talking. I try, but if you've seen the video you'll have noticed that I just repeat myself (often because I'm looking for an English word that I can't find, so I'll reuse something I've already used before, very depressing. It's getting better, but my active vocabulary is still that of an infant.)

It is of a complete mystery to me why anybody would prefer to sit down and watch an 80 min video when he could instead read a two pages summary that contains the main points in much clearer and better formulated version, just possibly not as entertaining.

So once again, I have absolutely no, zero, nil, interest in becoming a video blogger. I don't want to 'market' myself. I don't need an 'AGENT' and if I ever need one I will realize something in my life went disastrously wrong. Thanks, but no thanks, I don't want to appear in your proposal as a "unique (attractive & smart) female physicist".

Best,

B.

Lighthouse Keeper said...

Andrew said: " A university full of people with no interaction, ability to communicate, or social skills would be a poor establishment (and I don't think it would be conducive to good research, either)."

Dear Andrew, thanks for your concern, but I think that the picture you have formed of me is inaccurate. I am not that weird; I am even married. :-) But I just don't find interacting with colleagues productive. On the other hand, I have published numerous papers on my own in Nuclear Physics B etc etc etc. So the quality of my work is not really in question. As I said, I have over 50 papers in print and I am still an Associate Prof. Sure I am bitter about that --- who wouldn't be? I have done my job well and I have not been recognised, whereas other people with far fewer papers in inferior journals with many names on their papers have been. I have not gone out of my way to be obnoxious to my superiors; I have simply not availed myself of the opportunities they presented to suck up to them; nor have I gone to conferences to perform said sucking at a higher level.

I think that you are making a mistake in comparing the job of an academic to other jobs. In most jobs you *have* to be a "team player" in order to be effective; in my job you don't have to be, and my record proves that. My job is to publish papers and to teach [my teaching evaluations are excellent by the way -- I'm on the "honor roll" because they got sick of giving me teaching prizes]. I do it well; I just don't kiss ass and I don't go to conferences.

Bee, Christine, thanks for your kind words, I thought I was the only misanthrope in the world :-)

Yes, "aggressive friendliness" is really the mot juste. It just makes me sick. But the truth is that without it, you might as well not bother going to conferences anyway; you will be invisible. Observe the scene at coffee break time: raucous groups of people who know each other: "Jack, I'd like you to meet my latest brilliant student...." These tightly bound molecules emit a powerful repulsive force; meanwhile over at the coffee table we see the misanthropes taking as long as possible to insert sugar in their coffee so as to stave off the evil hour when they will have to stand around staring into space......here we see another misanthrope gulping down yet another dried-up biscuit in a pathetic effort to look busy....here we see a more energetic one bouncing from one repulsive force-field to another....here we see a really desperate misanthrope accosting a famous professor only to find themselves reduced to fatuous remarks like "I really liked your last paper...." while the great man stares stonily at the molecule he was walking towards.....

Bee: we misanthropes don't do email :-) Anyway I have little to add: I joined my department immediately after getting my PhD. We had a rare enlightened Chairman who was bent on raising standards and who didn't care how we did it. I got tenure just in time to avoid his replacement, who never wrote a paper without several collaborators and who therefore downplayed the importance of single-author papers. Then we were invaded by a lot of locals who had been trained in the US style of doing things, with emphasis on attending conferences etc; it was downhill from there. That's all there is to it really. I'm well aware that I'm lucky to have tenure at all; I surely wouldn't get it under present conditions.

a prof said...

Re: Lighthouse Keeper, et al, and the discussion of the role "social skills" in academia.

There are many types of "social skills", not all of which should viewed positively.

Academic merit can include a "social skills" component, such as ability to communicate with and understand others (writing good papers, teaching well, etc.). These are good types of "social skills" that generally make society better.

But there are also bad types of "social skills" that generally make society worse, and these occur in academia too. Stalin had such social skills, and to varying degrees, so do some people throughout society, including in academia. Unfortunately many people succeed in life (in academia too) with these bad types of "social skills", and many more are dragged into their games.

Society needs to stop rewarding anti-social behavior.

I commend Lighthouse Keeper and those of his ilk for sticking with the good types of "social skills", and rejecting the bad.

Giotis said...

Hi Lighthouse keeper,

I dedicate to you the following from the Odes of Horatius:

"odi profanum vulgus et arceo". Which means:

"I loathe the vulgar crowd and keep them away."

Come on, don't be so elitist:-). The guy next to you is you. He is your mirror.


Regards

Lighthouse Keeper said...

Dear a prof: thank you. So it seems that there are many of us out there!

Giotis: thanks for the dedication, but I prefer the final line of this great speech [Shakespeare's Coriolanus]:

`‘You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate
As reek o' the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcases of unburied men
That do corrupt my air. I banish you. . . .
--Despising,
For you, the city, thus I turn my back:
There is a world elsewhere.’'


PS: He wasn't talking about the multiverse.

Andrew Thomas said...

Lighthouse keeper said: "I think that you are making a mistake in comparing the job of an academic to other jobs. In most jobs you *have* to be a "team player" in order to be effective"

Yes, I think you're right. It's a long time since I was in academia and all my jobs since have been team jobs, so maybe I have forgotten what it's like doing research. I do remember spending a lot of time in libraries! It isn't a particularly sociable life.

I remember my boss always wanted his name on any papers that got published, and I was always happy to go along with that, even though he had zero input. I remember some of our papers had *huge* lists of names, when only one person did the work. You write a lot of single-author papers? I seem to remember something about it's only the name of the first author that's really important, at least that's what my boss told me. If that's the case then I'd be tempted to add more names, but you'd consider that "ass-kissing" I suppose!

a prof said: "But there are also bad types of "social skills" that generally make society worse, and these occur in academia too. Stalin had such social skills, and to varying degrees, so do some people throughout society, including in academia. Unfortunately many people succeed in life (in academia too) with these bad types of "social skills", and many more are dragged into their games."

