Easterbrook on String Theory

In an incomprehensible display of poor editorial judgment, Slate recently published this unusually bad article on the merits of string theory, by Gregg Easterbrook.

It’s a familiar name to connoisseurs of bad science writing. Easterbrook has previously come out in favor of teaching ID in schools as a legitimate theory in opposition to evolution, for example. The present essay is just a series of slurs and groundless attacks against physicists, tied together with clear evidence that he hasn’t the faintest idea what he is talking about.

Since this essay is written in the creationist mode, it is difficult to find a clear point of attack. Every paragraph, indeed, every sentence, displays a confusion so complex and multi-layered that correcting it requires first untangling several other confusions. We’ll just consider a few highlights.

The upper rungs of the particle-physics faculties at Princeton, Stanford, and elsewhere in the academy are today heavy with advocates of “string theory,” a proposed explanation for the existence of the universe. String theory seeks to explain why, at the very minute scale, matter appears to be constructed from vibrating nothing. Smash up subatomic particles into smaller units such as quarks, and the quarks don’t appear to have content–puzzling, to say the least. String theory says that these seemingly amorphous infinitesimal aspects of matter are made from other dimensions, compressed to a smallness that strains imagination. In various versions, the theory also seeks to explain how the Big Bang could have been possible, to reconcile the extremely tiny realm of quantum mechanics with the cosmic kingdom of general relativity, and to answer whether the expansion of our universe will stop or continue forever.

Very little of this makes sense. Stirng theory is not an explanation for the existence of the universe. Rather, it is an attempt to explain the properties of the known subatomic particles by viewing them as the results of interactions of more fundamental objects, namely strings. It also represents the most serious attempt around at producing a theory of quantum gravity (that is, of uniting the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics).

Next, string theory does not seek to explain why matter appears to be constructed from vibrating nothing (whatever that’s supposed to mean). Actually, it is an hypothesis of string theory that all mattrer is ultimately composed of tiny, one-dimensional, vibrating objects called strings. And I don’t know what it means to say that quarks have no content. I’m likewise unsure what it means to say that amorphous infinitesimal aspects of matter are made from other dimensions. Dimensions, after all, are not the sort of thing out of which physical objects are made. It is a consequence of string theory that other spatial dimensions exist, but that is a separate matter.

What is clear from this paragraph is that Easterbrook has little interest in trying to explain what string theory is all about. Instead he provides a snarky, incoherent description meant to set himself up as the clear-thinking layman taking on those egghead, overeducated scientist types.

But let’s move on. The occasion for Easterbrook’s essay is the publication of Lee Smolin’s anti string theory book The Trouble With Physics. I’m only about fifty pages into Smolin’s book at the moment, and will probably say more about it in a future post. Here’s Easterbrook

About 15 years ago, Smolin’s name became among the most talked-about in science, for an idea that’s a cosmic version of Darwin. Modern physics is troubled by the anthropocentric character of the universe. For instance, had gravity been only a teensy bit stronger or weaker, planets and stars could not have formed. So, does the fortuitous value of gravity for planets and stars show that a higher power is manipulating physical law? Some theorists have responded to this quandary by supposing that our 60-billion-galaxy universe is but a slice of a far larger “multiverse” with a cornucopia of different realities, each operating under its own physics. By chance one section of the multiverse got physical laws that favor us, and chance was all that was involved. Smolin countered with his theory of cosmic natural selection. The theory goes like this: Black holes cause Big Bangs. Any universe whose physical laws do not result in black holes thus will hit a cosmic dead end and fail to “reproduce.” The set of physical laws that result in stars and planets also results in black holes, allowing universes like ours to copy themselves. Over eons, the firmament would become dominated by universes possessing the kind of laws we observe, because universes with such laws &kdquo;reproduce.” Therefore it is not weird that our cosmos has stars and planets; it is exactly what we should expect.

The physics establishment reacted adversely to Smolin’s cosmic natural selection because the idea implies direction: Over time, existence progresses toward a condition more to the liking of beings such as us. In recent decades it has become essential at the top of academia to posit utter meaninglessness to all aspects of physics.

More nonsense. First of all, serious speculation about multiple universes goes back at least until the 1950′s, long before it occurred to anyone to use “fine-tuning” as an effective rhetorical tool in theological arguments.

Next, it doesn’t even pass the laugh test that Smolin’s idea was dismissed because it implied direction. Easterbrook simply invented that for the sole purpose of making physicists appear foolish and closed-minded. The reality is that Smolin’s idea found little support because there was no evidence to be adduced in its favor, and several points where it seemed at odds with known facts. Leonard Susskind, one of the leading proponents of sring theory, describes it as follows, in his book The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and and the Illusion of Intelligent Design:

Lee Smolin has attempted to explain the very special properties of the world – the Anthropic properties – by a direct analogy with Darwinian evolution – not in the general probabilistic sense that I explained earlier but much more specifically. To his credit Smolin understood early that String Theory is capable of describing a tremendous array of possible universes, and he attempted to use that fact in an imaginative way. Although I feel that Smolin’s idea ultimately fails, it is a valiant effort that deserves serious thought. (p. 360)

And after summarizing Smolin’s idea, far more carefully than Easterbrook, I would add, Susskind writes:

The idea is ingenious, but I don’t think it explains the facts. (p. 361)

There follows a two-page discussion to back up that claim. Imagine that, the idea was given serious consideration and discarded because it was at odds with the facts.

