What Does Slate Have Against Physicists?

Benjamin over at The World's Fair and Chad over at Uncertain Principles have already blogged this, but neither acheves the proper level of indignation in my opinion.

In this post from September 15, I discussed an astonishingly poor discussion of string theory, written by Gregg Easterbrook and published in Slate. Now, in an apparent effort to cement its reputation for unreliable commentary on science, they have run this silly essay. The subject is a recent experiment by sociologist Henry Collins. He posed seven questions about gravitational waves to a professional physicist. Both Collins and the physicist wrote answers to the questions, and these answers were submitted to a panel of nine physicists. They were asked to determine which answers were written by the physicist and which by the sociologist. Only one of the judges chose correctly, while one other gave up in disgust. The other seven guessed wrong. This article, from Nature provides some of the specifics.

Collins' experiment shows simply that if a person studies physics diligently, and discusses the subject with actual physicists, he can learn to speak intelligently about topics in physics. This is news? The author of Slate's essay, Jon Lackman (described only as a writer in New York), seems to think so:

W.H. Auden once remarked, “When I am in the company of scientists, I feel like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a drawing room full of dukes.” Scientists often do have an aristocratic air. After all, they know things--important things, nature's secrets--that the rest of us could never understand ourselves. Or could we?

In a recent experiment of his design, British sociologist Harry Collins asked a scientist who specializes in gravitational waves to answer seven questions about the physics of these waves. Collins, who has made an amateur study of this field for more than 30 years but has never actually practiced it, also answered the questions himself. Then he submitted both sets of answers to a panel of judges who are themselves gravitational-wave researchers. The judges couldn't tell the impostor from one of their own. Collins argues that he is therefore as qualified as anyone to discuss this field, even though he can't conduct experiments in it.

Collins' feat startled the scientific community. The journal Nature predicted that the experiment would have a broad impact, writing that Collins could help settle the “science wars of the 1990s,” “when sociologists launched what scientists saw as attacks on the very nature of science, and scientists responded in kind,” accusing the sociologists of misunderstanding science. More generally, it could affect “the argument about whether an outsider, such as an anthropologist, can properly understand another group, such as a remote rural community.” With this comment, Nature seemed to be saying that if a sociologist can understand physics, then anyone can understand anything.

Lackman seems not to appreciate that every professional pysicist started out as someone who knew nothing at all about the subject. Learning physics is a matter of hard work, not innate genius.

He also seems not too appreicate that it was Collins who chose the questions. One suspects the questions were chosen to play to those areas of the subject Collins felt most comfortable about. “The field,” alas, is far greater than what was tested in these questions. Collins may have achieved an amateur's underdtanding of the subject, but the idea that he is now as qualified to discuss the subject as physicists is just ridiculous.

I see an analogy here with my own blogging. I've devoted a lot of time and effort over the last several years to learning biology. As a result, I now feel comfortable discussing the subject, at least in the context of evolution/creation disputes. But I have no illusions about how my expertise stacks up with that of a professional biologist.

We should also mention that it's rather meoldramatic to say that scientists were startled by this result. Mildly surprised and amused, perhaps, but not startled. “Startled” would imply that as a result of this experiment physicists have been alerted to some defect in how they view themselves. That is not the case here.

And the idea that any of this relates to the science wars of the nineties is preposterous. The charge made by scientists wasn't that sociologists were constitutionally incapable of understanding science. It was that, as it happens, many of the most vocal sociologists were, indeed, laughably igonorant of the subject they were discussing. Meanwhile, understanding the content of various branches of physics has little to do with understanding physicists as a community. After all, there is far more to being a professional physicist than learning a lot of physics.

Lackman next brings up the Sokal hoax:

Alan Sokal does. The New York University physicist is famous for an experiment a decade ago that seemed to demonstrate the futility of laymen discussing science. In 1996, he tricked the top humanities journal Social Text into publishing as genuine scholarship a totally nonsensical paper that celebrated fashionable literary theory and then applied it to all manner of scientific questions. (“As Lacan suspected, there is an intimate connection between the external structure of the physical world and its inner psychological representation qua knot theory.”) Sokal showed that, with a little flattery, laymen could be induced to swallow the most ridiculous of scientific canards--so why should we value their opinions on science as highly as scientists'? (Emphasis in original)

Oh, for heaven's sake. The point of the Sokal hoax wasn't that it is futile for nonscientists to try to learn about science. It was that the premiere humanities journal leading the charge against professional scientists was run by people who, as a simple fact, knew nothing at all about science. They might have chosen to educate themselves on the subject, but instead chose not to bother. Sokal's hoax was effective not simply because his paper was a lot of nonsense. Rather, it achieved a level of nonsense that should have been obvious within two paragraphs to anyone with a high school understanding of science. At the very least, the editors of Social Text should have had the werewithal to have another scientist look at it. That they could not even see through so obvious a pile of malarkey showed that they had no business commenting in any way about science.

