Ignorance and Anti-Science in the NYT Book Review

By Mark Trodden | February 5, 2006 7:55 pm

I hope you haven’t had your fill of outrage recently, because here’s some more.

Benson Bobrick is an author who has written an uncontroversial history of astrology, according to a review in today’s New York Times Book Review. However, the reviewer of this book is not content to remain uncontroversial.

Dick Teresi, perhaps best known to physicists for co-authoring The God Particle with the wonderful Physics Nobelist Leon Lederman, seems determined to get a reaction out of his readers, even if it comes at the expense of science and demands that he embarrass himself.

Get this for starters

In the early 20th century, experimenters demonstrated that randomness rules: physicists found that particles are unpredictable; geneticists discovered that evolution is fueled by squillions of chance mutations. Yet today superstring theorists insist they will reconcile the lumpy, acausal quantum world with the smooth determinism of relativity; and neo-Darwinists emphasize natural selection, a god-like mechanism that sorts through mutations and chooses only the optimal ones. To them, every feather, fetlock and pubic hair bristles with meaning.

Never mind that theories that seamlessly incorporate both quantum theory and special relativity – Quantum Field Theories – are the best tested theories in the history of science. And if I have to go over the mountain of evidence for evolution or the silliness of the phrase “neo-Darwinists” one more time, my head may just explode. Yes, incorporating gravity is a challenge, but Teresi’s statements of why he doesn’t like current attempts to do this just show his ignorance.

There is true irony here also

So when the playful and innovative historian Benson Bobrick writes in “The Fated Sky” that 30-40 percent of the American public believes in astrology, I am shocked. Why so few, given the raging apophenia among our scientific elite? Astrology, the belief that human lives are ruled by the stars and planets, is no nuttier than current cosmological models, which feature an “anthropic principle,” giving our puny, three-pound brains a central role in the universe.

No, Dick, the real problem is that the willful twisting of hard-won scientific progress by people like you leads to such raging rates of belief in pseudoscience and nonsense.

Yes, there are a few scientists talking about the anthropic principle in the context of some string theory ideas and cosmology. However, if you followed these issues at all, you’d know that the vast majority of cosmologists (your use of the phrase “scientific elite” is another gem that tags you as a crank in this area – and you’d know that as well if you kept up with what the vast majority of professional biologists and physicists are up to) do not find this a compelling idea and are working hard on the science that has brought us such remarkable success in recent decades.

Teresi’s anti-science comments continue all the way up to the end

Modern man can choose from a veritable smorgasbord of Type 1 errors: string theory, neo-Darwinism, cosmology, economics, God. Astrology is as good as any, and Bobrick demonstrates that it has a rich, colorful past to draw upon. As for me, I answer to a higher authority.

Cosmology includes our understanding of the expansion of the universe, of the origin of the cosmic microwave background radiation and its detailed structure, of the origins of the light elements, and of how large-scale structure formed in the universe. And these are just some major highlights. Teresi seriously seems to be comparing these accomplishments to astrology. I much preferred Michael Behe comparing Intelligent Design with Astrology.

And who is this higher power Dick. I guess it might be some kind of God, although given the incredible arrogance of your ill informed take on modern biology and cosmology, you might just be referring to yourself.

Needless to say, I am extremely disappointed with The New York Times for assigning someone like this to write a review, or at the least with the fact that no editors flagged the self-serving off-topic agenda of what was submitted. It is hard enough to keep up one’s energy for taking on the torrent of nonsense spoken about the rational world these days, without having to deal with generally respectable publications dropping the ball.

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  • damtp_dweller

    “Modern man can choose from a veritable smorgasbord of Type 1 errors: string theory, neo-Darwinism, cosmology, economics, God. Astrology is as good as any, and Bobrick demonstrates that it has a rich, colorful past to draw upon. As for me, I answer to a higher authority.”

    That’s such an astonishingly stupid comment that I had to actually see it on the site before I would believe it had been said.

    I’m beginning to get really concerned about the manner in which science is portrayed in the US. If this sort of trash can make it into the pages of the NYT it’s probably high time that another great popularizer of science comes to the fore again. We desperately need to convince people that what we do is worthwhile, valid and, most of all, true.

  • Verner Eglit

    People will believe what they want to believe – the facts don’t matter. (Just look at the latest political blietzkrieg of psuedo-facts) Our educational system no longer requires knowledge of the facts of science. It doesn’t even require the knowledge of proper English usage so we can communicate accurately. We live in a “feel good” society that has no discipline for accuracy.

  • Samantha

    My mouth fell open at this one.

    … neo-Darwinists emphasize natural selection, a god-like mechanism that sorts through mutations and chooses only the optimal ones.

    I don’t even know where to start. What sort of idiot would write this drivel? But I feel the need to say (and yes you do begin to feel that your head might explode): NO IT DOESN’T. The (well established) theory of natural selection suggests no such thing. It, in fact, the theory of natural selection negates the need for a god or a god-like mechanism, hence why we are the fight we are currently in with some factions within the church.

    Are book reviews in the NY Times “opinion” or are they “news” and subject to fact checking?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    I expect they are not fact checked, and usually it wouldn’t matter. But in this case, given the incredible slant and off-topic ranting of the review, you’d think someone would have noticed it.

