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.