I think that's really interesting. I think the sort of "social skills" you are referring to are the sort of competitive, go-getting, networking type of behaviour I see all the time in management types. Real alpha-male behaviour. I'm not that sort, and it's not the sort of thing you normally get in academics. But I've had to work with company salesmen in my time and they are all from that aggressive networking mould. Like I say, real alpha male types. But the thing is, to be a successful company and sell products (and universities have to compete for funding as well) you *need* those type of people. You need a mix of people in any establishment to make it successful. A university - or any establishment - *is* a team. You need the entrepreneurial profs with their spin-off companies and Mercedes, and you need the quiet, bookish researchers. But you *do* need a mix of types to make a successful university, or company.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Andrew,

It’s interesting what you said about the blocking and screening of blog sites in many office settings. It would be nice to learn if this restriction is extended to the marketing and product/service development departments of such companies for this would go a long way in explaining the growing disconnect with the public. Perhaps Bee should consider setting up her own mirror site under the dot org extension for example. It would be a lot better then the MSN home page for sure. That is unless one considers the activities and opinions of those such as Britney Spears, Paris Hilton or Tom Cruise as essential knowledge:-)

Best,

Phil

Andrew Thomas said...

Hi Phil, this is all off-topic (Bee can delete it!), but I can say that other departments are more restricted that we are - at least we are able to access technical sites. Bee's blog is actually treated differently from other blogs - it is frequently unblocked (at the central Websense facility) which makes me think they have rated it as containing useful technical information.

But, yes, personally I would not be interested in creating a blog because they are generally treated as second-class websites (Google generally removes them from its main listings and only includes them in its Blog Search). I bought a domain for my own site (so I rank quite high on the main Google listings - page 1 for "quantum decoherence", "mathematical universe", "what is reality" and other popular search terms). If I was creating a site with quality content I wouldn't want to put it on a blog.

Also, you get a real problem with people posting off-topic comments ... :-)

Phil Warnell said...

Hi a Prof,

“Society needs to stop rewarding anti-social behavior.”

I agree with much of what you say and yet who is to define “anti-social behavior”? For instance does this extend to what’s commonly called “political correctness”, for if so I would insist in many cases we would be better of with Stalin. Mind you this is merely the opinion of one slightly gravity challenged, chronologically gifted and sometimes objectively prone individual. Also, is it not somewhat self contradictory to refer to behavior rewarded by society as anti-social?

Best,

Phil

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Andrew,

In as the webcast being commented on included the discussion of the value and impact of blogs of this nature I don’t see how Bee could consider your insight on corporate policy in this regard as off topic. What you imply is that the ability to differentiate “big business” from “big brother” is increasing in difficulty and I find that highly significant or as Bee may say non trivial.

Best,

Phil

Andrew Thomas said...

Thanks, Phil. I wasn't sure what "a prof" meant by "anti-social behaviour" either:

a prof said: "there are also bad types of "social skills" that generally make society worse, and these occur in academia too. Stalin had such social skills, and to varying degrees, so do some people throughout society, including in academia."

Hmmm, I had some bad lecturers, but not one ever sent me to a Gulag!

amused said...

Lighthouse keeper,

Did I get this right: You were hired to a faculty position directly after your PhD, went on to get tenure, and have subsequently been promoted to associate professor? If that is right I have to say it sounds like one of the pleasantest "rides" I have heard of for an academic career in particle physics theory. Even the fortunate "blessed ones", those who do their PhD with a leading person in a fashionable field, and for whom a prof job is regarded as their academic birthright, usually have to do 1-2 postdocs before they get it. During those postdocs they will often not have the freedom to do what they want, being expected to work for the greater glory of the person who hired them. And as for the great unwashed masses of postdocs who are not counted among the blessed ones, the large majority of them will end up having to leave academia at some point, regardless of their talent for the social stuff.
You, on the other hand, were apparently able to follow your own independent research program right from the start, and with the status and salary of a faculty member to boot. Pretty nice.

It seems you have a quite unrealistic idea of how publications, and number thereof, correspond to career advancement in the field. I am currently looking at the Spires record of someone I know who is still a regular postdoc 14 years after completing his PhD. He has 44 publications (not counting conference proceedings etc), all in the top journals, and a substantial number of them single-author; average of cites per paper is 42, becomes 20 when normalized for number of coauthors. There is nothing unique about this case (although most people would have left the field after failing to find a faculty position for such a long time). It is not difficult to find other examples of people with a similar or better level of productivity, with independence demonstrated through substantial number of single-author papers. E.g., I have now moved on to look at the record of someone else I know of: his PhD is from 1991-1992 and he seems to have finally landed himself a faculty position - somewhere in China (although he is a Westerner) - two years ago, after having survived as a postdoc for around 15 years. He has 51 publications (not counting conf. proceedings etc), most of them single-author, all in top journals, including 4 single-author papers in Phys.Rev.Lett. His cites average is 20, becoming 18 when normalized for number of coauthors.

I could go on with similar examples, but you surely see the picture. Since Bee asked about it, let me just mention my own case. Compared to the people mentioned above I'm still a youngster, only 10 years out of my PhD. 24 pubs, most of them single-author (2 of them were genuine collaborations, but there are a couple of others where I had to put someone else's name on the paper even though they hadn't contributed to it), all in the top journals, including 3 single-author pubs in PRL (which with some good luck will soon be increasing to 4). Cite average is 15, decreasing to 13 when normalized for number of coauthors. That is a pretty mediocre record, and I'm acutely aware of the fact that there are others who have done much better and are still struggling to survive in academia. (It used to be better but my productivity has taken a dive in recent years - hard to stay energetic without some tangible sign that it is paying off careerwise.)
Nevertheless, as far as number of publications goes, I am about halfway to where you are. However, careerwise, I am nowhere near halfway to where you are: I am still a postdoc (albeit a "senior" one), with no prospect of finding a faculty job anytime in the foreseeable future. Nothing unusual about that, seeing as I am just another member of the "unblessed" postdoc masses.

