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Blog

What Gina says about the String Wars

gina.jpg

By Hamish Johnston

“Gina is very curious about science blogs”, writes Gil Kalai in his book Gina Says: Adventures in the Blogsphere String War .

“Can they be useful for learning about, or discussing science? What happens in these blogs and who participates in them?

Kalai, who is a mathematician at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, tried to answer these questions by entering the fray of the “String Wars” — a sometimes heated online debate about the scientific merits of string theory that kicked off in 2006.

His first post as the fictional “Gina” was on Not Even Wrong — the blog of Peter Woit, an outspoken critic of string theory who has written a book with the same title.

“Peter, is it possible to state the main points for the case against string theory — with 4-5 sentences on each? This will be very helpful. Please consider doing it…”

50 days and many postings later, Gina was “expelled” from the discussion for apparently contributing to the “noise” on Woit’s blog. Fair dues, you might think, because she wasn’t exactly up front about her intentions. However, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Gina as she tried to ingratiate herself back into the conversation.

Gina also conversed online with Lee Smolin — who, like Woit, had just published a book highly critical of string theory. She asked Smolin to address 16 specific objections to his book The Trouble With Physics and the ensuing discussion accounts for a large chunk of the book.

String theorists Clifford Johnson (Gina’s favourite blogger) and Jacques Distler also put in appearances via their respective blogs

So what did Kalai learn from his undercover adventure? He told me that he was disappointed by what he thought was the low scientific content of the debate — he believes that it quickly turned into a political argument. “90% of the issues discussed had nothing to do with string theory”, he said.

And what about the bloggers — are they upset to discover the real identity of Gina? Peter Woit seemed rather pleased, you can read his comments here.

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6 comments

  1. I don’t know if it’s accurate to say I was “pleased”, but I certainly wasn’t upset when Kalai contacted me to tell me about his project. It did clear up the minor mystery of who “Gina” was and what “she” was up to, but the huge number of anonymous commenters on these blogs make such minor mysteries very common.
    I confess that I was a bit annoyed at the “Gina” phenomenon from the beginning. For one thing, I don’t like the way people use the internet to hide behind anonymity for no good reason. Kalai could have posted his comments under his own name, and he would have gotten a better and more useful response to them. It’s very difficult to try and answer technical questions from someone if you have no idea what their background is. You end up wasting a lot of their and your time.
    The initial comment from “Gina” that you quote shows another aspect of this that was annoying. I had just put a couple years of my life into carefully writing an article, then a book, then many blog postings, precisely to address what Kalai was interested in, then he appears on the blog asking me to repeat the arguments for him. That’s annoying, whereas if he had appeared with something like “I read your book, don’t understand or disagree with X, can you explain or discuss that?” I’d have been quite pleased to put the time into answering.
    The most time-consuming and frustrating thing about the blog is dealing with the comments. At the beginning I just let basically anyone write anything. After a while, the comment section was completely dominated by cranks, and no one sensible wanted to participate. So, for quite a while now, I delete quite a few of the incoming comments (often the ones with ill-informed criticism of string theory..), and maintain a very long list of sources from which comments are automatically either immediately deleted or put in a queue for moderation.
    Gina’s comments that led me to put “her” on the moderation list were arriving several times per day, threatening to dominate discussion on the blog. Kalai was posting a combination of comments criticizing me for various things, and giving his own misconception-filled explanations and views about the technical questions under discussion. I felt obliged to respond to the criticisms, and also was being put in the position of either leaving the misconceptions unaddressed, with other ill-informed commenters often jumping in to add their own, or putting a lot of time into addressing these misconceptions. In the end I just did not have the time to keep up with this, so put “Gina” on the moderation list. Deleting ill-informed technical comments was an easy decision, but stopping someone from saying their piece if they had something critical to say was something I took much more seriously. In that last decision, the anonymity of “Gina” was a deciding factor. While there is sometimes a valid reason for someone to use the internet to criticize someone else from behind the cloak of anonymity, it didn’t seem to me that it was my duty to provide “Gina” a forum to continually do this, especially since “she” was actively using several other blogs for this purpose.
    Many other much weirder things were going on at the time in these “string wars”, “Gina” was the least of it…

  2. Indeed at the time the fellow bloggers (and sometimes Peter himself) were quite generous to explain things in response to Gina’s questions. This was very nice!
    As for now, I was rather impressed by Peter being such a good sport (but it looks that he is slowly “losing” it). I can certainly see how Gina could have been annoying for Peter especially in the middle of such a crusade he took on himself.
    (One reason of having a blog was to try to see how it looks from the other side. But so far my blog does not lead to such heated discussions.)
    What I found disappointing at the time in Peter’s book was that after the excellent chapters presenting high energy physics, the chapters aimed to present the skeptical evaluation of string theory were rather weak. There was one and a half chapter on technical issues and several chapters with all sort of stories and little gossip items with little relevance.
    The comments that annoyed Peter and led to the “divorce” were indeed not related to string theory and, as a matter of fact, they could have been less annoying or threatening coming from an anonymous Gina rather than from a University Professor: Did Peter really regard his book appropriate for a university press? Did he really think the rejection story from Cambridge University Press was unusual? Does he really think the story about a string theorist turns Maharishi or similar stories add something to this scientific debate?
    I think skepticism in science is an important issue (and scientific contreversies can be wonderful), but I simply could not understand the concept of ideas-free (or at least new-ideas-free) skepticism which often turned into some sort of polemic war.