    More generally though, asking this guy to write the review surely seems like a poor decision.

  • anon

    That really is just unbelievable. Mark, I hope you’ll consider converting this post into a letter to the editor. It might not turn the tide of public opinion, but the NYT really needs to be called out on this insanity.

  • http://www.trippy.org/ng Eric Preston

    This is reminiscent of the recent USA today editorial that proposed that scientists shouldn’t be trusted to decide what is and what is not science. While I share Mr. Eglit’s fatalism regarding the irrelevance of facts in the modern world, I found this type of journalism too irresponsible not to respond. I didn’t respond. After all, someone else surely would. And my response would most likely be ignored, robbing me of precious time I need to spend on things that count in my tenure review…

    I also share the sentiment that we need a great popularizer of science… but we can’t sit around and wait. Especially since there’s no guarantee the best science writer in the world will actually become popular. Now that we have blogs like this one to discover these offenses to cognition, we need a mechanism to respond in kind. Spending time writing letters and articles seems futile… unless it is part of a larger endeavor that can’t be ignored. Is there any sort of organized effort of scientists to impact the misrepresentation of science in the media? If not… does anyone (else) want to start one? I’m sick of waiting for someone else to do it.

    efp@newton.indstate.edu

  • Mauro Guerra

    I’m not an American but I try to stay informed about what goes on in your country, and sometimes I my jaw drops with the things I hear. I always thought the way Portugal (my country) could improve was by doing what the United states have done, investing in science and technology and also good information.

    When I read post’s like this I tend to believe that maybe having too much scientists in a country is not a good idea because some of them will try to be heard even if for that they must make controversial claims without substance and/or logic. This leads to confusion in laymen because they are not armed with the necessary knowledge to distinguish good science from bad science.

    The only thing that can overcome this tendency is to find a good scientist who is also so popular that he can win the fight for reason.

    Maybe you will find a new Carl Sagan, the world needs it.

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/blog Peter

    I thought the Teresi book review was really dumb, and kind of a joke, but outrage at him seems to be misplaced when you refuse to confront the pseudo-science in your own field that he is directly referring to. He’s right on target that what Susskind is promoting in his latest book is no better than astrology. If professional physicists want their field to retain public respect they have to be willing to confront the fact that pseudo-science has infected parts of the highest levels of theoretical physics and do something about it.

    The on-going damage to science, especially theoretical physics, caused by the behavior of some theorists is significant and growing. They are turning this field into a joke and threaten to destroy its credibility and make it a laughingstock. This is going to get worse before it gets better, and the problem of arrogance here is not with Teresi.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Hi Mauro. I’m not an American either, although I do live here. This guy is not a scientist, so it is not one of us who has gone off the rails. There are a lot of people here working for popularization of science (more perhaps than I know of in essentially any other country), but we do need more.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    I didn’t think it was like you to jump in and insult just like that Peter. Let’s get a couple of things straight. 1) I am a cosmologist, not a string theorist; so don’t refer to “my field”. 2) I am no fan of the anthropic principle, often comment on that in talks, and am not someone working on the implications of the landscape for cosmology, partially because I feel that it is premature to think about doing that.

    I am not quite sure what you think gives you the right to accuse me of refusing to confront what you call “the pseudo-science” in my own field, but I make it clear in the post that most cosmologists don’t find anthropic arguments compelling. I also recall commenting on your blog at least once about how dismayed I was to find people going to a conference on some of these issues rather than a simultaneous one on collider physics. I think you even highlighted my comment in a later post.

    Perhaps you’d like to elaborate on your name calling. Or just shut up, whichever you prefer.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Let me just add one thing. This is one of those things that really pisses me off about some of the discourse I find on blogs. You and I have always had civil and, I thought, pleasant discourse Peter. I write a post about an attack on science that should trouble us all, including you. What do you do? Twist it to your own purpose and attack the way I conduct myself in my own field! How unfortunate.

  • http://www.angrystanek.com Becky

    I’m disappointed to see that in the NYT, especially because a recent article about evolution education in Utah included the paragraph:

    Evolutionary theory does not say that humans evolved from chimpanzees or from any existing species, but rather that common ancestors gave rise to multiple species and that natural selection — in which the creatures best adapted to an environment pass their genes to the next generation — was the means by which divergence occurred over time. All modern biology is based on the theory, and within the scientific community, at least, there is no controversy about it.

    I was very pleased to see that paragraph. It’s too bad that another article then confused “science” with “junk”.

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/blog Peter

    Mark,

    Sorry for the tone of my comment, you’re right it was inappropriate. It wasn’t directly aimed at you and should have been worded differently to make that clear.

    My problem is with the behavior of the theoretical physics community as a whole: what Susskind and allies are up to is not just not compelling, it’s not science. I don’t see professional theorists willing to publicly call him on this. It’s his nonsense that is giving people like Teresi the idea that particle physics and cosmology is a joke.

    Again, apologies for the inappropriate wording of my comment.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Thanks for the apology Peter – it is nice of you. I understand your wider point and have some sympathy with it. I still take issue with a sweeping comment like “the behavior of the theoretical physics community as a whole”, but it isn’t inappropriate in the sense that I felt the earlier one was.

