From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

By cjohnson | November 9, 2005 1:12 am

Unfortunately, it is not all good news to report on the standard of recent presentations in the region concerning what is going on in physics research. Consider the following sentence:

I will Kill Karl.

Now you might imagine that this would be very damning evidence that the person who said it had done something terrible to Karl if poor Karl was discovered the next morning in circumstances indicative of foul play….if it could be proved that it was what was actually said.

In fact, here is the whole sentence:

I will compute all of the Killing vectors associated to this solution, which was discovered by Karl Schwarzschild.

I just pulled the bits that I wanted out of the full sentence to make the shorter one. Ok, this might be a bit of an artificial example, but it precisely illustrates what took place at the end of last week’s Categorically Not! gathering. It also characterizes other presentations that I’ve seen in several places recently in the media, but it fills me with dismay when it is done by scientists who should know better. It leaves me speechless when it is done by scientists who should know better and in addition have spoken out about wanting better representation of science in the media.

Let me backtrack.

krauss at categorically not!Lawrence Krauss came to Categorically Not! at K.C. Cole’s invitation to take part in the presentation of material under the theme “Exploring Space”. We again had a full house at the Santa Monica Art Studios, and we’d already seen two great presentations from a dancer and a geographer on the theme. (See here.) Then came the physicist, Krauss, to talk about aspects of what the physicists’ take was on this. Everybody was looking forward to this, and so was I. I have to report that this was one of the most dishonest and manipulative presentations I’ve ever seen about aspects of fundamental physics. My basic read on this was that Krauss was more interested in selling books than he was in presenting a scientific debate honestly. He’s cleverly realized that the media, and the book-buying public, are attracted to a controversy -real or imagined- over a nuanced debate. So even though he had prepared a number of slides which were geared at doing what he agreed to do in the invitation – talk about several ideas in physics about space – he decided at some point to just throw all sorts of random things out to the audience -completely and knowingly out of context- in order to construct a convenient caricature of the program of research in string theory to serve his own agenda. Further, rather than give a coherent picture of any point he was trying to make, or attempt to explain any statement, no matter how distorted, he just kept saying “this is all discussed in my book”. Repeatedly.

I know this might seem like a disgruntled string theorist’s view of things, but I assure you that it is not. As you may know from reading my posts and comments in discussions on this blog (see e.g. here, and here, and in comments), I welcome and encorage honest and informed debate about the program of research in string theory and related topics. I’ve welcomed well-known nay-sayers to come and have their say on this blog. This is because the debate is important. We do not know if string theory is correct. More research is needed. Discussion is healthy and important, etc. Ultimately, confrontation of these ideas with real experimental results is needed. (We’ve discussed this a lot here before.) But what I do not like to see is outright deliberate distortion of what the research is about in order to sell books, or serve any other agenda. And as I’ve said it is especially disturbing when it is done by a practicing scientist who actually knows that he is misrepresenting things.

This is not debate, but manipulation and dishonest showmanship.

Let me give you an example or two.

(1) He started out right after being introduced by saying that he’s just flown over from the East coast where he was explaining to an audience why String Theory was the same as Intelligent Design. I smiled, thinking that he would then unpack this interesting and provocative statement, and try to explain what he meant by this by building up a little about the program of research and the difficulties and challenges it faces. I settled back in my seat for treat, to see how he frames the discussion. It never came. He never said anything more about that. Just left it hanging, deliberately planting a misleading impression into the minds of his audience, who came to learn what is going on in science. This is irresponsible. Especially in these times when reason itself seems to be under attack at all levels. (Pointing to his reportedly (e.g. here and here) balanced writing on the subject misses the point. If you say something like that to your audience, who came to learn something from you, you’d jolly well better clear it up.)

