Those Arrogant String Theorists
| Peter Klein |
What do mathematical economists and string theorists have in common? Consider this characterization of the latter from Lee Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics, as summarized by reviewer Kenneth Silber in Reason (March 2007, not yet online):
Smolin portrays string theorists as tending toward arrogance, insularity, and groupthink; they value technical ability over original thought, follow faddishly the ideas of a few top physicists, and look down on adherents of other theories. This culture, in Smolin’s telling, eschews the philosophical bent of Einstein and quantum theory’s founders, preferring the “shut up and calculate” attitude of later particle physicists.
OK, the comparison to mathematical economists is a cheap shot, but I’m following Nicolai’s lead here. Anyway, Smolin suggests a useful taxonomy for scientists, distinguishing “craftspeople” from “seers.”
[Craftspeople are] focused on technical problems, [seers] on deeper meanings and new ideas. [Smolin] makes a plausible argument that physics institutions have become too geared toward producing craftspeople rather than seers. The way for young physicists to get jobs, tenure, and grants, he notes, is to fill in the details of research lines established by their elders.
Wow, does that sound familiar! Substitute economics and economists for physics and physicists and the statement rings equally true. (By the way, “seer” is a much nicer term than “puzzler,” the label used by Hayek to distinguish himself from the systematic, methodical “master of his subject.”)