From what I've seen, career advancement in this business has little to do with a person's number of publications. To land postdoc positions at top places, and have a good shot at faculty positions, what matters most is being counted among the "blessed" in the sense described earlier. Within this group I'm sure the social stuff (ass licking etc) plays a big role in determining the amount of career success someone has. It is not unusual for such people to get faculty positions, and go on to get tenure, without having shown any capacity for independent research at all. Typically such people will have used their social skills to ride on the coattails of accomplished senior colleagues, being junior author on the latter's high-impact papers, without having made any impact through independent work. There are also examples of socially adept blessed ones gaining and keeping faculty positions while having very mediocre publication records, considerably worse than, e.g., the examples mentioned above. (Not all of them are like that though! Of course there are many who are simply very good physicists and get their jobs on merit.)

But for the "unblessed" I'm sceptical that the social stuff can do much for them. The fact that I don't bother with the social stuff is therefore not just because of my natural aversion to it but also the conviction that it wouldn't do me any good anyway. I think that the only thing that can save an "unblessed one" is to do some great physics. So that's what I try to do - without success so far, but it is still fun to try.

So, in conclusion, your complaint about not being promoted from associate prof to full professor after producing 50+ publications, while it might be justified, nevertheless seems pretty minor compared to what goes on in the field. There are many people who have been productive independent researchers for many years but are still stuck in postdoc positions without realistic prospects of ever landing faculty jobs (in the developed world at least). For such people, your situation as tenured associate prof seems like an incredible luxury and an impossible dream.

cecil kirksey said...

Hi Bee:
Just a couple of comments. How does one evaluate the research potential of a recent PhD holder? Particularly if that person hasn't made what could be considered objectively as a significant advancement in the field.

As regards to tenure: Is tenure a reward for past accomplishments or future potential?

Being able to do one's own thing and make a reasonable living is an ideal not a norm.

It could be that hep/gravity/cosmology research is approaching the point where objective facts will not be available due to technological/money constraints. When this happens then this area of science will degenerate into what I would call subjective interpertations. Very similar to other research areas like history, study of ancient civilizations etc. Researcher A writes a popular book claiming the objective facts support theory A and another researcher writes a book that counters theory A with theory B. Now the general public can select his or her favorite theory. Objective gets lost due to a lack of objective facts.

Bee said...

Hi Andrew, Hi Phil,

So the the problem is with the blogspot-domain? I could set up a mirror for the mainpage, I have a dot-org domain left over, I would just need the php script. Best,

B.

Andrew Thomas said...

Hi Bee, that's nice of you, but to be honest I'm OK at the moment as your blog is unblocked for some reason (because it's good and highly-ranked, I suspect). But if it's ever the case that your blog joins the list of all the other blocked blogs (your blog is definitely the exception to the norm) I'll let you know. Because a lot of people are affected by this - it's bound to affect visitor numbers.

Andrew Thomas said...

Christine said something about all blogs being blocked for her. I don't know if it would be useful for her.

Bee said...

Hi Cecil,

That is a good question you are asking and not one that I have a good answer to. It is my personal impression that by the time somebody has a PhD one can well judge on them according to the way they deal with problems, how they approach difficulties, technical skills, how much own ideas they bring in, how much they work with others and so on. If you're lucky that is well documented in letters of recommendation, but sometimes it isn't. In addition to that, researchers at that stage of their career have few if any publications. The best way I can imagine to deal with that is to just get to know the people personally. PI for example invites candidates for a week or so, such that there is time to get to know them. There is however the problem of pre-selection before that.

One problem that particularly bothers me about that is the high importance that is being payed to letters by well-known people in a field, and to top-institutions. This supports the closed-society problem: If you come from nowhere and know nobody, you'll likely not get anywhere and ever get to know anybody. It would already help to overcome this bias by realizing the weak connection to a person's promise. I do in fact not think that these selection criteria are in some way 'created' deliberately, they have just formed out of the need to deal with a high and increasing number of applicants that somehow has to be reduced down to a shortlist. Possibly it would already help to clearly formulate some dos and donts. I don't think it is in anybodies interest to sort out potentially promising people to the advantage of less promising ones, but the danger for this to be possible is unfortunately given if one uses secondary criteria because they are fast and easy and they've been used before. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Andrew, Christine,

Well, let me know if it would be useful, I'm sure we could do something about it. Thing is, we've been thinking about moving the blog elsewhere and run wordpress on a private server anyway. So I have a domain etc. It's just that I haven't come around to setting up the software. Another point is that I don't know any good way how to deal with the archives of this blog. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Lighthouse Keeper,

Thanks for your comments. I can relate very well to what you say, your coffee break description matches my experiences precisely. You forget however the postdoc-clusters on the walls, from which one can observe the Mr VIPs while pretending to be interested in whoever one is standing next to - usually onother postdoc observing another VIP. Until Mr VIP looks free, upon which the desperate postdoc will leave the cluster, often in the middle of a sentence to jump upon Mr VIP "I really liked your recent paper..." - I don't know how many times I've seen that. Best,

B.

Andrew Thomas said...

Bee, if ever you just want to point your .org domain at your blog, then Blogspot has instructions here. Basically, you ask your domain registrar to do it.

"I really liked your recent paper...". Hey, it's called "networking"! It makes the world go round. It happens in any job.

amused said...

"I can relate very well to what you say, your coffee break description matches my experiences precisely."

Yes, me too! In the past I dealt with that by going outside for a secluded smoke or two, but having recently quit that I'm not sure what I will do next time I find myself in the conference situation. I'm toying with the idea of using it as an opportunity to corrupt the youth, by showing them how much fun it is to vilify the famous people in the field (regardless of whether they deserve it or not).

Bee said...

