Friday night I went, as usual, to the monthly meeting of my local astronomy club, of which I have been a member for many years. A friend of mine, for some inexplicable reason, had brought in a supposed psychic to speak about this whole 2012 thing. I’ll spare the gory details but I will note that she kept saying science was starting to prove her right (though she never elaborated). At one point someone asked a question about multiple dimensions and string theory and paranormal stuff or something like that – I had tuned out by that point (Note: I am somewhat open-minded about such things, but only with hard scientific evidence).
In any case, it nonetheless got me thinking that string theory has taken on a life of its own and become something that is bad for science – or is it just bad science period? String theory’s major problem is that, because it has never been tested in a laboratory (at least directly), no one really knows which of its crazy predictions is true. And many aspects of the theory are, in fact, not directly testable by definition! Now, there are plenty of theories out there that haven’t been tested yet including this stuff on closed time-like curves (i.e. wormholes) some of us have working on. But there are several differences.
First, our work is intended, primarily, to investigate some side problems in quantum information and quantum computing and we explicitly make it clear that the concept of a closed time-like curve is highly speculative. In other words, it’s a nice theoretical laboratory for testing some more mainstream ideas, but we realize that, in itself, it’s out there a bit. String theorists, on the other hand, thing their wackaloon ideas are Gospel.
Second, we’re not media hounds (at least in relation to this stuff). The string theorists (e.g. Brian Greene) have done such a good job selling their theory that over the past 15 years or so it has become the face of theoretical physics (which is utterly absurd since it is only a small portion of it). They then have no trouble appearing on TV and radio shows whose sole purpose seems to be an improved Nielsen rating and will happily let their imaginations run wild on the air while unsuspecting viewers and listeners start to think this is more than just speculation.
In the end the media blitz perpetrated by the string theorists over the past 15 years has done little or nothing to help the public understand the scientific method since the public is left (or even guided, in some cases?) to think that things like ghosts and paranormal experiences are evidence in support of string theory. Even if string theory turns out to be correct, the media blitz it has triggered has only muddied the notion of what science is and how it operates. In that sense, string theory has been very bad for science.
But is it bad science itself? I say, at least in part, yes, since aspects of it are not testable by definition (i.e. if the strings really are smaller than a Planck length there should be no way to ever confirm their existence). Developing a theory that is impossible to test, one way or another, smacks of religion in my book and, to me, that’s bad science.
Let’s hope, then, that people like Lee Smolin continue to challenge its supremacy in the mainstream media. Unfortunately, the best way to battle this would be to find an anti-string theorist who was as big a media hound as Brian Greene. Hey, CNN, I’m available!