    However, in the case of Teresi, I do not think you can just blame his behavior on what some theorists may say and use it to push your views on string theory. There is willful distortion here. This man had personal access to Leon Lederman over the course of writing an entire book. Nevertheless, he refers to particles being unpredictable and talks about the silliness of the idea that quantum mechanics and relativity could work together. He is either an imbecile, or knows for a fact that these things are completely false and is using them for another reason. I’m guessing he didn’t get them from Leon Lederman.

    There is also no way he seriously thinks he can compare cosmology with astrology, no matter who he’s been talking to.

  • Phisohex

    It’s his nonsense that is giving people like Teresi the idea that particle physics and cosmology is a joke.

    It goes without saying those who go around loudly denouncing string theory as “pseudoscience” bear no responsibility for inspiring scientific illiterates, like Teresi, to think that it actually is pseudoscience.

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/blog Peter

    Mark,

    I was in no way attempting to defend Teresi, much of what he had to say was stupid and ignorant and you’re quite right to point that out.

    In trying to figure out who Teresi was and why he was going on like this, I did do a little research on Google. He helped Lederman write a perfectly good book about particle physics in the late 80s, and early in the 1990s evidently got interested in “multi-culturalism” and the history of non-Western science. He started out to write an expose debunking some of this, but found there was more to it than he suspected. He ended up writing a book called “Lost Discoveries”, for a good review, see

    http://www.americanscientist.org/template/BookReviewTypeDetail/assetid/17180

    This is evidently where his interest in astrology and idea that it might be worth attention comes from.

    Maybe I’m reading my own obsessions into it, but the fact that he mentions string theory 3 times in a short review and the anthropic stuff explicitly (and refers to his conversations with theorists) indicates to me that, already set on a path of skepticism about some of the claims of modern science, seeing things like the string theory anthropic landscape of Susskind have reinforced his worst tendencies and led him to write some of the nonsense that shows up in this review.

    Phisohex,

    If you’re referring to me, no, I have never denounced string theory in general as pseudo-science. What I have referred to as pseudo-science is the string theory anthropic landscape program promoted by Susskind and others. For a detailed explanation of why I think it is pseudo-science, see my review of his book on my blog. Most string theory definitely is science, some of it quite good science (e.g. AdS/CFT), some of it less so.

  • http://ansobol.blogsome.com Andrei Sobolevskii

    Mark,

    Thanks for this post. I also read the article and noticed in it something that might be useful if you do write a letter to the editor, but so far has not been mentioned in this discussion.

    Teresi writes:

    Johannes Kepler, who figured out the shape of the solar system, also left us at least 800 preserved horoscopes. Although he called astrology “the wanton little daughter of astronomy, selling herself to any and every client willing to pay,” he believed that our souls contained a geometric blueprint of the zodiac at birth.

    This quote provides a very fine description of the way in which cosmology is really very, very different from astrology, doesn’t it?

    Of course the question what Kepler really meant by the “blueprint” has to be left aside, as this would take the discussion too far into things like neo-Platonicism. But elaborating on this would not help Teresi much either.

  • A condensed matter theorist

    I almost hesitate to say this because it is off-topic, but Peter’s comments earlier compel me. The field of “theoretical physics” is quite a bit richer than the field of “anthropic arguments in string theory”. It’s even richer than high energy physics (as you may guess from my moniker). In fact, most of theoretical physics has nothing to do with strings, or even gluons. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out what I’m talking about.

    In a way he’s right, though, a lot of what the public hears about physics is basically indistinguishable from astrology without the background to understand the science. It is easy for someone to take some ideas originally based on science (especially those pertaining to things they don’t have contact with everyday) and run with them into all kinds of wacky areas because they don’t have the tools to tell the difference. One alternative is to appeal to the fact that scientists are experts — but then you end up with people who are credentialed in science pushing crazy ideas, too (intelligent design, for e.g.).

    So let me put this as a question: is there a way to tell people about what physicists are up to that doesn’t lead to this kind of wholesale abandonment of reality? or do you folks think I’m off the mark here?

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Peter:

    My problem is with the behavior of the theoretical physics community as a whole: what Susskind and allies are up to is not just not compelling, it’s not science.

    In any scientific topic you have controversial theories, especially about the very foundations of that topic. I would be more concerned if there were no controversial ideas at all.

    Also, Nature doesn’t care whether we regard the theory describing it as science or not.

  • Ijon Tichy

    Mark wrote:

    Never mind that theories that seamlessly incorporate both quantum theory and special relativity – Quantum Field Theories – are the best tested theories in the history of science.

    I think Teresi had general relativity in mind, although his adjectives (lumpy, acausal vs smooth determinis[tic]) did confuse matters. His statement on evolution is extremely and woefully ignorant.

    No, Dick, the real problem is that the willful twisting of hard-won scientific progress by people like you leads to such raging rates of belief in pseudoscience and nonsense

    I doubt it! Maybe it causes a few pseudo-academics or wannabe-intellectuals to join the conga line of “fashionable nonsense” pedlars, but if you’re looking for causes of those “raging rates of belief”, I suggest the usual suspects: ignorance, stupidity and fear.