Easterbrook, of course, cannot acknowledge this simple fact. Smearing people is so much more fun that having to grapple seriously with science.

But the hits just keep on coming:

Meanwhile string theory failed to predict the biggest astrophysical discovery in decades, the 1998 finding that cosmic expansion is accelerating, apparently owing to powerful “dark energy” that nobody can explain. After dark energy was discovered, string theorists simply revised their equations to predict it. That’s not science, The Trouble With Physics contends.

This is a joke, right? A physical phenomenon occurs. Current theory did not predict that phenomenon. So the theory was changed to take the new information into account. I’m pretty sure that’s precisely how science is supposed to take place.

We’ll close with this:

Maybe string theory eventually will prove out; maybe the apparent vibrating nothing on which we are based is but a slice of some far grander reality. But string theory seems to contain significant helpings of blather designed to intimidate nonscientists from questioning the budgets of physics departments and tax-funded particle accelerator labs. And consider this. Today if a professor at Princeton claims there are 11 unobservable dimensions about which he can speak with great confidence despite an utter lack of supporting evidence, that professor is praised for incredible sophistication. If another person in the same place asserted there exists one unobservable dimension, the plane of the spirit, he would be hooted down as a superstitious crank.

Right. All of that mathematics that string theorists talk about is just meant to scare away the nonscientists. Real particle physics is something you should be able to explain to a child.

Understanding string theory is difficult and requires years of study and mathematical training. Easterbrook has neither the time nor the brainpower to undertake such a task. So rather than just confess ignorance and concede that he’s not really in a position to assess the merits of the subject, he uses the very difficulty of the theory, judo-like, against it. Every profession is a conspiracy against the laity, right? This is a useful technique for cranks wanting to play with the big boys. Creationists frequently make use of it for that reason. But it’s not the sort of garbage I would expect from a reputable journal of opinion.

But those last few sentences are really just too much. Easterbrook is merely resorting to word games in likening the extra dimensions of string theory to some mysterious “plane of the spirit.”

The extra dimensions of string theory are spatial dimensions just like the three we know about. Physicists are hypothesizing more of the same, not anything fundamentally new. They are led to hypothesize them because they are a consequence of a promising mathematical theory that just happens to provide a solution to the biggest problem in physics: a theory of quantum gravity. They would also point out that there is nothing in current physics to suggest that such dimensions don’t exist.

Compare that to Easterbrook’s “plane of the spirit” This is not a spatial dimension. Rather it’s a – what exactly? Whatever it is, it is something fundamentally different from anything with which we have direct experience. And it’s a something that is hypothesized for no reason at all, beyond the fact that some people find it comforting to think it exists.

Easterbrook may as well argue that the Pope should go to prison because he has many convictions. That’s the level he’s at.

Slate has been going down hill steadily ever since Michael Kinsley stepped down from the editor’s chair. It used to be an interesting place to go for sensible political commentary. Now it seems they’ll publish any ignorant garbage as long as they get to be contrarian.

Comments

  1. #1 SLC
    September 15, 2006

    This is just another example of the decline in journalism over the last 50 years. I can remember some 25 years ago being interviewed by New York Times science writer James Gleick on the theory of traffic flow. Two weeks later, I received a call from his editor who read back to me parts of the story he had written to confirm that I had been correctly quoted. She also read back other portions he had written to check for scientific accuracy. I remarked that I would not expect our local paper, the Washington Post, to perform such a check. Today, given the Times appointing an individual totally ignorant of science to report on the Dover trial and other scientific topics, I would certainly not expect such a scenario to unfold. If the Times, long considered tha paper of record, has gone to pot, one can only imagine the extent to which other news outlets have decayed. The article by scientific ignoramus Easterbrook only confirms my suspicion.

  2. #2 Tommy
    September 16, 2006

    Makes you wish that there was some sort of law in place to limit science articles to actually being about science. Some people have no shame.

  3. #3 Rien
    September 16, 2006

    Very well written. I just wish everybody who read the piece in Slate would read this too. As a theoretical physicist I start to understand now what it feels like to be an evolutionary biologist.

  4. #4 Jim
    September 16, 2006

    You may appreciate an item a reposted regarding Easterbrook over on the Chimp Refuge:
    http://scienceblogs.com/bushwells/2006/09/the_problem_with_gregg_easterb.php

  5. #5 kemibe
    September 16, 2006

    Thanks, Jason. I’m not surprised that Easterbook wrote such a profoundly irrelevant and ignorant editorial, but I’m disappointed it found its way into Slate. As someone with a physics degree who has worked as a journalist, I understand how few editors are personally qualified to sniff out bullshit when it comes to something like string theory, but someone external reviewer should have taken a hard look at this, especially given Easterbrook’s reputation as a reactionary crank.

  6. #6 Barry
    September 16, 2006

    Kinsley is at fault. He’s the one who set up Slate with the faux courageous ‘contrarianism’ attitude.

  7. #7 Fred
    September 17, 2006

    I’ve got news for you: bad reporting by people who don’t know anything about the field they’re writing about happens in *every* field, whether it’s science, music, movies, politics, or, well you name it. Now, technical things like science might be a little more susceptible to it, but it really is everywhere. Possibly the only one worse than science in this regard is politics, because not only can it be difficult to understand, but these days there’s no effort on the part of writers to curb their bias.

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