“The Trouble With Physics” by Lee Smolin: string theory as a religion

“The first thing that outsiders notice about the string theory community is its tremendous self-confidence.”

“Some string theorists prefer to believe that string theory is too arcane to be understood by human beings, rather than consider the possibility that it might just be wrong. One recent posting on a physics blog laid this out beautifully: ‘We can’t expect a dog to understand quantum mechanics, and it may be that we are reaching the limit of what humans can understand about string theory. Maybe there are advanced civilisations out there to whom we appear as smart as dogs do to us, and maybe they have figured out string theory well enough to have moved on to a better theory…’ Indeed, string theorists seem to have no problem believing that string theory must be right while acknowledging that they have no idea what it really is. In other words, string theory will subsume whatever comes after it. The first time I heard this view expressed, I thought it was a joke, but the fourth iteration convinced me that the speaker was serious. …

A related characteristic is a sense of entitlement and a lack of regard for those who work on alternative approaches to the problems string theory claims to solve. Indeed, string theorists are normally uninterested in, and often ignorant of, anything that is not labeled string theory.”

“Another facet of string theory that many find disturbing is what can only be described as the messianic tendency of some of its practitioners, especially some younger ones. For them, string theory has become a religion. Those of us who publish papers questioning results or claims of string theorists regularly receive emails whose mildest form of abuse is ‘Are you kidding?’ or ‘Is this a joke?’ Discussions of string theory’s ‘opponents’ abound on Web sites and chat boards, where, even given the unbridled nature of such venues, the intelligence and professional competence of non-string theorists is questioned in remarkably unpleasant terms. It’s hard not to conclude that at least some string theorists have begun to see themselves as crusaders rather than scientists.”

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4 Responses to “The Trouble With Physics” by Lee Smolin: string theory as a religion

  1. susanne430 says:

    “It’s hard not to conclude that at least some string theorists have begun to see themselves as crusaders rather than scientists.” 😀 Cute!


    I just noticed your tag on this blog and I like it! It’s sooooo Sarah! 😀

    Also it reminded me of the way Jesus often taught. He didn’t answer the question:

    “Teacher, what is 4 plus 4″?”

    with 8.

    Instead he would say,

    “What is 16 divided by 2?”

    So maybe he preferred questions too! 😀

  2. sanil says:

    It really does seem to be a religion, to some people. The same can be said for other branches of science too, but string theory and physics in general has always seemed to me to be a weirdly religious science. I have a few friends who are very committed to science and look down on religion, believing science can solve every problem and answer every question. String theory is the ultimate expression of that. The core belief seems to be that science does answer absolutely everything, so they’ll just jump ahead and assume this sort of fuzzy magic-looking branch of science is the ultimate answer and they just haven’t arrived yet. Somehow it hasn’t occurred to them that this obsessive blind devotion isn’t that different from how followers of other religions behave.

    I actually like physics, and I’m trying to learn about string theory. It’s interesting, and who knows? It might also turn out to be right, and it really might have all the answers. Then again, so might Christianity, or Islam, or Scientology, or anything else. But it doesn’t yet. I’m seeing it like a race to find the answers first. It’s one thing to believe you’re backing the best runner, another to throw yourself a victory party as soon as the race starts.

    • Sarah says:

      What I got from the book as well was that it’s an emotional relationship with the theory’s elegance and beauty for some string theorists – it’s that that convinces them it must be true. Again, quite religious actually!

      I would definitely recommend the book if you’re interested in string (and other) theories. Very readable and thought-provoking.

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