Hi Amused,
Funny you mention that. I often hang out with the smokers outside even though I don't smoke because I feel more comfortable there. Probably because they talk less than the manic coffee drinkers ;-) Best,

B.

amused said...

Bee, yes, that is something I also like about the smoking crowd: the implicit understanding that talking too much is not a good thing. It distracts from the important business at hand ;-)

bellamy said...

Bee doesn't appear she's used to being in front of an audience, cos she does this weird eye movement and body motion. Plus, especially in this day, you need a higher bandwidth camera.

Peter's decent, but stutters or/and speaks a little fast at times.

Lighthouse Keeper said...

Dear Amused,
I did say that I am well aware that I'm lucky. Still you might be surprised how demoralizing it is to see assorted nitwits being promoted over your head precisely because they were [as you put it] "blessed". I have been in this great institution for 25 years and I'm still an associate prof. In short: I have good reason to be bitter, but there are plenty of other people out there [including you] who have even more reason to be bitter. I think we are basically in agreement; see below.

As Bee said, the real crux of the matter is the extreme reliance placed on getting letters from famous people. One of the recent promotions to full prof here involved someone with *one* single-author paper --- all the rest, and there were not many, were co-authored with his [famous] thesis advisor. All he had to do was to write to that person and ask him to persuade other famous people to write. If his advisor had stepped out in front of the proverbial bus, this guy's career would have died at the same moment.

I think everyone is well aware of these facts, but the people at the top find the situation so convenient and comfortable that they are unwilling to do anything about it. The alternative would be to ignore these stupid letters and really study what the candidate has actually done --- really *read* his papers [or thesis in the case of a postdoc]. But that would be hard work; also, helping other people's students [in exchange, of course, for their helping yours] is a major part of the networking skills these guys prize so highly. Anyway, good luck and stay off the smokes!

Bee: yes, I forgot those aspects of the coffee-break culture. Come to think of it, there always *does* seem to be a lot of smoking at these events; I guess it is not much more unhealthy than gobbling down Academic Biscuits at top speed, or risking a heart attack from a surfeit of bad coffee. Somebody could write a highly entertaining novel about all of the ridiculous things that go on at these highly useless meetings. Another data point: at the last conference I went to, it was after dark and I got lost on the grounds. Then I saw a group of people approaching and was going to approach them for directions. But then I saw that they were *really* famous people with force-fields turned up to maximum strength. So I returned to the obscurity from which I ought never to have emerged, and climbed a tall fence to escape onto the street outside. It was oddly satisfying.

amused said...

Lighthouse keeper,
Thanks, and good luck to you too. It is certainly galling to see less accomplished people get better jobs or promotions ahead of oneself, so I can understand your reaction to that. Personally I’m not sure if I have grounds to be bitter though, since if everything had been done entirely according to merit it is quite possible that my situation would be no different from what it is now (there would certainly be many people ahead of me on merit). In the end, the unavoidable reality is that there are too many people and too few jobs, so it is inevitable that some good people are going to have a hard time and lose out.

It is certainly true as you said that the people at the top find the current situation convenient and comfortable and don’t feel any motivation to change it. But I’m not sure that they really are aware of the reality as we experience it. Many of them are wearing rose-tinted glasses, and there is also a strong conviction among them that their proteges (“the blessed”) really are better than any of the rabble, regardless of what publication numbers or other measures might say. This view is usually shared by the blessed themselves, who are imbued with a great sense of their own wonderfulness relative to those who are not of the same academic “pedigree”.

I’ve had a good opportunity to see this mentality in action in my current job. My boss, an associate prof whose PhD is 3 years earlier than mine, is not at all perturbed by the fact that I have more publications than him (not counting conference proceedings; he has a ton of those). I might have more, but his are *better*. The fact that his few single-author papers have almost no cites, while one of mine has 90+, just goes to show that citations don’t signify anything. On the other hand, the fact that a couple of his papers (as junior author along with senior accomplished folks) have 100+ cites is testament to what great work he has done. The fact that one of his papers (again with senior coauthors) is published in PRL reflects on how great it is, while my 3 single-author PRL papers reflect on how easy it has become to publish there. And so on. The mentality of these people is that their superiority as researchers is guaranteed by their pedigree. When various measures of research accomplishment favor them then those measures are of course valid and good, but when the same measures disfavor them compared to members of the rabble then it is of course a sign of shortcomings in the measures. There is so much comedy material here!

Bee said...

Hi Lighthouse Keeper, Hi Amused,

It is quite ironic but a pre-version of this blog was indeed the begin of a novel containing exactly that sort of nonsensical academic dance. It was titled 'The Black Hole Bomb,' but at some point I had to realize there are indeed people who believe in black hole bombs. (Also, it became to auto-biographic so I decided to instead just write a blog about my real life.)

Anyway, something else that I can't avoid noticing is that this discussion about publications and citations is somewhat lopsided. Much as I don't think few publications and few citations speak against a researcher, I am not very convinced by people who argue for their usefulness by number of publications, citations or single-authored papers. I don't mean that personally - since I don't know either of you or your work how could I? - but I know several examples of people who managed to produce a large number of well-cited papers, many of which single-authored, that however are completely redundant (and some contradict each other). You can do that if you have optimized your social network.

So it remains to repeat: the only way to really judge on a researchers promise is to actually get to know him or her, and read his papers. There are no shortcuts. Best,

B.

Christine said...

I love the coffee-break description above.

I am of the type that at coffee-break takes a cup of coffee and a biscuit, exchange a brief 'hi' to a few people that I eventually know and quickly return to my sit, where I open my notebook or some other thing to read, until next talk. Usually, I find myself complete alone in such situations. It is a great strategy of mine.

Concerning the access to this blog at my work, I have recently noticed that the access is being permitted to the posts, but the comments are blocked. No problem, since I have connection at home, where I am right now writting this comment.

Best,
Christine

Lighthouse Keeper said...

