The Curious Case of Weinstein’s Theory

I’m late onto this topic, but that’s probably no bad thing given how heated it seems to have been. Most of you have probably heard that, last week,  Marcus du Sautoy (who is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford), wrote a lengthy piece in the Grauniad about some work by a friend of his, Eric Weinstein. The Guardian piece was headed

Eric Weinstein may have found the answer to physics’ biggest problems
A physicist has formulated a mathematical theory that purports to explain why the universe works the way it does – and it feels like ‘the answer’

I’m not sure whether du Sautoy wrote this heading or whether it was added by staff at the newspaper, but Weinstein is not actually working as a physicist; he has a PhD from Harvard in Mathematical Physics, right enough, but has been working for some time as an economics consultant. Anyway, Weinstein also presented his work in a two-hour lecture at the Mathematics Department at Oxford University. Unfortunately, it appears that few (if any) of Oxford’s physicists received an invitation to attend the lecture which, together with the fact that there isn’t an actual paper (not even a draft, unrefereed one) laying out the details, led to some rather scathing responses from Twitterland and Blogshire. Andrew Pontzen’s New Scientist blog piece is fairly typical. This talk was followed by a retraction of an allegation that physicists were not invited to the talk; it turns out the invitation was sent, but not distributed as widely as it should.

Anyway, what are we to make of this spat? Well, I think it would be very unfortunate if this episode led to the perception that physicists feel that only established academics can make breakthroughs in their own field. There are plenty of historical examples of non-physicists having great ideas that have dramatically changed the landscape of physics; Einstein himself wasn’t an academic when he did his remarkable work in 1905. I think we should all give theoretical ideas a fair hearing wherever they come from. And although Marcus du Sautoy is also not a physicist, he no doubt knows enough about physics to know whether Weinstein’s work is flawed at a trivial level. And even if it is wrong (which, arguably, all theories are) then it may well be wrong in a way that’s interesting, possibly precisely because it does come from outside the current mainstream (which, in my opinion, is too obsessed with string theory for its own good).

That aside, I do have a serious issue with the way Marcus du Sautoy used his media connections to plug some work that hasn’t even been submitted to, let alone passed, the gold standard of peer review. I can’t comment on the work because I wasn’t at the talk and there is no paper for me to study and form my own conclusions. The accompanying blog post isn’t enough to make an informed decision either. It may or not be brilliant. I assure you I have an open mind on that, but I don’t think it’s apppropriate for a Professor of Public Understand of Science to indulge in such hype. It reminds me of a recent episode involving another famous Oxford mathematician, Roger Penrose. Perhaps he’ll get together with Eric Weinstein and look for evidence supporting the new theory in the cosmic microwave background?

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t at all object to Weinstein being given an opportunity to air his work at a departmental seminar or colloquium. Actually, I wish more departmental talks were of a speculative and challenging nature, rather than just being rehashes of already published work. The problem with talking about work in progress, though, is (as I know from experience) is that if you talk too openly about ideas then someone quicker and cleverer than yourself can work out the details faster than you can; while it’s a bit frustrating when that happens, in the long run it’s good for science. Or so I tell myself. Anyway, the problem is not with that: it’s with airing this in the wider media inappropriately early, i.e. before it has received proper scrutiny. This could give the impression to the public that science is just a free-for-fall and that anyone’s ideas, however half-baked, are equally valid. That is irresponsible.

Anyway, that’s my take on this strange business. I’d be interested to hear other opinions through the comments box. Please bear in mind, however, that the word “defamation” has been bandied about, so be careful, and note that this piece expresses my opinion. That’s all.

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35 Responses to “The Curious Case of Weinstein’s Theory”

  1. That aside, I do have a serious issue with the way Marcus du Sautoy used his media connections to plug some work that hasn’t even been submitted to, let alone passed, the gold standard of peer review.

    He wrote a fairly short piece about it on his blog!

  2. I think you’ve got it exactly right. But what surprises me slightly is that we haven’t heard any reports back of what Weinstein had to say in Oxford or how it went down.

  3. Your essay on “The Curious case…” was balanced and fair.

  4. Some thoughts (and yes I’m partly playing Devil’s Advocate*) :

    As an interested person but non-scientist (beyond undergraduate level), I feel that the scientific community on the whole does a pretty bad job of engaging the public in science. Rightly or wrongly, from an outside-the-physics-fraternity point of view, this Tweet: https://twitter.com/yesthatkarim/status/339753142373740545 appears to sum up the reaction quite well (yes, I know you covered this aspect of the debacle above).

    I for one would like to see *more* speculative theory in the media not less, so long as it is filtered to some extent* and labelled appropriately. I realise that there is a lot of time-wasting crap out there too.

