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Friday, May 31, 2013

[UPDATED] Dear Guardian: You’ve Been Played

Science News 5

[UPDATED] Dear Guardian: You’ve Been Played

A number of people have been privately asking me about the recent Guardian article (and accompanying Op-Ed by Oxford mathematician Marcus du Sautoy) gushing over a supposedly revolutionary new unified theory of physics by a man who officially left academia 20 years ago. Or, as I’ve taken to calling it, Eric Weinstein’s Amazing New Theory That Solves Every Puzzling Conundrum in Theoretical Physics Only He Hasn’t Written An Actual Paper Yet So Physicists Can’t Check All Those Hard Mathematical Details But Trust Us, It’s Gonna Be Awesome!

Ahem. First, a couple of caveats. I’ve met Weinstein. He’s a nice guy. He’s wicked smart. He knows way more math than I ever will (which admittedly is not saying much). I don’t doubt his sincerity, or that of some of his supporters, which apparently  includes Berkeley mathematician Edward Frenkel. And while I doubt his grandiose claims will be borne out once all the details emerge, he deserves to have those ideas heard, debated and evaluated (once there’s an actual paper) by his peers. But that’s so far above my pay grade, it’s a task best left to the professional physicists, who I’m sure are sharpening their knives as I type. (“Fresh meat!”)

No, my beef is with the Guardian for running the article in the first place. Seriously: why was it even written? Strip away all the purple prose and you’ve got a guy who’s been out of the field for 20 years, but still doing some dabbling on the side, who has an intriguing new idea that a couple of math professors think is promising, so he got invited to give a colloquium at Oxford by his old grad school buddy. Oh, and there’s no technical paper yet — not even a rough draft on the arxiv — so his ideas can’t even be appropriately evaluated by actual working physicists. How, exactly, does that qualify as newsworthy? Was your bullshit detector not working that day?

I’ll tell you what happened: the Guardian was seduced by the narrative offered by a man who, in his dual post as Simonyi professor for the public understanding of science, has proved himself to be highly adept at manipulating the media. It pains me to say this, since this is my field we’re talking about, but the Guardian got played, plain and simple.

Admittedly, it’s a very seductive narrative. Who doesn’t thrill to the idea of an obscure unknown genius toiling away in the shadows, snubbed by the stuffy, closed-minded academic establishment, who defies the odds and manages to achieve what all those brilliant scholars failed to do, thereby ensuring his or her scientific immortality? I love a good story! But this is science, not Good Will Hunting, and that narrative just isn’t true — or rather, it’s too simplistic.

Granted, sometimes there is such an odds-defying breakthrough, quite notably in mathematics. Ramanujam was largely self-taught and worked in isolation, and nonetheless made extraordinary contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory and infinite series. And just this last week, there was a major advance in prime numbers by a relatively obscure math professor at the University of New Hampshire who hadn’t published a paper since 2001. But by and large, most significant breakthroughs occur through established scientific channels — especially when it comes to modern cosmology and theoretical physics.

“I’m trying to promote, perhaps, a new way of doing science. Let’s start with really big ideas, let’s be brave and let’s have a discussion,” du Sautoy told The Guardian. Great idea! Except it’s not really a new way of doing science. And as Oxford cosmologist Andrew Pontzen pointed out in a New Scientist op-ed, nobody thought to invite any of the Oxford physicists.

[UPDATE 5/26/13: Pontzen emailed me over the weekend correcting his original statement: "Unfortunately this statement now turns out to be wrong. Marcus Du Sautoy did in fact think to invite the Oxford physicists, sending an email to the head of department along with A3 posters; unfortunately no-one spotted the talk because the email, unbeknown to Du Sautoy, was not widely circulated or advertised on the internal web page. Apologies to all concerned that I didn't look into this deeply enough to uncover the extra complication to the story. The remainder of my piece stands."] You know, the people most qualified to evaluate Weinstein’s work. It’s hard to have a collegial dialogue that way, especially with no technical paper on hand to provide the necessary background information. This seems more like trying to do science via press conference.
I do give props to reporter Alok Jha — whom I like and respect enormously, so this is a doubly painful post for me to write — for at least TRYING to inject some common sense into the piece, via theoretical physicists David Kaplan — who affirms that Weinstein is “serious” and not your typical crackpot, in that his theory actually exhibits coherence — and the University of Surrey’s Jim al-Khalili. [corrected spelling] Both men strike appropriate notes of caution, emphasizing that — du Sautoy’s insistence that Weinstein’s ideas “feel right” notwithstanding — ultimately, any such theory must go beyond pretty mathematics and fit the real-world data. Per al-Khalili:
“My main concern with Weinstein’s claims is that they are simply too grand – too sweeping. It would be one thing if he argued for some modest prediction that his theory was making, and importantly one that could be tested experimentally, or that it explained a phenomenon or mechanism that other theories have failed to do, but he makes the mistake of claiming too much for it.”
Credit: Sidney Harris. http://www.sciencecartoonsplus.com/index.php

Nicely put. I’d like to buy both of them a pint for their measured restraint on the record. But those qualifiers are utterly lost in the surrounding hype, such as breathlessly noting the similarity between “Weinstein” and “Einstein” — as if that means anything. (Also, as the Time Lord tartly observed on Twitter: “Pretty sure Einstein actually wrote research papers, not just gave interviews to newspapers.”)

