Over at Backreaction, Bee has a long and thoughtful post (they don’t do any other kind) about the interaction between science and the popular imagination. She says a lot of interesting things, but I think she comes to the wrong conclusion at the end, when she writes:

However, despite this general trend, what worries me specifically about popular science reporting is how much our community seems to pay attention to it. This is a very unhealthy development. The opinion making process in science should not be affected by popular opinions. It should not be relevant whether somebody makes for a good story in the media, or whether he or she neglects advertising himself. What concerns me is not so much the media re-re-repeating fabulous sentences, but how many physicists get upset about it. This clearly indicates that they think this public discussion is relevant, and this should not be the case.

This strikes me as almost exactly backwards, and the sort of thing that will lead to a vicious cycle. If scientists reject and ignore popular discussion because it does a bad job with the science, it’s not going to improve the quality of public discussion, it’s only going to make things worse, leading to more rejection, and still lower quality discussion. And this stuff does end up affecting the future course of science, both through public funding decisions and also through recruitment– public discussions of science are one of the things that draw students into science, and if the public discussions are all utter crap, you end up with students who are coming into the field with their heads stuffed with terrible misconceptions.

The proper response to bad public discussions of science is not withdrawal from the discussion or seething contempt for any discussion not requiring LaTeX (see Angry Physics for more on Distler’s regrettable tone), but working to get better discussion. This could involve active engagement with the media, writing your own popular articles for blogs and magazines, or just encouraging and publicizing people who do a good job of discussing science.

The problem is that the current culture in science regards people who try to reach out to the public with something between pity and contempt. Writing popular books and articles is seen as tangential at best to the professional activity of science– it’s something done by people who are past their prime, or who don’t have the chops to make it in the first place. Serious scientists don’t write for a popular audience.

The inevitable result of this is, well, the physics blogosphere that Jacques Distler denounces as an “intellectual wasteland.” There are a handful of smart and serious people doing good work to publicize real science (Bee and Stefan, the Cosmic Variance crowd, most of the physics blogs in the left sidebar), and then there are a whole bunch of kooks and cranks and screaming jackasses. The situation isn’t a whole lot better in the world of popular magazines and books– every time I’ve posted about popular discussions of the string theory wars, I get comments saying “Kaku is a flake,” or “nobody really believes what Susskind says,” and so on. But they’re the ones who are out there writing books for a popular audience– if the only people who write general articles about the field are flakes, is it really surprising that public discussion of the field is flaky?

If we want to see better public discussion of science, we need to provide better public discussion of science. That means treating public outreach with respect, or at least not contempt. That means actually doing some work to reach out to the blogosphere and the media and the larger culture, so that people get the chance to see a responsible treatment of real science, and not just hype and wackiness.

(Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to stop ranting about the lack of respect for popularization of science, and get back to work writing my popular book on quantum mechanics…)


  1. #1 Moshe
    November 27, 2007

    I agree both with Bee and with you. As this episode demonstrates, there is very little quality control built in much of the public discussions of science (who actually reads “new scientist” any more?). However, I still believe that there are many outlets that are interested in science for all the right reasons, and as you say it is our responsibility to feed them with interesting and correct information. Hopefully they will be interested…

    But…I am also concerned exactly about Bee’s point. The public discussion of science is completely divorced from the scientific realities (nothing demonstrates this better than the string wars, but neither one of us wants to get back into that). The way science is evaluated and steered by scientists works fairly well, despite obvious imperfections. Now all of a sudden we have lots of very visible loud voices (with blogs and books and what not), saying nothing particularly important. Let’s hope they do not influence the way science is done (I’d also hope they don’t unduly influence the way scientific issues are perceived in the public sphere, but I do like to live in reality, and that ship has sailed).

  2. #2 Bee
    November 27, 2007

    Hi Chad:

    I am really confused by what you write, because it doesn’t reflect what I think at all.

    First, you claim that I want scientists [to] reject and ignore popular discussion . I never said anything remotely into this direction, and I certainly don’t think so. What I said instead is that scientists need to learn how to deal with the increasing amount of public interest. It’s a fairly new development, and as I said in my post, scientists will have to learn how to live and how to deal with that – responsibly.

    Second, the sentences you quote refer to the very real danger that the amount of publicity a topic receives affects the way opinions are made (funds are distributed) within the community and that should not be the case.

    Third, I have explicitly stated that I think popular reporting of science is a good thing (if not, would write a blog?), but that it requires both sides to deal with it responsibly – the journalists as well as the scientists. The very reason for my posting is essentially that I am concerned about what you put as “you end up with students who are coming into the field with their heads stuffed with terrible misconceptions.”

