“The Universe made me do it”

John Horgan interviews mathematician and blogger Stephen Woit on his views about the emptiness of a lot of physics these days. The problem is that “string theory”, which invokes 13 dimensions to explain what is observed, has made no predictions that can dispute or confirm it, in thirty years of theorizing.

A sample of Woit’s approach:

Horgan: Are multiverse theories not even wrong?

Woit: Yes, but that’s not the main problem with them.  Many ideas that are “not even wrong”, in the sense of having no way to test them, can still be fruitful, for instance by opening up avenues of investigation that will lead to something conventionally testable.  Most good ideas start off “not even wrong”, with their implications too poorly understood to know where they will lead.  The problem with such things as string-theory multiverse theories is that “the multiverse did it” is not just untestable, but an excuse for failure.  Instead of opening up scientific progress in a new direction, such theories are designed to shut down scientific progress by justifying a failed research program.

Horgan: What’s your take on the proposal of Nick Bostrom and others that we are living in a simulation?

Woit: I like quite a bit this comment from Moshe Rozali (at URL http://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=3208#comment-1733601): “As far as metaphysical speculation goes it is remarkably unromantic. I mean, your best attempt at a creation myth involves someone sitting in front of a computer running code? What else do those omnipotent gods do, eat pizza?”

I noticed that the normally astute Dilbert guy, Scott Adams, believes we are in a simulation. My reaction to that is the same as Woit’s. What would be the difference between a being powerful enough to create the simulation and a being powerful enough to create the universe as we see it?

Back to Woit’s interview by Horgan.

Horgan: Sean Carroll has written that falsifiability is overrated as a criterion for distinguishing science from pseudo-science? Your response?

Woit: No one thinks that the subtle “demarcation problem” of deciding what is science and what isn’t can simply be dealt with by invoking falsifiability. Carroll’s critique of naive ideas about falsifiability should be seen in context: he’s trying to justify multiverse research programs whose models fail naive criteria of direct testability (since you can’t see other universes).  This is however a straw man argument: the problem with such research programs isn’t that of direct testability, but that there is no indirect evidence for them, nor any plausible way of getting any.  Carroll and others with similar interests have a serious problem on their hands: they appear to be making empty claims and engaging in pseudo-science, with “the multiverse did it” no more of a testable explanation than “the Jolly Green Giant did it”.  To convince people this is science they need to start showing that such claims have non-empty testable consequences, and I don’t see that happening.

Woit is not the first person to be highly critical of the string theory movement. You can read more about it here in Woit’s blog called “not even wrong”.https://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=5358

There is also Lee Smolin’s book, The Trouble with Physics (2006) for more on this issue.

Eric Weinstein said of string theory on the Rubin Report that it was an employment program for baby-boomer mathematicians. He did not mean it unkindly.

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Jason Holmes

On a similar note this book – Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray by Sabine Hossenfelder

A contrarian argues that modern physicists’ obsession with beauty has given us wonderful math but bad science

Whether pondering black holes or predicting discoveries at CERN, physicists believe the best theories are beautiful, natural, and elegant, and this standard separates popular theories from disposable ones. This is why, Sabine Hossenfelder argues, we have not seen a major breakthrough in the foundations of physics for more than four decades. The belief in beauty has become so dogmatic that it now conflicts with scientific objectivity: observation has been unable to confirm mindboggling theories, like supersymmetry or grand unification, invented by physicists based on aesthetic criteria. Worse, these “too good to not be true” theories are actually untestable and they have left the field in a cul-de-sac. To escape, physicists must rethink their methods. Only by embracing reality as it is can science discover the truth.


To these eyes the lack of advance in fundamental science for the past thirty years betokens serious difficulties, as if we were against a granite wall. This ought to allow for an openness to new thinking, but the physicists keep on fiddling with string theory. Just a few more years and we shall have a testable hypothesis, they seem to say.

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