Dear Guardian: You’ve Been Played

Jennifer Oullette in her blog at Scientific American:

A number of people have been privately asking me about the recent Guardian article (and accompanying Op-Ed by Oxford mathematician Marcus du Sautoy) gushing over a supposedly revolutionary new unified theory of physics by a man who officially left academia 20 years ago. Or, as I’ve taken to calling it, Eric Weinstein’s Amazing New Theory That Solves Every Puzzling Conundrum in Theoretical Physics Only He Hasn’t Written An Actual Paper Yet So Physicists Can’t Check All Those Hard Mathematical Details But Trust Us, It’s Gonna Be Awesome!

Skeptical-cat-is-fraught-with-skepticism-300x225Ahem. First, a couple of caveats. I’ve met Weinstein. He’s a nice guy. He’s wicked smart. He knows way more math than I ever will (which admittedly is not saying much). I don’t doubt his sincerity, or that of some of his supporters, which apparently includes Berkeley mathematician Edward Frenkel. And while I doubt his grandiose claims will be borne out once all the details emerge, he deserves to have those ideas heard, debated and evaluated (once there’s an actual paper) by his peers. But that’s so far above my pay grade, it’s a task best left to the professional physicists, who I’m sure are sharpening their knives as I type. (“Fresh meat!”)

No, my beef is with the Guardian for running the article in the first place. Seriously: why was it even written? Strip away all the purple prose and you’ve got a guy who’s been out of the field for 20 years, but still doing some dabbling on the side, who has an intriguing new idea that a couple of math professors think is promising, so he got invited to give a colloquium at Oxford by his old grad school buddy. Oh, and there’s no technical paper yet — not even a rough draft on the arxiv — so his ideas can’t even be appropriately evaluated by actual working physicists. How, exactly, does that qualify as newsworthy? Was your bullshit detector not working that day?

I’ll tell you what happened: the Guardianwas seduced by the narrative offered by a man who, in his dual post as Simonyi professor for the public understanding of science, has proved himself to be highly adept at manipulating the media. It pains me to say this, since this is my field we’re talking about, but the Guardian got played, plain and simple.

More here.