When did I learn about string theory first? It was back in 1987. I used to read my favorite Czechoslovak VTM magazine ("Věda a technika mládeži" or "Science and Technology for Youth") - and I became a kind of favorite kid of the editors at that time. One of the dozens of articles that I liked was called "Six extra dimensions or a theory of everything" or something along these lines, and it was a translation of an article from the Discover magazine. (Of course, I bet that the Czech magazine did not pay a penny for the copyrights.)
Among other things, there were photographs of Michael Green and John Schwarz in it as well as explanations of what we currently call the First Superstring Revolution. At some superficial level, it had convinced me that string theory had to be right. But I could only read the actual technical articles about it when I got to Prague in 1992.
Now, 19 years later, the Discover magazine looks very different. Susan Kruglinski decided to make an interview about string theory and her idea was to pick Peter Woit. I have nothing against Peter but pretending that Peter Woit has something interesting to say about string theory is extremely unreasonable. They discuss very "important" things. For example, they talk about Peter Woit's "evaluation" of string theory which is such an incredibly famous and influential preprint that it has 6 citations as of today - about 0.2% of what the renowned articles have. If they were talking about a sh*t on the 33st street in the New York City, the interview could have been more relevant.
Just compare the content. 19 years ago, they would essentially explain you how anomaly cancellation in 10 dimensions worked. Today, they offer you completely general anti-scientific rants about scientists being imperialists, science being meaningless, theories failing to be theories, and so on and so on. No one can learn anything from such an article. It's not a theory of anything. It's not an alternative to anything.
They also talk about thousands of visitors who visit "Not Even Wrong" every day. Of course, they don't mention that 90% of the visitors are crackpots - various milkshakes, lunsfords and how all of them are called - and the rest are scientists and people who are interested in science and they mostly open Peter's blog because they find it so irritating or because they like to see some controversy.
Does it prove something about science if you have a few thousand visitors whose majority has been left behind? I also have a few thousand hits a day. And what? Daily Kos has hundreds of thousands of visitors - and still, it is a scientifically content-free blog. Does it teach you some physics or science when you read these irrelevant comments about a blog that pretends to have something to do with high-energy physics?
The article by Susan Kruglinski is what I would call an example of deterioration of a scientific magazine. Substance was replaced by discussions with undereducated outsiders whose contribution to science is based on the fact that they are popular among crackpots and the fact that what they say is controversial. I just think that it's completely wrong and it is crucial for the broader public to try to understand that Peter's opinions are just opinions of a layman - equivalent to the opinions of an average intelligent reader of The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene.
Do you think that the civilization is going up or down when the people who are paid as scientific journalists are no longer able to distinguish science from rants? Experts from ignorants? Scientific opinion from personal bitterness? Arguments from non-arguments? It's just very bad if people like Horgan or Woit are able to get that far with the kind of bullshit that they are producing. The scientific value of Peter's rants is equal to zero - but there seems to be some magical "complementary" type of a value that intellectually challenged journalists such as Susan Kruglinski are attracted by.
She also thinks that Peter is a "Dean of debunkers". I am convinced that at least in the last 5 years, Peter Woit has not debunked a single thing. They're also talking about the "alternative research" that shrank as string theory expanded. What "alternative research" does Peter offer? The holiness of the Dirac equation? Or his off-diagonal embedding of SU(2) into SU(2) x SU(2)?
What can we do about it? How should the intelligent non-scientists assure that they won't be misled by non-scientific bullshit all the time? How can they really distinguish who knows his or her science and who is just trying to damage science and confuse everyone else? I think that everyone should try to learn how to use a scientific database such as scholar.google.com. For example, if a magazine interviews a person whose opinions about a particular class of questions are presented as scientifically relevant, a careful reader should try to make a search. And compare. Of course that these numbers are not a holy word. And for the experts, they should not matter at all because they should have independent ways to evaluate statements about their field. But I am absolutely convinced that for an outsider, they are infinitely more reliable than the texts written by scientifically challenged journalists.
Imagine that someone tells you that the climate skeptics don't have a single serious publication or a citation. You search for the names of Richard Lindzen or Stephen McIntyre or someone else. Or they even tell you that Hans von Storch is not influential in his field. You just make the search or click - and you will know that you were misled because they are more influential than some of their mainstream critics. You will find technical papers about the field. Such a search can give you an idea about the chance that an outsider is bringing something interesting to a scientific field. I don't say that everyone should be using the search engines in this way. But a sufficient number of people should approach the question in this way which would prevent popular journals from publishing complete crap like this particular interview with Peter Woit.
It turns out that Kruglinski has quite a record of writing texts fully misunderstanding the scientific method. In a 2004 New York Times article, she revealed her deep math phobia.