Just Say No to Fairytale Science

Terry Pratchett was one, if not my all time, favorite author. Luckily for me, he was also one of the most prolific ones, creating an incredible rich, hilarious yet endearing universe, populated with the most unlikely yet humane characters. What drew me in, when I started reading his books twenty years ago, was his uncanny sense for the absurdities of modern physics. Therefor it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that he also wrote the best popular science book there is. To honor the man, and mark his passing, I republish this post from 2013.

ScienceUntil recently, there was no competition if I were to be asked what popular science book I’d recommend to a non-physicist.   It was always Terry Pratchett’s The Science of Discworld. It comes with a healthy dose of humor and makes no qualms about the fact that any popularized version of modern physics essentially boils down to “lies to children”.





But there is now a new contender, one that I can highly recommend:  Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth. This book does an excellent job of retelling how we got to the current state in theoretical physics, that quantum computing theorist Scott Aaronson described this way:


ROTFL! Have you looked recently at beyond-Standard-Model theoretical physics? It’s a teetering tower of conjectures (which is not to say, of course, that that’s inherently bad, or that I can do better). However, one obvious difference is that the physicists don’t call them conjectures, as mathematicians or computer scientists would. Instead they call them amazing discoveries, striking dualities, remarkable coincidences, tantalizing hints … once again, lots of good PR lessons for us! 🙂

This was in a comment to his recent blog post where he has some fun with Nima Arkani-Hamed’s Amplituhedron. The latter is actually some of the more interesting results I have seen come out of mainstream theoretical physics, because it actually allows us to calculate something in a much more straightforward manner than before. That this is currently unfortunately restricted to the scope of an unphysical toy theory is all you need to know to understand how far current theoretical physics has ventured from actual verifiability by experiment.

For those who want to dig deeper and understand where to draw the line between current established physics and fairytale science, Jim Baggot’s book is a one stop shop.  It is written in a very accessible manner and does a surprisingly good job in explaining what has been driving theoretical physics, without recourse to any math.

At the beginning, the author describes what prompted him to write the book: one too many of those fanciful produced science shows, with lots of CGI and dramatic music, that presents String theory as established fact.  Catching himself yelling at the TV (I’ve been there), he decided to do something about it, and his book is the pleasant result.  I am confident it will inoculate any alert reader to the pitfalls of fairytale science and equip him (or her) with a critical framework to ascertain what truthiness to assign to various theoretical physics conjectures (in popular science fare they are, of course, never referenced as such, as Scott correctly observed).

This isn’t the first book that addresses this issue.  Peter Woit’s Not Even Wrong took it on, at a time when calling out String theory was a rather unpopular stance, but the timing for another book in this vein that addresses a broad lay public is excellent.  As Baggott wrote his book, it was already apparent that CERN’s LHR did not pick up any signs in support of SUSY and string theory.  Theorists have been long in denial about these elaborately constructed castles in the sky, but the reality seems to be slowly seeping in.

The point is that the scientific mechanism for self-correction needs to reassert itself.  It’s not that SUSY and String theory didn’t produce some remarkable mathematical results.  They just didn’t produce actual physics (although in unanticipated ways the Amplituhedron may get there). Trying to spin away this failure is doing science a massive disfavor. Let’s hope theoretical physicists take a cue from the the quantum computing theorists and clearly mark their conjectures. It’ll be a start.

Alternatively, they could always present the theory as it is done in this viral video.  At least then it will be abundantly clear that this is more art than science (h/t Rolf D.):

14 thoughts on “Just Say No to Fairytale Science

  1. I read Jim Baggot’s book while on holiday recently. I agree that it is a good read. The best thing about the book is that he enters into the spirit of some of these utterly wild conjectures. That enables the reader to travel the full distance of how high the Tower of Babylon goes in terms of conjecture-on-conjecture.

    I think it is natural for folks to overreach some in their quest to understand Nature. Baggot has both a fine command of the underlying material and a deep appreciation of the driving sociology.

    Personally, I think these theories are garbage. However, they are the kind of garbage which will only make the simple truth smell that much sweeter. In that sense, there is no harm done by the Age of Idiocy.

  2. I have enjoyed the book, too! In particular, I felt it was a rather balanced review – in contrast to what the title may imply. It is the book I would recommend to anybody who is interested in a concise introduction to the current frontier of knowledge in physics.