I absolutely agree with Bee about papers and citations. Apart from the effects on my career, I honestly don't care whether my papers get cited --- I'm a lighthouse keeper after all. And to be honest, the fact that one of my papers has been cited over 130 times is a complete mystery to me. The point I wanted to make is the same one made more clearly by Amused: these things become important when someone wants to push the career of well-connected people, but mysteriously become unimportant when we misanthropes are up for tenure or promotion.

I think Amused makes another interesting point: he says that the people at the top really believe that the present system is good. This had not occurred to me, but I think he may be right. The thing that always strikes me about very senior physicists is their extreme self-confidence. With rare exceptions, they do not hesitate even for a microsecond to declare that a piece of work is junk, even on the basis of a short talk which they did not understand. They think that they have a sort of instinct which tells them what is good and what is bad, and this instinct relieves them of the burden of actually understanding new work. This also explains why they are often amazingly ignorant of the literature: if they can't remember it or haven't seen it, it can't be important. This instinct is dressed up as "deep physical insight". In fact I would go so far as to say that this "deep physical insight" is responsible for most of what has gone wrong with physics academic life, especially in the US.

Bee, what a pity you didn't publish your novel. It would have been hilarious in a dark sort of way.

Christine: *now* I understand why people go to all the trouble of lugging a laptop all over the world! :-)

amused said...

Bee, I hope you will write that novel one day when you have the chance. Someone should write a novel about all this stuff, and make a movie too!

I also agree about the limited usefulness of publication and citation numbers. When Lighthouse keeper and I have mentioned such numbers in previous comments it is not because we attach importance to them but because the system professes to attach importance to them: They play a big role in the official justification for hiring and promotion of insiders, but, as Lighthouse keeper said, become mysteriously unimportant when it is outsiders that are being assessed. So the point is to point out the double standards.

However, I have to admit to being very attached to the idea of quantifiable measures of people’s research productivity and quality. This is to a large extent based on my personal experience of being on the receiving end what Lighthouse keeper describes as super-confident senior physicists declarations of work being junk, which also includes the assessment that the person talking to them about it (either informally or in a seminar) is a rubbish physicist. Having been consistently written off as rubbish by these people during my time in academia, while at the same time seeing how others who don’t appear to have done anything special, or even independent, get a completely different reaction due to their ability to exude the right aura and rub the big shots up the right way (and get recommendation letters and jobs as a result of it), has made me kind of bitter and liable to say uncharacteristically mean-spirited things like “If these `blessed ones’ are so wonderful, let them go prove it by […]” (no doubt you can guess the rest).

I also want to say something about the suggestions for how to better assess researchers, but I’ll make that a separate comment or this would become too long.

Christine: you have solved my dilemma of what to do at conference coffee breaks now that I have quit smoking. I will bring my laptop and do exactly what you do – thanks!

amused said...

About assessment of researchers:
(Sorry in advance that this comment became so long)

While evaluation of people based on publication and citation numbers etc is not so good, I think the suggestion to instead evaluate them by simply reading their papers is problematic as well if it involves someone being assessed by others who are outside their area of expertise (as would typically be the case for most members of a hiring committee). In this situation the person’s “salesman” abilities to hype their work will be able to have too much influence. For example, I know of people in my own field whose papers read as if they contain some tremendously important advance. Since I have the background on the topic concerned I can see that the actual results are far from living up to the hype. But if I was reading these papers without having expertise on the topic I could easily be taken in by the hype and conclude that the results were a big deal. (And I might be especially susceptible to that if the candidate had charmed me with his/her social skills, or if he/she was a former student of my buddy who I was counting on to hire my own student at some later point.)

So, assessments of the quality and importance of someone’s work should be made by people with the requisite expertise in the relevant areas. Currently this happens in two ways: directly through recommendation letters, and indirectly through publications, in that publication implies (in principle) that the work was assessed and approved by a referee with expertise in the relevant area. However, as we know, recommendation letters have become a useless joke, and publication doesn’t signify a whole lot either: The threshold for getting published in the supposedly top journals is low, and papers making incremental advances are published side by side with those making major advances – there is no way to tell the difference for those without expertise in the relevant topics.

However, there is an (in principle) straightforward solution, and it already exists in the maths community: establish a journal hierarchy which is able to provide reliable quality stamps over a whole range of different levels. The mathematicians have this already:
all the different maths journals are assigned different statuses, and there is a tight and meticulously maintained correlation between status of a journal and the quality of the papers it publishes. To give an example of how this works: someone on a maths hiring or promotion committee, without having any expertise in the candidates’ areas, can know that a publication in, say, Math. Zeitschrift signifies a decent but unspectacular piece of work, while one in Int. J. Math is slightly higher quality; Duke Math J. is a big step up, and Annals of Math is the pinnacle, signifying a tremendous paper of the highest quality.
The great thing about this system is that it provides a fair and transparent playing field for all. So you have done some great work and want it to be recognized, but you aren’t a “blessed one” with connections to important people? No problem, just go publish your paper in Invent. Math. or Ann. Math. It will be carefully assessed by expert(s) on your topic (which could take up to a year), and if they agree that the work is important enough for the journal it will be published. With that, your job application will trump those of all the blessed ones who haven’t managed to obtain a similar quality stamp for their work, regardless of how socially skillful they are or how exuberantly their famous mentors praise them.

Of course, it isn’t quite as wonderful as that in reality – those working on fashionable topics with connections to important people will no doubt have an easier time getting published in the top journals than outsiders – but it is unrealistic to expect a complete meritocracy in any case, and this system seems to be far better than anything else I’ve heard of. At any rate, the mathematicians seem happy with it – I don’t hear them complaining that it leads to unfair outcomes. No complaints that it is leading to “bubbles of nothing” either, and mathematics must be at least as susceptible to that as physics seeing as they don’t have experiments to guide them.

Meritocrat said...

