You Don’t Need No Fancy Math or Nuthin’

(Update: Peter Woit responds in comments, and is quite the gentleman. A textbook case of Internet Jiu-jitsu. Curses, foiled again!)

Over at Jacques Distler‘s place, a discussion is boiling over the trackback policy of According to Jacques, arXiv’s current policy restricts trackbacks to the blogs of persons who are “active researchers”. This raises a couple of problems. First, the criterion of “active researchers” is slippery at best.

Second, a mathematician at Columbia named Peter Woit is upset because he is not on the approved trackbacks list. Woit is a vocal critic of string theory, and he has tangled with a number of high-energy physicists, including Jacques, over this issue. Physicist Chad Orzel had this to say:

When you get down to it, I’m with Sean Carroll on this: Peter Woit’s criticisms of string theory often border on the unhinged, but he’s not a complete crackpot. He has strong opinions, and expresses them strongly, but then, there are well-known and apparently respected string theorists who make Woit look like Miss Manners when it comes to interacting with those they don’t agree with. There’s no reasonable basis for banning Woit on the grounds of general jackassery.

The line between “gadfly” and “crackpot” is a fine one. And it raises the question: do we who are outside the field even have a chance of figuring out whether Woit is getting a fair shake? Just as an example, here’s an old discussion between Jacques and Peter (warning: acromonious math exchange). Amazing stuff, eh? I couldn’t have followed that even when I was at the top of my game — and certainly not now, when my physics knowledge has decayed back to early undergraduate levels. (Never mind physics, I can’t even remember the fundamentals of sed. Jesus.)

Now, you might think that given the rarified nature of the subject, we laypersons would have no way to determine who, if anyone, has crossed the line. Silly you! This is the Blogosphere! We can pass judgments about anyone and anything. It turns out that for this case, you don’t need any mathematics. Here’s Woit responding to one of the commenters at Chad Orzel’s site:

Aaron, Since I gather that your job depends on Jacques’s good will, you might want to consider that you have no credibility here arguing his side of this case.

Case closed! Crackpot and jackass.

On a more serious note, the arXiv folks are faced with these two unpleasant options:

  • Shut off trackbacks entirely. This would be an easy choice if trackbacks had devolved into uselessness, but according to Jacques, the great majority of the trackbacks arXiv receives actually are useful and informative.

  • Have some sort of trackback moderation policy. Which means playing into the hands of the conspiracy theorists. You can always try to modify the moderation system to make it more “fair”, but the hardcore trolls will never be satisfied.

The sad truth is that by the time a site is routinely receiving more than fifty comments per post, the comments section has always devolved into a cesspool. Always. The sole exception is Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s Making Light, and that’s only because Patrick and Teresa have been ruthless about disemvowelling trolls from the beginning. Endure endless cries of arbitrariness and censorship, or shut off direct feedback entirely? I don’t envy arXiv their choice.

10 thoughts on “You Don’t Need No Fancy Math or Nuthin’

  1. Eh, I dunno, if it’s true that the person he’s referring to has to stay in the good graces of one of the parties to the dispute, then it seems reasonable to infer that this person would argue that party’s side, whether or not that side has merit.

  2. I’m hoping this discussion gets wider distribution(paging Cocktail Party Physics and Jen-Luc….:::grin:::).
    My specialty is math, bordering on conformal field theory, vertex algebras, etc. so I’ve tried
    to keep up in this area. Personally I love the beauty of string theor(ies) but see way too much intellectual masturbation here. Think you can guess what side of the debate I come down on?
    Given that, I do agree that some sort of standards do need to set and adhered to in this area of “publication”. I see Woit struggling with this and getting, sometimes too much so, pissed off. I’m amused by Distler and his talking around the subject and I’m annoyed by certain people who drop the the level of flaming and invective.
    I’m tempted to write out 10 questions, that a physics senior(or 1st yr grad student) would understand, and ask Woit, Distler and Motl for a

  3. for a 2-4 page response which is comprehensible to a educated outsider. Can we start distinguishing between philosophy, science, theory, predictions, aesthetics and experiments here in a way clear to everyone?

  4. Auros – Aaron Bergman made two mistakes. 1) He happens to work for UT Austin, the same institution as Jacques. 2) He dared to politely suggest that maybe the concept of “active researcher” could be clarified. From that, Woit instantly concluded that Bergman is part of the Vast Jacques Distler String Theory Conspiracy and attacked him for it. That’s just not how a healthy mind works.

    Not that they aren’t all out to get us… but anyway.

