Good Writing Alert

Sometimes, when you’re reading, you come across a paragraph so well-crafted and eloquent that you just have to pause in admiration. Here’s an example, taken from the book Higher Superstition by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt. Published in 1994, it deals with some of the astonishingly foolish things certain humanities professors had been writing about science. The reference in the present paragraph is to sociologist Stanley Aranowitz.

Now, the uncertainty principle is undoubtedly one of the cornerstones of quantum mechanics and one of the most philosophically provocative developments in the history of science. Under Aranowitz’s description, however, it seems rather to refer to a kind of epistemological and spiritual malaise, plaguing the minds and souls of contemporary physicists. The argument, roughly but accurately paraphrased (and all too familiar from New Age tracts, among other things), is that since physics has discovered the uncertainty principle, it can no longer provide reliable information about the physical world, has lost its claim to objectivity, and is now embedded in the unstable hermenuetics of subject-object relations. This, alas, demonstrates depressingly well the connotative power of words when they are allowed to drift apart from their contextual meaning. If Heisenberg and company had chosen a less evocative term, an awful lot of nonsense of this sort might never have seen the light of day. Philosophical and pseudophilosophical posturing has dreadfully befuddled discussion of the issue addressed to nonspecialists. (p. 51)

Zing!

Somehow this reminds me of the old creationist claim that the Biblical writers knew about the second law of thermodynamics thousands of years before scientists discovered it independently. The second law was not part of the initial creation, you see, but came into being as the result of the curse of Adam. That was when sin entered the world, and caused everything to start winding down.

Thanks a lot Adam!

Comments

  1. #2 Jim
    August 3, 2009

    I groan every time I read something about a “god” particle or “god” principle, because I know all too well how such will be misunderstood and, even worse, misused by creationists and new-agers alike. I often find myself wishing well-meaning scientists would choose terms and phrases that didn’t so easily play into the naive conceptual frameworks of non-scientists who then feel justified in their foolish positions.

  2. #3 Stephanie Z
    August 3, 2009

    My favorite is explaining to woomeisters that, no, the observer effect does not require a human being for the observation. Over and over and over.

  3. #4 Russell
    August 3, 2009

    Stephanie:

    My favorite is explaining to woomeisters that, no, the observer effect does not require a human being for the observation.

    One of the arguments for the many-worlds interpretation is that observers are no more than quantum systems themselves. Wave collapse be gone!

  4. #5 Jim
    August 3, 2009

    @ Stephanie Z
    and over and over and over…

  5. #6 SLC
    August 3, 2009

    Actually, quantum mechanics, philosophically speaking, makes no sense. As Steven Weinberg observed, quantum mechanics is a totally preposterous theory which unfortunately appears to be correct. Or as Lawrence Krauss observed, nobody understands quantum mechanics.

  6. #7 Jim Harrison
    August 3, 2009

    Collecting stupid remarks from humanists about the sciences is tons of fun, but it is also remarkably unfair and misleading. One could, after all, assemble an equally damning dossier of idiotic remarks made by scientists about humanists.

    On the narrower topic of the cultural meaning of physical theories, can I suggest that the way in which results are interpreted and named does have a lot to do with what is going on in the wider world?–there’s a reason Einstein opted for calling it Relativity theory instead of the theory of invariants, which would have been just as reasonable but far less resonant in 1905. People like Gerald Holton, who is a physicist as well as a historian, go so far as arguing that cultural themes have played a crucial, if heuristic role in the development as well as the reception of theories. I don’t know why such thinking should be rejected out of hand because some middlebrow types don’t have a clue about the uncertainty principle.

  7. #8 george.w
    August 3, 2009

    Collecting stupid remarks from humanists about the sciences is tons of fun, but it is also remarkably unfair and misleading. One could, after all, assemble an equally damning dossier of idiotic remarks made by scientists about humanists.

    Nope, it doesn’t even remotely let them off the hook. Never seen a scientist come up with a lame gravitational theory based on their misinterpretation of Les Miserables.

  8. #9 Jim
    August 3, 2009

    @SLC
    In what way does quantum mechanics not make sense “philosophically”? I make a living teaching philosophy, and I don’t know what you mean.