Amused: I'm sorry to be the one to break it to you, but I am in a mathematics department and I can assure you that things are just as bad here. Surely you don't think that the bigshots in math would look at the way senior physicists rule their slaves and not find a way of replicating it? The only difference is that the system has been going on over here for much longer and is more entrenched. You don't hear so many complaints because [a] the people who understand it have despaired and [b] we have been a *lot* better at brainwashing our young people to accept it.

Basically it works like this. It is in the nature of things that the subject moves at a glacial pace. The consequence is that *infinitesimal* advances can get published in very good journals *if* you are in the right field. And who determines what the "right" field or subfield or subsubsubsubfield is? The big shots of course. Most of the papers you see in number theory, for example, represent advances that would never get published in a decent physics journal. [Of course mathematicians like to say that the kind of stuff you see in physics journals would never get published in maths journals --- the sad truth is that both statements are correct.]

The rest is left to the reader as an exercise. The upshot is that there are just as many questionable promotions and so on among us as among you. Sorry, but there it is.

I don't know what the solution is but I can tell you that setting up a universally accepted hierarchy of journals is a sort of Stalinist solution. It works very well...if you are Stalin.

Plato said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Plato said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christine said...

Christine: *now* I understand why people go to all the trouble of lugging a laptop all over the world! :-)

Yeah, but actually you only need to take with you a nice book.

amused said...

Meritocrat,
Interesting to hear your perspective on this; however, it is not entirely compatible with what I’ve seen and heard elsewhere.
One of my postdocs was in a maths dept, which is where my impression of the maths situation comes from. I shared an office with a more senior pure maths postdoc who used to tell me about it in gory detail. He was quite a cynical type, and not someone who would be easily brainwashed I imagine. The situation I described in the previous comment is a lot more simplified, rosy and airbrushed than what he described (for the sake of brevity) , but still has the essence of it.

Regardless, one thing that struck me about him and the mathematicians in general was their focus on quality and standards. E.g., he used to agonize over which journals to send his papers to, wondering which was the highest status journal for which his paper had sufficient quality to be accepted. My impression from this was that there really was some quite serious quality assessment going on in mathematics. (If it was just his connections that were determining where he could publish, or if getting accepted in various journals was just a crapshoot, then he wouldn’t have needed to agonize over it.) One incident I remember in particular was when he submitted a paper to the prestigious journal `Communications in Analysis and Geometry’: the referee recommended publication, but the editor declined to publish it, saying that the referee hadn’t been “positive enough” in his report, and that the journal had a “big backlog”. Assessment at this level of detail would never happen in a physics journal.

In response to the points you made, let me just say without going into details that I know of quite a few young mathematicians who were not particularly well-connected, were not working on particularly fashionable topics, but nevertheless, after building up a record of publications in good quality maths journals, were able to find ok faculty positions. I can’t think of any such successful “unblessed” people in physics off the top of my head. (No doubt there are some out there, but they are really quite rare.)

So, based on what I have seen, and despite what you wrote, I am still much enamored with the idea of quality stamps based on a journal hierarchy system like what the mathematicians have. Sure it will be far from perfect, open to gaming etc. But at least it is “something”, compared to the “nothing” we have now in physics.

I have no idea how you arrived at the analogy with Stalinism. For me the relevant analogy would be with institutions (courts etc) that, in principle at least, are there to ensure due process for citizens so that they are not at the mercy of the oligarchs. Of course, in practice such institutions can be manipulated by those in power, but that doesn’t mean a country would be better off not having them at all. There is always the hope that as democratic ideals take hold the institutions will start to function independently as they are supposed to. Plenty of examples of that in history.

nige said...

Thanks for posting this discussion. RE: the discussion of how to get around the problems of string promotion, e.g. could string theory have been opposed in a less public way?

I read pacifist history and in virtually every major war in history, the pacifists (both at the time and afterwards) claimed that if one side had tried a bit harder to explain their case in private to the other side, everything could have been solved without open hostility. (Wars were just a gigantic misunderstanding, and if people were less stupid and more talkative regarding issues, there would never be any hostility, you see.)

Every conflict could have been avoided if only one side had surrendered without a fight. The problem is not that they couldn't communicate but that they didn't want to agree a surrender peacefully and have other people's ideas imposed on them "peacefully". The stronger side gave the weaker side the choice of surrender or war. The weaker side chose war. They actually wanted to try to defend themselves. (It takes two fighters to have a war because peaceful surrender is not called a "war".) It's pretty analogous to the situation you're discussing.

The story of how Dr Woit's book was censored out from a university press (which would not have promoted it so sensationally) by a string theorist peer-reviewer who took a quotation out of context, changed the words to make it look stupid, and then gave it as an example of Dr Woit's alleged stupidity in criticising string theory, is something I'm well aware of.

I wrote the opinion page/editorial for the British "Electronics World" magazine issue of (I think) October 2003, criticising string theory censorship tactics, but it brought in abusive letters by pro-string theory PhD students at Nottingham University. (A google search showed that they were all students of the same professor.) The letters ignored the arguments and just made personal abuse about my intelligence in asking why so much funding was being given to unproductive areas, so the editor had to censor them out. However, the editor also decided not to commission any more articles on the subject.

It's human nature that people like Smolin and Woit have different reasons for objecting to string theory, but if you read the books the main reason comes down to the arrogance and abuse from the most outspoken (and thus media-hyped) string theorists to gentle criticism.

They are extremely defensive, to the point of taking any question or scientific criticism as a personal insult, ignoring the science of the question and then making personal insults to the person making the criticism.

This paranoia is a well-known groupthink symptom. You can't have a discussion which is rational with people who won't read your evidence and who won't keep to the science, but who prefer to personally attack those people who are being scientific and looking at nature factually, rather than to develop applications and unifications of many different speculative beliefs that can't be falsified. Almost exactly the same happens to anyone criticising the government of a despotic regime from within the country: their points are ignored, they are treated as traitors or criminals and are personally attacked. This is called "shooting the messenger". Bad news is dealt with by attacking those publicising the bad news, instead of tackling the underlying problem.

