Physics cranks = syntax cranks?

🕑 2 min • 👤 Thomas Graf • 📆 January 15, 2020 in Discussions • 🏷 physics, syntax, Minimalism

Congratulations, you’re reading the shortest Outdex post yet! Peter Woit of Not Even Wrong, reacting to Sabine Hossenfelder of Lost in Math fame, has another post on the lack of progress in high-energy particle physics. If you’ve been following the debate about string theory and super symmetry in recent years, nothing in the post will shock you. What I find fascinating is that you could replace “particle physics” by “Minimalism” in this debate and the whole thing all of a sudden looks very familiar.

So here’s the thing. I cannot tell if Woit and Hossenfelder are cranks or actually on point. But from the outside, the debate doesn’t look any different than the occasional attacks on Minimalism. It seems to follow the same narrative of the bold iconoclasts who call out the intellectually bankrupt establishment. The accusations are similar, too: a hypertrophic focus on beauty and theory, rhetoric over facts, insufficient empirical grounding, a community that is treading water and hasn’t produced any major advances. With Minimalism, I know enough about the subject matter to determine on my own if the claims have merit. Here I have no clue. Stony Brook has a world-class physics department, and Woit did a post-doc there in the 80s, yet none of my physics sources seem to remember him or take him all that seriously. So, crank? Who knows. It’s impossible to say without profound expertise in the field. But linguists would do well to follow this debate closely, it strikes a lot closer to home than you might think.