The String Wars and the end of masculinist science

April 16, 2009

Sean Carroll has some characteristically level-headed things to say on the aftermath of the string theory backlash over at Cosmic Variance. And yet I feel there’s more to be said. Could the blogosphere be ready for JR’s take on the String Wars? Hmm.

Here’s Sean:

The irony is that a major point of the anti-string books was that the public hype concerning string theory didn’t paint an accurate picture of its more problematic features — which was true. But the backlash books gave the public a misleading impression in the other direction, leading to the somewhat amusing appearance of my own piece in New Scientist explaining that the theory was for the most part chugging along as before. Hype cuts in every direction, and it feeds on drama, not on accuracy.

I basically agree. I’ve tried to absorb the lesson of science sociologist Harry Collins — that scientists are experts who will always be in a better position than the dude on the street to know how to approach a research problem, within their field of specialty of course. Hey, sorry old folks, the young people coming up will tend to have the edge on the prior generation when it comes to judging impartially what looks most promising among the given options. And a lot of the smart young people in particle physics have chosen string theory. The fact they haven’t cracked it doesn’t really mean anything other than unifying physics is a damn hard problem.  

Still I think Sean glosses over something important when he says the backlash fed on “drama, not accuracy.” I think the “drama” is telling us something really, really important about what we as a culture have come to expect from science and how that expectation is changing. That’s ultimately the point I take from John Horgan’s The End of Science, which gets dissed by a hypergenius in the article Sean is responding to.

Commenting to New Scientist on the books that fueled the string theory backlash, Ed Witten, the dean of string theory, compared them to End of Science: “Neither the publicity surrounding that book nor the fact that people lost interest in talking about it after a while reflected any change in the intellectual underlying climate.”

Maybe not for the actual scientists. But for those of us who take science a little too seriously, Horgan put his finger on something that does seem to have changed. In a nutshell, we used to think we could count on Science for The Answer, never mind if it wasn’t quite The Answer We’d Been Looking For. But although plenty of cool scientific challenges remain, it sure seems like we’ve picked most of the low-hanging fruit like natural selection, plate tectonics, quantum mechanics etc. Aside from string theory, the big epistemological drama we’re left with in the physical sciences is climate change, and the discourse around it tells us something about how people are handling the clash of values amid uncertainty.

In the case of fundamental high-energy physics, we may never know the truth about string theory, or quantum gravity more broadly. Maybe we’ll never build a particle accelerator or telescope powerful enough to observe string-y effects like a particle decaying at a slightly unexpected rate or some telling subtlety in the cosmic microwave background.

That doesn’t mean string theorists are puling this stuff out of thin air. If nothing else, the last 100 years of physics would seem to put some rather tight constraints on what you can say about physics without contradicting known stuff like the mass of this or that particle. Nor does it mean we should stop searching. In my own inexpert judgment, I can easily imagine string theory or something that  subsumes it is the right description of nature. If you believe scientists are voting with their feet, then there just aren’t any equally compelling ideas out there.

I’m also completely open to the idea we may never know for sure. Whether or not future physicists want to keep plugging away will be entirely up to personal taste. I for one would like them to continue chipping at it. It’s interesting to me. It’s Something To Do, after all.

But that’s a bitter pill to swallow if you’re a Dude who’s come to rely on science to cut through all those icky feelings and give you The Unassailable Truth, with which you can beat the Poets and Philosophers over their soft heads. No wonder Pops Minkel gagged on string theory. Why, two decades with nothing to show? They must be on the wrong track, he told me. Feynman was skeptical, remember, and you know what a genius Feynman was. Ya well, Feynman can suck it. So can my dad. They both seemed to think it was their duty to know everything, and that they could in principle know everything if they tried hard enough. For my dad, anyone who didn’t know it all – himself included – was therefore Not Trying Hard Enough and subject to scorn.

That’s a crummy way to live your life. So I propose the following to the science faithful. 1) Let’s not expect another Einstein to come along and wrap up the universe in a bow for us. And 2) let’s not demand that the coming of another Einstein be the standard by which good science shall be judged. Maybe then we can relax.

Update [4/17/09]: Interesting comments from Horgan and Sci Am editor George Musser. Plus: Won’t you help me gather up the all-time classic Lubos Motl posts?

10 Responses to “The String Wars and the end of masculinist science”

  1. John Horgan Says:

    JR, Thanks for the plug for End of Science! And I guess I should thank Ed Witten too for keeping my tattered old meme in circulation in New Scientist, even if only by dissing it. A couple of responses to your post. First I guess it’s obvious that the popularity of a theory and the intelligence of its adherents do not impress me, in and of themselves. After all, there are many brilliant Christians, Freudians, Marxists. Also, I’m even more confident than I was when I wrote End of Science that string theory is a dead end, because of its disconnect from the experimentally accessible real world. That is even more true of landscape theory, the mutant spawn of string theory. But I’m actually a little more hopeful than I was 13 years ago that physics has a few surprises left. By far the most exciting development in physics–and even all of science–over the last dozen years is the discovery of the acceleration of the universe. No one saw that coming. This is what physics desperately needs, fresh data from the world out there, not more mathematical fantasies spun from the mind of Ed Witten. John

  2. George Musser Says:

    Horgan writes that “string theory is a dead end, because of its disconnect from the experimentally accessible real world”, yet the arguments about experimental inaccessibility he has presented in his book and elsewhere are not specific to string theory but apply to quantum gravity generally. It’s a simple fact of the world that gravity is very weak and its quantum properties, if any, proportionately small. It’s unfair to single out string theory in this regard.

