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Aspects of expanding crackpottery in physics

The people whose knowledge and opinions about physics are close to mine are finally beginning to realize the worrisome trends affecting the quality and character of the research in theoretical physics. I have a significant number of e-mail exchanges with these folks - and let me assure everyone that you're not alone.

Robert Helling compares Erik Verlinde's arguments to the entertaining proof that girls are evil (because girls are time times money, time is money, and money is the root of all evil). Yes, it is a similar "proof" by a dimensional analysis.

It's even more interesting to look at the comments under the article.

Pope Maledict XVI is frustrated and recalls physics of 2009 when the Hořava-Lifshitz gravity was among the most visible research directions. He or she says that it wasn't very good but it deserved a dozen of citations - I agree - but it got 200 of them. And now, we have this entropic force silliness.

Another reader links to a remarkable hybrid of Verlinde's and Hořava's ideas. This "nonsense squared" was written in China, much like a huge portion of the follow-ups in both cases. Others ask whether it is an accident that most of the authors reside in Asia and whether the job situation, boredom, P.R. thirst, or other things can be blamed for the expansion of nonsense in physics. Another reader refuses to believe that the authors of Hořava-Lifshitz gravity papers, unparticle physics papers, entropic force papers, and related topics actually believe that these things have anything to do with Nature.

I mostly agree.


But let me be more detailed about all these points. First, Asia. I think that the overall set of Asian papers differs from the Western papers in the same way as Asian companies differ from the Western companies. Whether you like it or not, the Western companies are still built upon traditions, upon concepts that have been tested for decades or centuries.

On the other hand, the Chinese economy is full of bubbles. It is an ideal place for speculative investments. If something is guessed to have a chance to grow in the future, they immediately build lots of it in China. The physics papers are kind of analogous. Because China doesn't have too many decadal and centennial traditions and standards, you will find many out of the 10^9 people over there who are simply ready to jump on any bandwagon.

No doubt, China is a genuine threat for the competition even in legitimate industries where things actually work. But there will still be lots of junk coming from China - in the commercial sector as well as science - and we shouldn't forget about it. We shouldn't think that China has suddenly become a top developed country where the quality of everything matches or surpasses ours (I mean the Western one). It doesn't. And it might be sensible to count the citations with weights that would take the unreliable origin of most of the papers into account.


It's being said that people feel bored so that they want to have some fun - and write "revolutionary" things even if they're manifestly false. It's surely a mechanism that plays some role. Some people do feel bored. But I think that such emotions should never be enough to justify the exit to the realm of nonsense.

After all, the LHC will be running again in two weeks. People could do many kinds of things related to legitimate phenomenology, revive their old ideas and prepare them for the new era. And there are many genuinely interesting new directions that surely make lots of sense - like the F-theoretical bottom-up phenomenology, black hole research involving many new non-SUSY black holes and many new tools etc.

So I reject the argument that boredom is a legitimate explanation of the trends. It could explain an overall decrease of activity but it simply can't explain the relative increase of the mostly inconsistent and manifestly incorrect papers in comparison with the
papers that have a chance to be correct.

Promotion of crackpottery by the media

I also think that the emergence of these low-quality research directions has nothing to do with young people's existential considerations or tenure. After all, Georgi, Hořava, and Verlinde are established senior people without any existential problems of this sort. There could be many people who write the follow-up papers who could fit the "tenure" or "job market" theories. But the leaders of these movements surely don't.

No doubt, the fathers of such trends have different motivations than those who write follow-ups. We should never forget about these differences. As Steve Pinker has always emphasized, things like the religions survive because of complementary interests and habits of the "producers" and the "consumers".

The fathers of the research problems - much like the priests in various religions - may enjoy the interest from others for obvious, let's say egotistic reasons. And the people may write follow-ups - or join religions - because they have been trained to respect authorities and they want to join an emerging bandwagon.

So these things do work. But I must emphasize that it's wrong to assign universally negative emotions with these impersonal mechanisms themselves: these mechanisms work not only in the case of meaningless and ill-motivated research; they also work in the case of good research directions where they play a creative role. So none of these things actually explains why people prefer "probably wrong" far-reaching ideas over the "possibly correct" ideas that may be correspondingly more modest. None of them explains why senior people are more likely to write nonsense and why other people are more likely to jump on nonsensical bandwagons.