That's nothing like what happened here. Collins gave good, solid answers to the questions. It wasn't as if physicists were putting their seal of approval on utter poppycock.

What I find really galling about Slate's article is that it starts from the premise that scientists are some special breed apart form normal humans. Then it uses Collins' experiment to puncture that “myth.” But this is silly. Anyone willing to put in the time and effort can learn the subject. As a practical matter it can be difficult to learn such things on your own, but we know that Collins was able to discuss these issues with actual physicists. The only surprising thing here is that Collins actually went to the trouble of educating himself about physics before writing about the subject. Most sociologists don't bother.


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Hear, hear! I'm not a practicing scientist either, but I qualify as a very educated layman in a number of fields, all corresponding to the interests I've had at various points in my life. On the other hand, I do flatter myself that I have a "proper scientific mindset", and I think that has almost as much to do with temperament as learning per se. Early imprinting may also make a difference; I come from a family of schoolteachers, and two of my grandparents were in fact science teachers.

By David Harmon (not verified) on 10 Oct 2006 #permalink

The point of the Sokal hoax wasn't that it is futile for nonscientists to try to learn about science. It was that the premiere humanities journal leading the charge against professional scientists was run by people who, as a simple fact, knew nothing at all about science. They might have chosen to educate themselves on the subject, but instead chose not to bother.

That's the problem exactly. Maybe some folks think they're too wise, or science is too nerdy, yet they feel free to criticize without having a proper understanding of what they're talking about and don't want to bother to learn. Many of our college courses designed to "meet the science requirement for non-science majors" fail to adequately get the message of science across.

Jason, there's a lengthy and heated discussion on the Collins paper over at Crooked Timber. As you might expect, it's weighted more toward the philosophical side of things, but it's worth wading through anyway.

By Ginger Yellow (not verified) on 11 Oct 2006 #permalink

Wasn't there an article put out a while back to the effect that almost anyone can become a recognized expert in any given topic, even one they know nothing about, if they studied it for 10 years?

I don't know of anyone has argued that a sociologist can't understand gravity waves if they sufficiently apply themselves (30 years sounds sufficient to me) - the argument is that they don't, simply by virtue of being a sociologist, have any special knowledge in that field.

There are even a few sciences where the self-trained have made real advances in the field, as in paleontology and astronomy.

The only interesting bit is that the panel seemed to prefer Collins' answers, because they were less mathematical.

I second Mark's idea that we don't teach science well; but I include the courses for the regular science curriculum as well. Loosely speaking, science is both a method of learning, and the body of knowledge thus generated. Too many science courses focus on "what" we know to the detriment of "how" we know it.

In the end, many PhD scientists are "trained to work in the lab" rather than "educated" in their fields. Thus, many are little more than advanced technicians.

As for the self-educated, in my experience what they lack is an appreciation of the broader view. My PhD advisor used to quiz me on things and when I answered he would reply "That's the textbook answer; but how do you explain ...?" Self-educated people usually don't have the benefit of those discussions.

Bull's eye. The comparison between Collins and Sokal is trivial and obvious - if one utterly ignores logic and good sense. In short, there is no comparison. However, while your article is correct in all its particulars, you are doomed to failure. The only people who will follow the logic are people who are logical thinkers. The people who would buy into the Collins argument are the ones who don't think logically and who are going to chalk up any amount of reason or logic on your part to just so much sour grapes.

"Self-educated people usually don't have the benefit of those discussions."

Being largely a self-educated person myself (at least on certain topics I find very interesting), I often find myself suffering from this disadvantage. On the good side, I recognize this deficiency and commonly demur to those who know better. This is a very common problem with "self-educated" creationists. It's very easy to take a few factoids and arrive at completely silly conclusions when one is grossly ignorant of the wider context.

The fact that Social Text could ever be considered "the premiere humanities journal leading the charge against professional scientists" would be quite surprising news to any individual, mself included, who devotes his or her professional life to studying the culture of science, Jason. It has never been near the upper echelon of such journals.