  9. #10 Jim Harrison
    August 3, 2009

    Yeah, but the point is that scientists often come up with lotsa lame interpretations of Les Miserables and, more seriously, lame notions of history, politics, and philosophy–subjects about which they know little and feel no need to investigate.

    Arguing with some of these folks is rather like arguing with Muslims. “Behold! Is not everything already explained in the Koran! We don’t need to read the books of the Infidels. They belong to the time of ignorance!”

  10. #11 Pierce R. Butler
    August 3, 2009

    george.w @ # 7: Never seen a scientist come up with a lame gravitational theory based on their misinterpretation of Les Miserables.

    Maybe you’ve observed scientists promote dubious sociopolitical, economic or psychological viewpoints premised on over-extrapolation from their particular specialties?

  11. #12 Physicalist
    August 3, 2009

    Heisenberg and company had chosen a less evocative term, an awful lot of nonsense of this sort might never have seen the light of day.

    Perhaps, but it’s worth recalling that Heisenberg and company (particularly Bohr) were themselves pushing a lot of nonsense of this sort. (cf. Bohr’s claims that the living and the mechanical might be complementary like position and momentum are — or his claim to have found a generalization of the principle of causality.)

    And Jason, did the following sentence get mistyped?

    Philosophical and pseudophilosophical posturing has dreadfully befuddled discussion of the issue addressed to nonspecialists.

    If not, I wouldn’t hold up the paragraph as a model of writing. Or perhaps I’m just misreading. But, what issue? The “issue” is “addressed to nonspecialists”?

  12. #13 Physicalist
    August 3, 2009

    @ Jim (#8)
    Quantum mechanics as standardly formulated is inconsistent because it postulates a form of evolution for measurement (the so-called “collapse or the wavefunction”) that differs from the evolution that holds in all other contexts, and the theory offers no criterion for deciding what counts as a “measurement.”

    Insofar as philosophers are typically more concerned about this “measurement problem” than are practicing physicists, I don’t think SLC’s characterization is unfair.

    Proposed solutions to this problem, such as doing away with collapse and postulating that all possible outcomes actually occur (the “many worlds interpretation”), raise many thorny philosophical difficulties (which again, practicing physicists can typically just ignore).

  13. #14 Physicalist
    August 3, 2009

    typo: “collapse of the wavefunction”

  14. #15 Jason Rosenhouse
    August 3, 2009

    Jim Harrison –

    Gross and Levitt did not write a book because a few humanities professors said dumb things about science. They wrote a book because the folks being criticized are respected and influential in their fields precisely because of their alleged contributions to the sociology of science, and precisely because of the phony rigor given to their work by their invocations of scientific terminology. Furthermore, their statements are wrong in a particular way. They are based on a complete lack of understanding of, or even awareness of, the actual content of the theories they invoke. If you are going to hold forth on the social or philosophical significance of physical theories, you really need to spend some time understanding what those theories say. If it amuses you to wonder why certain names are chosen for theories over others then go right ahead, but that has nothing to do with the ideas being criticized by Gross and Levitt.

  15. #16 Pierce R. Butler
    August 3, 2009

    Physicalist @ # 11: The “issue” is “addressed to nonspecialists”?

    Look two words further back in that sentence: the discussion is addressed to nonspecialists.

  16. #17 Paul Murray
    August 3, 2009

    The difficulty is that people want to hear a story (preferably with a moral) when they ask for an explanation. The actual physical universe just doesn’t work that way, so the explanations that science gives don’t satisfy them.

  17. #18 Jim Harrison
    August 3, 2009

    It seems to me that the physicists want to have it both ways. They want to claim that their highly technical discipline is somehow humanly relevant, but they are very unhappy if anybody asks why it is more meaningful than a refrigerator repair manual. In the olden days, when people believed that the universe itself was rational and/or ruled by intelligence, studying physics could be justified as an edifying activity since contemplating the laws of nature was a way of drawing closer to or even imitating the source of everything. Since very few of us are Neoplatonists or Aristotelians anymore, the nonutilitarian value of physics is no longer obvious. Granted most of the riffs that one encounters about the purported deeper meaning of quantum mechanics have nothing to do with the science–I’ve been shooting down cocktail party versions of the uncertainty principle for a good 40 years now–just why are people supposed to give a damn about string theory? Now you understand that I do give a damn about physics. It’s just that I sometimes feel that my explanation of why I do often comes across like a foot fetishist’s justification for licking toes.

