Sound Bite Management; or the Merits of Shock and Awe

First off, for the small demographic who haven’t seen it already (and aren’t reading this because of it), I wrote an article for Ars Technica. Go read it.

After the article went up, a professor from my department told me that he and several others were concerned about the title.

Now before I go on, I’d like to clarify that this isn’t going to be a story about the department trying to “shut me down” or anything paranoid like that. The professor in question was expressing a valid concern in a friendly way, and it deserves some thought.

The concern was the following: isn’t a title like Earning a PhD by studying a theory that we know is wrong” bad publicity for the field? Regardless of whether the article rebuts the idea that “wrong” is a meaningful descriptor for this sort of theory, doesn’t a title like that give fuel to the fire, sharpening the cleavers of the field’s detractors as one commenter put it? In other words, even if it’s a good article, isn’t it a bad sound bite?

It’s worryingly easy for a catchy sound bite to eclipse everything else about a piece. As one commenter pointed out, that’s roughly what happened with Palin’s fruit fly comment itself. And with that in mind, the claim that people are earning PhDs based on “false” theories definitely sounds like the sort of sound bite that could get out of hand in a hurry if the wrong community picked it up.

There is, at least, one major difference between my sound bite and Palin’s. In the political climate of 2008 it was easy to believe that Sarah Palin didn’t understand the concept of fruit fly research. On the other hand, it’s quite a bit less plausible that Ars would air a piece calling most work in theoretical physics useless.

In operation here is the old, powerful technique of using a shocking, dissonant headline to lure people in. A sufficiently out-of-character statement won’t be taken at face value; rather, it will inspire readers to dig in to the full article to figure out what they’re missing. This is the principle behind provocateurs in many fields, and while there are always risks, often this is the only way to get people to think about complex issues (Peter Singer often seems to exemplify the risks and rewards of this tactic, just to give an example).

What’s the alternative here? In referring to the theory I study as “wrong”, I’m attempting to bring readers face to face with a common misconception: the idea that every theory in physics is designed to approximate some part of the real world. For the physicists in the audience, this is the public perception that everything in theoretical physics is phenomenology. If we don’t bring this perception to light and challenge it, then we’re sweeping a substantial amount of theoretical physics under the rug for the sake of a simpler message. And that’s risky, because if people don’t understand what physics really is then they’re likely to balk when they glimpse what they think is “illegitimate” physics.

In my view, shocking people by describing my type of physics as not “true” is the best way to teach people about what physicists actually do. But it is risky, and it could easily give people the wrong impression. Only time will tell.

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7 thoughts on “Sound Bite Management; or the Merits of Shock and Awe

  1. Jeff

    The kind of people who are going to make a judgment about theoretical physics based off the title of one article are, hopefully, recognized as too obtuse to be paid attention to.

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  2. JollyJoker

    Hi! I read your article with interest, since it seems you’re working on the cutting edge of stuff. Nothing in twistor space though?

    I skimmed through parts of the paper linked in the first post on the blog. The divergence of MSYM in 5-d means nothing for AdS/CFT since that’s only exactly 4-d, right? And how exactly is the (2,0) theory related to 5-d MSYM? I thought it didn’t have a classical limit, so did I understand the words “ultraviolet completion” incorrectly if I thought that meant that 5-d MSYM would be the low energy version of (2,0) while the latter works at all levels?

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    1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

      Hi!

      Nothing in twistor space itself, no, though twistor variables are pretty ubiquitous.

      Yeah, AdS/CFT connects to the 4-d, not 5-d. You’re understanding the meaning of uv completion correctly, the only detail you’re missing is that (2,0) is a 6-d theory, so you have to compactify one of the dimensions on a circle to get something that corresponds to 5-d MSYM, so while (2,0) doesn’t have a classical limit (well sort of…there are ways to write equations of motions down, it’s just that you can’t write a covariant action), (2,0) compactified does.

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      1. JollyJoker

        Thanks for the clear reply. Apparently I confused the issue with twistor space vs twistor variables; what I was really wondering was if you’re involved in the Nima Arkani-Hamed-fronted effort on scattering amplitudes. For example, http://arxiv.org/abs/1212.5605 (Yeah, your name is not on that particular paper, but I understand there are several groups doing related research)

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        1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

          Yes, I understood what you were getting at. No, I’m not involved with Nima’s program. While his group has accomplished some very impressive reformulations of scattering amplitudes, so far none of it is especially practical, in that it doesn’t make usable predictions to any higher loop orders than have already been calculated. I’ll be more impressed once Nima and co manage to demonstrate the use of their method to calculate something that hadn’t previously been calculated.

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      2. JollyJoker

        Well, assuming the claims about simplifying the calculations significantly aren’t completely fabricated, they are clearly on to something. It might only work in a limited regime, I guess.

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