    Fourth, the quotation you have is not the conclusion I come to, it’s actually not a conclusion at all. My conclusion is

    “Information is precious. It is one of the most important goods in our modern society. Each time one of us spreads inaccurate information we contribute to confusion and hinder progress. Whether a scientist, a journalist, an editor, or a blogger: what we say, write, and promote publicly, is in our responsibility.”

    I feel very misrepresented by posting.



  3. #4 Chad Orzel
    November 27, 2007

    What I’m saying is that I don’t think the proper response is to ignore public discussions for fear of making bad decisions about funding priorities, but rather to pay more attention to public discussions, and work to make sure that they accurately reflect what’s really going on. Ignoring publicity in funding decisions may look good in the short term, but self-defeating in the long term. A better solution is to work to make sure that things that are worth funding get more publicity than things that aren’t.

    At the end of the day, the funding is coming from the general public, and they ultimately deserve some say in where the money goes. If you completely separate funding and public discussion, you get pretty much exactly the situation you’re afraid of– publicity ends up going to things that aren’t worth funding, and you get people wondering why we’re not spending our money on the latest hype.

    The problem isn’t that people are paying too much attention to publicity, it’s that for years, nobody has been paying enough attention to publicity, which has led to public hype wandering off into strange areas that aren’t necessarily in contact with research reality.

  4. #5 Bee
    November 27, 2007

    Chad, to repeat it: I never said ‘the proper response is to ignore public discussions for fear of making bad decisions about funding priorities’. I said scientists have to learn how to deal with public discussions. I never said I want to ‘completely separate funding and public discussion’, I said the opinion making process within the scientific community should not be based on the number of copies sold by NewScientist, ot the marketing skills of researcher X. Okay, that wasn’t quite what I said, but I paraphrase it so you have a chance to understand it.
    Yes, in the end funding is coming from the public, but there is a good reason why we are living in something called a representative democracy (at least that’s where I live). The idea behind that is that is that decisions are made by experts who represent the public, and not by majority vote of the public itself. The public opinion is subject to an awful amount of factors that play absolutely no role for the question how promising a research topic is. If you think you can ‘rationalize’ these opinions with more popular science reports you are hopelessly naive.

    it’s that for years, nobody has been paying enough attention to publicity, which has led to public hype wandering off into strange areas that aren’t necessarily in contact with research reality.

    That is why my post is titled ‘Fact of Fiction’. I hope you read more than the one paragraph you copied.


  5. #6 Bee
    November 27, 2007

    Err, I mean ‘Fact or Fiction’. Not quite as good as the Giant Mandela though.

  6. #7 Jacques Distler
    November 27, 2007

    Sorry you were put off by the anger in my post. But I think you misunderstand its direction.

    Put simply, I believe that if you are going to post about a physics paper, you bloody well ought to have read (and understood) it. Otherwise, regardless of whether your post contains equations, you are giving your imprimatur to information that is very likely to be incorrect.

    None of the physics bloggers, whose posts about the Lisi paper I had read before sitting down to compose my own, had actually read it. None.

    At least, that’s the charitable interpretation. And, absent any persuasive evidence to the contrary, I’m sticking to the charitable interpretation.

    Actually working through the details of something, before posting about it, requires effort. The responsible thing to do, if you don’t want to put in that effort is, as Clifford Johnson did, to decline to post about it.

  7. #8 Plato
    November 27, 2007

    Chad Orzel:If we want to see better public discussion of science, we need to provide better public discussion of science. That means treating public outreach with respect, or at least not contempt. That means actually doing some work to reach out to the blogosphere and the media and the larger culture, so that people get the chance to see a responsible treatment of real science, and not just hype and wackiness.

    Jacques mention Clifford Johnson’s blog on responsibility, and I would just like to add that he is doing a good job of communicating science with this responsibility to the public. As those who do with questioning the position of presentation.

    Overall Bee and Stefan are presenting a good subject basis with a historical innovative flare that is appreciated. An artist and historian.:)

  8. #9 Bee
    November 27, 2007

    Jacques: I had read the paper, I had heard Garrett’s talk, I discussed with him while he was here, and later by email. As I just said in a comment over at your post, I don’t know much about E8 and I prefer to stick with writing about things I know. I put quite some effort in my post and into making it as clear as I could. I have laid out several details there that I think didn’t come out in the paper very well, and I have tried to present it in an accessible way. I think my criticism is clearly documented in my post. You focused on a different aspect, fine, but I too find your tone very inappropriate.

