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Brian Greene vs a hippie physics critic

Wired magazine tries to import the idea of "consensus science" to high-energy physics. So they have organized a poll opened literally for everyone. People vote whether Brian Greene's general statements about string theory are better or worse than Lee Smolin's equally general but populist and emotional misconceptions.

Needless to say, 80% of the people who participate have no idea what theoretical physics is while most of the remaining 20% voted for the right answer by pure chance. ;-)

Let's face it: the number of people who can actually evaluate results of papers in high-energy theoretical physics in general and quantum gravity in particular is not 20%: it is smaller than one part per million (ppm) i.e. smaller than 6,500 people in the world. Anyone who is ready to take these polls seriously is crazy. The average participants' IQ is lower than the required one by 40 or more.

Most Americans believe creation and most people in the world believe that we face dangerous man-made global warming. People are ready to believe any stupidity you like as long as this stupidity is sold in such a way that they will find it attractive because this stupidity makes them feel smarter, nicer, and happier. These people want to believe that they're not "missing" anything - which is completely absurd - so they do believe it. Lee Smolin is not only a crackpot but a shameful crackpot if he uses these tactics - if he employs uneducated average people to leverage his influence in science that would otherwise be zero.

I am convinced that high-brow science will simply be unsustainable in current circumstances because the Smolin-like scum will be increasingly using brainwashing campaigns in the media to contaminate the scientific discourse by irrational garbage. Last year, I realized that the situation was already so bad that I couldn't even publicly say something that every good physicist knows - that Smolin is a crank who has nothing to contribute to serious science - not even politely. What will be next? Will scientists be expected to worship such people or write meaningless follow-ups of Smolin's equally meaningless postmodern "work"? Will string theorists be attacked in the media as "deniers" of an alleged "failure of string theory"?

This atmosphere has nothing to do with science. In science, scientists must be allowed to reach any conclusions whether billions of idiots like them or not. This is what the scientific confrontation with the Catholic Church was all about. Physicists at the best places were chosen to do their work because they are far more intelligent, educated, and productive than average people, not because they are indistinguishable from average people. Any pressure attempting to push them to the average is extremely dangerous.

Let us just look at the statements of Greene and Smolin:

  • Greene "Here, finally, is a theory that promises to realize Einstein's dream and more; a theory with the capacity to unify all matter and all forces."
  • Smolin "You may want a simple unified theory of all the particles and forces, but what you get includes a few extra features, at least two of which are nonnegotiable: extra dimensions and nonuniqueness [i.e., a multitude of versions of the theory]."

What Greene says is a trivial and obviously correct, mostly non-technical statement that describes the unification of forces in a theory and that puts the current research in the proper historical perspective. Smolin's statement is, on the other hand, just a hateful proclamation that tries to attach a negative flavor to two predictions of string theory. Extra dimensions and multiplicity of solutions are not things to be ashamed of: they are proud scientific predictions that a priori have no emotional labels (even though at least the first one is fascinating physics). 800+ imbeciles, don't you like it? Well, then you should better fu*k off. The same Smolin who mentions two universal predictions of string theory is going to contradict himself instantly:

  • Greene "We now have more than 20 years of research, filling tens of thousands of pages of calculations, which attest to string theory's deep mathematical coherence."
  • Smolin "We have no idea which of the 10-to-the-500th-power versions of the theory corresponds to reality. Worst of all, there is not a single prediction made that might be confirmed or falsified by a doable experiment."

Greene's statement is nothing else than a statement whose validity can only be verified by those who actually understand the papers. It is clear that only 1 ppm of the voters could safely and independently confirm his correct appraisal of coherence of string theory. Smolin's minirant is made out of two sentences. The first one is a popular version of a true result of string theory about the multiplicity of solutions combined with information about the current state of knowledge while the second sentence is a manifestly untrue comment about physics.

Whenever we have any statement that talks about physical quantities, it is falsifiable, whether or not the statement has 3 words "OR" in it or "10^{500}" of them. People who know what they're doing can falsify generic statements more or less quickly. For example, every single paper by Lee Smolin may be shown to be nonsense in less than 5 minutes. If you wish, string theory makes 120 predictions that each major statement in each Smolin's paper is wrong. Isn't it enough to agree that it makes predictions? The fact that string theory is still "alive" is an extremely non-trivial piece of circumstantial evidence that it is the right description of reality at a deeper level. Whoever thinks that he may find a better or simpler theory that still seems to be consistent with reality should work on it and I essentially guarantee to him that he will fail.

  • Greene "No one successful experiment would establish that string theory is right, but neither would the failure of all such experiments prove the theory is wrong."
  • Smolin "If a theory is believed deeply enough by a large enough group of experts, they will go to ever-more-extreme measures to save it."

Greene is just saying that the framework of string theory goes beyond a single experiment. He honestly says that we don't see one conceivable and doable experiment that would be enough to decide about the most far-reaching question, namely whether string theory is a correct description of reality. Experiments that would be directly relevant are undoable for technological reasons while no cheap doable experiment can be matched to the whole string theory as far as its importance goes. It's very clear that much more work will be needed and work is what the serious people are doing. This is not a "criticism": it is a fact about the structure of physical ideas and our current knowledge about them. Adding emotional flavor to any of these things is completely irrational and Smolin is doing it in every single case.

Smolin's conspiracy theory is truly pathetic. The community of string theorists is not "large enough" in any stretch of imagination. It is composed of roughly 2,000 people in the world. If you're in a random U.S. state such as Oregon, you expect roughly 1-2 string theorists living in your state. Professionally, they're extremely lonely people. They're a small minority even within the particle physics community. Only complete imbeciles - such as those 810+ people who voted for Lee Smolin's proclamation - are ready to believe that the string theory community is "large enough" to lead to "ever-more-extreme measures".

Smolin's hypocricy is breath-taking. On one hand, he wants to dismiss a tiny group of world's string theorists as a huge group that defends some viewpoints by its huge size. On the other hand, he is ready to collect votes of a much larger number of people who have absolutely no idea about these questions in order to support his hateful remarks and junk science.

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