Physics Catfight!

There’s a kerfuffle in the physics blogosphere these days over the somewhat arcane issue of TrackBacks to posts on the ArXiV, the commual preprint server where researchers can post drafts of the papers that they have submitted to research journals (or, if they’re working in high energy physics, post a paper and then call it a day, without bothering with print publication).

They’ve relatively recently begun accepting TrackBack links from certain blogs– but only certain blogs. Raise your hand if you think that this is likely to cause a problem at some point… Now, take that hand, and pat yourself on the back, because you’re smarter than a string theorist.

There’s a relatively impartial summary at Cosmic Variance. The central figure in the issue is noted anti-string contrarian Peter Woit, and what’s prompted my post is a recent explanation by Jacques Distler. As you might expect from the list of particpants, nobody involved has exactly covered themselves in glory. I’ll put the sordid details behind the cut.

When you get down to it, I’m with Sean Carroll on this: Peter Woit’s criticisms of string theory often border on the unhinged, but he’s not a complete crackpot. He has strong opinions, and expresses them strongly, but then, there are well-known and apparently respected string theorists who make Woit look like Miss Manners when it comes to interacting with those they don’t agree with. There’s no reasonable basis for banning Woit on the grounds of general jackassery.

The really remarkable thing, though, is Distler’s explanation of how the current standards were arrived at:

One’s first thought is: why not use the same endorsement mechanism used for paper submission? Unfortunately, the experience of the moderation system is that endorsement is not a terribly high barrier to entry. Some endorsers are rather loose in endorsing people to submit papers and one can only imagine that they would be even looser in endorsing people to submit trackbacks. In the case of papers, the second-stage filter of moderation is clearly necessary. But we had already decided that there would be no such second stage in the case of trackbacks.

It is also vital to have a reasonably objective standard. “This looks like an interesting weblog.” was not going to be a workable criterion. Nor would any number of other subjective criteria.

Things are already a little problematic here, as they’re clearly casting around for some criterion that will provide a “high barrier to entry.” But there are a lot of real crackpots out there, and TrackBack spammers and the like, so that’s not necessarily a problem. We hit the problem in the next paragraph:

The solution which was adopted, in the end, was that trackbacks would be accepted if they come from active researchers. It’s not particularly hard to figure out who’s an active researcher: just look at their publications. Exactly what level of activity counts as “active” is an issue. Wherever you draw the line, there will be borderline cases that require a judgement-call.

This is the point at which my jaw hits the keyboard– nmbhdgkncv. Are you people out of your minds? This is the “objective” system you came up with? You’re going to designate people “Active researchers” on the fairly arbitrary judgement of the ArXiv board, and only those who are “active” will be allowed to post TrackBacks? Are you trying to cause problems?

When you say “objective,” I’m thinking of things like, say, “holding a position at a college, university, or research lab.” That’s something easy to verify, and undeniably objective– either you’ve got the right kind of job, or you don’t. Maybe you get into trouble with people claiming faculty appointments at diploma mills, but you can rely on accreditation by some external body to sort those out. There’s no judgement call there.

Having the ArXiv board decide who is and isn’t an “active researcher” is just insane, if the goal is actually to avoid controversy. Not only is the closed-group nature of the decision ample fodder for conspiracy theorists, just the name is a disaster. If you’re going to be insulting, why not go all the way, and just call your approved posters “Really Smart People”?

Really, this policy is so stupid, it had to be the work of a committee. It takes a lot of smart people working together to miss something so bloody obvious.

I don’t really have a dog in this fight– I find many string theorists downright insufferable, but if I had Peter Woit hounding me, I’d probably be looking for ways to get rid of him, too. If have to say, though, that the explanation Jacques gives is enough to put me firmly on Woit’s side– maybe it’s just extremely badly worded, but as he presents it, this sounds like an incredibly obnoxious policy.