    I hesitate to criticize Gross and Levitt particularly since I have only read a couple of chapters of their book. Most of the books dedicated to debunking the philosophy and sociology that I have read, however–and I’ve read a lot of that stuff–are simply exercises in know-your-enemy apolegetics. What you encounter is, as I suggested before, something a lot like the Muslim response to the Jews and Christians. The Muslims refuse to read the Bible and the modern defenders of science refuse to figure out what their opponents are talking about. An honest appraisal of the relationship between the hard sciences and their observers in the social sciences and humanities would address credible, well-informed thinkers like Peter Gallison, Gerald Holton, or Andrew Pickering, some of whom, like Holton, were trained as physicists and even practiced it. It wouldn’t assume that everybody who isn’t cheering the triumphant chariot of scientism has nothing to say or, for that matter, that all the people who get labeled “Postmodernists” or “cultural relativists” (whatever these abused terms actually mean) are promoting the same set of absurd ideas. A serious critique wouldn’t fasten on the small fry just because they were a handy target. I guess I’ll take your word that Stanley Aronowitz counts as widely respected, but I doubt if the Social Text crowd is representative of very much. Anyhow, why not address somebody who might be right or at least offer significant insights if the object of the game really is more than rhetorical victory in an academic pissing contest?

  18. #19 J.J.E.
    August 4, 2009

    It seems to me that the physicists want to have it both ways. They want to claim that their highly technical discipline is somehow humanly relevant, but they are very unhappy if anybody asks why it is more meaningful than a refrigerator repair manual

    Do you seriously believe that the above constitutes a position that should addressed? Firstly, your framing is suspect. The structure of your argument implies that anything that is “technical” in some arbitrary private sense in your own mind could be said by someone to be no more meaningful a refrigerator repair manual. And then you conclude:

    Anyhow, why not address somebody who might be right or at least offer significant insights if the object of the game really is more than rhetorical victory in an academic pissing contest?

    Here, you seem to have nicely called your own introduction into question, as anyone who pushes such a one dimensional cartoon of an argument from your first quote falls prey rather easily to the second quote. Who makes the prima facie absurd claim that physics is no more “humanly relevant” than a refrigerator repair manual? Perhaps scarecrows or other strawmen, but nobody I’ve ever met.

    Finally, your other strawman perspective (that “physicists want to have it both ways”), unlike Jason’s isn’t something I’ve seen promulgated widely in a “respectable” community of academics, so it would seem particularly susceptible to your own subsequent criticism of insignificance.

    In addition to your inconsistency, you seem to imply that it is preferable for Jason to criticize somebody who “might be right” in Jason’s view as opposed to somebody who is so contrary to Jason’s actual stance that he considers them obviously wrong. Come again? Are you saying Jason should find some arbitrarily “serious” argument that he doesn’t think is complete bunk, and then nitpick that? Who are you to dictate what deserves criticism? The most productive criticisms are those that sweep away nonsense, and the nitpicking you promote as being preferable seems to be dealing with minutiae. Dealing with minutiae is fine, but why would it be preferable? You don’t say.

    In any event, Aronowitz is a rather prolific author who is influential in at least some circles, and isn’t exactly a “small fry”. So, the criticism that Jason quotes isn’t just lambasting some fringe character with no reach.

    You also make a rather odd claim:

    the nonutilitarian value of physics is no longer obvious

    Is it any less obvious than the value of literature or art or philosophy or sport? If so, by what criteria?

    Your declarations are muddled and seem primarily established by fiat with no supporting argumentation. And you conclude with a degrading analogy of debate by comparing it to an academic pissing contest. Your arguments against argumentation are unserious and counter productive.

  19. #20 Jonathan Lubin
    August 4, 2009

    Even though I greatly prefer mathematics to physics, I would expect that a person who does not recognize the nonutilitarian value of the latter must also be in a frame of mind to deny the nonutilitarian value of the former. From my point of view, the main attractiveness of physics as an endeavor is exactly the magnificence of its unities and mysteries, and hardly the applications.