  3. Hi Gil,
    Because of Hamish’s posting I tried to remember what I had thought about “Gina” at the time, and why I had decided to start moderating your comments. My comment here was just an attempt to explain what I remembered about that. On the scale of annoying things I had to deal with during the “String Wars”, the question of “Gina” was a minor one. There are a few things I’m still annoyed about because of what happened during that era, the “Gina” business isn’t one of them.
    As to your questions, yes, I still think the book was appropriate for a university press (and so did a CUP editor and half the referees). The negative referee reports completely lacked substance (unlike “Gina”‘s criticisms), and were little more than an expression of the referee’s desire to not see criticism of their field get CUP backing. Maybe this is a usual rejection story, I don’t have a lot of experience. On the other hand, the book did seem to generate far more than the usual degree of controversy…
    And yes, I do think the Hagelin story was relevant. In the end, a lot of the string theory story is about how and why some very smart people have pursued a wrong idea. The fact that a heavily-cited smart Harvard physicist can develop an unshakeable belief in ideas about the fundamental nature of reality that are clearly nonsensical, and engage in cult-like behavior is worth reminding people of. If you think this has nothing to do with string theory and string theorists, think a bit about Lubos Motl… String theory is something quite different than TM, but human tendencies towards irrational belief are real and at work in both subjects.
    I plead guilty to putting some things like the Hagelin story in the book because I found them entertaining and felt they shed light not on technical science issues, but on some of the culture of theoretical physics. I was trying to write something that I myself would have wanted to read, and, sure I’m interested and entertained by reading gossip about my field. The book is intentionally uneven in some ways, hoping to do justice to a complex story and to tell it in a way that would keep the attention of several different kinds of audience. Seven years later, after hearing a lot of criticism as well as a lot of praise of it, there’s relatively little I would change if I were to rewrite it.
    Neither the book nor the blog are intended to be a sole source for someone who really wants to understand the issues surrounding string theory. To do this you have to sit down and seriously study some very technical and extensive material. The sources you can use to do this (one role of the blog has been to provide links to such sources) explain clearly what the argument for these speculative ideas is, just about never giving the skeptical side of the argument. The book and the blog are intended to provide not the technical material needed to understand this stuff, but the missing skeptical arguments.

  4. Oh, one more thing, about anonymous criticism. It really is more annoying than criticism coming from an identifiable person. Knowing who is criticizing you allows you to make your own judgment about the motivations and expertise of the person making such criticisms, and decide how seriously to take them, and how to respond appropriately. I never found Gina’s comments threatening, if I had, the anonymity would have made that quite a bit worse.

  5. I posted an engineering-centric comment about “Gina Says” on the Fortnow/GASARCH blog Computational Complexity.
    Peter, for a long time I’ve been curious about why (AFAICT) relatively few engineers post in the physics blogosphere … can you offer any insights on this?

  6. Anonymous

    Peter, ordinarily I tend to agree with you (on the topic of the lusciously extravagant claims often made by string theorists) but when you say…
    “Knowing who is criticizing you allows you to make your own judgment about the motivations and expertise of the person making such criticisms, and decide how seriously to take them, and how to respond appropriately.”
    …I find that rather disheartening. Apart from the non-trivial concerns associated with having to deal with a deluge of crackpots in a blog forum (which I can certainly appreciate is a major pain!), I do not understand why the substance of a criticism shouldn’t carry more weight or be more relevant than the identity of the person who makes it, regardless of identity.
    The thing is this: Gina/Kalai aside, there are some anonymous commentors that AREN’T crackpots and MAY have interesting things to say. Very few, yes, to be sure…but they are there.
    That much said, I do not doubt for a moment that Gina/Kalai exploited the fact that your site (as well as others) are inundated by such crackpots and the fact you have to deal with all correspondence, and then weasel in through that window of opportunity so that he could “victoriously” proclaim afterward that, as Hamish Johnston reports, “He told me that he was disappointed by what he thought was the low scientific content of the debate — he believes that it quickly turned into a political argument. “90% of the issues discussed had nothing to do with string theory”, he said.”
    Having witnessed this extravaganza, I agree wholeheartedly with what Hamish Johnston also says, replying to Peter Woit: “Indeed the thing that impressed me the most about Gina Says is the care and attention that you and your fellow bloggers gave to answering Gina’s questions and moderating discussions.”
    Indeed. And can anyone blame Peter Woit for swatting away an ANONYMOUS fly that keeps buzzing in his face?
    That the fly returns and chortles about how he put one over on the dissenter (and everyone else, har har) says much more about the aims of the fly than it does to the fellow who just wishes the annoyance to go away. I wonder…do flies understand “shame”?

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