This is compounded by the fact that I can’t quite see what the problem is that it’s trying to solve (other than “keep Peter Woit from annoying us”). What do you gain from turning TrackBacks on if you’re going to limit them to an extremely restricted group of people? Isn’t the whole point of the enterprise to broaden the pool of people talking about physics?

If you’re going to allow TrackBacks at all, it seems to run counter to the spirit of the whole thing to restrict their posting so tightly. If you’re that concerned about granting the ArXiv imprimatur to lunatics with weblogs, then shut TrackBacks down completely, or come up with some better standard than this “active researcher” lunacy (if nothing else, a clearly defined threshold number of papers used to determine “active” status)– and publish the standard, for God’s sake. The whole stupid situation was made even worse by having the standards known only to people on the ArXiv board, and not clearly set forth where people trying to post TrackBacks could see it.

Comments

  1. #1 Aaron Bergman
    March 6, 2006

    I think you’re reading too much into this. The question of whether or not someone is an active researcher isn’t supposed to be much of a judgment call; it’s just whether they’re actively publishing or not.

  2. #2 Rob Knop
    March 6, 2006

    Myself, I’d rather not post something to arXiv.org (which was much more colorful when we referred to it as xxx.lanl.gov — sounded naughty) until it’s *accepted* by a journal.

    Indeed, I see that as the only real useful purpose journals serve anymore– the refereeing, and thereby granting of the stamp of “this probably isn’t completely looney and might be worth reading” to a paper. Yeah, the typesetting makes it look better, but preprints are readable, and arxiv.org makes the journals unnecessary for the actual distribution of papers. A pity that our libraries are going broke trying to keep up with journals; *that*, to me, seems counter to the spirit of the scientific enterprise.

    But, back to the point: I know some (usually older) scientists who will have no truck with arxiv.org at all. They only look for what is published in the journals, in the journals themselves. Me, I like arxiv.org, but generally look only for accepted papers (unless it’s something I can’t ignore, or is from authors I know well enough to respect). Allowing *blogs*, which the (generally older) scientists will think are part of the frothing ignorant huddledy-puddledy young kids ranting on the internet, to have trackbacks, will only enahance their view of arxiv.org.

    Science *needs* refereeing. The open and free speech internet is great, but there’s all kinds of insane crap out there. (From the Discovery Institute on down.) We need some “journals” that indicate that, yes, this paper has been peer reviewed. We also need a rapid way to get research papers out there. arxiv.org has managed to straddle things in a way to be useful, although perhaps not as I’d do it (but what the heck). If they risk too much glorying in the “free speech” nature of the Internet, they will lose what sets them apart.

    -Rob

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    March 6, 2006

    I think you’re reading too much into this. The question of whether or not someone is an active researcher isn’t supposed to be much of a judgment call; it’s just whether they’re actively publishing or not.

    I think that if you wanted to design a system whereby you would guarantee that you would have exactly the problem they’re having now, you couldn’t do much better than what Jacques describes.

    I mean, what counts as “actively publishing?” Woit has two papers on the ArXiv, so obviously two isn’t a large enough number, but what is the number? Five? Ten? Is there a time limit?

    And do the papers have to be on the ArXiv? I’ve got a bunch of papers to my name, but only two are on the ArXiv, because I’m from a different sub-field, and we haven’t traditionally done business by pre-prints.

    For that matter, do the papers need to be relevant? Say I’ve got ten recent papers published in atomic physics– am I allowed to post TrackBacks on string theory articles? Can Jacques post TrackBacks to atomic physics articles? Or can you only post to articles in sub-fields that you’ve published in? (And, if so, how is that less work than hand-vetting the TrackBacks?)

    Really, once you start restricting who can post at all, you open a can of worms that’s better left un-opened. And when you base the restriction on vague and unpublished criteria about who counts as “active,” well, you’re pretty much throwing handfuls of worms all around the room.