  20. #21 Jim Harrison
    August 4, 2009

    I did not assert that physics had no more value than a refrigerator repair manual. Instead, I merely raised a question of why we think it does, a question that obviously makes some of you very uncomfortable or simply angry as if the sciences are obviously sacred and not to be spoken of impiously. Why don’t you imams just issue a fatwa while you’re at it? Is it because you’ve never stopped to notice that there really is a problem here that won’t go away even if you make a few vague verbal gestures about “the magnificence of its unities.” I’m reminded of how educated Christians in the time of Queen Victoria, having lost there faith in the literal truth of their religion, began to justify their church attendance by talking about the grandeur of cathedrals and the stateliness of rituals.

    The issue is not whether individuals highly value the sciences as a matter of fact. Heck, I do that. The philosophical question is how to justify the high valuation I and many others continue to place on knowing about physical reality. Is this evaluation just a matter of taste or habit or can it be made sense of with a response that amounts to something more than just shut the fuck up.

  21. #22 Christophe Thill
    August 4, 2009

    Writing silly things about something as complicated as quantum physics is easy. Now, I recently read an article by Bruno Latour (a shining star of epistemology in France, perhaps because he works in the USA) about research in paleontology. No complicated concepts, only basic stuff about science in the making; it could have been about many other topics. Well, Mr Latour managed to pile absurdity upon absurdity, and to sound like someone who never spoke with a scientists (although he interviews lots of them) nor read a mass market book about dinosaurs…

  22. #23 J.J.E.
    August 4, 2009

    I did not assert that physics had no more value than a refrigerator repair manual.

    Good for you and a great non-sequitur. Neither of the two most recent replies (#18 & #19) claimed you did. I did however claim the following:

    The structure of your argument implies that anything that is “technical” in some arbitrary private sense in your own mind could be said by someone [hint: I intentionally didn't use the 2nd person pronoun] to be no more meaningful a refrigerator repair manual.

    So, please read more carefully. I fully recognized and articulated your paraphrasal, which, despite your protestations to the contrary exceeds the scope admitted by your backtrack in #20:

    [physicists] are very unhappy if anybody asks why [physics] is more meaningful than a refrigerator repair manual

    !=

    I did not assert that physics had no more value than a refrigerator repair manual. Instead, I merely raised a question of why we think it does

    Please, try to conduct your discourse clearly and without constantly moving the target. You used weasel words (“anybody” without a referent) in order to advance a claim (“physics has no more value than a refrigerator”) which you subsequently distanced yourself from (“Now you understand that I do give a damn about physics. It’s just that…”). I see this pattern as very close to concern trolling (Something along the lines of: “I agree with you, but gosh, we mustn’t ignore the valid concerns that unnamed parties certainly must express, but not me, by golly”). At the very least, you are dodging responsibility for conducting the heavy lifting for what would be a difficult but perhaps also an interesting argument. For example, which physicists are unhappy? Who expresses the concern that physics may be no more meaningful than a refrigerator repair manual? And most importantly, how does this tie in with Jason’s original post?

    The philosophical question is how to justify the high valuation I and many others continue to place on knowing about physical reality.

    Well, that’s not obviously connected to the topic, but I’ll go with it. If that was your goal, then why didn’t start with that instead of starting with the following:

    Collecting stupid remarks from humanists about the sciences is tons of fun, but it is also remarkably unfair and misleading [emphasis mine].

    It seems like you were motivated out of a defense for those poor beleaguered humanities types who should simply be ignored when they step into it, because calling them out on their “stupidity” (your term) is just intellectual bullying, and misleading bullying at that. Jason stepped in and answered your first post quite succinctly by saying that there is indeed a good reason for highlighting clear criticisms of bad scholarship borne of faulty understanding. Your next post addressed a strawman that nobody seems to be advocating when you said:

    It seems to me that the physicists want to have it both ways. They want to claim that their highly technical discipline is somehow humanly relevant, but they are very unhappy if anybody asks why it is more meaningful than a refrigerator repair manual.

    Pardon me, but how on earth do you get from Jason’s post highlighting a pithy debunking of a gross misunderstanding of physical principles by a humanities prof to accusing physicists of having thin skins because they feel threatened if others don’t find their field sufficiently meaningful?

    And then you get downright personal:

    a question that obviously makes some of you very uncomfortable or simply angry as if the sciences are obviously sacred and not to be spoken of impiously. Why don’t you imams just issue a fatwa while you’re at it?

