Most events in the "science journalism" of the recent years have been really strange, to put it extremely mildly. So the following thing is probably just another example of the rule. But listen.
John Horgan is a loud, violent, and obnoxious critic of science who believes that science has ended. In fact, he has also written extensive texts about the end of mathematics. The oppressive numbers, functions, and groups have collapsed and all this fantasy called mathematics is over, Horgan has informed his readers.
Before he published a loony "book" titled "The End of Science" sometime in the mid 1990s, he would also interview Edward Witten (in 1991). Well, the word "interview" is too strong. Horgan himself had to admit that it was a childish yet brutally malicious assault on theoretical physics in general, string theory in particular, and Witten as a person.
Now, in the wake of the Kyoto Prize that Witten won – congratulations but no surprise – we may read another interview with Witten in the Scientific American's blogs hosted by... John Horgan.
In the new interview, John Horgan clearly presents himself as Edward Witten's peer – to say the least. But even a kid from a kindergarten could be able to see that these two men differ, anyway. First of all, when they mention other men's names, they are very different names.
Aside from less shocking names, Horgan offers such "monster minds" as Peter W*it and Sean Carroll to make some of his points. Witten prefers to refer to physicists like Steve Weinberg, Lenny Susskind, and Martin Rees. The kid in the kindergarten could perhaps notice the 20 floors of the skyscraper in between these two groups of "authorities".
Witten is asked – with an apparent malicious intent of Horgan's – whether he is "still" (why the hell is there the word "still"?) confident that string theory will turn out to be "right" (these quotes around "right" are there). Witten's answer is that he wouldn't have to modify what he said in 1991. It means Yes.
Does string theory have rivals? The answer by the most cited theoretical physicist (and perhaps scientist) is that there are not any interesting competing suggestions. Be sure that people attending my popular talks (and sometimes radio hosts etc.) often ask the same question and I give the same answer. One reason, as Witten reminds us, is that ideas that actually have something good about them, like twistors and noncommutative geometry, are gradually identified as aspects of string theory itself and absorbed by string theory. It's just how the things are.
Horgan also promotes his and his pals' pet idea that string theory has to be unscientific because it predicts the landscape. Witten calmly and carefully answers that the landscape simply may be genuine, certain quantities may be incalculable from the first principles, and we just can't or shouldn't fight against this reality. In fact, even in such a case, the existence of the landscape and the incalculability of many things may get scientifically established, in one of the several possible scenarios he outlines. Witten also mentions the prediction of the tiny positive cosmological constant as a big success of this reasoning.
Concerning falsification, well-defined predictions that are empirically validated or falsified are the "gold standard" of science, Witten says, but it's way too narrow-minded to imagine that all of science works in this way. Instead, much or most of science is about efforts to discover things – even though, in principle, even discoveries of new things may be awkwardly interpreted as the "falsification of hypotheses that these new things don't exist".
Horgan seems to repeat the same "question" about thrice – whether the multiverse is scientific – and Witten generously takes Horgan's being slow and retarded into account and he patiently answers the same question thrice, too. The multiverse may be a feature of Nature so even if it is inconvenient for our abilities to make predictions, we must take this possibility into account and collect evidence whether it is right or wrong, and if it is right, learn more details about it. Nature isn't obliged to make the physicists' lives convenient.
Can science explain how exactly the Universe was born? Witten first tries to correct Horgan's constantly overhyped vocabulary – like "the exact understanding". We want a better understanding and there's been lots of progress with inflation, some spectral lines, and so on. One staggering aspect of the interview are Horgan's "errata". For example, Witten mentions that the evidence supporting inflationary cosmology is vastly greater than it was in 1991. The readers are offered an erratum from a superior mind (and Witten's new supervisor?) John Horgan, however:
[Horgan: I don't accept that the evidence for inflation is "vastly greater" now than in 1996. See my post on inflation under Further Reading.]Wow, this is just incredible. What does he think about himself? Even among science journalists, he belongs to the bottom 20%, and even if he managed to reach the average, the average science journalist's IQ is about 50 points below that of the leading theoretical physicists (and they have a correspondingly lower knowledge). And the person who was interviewed wasn't just a leading theoretical physicist. It was Edward Witten himself. Why do you ask questions about fundamental physics to Prof Witten, Mr Horgan, if you are so much smarter than he is? Why do you need to interview the Kyoto Prize winners? You could write your better answers by yourself, or with the help from Peter W*it, Lee Sm*lin, or any troll you may find on the Internet (I can give you a dozen of e-mails of such "geniuses" accumulated in the blacklist on this very blog).
Finally, when asked about philosophy and religion, Witten answers that he prefers science and "philosophers of Nature" such as Maxwell.
If you haven't lost your breath yet, there is an extra cherry on a pie for you. Now, when I am writing this report, the interview with the world's most cited physicist has exactly one comment – by a man named Carlo Rovelli (a loop quantum gravity "thinker" who recently cried that it was so bad for science to separate from theology and other humanities) who offers his own delusions about string theory's being on a wrong track and a wish that Horgan should have used a talking point about supersymmetry at the very beginning. You may see that people like Rovelli aren't really on the "science side" of these disagreements. They have nothing to do with quality scientific research; they are on the side of the likes of John Horgan and their empty skulls.
The interview, its location, organization, and overall appearance seems so insulting that I would be ready to believe the hypothesis that an enemy of Edward Witten decided to award him with the Kyoto Prize so that Witten may be humiliated in this way. The disconnect between the quality physics research and the junk that most of the laymen are being served is so extreme that the communication is sort of pointless – except that sometimes physicists may be forced to communicate with the likes of John Horgan, e.g. if they win a prize and an organizer wants to have some painful kind of fun.