  4. #4 Aaron Bergman
    March 6, 2006

    As you say, the whole thing is a can of worms no matter what you do. I don’t know if the trackpack moderation distinguished among the various subarchives or not. It’s also worth clarifying whether publications means putting stuff up on the archive or actually getting it published. Still, once you clarify these things, it doesn’t seem nearly as subjective to me as you make it out to be.

  5. #5 Moshe
    March 6, 2006

    Scenario A: After writing a paper I am notified there is some discussion of it going on, I find a few of my colleagues are interested in the paper, have a useful tedchnical discussion, everyone is happy.

    Scenario B: After writing a paper I go to the trackback page and discover 50 different trackbacks. After clicking on two of them and discovering the same old “teach the controversy” discussion going on, I give up.

    Finding a system to control the noise level is tricky, but Jacques is actively soliciting advice, maybe you can come up with something better.

  6. #6 Chad Orzel
    March 6, 2006

    Scenario A: After writing a paper I am notified there is some discussion of it going on, I find a few of my colleagues are interested in the paper, have a useful tedchnical discussion, everyone is happy.

    Scenario B: After writing a paper I go to the trackback page and discover 50 different trackbacks. After clicking on two of them and discovering the same old “teach the controversy” discussion going on, I give up.

    This is probably related to the purpose of blogging argument I had with Jacques a while ago. If the point is just to enable useful technical discussions with colleagues, why use TrackBack and blogs? You know who these people are, they know who you are– you can email each other, or just read each other’s blogs on a regular basis.

    The whole point of using TrackBack and weblogs, it seems to me, ought to be to broaden the conversation. That seems to be largely defeated by restricting TrackBack posting to the usual suspects.

    It seems to me that this really ought to be an all-or-nothing deal, or nearly so. Either you allow TrackBacks from a wide range of sites, or you don’t allow them at all. Setting up a system where a small group of people use poorly defined and unpublicized criteria to decide what small group of people are worthy of the right to comment is just inviting exactly the mess they’ve now gotten into.

    However good the intentions may have been, the people running the ArXiv now look exactly like the worst sort of cacricature of arrogant string theorists. They’ve made it look like Peter Woit has a good point when he rails against the string establishment.

  7. #7 Moshe
    March 6, 2006

    Some further comments:

    (It seems to me that this really ought to be an all-or-nothing deal, or nearly so…)

    Indeed, I think that blogs can have many purposes, for some of them (e.g. outreach) being inclusive is a virtue, for others it is not.

    (Setting up a system where a small group of people use poorly defined and unpublicized criteria…)

    Agreed, hence the call for feedback seems like a good idea.

    (look exactly like the worst sort of cacricature of arrogant string theorists…)

    Conspiracy theories are just so juicy, there is really nothing one can do to prevent at least some people from subscribing to them. I say let them be.

  8. #8 Aaron Bergman
    March 6, 2006

    Very few of the ArXiV advisory board are string theorists, so I’m not sure what this has to do with the “string establishment”.

  9. #9 Chris Oakley
    March 6, 2006

    Trackbacks are of course not the real issue here. The real issue is that PW wants to demonstrate publicly that String theorists are a closed shop, and an arrogant one at that. They are playing right into his hands.

  10. #10 Matthew
    March 6, 2006


    The real issue is that PW wants to demonstrate publicly that String theorists are a closed shop, and an arrogant one at that. They are playing right into his hands.

    Except, as Jacques points out in his post, the bigest source of trackbacks is John Baez, who has frequently critized string theory.

    Overall I think Chad has it right, it’s pretty much an all or nothing issue. You either permit trackbacks from a wide spectrum of people, or you turn them off. As it stands right now I don’t think they serve much purpose.

  11. #11 Skwid
    March 6, 2006

    I think you’re all missing the truly important thing, here, which is Chad’s massively deformed jaw. You should have that looked at, man!

