More nonsense from Easterbrook

Gregg Easterbrook is back showing his ignorance of physics in Slate (why do people let Easterbrook write about science, anyway?). What prompted it this time is Lee Smolin' new book on string theory. But it's sort of comforting to see Easterbrook peddling the same line of nonsense:
And consider this. Today if a professor at Princeton claims there are 11 unobservable dimensions about which he can speak with great confidence despite an utter lack of supporting evidence, that professor is praised for incredible sophistication. If another person in the same place asserted there exists one unobservable dimension, the plane of the spirit, he would be hooted down as a superstitious crank.

I hatcheted an almost identical argument about three years ago, and it hasn't gotten any more sensible since. To make things even more fun, Easterbrook has managed to turn the topic to intelligent design (remember, he's some sort of a crypto-creationist).

Really, string theory isn't a theory at all. Creationists who oppose the teaching of Darwin have taken to deriding natural selection as "just a theory," and Darwin's defenders have rightly replied that in science, "theory" does not mean idle speculation. Rather, it is an honored term for an idea that has been elaborately analyzed, has not been falsified, and has made testable predictions that have later proven to be true. The ordering of scientific notions is: conjecture, hypothesis, theory. Pope John Paul II chose his words carefully when in 1996 he called evolution "more than a hypothesis." Yet the very sorts of elite-institution academics who snigger at creationists for revealing their ignorance of scientific terminology by calling evolution "just a theory" nonetheless uniformly say "string theory." Since what they're talking about is strictly a thought experiment (just try proving there are no other dimensions), from now on, "string conjecture," please.

Now, there is one non-stupid thing here: the term "theory" means something pretty different in the context of "theory of evolution" than it does in the context of "string theory", and when we speak of the "theory of evolution" it's not because it's "just a theory". But none of this is because "string theory" is somehow misnamed, it's just that the terms aren't really used that consistently. Moreover, "X theory" isn't really the same as "the theory of X". In my experience "X theory" tends to mean "the stuff we've learned about Xs. Consider decision theory or automata theory. In both cases, they're less a single theory like the theory of relativity and more a generic name for the field of study--and note that at least in the case of decision theory, there are a variety of models, many of which don't map that well to what we know of human behavior, but which are studied anyway.

None of this is to say that string theory doesn't have problems--I'm not expert enough to know one way or the other--but the notion that the problem it has is that it posits extra dimensions in order to make the math work out is... weird.

Oh, and one more thing: can we stop talking about the "teaching of Darwin"? We're not talking about Hillel or Confucius here; sure Darwin had the original idea of natural selection but evolution is a lot more than his "teaching", and our assessment of what's true doesn't depend at all on what Darwin personally thought. That's one of the important differences between science and religion.