The Culture Wars Have Moved into Physics

I'm about as far from being a physicist as it is possible to be, though I am fascinated by the history of science & the way it works within Western culture. I am, however, a veteran of the culture ward wars (if only a foot soldier), and I can tell you that the conservatives in the culture wars -- those who oppose "post-modernism" in all its forms, who distrust the academy on principle, and who believe science exists somehow above or outside human culture -- have taken up arms against string theory. This discussion thread at Cosmic Variance demonstrates my thesis. Reading through the comments, my head was spinning: I thought I was back in the early 1990s debating the politicization of the Humanities. There is just something about the language & rhetoric of cranks that distinguishes itself, whatever the debate. Could string theory be wrong? Sure, any scientific theory can be wrong: that's what makes them scientific in the first place. But the speculations of the stringers clearly set off alarm bells among the end of history / end of science crowd. They respond with venom & derision. The mark of a crank is that he hates imagination.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

1 thought on “The Culture Wars Have Moved into Physics”

  1. I think this all started when it hit the public sphere. First Greene’s popular book on the merits of string theory, then Smolin’s popular book on why its a waste of time, etc. Before these recent developments, I don’t recall anyone getting all hot and bothered about it, and it’s been around for 20 years.

    We are facing a situation where theorists have gotten very speculative because there’s not much new data to work with, except on the cosmology side. I would be very curious to see what happens if the LHC doesn’t produce anything totally unexpected–perhaps a fundamental shift in how we pursue basic science. Though I’d much rather have it spit out subatomic black holes.

    Of course, 99.9% of physicists are too busy aligning lasers and firing up vacuum pumps to pay much attention.

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