  12. #12 Peter Woit
    March 6, 2006

    I’ve posted my comments on the “active researcher” business on Jacques’s blog. The relevant point here is that I very much consider myself an active researcher, and that Jacques’s attempt to claim I’m not has exactly the kind of problems that Chad notes.

    Matthew,

    Out of curiosity I’ve been checking the “recent trackbacks” page regularly to see what sites trackbacks are allowed to. I’ve seen very few trackbacks to Baez’s stuff, the bulk of the hep-th ones have been to the two blogs run by Jacques. Baez has written a few TWFs that contain a very large number of links to arXiv papers, so perhaps he actually does have the largest number of links. But I’m pretty sure Jacques’s two blogs have by far the largest number of blog postings that have links back to them from hep-th trackbacks.

    Aaron,

    Since I gather that your job depends on Jacques’s good will, you might want to consider that you have no credibility here arguing his side of this case.

  13. #13 Ponderer of THings
    March 6, 2006

    Agree with Chad – allow all trackbacks. In fact, arxiv should allow open postings from anyone, there should be no “active researcher” criterion. Whether or not someone is a crackpot, and whether or not a certain publication has any merit should be decided by each person individually.

    Are we to believe that Arxiv is flooded with trackbacks from crackpots?

  14. #14 Kate Nepveu
    March 6, 2006

    Peter Woit:

    I have known Aaron for ten years, and while he is many things, he is not a sockpuppet.

    Based on your comment, I believe that I have more relevant knowledge on the subject of Aaron’s motives and credibility than you. It would be courteous of you to retract your suggestion that he is only participating in this discussion to further his career.

  15. #15 Aaron Bergman
    March 6, 2006

    My job doesn’t depend on Jacques’s good will, and it’s rather insulting that you think I would defend or attack Jacques publicly because of employment issues. But thank you for your advice.

    That said, I think you’re confusing the phrase “active reseacher” as a proxy for meaning ‘someone who has published multiple articles in journals somewhat recently’ versus its dictionary meaning. As I understand the policy, it refers to the former, not the latter. This does, for example, exclude many graduate students who may be doing “active research” but have not yet published anything.

  16. #16 A.J.
    March 6, 2006

    I’ll second Kate’s remarks. We have no reason to believe that Aaron is doing anything but speaking his own mind. In fact, he’s been quite un-diplomatic about it for the past year. You owe him an apology, Peter.

  17. #17 agm
    March 6, 2006

    And do the papers have to be on the ArXiv? I’ve got a bunch of papers to my name, but only two are on the ArXiv, because I’m from a different sub-field, and we haven’t traditionally done business by pre-prints.

    Funny, after seeing Distler’s post (Mixed States is just the best thing since Crooked Timber, ain’t it!), I finally wandered over to the arxiv. A few minutes to figure out the interface, another 20-30 to browse through the available papers for space physics (all papers returned by using the subject-class space physics on the advanced search page for all years). Another 5 minutes chuckling because you can barely read a couple of months worth of paper titles in JGR (A, ever since they broke it up by area) or GRL. Not abstracts, titles. This really is a subfield-dependent thing, isn’t it? Rather like whether one prefers football, futbol, or cricket…

    The cross-field trackback thing is extremely easy to fix under at least one scenario. If you restrict trackbacks to those who hacve submitted papers to the arxiv, then you just set up a filter that only allows one to post a trackback to preprints with same subject-class as their own preprints. If nothing else, it’s an idea to toy with.

  18. #18 Peter Woit
    March 6, 2006

    My apologies to Aaron.

    As you all might guess, I’m not exactly in a good mood today. Spent most of it in an extremely long committee meeting reading application folders, the rest of it writing a long defense of my credentials as an active researcher. If I wasn’t wasting my time on this, I could be writing articles and maybe I could then get to be an “active researcher” in the Distler/Bergman sense.

