I don’t know why I haven’t read any of Lee Smolin’s physics books prior to this year, but I haven’t. Maybe blame my obsession with Sean Carroll. In any case, I’ve been reading The Trouble with Physics (The Literature [R175]), which is about string theory and string theorists. Smolin finds it troubling that the string theorist subculture in physics shows some signs of groupthink and authoritarianism. Perhaps elder worship too.
I came across this list of attributes, conceived by Smolin, of the ‘sociology’ of the string-theorist contingent:
1. Tremendous self-confidence, leading to a sense of entitlement and of belonging to an elite community of experts.
2. An unusually monolithic community, with a strong sense of consensus, whether driven by the evidence or not, and an unusual uniformity of views on open questions. These views seem related to the existence of a hierarchical structure in which the ideas of a few leaders dictate the viewpoint, strategy, and direction of the field.
3. In some cases, a sense of identification with the group, akin to identification with a religious faith or political platform.
4. A strong sense of the boundary between the group and other experts.
5. A disregard for and disinterest in the ideas, opinions, and work of experts who are not part of the group, and a preference for talking only with other members of the community.
6. A tendency to interpret evidence optimistically, to believe exaggerated or incorrect statements of results, and to disregard the possibility that the theory might be wrong. This is coupled with a tendency to believe results are true because they are “widely believed,” even if one has not checked (or even seen) the proof oneself.
7. A lack of appreciation for the extent to which a research program ought to involve risk.Lee Smolin, The Trouble with Physics, 2006 [The Literature 175].
In graduate school, Smolin became disillusioned with the physics stars of the day. He was saved by meeting with the famous Paul Feyerabend, a philosopher of science. Feyerabend’s basic message was that you have to fight for your ideas, you have to fight for what you believe. “Yes the academic world is screwed up, and there’s nothing you can do about it. But don’t worry about that. Just do what you want. If you know what you want to do, and advocate for it, no one will put any energy into stopping you.”
And so Lee lived by that, and succeeded. But not forever. When the string theorists’ groupthink was ascendant, he decided that something has to change.
Go read the book if you want to know more. I find the book relevant to the current situation in signal processing, but it is also a fascinating look into the world of the best physicists of our time.