The Quantum Pontiff

To Woo Engineers

Hoisted from the comments, Rod says

You guys are much more blunt than I usually am (except with students :-). You’re also a lot more succinct.

This particular paper may be wrong, and the authors should be told that, but: as the field grows, and more engineers join, there are going to be more people who start with naive positions. The goal is not to run them off, but to teach them, so they can help us build these things :-).

To which, of course, I can only plead guilty, guilty, guilty. I mean no harm to engineers, that is for sure, especially considering the fact that I am surrounded by them ;) And damn straight I know how important engineers will be in building a quantum computer, and that physicists all by themselves are more likely to be doomed in this endeavor (but I might add that D-wave or Transmeta might demonstrate that just having the engineering bravado isn’t necessarily enough. Damn straight sometimes those physics and theory people know what the hell they are talking about.)

In some ways, this whole question of how to respond to the paper like the one posted, is a bit like the framing debate which overran Scienceblogs recently. Indeed we might suppose that the majority of scientists in the world are skeptical about quantum computing. How best might we convince them that there are reasons to be skeptical, but not the ones they are most likely thinking about (quantum computers are analog computers)!

Now of course, whenever I see a paper which is blatantly wrong, the physicist in me rears up its egotistical head and wants to shout at the top of my lungs, “WHAH!” I have a similar visceral reaction to the movie “Expelled” where I want to tell each and every person who I talk to about the movie how horrible it is. But, of course, this isn’t a good way to earn friends or, more importantly, to convince those who are skeptical for all the wrong reasons to be skeptical for all the right reasons (or reasons not yet thought of.)

So what is the best way to sway the tide? One can give talks, write papers, start a blog, found a wiki, whatever, but will any of these things really convince large numbers of the quantum skeptical to forsake their wayward curmudgeoness? Are there examples which we can learn from, where a skeptical crowd was swayed to a well supported view? Or, as Planck put it are we doomed to wait the skeptics out:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. – Max Planck

Comments

  1. #1 Tyler DiPietro
    April 30, 2008

    “Now of course, whenever I see a paper which is blatantly wrong, the physicist in me rears up its egotistical head and wants to shout at the top of my lungs, “WHAH!” I have a similar visceral reaction to the movie “Expelled” where I want to tell each and every person who I talk to about the movie how horrible it is. But, of course, this isn’t a good way to earn friends or, more importantly, to convince those who are skeptical for all the wrong reasons to be skeptical for all the right reasons (or reasons not yet thought of.)”

    I think sometimes such roles are misplaced. Scientists shouldn’t be obligated to function as PR spokespeople or businessmen or even technologists. Those are all roles that they can adopt according to their own ambitions, but are to varying degrees peripheral to science itself. Scientists should be perfectly honest about what science tells us about reality and call out those who peddle notions that fail to align with it. To suggest otherwise, IMO, comes close to undermining the core thing that makes science a socially valuable enterprise.

  2. #2 Dave Bacon
    April 30, 2008

    There is a big difference between calling out someone and calling out someone in a way that doesn’t alienate them, don’t you think? I mean, for example, I’ve witnessed people who are absolutely gifted at telling as it is, but doing so in a way that doesn’t sound condescending or alienating. And I suspect there is a method behind their madness. I’d rather be them, than the jerk who yells fire so loud every time someone does something wrong. Both for my own sanity, and for what I think is the betterment of society.

  3. #3 philippe martin
    April 30, 2008

    engineering,make stuff happen,Theory will ever born with those who manipulate and understand them.engineering are those who will say to you stop,are you sure ,why,why,it will be clear to say Evolution was made and will still be made by engineering.Quantum it is a big word,we are wrong to believe we get all the meaning.philippe mart who have the chance to work with engineer and will hope again.

  4. #4 Tyler DiPietro
    May 1, 2008

    Dave,

    “There is a big difference between calling out someone and calling out someone in a way that doesn’t alienate them, don’t you think?”

    That’s a good point, but the distinction is often more easily stated than actually defined. To many people, scientists in general come off as curmudgeonly. At the other extreme you have people who are either used to the critical rough and tumble of academic science or even kinda like it. I think that if you’re operating primarily as a scientist in a scientific environment, those who are in the arena should probably know how to take the heat or otherwise get out of the kitchen anyway. The same thing would be true of a scientist who wanted to move into, say, entrepreneurial endeavors. Different game, different rules.

  5. #5 Ian Durham
    May 1, 2008

    “That’s a good point, but the distinction is often more easily stated than actually defined. To many people, scientists in general come off as curmudgeonly. At the other extreme you have people who are either used to the critical rough and tumble of academic science or even kinda like it. I think that if you’re operating primarily as a scientist in a scientific environment, those who are in the arena should probably know how to take the heat or otherwise get out of the kitchen anyway. The same thing would be true of a scientist who wanted to move into, say, entrepreneurial endeavors. Different game, different rules.”
    There are two problems with that argument. The first is that it assumes that technology and science are different games with different rules. Industry is certainly different from academia but engineers in academe are likely familiar with and used to the “rough and tumble” of the latter.
    The second problem is that it equates a “rule” with a “culture.” The culture of academic science is “rough and tumble.” This is not necessarily a rule, per sť. And that is a point on which I whole-heartedly agree with Dave. Science can – and should – be relentlessly critical, but does not necessarily have to be so in a rude, demeaning, or otherwise alienating way.
    This latter point would be well-heeded by scientists in their dealings with each other, in fact. Quantum information is a field that includes a lot of people who originally were in different fields and it will continue to attract those people as the field grows (in fact it is a stated goal of the APS’ Topical Group on Quantum Information). Yet, by treating some of these potential QI researchers so shabbily we risk alienating people who could truly make a contribution given the right guidance and assistance. As someone who switched to QI from another field (foundational and historical cosmology) I have run into this more than once myself – rude criticism without any offer of assistance. In fact attempts to seek assistance were almost universally rebuffed. Lucky for me I’m stubborn as a mule and have slowly made progress on my own over the past few years.
    Finally, aside from all the logical arguments, there’s a difference between being curmudgeonly and being a jerk. I’m curmudgeonly (I live in Maine, after all) but I still try to be nice and helpful.