|[Cat’s cradle. Image Source.]|
Leaving aside my discomfort with the nomenclature, the focus on string theory struck me as odd. String theory as a research area stands out in hep-th and gr-qc merely because of the large number of followers, not by the supposedly controversial research practices. For anybody working in the field it is apparent that string theorists don’t differ in their single-minded focus from physicists in other disciplines. Overspecialization is a common disease of academia, but one that necessarily goes along with division of labor, and often it is an efficient route to fast progress.No, I thought back then, string theory wasn’t the disease, it was merely a symptom. The underlying disease was one that would surely soon be recognized and addressed: Theoreticians – as scientists whose most-used equipment is their own brain – must be careful to avoid systematic bias introduced by their apparatuses. In other words, scientific communities, and especially those which lack timely feedback by data, need guidelines to avoid social and cognitive biases.
This is so obvious it came as a surprise to me that, in 2006, everybody was hitting on Lee Smolin for pointing out what everybody knew anyway, that string theorists, lacking experimental feedback for decades, had drifted off in a math bubble with questionable relevance for the description of nature. It’s somewhat ironic that, from my personal experience, the situation is actually worse in Loop Quantum Gravity, an approach pioneered, among others, by Lee Smolin. At least the math used by string theorists seems to be good for something. The same cannot be said about LQG.
Ten years later, it is clear that I was wrong in thinking that just drawing attention to the problem would seed a solution. Not only has the situation not improved, it has worsened. We now have some theoretical physicists who argue that we should alter the scientific method so that the success of a theory can be assessed by means other than empirical evidence. This idea, which has sprung up in the philosophy community, isn’t all that bad in principle. In practice, however, it will merely serve to exacerbate social streamlining: If theorists can draw on criteria other than the ability of a theory to explain observations, the first criterion they’ll take into account is aesthetic value, and the second is popularity with their colleagues. Nothing good can come out of this.
And nothing good has come out of it, nothing has changed. The string wars clearly were more interesting for sociologists than they were for physicists. In the last couple of months several articles have appeared which comment on various aspects of this episode, which I’ve read and want to briefly summarize for you.
First, there is
- Collective Belief, Kuhn, and the String Theory Community
Weatherall, James Owen and Gilbert, Margaret
It makes sense, the authors write, that people whose well-being to some extent depends on the acceptance by the group will adapt to the group:
“Expressing a contrary view – bucking the consensus – is an offense against the other members of the community… So, irrespective of their personal beliefs, there are pressures on individual scientists to speak in certain ways. Moreover, insofar as individuals are psychologically disposed to avoid cognitive dissonance, the obligation to speak in certain ways can affect one’s personal beliefs so as to bring them into line with the consensus, further suppressing dissent from within the group.”Furthermore:
“As parties to a joint commitment, members of the string theory community are obligated to act as mouthpieces of their collective belief.”I actually thought we knew this since 1895, when Le Bon’s published his “Study of the Popular Mind.”
The authors of the paper then point out that it’s normal for members of a scientific community to not jump ship at the slightest indication of conflicting evidence because often such evidence turns out to be misleading. It didn’t become clear to me what evidence they might be referring to; supposedly it’s non-empirical.
They further argue that a certain disregard for what is happening outside one’s own research area is also normal: “Science is successful in part because of a distinctive kind of focused, collaborative research,” and due to their commitment to the agenda “participants can be expected to resist change with respect to the framework of collective beliefs.”
This is all reasonable enough. Unfortunately, the authors entirely miss the main point, the very reason for the whole debate. The question isn’t whether string theorists’ behavior is that of normal humans – I don’t think that was ever in doubt – but whether that “normal human behavior” is beneficial for science. Scientific research requires, in a very specific sense, non-human behavior. It’s not normal for individuals to disregard subjective assessments and to not pay attention to social pressure. And yet, that is exactly what good science would require.
The second paper is
- Contested Boundaries: The String Theory Debates and Ideologies of Science
Sophie Ritson, and Kristian Camilleri
Perspectives on Science, Vol. 23, No. 2, pp 192-227.