    But Aaron, you’re being rather dense here. You’re telling us that “active researcher” doesn’t mean what the dictionary says it means. That’s nice, but then what does it mean? Distler isn’t telling, read my response to him at his blog and start telling me the answers to my questions. He won’t.

    You are making a guess as to what Distler’s definition of “active researcher” is, and maybe your guess is better than other people’s since he’s your colleague and maybe you’ve discussed this issue with him. Your guess seems to be that Distler’s definition is:

    “someone who has published multiple articles in journals somewhat recently”

    Well, OK, but what is “multiple”? Two, three or more? What is somewhat recently? One month? One year? One decade? Two decades? Are you really sure about the “journal” part? I’m not the only one around who doesn’t see much point in the journals these days and would rather just post to the arXiv. Is anyone who decides to do this no longer an “active researcher”.

    Sorry, Aaron, but whole story has nothing to do with the “active researcher” red herring, and everything to do with Distler’s attitude towards my scientific views.

    By the way, I just checked the arXiv “latest trackbacks” page. Congratulations, Chad, you’re an “active researcher”! (at least for now, or until Distler reads this blog posting)

    But don’t feel that this is too much of an honor, the proprietor of superconducting.blogspot.com is also an “active researcher”. Hard to tell who that is, but e-mail to the blog seems to go to Douglas Bard, who doesn’t seem to have any articles on arXiv.org. Anyone know if he’s the blogger and why he gets to be an “active researcher”?

  19. #19 Aaron Bergman
    March 6, 2006

    I’ve told you what I think the policy is. It’s not a completely precise guess, but it’s all I have.

    Is this the criterion I might have chosen? I don’t know. Given the constraints involved, it is not easy to come up with a completely objective policy that would satisfy everyone involved (which includes more than just the people who have been discussing it here on the internets).

    Finally, speaking as someone who knows Jacques, I want to add that I don’t think he’s the person that you seem to think he is. I don’t know whether you’ll believe me or not, but there it is.

  20. #20 Chad Orzel
    March 6, 2006

    That said, I think you’re confusing the phrase “active reseacher” as a proxy for meaning ‘someone who has published multiple articles in journals somewhat recently’ versus its dictionary meaning. As I understand the policy, it refers to the former, not the latter.

    That’s exactly why it’s a disastrously stupid term to use. If you’re going to say that only “active researchers” are allowed to post, people are going to assume that those not allowed to post are either inactive or not researchers, and many of them will take offense. I’d be offended, if I were blocked on these grounds.

  21. #21 Peter Woit
    March 6, 2006

    Aaron,

    A perfect trackback policy is undoubtedly unachievable, but it really isn’t that hard to come up with a reasonable one. The arXiv has a long history of contending with this and after much experience ended up with the “endorser” system. Any sort of simple variant on that should work here. Distler’s excuse that this won’t work because there will be endorsers for people who don’t deserve to be endorsed is exceedingly lame. The arXiv actually did contact at least one prominent scientist who endorsed trackbacks to my blog. They then decided that endorsement was not the way to go in this case. Funny, that.

    I’ve never talked to Jacques in person, perhaps you’re right that he’s a reasonable, ethical guy in general. But in his case and that of a minority of string theorists that I’ve dealt with, their reaction to public scientific criticism of the ideas they’re working on has been exceedingly unprofessional.

  22. #22 Chris Oakley
    March 7, 2006

    Just to say that I concur with Kate and A.J.

    I have never met Aaron but have been involved in a lot of internet discussions involving him. He is of course a String Theorist, and Strings are something that I think are unlikely to solve any physics problems, so there is a disagreement here. However I have never once had cause to doubt his integrity.

  23. #23 Barry
    March 7, 2006

    I’d say that it’s not the number of trackbacks, but some system for differentiating them – those who post documents to a specific sub-field, to the field, to arXiv, or none of the above.

  24. #24 Peter Woit
    March 8, 2006

    In case anyone isn’t tired of watching this particular catfight, I’ve updated my blog posting to include some analysis of the curious phenomenon of stone throwing by a certain glass-house-dweller.

