Debating the String Theory Debate

Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll has a thoughtful post on whether the increasingly public debate about string theory implies it demise, or rather why it doesn’t. The post has proved a lot of responses.

have a long-percolating post that I hope to finish soon (when everything else is finished!) on “Why String Theory Must Be Right.” Not because it actually must be right, of course; it’s an hypothesis that will ultimately have to be tested against data. But there are very good reasons to think that something like string theory is going to be part of the ultimate understanding of quantum gravity, and it would be nice if more people knew what those reasons were.

Of course, it would be even nicer if those reasons were explained (to interested non-physicists as well as other physicists who are not specialists) by string theorists themselves. Unfortunately, they’re not. Most string theorists (not all, obviously; there are laudable exceptions) seem to not deem it worth their time to make much of an effort to explain why this theory with no empirical support whatsoever is nevertheless so promising. (Which it is.) Meanwhile, people who think that string theory has hit a dead end and should admit defeat — who are a tiny minority of those who are well-informed about the subject — are getting their message out with devastating effectiveness.

The latest manifestation of this trend is this video dialogue on, featuring science writers John Horgan and George Johnson. (Via Not Even Wrong.) Horgan is explicitly anti-string theory, while Johnson is more willing to admit that it might be worthwhile, and he’s not really qualified to pass judgment. But you’ll hear things like “string theory is just not a serious enterprise,” and see it compared to pseudoscience, postmodernism, and theology. (Pick the boogeyman of your choice!)