The problem with string theory, as both Smolin and Woit keep stating in their books, is nothing to do with the failure of string theory after twenty-five years of mainstream research, but is due to the effects of the arrogance of string theorists on the subject.

There is no shame in trying to do something and failing. There is only shame if you fail to get a working theory with falsifiable predictions yet keep obfuscating the facts in public hype, claiming you're on the brink of the theory of everything when actually you have an anthropic landscape of 10^500 vacua for the universe (none of which has even been shown to model the world), and then censoring out critics and alternative theories without even bothering to read any of them. That what's shameful. Not the failure, but the hype and the abuse of science by people who profiteer from failure.

It's the hype that makes the failure of string theory as a physical science "not even wrong". Even things like the AdS/CFT correspondence requires a negative cosmological constant, instead of the observed positive one, so it's applicability to the real world requires forces where there is not repulsion but attraction such as the strong nuclear force. Maybe it's a useful approximation for calculations of that, but it's not a falsifiable theory. Epicycles for an earth-centred universe were a "useful approximation" and were "self-consistent" mathematically for a thousand years before being disproved. String theory can't get even be disproved. Again, I'm not hostile to research in string theory (or anything else, because we thankfully live in a free world, where nobody has the right to force others to give up on anything), but the endless hype for mainstream speculations by extremely arrogant and abusive people who also "peer-review" physics journals and censor out alternative ideas, really pisses genuine scientists off. (By genuine scientists, I don't mean those who are the groupies of Witten or those who think "doing science" is the process of censoring out science without reading it, and instead publishing speculations that can't be falsified.)

There is a lot that can be done if you look at the empirical facts of quantum gravity (such as the fact it must satisfy certain empirical criteria of the real world as confirmed by certain tests of general relativity): you can try to unify those empirical facts with other empirical facts in cosmology. You don't need to go to view fundamental physics as seeking to unify speculations. You can instead work on the few empirical facts we actually do have, and get somewhere (falsifiable predictions) from that. However, this is ironically now dismissed as "crackpot" by the string theorists, so certain are they in their own hype of their own unchecked theory of spin-2 gravitons etc.

Bee said...

Hi Nige,

Thanks for your interesting comment. I think however your analogy to warfare is not very adequate. For one this is because string theorists have after all the same goals as all other physicists that is understanding. This is not a question of one being the winner and the other being the loser, it's a problem of balance.

If you want to stick with your warfare analogy, leading this discussion publicly is like denouncing your neighbor country's government to be corrupt, and asking the world to cut back on trade, without first telling that neighbor, look we're living next to you and would really like to talk about what we think is a problem. I'm not talking about some people from the one side talking privately to some people from the other sidee, as that would probably not have had any effect (and very likely took place anyhow). But why wasn't it possible for example, to address the issue to the APS? For one, it is a problem that seems to be located mostly in the USA (for reasons that one can speculate about), second they ought to be interested in what's going on in their community, third they reach the right group of people - those who can at least roughly judge on what the heart of the discussion is. (Fourth, being a member might finally have been good for something.) I really liked Lee's opinion piece in Physics Today. A lot of people replied to it, and it really started a discussion. Why wasn't it possible to pursue this approach somewhat further? I think this would have been a far more fruitful exchange.

Best,

B.

nige said...

Hi Bee,

Thanks for your kind response.

"For one ... string theorists have after all the same goals as all other physicists that is understanding."

I fear that you may be too optimistic here. If that assumption were really correct, then there wouldn't be any problem at all. It simply isn't. The string theorists do share a goal of understanding speculations and belief systems within the non-falsifiable string theory framework, M-theory.

But are you sure that this amounts to string theorists sharing the same ultimate goals as those who work on alternative ideas? Sure they want results and they want funding, but why are they sticking with a failed framework of ideas that has never worked?

Furthermore, the arrogance of the media-hyped string theorists, who market failure as success, is not a part of physics and generally physicists are not so obnoxious and paranoid about criticisms of the paradigm. If they can't make falsifiable predictions in other theories, they don't hype that as a success.

The real problem I've seen has included peer-reviewers for the UK Institute of Physics journal Classical and Quantum Gravity who don't read what they condemn, and who simply dismiss papers because it's about quantum gravity but isn't using the game rules of string theory. I submitted a paper to that journal at the suggestion of Dr Bob Lambourne of the O.U., and the editor of Classical and Quantum Gravity was good enough to send the paper for peer-review. This was ten years ago. I really needed that publication. The editor sent me back a photocopy of the peer-reviewers report with the names of the reviewer blanked out. It ignored everything in my paper and just went on about the virtues of string theory which I hadn't dealt with.

The paper I sent was not concerned with string theory. Yet string theory was used to censor it out. The paper was based entirely on facts, which is extremely hard to do in physics when building a theory that makes falsifiable predictions. The 1996 predictions were confirmed empirically by the discovery of the cosmological acceleration a couple of years later. You can't publish them because of string!

They're proposing uncheckable speculations based on a self-consistency between various speculations. The whole framework is critically unconnected to reality, so how can it be defended by saying that they share the seeking for understanding with scientists?

If you want to claim that string theorists share the same goals as other physicists, they may share some common aims and ambitions like getting a lot of citations, getting a lot of funding, etc. But I don't see how they share any interest in understanding physics. Maybe understanding uncheckable pseudo-physics, but they wouldn't accept that it is pseudo-physics despite the fact it is not falsifiable. (Even the name physics itself relates to physical things, not to the abstractions of a multiverse, etc.)

"But why wasn't it possible for example, to address the issue to the APS?"

The American Physical Society, just like the Institute of Physics here in Bristol, is the opposite of a forum for controversy. The members of an institute pay their fees to avoid controversy, which is why journals are peer-reviewed. If they wanted controversy, they could obviously just stop peer-review and let the mistakes in papers be argued over by the readers instead of by peer-reviewers. Clearly, they don't want that mess in their pages, because a large number of their readers (i.e. membership) are teachers and researchers who don't have the time to check papers in detail outside their own specialisms.

