Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The fall of Discover magazine

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 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.


  1. Um, I'm not a science journalist, but I think I can detect a rant ... a small victory for civilization, perhaps?

  2. Dear Lubos,

    Quality, not quantity. I searched the suggested for "Nigel Cook". I was very impressed with to find that page 5 of the results includes my scholarly glorification of string theory:

    An electronic universe. Part 2: The Electronic Big Bang.
    N Cook - Electronics World, 2003 -
    An electronic universe. Part 2: The Electronic Big Bang. Nigel Cook Electronics
    World 109:1804, 47-52, 4/2003. This is another ...
    Web Search

    I then clicked on the link, and was delivered to a site saying:

    If you are affiliated with an academic institution or research organization, contact your local academic library to find out how you can gain access to our CSA Illumina research platform.

    An electronic universe. Part 2: The Electronic Big Bang.
    Cook, Nigel
    Electronics World. Vol. 109, no. 1804, pp. 47-52. Apr. 2003

    This is another article in the series questioning established theories. It discusses the concept of the single velocity universe - ie that the speed of electrical energy entering and leaving a pair of wires is that of the speed of light; the unification of quantum mechanics and relativity; the four fundamental forces in the universe; and deriving the basic equations of electromagnetism.

    Descriptors: ANTE; Electronics; Electromagnetism; Quantum theory; Relativity

    Of course, Lubos, you will now revise your opinions of Google.Scholar just to suit your pro-string theory opinions, just as you have revised your opinion of Discovery magazine after they published an article.

    I notice that you say in your post, Lubos, that Peter Woit's interview or blog is wrong because it doesn't give "alternatives". Of course, ceosnrship attacks alternatives without reading them. This is why some of the hype surrounding string theory needs to be cleaned before alternatives can be properly debated and funded. Arm-waving sneers and hypocrisy from 'string theorists' about 'crackpots' is not useful.


  3. Google Scholar ,

    "D.R. Lunsford":

    Gravitation and Electrodynamics over SO (3, 3)
    DR Lunsford - International Journal of Theoretical Physics, 2004 -
    ... Physics, Vol. 43, No. 1, January 2004 ( C 2004) Gravitation and Electrodynamics
    Over SO(3,3) DR Lunsford 1 Received April 24, 2003 In a ...
    Web Search - -

  4. Peter Woit goes in for a completely non-string approach based on building from quantum field theory of spinors,

    Woit has some sensible ideas on how to proceed with the Standard Model: ‘Supersymmetric quantum mechanics, spinors and the standard model’, Nuclear Physics, v. B303 (1988), pp. 329-42; ‘Topological quantum theories and representation theory’, Differential Geometric Methods in Theoretical Physics: Physics and Geometry, Proceedings of NATO Advanced Research Workshop, Ling-Lie Chau and Werner Nahm, Eds., Plenum Press, 1990, pp. 533-45:

    ‘… [it] should be defined over a Euclidean signature four dimensional space since even the simplest free quantum field theory path integral is ill-defined in a Minkowski signature. If one chooses a complex structure at each point in space-time, one picks out a U(2) [is a proper subset of] SO(4) (perhaps better thought of as a U(2) [is a proper subset of] Spin^c (4)) and … it is argued that one can consistently think of this as an internal symmetry. Now recall our construction of the spin representation for Spin(2n) as A *(C^n) applied to a ‘vacuum’ vector.

    ‘Under U(2), the spin representation has the quantum numbers of a standard model generation of leptons… A generation of quarks has the same transformation properties except that one has to take the ‘vacuum’ vector to transform under the U(1) with charge 4/3, which is the charge that makes the overall average U(1) charge of a generation of leptons and quarks to be zero. The above comments are … just meant to indicate how the most basic geometry of spinors and Clifford algebras in low dimensions is rich enough to encompass the standard model and seems to be naturally reflected in the electro-weak symmetry properties of Standard Model particles…

    ‘For the last eighteen years particle theory has been dominated by a single approach to the unification of the Standard Model interactions and quantum gravity. This line of thought has hardened into a new orthodoxy that postulates an unknown fundamental supersymmetric theory involving strings and other degrees of freedom with characteristic scale around the Planck length. …It is a striking fact that there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever for this complex and unattractive conjectural theory. There is not even a serious proposal for what the dynamics of the fundamental ‘M-theory’ is supposed to be or any reason at all to believe that its dynamics would produce a vacuum state with the desired properties. The sole argument generally given to justify this picture of the world is that perturbative string theories have a massless spin two mode and thus could provide an explanation of gravity, if one ever managed to find an underlying theory for which perturbative string theory is the perturbative expansion.’ – Dr P. Woit, Quantum Field Theory and Representation Theory: A Sketch (2002),

    Tony Smith’s arXiv-suppressed CERN document server paper, EXT-2004-031, uses the Lie algebra E6 to avoid 1-1 boson-fermion supersymmetry: ‘As usually formulated string theory works in 26 dimensions, but deals only with bosons … Superstring theory as usually formulated introduces fermions through a 1-1 supersymmetry between fermions and bosons, resulting in a reduction of spacetime dimensions from 26 to 10. The purpose of this paper is to construct … using the structure of E6 to build a string theory without 1-1 supersymmetry that nevertheless describes gravity and the Standard Model…’

  5. Dear Nigel,

    maybe I should have been more explicit for people like you.

    When you look for these articles at, there is also a line below the article saying "cited XY times". If the number XY ir close to zero and if you don't find any similar articles by the author where it's at least 10, then it is very likely that the paper is not valuable.


  6. Dear Lumos,

    So everyone should judge papers based on what other people think...

    What a logically infallible argument!

    What a pity people didn't know Motl's law in Galileo's day.

    They could have assessed Galileo's credibility by comparing the number of his citations (anyone citing him was arrested) to the number of mainstream papers on the earth-centred universe, Ptolemy's epicycles.


  7. Dear Nigel, if you read carefully, you would have seen that I agree with you that the experts should have different methods to judge.

    But for the outsiders, it is a superior method.

  8. Lubos, your categorization of "experts" and "outsiders" seems unduly binary.
    So far as I can tell, only those who have staked their careers on string theory being worthwhile are "experts" in your book. Obviously, few such folks would saw off the plank they're sitting on by making a foundational criticism of the string enterprise -- except perhaps through drunken tears at the end of a wasted career?

    Anyone else who voices doubts about string theory is an "outsider" who can't decode the privileged texts (without Kool-Aid-inspired expert guidance, at any rate).

    It would be refreshing if you de-digitized your logic, and brought it back at least to the quantum, if not analog, world.

  9. Dear AJ Sutter,

    indeed, if you want to judge questions related to string theory, you must first learn it. You obviously disagree with this basic observation, which is why you're not being terribly reasonable.

    In the same way, if someone wants to judge loop quantum gravity and assure that his opinions are relevant, he must also first become an expert on the subject - like Nicolai and Peeters.

    There's no way in science to judge something that you don't understand. The people who are judging things that they don't undsrstand anyway are intellectually misguided.