    And who is this higher power Dick. I guess it might be some kind of God, although given the incredible arrogance of your ill informed take on modern biology and cosmology, you might just be referring to yourself.

    I think he may be referring to his publisher. :)

    I agree that this is an example of arrogance. Teresi writes about subjects about which he is clearly under-informed. This behaviour is not restricted to the world of journalism. I have heard philosophers talking nonsense about physics, physicists talking nonsense about medievalism, and medievalists talking nonsense about philosophy. Publically. Now I’m all for cross-disciplinary research, but I wish people would spend the better part of a decade immersed in a subject before opening their big mouths in public about it.

  • Dumb Biologist

    It wasn’t so long ago that the Times gave a rather large swath of coveted op-ed space to Michael Behe, so that he could expound on and promote ID. I really had to wonder about such a move, as I doubt they’d give the same consideration to certain so-called cryptozoologists “researching” Nessie or Sasquatch. Perhaps the subject matter was more topical, but no more legitimate (less so, perhaps, as the fringe cryptozoologists really have no greater agenda, so far as I can tell, than sharing their misguided enthusiasm, and bagging a tall, hairy hominid in the Cascades).

    Fact is, some nonsense is more equal than others, and major news sources are no less subject to market forces than your average “Hard Copy”-style exploitation. This crap sells to fundies and woo-woos alike, and their dollars are just as green as anybody else’s. We must get over the idea that the Grey Lady can consistently be held to a higher standard if we are not to feel chronically betrayed.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    A condensed matter theorist — sure, most of theoretical physics is not high-energy. And I agree that, on the face of it, a lot of modern science sounds weird and counterintuitive; that goes for everything from quantum mechanics to the Big Bang model to superconductivity to natural selection. And it would be hard for a non-expert to tell at a glance why that stuff was right and astrology was wrong. But that difficulty shouldn’t stop us from working on these topics (obviously), or even discussing them with the general public (less obviously, but just as surely). It just becomes our job to (1) clearly explain the evidence as well as the ideas, (2) give a flavor for the empirically-based methodology of science, (3) clearly delineate the boundary between what we know and what we’re speculating about. We know that the Big Bang model is basically right; we are speculating that density perturbations may originate during inflation.

    I personally think that a comparison between the string theory landscape and astrology is wildly off the mark. The landscape is a prediction of some good old-fashioned scientific hypotheses. It may be right or wrong, it may be testable or untestable (by itself), it may be fortunate or unfortunate. But comparing it to pseudo-science does a disservice to non-experts who are trying to understand what is going on.

  • http://www.anthropic-principle.ORG island

    “neoDarwinist”

    A term used by one of the most respected members of the field of evolutionary biology to describe the knee-jerk antifanatical tendencies of members of her own field… “Neo-darwinist”

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/blog Peter Woit

    Sean,

    If you believe the landscape is untestable, why do you believe it is science? I think what is doing a disservice to non-experts is to muddy the waters about what is science and what isn’t. One thing that it’s important for people to understand about science is that it’s not about what some authority figure says is true or not true. If they are willing to take the time to look into any claim of scientific truth, there is a train of logic and of experimental observation that backs up such a claim and is available to them to examine and convince themselves whether it is correct or not.

    What is confusing people here is that they are hearing claims that some untestable ideas are science. This is very dangerous. Susskind is quite explicit in his book about what his philosophy of science is: falsifiability doesn’t matter, if I do it and say it’s science, it’s science.

    Do you have a plausible idea about how the string theory landscape is ever going to lead to a testable prediction? I’ve read Susskind and other people’s papers on the subject carefully, and I just don’t see such a thing.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Peter, I think there are two different (but simultaneously true) answers. The short but subtle one is that falsifiability is not the right way to demarcate science from non-science — but that’s an interesting and debatable point I don’t want to get into right now.

    The much more basic point is that the landscape is not a theory, it is a prediction of certain theories (string theory and eternal inflation). Every theory makes untestable predictions, and nobody cares. Even a strict Popperian should recognize that theories should be judged on the basis of their testable predictions, not their untestable ones.

    If you want to criticize string theory as a theory of quantum gravity because it has not yet made any testable predictions, go right ahead; you won’t get any argument from me. I personally hold out hope that it someday will, and you personally might be skeptical, but those are personal judgments. The fact that string theory may make other untestable predictions just seems quite beside the point, and certainly is a completely different matter than astrology. The role of the landscape, if one believes in it, is only to re-calibrate our notions of what constitutes a “natural” low-energy effective action — nothing more, nothing less. Those notions are inevitably subjective anyway, so I don’t see anything non-scientific about the possibility that some observed parameters are selected environmentally rather than fixed by a unique formula. If the vacuum energy is a contingent variable like the number of planets around the Sun, I won’t be happy, but I can deal with it.

  • Adam

    Astrology can at least make you feel optimistic about your prospects in, say, lurve. String Theory makes your head pointy.

    Astrology > String Theory. QED

  • Adam

    You people don’t know nothing.

    Where’s my book deal.

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/blog Peter Woit

    Sean,

    Sure, you can’t purely use falsifiability as a demarcation, it’s quite a bit more complicated than that. But the important point is that there really is a difference between non-science and science, and one needs to be able to explain the difference to people, if not in general, in any particular case where the issue comes up. Anyone working on the string theory landscape and claiming to be a scientist has to have an answer to this question, one better than “because I say so”.