To teachers of physics (a fairly large proportion of membership) controversy can be an annoying, time-wasting embarrassment, which looks inelegant and detracts (from the media perspective) from large body of solid facts in physics which are not controversial.

The committees in charge if APS and IoP are elected by members, and if they start allowing the venting of hostilities about controversy, they risk losing their positions.

If you think about it, the government doesn't profit when a newspaper prints a corruption scandal or problem with government policy. The newspaper prints controversy as news solely because people other than government are buying the newspaper, and the news affects those people who are not part of the government.

If the government had total control of the newspapers, then newspapers would end up not publishing so many controversial stories that threatened the popularity of the government.

In other words, with APS and IoP, you have various committees and journal editors in the same buildings, drawing salaries from the same membership revenues.

You can't expect them to annoy the membership by allowing annoying controversy. They have printed some news of the string theory controversy, but they haven't printed a real backlash yet (something that in the public eye would effectively "cancel out" the 25 years of string theory hype so far).

If they did that, then there would be extreme anger from very powerful figureheads in physics such Weinberg et al. (see how Weinberg deals with British academics who oppose Israeli attacks on Palestinians: he conveniently yet falsely labels them anti-semitic, according to the quotation at this page). Editors and committee members and leaders could become embroiled in a terrible row, risking a lot. The string theorists who cause the problems are physicists who behave in a paranoid way, ignoring the real motivations and making up false accusations; these people are politically-astute propagandarists who have the media at their beck and call.

You can't hope to have a sensible conversation with people who are irrational enough to claim that uncheckable multiverse speculations are part of physics.

Best wishes,
Nige

Giotis said...

Hi Nige

Basically what you are describing here is a scenery from the dark ages with the string theorists in the place of the Catholic church. I know that string theorists have key positions in the establishment but i can't believe (or accept) that things are that bad. I think you are exaggerating.

Regards

Bee said...

Hi Nige,

I am sorry to hear about your bad experiences with CQG. I've made very good experiences with them. In fact, it's my favourite journal. Their referee process is fast and reliably meaningful. In the one case where it wasn't the problem was resolved quickly by the editorial board. (Similar problems I've had eg with PLB or PRD resulted in an editor's reply saying essentially "the referee has spoken, amen").

[String theorists] may share some common aims and ambitions like getting a lot of citations, getting a lot of funding, etc. But I don't see how they share any interest in understanding physics. Maybe understanding uncheckable pseudo-physics, but they wouldn't accept that it is pseudo-physics despite the fact it is not falsifiable.

Well, that just doesn't fit with the impression I've had of string theorists I know. Many of them are extremely bright, hard working people, who pursue string theory for the reason that they genuinely believe it to answer the questions we are asking. I have to wonder whether you are blowing up your personal anecdotal experience to a criticism of a whole research program.

I'd say roughly I've encountered three different attitudes of people working on the field:

1) those who are aiming at the big question and see string theory as a way to get there, may that road be long and windy, but they believe it's the right way.
2) those who are interested in the mathematics.
3) those who are in string theory because that's where the money is and who will tell you whatever nonsense it is they are working on is tremendously interesting and groundbreaking.

I have no problem whatsoever with 1), even though I don't share that believe. I have a problem with 2) if they call physics what is actually mathematics and has nothing to do with reality whatsoever, if that connection is weak or unclear. If they just wouldn't claim it's physics that would be fine with me. I dislike 3) generally, whether that's about string theory or any other field.

The tendency to sell failure as success is one born out of a survival instinct because the public opinion matters. That appeal to the public, as I've argued e.g. here, is indeed one of the big problems, because it is an obstacle to any sensible argument.

You may be right about the APS. I don't know much about them.

Best,

B.

Giotis said...

Hi Bee,

Also it should be noted here that there are people from the LQG camp that work on both fields i.e. LQG and Strings. LQG supporters at least don't exclude necessarily Strings from their research as far as i know; my impression is that it is the other way around.

Lee Smolin among others for example is/was working on a background independent M-theory. Also there is/was research regarding the relationship between spin-networks and strings or string - loops duality. So it's not all black and white.

Btw do you know if there is any progress on this? I hope i don't violate rule No 4:-)

BR/Giotis

Bee said...

Hi Giotis,

I have no clue, honestly. I find it funny however that 'quantum gravity' is often used as meaning 'quantum gravity except string theory'. As far as I am concerned introducing groups at PI was a mistake to begin with (I'm trying to convince them to replace the grouping with a tag-cloud of researchers interests...) but just by looking at the website you'll find 'quantum gravity' and 'string theory' as separate groups. Why?

Either way, this one-sided exclusion is what you'd expect in a system that has a rich get richer effect like the current one. If you're on the stronger populated side, there's loads of stuff to learn and to do and you neither have time nor incentives to look what others do. The QG community is insofar very different from the string community in that it seems to be composed of a lot of smaller groups who do all different things. If you ask me, they have their sociological problems as well. They are all incredibly nice to each other because alternatives are always good, right? - but on the downside don't seem to care what others are doing and are tolerating each other without trying to connect. That's not a way you can ever reach some kind of congruence, not a way to make progress. I am totally with Nancy Cartwright in this regard: Good physics is conflict. Best,

B.

Best,

B.

Giotis said...

Hi Bee,

It comes as a surprise to me to hear that there is no interaction between the different groups; especially for PI which has been founded with the vision to bring brilliant physicists to work together in order to answer some of the fundamental questions about nature.

BR/Giotis

Bee said...

Hi Giotis,

? I didn't say they don't interact. I meant to say I can't see no convergence despite that interaction - sorry if that didn't come out too clearly. The point I was trying to make is that a community can also be too nice. Besides this, it's only a very small percentage of people in the field working at PI, and PI isn't exactly the average institution anyway. Best,

B.