Before the Smolin-Woit crackpot P.R. war

While the publication of the books by the two crackpots - and the atmosphere in the society and broader scientific community that emerged after their publication - was a major turning point, the deterioration may have started earlier.

Everything was more than rosy during the duality revolution in the mid 1990s and even in the approximately 5-7 years that followed, with intense research into AdS/CFT, old and new matrix models, new vacua, dynamics of tachyons, BMN, twistors and so on. (I will mention the trends in phenomenology later.) The discovery of a nonzero cosmological constant in the late 1990s energized various "anthropic" and similar quasi-religious things even though it was clear from the beginning to many of us that we had no good theoretical explanations for the value of the cosmological constant in reach and no convincing results would ever come out of the research concerned with the single number. And these topics were popular, controversial topics outside the physics community, for obvious reasons: they're linked to things that everyone can understand (or at least she thinks so).

However, they have never quite affected the physics community itself. I think that there has never been any genuine "bandwagon" of people working on the anthropic papers. The most cited papers related to the anthropic principle were very technical papers such as KKLT that just study something that could have qualitative ramifications even though you should care about these papers even if you don't ever plan to believe any anthropic reasoning.

An equally important place to look is phenomenology. In the late 1990s, people would also start to study various large extra dimensions and warped extra dimensions, among other new paradigms. I always found them to be legitimate - and previously understudied - possibilities but they are still "contrived" possibilities, anyway. So it was OK that people studied them but it wasn't OK that they were not quite appreciating how contrived they were.

This got more extreme with the DGP models and other things that already rejected what the top-down approach actually tells us about the dynamics of the branes. It tells us that gauge fields and other matter may be stuck to branes but gravity always lives in the bulk and it is just unnatural to modify gravity near branes by additional terms. Such things simply do not arise in string theory, for pretty good general reasons (even non-stringy reasons), and it was a very bad sign that so many phenomenologists were ignoring this "negative" evidence.

Smolin and Woit arrive

Of course, in 2006, the two notorious crackpots arrived. I must tell you that before 2006, everyone would agree that Smolin was a crank and Woit was an irrelevant grumpy guy outside whose importance for physics was exactly zero. I had no problems with them. In fact, I was repeatedly the main "contact" of Lee Smolin who guaranteed that he could effectively come to our department at Harvard.

No one else would really invite him - but I never had to hide that I knew that and why all his papers were pure crackpottery, and he was OK to hear it because everyone else would be explaining him similar things. For example, when he told me that three-dimensional Chern-Simons theory had to be equivalent to M-theory because "it was simple and he couldn't believe that M-theory was anything else than simple, so they had to be equivalent", I exploded in laughter - and it wasn't the only time. He has always known that others thought that his papers were jokes - and today, we know that he has always known that they were jokes, too.

But of course, he was planning something else. His hateful, vitriolic, dishonest, distorting, anti-physics, anti-mathematical book (and, to a much lesser extent, Woit's related book) was a success with the ignorant masses. Millions or primitive readers who have always hated physics and mathematics - and many of them could be found even in the broader physics community - created the atmosphere of support for what we learned was the emerging piece of dishonest postmodern piece of [expletive] called Lee Smolin.

I noticed a dramatically changing atmosphere. Many people were suddenly completely afraid to criticize Lee Smolin, his lies, his junk papers, and unfortunately many similar junk papers in general because they could be painted negatively by some of their broader colleagues, the media, and others. Many of the top people went into a full-fledge silence and denial that something wrong was going on. While the legends say that it would have taken exactly 5 minutes to shoot a wrong hypothesis during the duality revolution (otherwise it had to be right because things work), and I have seen lots of such 5-minute falsifications by many people (not just myself) as recently as 5 years ago, people were suddenly unwilling (or unable) to do it since 2006 or so.

The "anything goes" era began. That was the time when junk began to thrive. Lee Smolin has achieved what he always wanted: stinky garbage similar to his own, written by similarly self-glorifying authors teamed up with the journalists and other P.R. tools, have completely flooded the physics literature. These days, people are literally drowning in tons of [brown semi-liquid].

