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At odds with the 'celebrity science'


'Perfect Match', by Reuben Brand We usually associate collective irrationality with mysticism and various crazed cultish forms of belief. By contrast, since the enlightenment, science has been viewed as almost embodying reason itself.

There are plenty of fanciful doctrines in philosophy and social theory that could be seen as forms of collective irrationality, where systems of belief in the intellectual world completely fly in the face of empirical reality or have little basis in firm empirical support. But can collective irrationality also be displayed in the hard sciences?

It can, and was, on several occasions during the past century. Collective irrationality in the sciences is usually seen as a feature of totalitarian regimes. There was the Stalin-era Lysenko affair in biology, 'Aryan physics' in Nazi Germany, and mad 'Mao Tse Tung Thought' style particle physics during the cultural revolution.

Sometimes, this type of collective irrationality can work. For instance a group of Japanese physicists who tried to prove Karl Marx's philosophy of 'dialectical materialism' actually made some important discoveries in our understanding of the strong nuclear force in the 1950s. Alas they went off the rails thereafter.

But scientific irrationality is not linked exclusively to doctrinaire ideology. It would appear that a more market-driven collective irrationality, based around fashion, has emerged in the science world. This relates to a contentious line of theory known as 'superstring theory'.

One of the enduring goals of theoretical physics is the marriage of Einstein's general theory of relativity — a theory of gravity — with quantum mechanics. Gravity is the weakest force but operates over large scales, so it is crucial to understanding some of the bigger things in life, such as the universe as a whole. Quantum mechanics, on the other hand, accounts for the micro-world.

It is hoped that the consummation of this marriage, 'quantum gravity', would unify physics and provide us with new insight into the underlying laws of nature. Some even hold out the promise of a 'theory of everything', because we would thereby combine our best theories of the very big and the very small into one neat package.

But it has been a calamitous and rocky courtship. Even Dexter, the robot who yielded his compatibility algorithm on the dating game show Perfect Match, would struggle! Every attempt at unification results in ugly mathematics that spews out nonsense and anomalies.

Superstring theory is the most popular theory aimed at unifying physics. It has had a long and torturous history, but essentially the premise is that the physical world — literally, everything, including space and time — is built out of strings and membranes.

It's become something of a celebrity science. Anyone who follows popular science would be familiar with the theory, as it has been the subject of many books, articles, documentaries and radio shows, all attempting to explain the promise and hidden intricacies of the theory.

Superstring theory is noted for its mathematical elegance. It does not produce troublesome infinities and has even prompted important new developments in pure mathematics.

But superstring theory comes at a price. For example, to be mathematically consistent and to exorcise the demons of traditional quantum gravity, the theory requires that we assume 'spacetime' has many dimensions. The obvious paradox is explained away by assuming that all those extra dimensions that we do not perceive are conveniently hidden in tiny, tiny spaces.

A bigger problem is that the theory requires more universes than our own. The inherent paradox is addressed by invoking the 'anthropic principle', which states that we can make predictions about the nature of our universe based upon the fact of our own existence. This constrains how many of the theoretical universes could possibly be our own. But with so many universes anything and everything becomes possible, rendering 'prediction' rather pointless. Our universe is not being explained so much as explained away.

In short, despite its popularity, progress in superstring theory is being conducted without reference to empirical reality.

It is true that it is easier to get a job or get on the box doing superstring theory than any of its rival theories. It might be appropriate to conclude that it is the emphasis of universities on quantity of publications and citations, combined with the gravitational effect that intellectual celebrity has on university funding levels, that explains the collective irrationality around superstring theory.

This would be a market driven form of collective irrationality in contrast to our earlier examples that stressed irrationality arising from ideology.

What is of fascination here is that string theory might end up telling us more about the sociology and philosophy of science itself than it does about nature.

The official string theory website

Marko BeljacMarko Beljac is interested in the interface between science and global security. He wrote his PhD at Monash University and teaches at LaTrobe University and the University of Melbourne.


Topic tags: marko beljac, superstrng theory, einstein's general theory of relativity, quantum machanics



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Existing comments

Marko Beljac's piece on superstring theory is timely. The corrosive effects of corporation-style "groupthink" - even in an allegedly facts-based discipline, - are not just a symptom of, but also an alarm siren for, the direction that our collective sense of ethics seems to be taking.

The string-theory debate is a bunfight that the physics community will have to have. On that score, it would have been fairer if Marko had directly acknowledged the debt to Lee Smolin and Peter Woit for pioneering a critique of the string-theory fad.


Fred Green | 22 July 2008  

I don't follow Dr Beljac's argument here about "theory being conducted without reference to empirical reality".

Most of the space of the universe is not matter and matter as we empirically experience it is solid, but we know that at the atomic level matter is mostly space. And all of the matter of the universe occupied at the Big Bang an infinitely small space, did it not?