    We ought to engage the public with the “what ifs”. In a similar vein I’ve in the past read ‘proper’ physicists and cosmologists complaining about Michio Kaku, yet personally I enjoy his TV programmes and lectures; they encourage me to read further into the subject. Physics needs dumbing down precisely because most people do not speak the mathematical language required to truly understand it.

    Yes of course a paper is due, and it may upon review go the way of those ‘FTL’ neutrinos.

    But Marcus has not to my knowledge said at any point that this is in any way proven, he’s only said the maths looks to be correct – having spent two years looking at this 20 year body of work.

    Is that inappropriately early? He’s excited about it! So am I! So what if it turns out to be disproven – at least the public will have been talking about something other than celebrities.

    So why should physicists get to hear about such a theory before everyone else*? I’d rather science _were_ a free for all than an “exclusive for few” *.

    • Ade, I think most physicists would be absolutely delighted if someone overturned the dominant paradigm, but we need to see something written down in sufficient detail to be scrutinised. There is no reason for this to be restricted to physicists either, as he could post a paper to the arXiv for everyone to see.

      Making a big splash without presenting *any* of the important details is just a little odd, to say the least.

    • “I for one would like to see *more* speculative theory in the media not less, so long as it is filtered to some extent* and labelled appropriately. I realise that there is a lot of time-wasting crap out there too.”

      Yes, but how can one do any filtering if there isn’t even something to read?

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      The problem in science is that it’s easy to come up with incorrect or irrelevant theories. There are large numbers of them around, some hopelessly speculative. What is very much more difficult is devising theories that are correct, or at least more correct than the best existing theories.

      I’m fed up with television programmes and popular articles sensationalising yet another speculative theory that is very unlikely to be correct (or, rather, unlikely to be a better description of nature than existing best theories).

      (This is a general comment about media coverage of speculative theories; it is not a comment about Dr Weinstein’s work which I have not seen and cannot comment on.)

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    It’s not clear to me that this is unethical. As I recall, the Cambridge Clifford Algebra group’s gauge gravity theory, whose best days are ahead of it IHMO, was first unveiled in a Cavendish Physical Society talk by Anthony Lasenby. (I remember it for his unintentionally wonderful reply to Brian Pippard, who had said he didn’t understand something about it; Anthony re-explained the point and then said, entirely sincerely, “Do you understand now?”) Such meetings are advertised mainly throughout the university’s physics department, with notices probably reaching other departments such as Applied Maths/Theoretical Physics and the various Astro institutions, but if the Web had existed in those days then there would surely have been a publicly viewable page and a short abstract. The idea that Lasenby’s talk might have been unethical, simply because nothing was written up, rightly never entered the head of anybody present.

    I guess the analogy isn’t exact, because Lasenby was one of the originators of the Clifford-expressed gauge theory of gravity, and de Sautoy is acting as Weinstein’s publiciser. But I don’t see that this difference makes it unethical.

    • telescoper Says:

      Let me clarify. I don’t think what du Sautoy did was unethical. I just think it was ill-judged, not to have had a departmental talk about it (which is entirely proper), but to have advertised it (rather one-sidedly) in the mass media.

      Theory creation is the most creative part of the scientific method, and as such is perhaps bound to be a bit anarchistic, but while elegance may be sufficient for mathematicians, it’s not so for physicists.

      In the interest of balance, though, there are plenty of other (mainstream) physicists who portray their theories as fact when they have not yet earned that status. Don’t ask me to name names, however. I’m nervous enough already..

    • The difference is that Lasenby’s talk wasn’t hyped in the popular media. It’s OK to hype something in the popular media, but in such a case there has to be something which folks can consult to check it out.

      Another problem in such cases: Some journalists will ask prominent scientists what they think of this, and they will reply that they have never heard of it, enforcing the wrong perception that the establishment is ignoring the maverick genius.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Provided that nobody says anything unintentionally untrue 0 of which there is no evidence here – the problem does not seem to me to be more than one of impatience and its orderly management.

      • I agree. However, science PR is like comedy in that good timing is essential.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Being a bit provocative, Phillip – why? This question returns us to the mainstream of Peter’s discussion.

      • It wasn’t intended to be provocative. Bad timing in the public presentation of science can create a wrong impression. For example, leaking the results to the popular press before the community knows about them. Thus, the community cannot react, which creates the impression that the new results are ignored, or not even noticed, by the rest of the community. Also, it is often difficult for popular media to judge how important something is, so things can get over-hyped, which makes the people behind perhaps quite good, but not sensational, work look bad. It’s just a small step to the crackpot who posted his hand-written theory of everything to the Library of Congress 20 years ago and complains that he is being boycotted by the establishment.