Lee Smolin, a far-left radical and a former (and current?) hippie, has also brought an extremely thick layer of politically correct victimism to the field. It has become fashionable - if not expected - that people pay lip service to various groups such as women, colorful physicists, amateurs, surfers, and whoever was perceived as "underrepresented" in the physics research (usually for well understood reasons).

And it's surely not just Smolin. Virtually everyone is left-wing and many people are unfortunately actively left-wing. Tommaso Dorigo has never promoted any valuable theoretical physics on his blog, as far as I can say, but he periodically promotes completely nonsense just because it's written by "amateurs" which is a good thing, he thinks.

Now, I like Carl Brannen but his paper about the superluminal gravitons is just pile of crap. Everyone must know that. Tommaso must know it, too. Why does he write all the nonsense about "deep thoughts"? What Tommaso is doing is a big disservice to the science. And even Carl himself, as a conservative, knows that Tommaso's actual motivation is based on a lie: amateurs actually get more attention, not less attention, at least today. It's the quality work that is being ignored and suppressed if not humiliated.

The main underlying change is that the bad people have simply become influential and the good people have lost their influence. This new atmosphere influences what is actually being studied and how many people study X or Y. Concerning the latter category, the people who lost their influence, one could pick lots of examples. But there's one obvious example that I will mention, Edward Witten.

Witten as an example of the losing side

He has always considered the work of Lee Smolin - but even the rest of the loop quantum gravity community and other communities - to be work without any good intellectual standards. But he has decided for the "don't ask don't tell" policy concerning the post-2006 developments. It makes no sense to discuss etc. After all, it was not his trouble, he was safe, so why he should have bothered.

The science as an enterprise may simply be diluted in an acid, right?

This indifferent attitude is short-sighted because at the end, the opinions that are being heard inevitably do have some impact. So because Witten was not heard, he couldn't have made a difference. To justify this attitude, one may say that the people have whatever they want, and it's OK.

Except that some people are not masochists of Witten's type and they don't have what they want at all: namely the physicists who can actually recognize [brown semi-liquid] from gold when they see it. Like some of my contacts whose name I will keep confidential. By refusing to contribute to the fight, people like Witten have simply surrendered a bit, they helped to weaken not only themselves but also others with similar knowledge, abilities, and the research of sensible things itself.

The influence of the media and the people in the broader community who don't really have any interest for the quality of science to be high and for science to make genuine progress - but who may care about many other things such as "what the results of research should actually say" or "who should be doing the research for them to feel good" - may have a devastating influence on a scientific discipline.

In the healthy situations, a scientific discipline is dominated by people who are effectively isolated from the society and the media, living in their ivory towers. So they really do research according to their best knowledge and with their abilities: chances are high that they keep on converging to the right answers. However, if the interactions with the external world strengthen, people start to do things that will be profitable (financially or otherwise) because of the expected response of the external world.

At that moment, science as Galileo defined it may be doomed as soon as the ratio of the "non-scientific" and "scientific" pressures on a scientist exceeds a certain threshold. The climate science became a top example of a discipline whose scientific character was mostly eliminated by such interactions. Scientists had to be afraid to end up with "answers of certain kinds" because they meant problems caused by the external world to them.

I think that because of the recent exposure to the world of media, similar mechanisms started to play their role in the high-energy theoretical physics community. And that's too bad because, as one reader on Helling's blog mentioned, people are writing things that may make them visible, influential, and rich rather than things that they believe are true - which are no longer the same things.

Everyone who has noticed that there is a problem should start to think how to fix this mess and how to get ideology, populism, writers of nonsense, and the likes of Lee Smolin out of the scientific environment.

And that's the memo.

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snail feedback (2) :

reader Will Nelson said...

I can't resist relating that certain well-known physicist who at one point lived with Smolin, described him to me (17 years ago) as the most personally disgusting person he had ever encountered.

reader Alejandro Rivero said...

Witten fails to attract people each time he tries to approach phenomenology, that is the memo ;).

Perhaps he is too concrete for the usual crowd and too abstract for model builders.