    First of this, this “question” was not part of the discussion as far as I can tell, and if it was in your mind, it was so poorly articulated such that it misfired. I certainly wasn’t responding to it. If you want to engage on a topic, it would help if you would first tie it to the topic of discussion through an appropriate segue.

    What I was responding to was your remarkably opaque reasoning offered with no supporting logic or references. I called out your “criticism” of physics because quite frankly it seems just as absurd as to call out physics as any other worthwhile discipline. No more, no less. And still, I haven’t elicited from you any particular rationale for why physics even APPEARS to be less obviously meaningful to some unnamed “anybody” than whatever alternative you might supply is. What obviously meaningful topics are your standard for comparison, hmm?

    Finally, you go off the rails:

    Is this evaluation just a matter of taste or habit or can it be made sense of with a response that amounts to something more than just shut the fuck up [emphasis mine].

    Nobody was telling you to “shut the fuck up”. But, you did engage in argumentation full of apparent strawmen (again, which physicists are unhappy and and who asks the questions that makes them unhappy?), non sequiturs, and ad hominems. Are we really OBVIOUSLY unhappy, Jim, really? Are we acting like imams, really Jim? And is this relevant to the discussion?

    Your argumentation is hard to follow, is only tenuously tied to the current discussion, commits many discourse nonos (like logical fallacies), and exhibits a lot of unnecessary defensiveness. No, I’m not telling you to shut up. I’m asking you to stop mumbling, speak up, and make an actual argument.

  23. #24 Muzz
    August 4, 2009

    Stranger passing through.
    Back in the days when I did this stuff, the point that a lot of critics miss is that, for much of those fashionable humanities points of view, The Uncertainty Principle et al was just a metaphor for human knowledge.
    The difficult and sometimes insidious part is that, to them, everything is sorta a metaphor (as language is the only thing that really matters in reality) and no one is really taught about the real thing. So too often it ends up boiling down to “you can’t really know anything for sure”.
    To their credit, my school actually brought in the science department to explain it to us (although I was doing comparative epistemology and Communications and Semiotics undergrads were unlikely to get the same thing).
    What was funny at the time was the number of these guys who were armed and ready to defend objectivity, personal and general, in the face of post structuralist questioning. Very defensive and prickly some were. Granted, they were probably sick of a la cart questions from humanities types. But it always seemed pretty easy to avoid that one to me; acknowledging a potential lack of objectivity is what peer review is all about.

    Really it is mostly a clash of largely incompatible world views though, and not a terribly harmful one at that. From memory even the follow up book by Sokal et al, on the eponymous affair, backed off from disputing these guys have any right to use scientifc terminology the way they had been. Instead hoping they’d at least get the details right.

  24. #25 Jud
    August 4, 2009

    …I do give a damn about physics. It’s just that I sometimes feel that my explanation of why I do often comes across like a foot fetishist’s justification for licking toes.

    Now there’s good writing!

  25. #26 BdN
    August 4, 2009

    Christopher, would you be kind enough to point me to the Latour’s paper ?

  26. #27 Kevin (NYC)
    August 4, 2009

    “just why are people supposed to give a damn about string theory?”

    well, as someone interested in cosmology, and wondering why gravity is so weak compared to other forces, and wondering if gravitons actually do move back and forth between extra dimensions, any theory which relies on/cals for extra demensions is of interest.

    adding a temporal vector and postulating teeny plank bits that line up accordingly helps chop down the number of dimensions to a usefull size.

    I expect that the next 10-20 years will give us physical experiments based on string theory, mostly looking for either gravitons or dark matter interacting across extra dimensions.

    jst some ideas.

  27. #28 Jim Harrison
    August 4, 2009

    Rather than try to match J.J.E.’s impressive display of logorrhea, let me just make a brief clarification of one point:

    I’m not criticizing science, I’m criticizing a certain ideology of science. Running experiments and elaborating mathematical models and the other things that scientists do when they are in fact doing science has vanishingly little to do with making snarky comments about the sins of the humanists.

    The conceit about the imams, by the way, wasn’t random. It’s struck me for some time that the vulgar scientism one encounters here and at P.Z. Myers site and elsewhere on the web really does have serious analogies with Islam, another doctrine that appeals to the many by virtue of its extraordinary simplicity and exclusiveness.

