Thursday, June 29, 2006

String theory isn't even wrong

A book I want to read - Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Continuing Challenge to Unify the Laws of Physics, by Peter Woit. I won't go into the details of string theory, because A) I only, vaguely, kind of get it and B) even if I did get it, it's very complicated and mathematical. Read this wikipedia entry if you like. Here's some of a review and an explanation for the title of the book:

Peter Woit, a mathematician at Columbia University, has challenged the entire string-theory discipline by proclaiming that its topic is not a genuine theory at all and that many of its exponents do not understand the complex mathematics it employs. String theory, he avers, has become a form of science fiction. Hence his book’s title, Not Even Wrong: an epithet created by Wolfgang Pauli, an irascible early 20th-century German physicist. Pauli had three escalating levels of insult for colleagues he deemed to be talking nonsense: “Wrong!”, “Completely wrong!” and finally “Not even wrong!”. By which he meant that a proposal was so completely outside the scientific ballpark as not to merit the least consideration.

I object to string theory as a science on the basis of its lack of falsifiability; in theory even, it cannot be tested. This is one of the main objections cited in Woit's book (according to the review). I wouldn't describe it a science fiction, as Woit does, but rather a metaphysical branch of physics; string theorists are actually mathematically inclined philosophers, rather than physicists. However, personally I give it more credence than other metaphysical beliefs for the fundamentals of the universe, precisely because it is a mathematically elegant way of (potentially) unifying physics. Apart from lack of falsifiability, it does actually fulfil the criteria of a scientific theory - but this lack of falsifiability is its ultimate failing.

Here is one of Woit's other main objections to string theory, again according to the review:

…the domination of string theory in universities has stifled progress in alternative research programmes within theoretical physics. As long as the leadership of the physics community refuses to accept that string theory is a “failed project”, he writes, “there is little likelihood of new ideas finding fertile ground in which to grow”.

Put this way we are getting close to an Argument to Consequences. We accept the success or failure of string theory on its own worthiness, not on whether string theory research stifles other areas of research. This might be an unfortunate side effect of the popularity of string theory, but says nothing of its "truthiness" and is not a good reason to object to its "wrongness" or "rightness".

I hazard guess that Woit's objection at this point isn't actually an argument against the truth or not of string theory. It isn't, therefore, really a fallacious argument to consequences. A fallacious version would be something like - string theory isn't true because physics research monies would be better spent on alternative, testable theories. However, sometimes a non-example of a fallacy serves as a good illustration of the fallacy.

(Review via Maggie's Farm.)

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