    Sure, no one yet knows what “string theory” is, so it is perfectly sensible scientific behavior to say that the question of its testability is open since the theory is insufficiently understood. I’m not claiming that pursuing string theory in general is pseudo-science. What I object to is something very specific that Susskind and followers are doing, something that he has written a whole book promoting, which is to accept the existence of the landscape, and announce that the fact that virtually anything is consistent with it is an advantage. In order to be doing science under these conditions, he has to be able to come up with a plausible idea about how this is somehow going to lead to a prediction of something. He can’t. The best hope for this was the idea of using statistical analysis to predict whether supersymmetry breaking happens at low or high energy scales. That didn’t work, it’s dead.

    I’m not saying anybody investigating a setup where the CC is anthropically determined is not doing science. Maybe the CC is environmental, as is the electroweak breaking scale, the up and down quark and electron masses, maybe even more. But you have to predict something, or have a plausible story about how doing what you are doing is going to lead to being able to predict something, otherwise you’re not doing science. You haven’t answered my question: give me a plausible example of how the anthropic string theory landscape framework is going to lead to an even in principle testable prediction. I’ve looked very carefully for this and just don’t see it. It is this lack that causes me to call this pseudo-science.

  • http://www.anthropic-principle.ORG island

    I make it clear in the post that most cosmologists don’t find anthropic arguments compelling.

    No, it’s stringy anthropic arguments that cosmologists shouldn’t find compelling. It is a fact that random non-uniformities in the expanding universe are not sufficient to allow the formation of galaxies given the rapid rate expansion, since the gravitational attraction is too weak for galaxies to form in any practical model of turbulence that is created by the expansion itself, so, like sean carrol says, the entropy of the universe is less than it “could” be”…

    … unless far-from-eqilibrium dissipative structures, like us and black holes, (which most definitely do arise via the formation of large scale “sites that are conducive to life”), serve to balance this *most-apparent* entropic debt via high-energy contributions to the entropic process.

    First principles supercede ill-conceived anti-anthropic rationale, everytime.

    Not to mention what they do to inflationary crackpottiness, stringy theories, and uncertainly derived falacies that lack causal meaning.

    The second law of thermodynamics in an expanding universe says that entropy always increases… but that’s all that it really tells us, so be careful what you project to before figuring out how biocentric structuring might actually make it perpetually so.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Peter, “the anthropic string theory landscape framework” may very well not lead to any testable predictions. Or it may, if certain features appear in landscape vacua and others do not; but let’s assume that we can find vacua that look like practically anything we want, in terms of low-energy particle physics. My point was that the thing that is a scientific theory is “string theory,” not “the anthropic string theory landscape framework.” The way to show that the landscape is relevant is to show (1) that string theory is right, and (2) that string theory predicts the landscape. Neither is at all easy, and may eventually be judged to be impossible, as I freely admit. But I certainly don’t know that yet. We could conceivably get evidence for string theory from cosmology, from black hole physics, from particle accelerators, from some dramatic tabletop experiment that nobody has yet thought of. All of these seem at the moment like extreme long shots, and a debate about their plausibility is worth having. But the fact that we can’t directly observe the landscape just doesn’t imply that the whole picture is no better than astrology; every theory makes non-testable predictions.

    I think we’ve had this discussion before: to you (correct me if I’m getting it wrong), the thing that a framework like string theory should be doing is to provide a definite theory of unification beyond the Standard Model. I never thought it should be doing this, and always thought the hopes in that direction were just wishful thinking. To me, string theory is worthwhile as a theory of quantum gravity. The experimental necessity for such a theory is already established: we see quantum mechanics, we see gravity. If we had two conceptually coherent, equally simple models of quantum gravity that were fundamentally inconsistent at a deep level, it would be necessary to appeal to experiment to decide between them. We should be so lucky.

  • A condensed matter theorist

    Sean,

    I don’t disagree with you. And I would never want to argue that we should not try to explain what we all do to nonexperts. I would never want to argue, in fact, that string theorists or cosmologists shouldn’t. After all, everyone foots the bills, not just scientists. And people really do care.

    I guess I’m just saying I can see where it can be very difficult for most people to sort through various competing claims. It doesn’t seem fair to ask people to trust scientists because they’re scientists — after all, we didn’t really become scientists ourselves blindly believing what we were told. So, you could ask, what is the most effective way to communicate science to nonexperts that clearly distinguishes it from competing, nonscientific (wrong) claims that sound scientific? Why doesn’t everyone think that Intelligent Design is obviously off-the-deep end? Why do people think astrology makes sense? Is it something we’re doing wrong in explaining science that we could improve or should we just keep doing what we’re doing and hoping enough people “get it”?

  • http://1034:Incorrectkeyfilefortableusers;trytorepairit sisyphus

    Isn’t mathematical consistency in a theory, hypothesis, whatever.. sufficient cause to continue to develop it to the point that it makes testable predictions?

    Also, is Popper’s theory falsifiable?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    ACMT, I agree that we’re not disagreeing. I do think that scientists and educators have done a terrible job at explaining how science works, choosing instead to emphasize a mixture of gee-whiz speculation, mind-numbingly boring basics in high school, and appeals to authority. All of us here at CV are convinced we can do much better.