  28. #29 J.J.E.
    August 4, 2009

    It’s struck me for some time that the vulgar scientism one encounters here and at P.Z. Myers site and elsewhere on the web really does have serious analogies with Islam, another doctrine that appeals to the many by virtue of its extraordinary simplicity and exclusiveness.

    Jim, you have the floor. Please give one example of “vulgar scientism” espoused in this thread and/or elaborate on the parallels between behavior in this thread and imams.

    (And just out of curiosity, what motivated you to point out that laboratory practice and mathematical modeling isn’t intimately related to criticizing humanities people who screw up science? I think yours is a reasonable conclusion as far as it goes, but I’m struggling to understand why you think it is relevant or worth mentioning in this context.)

  29. #30 J.J.E.
    August 4, 2009

    Rather than try to match J.J.E.’s impressive display of logorrhea

    Again, this is another ad hominem added to your repeated imam insult. I take your failure to respond to specific criticisms as evidence that you concede the points. When backed into a rhetorical corner, you forfeit your points, and hurl two more ad hominems. Why bother commenting at all if you wither and curse at the first sign of resistance?

  30. #31 Jim Harrison
    August 4, 2009

    I would have thought that cursing would have involved saying something like “your mother wears combat boots!”

    Deploring the ignorance and presumption of nonscientists is mighty common in these parts, and historians or philosophers who dare to comment on science are routinely snarled at. Do you really need documentation about that?

    I recognize that complaining about the parochialism of the nerds makes me about as welcome as an interloper in a circle jerk and trying to get you all to at least imagine the bare possibility that there is something outside the closet also rubs you the wrong way. Richard Feynman once wrote to the effect that the history of science was about as interesting to scientists as ornithology is to birds. I’m not disagree with him exactly; I’m just pointing out that the indifference of the birds isn’t really a very good argument about ornithology. The refrigerator repairmen don’t have to have a theoretical understanding of the place of their craft in civilization to fix the fridge, but if they expect a special kind of respect, they do need to explain the basis of the grandeur of their activity and why it somehow trumps other things that people do.

  31. #32 Kevin (NYC)
    August 4, 2009

    gaaaggga…

    another name for the list…

    “(A) The refrigerator repairmen don’t have to have a theoretical understanding of the place of their craft in civilization to fix the fridge, (B) but if they expect a special kind of respect, they do need to explain the basis of the (C) grandeur of their activity and (D) why it somehow trumps other things that people do. ”

    this is just drivel.

    A – a good understanding of the history of refrigeration certainly does help fix a fridge. you drag in “theoretical understanding of the place of their craft in civilization” as if that relates to the history of science in some odd way.

    B – who is looking for “special respect?” I think scientists want to speak for science and don’t care for it when untutored others horn in on their action. seems reasonable, seems like they just want respect.

    C – grandeur? refrigration is a masterpiece of modern science! it has saved countless lives and transformed our way of life! why are you such a shit?

    D – I don’t think refrigieration repair people begrudge others their allocades for whatever area they are in.. except they want HVAC experts talking for their area, not plumbers.

  32. #33 dış cephe
    August 4, 2009

    Great post.Thanks.

  33. #34 Russell
    August 4, 2009

    Physicalist writes:

    Quantum mechanics as standardly formulated is inconsistent because it postulates a form of evolution for measurement (the so-called “collapse or the wavefunction”) that differs from the evolution that holds in all other contexts, and the theory offers no criterion for deciding what counts as a “measurement.”

    Also known as the Copenhagen interpretation. The many-worlds interpretation is that measurement is a quantum process just like any other. No wave collapse, so no mystery around wave collapse. It just has the annoying implication that people, like cats and electrons, exist in a superposition of states.

  34. #35 BaldApe
    August 4, 2009

    Two words:
    Fashionable Nonsense

    And Jim #1, I agree about unfortunate terminology in popularizing science. “Mitochondrial eve,” “Y chromosome Adam,” and don’t get me started about “the Hobbit.”

  35. #36 Physicalist
    August 4, 2009

    Russell (#33) writes:

    Also known as the Copenhagen interpretation.

    Yes, it is so called, but in error. The interpretation is actually due to von Neumann.

    Bohr, for example, never spoke of collapse. (Nor did it generally play a role in the accounts of Pauli, Heisenberg, or Rosenfeld, to name a few more members of the Copenhagen gang.)