    Probably alternatives to string theory would have deserved more attention, but I am not an expert. I have also found Lee Smolin’s The Trouble with Physics interesting in that respect although or because it is not that balanced.

    And of course I have also shared that video 🙂

  3. Thanks for the telling about Baggot’s book. Looks something I might want to read.

    I have a theoretical physics background, but turned into software engineering because I did not feel I am good enough to contribute anything real in the field of physics.

    I had a friend in university, who went abroad for his PhD work, something to do with string theory it was. He returned after a year and took a job as a SW engineer as well. I asked why, and he told me that he thinks String Theory is nothing but ballooney: too complex and too far out.

    Well that was almost 30 years ago, and I can’t really judge.

    I still love physics and follow the field, though I have lost a lot of my tools to really understand it. However, I do think there is something wrong with popular science programs in TV. Maybe some new kind of an approach would be in order.

    1. I followed a similar trajectory. My interest was always theoretical physics but when I first encountered renormalization this thoroughly turned me off, and it only gets worse from there. So I already gravitated towards IT in my graduate years. Hopfield networks borrowed the solid state Ising model for its mathematical description, so there was a bit of an overlap between AI research and physics.

      Tried to keep abreast of physics though, after all everybody needs a hobby 🙂

  4. Henning: Glad you liked my post! But I should say for the record that I’m not nearly as hard on beyond-BSM physics as you are. There are two reasons:

    First, to my mind, saying “oh, string theory is wonderful mathematics, it’s just not physics” is an incredibly weak argument. For if something is sufficiently wonderful as mathematics, then it will probably find an application to physics anyway, even if not the same application that the originators had in mind. That’s why I’ve always been more convinced by the argument Peter Woit makes: that large parts of string theory (generally, the parts most needed to relate it to observation, such as SUSY-breaking the Landscape) are ugly and contrived even as mathematics. Conversely, my uninformed guess would be that the parts of string theory that are best as mathematics will end up telling us something about physics, even if it’s not yet clear precisely what.

    Second, if I criticize a research program, I always—ALWAYS—have in the back of my mind the question, “OK, so what can I suggest doing that would be better or more fruitful?” In the case of certain heavily-hyped approaches to quantum computing research, an obvious answer to that question presents itself: namely, more careful approaches to experimental QC (as are being pursued all over the world), which worry more about increasing the coherence times of 1 or 2 qubits and less about scaling to 500 (quasi-)qubits before there’s any clear path to a speedup. By contrast, in the case of string theory, I don’t have anything better to suggest. And that’s why string theory has always seemed to me to be more deserving of gentle ribbing (combined with genuine curiosity) than of angry denunciation.

    1. If this post comes across as an angry denunciation of String theory than I missed the mark.

      What I find worthy of denunciation is the misrepresentation of conjecture as established truth. But this is a separate issue from the question of the prospects of the String theory program. And a big aspect of this is sloppy science journalism.

      I appreciate why so many theorists headed down this yellow brick road and sympathize with their frustration. After so many years not being able to come up with a viable way to connect it back to reality is painful.

      As to suggestions of what to do better: One thing I heard several time from people who try to eek out a living as theoretical physicist, is that there are not many positions for phenomenologists. So my preference would be to see more pragmatical theoretical efforts that are closer to experiments, and revisiting of established theories and fundamentals.

      Also I still don’t like renormalization and like to see efforts to find alternative pictures to express QFT. That is why I actually find the Amplituhedron one of the more interesting things to come out of established mainstream theoretical physics. In a sense it’ll also be an example for how SUSY spawned a rather unexpected result.

  5. The Natural Philosophy Alliance may exist as a reaction to Fairy Tale Science

    Their values:
    “Observation – We most highly value scientific theories that are derived from and closely correlate with natural phenomena.

    Experiment – We value testing of hypotheses through experiment to assess theoretical predictions and evaluate scientific credibility.

    Diversity – We encourage proposal, testing and critique of new scientific theories that may improve understanding and prediction of natural structures and processes.”

    Operative part: theories that are derived from and closely correlate with natural phenomena / measurement.

    Where else can one get paid for dreaming? Even if it is couched in mathematics it is still dreaming. Perhaps the domain of psychiatry is even higher in the echelon of non-jobs.