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/blog Peter Woit

    Sean,

    I don’t agree that “the thing that is a scientific theory is “string theory,” not “the anthropic string theory landscape framework.” We don’t know what “string theory” is since we don’t have a viable non-perturbative version of the theory that doesn’t obviously disagree with reality. Whether “string theory” predicts the landscape or is right is not a hard problem, it’s an ill-defined one. There’s nothing unscientific about pursuing hopes that a theory of a certain kind may exist as long as these hopes are not completely unreasonable. But this is not what Susskind’s book is about, and it’s not what I was criticizing as pseudo-science.

    We do know though what “the anthropic string theory landscape framework” is, not completely exactly, but it’s a rather well-defined problem, which, somewhat simplified, goes like this: start with 10d perturbative string theory, compactify on a 6d Calabi-Yau, extract the low-energy effective field theory, fixing the Calabi-Yau moduli a la KKLT or some variant thereof. This is what Susskind’s book is about, and this is what he and allies are promoting research into. The question here is simple: is the kind of research he is promoting scientific research or is it pseudo-science, no better than astrology? The problem isn’t that this research program makes untestable predictions, the problem is that there is very strong evidence that it inherently can’t make any testable predictions, and no evidence whatsover for a plausible way to get testable predictions out of it.

    One can certainly very sensibly promote research into string theory as an idea about quantum gravity which is very unlikely to tell us anything about particle physics. But that’s not at all the way the theory has been promoted, or is being promoted now. If it were thought of that way, I think it would be an activity pursued by a much smaller group of theorists, much more on the scale of LQG research, and that would be perfectly healthy. Personally, since I’m mainly interested in particle theory rather than cosmology or GR, I think there are better reasons to be interested in string theory (string duals to gauge theories), but different people with different tastes should pursue different things. I object to the way string theory has been pursued as particle theory research, for several reasons there’s no point in repeating here. That’s an argument concerning judgements about research priorities within a scientific field, and reasonable scientists can differ.

    The problem with the research program Susskind is pushing is that it’s not science. It’s motivated not by a plausible idea about how to get testable predictions about the universe, but by a desire to construct an elaborate excuse for string theory’s failure as a theory of particle physics. The fact that there has been a huge public overhyping of the prospects of string theory, and that instead of admitting failure, people are trying to convince the public that pseudo-science is science is the real problem here. If we give up on the central issue that a scientist is supposed to be coming up with testable predictions about the world, we’re in no position to fight intelligent designers and others with anti-rationalist agendas.

  • Torbjorn Larsson

    “and neo-Darwinists emphasize natural selection, a god-like mechanism that sorts through mutations and chooses only the optimal ones. To them, every feather, fetlock and pubic hair bristles with meaning.”

    There is more drivel in this than already exposed by Mark and Samantha. Evolution before the modern synthesis (neo-Darwinism) already contained natural selection combined with random variation. The synthesis deemphasized these mechanisms by including more (genetics, for example), and more are continued to be added today (evo-devo, for example). And you don’t get only optimal solutions, but survivors with many non-optimal properties, and not all of these properties have meaning, there are lots of evolutionary artefacts.

    It’s really hard to make so many errors in a short paragraph, it takes some real talent.

  • Marty Tysanner

    Sean,

    What you wrote,

    My point was that the thing that is a scientific theory is “string theory,” not “the anthropic string theory landscape framework.”

    is a good example of what seems to be an implicit shift in the way science is sometimes portrayed to the public with unfortunate effect. You know and any person casually familiar with the current state of string theory knows that when you call it a “theory” you recognize that it is a work in progress and is not actually a theory in the traditional sense of being clearly formulated and having been supported by repeated empirical tests. But I think this distinction is likely lost on a large part of the public.

    Many people in my experience seem very comfortable in labeling their own speculation “my theory,” so when a leading figure (Susskind) in what is the most rigorous of the sciences (in the sense of having the most exact predictions and empirical tests) asks his readers to believe in the landscape and all that it implies because that is what his favorite hypothesis predicts, it essentially validates their personal (low) standard for measuring the scientific validity of a theory. The conflating of hypothesis or speculation with verified theory already present in the minds of so many people opens the way for any appealing but untestable idea (e.g., ID for some people) to be held up as a credible alternative to more established theories. To the extent that leading scientists themselves retreat from the historical requirement for testability in their theories, either explicitly (e.g., Susskind) or implied consent by not publicly disagreeing with this new kind of science, there is a loss of the “high moral ground” from which scientists can credibly fight against other intrusions of pseudoscience into science. To readers who become believers in this new vision, the entire meaning of science has been undermined.

  • http://golem.ph.utexas.edu/~distler/blog/ Jacques Distler

    Many people in my experience seem very comfortable in labeling their own speculation “my theory,” so when a leading figure (Susskind) in what is the most rigorous of the sciences (in the sense of having the most exact predictions and empirical tests) asks his readers to believe in the landscape and all that it implies because that is what his favorite hypothesis predicts, it essentially validates their personal (low) standard for measuring the scientific validity of a theory.