(2) After spending a bit of time talking about Electromagnetism, Special Relativity, and notions of space and time in those subjects -he did a good job and he had slides for that- he then talked about the Kaluza-Klein idea (where certain phenomena such as various forces and particles have a higher dimensional origin). He did a good job of developing the elegance of the idea showing how it fit into what he said before. Then he just says “pity the idea is wrong”. No discussion of why (rightly or wrongly) he thinks it is wrong. No mention of the fact that this is a scenario which is a large part of ongoing programs of research today, and that it can be -in a very definite sense- confronted with new experiments in the near future. This is a missed opportunity to tell the audience honestly what people are up to in current research, and I was puzzled by why he slammed the door shut there, which seemed a bit hasty. Of course, I realized why (he wanted to firmly undermine any approach to extra dimensions), a little later:

(3) At one point, he starts talking at random about infinity. He talks about Hilbert’s hotel. It has an infinite number of rooms which are full, but you can fit an extra guest in by an apparent mathematical slight of hand. This is what mathematicians do, he says. Titters from the audience. Then he shows that you can fit an infinite number of extra guests in by tweaking the trick a bit. Those cheating mathematicians. More titters. Then he says that this is what string theorists do, he claims. What!? He “illustrates” this by talking about how mathematicians can sum all the integers from 1 to infinity and get the result -1/12. This is what string theorists use to justify “inventing” all sorts of extra dimensions, he claims. “Infinities are bad” he says, and the string theorists use sneaky mathematical tricks to justify their crazy extra dimensions, etc. No time to explain, he says, read about it in the book.

Now we can argue about whether what he says is true or not, but this is not the point, because of what he says next. He explained that string theorists were doing this in the 60s and 70s to try to explain the strong nuclear interactions and then he puts up a slide which says “then physics intervenes”. And guess what’s on the slide? His “good friends” (he says) Gross, Wilczek and Politzer, (last year’s Nobel Prize winners) and the theory of Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD).

You might see nothing wrong with that. After all it is true that string theory’s origins were in the context of the 60s puzzles about the strong nuclear force, and it is true that QCD came along as the correct model. But what he neglects to tell the audience is that the same “sneaky” mathematical tricks that he pulls out of context to cariacature research in string theory as crude and a suspicious enterprise are crucial to QCD, the physics that he chooses to paint as the saviour of all reason.

My point -if it needs to be restated- is that he is doing exactly what I did with those two sentences at the beginning of this post. He just chose to pull out what he wanted from the actual program of research into string theory in order to construct a deliberately distorted picture. This allows him to appear controversial, paint himself as the wise outsider (which the press and public love) and therefore sell more copies of his new book. (He chose to do this rather than actually talk about what he agreed to, which is also rather poor behaviour, in my opnion). This is all very sad, because he knows that quantum field theories such as QCD use computational methods that require a careful handling of apparently infinite quantities. There is no controversy there. It’s old news that only non-practicing physicists trot out. Anyone who is properly taught about modern quantum field theory knows that this has nothing to do with the physics at all. It is simply a property of the computational technique which is well understood and well under control. To imply that it is a “dirty trick” when you know that the whole issue is a red herring is not a good way of presenting a debate about the current research. It is just sensationalizing to an untrained audience to sell books. We as scientists get upset when the press misrepresents what we are doing – sensationalizing to sell newspapers. We scientists should therefore not manipulate the public in the same way to sell books. (I have not read the book….it may well be good, I don’t know…that is not my point).

This cynical practice could come back to bite all scientific research programs, not just today’s whipping-boy, String Theory. It is a stupid and dangerous game to play.

Another reason why I was shocked by the whole thing (to the point that I just said absolutely nothing): Afterwards, he came up to me and gave me a conspiratorial smile and said privately (almost with a conspiratorial wink) “sorry, I guess I was a little hard on string theory there, wasn’t I?”. I think he actually thought that I was part of the manipulative game he was playing on the audience.

Journalists, Writers, Editors: Please do not buy into this new low point of debating technique. Challenge yourself and your colleagues to try to be honest in their presentation of what the other side is doing. Even if you don’t agree with what someone is doing, don’t just make up random stuff. It is not right.

Lawrence Krauss, I hope that was just an off-day, and that the sort of presentation I saw was not what you’re doing everywhere on your book tour. If so, Shame On You.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science, Science and the Media

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