    Mike – I doubt the parties involved would be able to explain the technical details in a way that would be comprehensible to an educated outsider. Most first-year physics grad students aren’t able to follow the math that Woit and Distler and slinging around. (Or I maybe I’m just speaking for myself and my fellow knucklehead experimentalists? Hmmm.)

    Anyway, I’m not too concerned about the current state of high energy theory. Either we’ll succeed in tying the theory to experiment/observations… or we won’t, in which case the whole thing will just slowly, painfully die off. Over the long term, these things take care of themselves.

    P.S. – Thanks for bringing up Cocktail Party Physics! I randomly stumbled upon Ms. Oullette’s site a couple of weeks ago, and I think she rocks.

  5. Evan,

    Probably not a good idea for me to try and defend something stupid I wrote in the heat of being extremely pissed off, which I quickly regretted, but I’ll just add a bit of context here.

    Aaron is a postdoc, hired by Jacques. He’s a perfectly reasonable guy; he and I have a long history of discussions (mostly quite civil…) of the contentious issues surrounding string theory both in various internet forums and private e-mail.

    Whether the whole concept of “active researcher” can be clarified is one part of the controversy. Attempts to do this hit a snag when it turned out that according to the first concrete definition suggested, Jacques himself doesn’t qualify.

    Can’t say that I’m happy to have been part of this public food fight, but the whole thing is pretty damn funny. Anyone who finds this entertaining can find more on my blog.


    I was going to point you to my blog for some answers to your questions, then remembered “wait a minute, I just wrote a whole book about this”. It’s coming out in England June 1, early fall here, and a lot of it is concerned with exactly the questions you’re expressing an interest in.


  6. Dr. Woit,

    You are remarkably civil considering how rude I was to you in my original post. Your behavior here is commendable, unlike mine.

    The truth is that I was really torn when I read about this issue. Jacques is an email acquaintance of mine, and I’ve always found him very likable. So there’s that. On the other hand, you’re an established mathematician at a large well-respected university, and so I thought it was very disturbing that the moderation system would shut out your trackbacks.

    But then I lost it when I saw your response to Bergman. The math is all far beyond me, but the paranoia — that was a universal red flag. Then again, as you point out, we all say things in the heat of our anger that we regret. It’s wonderful to see that between you and Bergman, it’s no harm, no foul. And in turn, I apologize to you for being a jackass in my own, special way.

    Anyway, I wish you and everyone involved in this mess the best of luck, and I do hope that the arXiv community is able to develop a more satisfactory trackback system.

  7. Evan,

    Thanks a lot for your comments. Many people tell me that Jacques is a perfectly reasonable and likable guy and I’m prepared to believe them. I never had anything to do with him until it came to his attention that I was publicly criticizing string theory. He seems to be firmly convinced that any theorist with a very different view than his about string theory must be ignorant and/or professionally incompetent. I’m less than amused by this attitude, or by the behavior of his that it has led to, so unfortunately we seem to have less than friendly relations…


  8. For the record, Aaron was not hired by me. He is a postdoc in our research group. The decision to hire him (3 years ago) was taken collectively by 5 faculty members. I have no more power over him than I do over the Columbia Math Department’s computer sysadmin.

    Woit, of course, knows this…

  9. I don’t see exactly where I claimed that Jacques was the only one involved in the decision to hire Aaron.

    For those wondering about the reference to the “Columbia Math Department’s computer sysadmin”, it’s Jacques’s clever way of attacking my professional competence and credentials, something he tends to do in most exchanges with me, then wonders why I don’t find him as likable as others do.

    If you haven’t followed the details of this story, my position at Columbia is a full-time, non-tenured Arts and Sciences faculty position with title of “Lecturer in Discipline”, and duties that include teaching one course a semester (mostly graduate courses in recent years), doing research, and responsibility for the department computer system.

    Charming guy, Jacques.

  10. I think that the trackback issue is much less serious than the censorship against posting to arXiv which in practice means a professional death.

    For a decade it become impossible for me to post anything to Physics Archives. Mathematical Subject Classification Tables of American Mathematical Society has alink to my homepage about Topological Geometrodynamics in the section devoted to Mathematics of Quantum Theory. Recently I was invited in to Marguis Who’s Who in Science and Engineering. One might think that on this basis I should not be regarded as a non-crackpot by any person possessing IQ above 100 but the wise men in the board seem to think differently.

    Certainly I am not the only one. There is large number of active researchers publishing in refereed journals who suffer censorship

    Matti Pitkanen

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