    You guys who quit theoretical physics for IT are obviously conservatives, believing in a real days work for a days pay, whilst most of your peers are looking for top level non-jobs. 🙂

    1. Spacegoat, theoretical physics is always a labour of love and even under the best of circumstances not a financially rewarding career. Don’t think anybody ever went into String theory because it pays well 🙂

  6. Im very disappointed to see yet another promotion of some of the most demagogic, technically-inaccurate and misleading polemics that are around today in the pop-sci book category. Neither of these authors are practicing theoretical physicists and their apocalyptic view of the field is mostly due to their limited understanding, as outsiders.

    An idea is not “fairy tale science” just because it hasn’t been proven experimentally. It is the very job of theoretical physics to go beyond what has been verified by experiment, and identify viable structures that could underly the body of experimental knowledge we have, and make it more complete and coherent. The fact that media people never get anything right, and consistently fail to understand the distinction between established facts and speculation is no excuse for the campaign these people are waging against theoretical physics, and it certainly doesn’t help any interested members of the public to understand where we stand to have such an uninformed author waving their finger at theorists and shouting “Gee wiz, sounds unbelievable to me!” If it was the media that set Baggott off, as he claims, and he’s taking his frustration out on the field itself and its ideas, its clear that his response is not a rational one.

    Yes, I’m aware that much of Baggott’s book tries to “be fair” and explain why some of these ideas are attractive once you know something about the subject, but he completely fails to do the job because Baggott does not understand the subject. Among my many major substantive complaints against the book are its inability to differentiate between assumptions and predictions – an absolutely unforgivable error given that its central to this thesis. Another obvious problem is that all kinds of aspects of what is today established science would be “unfalsifiable”, “fairy tale science” by these exact same standards, including not only quantum field theory but also for example the fact that the stars are a finite distance away, measurable by parallax . Before this measurement, it was “unfalsifiable” because the distance could simply be pushed farther and farther away, in just the same way that some types of BSM physics may be pushed to higher energies, out of view. By the same token the CMB would be “unfalsifiable fairy tale science”; it turned up later, at a lower temperature than many physicists expected, but today no one cares about it being “potentially unfalsifiable” according to some completely impractical standard, because its part of reality that we measure all the time. In the same way, we could easily discover SUSY or strings at the next LHC run or at a future collider, in which case all of this dumb whining about the so-called unscientific nature of the ideas would be moot.

    These people, Baggott and Woit, are not scientists, they are not “skeptics”, they are not contributing anything of value. They are muddying the water and trying to confuse technical points to make their conclusions credible, to make them seem like brave warriors against a big bad conspiracy, and generally to shower disdain on the entire field of BSM physics. Its not theoretical physics that has “betrayed” the public, to use Jim’s term, its his awful book that did that.

    Please don’t rely on these partisan hacks for your information on any ideas in (speculative OR established) physics, or encourage your readers to do the same. The resulting worldview that comes out is just as warped as someone who feeds on on a healthy diet of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

    1. It seems to me you have not read the book. Baggot does not claim a conspiracy but retells in, of course abbreviated fashion, how we got to the current status. Nor does he deny that some of these theories (i.e. SUSY) may eventually be validated.

      What he IMHO rightfully points out, is that there is a clear gap in terms of experimental verification between Standard Theory and the more speculative theories. Unfortunately popular science reporting, in my experience, has been very good at building the latter up. Undeniably the tide is turning now, and the tear-down is commencing. A full-throated denunciation of Baggott won’t do to stem this tide.

      Rather than simply claiming to have “many major substantive complaints” maybe you should take the time to actually spell those out rather than to post a shoot-the-messenger demagogy.

  7. Cliff, I’m not going to comment on the issue of who has read the book or not (I certainly haven’t). For me, the thing that comes across strongest from your comments is the way that you reinforce a “them and us” divide with your assertion that you understand the subject and “they” don’t.

    This reminds me of the cyclist Mark Cavendish when he started winning stages in the Tour de France early in his career. He was totally dismissive of any questions the interviewers had, with the effect that he completely alienated a large number of his would-be-fans. His team had to have a quiet word with him to tell him how the world really worked, i.e. money flows from spectators to sponsors through advertising, hence Mark wasn’t helping.

    There are a growing number of educated people out there that have the power of sound, rational thought too yet aren’t associated with the academic establishment, for a variety of reasons. Any one of them has the potential to find something of value via their individual search. It’s happened in the past and it could happen again. Academia doesn’t have a monopoly on the truth.

    You may well be a clever guy with some really interesting things to tell us from your particular path. Please, let’s hear some of that.

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