Different Teacup, Same Storm

Meanwhile, poor Matt Strassler, who means well, is re-discovering the frustratingly convenient (for some) fact that blogs (or is it blog readers?) have no memory for stuff that has scrolled off the page, so attention-seekers get to make the same deliberately wrong claims and misrepresentations they did before, and that were thoroughly addressed before, and a whole new bunch of people who want to learn a bit of science will be drawn in to a non-debate, not knowing that none of this is new. Attention-seekers get the attention they desire, and since attention is the main point for them (not actual progress in science, oh no, not at all!), they succeed.

Matt is discovering this now… By trying to discuss a little nuance about what recent discoveries at the LHC may or may not mean for string theory, he has wandered into the same old tired shouting match about string theory with attention seekers who have nothing better to do but put their hands over their ears and yell misleading slogans from the sidelines to generate fake controversy, and/or split the world into pro-string vs anti-string which is so simplistic and, frankly, juvenile. An interesting game, if you’re up for it, would be to look at the noise in the long comment stream there, and then look at almost any of my Scenes from a Storm in a Teacup posts (from 2006!!!) and the long comment streams accompanying them (look at, for example IV, V, and VI), and see if you can see the same sorts of patterns. I deliberately collected those posts together to form a partial* record of some of that time’s discussion for precisely this purpose, for those who care to read and see that all attention-seekers (who have no real interest in letting science research run its course) have to do is wait for a while and then start yelling the same faux claims all over again to get attention, sell books, enlarge their mutual admiration society membership, etc.

You know, all this behaviour is hardly different from that of the annoying squirrels I have to deal with at my fruit trees from time to time. Not being so good at cultivating fruit on their own, they come and try to steal and sometimes just randomly bite into lots of the fruits you’ve cultivated. You run out into the garden and try to chase them away. They chatter angrily at you, run away, then wait for a while, and come back for another round of messing with the fruit. The particularly persistent ones can be easily dealt with using a rather uncomplicated live trap (nothing particularly complex is needed here) and then humanely moved on… You get some peace and quiet to get on with things of substance for a week or so… but eventually, there’ll be others along after a wait, and the cycle begins again. It’s just an annoyance, but there’s no real substance there. Just a bit of meaningless chatter-noises, and some wasted fruit.

I stopped being unduly distracted by the attention seekers many years ago (stopping reading the shouty blogs, and moved on to other topics) after I realized that it was not really about scientific research, and right now I see no reason to do differently, so I’m off to the garden to send a recently trapped squirrel elsewhere.


(*Annoyingly, it looks like one of the longer comment streams may have been truncated by flaws in the backing up or some other event – my blog has been hacked a few times – but the Way Back Machine (internet archive) ought to have them if you care to dig around.)

Correction: Something was wrong with my theme… now you can see all 300+ comments on this post for example!

Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Different Teacup, Same Storm

  1. Dilaton says:

    Hi Clifford,

    do you think these things are really as harmless as some squirrels messing with your fruits …?

    These storms in the teacup almways make me feel worried about the future of fundamental physics which I am interested in too and like a lot :-/. In particular when I read that Matt Strassler for example says that the shouting of wrong claims successfully prevented him from obtaining money for his research twice and such things …

    How dangerous really are the annoying squirrels, how much damage have they really done (and are still doing) to fundamental physics?

    Do you and your colleagues think they can savely be ignored because they are annoyinng but mostly harmless, how do you see this issue?

  2. Clifford says:

    Hi Dilaton,

    I cannot comment on what Matt said (or speculated?) about his research funding, since I am not a regular reader of his blog and so do not know anything about his claims. Anyway, I’ve nothing to add to such a debate, knowing that it is more often than not very hard to really see clear cause and effect in funding decisions.

    What I do know for sure is that squirrels become a real problem if you feed them. So…

    Don’t feed the squirrels.

    So, following my own advice, I’m getting back to other things.

    Ok… one last time: Let’s all just try to carry on with our best shot at doing productive research programs and stop trying to demonize other people and their research using crowd-sourcing of opinion, essentially through “like” or “unlike” buttons on blogs, non-technical books, etc. That is not how real scientific research is done. The issues are nuanced, and it takes time – sometimes lots of time – to see what the outcomes are.

    That’s all.


  3. Jennifer says:

    Clifford, thanks for this. Matt’s blog is awesome, but I tune in sporadically so happy you posted about it here. I’m hopping over there to see what’s up, but bravo to him for addressing it as he does. I love your approach now as I did after the aftermath back in 2006. Straighten out what you can, then carry on with the work. There are so many ways to distract from the true work. I think it was Mandela who said “we are more afraid of our light than our dark” and these teacup storms prove it, to my mind. So much easier to wrangle about the work of others than to roll up sleeves and get dirty. I speak from experience, so not exactly judging. But as I do not admire myself when avoiding true work, so I put little weight on the shouty ones who are not hacking their own path through the woods (and just commenting on the progress of other people).

    Cheers for this,

  4. Kelly says:

    Recently I had a similar comment thread exchange with normally rational person.

    He claimed M-Theory made absolutely no predictions. I countered, quite un-controversially I thought, with the fact that it predicts D=11. This was dismissed as a “meta-model, not a prediction” and it was claimed that “all our predictive models about the universe use 3+1 dimensional space-time.”

    After this I simply gave up feeding the squirrels too.

  5. Pingback: No more comments at Popular Science - Asymptotia