Have a look at this article from the current New Yorker. It focuses on the recent anti-string theory books from Lee Smolin and Peter Woit. The article provides a decent summary of Smolin’s and Woit’s views, but it is seriously marred by the lack of any contrary views of the matter. The views expressed by Smolin and Woit appear to be in the minority among physicists generally. From reading this article you would have no idea why that is.
For example, the article includes paragraphs like this:
The usual excuse offered for sticking with what increasingly looks like a failed program is that no one has come up with any better ideas for unifying physics. But Smolin and Woit have a different explanation, one that can be summed up in the word “sociology.” Both are worried that academic physics has become dangerously like what the social constructivists have long charged it with being: a community that is no more rational or objective than any other group of humans. String theorists dominate the country’s top physics departments. At the Institute for Advanced Study, the director and nearly all of the particle physicists with permanent positions are string theorists. Eight of the nine MacArthur fellowships awarded to particle physicists over the years have gone to string theorists. Since the fall-off in academic hiring in the nineteen-seventies, the average age of tenured physics professors has reached nearly sixty. Every year, around eighty people receive Ph.D.s in particle physics, but only around ten of them can expect to get permanent jobs in the field. In this hypercompetitive environment, the only hope for a young theoretical physicist is to curry favor by solving a set problem in string theory. “Nowadays,” one established figure in the field has said, “if you’re a hot-shot young string theorist you’ve got it made.”
Both authors also detect a cultlike aspect to the string-theory community, with Witten as the guru. Perhaps, it has been joked, physicists might have an easier time getting funding from the Bush Administration if they represented string theory as a “faith-based initiative.” Smolin deplores what he considers to be the shoddy scientific standards that prevail in the string-theory community, where long-standing but unproved conjectures are assumed to be true because “no sensible person” – that is, no member of the trib – -doubts them. The most hilarious recent symptom of string theory’s lack of rigor is the so-called Bogdanov Affair, in which French twin brothers, Igor and Grichka Bogdanov, managed to publish egregiously nonsensical articles on string theory in five peer-reviewed physics journals. Was it a reverse Sokal hoax? (In 1996, the physicist Alan Sokal fooled the editors of the postmodern journal Social Text into publishing an artful bit of drivel on the “hermeneutics of quantum gravity.”) The Bogdanov brothers have indignantly denied it, but even the Harvard string-theory group was said to be unsure, alternating between laughter at the obviousness of the fraud and hesitant concession that the authors might have been sincere.
Incendiary claims, and ones I’m sure most physicists would reject. But in the article the views of Smolin and Hoit are presented entirely uncritically.
As an outsider looking in, I would want to know how physicists respond to these charges. After all, creationists level precisely the same charges against university biology departments (that they are ruled by dogmatic Darwinists yada yada). And in that context I know the charge is bogus. I suspect the same is true here. Physicists are not receiving professorships at prestigious institutions merely for expressing their support for string theory. They are receiving them because they have made significant contributions to our understanding of important open questions.
Smolin in particular has been receiving a lot of uncritical press attention lately. I wish we would see more in the way of replies from string theory supporters. I know that Brian Greene recently debated Smolin on NPR’s Science Friday. Sadly, the transcript does not seem to be freely available online.
At any rate, the New Yorker article is worth reading despite the lack of balance. It is likely to be old news to people who follow these things closely, but it provides a nice run-down of the issues nevertheless.