The article has a lot of fun quotations from very convinced string theorists, for example by David Gross: “String theory is full of qualitative predictions, such as the production of black holes at the LHC.” I’m not sure what’s the difference between a qualitative prediction and no prediction, but either way it’s certainly not a prediction that was very successful. Also nice is John Schwarz claiming that “supersymmetry is the major prediction of string theory that could appear at accessible energies” and that “some of these superpartners should be observable at the LHC.” Lots of coulds and shoulds that didn’t quite pan out.
While the article gives a good overview on the opinions about string theory that were voiced during the 2006 controversy, the authors themselves clearly don’t know very well the topic they are writing about. A particularly odd statement that highlights their skewed perspective is: “String theory currently enjoys a privileged status by virtue of being the dominant paradigm within theoretical physics.”
I find it quite annoying how frequently I encounter this extrapolation from a particular research area – may that be string theory, supersymmetry, or multiverse cosmology – to all of physics. The vast majority of physicists work in fields like quantum optics, photonics, hadronic and nuclear physics, statistical mechanics, atomic physics, solid state physics, low-temperature physics, plasma physics, astrophysics, condensed matter physics, and so on. They have nothing whatsoever to do with string theory, and certainly would be very surprised to hear that it’s “the dominant paradigm.”
In any case, you might find this paper useful if you didn’t follow the discussion 10 years ago.
Finally, there is this paper
- ‘Crackpots’ and ‘active researchers’: The controversy over links between arXiv and the scientific blogosphere
Social Studies of Science, 1-22, 2016
The title of the paper doesn’t explicitly refer to string theory, but most of it is also a discussion of the demarcation problem on the example of arXiv trackbacks. (I suspect this paper is a spin-off of the previous paper.)
ArXiv trackbacks, in case you didn’t know, are links to blogposts that show up on some papers’ arxiv sites, when the blogpost has referred to the paper. To exactly which blogs trackbacks show up and who makes the decision whether they do is one of the arXiv’s best-kept secrets. Peter Woit’s blog, infamously, doesn’t show up in the arXiv trackbacks on the, rather spurious, reason that he supposedly doesn’t count as “active researcher.” The paper tells the full 2006 story with lots of quotes from bloggers you are probably familiar with.
The arXiv recently conducted a user survey, among other things about the trackback feature, which makes me think they might have some updates planned.
On the question who counts as crackpot, the paper (unsurprisingly) doesn’t come to a conclusion other than noting that scientists deal with the issue by stating “we know one when we see one.” I don’t think there can be any other definition than that. To me the notion of “crackpot” is an excellent example of an emergent feature – it’s a demarcation that the community creates during its operation. Any attempt to come up with a definition from first principles is hence doomed to fail.
The rest of the paper is a general discussion of the role of blogs in science communication, but I didn’t find it particularly insightful. The author comes to the (correct) conclusion that blog content turned out not to have such a short life-time as many feared, but otherwise basically just notes that there are as many ways to use blogs as there are bloggers. But then if you are reading this, you already knew that.
One of the main benefits that I see in blogs isn’t mentioned in the paper at all, which is that blogs supports communication between scientific communities that are only loosely connected. In my own research area, I read the papers, hear the seminars, and go to conferences, and I therefore know pretty well what is going on – with or without blogs. But I use blogs to keep up to date in adjacent fields, like cosmology, astrophysics and, to a lesser extent, condensed matter physics and quantum optics. For this purpose I find blogs considerably more useful than popular science news, because the latter often doesn’t provide a useful amount of detail and commentary, not to mention that they all tend to latch onto the same three papers that made big unsubstantiated claims.
Don’t worry, I haven’t suddenly become obsessed with string theory. I’ve read through these sociology papers mainly because I cannot not write a few paragraphs about the topic in my book. But I promise that’s it from me about string theory for some while.
Update: Peter Woit has some comments on the trackback issue.