    It just has the annoying implication that people, like cats and electrons, exist in a superposition of states.

    Yes, this is one of the “thorny philosophical difficulties” I referred to above.

  36. #37 Physicalist
    August 4, 2009

    @ Pierce R. Butler (#15):

    Yes, that makes more sense, but I’m still dissatisfied.

    Philosophical . . . posturing has . . . befuddled discussion of [quantum uncertainty] addressed to nonspecialists.

    Are we talking about popularizations of QM here (in which case it seems false), or post-modernist discussions aimed at nonspecialists (in which case it doesn’t seem like it’s the posturing that doing the befuddling) . . . ?

    I think I’ll just give up.

  37. #38 J.J.E.
    August 4, 2009

    Deploring the ignorance and presumption of nonscientists is mighty common in these parts, and historians or philosophers who dare to comment on science are routinely snarled at. Do you really need documentation about that?

    Yes, please document that such “snarling” is both common and unjustified. For my part, I have a high standard for what is acceptable for humanities types to say about science. But the bar wasn’t set by me, it was set by them. In my own field, we have very insightful humanities scholars who are intimately familiar with the results, process, and methods of science as well as those of their own disciplines (in this case history). Two scholars come immediately to mind for my own field: Stephen Stigler (the younger historian, not the elder Nobel economist) and William Provine. Stigler, who actually teaches the introduction to statistics for majors, is well-versed in the discipline he studies and would never make the same crass mistakes that Aranowitz does. And Provine studied with one of the leading population geneticists of the day, Dick Lewontin. Both of these men are careful and rigorous scholars, and understand their subjects very well, both from the humanities as well as from the scientific perspectives. If you are in population genetics and want to understand the foundations of the modern synthesis, you’ll probably run into both of those guys’ work at some point.

    Anyway, when you have such high quality scholarship from some humanities scholars, why tolerate trash and presumptuousness from others? If you are implying that scientists snarl at any humanities person who comments, then again, you need to provide some systematic evidence to support that claim, otherwise, you’re flogging a strawman. I just gave two great examples from my field of people that are not only “permitted” to speak up regarding their perspectives on science, but indeed are encouraged to do so. Sadly, when I peeked at Wiki’s entry on William Provine, I noticed a unsourced claim that he is suffering from a terminal brain tumor, something I thought he already beat. Can anyone confirm this? If this is true, it would be sad indeed.

  38. #39 eric
    August 6, 2009

    Jim Harrison @20:

    I did not assert that physics had no more value than a refrigerator repair manual. Instead, I merely raised a question of why we think it does

    Because, to use the old adage, one is giving a man a fish, the other is teaching him how to fish. You may not need to understand adiabatic expansion to fix a refrigerator, but you do need to understand it to design one.

    This should not be difficult to understand. Nor should it be difficult to understand why a scientist might get annoyed when a sociologist misuses a technical term.

    If you want to use scientific concepts as metaphors, you need to make the metaphor clear to your students. Because the fallout of poor communication is that they misunderstand science, not just your metaphorical point. The reason scientists get their backs up about sociologists (and others) using QM terms meaphorically is because this can lead to the students becoming misinformed about what QM actually says.

    In short, we’re sensitive (perhaps oversensitive) to the practice because most often we end up cleaning up after someone else’s mistake.

  39. #40 RJ
    August 7, 2009

    Here’s another point to supplement what Jason and J.J.E. are saying. There are many humanities scholars who like myself have put in the work and time required to learn science – for real (in my case, graduate work in chemistry and physics). That people who don’t know what they are talking about pronounce on science it is irksome in numerous ways. For example,

    A) Our professional organizations are in many cases dominated by clowns like Latour. Thus it is difficult to advance with what we consider honest, serious scholarship concerning science. Also, people like Latour are pretty boring, so a good fraction of presentations offered though these professional associations are just too tedious to bother with.
    B) Employment prospects are limited. I could be a ‘star’ in this field if I wrote like Fuller. But because of my commitment to real scholarship, my employment opportunities are few. It really ought to be the other way around.
    C) People like Fuller refuse to take responsibility for this, but the evidence suggests that much of this ‘fog-generator’ scholarship has contributed to public misunderstanding of, and antipathy to, science.

  40. #41 otomobil kiralama
    August 8, 2009

    Thank you very much for writing, I wish success

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