  9. #10 Moshe
    November 27, 2007

    I find it much more worrisome that the paper in question passed a grant proposal review, a few talks in conferences and the PI, and lots of informal discussions with professional scientists. Despite all that attention some very basic flaws in the argument were not exposed. Maybe, despite the unpleasantness it entails, and the inevitable complaints about the “tone” it causes, telling the truth has more value than encouraging pats on the back.

  10. #11 John Novak
    November 27, 2007

    Bee, when you say, with your own emphasis, not mine or Chad’s, “This clearly indicates that they think this public discussion is relevant, and this should not be the case.” well… yeah, you are saying in so many words you want scientists to reject and ignore popular discussion.

    I accept as a matter of good faith that you might have meant something different, or subtler, but even after a close reading of your article, I can’t figure out what other thing you could possibly have meant. Perhaps I missed the sidebar of, “But here is why scientists should accept and embrace this irrelevant public discourse.”

    Now, that said, there are some ways in which popular discussion is less relevant, and as close to irrelevant as can possibly be– and that’s when it comes down to what physical laws actually are. That’s a subject for discussion only to the point where disucssion has shown itself to be extremely useful in the generation of new and better ideas. But even so, had Einstein been laughed out of the room for general relativity and no more experiments ever been done, Einstein would still have been right. And Einstein was still wrong when he said God doesn’t play dice with the universe.

    That’s not what I understood your article to be about, though. I understood your article to be about discussion on a less ideal level, discussion about, for instance, the meaning of results, the publicity of results, how those discussions lead to funding, and so forth, and it is in that sense that you’re saying public discussion is irrelevant. In an ideal world with infinite talent and resources, you might be right. We don’t live in that world, though, we live in a world where much of science is done with money belonging to someone other than the scientist, whether it be corporate investors, a rich uncle, or the financiers of last resort, state and federal governments. And in that sense, when we’re talking about public dollars, saying the public discussion is irrelevant has more than a touch of hubris about it.

    Now, does the public have an obligation to inform themselves about science? Yes, of course, although since it is the public who has the money, that obligation might not be as strong as one would hope. Nevertheless, it’s there. But, there is a corresponding responsibility on the part of the scientists to help educate the public… and because the scientists are the borrowers, that responsibility is correspondingly stronger. Dismissing public discussion as irrelevant is, I humbly submit, not the right direction. On the contrary, participating in that public discussion– vigourously– is the right direction.

    What it leads to is a community that is inwardly focussed and, ultimately, narcissistic. Not, mind you, that this is in any way unique to the science community. Clearly, the engineering community gets wrapped up in this mindset as well– I’ve seen that from the inside. But a better analogy is, probably, art. I’ve known artists, both formally, exquisitely trained (up to the PhD level in their fields) and not. I’ve therefore also seen the tendency of those exquisitely trained artists to produce art that is only meaningful to other artists, or at least, only meaningful to other people who have had the luxury to spend years in close historical study of art.

    All well and good, if those artists are content with that small audience. But almost invariably, that subset of artists becomes not simply inwardly focussed, but narcissistic, and both blames the untrained public for “not getting their work,” while simultaneously turning public acclaim into a sort of a mark of failure. (If it’s popular, it can’t be any good.) It took me years to realize, after the damage done to my sensibilities in college, that there are good and serious artists whose work is accessable both to the untrained audience and more meaningful and rewarding for years of study, and I frankly resent the years of decent literature I lost because of that.

    And it further seems to me that science– or some scientists, at least– in rejecting the notion that public discourse is relevant on that social level, are going in the same direction. The difference is, while it is relatively inexpensive to produce art for the consumption of artists, it can cost billions of dollars to produce science for the consumption of scientists. And if you want to protest that your science isn’t just for the consumption of scientists, well, fine.

    Protest away.

    But do, please, make that protest part of the public discourse, and perhaps more substantive than, “You’re wrong and irrelevant.” Because after all, in a representative democracy, if the representatives are handing out billions of dollars to scientists for purposes that the people don’t understand, the people are going to quite logically conclude that that’s nonsense, and send accordingly strong messages. That is the whole idea of a representative democracy, after all.

  11. #12 Carl Brannen
    November 27, 2007

    I don’t think it’s right to criticize Distler (or Lubos Motl for that matter) for “seething contempt” when they discuss other people’s ideas in physics. At least they’re discussing it, and that’s better than ignoring it.