    The same criticism could be leveled against Hawking’s discussions of his own ideas on Quantum Gravity in “A Brief History of Time” and, indeed, about many popular book about cutting-edge Science.

    Is Susskind’s the first book of this genre that you’ve read, or did you think the rest were simply touting consensus Science?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Peter, I suspect we may have reached equilibrium, if we’re nowhere near agreement. I don’t really care very much about the ways in which string theory has been promoted; to me, the issue was always quantum gravity, and everything else is a nice bonus (or not, as the case may be). And I don’t agree that, if it were purely considered in that light, string theory would be a tiny field comparable to loop quantum gravity. I’m very much in favor of pushing forward research in LQG, but in my non-expert view string theory has shown a lot more promise thus far in reconciling gravity with quantum mechanics. For quite some time now, the Standard Model has been in excellent agreement with all the ground-based experiments we have been able to do. This leaves the reconciliation of GR and QM as the outstanding empirical problem of fundamental physics. It’s no surprise that a lot of people choose to work on it, nor that most of them pursue the most promising attack on the problem. Regardless of string theorists’s overly enthusiastic claims for rapid progress on particle physics beyond the Standard Model (which, I have the impression, were far more common 20 years ago than they are now), that’s the real reason most string theorists are devoting their energies to the theory. We could have a reasonable debate on the appropriate balance between quantum gravity and particle phenomenology, but comparisons to astrology do not move that debate forward.

    And I just don’t think it’s true that exploring implications of the landscape is not science. As I said before, this work has a very specific implication: recalibrating our notions of what constitutes a natural low-energy action. As such, it is an interesting little sector of research into string theory, and one might hope that it is pursued by an interested minority of the field — which, remarkably, it is. It gets a disproprotionate amount of attention in the popular press, but the reasons for that are kind of obvious; we all know that the extent to which a topic is interesting to specialists is not proportional to the extent to which it is interesting to outsiders.

    Don’t get me wrong; not only is calibrating our notions of “naturalness” perfectly respectable science, it’s really quite important. Necessarily subjective though it may be, it helps us decide how best to spend our own precious research resources. My personal view is that the landscape has, to date, helped us to understand almost nothing, but I’m glad that smart people are working hard to understand it better.

  • Marty Tysanner

    The same criticism could be leveled against Hawking’s discussions of his own ideas on Quantum Gravity in “A Brief History of Time” and, indeed, about many popular book about cutting-edge Science.

    Is Susskind’s the first book of this genre that you’ve read, or did you think the rest were simply touting consensus Science?

    Am not sure what you are trying to say, but it seems you are implying that what appears in Susskind’s book is no worse than that in other popular books; is that correct?

    To answer your question, in general the popular books I have read primarily dealt with tested theories, i.e., scientific theories in the traditional sense of having survived empirical tests. It was clear to me, e.g., in Hawking’s book, what was primarily speculation. It seems here that Susskind is breaking new ground and advocating the abandonment of testability as the necessary means for distinguishing speculation from scientific theory. That is very disconcerting to me because empirical verification is the key factor that separates science from pure philosophy (or religion) as the most trustworthy way of learning what is true. If testability is abandoned, what distinguishes a hypothesis created by scientists from a hypothesis created by consensus among religiously motivated nonscientists? I don’t think sophisticated mathematics alone is a sufficient match against the sophisticated rhetoric of those who promote truth through revelation, unless that mathematics is backed up by experimental validation.

    Since we’re asking questions, let me ask you: Do you believe that Susskind is doing a service to science in relegating testability to a secondary or optional role? Do you believe that empirical verification is no longer a requirement for calling something a scientific theory?

  • http://1034:Incorrectkeyfilefortableusers;trytorepairit sisyphus

    So you conscientious science fellers have a real PR problem. Some good, solid theories can make some predictions that are testable and some predictions that are not testable – and some of those predictions that are not testable are the among the strongest candidates to stir public interest (eg.Multiverse). Some scientists, for obvious reasons, are willing to dumb-down explanations ( of the more exciting untestable predictions ) intended for public consumption.

    It’s ironic that as important scientific distinctions are becoming more subtle the public’s ability to deal with subtlety is declining; social scientists seem to feel that TV people tend to be less able to think inferentially than are printed word consumers.

  • http://golem.ph.utexas.edu/~distler/blog/ Jacques Distler

    It was clear to me, e.g., in Hawking’s book, what was primarily speculation.

    To you, perhaps. But not to the average reader.

    (I’m sure you were equally capable of discerning what, in Susskind’s book, was speculation.)

    Since we’re asking questions, let me ask you: Do you believe that Susskind is doing a service to science in relegating testability to a secondary or optional role?

    I don’t think that’s what he’s doing.

    Which is not to say that I agree with his assessment about what “the Landscape” may (or may not) mean for physics. But “relegating testability to a secondary or optional role” is a gross mischaracterization of his position.

  • Thomas Larsson

    in my non-expert view string theory has shown a lot more promise thus far in reconciling gravity with quantum mechanics.

    As long a no theory of quantum gravity exists, judgement of what is the most promising approach is purely subjective. For decades, young people have been indoctrinated to believe that string theory, whatever it may be, is the most promising route to QG. In recent years this seems to have changed. Smart kids in high school and collage, who have no stakes in string theory, will undoubtedly see the anthropic principle for what it is: evidence that string theory has reached the end of the road.

