More Scenes From the Storm in a Teacup, V

At the (K)ITP the other day there was a journalist-led discussion/presentation on the largely-media-driven “controversy” about string theory. You know my opinion on this -it’s a largely made up story based on two inaccurate chariacatures (in book form) of research in the field- told by the same journalists and editors who some time earlier brought you the glossy stories about string theory that played up the excitement and promise, and played down the often-said but often-ignored cautionary remarks. The irony of all of this seems to have been lost on most. (I’m not saying that string theorists are entirely blameless in this, but I’ve seen how hard it is to get a balanced remark -about the basic process of seeing a complex scientific program through to its end- to survive next to a glossy one-liner).

The point is that the story being told now in the press is simply the one that journalists and editors want to tell now – a David vs Goliath story. It has little or nothing to do with what is actually going on in the science research. The journalist -George Johnson- does a good job of pointing out supporting evidence for this by going through a number of stories from a decade ago and looking at their structure. (You can see the video archive, as I did, on the web here.) He points out many things, such as the fact that journalists don’t actually write their own headlines for the story and sometimes these have only a loose connection to the actual words written in the body of the article. (There were expressions of surprise from the assembled scientists at this – I find myself amazed at the very fact that they were surprised – Have they not been paying attention to any of this over the last several years?) He points out many other things about the processes involved in getting these stories to appear in the newspaper as well. Worth listening to, if you have not heard this sort of thing before. (Have a read of a report that I and another blogger did on a similar topic, presented by science writer KC Cole in a physics department colloquium a while back.)

Anyway, please have a look/listen to the archived video (find it here). Particularly interesting (in addition to the above description of things as seen from the journalist’s world) is the reaction of lots of physicists in the audience to things that he says, and particularly to a long series of comments that Lee Smolin sent to Jim Hartle that he gave permission to be projected up onto a screen. You have to listen carefully, but have a listen to remarks from Gross, Horowitz, Srednicki and others at various points about Smolin’s moving-target approach to this entire discussion (e.g. how can you claim to be “not anti-string” for the purposes of appearing to be “just wanting to have a discussion” while pushing a book with a title that explicitly links string theory to the fall of science?), and both Smolin’s and Woit’s inconsistent standards of criticism about what constitutes a good research idea that young people should be working on (as opposed to them working on the supposed string theory dead end, you see).

There’s some useful discussion here overall, with good comments from the audience both serious and humorous (I love the joke (I don’t know who called it out): “Do you need higher dimensions to be both one-sided and two-faced?”. I know I’m going to get yelled at for repeating it, but it’s just funny.)

Most importantly, I hope that George Johnson takes on board some of the remarks from the audience about what science reporting could be in the greater scheme of things, beyond the current silliness. We’ve talked about that here a lot – first and foremost, getting across a clearer idea of how science actually works. What it can and cannot do, it’s role in society, etc. But I fear that he’s heard that all before, and that there’s little to be done without changing the business model of what Science journalism is fundamentally about. The model currently has very little in it about the agenda of getting the actual science out there. Until that changes, none of this sort of misrepresentation will change. This is why some of us blog.

Overall, the lesson to take away from this discussion is -as I have said above- that there’s just a huge amount of this discussion (about 95% of it, in my opinion) that has nothing whatsoever to do with the science issues facing string theory or any other approach in this area of physics. You, a reader trying to get an impression of what is going on in the field really have to be aware of that. As usual with any reading, be careful what you read out there… question the motives of those journalists, editors, and also those scientists who are writing popular-level books.

On the latter, be *especially* careful when a scientist writes a popular-level book which is almost entirely an attack on a body of work by others, rather than a description of some new ideas that they happen to be interested in or excited about. That’s probably a big clue that the science is not really their primary concern.

-cvj

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