String Theory, Postmodernism, Market Efficiency

I’ve been having fun reading Not Even Wrong and following up on its links the past few days. String Theory – yeah ok, I tried to follow an introduction to gauge theory this afternoon and realize this is a topic I’ll be ignorant on until Clark gets rich from selling chocolate and does some laymans’ level write-ups on his blog – is apparently in a crisis. Or at least some physicists, Woit and Smolin in particular, say in books they’ve written. Smolin’s book on this topic draws on Kuhn and Feyarabend’s philosophy of science. Smolin is also the father of an alternative to String Theory, Loop Quantum Gravity. Other physicists, notably Lubos Motl are very angry about this dissent and accuse the apostates in harsh words of all kinds of heresy including “postmodernism” and “communism”. Well, the main points I gather from the skeptic’s case is that string theory is only becoming more complicated without having solved any real problems and little chances of making experimental predictions in the future. “Not even wrong” I take it disputes String Theory on Popper’s grounds of falsifiability. Smolin also apparently tries to draw this criteria out, it’s said that LQM is falsifiable whereas String Theory isn’t.

If I understand Smolin, he believes science is in a crisis mode (Kuhn) and that there exists a need for new perspectives (Feyerabend) in order to make progress. The establishment is steeped in bureaucracy and resistance to alternative ideas. Now, what Feyerabend meant by “Anything Goes” is that historical examples of scientific acheivments border on relativism if our guiding light is simplistic formulations of “scientific method”. The demarcation problem according to him, remains an intractable one. What constitutes good and bad science is difficult to determine past a certain, blurry point. For instance, Feyerabend’s famous alternative to the enlightenment account of the Galileo event puts Galileo in the position of being “anti-science” rather than the shallow champion of Occam’s Razor.

I see a close resemblance in Feyerabend’s idea to the Efficient Market Hypothesis of Chicago-school economics. This theory essentially states that there is no way to beat the Stock Market average by skill because the information about public companies is too easily available to be valuable. No-arbitrage assumptions are at least the hope for those who believe in capitalism. As an example, if a stock follows a predictable trend, then it can’t be a money making one, because if it were, plenty of market players would be there to buy or sell as needed, biding the price, and destroying the trend. In a way, philosophers of science are “trend watching”, looking for past performance as an indicator for future results. There may be be some historical themes in science, just as there are in financial markets. In retrospect, we have some excellent ideas as to what happened to bring about our current situation. But to use that information in a way that would “beat the market” in the future (predict which theory is right in a profitable way, well beyond current expectations), is very, very hard. So future history might tell us whether today’s science needed more valley crossers than hill climbers (Smolin), but if the “market of ideas” in science approximates efficiency, it would be very difficult to make this prediction today – or to make this prediction better than others who are making forecasts by choosing graduate programs and offering grants.

The Chicago school does not believe in price bubbles. In other words, to them, the 2000-2001 Stock Market tumble wasn’t predictable. Price to earnings ratios and other fundamentals being “out of whack” wasn’t news to anyone who mattered. Similarily, the fact that string theory is “unfalsifiable” doesn’t appear to be news to any string theorists. Philosophers of science assessing the situation by the “fundamentals” have no more certainty than trend watchers for one-upping their peers. It may be that falsifiability for instance, proves the Achilles Hill for String Theory but it may prove to be the case that it becomes falsifiable or that a future science doesn’t follow today’s rules as we’d hope.

So whether science is really in a crisis remains to be seen. Certainly it seems to their credit that Woit and Smolin are cautious skeptics, each acknowledging their voice respectively as one of many. And they may prove to be right.


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