    What Horgan is arguing, then, is that there are aspects of the material world that are beyond human comprehension. Essentially he says that scientists should give up trying and that, if they do continue to try, they are no longer worthy of being called “scientists”. Horgan likes to apply the term “ironic” to this situation but I think he’s the ironic one. On the one hand, he complains that physics is becoming metaphysics; on the other, he adopts an essentially metaphysical position that physics is reaching its end.

  3. JR Minkel Says:

    Posting on behalf of George Musser, who had technical problems:

    Horgan writes that “string theory is a dead end, because of its disconnect from the experimentally accessible real world”, yet the arguments about experimental inaccessibility he has presented in his book and elsewhere are not specific to string theory but apply to quantum gravity generally. It’s a simple fact of the world that gravity is very weak and its quantum properties, if any, proportionately small. It’s unfair to single out string theory in this regard. What Horgan is really arguing is that there are aspects of the material world that are beyond human comprehension. Essentially he argues that scientists should give up trying and that, if they do continue to try, they are no longer worthy of being called “scientists”. Horgan likes to apply the term “ironic” to this situation but I think it rebounds on him. On the one hand, he complains that physics is becoming metaphysics; on the other, he adopts an essentially metaphysical position himself.

  4. Grant Maxwell Says:

    When John mentions the “discovery of the acceleration of the universe,” what exactly is he referring to? Is it solely the expansion of the physical universe or does he include the exponentially increasing computational power that Kurzweil talks about or the exponentially increasing ingression of novelty, order, and consciousness into reality from Terence McKenna (via Whitehead)? It seems to me that these two accelerating processes–the increasing material diffusion and the increasing order and connectivity in human history–must be deeply intertwined in something like Bergson’s idea that entropy and the emergence of increasing consciousness are complementary and countervalent impulses. I think that the way to find “fresh data” is to make the William Jamesian “felt reality of lived experience” a valid object of inquiry in relation to abstract physical law based on mathematics. As Whitehead, Bergson, and James all understood, but to use the words of Richard Tarnas, “the human mind is the organ of the world’s own process of self-revelation.” Finding meaning is only a problem if you make it so. Or, rather, it is only a problem within a paradigmatic world view that sees the world outside of the human mind as a purely objective and meaningless void. I believe that there will be another Einstein, though it seems entirely possible that, like Copernicus, he or she may not be widely recognized in his or her own time. What I’m saying is that we may need to expand our conception of what constitutes science in order to move forward.

  5. JR Minkel Says:

    Hi Grant!

    Trust me, John’s referring solely to dark energy. Re: ingression of novelty, if you haven’t already, you might want to check out Stuart Kauffman on his supposed fourth law of thermodynamics. Re: “the human mind [being] the organ of the world’s own process of self-revelation,” that pretty much sums up how I feel when I’m really high. I am the universe discovering itself. Because even the universe gets bored. But I’m not sure how you put math to that, if that’s what you’re suggesting. In fact, I’m pretty sure it would miss the point to even try. I agree about “felt reality of lived experience” being a valid object of inquiry — hence literature and cultural studies — and I think it’s such an important object of inquiry that we shouldn’t try to bring it entirely under the umbrella of science. Art enriches science, and vice versa. Blending the two risks putting one in a position of domination over the other.

  6. zeitgeiber Says:

    This blog keeps getting better. You should upgrade the theme or something.

  7. JR Minkel Says:

    Ha, thanks. I’m in touch with a designer.

  8. Grant Maxwell Says:

    Hey JR, that makes sense. As far as putting math to these ideas, I think that Tarnas’s method in “Cosmos and Psyche” would be a good place to start. And, just to clarify, I don’t mean we should put these other epistemological modalities under the umbrella of science. Rather, I think that we should strive to be more empirical (in the sense of James’s “Radical Empiricism”) in our humanistic endeavors and, conversely, more aware of the interpretive and participatory elements of our scientific theories (i.e. the metaphysical presupposition of a radical incommensurability between subject and object that is endemic to most scientific discourse). I think that there are ways to integrate scientific and “humanistic” modalities that don’t privilege science as academia has done for decades.


  9. [...] of personal responsibility can backfire (the masculinist fantasy/fallacy). After hearing several parents explain why they don’t vaccinate, [pediatrician Jeffrey] [...]


  10. [...] between where men like Tierney stand on climate change and where they stand on string theory. String theory tells us we live in one corner of a vast multiverse but gives us no sure way to confirm that [...]


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