More Scenes From the Storm in a Teacup, VII

You can catch up on some of the earlier Scenes by looking at the posts listed at the end of this one. Through the course of doing those posts I’ve tried hard to summarize my views on the debate about the views of Smolin and Woit – especially hard to emphasize how the central point of their debate that is worth some actual discussion actually has nothing to do string theory at all. Basically, the whole business of singling out string theory as some sort of great evil is rather silly. If the debate is about anything (and it largely isn’t) it is about the process of doing scientific research (in any field), and the structure of academic careers in general. For the former matter, Smolin and Woit seem to have become frustrated with the standard channels through which detailed scientific debates are carried out and resolved, resorting to writing popular level books that put their rather distorted views on the issues into the public domain in a manner that serves only to muddle. On the latter, there is a constant claim that string theory and its proponents are somehow brainwashing and/or frogmarching young people into working on that area to the exclusion of all else. The authors seem oblivious to some simple facts to the contrary there: (1) that you simply can’t do that to genuinely smart, creative young people; (2) that even students who have string theorists as their Ph.D or postdoc advisors often work on non-string theory research topics (3) that they’re doing an excellent job of either driving young people away from working on some of their favourite alternatives – or from pursuing theoretical physics altogether – by failing to clearly explain their merits and by using the press to help turn this into a distorted spectacle.

I’ve summarized a lot of what I think in the latter part of this post.

There are two major problems with how live debates take place in the public sphere. One is that the average person listening to the debate cannot know whether much of what Smolin and Woit claim as facts are right or wrong (or anyone on the other side of the debate, for that matter). When someone disputes a claim that Smolin makes, he either rapidly degenerates his arguments into frustratingly technical (and often missing the point) details, or lists 10 papers to read that seldom turn out to have shown what he claims they have shown, and anyway totally derails the discussion in hand. You can find several examples of this in the discussion threads of the blog posts below and especially over on some debates on Jacques Distler’s blog. With Woit, there’s hardly ever any evidence that he has command of the issues he claims to know about (and upon which he bases very strong statements such as claiming that string theory can never make any contact with nature), and when pressed for detailed arguments seems always to be suddenly busy, dismissive, or (disturbingly often) deeply offended that he was asked to give concrete arguments at all. (You can see examples of this in the comment threads of many of the posts of a similar title below, such as IV, and VI.) To those who know the field, it is clear that there’s a failure to present credible detailed arguments, which somewhat undermines their entire position, but to the general public it seems like it might be a balanced discussion between proponents of equally well established and well developed alternatives. It is frustrating, but that is the beauty of their ploy of turning this into a public “David vs Goliath” attack. The press love that sort of thing (it is one of the few ways they care to present a science story), and the representatives of the Goliath or so-called Establishment position can’t help but come off as complacent at the very least.

The other major problem is that in many cases where there is a public debate in the media, in the presence of someone who would like to put the case in favour of string theory research, the case they present is nothing like as accusatory as when they have the platform to themselves, or on blog debates. What you get from them in those public live debates has mostly been a very reasonable set of obvious statements that nobody can disagree with: There should be diversity in research, freedom to pursue alternative ideas, better support structures for young people working on harder problems that may not be part of the mainstream, and so forth. So the listener is left with the impression that if there is a big debate or controversy, it must be that the string theorists are somehow against this, which is of course ridiculous. So the string theorist present says that they agree with the sentiments expressed, and there’s nothing left to talk about. (See an example here.)

Lee Smolin is especially good at that trick, and somehow manages to present himself as remarkably reasonable on the one hand, while on the other hand people who have read the book come away very frustrated by the attacking emphasis (and sometimes plain inaccuracies) within, and a very unpleasant characterization (some would say demonisation) of the string theory community. When it suits him, Lee’s even taken great pains to even distance himself from things in his own book at times, starting with the somewhat damning title and going forward from there.

The beginnings (the first that I heard, at least) of breaking away from these frustratingly lame debates came when Lee Smolin debated Jeff Harvey (University of Chicago) on a Chicago radio show. I blogged a bit about it here and here and here. Sadly, although Jeff Harvey did a good job, given the circumstances, the debate did not really get as far with the content as would have been desirable before the show ran out of time. (We did have some excellent extended discussion on the latter two threads, including substantial contributions from Jeff Harvey and Jacques Distler, and on this thread, with substantial contributions by Mark Srednicki.)

Well, I heard a recording of an excellent live debate yesterday that I’d like to point out to you. It turns out that the format was just perfect. It is part of a series of lectures and debates hosted by the The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (RSA), in London. (Audio on this page.)

Two things were different here. The first is that the audience in attendance and listening “at home” is not assumed to be afraid of a little sophisticated scientific discussion, so real content can be included – not technical details, but some actual content nonetheless. The second is that the format was better: There were three panelists who each got 20 minutes to state their case, followed by some back and forth discussion between the panelists, and questions from the audience as well.

The panelists were the physicists Lee Smolin (Perimeter Institute) and Michael Duff (Imperial College, London) and the philosopher Nancy Cartwright (London School of Economics (LSE)). It was moderated by the physicist Chris Isham. The other key thing here (and it was the most promising to thing about this to me) is that Mike Duff is a plain-speaking no-nonsense [Yorkshireman] Lancastrian who simply does not take any bullshit. I had high hopes that this would not be another lame debate.

I was worried during Smolin’s presentation, though. He gave a fairly sensible summary of the usual obvious points that nobody would disagree with – diversity in research, opportunities for young people, etc. It looked as if it was going to go the usual way. Mike would just have to agree with him, and then we’d be done. But he didn’t. He started out by saying something like (I paraphrase): “the trouble with physics is that there are two Lee Smolins. The reasonable one who we heard from just now, and the one who wrote the book”. And from there it just got better, as he brought along several specific things Lee said in his book and disputed those in his own very direct style, entirely sidestepping the “truisms” offered up for debate in Lee’s opening remarks. (I should say that Lee later cleared up one or two misinterpretations of things said in the book, and not for the first time distanced himself from some other things in the book by in turn blaming the copy editor, the publicists, or saying that they were not in the UK editions (as though that matters!). There were very many more major points of substance that Mike brought up about his claims, to which Smolin presented no answer, however.)

The philosopher, Cartwright, spent twenty minutes using a lot of fancy-sounding words and phrases (like “pessimistic meta-induction”) in very long sentences to say what was really pretty simple and could have been said in five: (1) Yes, it is very difficult to make objective value judgments about theories in a time when there are no experimental checks. (2) Both sides should be careful since the search for unification of the physical laws may be a red herring.

There was a lot of good humour throughout the entire event that made it especially good to listen to. I will not say that any points were made that you can not have read on this blog in the posts I’ve done or in the (often heated) discussions that followed, but I would say that it’s a rather good one to listen to for a summary of the two opposing views, and for the fact that Mike Duff does not pull his punches, giving the listener a rare chance to hear a senior person in the field make a relatively full case in rebuttal, for example making some very good points about how science actually proceeds, as opposed to how Smolin and Woit would like it to proceed. It should be put alongside Joe Polchinski’s excellent and detailed guest post on Cosmic Variance on the same subject (to which -strangely- Lee Smolin never responded, as far as I can tell).

Overall, I’d say that debate this is worth your time to listen to, which is why I’ve brought this tired issue up all over again. Here’s the link to the RSA’s page of lectures, you can easily find the audio for the debate there. It took place on the fifth of March.


Some Related Asymptotia Posts (not exhaustive):

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