    From my point of view, yes, they miss the point of the new physics. The old folks are experts in the old physics, of course they will discuss new physics with seething contempt; this is the way it’s always been in physics and Einstein did see some response of that nature, at least until experiment bore his predictions out.

    Old physics consists of a very large number of theoretical assumptions and a fairly large collection of calculational techniques resulting from those theoretical assumptions. The central idea of the New Physics is to take the calculational techniques but to ignore the theoretical justification for them.

    The central philosophical question distinguishing the old physics from the new is the nature of Nature. Is she best described by symmetries or by the calculations that were derived on the basis of those symmetries? The basic problem is that the same calculations can be derived on the basis of many different possible symmetries.

  12. #13 Bee
    November 27, 2007

    John: I am sorry if you find my post can be misunderstood. I have tried to make myself as clear as I could. Read also my above reply. Maybe the confusion stems from not clarifing relevant ‘for what’. However, in my post I explain that in the paragraph directly following the one Chad quoted. I repeat that I never said scientists should ‘reject and ignore’ popular discussions. I wrote I am concerned because they think (not without reason) that the public opinion is directly relevant for funding decisions, and that should not be the case. It should neither be the case that it is indeed relevant, nor that they think it might be.

    Thanks for the good faith. Maybe this was a paragraph that you missed:

    Communicating our research, within and outside the community, is an essential part of our job. I am very happy to see that physics – even the theoretical side! – recently receives an increasing amount of attention in the broader public. I am all in favor of popular science books (even though these simplifications sometimes make me grind my teeth), and I think PI is doing an absolutely great job with its public outreach program. I am not sure how much influence blogs have in this regard, but I hope they contribute their share to making the ivory tower a little less detached.

  13. #14 Jacques Distler
    November 27, 2007

    Bee wrote:

    Jacques: I had read the paper, I had heard Garrett’s talk, I discussed with him while he was here, and later by email. As I just said in a comment over at your post, I don’t know much about E8 and I prefer to stick with writing about things I know.

    Bee, I responded to the comment you left on my blog. I’m not sure I want to repeat everything I have to say twice. So, if you want to discuss this matter further, you’ll have to do it over there.

  14. #15 mat
    November 29, 2007

    well here goes….

    ok, here i am. i am the “public” that your public outreach is supposed to be concerned about (actually i am the educated part of the public at large). Bee, you disturb me greatly, and you also Dr. Distler. you both are way to arrogant. public outreach is the MOST important part of what you should do! from a layman’s point of view!

    you have NO IDEA how interested the public is in this story. one response to Lisi on Steinn S’s blog says that he had been questioned about Lisi’s “theory” by regular, ordinary(non physics/math academic type) people at a dinner party! on of them was a world class dancer!
    how cool is that!
    fix and determine what Lisi did, by all means, but thank god that you can talk about it on the internet (or thank google, whatever).

    i have an MS in math and work as a programmer in the DC area (for 20+ years) and it took me A WEEK to even work thru the ‘easy’ math stuff, after i dug out my math and physics books from their dusty storage (mostly my old notes helped the most). i don’t really understand the details very well, but i think Lisi’s hand-waving over this problem of a Unifying Theory is incredible! it may be smoke and mirrors, but what great smoke and what imaginative images! that title of his paper made me gasp and then laugh a lot! what a deal to consider his ideas!

    how could i have KNOWN what all his collegues (sort of) think about his theory without reading conference proceedings at some future date? and then the ideas would be deadly dull.

    i get real real-time comments from real scientists in the blogs!
    it’s almost like being in class again!
    again, i say, how cool is that? do you know how many people all over the world are reading what you say?? it should be humbling for you.

    when i started my working life (WHILE i was in graduate school, by the way, i did school part time) it was impossible for these kinds of discussions to occur, except at school. don’t be snobby, the internet is the BEST THING that ever happened to science.

    i have an old math cartoon up in my office wall at work; it’s the one where 2 scientists are standing at a blackboard with an equation up and in the middle of the equation is the comment like “and then a miracle happens” ( or something similar – i’m at home with a cold).

    don’t be mad Dr. Distler, you sound like you want to tear your hair out.

    and Bee, the pompous-ness in your blog comments are irritating.

    be joyful about the incredible minds and education that you all have,
    but bear in mind that the public – individually – is not as stupid as you think.

    by the way, is there some blog somewhere that will be updated regularly about where Lisi is going with all this ‘good’ advice
    he is getting from you all? i absolutely LOVE all the internet chatter between him and his fans/detractors.

    thanks, an interested citizen who will be watching-

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