        This case is a bit different in that du Sautoy seems to be a reasonable person and Weinstein actually has a degree in physics. On the other hand, I think one should be able to expect better behaviour from professionals.

        On another point: some bloggers have noted that he hasn’t had a job in physics in years as if that automatically invalidates his claim. Peter is one of the few to say that we should give him a fair assessment (it’s just that we have nothing to assess). For this sort of work, it isn’t necessary to check the arXiv every day for new stuff. To paraphrase Don Knuth, that’s important if one wants to stay on top of things, but Weinstein wants to get to the bottom of things. Of course, I had never heard of Weinstein until a couple of days ago and know essentially nothing about him. However, it is certainly conceivable that someone in his position (highly paid job in the financial world) actually has more time for research than a tenured professor who teaches, writes grant applications, looks after students, sits on committees etc. A few days ago, there was a paper which makes a step to proving that there are an infinite number of twin primes which was authored by someone whose last paper was published in 2001. Yes, most scientists who don’t publish have burned out (or are working on other things), but some might not have published because they have been busy. Neither Weinstein nor Zhang was in a publish-or-perish situation. (The emphasis on quantity over quality in bibliometry has become so strong that I can almost imagine someone proving the Goldbach conjecture, the Riemann hypothesis or whatever and getting denied tenure because he doesn’t have enough publications.)

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Phillip: I meant that *I* was being a bit provocative in asking that question of Why! Sorry for the ambiguity, and thanks for the comments. As an ex-university scholar who does not consider himself extinct even if long silent at the probability/physics interface, I obviously agree.

  6. Themos Tsikas Says:

    Nobody wants to be Hooke to some other guy’s Newton.

  7. Themos Tsikas Says:

    It looks like I confused my Eric Weisstein with my Eric Weinstein, am I the only one?

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      No, you’re not the only one. That’s exactly what I did when I first read Marcus du Sautoy’s Guardian article.

  8. After reading a bit around about this subject… I agree. No paper, no party.

  9. Nice calm piece on a stormy issue, and i think “ill-judged” is fairer than “unethical”. I have a slight quibble with your statement on E., i.e. “Einstein himself wasn’t an academic when he did his remarkable work in 1905”.
    I’m not sure that’s true; I seem to remember E. wrote a great many papers in the years 1903,1094 and 1905 and reviewed a huge number of books. I would say he was very academically active indeed in this period.
    Perhaps you meant E. didn’t have an *academic position* in 1905, but that doesn’t really scan either, as the question over Weinstein does not concern his position in economics, but his lack of previous academic publications on relevant subjects

  10. George Jones Says:

    Has anyone heard how Weinstein’s (second Oxford) talk went today?

  11. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter, you don’t mention who has bandied the word “defamation” around, but I trust that nobody has actually called in the lawyers.

  12. […] I haven’t attended Weinstein’s lectures and I haven’t seen his work (very few people have so far), so I’m not going to comment on its genius or lack thereof. Nor will I comment on the media attention per se, as othershave done plenty of that. […]

  13. […] its genius or lack thereof. Nor will I comment on the media attention per se, as others have done plenty of […]

  14. […] its genius or lack thereof. Nor will I comment on the media attention per se, as others have done plenty of […]

  15. […] *This is often followed by scientists in varying degrees of irritation explaining exactly why said theory will not live up to expectations. An excellent dissection of the last attempt can be found here: https://telescoper.wordpress.com/2013/05/29/the-curious-case-of-weinsteins-theory/ […]

  16. […] theoretical physicist Matt Strassler also weighed in.  The theoretical astrophysicist Peter Coles feels the same way, mostly.  Frankly, science’s “image” has needed a makeover for some […]

  17. Atam Oge Says:

    “even if it is wrong (which, arguably, all theories are) then it may well be wrong in a way that’s interesting, possibly precisely because it does come from outside the current mainstream (which, in my opinion, is too obsessed with string theory for its own good).”

    Agree.

    “Anyway, the problem is not with that: it’s with airing this in the wider media inappropriately early, i.e. before it has received proper scrutiny. This could give the impression to the public that science is just a free-for-fall and that anyone’s ideas, however half-baked, are equally valid. That is irresponsible.”

    Not sure (about irresponsibity). I think science is free-for-all and the academy could test several ideas providing challenges and filters.

    Someone said: “more the knowledge lesser the ego, lesser the knowledge more the ego”. I think the academy (all over the world) is contaminated by ego. Sample in your own words above about some “obsession”.

  18. […] or lack thereof. I also won’t comment on the media attention per se, as others have done plenty of that. What I will say is that the W/Einstein lone-genius model of theoretical physics is, nearly […]

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