Sunday, September 17, 2006

Pull the string

Provocative (and rather ironic) review in the Economist (subscription only) of two books criticising the dominance of string theory in modern physics. String theory, it is argued, is simply bad science - there's too many different versions of the core theory from which theorists can pick and choose according to circumstance, it's over-dependent on mathematics rather than experimentation or observation, it's too easily retro-engineered to fit new discoveries but has little or no predictive power, and it's just plain unfalsifiable, putting it closer to metaphysics than actual physics.

However, the biggest problem, both authors believe, is that string theorists have promoted their subject aggressively, often taking the best jobs in universities and blocking the advancement of physicists who would seek to use other means to unify the laws of physics. As string theory involves intricate mathematics, the barrier to entry into its community is high. The very difficulty in overcoming this barrier makes it hard for those who have gained entry to leave. The self-interest of string theorists is thus stifling physics.
[Lee] Smolin argues that the insularity of the theoretical physics community leaves it vulnerable to “groupthink”, a term coined to explain how many intelligent like-minded people can nevertheless be catastrophically wrong.

So where's the irony? It's that all these accusations could, with very little modification, be levelled at academic and applied economics, and the dominance of econometric-heavy neo-classical theory (and its pretensions towards the status of science). Except in that field, the good old Economist seems a lot less sceptical.

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