    OK, this is catty behavior on my part. I’m sorry, I just can’t help myself in this case….

  25. #25 Matti Pitkanen
    March 10, 2006

    I think that the trackback issue is much less serious than the censorship against posting to arXiv which in practice means a professional death.

    For a decade it become impossible for me to post anything to Physics Archives. Mathematical Subject Classification Tables of American Mathematical Society has alink to my homepage about Topological Geometrodynamics in the section devoted to Mathematics of Quantum Theory. Recently I was invited in to Marguis Who’s Who in Science and Engineering. One might think that on this basis I should not be regarded as a non-crackpot by any person possessing IQ above 100 but the wise men in the board seem to think differently.

    Certainly I am not the only one. There is large number of active researchers publishing in refereed journals who suffer arXiv.org censorship

    Matti Pitkanen

  26. #26 Jack Sarfatti
    March 16, 2006

    http://arxiv.org/abs/gr-qc/0602022 14th version including comment on the George Ellis astro-ph/0603266

    Title: Emergent Gravity: String Theory Without String Theory
    Authors: Jack Sarfatti
    Comments: This 14th version corrects typos. It also addresses allegations of Waldyr Rodrigues Jr that do not apply to this version. George Ellis’s objection to Leonard Susskind’s theory of accessing information beyond the different types of horizons is addressed in a way that probably neither will accept, i.e. Antony Valentini’s “signal nonlocality” from the breakdown of “sub-quantal equilibrium” Born probability in emergent macro-quantum condensates with stiff long-range phase coherence

    The inflation field is generalized as a local field with eight Goldstone phases if the Lorentz group is spontaneously broken in the vacuum in addition to an internal symmetry group in the Planck era inflation quantum vacuum ODLRO phase transition. This permits the emergence of the Einstein Cartan tetrad field with the six extra dimensions of the Calabi Yau space associated with a massive torsion field when the full Poincare group is locally gauged. These conjectures also lead naturally to the quantization of area, the world hologram and the prediction that both the LHC and any other DM detectors imaginable will never find any legitimate dark matter particles as a matter of fundamental principle. The dark matter Cambridge estimate of a virial speed of 9km/sec is questioned.

  27. #27 Gregory Scott Callen
    April 23, 2006

    If you’re an Engineer you are to limit your studies well within the boundaries of current human understanding, the practical, the intelligible. If you run across an idea that you haven’t seen before, you should protect the idea, patent the idea, make and market it.

    If you’re a Physicist you are ask to limit your job to the atomic scale or the cosmic scale, far outside the boundaries of current human understanding, the unknown, the impractical. If you should run across an idea that you haven’t seen before, your job is to determine if the idea is valid or invalid.

    If you’re a Plagiarist you publish other peoples work as if it was all your idea, you don’t give the original creator any credit at all. You make all the money someone else deserved. If you are found out, it isn’t very likely they will be able to prove you stole it. You can say, “Parallel Development” or “The time was right.” or “It was obvious.”

    If you are a Book Burner running a blog (like physicsforums.com, sciam.com, or crichton-official.com) you can delete anything you want to and there isn’t anything anybody can do about it!

    With that said…

    Newton: B = GMm/r/r
    Einstein: E = Mcc
    Coulomb: A = KQq/r/r

    Callen: H = E*A/B = LQq/m
    L = Kcc/G = 1.21e37(Kilograms*meters/Coulombs/seconds)^2

    Is this valid?

  28. #28 Gregory Scott Callen
    April 30, 2006

    If the internet is just a google sever network and what we’re talking about is a bunch of text and pixels then let the crackpots say their piece. Index it, categorize it, hell compress it, but don’t delete it.

    Life is too short, the hard dive is too big, the Earth is too fragile, and why can’t we, each of us, get our words published somewhere; even if, it’s from a crackpot!

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