None of that is empirical reality to me and yet I believe it to be so. Why, because of the work of theorical physics.

Why is superstring theory, potentially, any different? Why may it not be ultimately proven and accepted as true? And why is it any more "collective irrationality" than E= mc2 when first postulated or,indeed, the Big Bang itself?

Perhaps I have missed something or perhaps the universe may ONLY be explained away rather than explained?

Tony Macklin | 23 July 2008  

Comment to Tony Macklin.

Without wishing to speak for Dr Beljac, I take it that "empirical reality" is shorthand for objective validation (or falsification) in the lab., or by astrophysical observations, etc..

String theory, over 25 years, has failed to make any novel prediction that is testable rather than simply speculative. When the odd development (such as the cosmological constant) turns up as a potential stumbling block, the theory seems to be so pliable as to explain it away; but only speculatively it seems, never in terms that can actually be tested.

For a passionate (yet objective) account of string theory's foibles, by someone who has worked on it, see The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin (Penguin, London, 2006).

Fred Green | 23 July 2008  

To look at this in a somewhat theological way: theology is not an empirical science, however it does attempt to explain how the immaterial(the Triune God if you are Christian) could create and influence the material (the universe/creation). I continue to wonder about whether an elusive relationship between the quantum and the rest of the universe could somehow reveal to us God in action... perhaps the universe as 'living' strings of energy is the very 'interface' between the material and the immaterial - creation and God? This thinking may not be empirical, however it may not be irrational....?

Andrew McAlister | 23 July 2008  

great post

richard mullins | 23 July 2008  

This IS a great post - and it moves me to speak somewhat personally. I am a Christian and a theorist in condensed matter. I care about both.

When as young as my students, my burning desire was the same: to grasp "why". I realised that science limits itself to answering "how", not "why".
So the ethic of empiricism has developed with a dependence on maximum truthfulness (a) to nature and (b) to community. The case against string theory is that it transgresses (b) if not (a).

What captivates us about concepts at such a level, regardless of testability, is that they seem to bring us nearer to "the mind of God".
I think that is a misperception.

Physics and metaphysics are radically different. To give life meaning, we might do science as a vocation and certainly draw deep aesthetic and spiritual lessons from its beauty. But one cannot expect science to fulfil spiritual needs from within its own practice. That's not what it is for.

At its best science may be a pointer to the divine, just as art can be. For me, that doesn't substitute for growth into my unique relationship with God.

Fred Green | 23 July 2008  

Hmm - this article is way over the top. Anyone would think that a huge fraction of physicists were involved in this area.

In fact very few theoretical physicists are involved in this area simply because it is extremely demanding.

The whole area of elementary particle theory is a bit prone to speculation simply because it is so difficult to do experiments but this one at least has some very serious people in it. I'm perfectly happy for Ed Witten and Alain Connes to work in this area.

One might wonder about the money spent on experimental elementary particle physics but if that is permitted as being 'fact based' then this theory seems quite legitimate to me.

Tony O'Connor | 24 July 2008  

I am not sure how a project gains logical and empirical legitimacy because "serious" people are in it. Bin Laden and his colleagues are serious people; does that legitimate their agenda?

The goal of physics - not only particle physics - has been to reveal the simplest relationships between matter and energy that our observations, deliberate or otherwise, can confirm to us.

Whether we as "the public" are or are not happy to expend huge amounts of tax money on particle experiments is not a physics issue (though it may be an ethical one, like all such projects).

The issues here are about speculation over against genuine prediction, and testability as their arbiter. These have not changed since at least Galileo's time. See Smolin's book.

Fred Green | 24 July 2008  

A bigger problem is that the theory requires more universes than our own. The inherent paradox is addressed by invoking the 'anthropic principle', which states that we can make predictions about the nature of our universe based upon the fact of our own existence. This constrains how many of the theoretical universes could possibly be our own. But with so many universes anything and everything becomes possible, rendering 'prediction' rather pointless. Our universe is not being explained so much as explained away.

That's because scientists don't recognise the anthropic principle outside of string theory. If you get rid of the multiverse and string theory, then it dissolves into a "fine-tuning problem" that is only expected to be explained by a dynamical structure principle that disassociates anthropic relevance to the mechanism, and this is where they screwed up, because that's not what the anthropically oriented features are telling them to do.

You can't have one without the other if you want to resolve the great mystery of the missing cosmological principle, and it is a fact that a true anthropic constraint on the forces of the universe will **necessarily** include a reciprocal connection to the human evolutionary process, so scientists are willfully ignoring the fact that they should be looking for a mechanism that enable the universe to "leap"/bang to higher orders of the same basic configuration.

Which makes the anthropic principle an energy conservation law, since causality, the arrow of time and the second law of thermodynamics are indefinitely preserved and fixed by this strictly deterministic process.


island | 26 July 2008  

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