97% of climate scientists agree that global warming exists, and is most probably human-caused. On a more controversial note, string theorists vastly outnumber adherents of other approaches to quantum gravity, such as Loop Quantum Gravity.
As many who disagree with climate change or string theory would argue, the majority is not always right. Science should be concerned with truth, not merely with popularity. After all, what if scientists are merely taking part in a fad? What makes climate change any more objectively true than pet rocks?
People are susceptible to fads, after all. A style of music becomes popular, and everyone’s listening to the same sounds. A style of clothing, and everything’s wearing the same thing. So if an idea in science became popular, everyone might…write the same papers?
That right there is the problem. Scientists only succeed by creating meaningfully original work. If we don’t discover something new, we can’t publish, and as the old saying goes it’s publish or perish out there. Even if social pressure gets us working on something, if we’re going to get any actual work done there has to be enough there, at least, for us to do something different, something no-one has done before.
This doesn’t mean scientists can’t be influenced by popularity, but it means that that influence is limited by the requirements of doing meaningful, original work. In the case of climate change, climate scientists investigate the topic with so many different approaches and look at so many different areas of impact (for example, did you know rising CO2 levels make the ocean acidic?) that the whole field simply wouldn’t function if climate change wasn’t real: there’d be a contradiction, and most of the myriad projects involving it simply wouldn’t work. As I’ve talked about before, science is an interlocking system, and it’s hard to doubt one part without being forced to doubt everything else.
What about string theory? Here, the situation is a little different. There aren’t experiments testing string theory, so whether or not string theory describes the real world won’t have much effect on whether people can write string theory papers.
The existence of so many string theory papers does say something, though. The up-side of not involving experiments is that you can’t go and test something slightly different and write a paper about it. In order to be original, you really need to calculate something that nobody expected you to calculate, or notice a trend nobody expected to exist. The fact that there are so many more string theorists than loop quantum gravity theorists is in part because there are so many more interesting string theory projects than interesting loop quantum gravity projects.
In string theory, projects tend to be interesting because they unveil some new aspect of quantum field theory, the class of theories that explain the behavior of subatomic particles. Given how hard quantum field theory is, any insight is valuable, and in my experience these sorts of insights are what most string theorists are after. So while string theory’s popularity says little about whether it describes the real world, it says a lot about its ability to say interesting things about quantum field theory. And since quantum field theories do describe the real world, string theory’s continued popularity is also evidence that it continues to be useful.
Climate change and string theory aren’t fads, not exactly. They’re popular, not simply because they’re popular, but because they make important contributions and valuable to science. And as long as science continues to reward original work, that’s not about to change.