    If the smart kids a decade from now want to do LQG, because they see (or have been indoctrinated to see) background independence as the only important aspect of QG, then there will be ways for them to do LQG, and LQG will be considered as the most promising program by practioners of the field. Not that this is a development that I particularly welcome, but the trend in recent years has been very clear and it is presumably impossible to revert.

    Most people shape their worldview when they are young and malleable. It seems to me like many of us who are skeptical about string theory entered physics in the early 1980s, between the analytic S-matrix and the first string revolution, when QFT ruled supreme. The next generation was brought up on string theory and finds it difficult to give it up, whereas those who are young today will undoubtedly have their views shaped by the string theory Landscape.

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/blog Peter Woit

    Sean,

    This discussion is going in circles, branching into other complicated topics, and continually evading the point I keep asking you about, in response to your disagreement with me about whether what Susskind is promoting is science or not.

    By the way, I notice Jacques is evading the same point, while at the same time he seems to be claiming that Susskind’s book is no different than other popular books on science, a claim expressed with his trademark sneering at the supposed ignorance of anyone who disagrees with him (“Is Susskind’s the first book of this genre that you’ve read?”).

    You say that Susskind is “recalibrating our notions of what constitutes a natural low-energy action”.
    Sure, he says that the landscape means you can stop worrying about hierarchy and fine-tuning problems and use anthropic explanations. That’s a valid scientific point. What I’m objecting to is not that but his claim that what theorists should be doing is studying the details of the landscape, despite being unable to give a plausible account of how this is going to lead to a testable prediction of anything. Can you give me a plausible example of how studying the string theory landscape is going to lead to a testable scientific prediction? If you can’t, why do you think studying the string theory landscape is science?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Peter, I think I’ve said several times that I don’t see how to test the landscape idea. And I’ve explained why I don’t think it matters. If what you want to know is how we can do some landscapy calculation to home in on constraints on low-energy physics, I don’t know how to do that. I’ve even published my reasons for skepticism. I think it’s obviously possible that it could be done, if for example someone shows that the only compactifications with odd numbers of families have gauge-mediated susy breaking rather than gravitationally-mediated breaking. This seems quite unlikely to me, but I just don’t know. I am certainly able to discern a difference between pursuing a long shot of that sort and casting horoscopes.

  • http://golem.ph.utexas.edu/~distler/blog/ Jacques Distler

    I think it’s obviously possible that it could be done, if for example someone shows that the only compactifications with odd numbers of families have gauge-mediated susy breaking rather than gravitationally-mediated breaking.

    I don’t think you’re going to see something quite of that ilk.

    But, as several recent papers (and more in preparation) have shown, requiring a UV completion including gravity (by which the authors invariably mean “can be embedded in string theory”) imposes surprising contraints on effective field theories. “Surprising,” in the sense that these constraints are not explicable in terms of standard low-energy effective field theory considerations.

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/blog Peter

    The string theory constraints on low-energy effective field theories that Jacques mentions have nothing to do with this. What they tell you, if you believe them, is that some QFTs very different than the standard model (e.g. with huge rank) can’t be embedded in string theory as low energy limits. Ruling out things very different than the standard model isn’t a falsifiable scientific prediction.

    Jacques is also well-aware that there’s good reason not to take such arguments seriously. When the first of these “swampland” (swampland = theories that may or may not be low energy limits of string theory) papers came out, he wrote a blog entry praising it and giving as the best example of this the prediction that you couldn’t get a single generation of fermions as a low energy limit of string theory. Unfortunately for him, someone wrote into his comment section to explain how to do this. Just about all claims that “you can’t get X out of string theory” have turned out to be wrong when someone seriously sat down and tried to find a way to do it.

    So, I’ve looked very carefully for a plausible idea about how this is going to lead to a scientific prediction in the scientific papers in this area, and in Susskind’s book, and now neither Sean nor Jacques can come up with one either. There really isn’t such an idea, and having such an idea is what science is about. This stuff really is no better than astrology. Like astrology, it is driven not by rational effort to understand how the world works, but by people believing stuff because they just want to, not because there’s any evidence for it, or any hope of ever getting any.

  • http://golem.ph.utexas.edu/~distler/blog/ Jacques Distler

    For those who can’t be bothered reading the original literature, here’s a blog post about the first in the series of papers to which I referred.

    If I weren’t spending my time commenting here, I might get around to writing up an easily digestible summary of some of the subsequent work.

  • marie

    Mark- thank you for posting the review. It unfortunately reaffirms my growing discontent with the New York Time’s standards vis a vis science. If the reviewer’s supposed controversy with darwinian evolution is anything to by, I cannot help but think that the reviewer feels that most of his readers are without a with out a working knowledge of either field. As biologist with a growing interest in cosmology, I will take his review with a grain of salt. But as a reader of the New York Times, I take this as yet another reason to reup my Nature subscription.

  • http://1034:Incorrectkeyfilefortableusers;trytorepairit sisyphus

    Great debate. Lean and mean. No pulled punches. This thread should be edited and print-published.

    Threads like this remind me that some CV’ers not only know a lot of science, they also know a lot about science.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.

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