The Historical Evidence for Excessive Hype in Physics
I attended several seminars on string theory while I was a physics and astrophysics undergrad at the University of Minnesota in the mid 1980’s. Some of you may recall this was the period in string theory’s history known as the “first superstring revolution.” In 1984-85, a series of discoveries convinced many theorists that superstring theory (the marriage of string theory and supersymmetry) was going to lead the way to the promised land. Theoretical physics was essentially complete, I was told. All that remained was to work out a few details, “tie up some loose ends.” Superstring theory was to be the final theory, the theory of everything from which all other models and predictions could be derived. It was going to unify all known forces including gravity, and explain all particles and their interactions. I was told by people whose opinion I assumed was reliable, people whom I thought knew what they were talking about, that “the great discoveries in theoretical physics were over,” capped off by superstring theory. Well, here we are nearly thirty years later. String theory has morphed into P-branes and D-branes. Five different string theories are supposed to be encompassed by M-theory, whatever that is. You have to accept, without evidence, that supersymmetry is correct and that it is broken in some special way so that the theory remains mathematically consistent yet evades experimental refutation. Moreover, N=1 supersymmetry was just the start; extended supersymmetry with as many as 8 new supersymmetry transformations is now included in the price of admission. String theory’s requisite ten dimensions is also unverifiable – the extra six dimensions allegedly compactified in Calabi-Yau manifolds. And of course, we can’t forget about the 10500 members of the multiverse. You want some testable predictions and experimental evidence with any of that? Sorry, that’s an unreasonable expectation for the theory of everything.
So What’s the Harm With a Little Excessive Hype?
Young theorists trying to make career decisions have been sold a bill of goods for decades. Hundreds have chosen to take up string theory because it was supposedly “the only game in town.” To obtain funding and be competitive for a tenure track job, they were boxed into string theory. If instead they had been able to follow their own interests and hunches, what sort of foundational discoveries would they have made? How many physicists who jumped on the string theory band wagon would have made more important contributions in another specialty? I did not become a string theorist 28 years ago. So why am I still bothered by the deception? I could excuse this if it only happened once in a while. But, it has spread throughout theoretical physics and is now de rigueur. The hype, fluff, and exaggeration is rampant throughout books, documentaries, interviews, and articles. See, for example, this New York Times article “A Black Hole Mystery Wrapped in a Firewall Paradox” that threatens the erasure of Einstein’s legacy and of the tremendous successes of the General Theory of Relativity in expanding our understanding and comprehension of the universe. Additionally, theorists could not resist hyping the multiverse in the new film about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and Higgs discovery (Particle Fever), even though the idea generates no testable predictions. Outreach is important. We want the general public to be interested in fundamental physics so that they will support funding it. We also want new students to become excited and enthralled so that they will continue the legacy. But so much of what you see or read is so full of fluff and exaggeration, the reader learns absolutely nothing about physics or the scientific process. Rather, they just read more silly claims and promises. And after a while, people that initially had a passing interest in physics become cynical. Rather than being motivated by the hype, they are turned off by it. It erodes trust and confidence in those whose ideas and opinions shape the career paths of their students and mentees, as well as the investment of limited tax dollars.
Treating the Excessive Hype Disease
“I feel your pain!” was a popular quote from Bill Clinton. It likely gained him quite a few votes back in ’92. We all like to know that other people understand what bothers us, what we are going through. I find comfort in the fact that more and more physicists are writing books that shine a light on these issues. An excellent recent book is Jim Baggott’s Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth. First, he reviews the wonderful progress and discoveries that theoretical physics has made to bring us the truly awesome and inspirational body of knowledge, and modern technologies, that we have today. Then, he lays out very skillfully the places where theoretical physics has gone off the rails and entered into metaphysics. These areas include, in his opinion, supersymmetry, grand unification, superstring theory and M-theory, multiverses (in each of its manifestations), the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and the holographic principle. Several bloggers are also attacking the silliness and excessive hype. Matt von Hippel has a recent article called “Hype versus Miscommunication, or the Language of Importance.” In it, he takes on a recent Scientific American article called “The Emperor, Darth Vader and the Ultimate Ultimate Theory of Physics.” Yes, ultimate was used twice in the title, that is not a typo. Matt offers a more congenial rationalization for this behavior than perhaps I would have, but he may have hit on some accurate insights:
“There’s an attitude I often run into among other physicists. The idea is that when hype like this happens, it’s because senior physicists are, at worst, cynically manipulating the press to further their positions or, at best, so naïve that they really see what they’re working on as so important that it deserves hype-y coverage. Occasionally, the blame will instead be put on the journalists, with largely the same ascribed motivations: cynical need for more page views, or naïve acceptance of whatever story they’re handed. …The problem here is that when you ask a scientist about something they’re excited about, they’re going to tell you why they’re excited about it. …he seems to have tried to convey his enthusiasm with a metaphor that explained how the situation felt to him.”
Someone with a casual interest in physics may be drawn to an article with a title as grandiose as “The Emperor, Darth Vader and the Ultimate Ultimate Theory of Physics,” only to be disappointed by the lack of meaningful content. The article’s author, George Musser, even admits that
“The unnerving thing about the theory is that physicists think it exists even though they’ve never written it down and are not even sure they can. …resembles that other creation of the mid-1990s: M-theory, a theory whose existence seems to be implicit in string theory, even though physicists hem and haw when you ask what exactly it is.”
Counterproductive and Ineffective Outreach
Is the hype effective outreach? What are the goals of outreach? If it is to sell more books, increase online readership and documentary viewership, or boost ones ego, then perhaps the hype does support outreach goals. But if the goals of outreach are to create an educated public who understands the scientific process, understands the limits of our science, understands the available opportunities, who can make informed decisions, and has confidence in our ability to make unbiased recommendations, then I am not so sure that the hype helps achieve these goals. What are the indirect costs in terms of the credibility of science, the misaligned funding priorities, the mismanaged hiring and career opportunities, and so on? How can we counter pseudoscience like quantum healing or quantum mysticism, when fully credentialed physicists make a living through metaphysics? If we are willing to compromise the falsifiability requirement, how can we counter fraudulent use of pseudoscience?
When people look back on this era of high energy physics, will they see it as having laid the foundations for new breakthroughs and new discoveries? Or will they see it as gross mismanagement of resources, talent, and money, while engaged in wild and fanciful goose chases?
Matt von Hippel offers some advice for science writers:
“We all have to step back and realize that most of the time, science isn’t interesting because of its absolute “importance”. Rather, a puzzle is often interesting simply because it is a puzzle. …they’re hard to figure out, and that’s why we care. Being honest about this is not going to lose us public backing, or funding. It’s not just scientists who value interesting things because they are challenging. People choose the path of their lives not based on some absolute relevance to the universe at large, but because things make sense in context. You don’t fall in love because the target of your affections is the most perfect person in the universe, you fall in love because they’re someone who can constantly surprise you.”