Furthermore, the entire tail end of the article undercuts everything Kaplan and al-Khalili say by quoting du Sautoy (and, I’m sad to say, Frenkel) at length, disparaging the “Ivory Tower” of academia and touting this supposedly new, democratic way of doing physics whereby anyone with an Internet connection and a bit of gumption can play with the big boys.

It’s disingenuous — and pretty savvy, because it cuts off potential criticism at the knees. Now any physicist (or science writer) who objects to the piece can immediately be labeled a closed-minded big ol’ meanie who just can’t accept that anyone outside the Physics Club could make a worthwhile contribution.

Do I sound a little angry? It’s closer to irritation. I’m currently at a conference exploring the frontiers of cosmology and theoretical physics at the University of California, Davis, where for the past several days, some of the top physicists in the world have been vigorously debating all kinds of wildly creative, speculative, alternative ideas about inflation, dark matter, dark energy, the multiverse, string theory, and so forth, and the implications for the various theoretical models in light of the latest experimental results from the Planck mission. Two weeks ago, I was at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics for a week-long conference in which physicists grappled with fitting their theoretical models to confusing results from a number of dark matter detection experiments.

This is what truly free and open scientific discussion of brave/bold new ideas looks like. The tradition is alive and well in that stuffy old academic establishment. I’ll let Pontzen have the last word:
At what point during this long and difficult process does it become legitimate to proclaim a breakthrough? It’s a line in shifting sands, but that line has certainly been crossed. Du Sautoy – the University of Oxford’s professor of the public understanding of science, no less – has short-circuited science’s basic checks and balances. Yesterday’s shenanigans were anything but scientific.
Preach it.

ADDENDUM (5/29/13): As more details have emerged, a few other voices have chimed in over the last few days and I thought I’d link to them in this original post — rather than writing a new one — for those interested in following the ongoing discussion.

Cosmologist Richard Easther provides some insight into some potential sticking points — albeit with the most limited of information. Du Sautoy’s op-ed mentions that Weinstein’s theory posits a dynamical dark energy (cosmological constant), which is contradicted by all our observational data to date, showing a constant cosmological constant. Important point: this does not mean Weinstein’s theory is flat-out wrong and Easther (and others), as responsible scientists, are not saying that. Not until they’ve had a chance to see the details. But it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence either.

Easther points out that despite all the hyperventilated comparisons of Weinstein to Einstein, “the Swiss-German patent clerk played by the rules.” And he also has the single best take I’ve read so far on why a bit of conservatism and rectitude is a good thing when it comes to promoting cutting-edge science:
“My own favorite example of this sort of rectitude is the discovery of the microwave background, which was announced in a paper entitled ‘A Measurement of Excess Antenna Temperature at 4080 Megacycles per Second,’ as opposed to ‘We Have Discovered the Birth of the Universe, Now Can We Please Have a Nobel Prize.’ Really good work usually sells itself. Conversely, over-hyped proposals typically under-deliver.”
University of Richmond physicist Ted Bunn echoes my own concerns about how the Guardian coverage implicitly reinforces the stereotype of a hidebound academic “establishment” not open to new ideas, insisting on people following those pesky rules and procedures, which just cramp a lone genius’s style, dude! It’s The Man being all elitist and exclusive! (I am opting for snark because that’s my style; Bunn is more measured in his take.) As Peter Coles pointed out,
“I think it would be very unfortunate if this episode led to the perception that physicists feel that only established academics can make breakthroughs in their own field. There are plenty of historical examples of non-physicists having great ideas that have dramatically changed the landscape of physics; Einstein himself wasn’t an academic when he did his remarkable work in 1905. [JLP: But see Easther's earlier point about Einstein nonetheless playing by the rules.] I think we should give all theoretical ideas a fair hearing wherever they come from.”
For a curmudgeonly counter-take, Weinstein’s fellow academic outsider, the Ronin Institute’s Jon Wilkins, has a bit of harrumphing about this silly notion that one should have some kind of actual paper for one’s scientific peers to check details before giving a colloquium or whatever. I think Wilkins misunderstands the spirit of the objections in a pretty fundamental way — but read it and make your own assessment.

I haven’t seen anybody claim Weinstein shouldn’t have been invited to give a colloquium at Oxford, and had his claims been less extraordinary, I’m sure nobody would have minded if he gave some preliminary details without a paper. They’re more informal affairs, these colloquia; they should be about exciting new ideas. But given his grandiose claims, it would have been wise to have provided physicists with the gory details beforehand so they could better assess the merits and target their questions accordingly. That’s how science advances. Combine that with an ill-advised major media splash — well, that’s a recipe for a PR trainwreck, which is precisely what happened.

For my part, I’ve been especially struck by how careful every single physicist I’ve seen comment on this publicly has been to correct this misperception that the physics community is unwilling to listen to radical new ideas from outside some kind of elistist “Inner Circle.” Again, it’s an appealing narrative; that’s why this particular framing was used, to cut off any immediate objections at the knees. No doubt there are some hidebound traditionalists lurking in the Ivory Tower, but there are far more dynamic, passionately engaged physicists excited about any new revolutionary ideas that could set physics on an exciting new course — regardless of where they come from.

As always, the reality is far more nuanced.

Jennifer Ouellette About the Author: Jennifer Ouellette is a science writer who loves to indulge her inner geek by finding quirky connections between physics, popular culture, and the world at large. Follow on Twitter @JenLucPiquant.
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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