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November 9, 2002

Half Full or Half Empty?

The much-anticipated New York Times article on the Bogdanov scandal has appeared. Alas, it suffers from the usual journalistic conceit that a proper newspaper article must cover a “controversy”. There must be two sides to the controversy, and the reporter’s job is to elicit quotes from both parties and present them side-by-side. Almost inevitably, this “balanced” approach sheds no light on the matter, and leaves the reader shaking his head, “There they go again…”

In this case, the two camps are the “It’s Obvious Nonsense” camp and the “It’s all Greek to Me” camp. The former are quoted as saying:

“One thing that seems pretty clear to me is that the Bogdanovs don’t know how to do physics.”
— John Baez

“… really empty”
— Carlo Rovelli

“I do think that the examiners, referees and editors do have something to answer for in this case,”
— Lee Smolin

“It is easy to judge, even from the abstract alone, that these papers are nutty,”
— David Gross

The latter said:

“…intriguing.”
“One person looks at a piece of art and says it is gibberish; another person looks and says it’s wonderful.”
— Roman Jackiw

“It’s a difficult subject, … The paper has a lot of the right buzz words.”
“This says something profound about what happens to theoretical physics in the absence of the discipline of experiment.” [I’ve debunked this latter argument elsewhere.]
— Frank Wilczek

“Scientifically, it’s clearly more or less complete nonsense, but these days that doesn’t much distinguish it from a lot of the rest of the literature.”
— Peter Woit

“What they did or what they have written seems to show that they are not better (but not worse) than several theoretical physicists friends of ours who often use some mathematical terminology that they do not master well enough.”
— Robert Coquereaux

As you can see, the “It’s all Greek to Me” camp is further subdivided (though the dividing line is rather fluid) into the “I’m not so sure it’s nonsense” and the “Maybe it’s nonsense, but so are most of the papers on hep-th” schools. Both are distinguished by a professed inability to tell sense from nonsense. The two schools differ only in whether the default assumption about papers they don’t understand (or haven’t read) is that they are sense or that they are nonsense.

Posted by distler at November 9, 2002 1:41 PM

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