A. O. Scott Is an Ignoramus

Via His Holiness, there is an aggressively stupid paragraph in a New York Times movie review today:

Did you hear the one about the guy who lived in the land of Uz, who was perfect and upright and feared God? His name was Job. In the new movie version, “A Serious Man,” some details have been changed. He’s called Larry Gopnik and he lives in Minnesota, where he teaches physics at a university. When we first meet Larry, in the spring of 1967, his tenure case is pending, his son’s bar mitzvah is approaching, and, as in the original, a lot of bad stuff is about to happen, for no apparent reason.

At work, Larry specializes in topics like Schrödinger’s Paradox and the Heisenberg Principle — complex and esoteric ideas that can be summarized by the layman, more or less, as “God knows.” Because we can’t. Though if he does, he isn’t saying much.

As the Pontiff notes, A. O. Scott, the author of the review in question, can’t even be bothered to get the right names for the crucial scientific principles that he waves off as “complex and esoteric.” This is a pretty sad showing, given that I can explain them to my dog:

This is exactly the sort of thing that sets me off on rants about the innumeracy of intellectuals. Were I to write something about film that airily blew off “the incomprehensible foreign films of Bergdorf and Einstein,” Scott and other film critics would most likely write me off as a hopeless philistine for not knowing Bergman and Eisenstein.

But when it comes to science, it’s perfectly ok to not have the foggiest idea what you’re talking about. After all, it’s “complex and esoteric,” and not the sort of thing respectable people need to concern themselves with knowing…

Comments

  1. #1 Don in Rochester MN
    October 2, 2009

    “This is a pretty sad showing, given that I can explain them to my dog:”

    Tha’s not really fair. I mean, you have an exceptionally smart dog . . . .

  2. #2 Sean Michael
    October 2, 2009

    Not surprising, sadly. I wonder if this has something to do with those “other ways of knowing” we’re always hearing about? I often see people say that science doesn’t matter when you’re talking about art (even if, like in this case, the science is an important part of it).

  3. #3 Mike Olson
    October 2, 2009

    I look forward to your book. Although I don’t know if my ego should take the risk. If I don’t get it, I’m not as smart as a dog. I would also point out you’ve indicated your dog likes quantum physics. Having an interest in the subject is half the battle. Fortunately, I do know how to sit up and beg…if worse comes to worse.

  4. #4 mad the swine
    October 2, 2009

    And how many of the NYT’s readers know about these ‘crucial scientific principles’? I’m going to bet very very few. As such, the reviewer can either try to explain the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, boring his audience and taking up valuable column space, or dismiss it with a cheerful “You don’t understand this, fine, neither do I, let’s move on.”

    (And, TBH, ‘God knows, because we can’t’ seems to be a humorous reference to the fact that, eg, the position and momentum of a particle cannot both be known to some arbitrary level of position. So he’s obviously throwing the physics nerds a bone.)

    (That being said, maybe it’s because we’re in different fields: I’m happy to defend the reviewer above, but this line from the NYT travel section:

    “Thoreau was known for his thrift, and I’ve followed his example by having a raw-food energy bar for breakfast and borrowing a state parking pass from my hometown library, saving myself $5.”

    overloaded my pretentious-twit-ometer. So I might not be close enough to the subject material to feel the proper outrage. YMMV.)

  5. #5 MRW
    October 2, 2009

    “As such, the reviewer can either try to explain the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, boring his audience and taking up valuable column space, or dismiss it with a cheerful”

    Actually, there’s no reason for him to do either one of those. There are options aside from teaching moments and celebrations of ignorance. For one, I’m not really sure how omitting that paragraph altogether would hurt the review.

  6. #6 Chad Orzel
    October 2, 2009

    And how many of the NYT’s readers know about these ‘crucial scientific principles’? I’m going to bet very very few. As such, the reviewer can either try to explain the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, boring his audience and taking up valuable column space, or dismiss it with a cheerful “You don’t understand this, fine, neither do I, let’s move on.”

    I’m not asking him to do a full derivation of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle or explain Schrodinger’s Cat in detail, but the effort required to Google the correct names for the principles in question is pretty trivial. If you type Scott’s incorrect phrases into Google, you get the correct terms as the first results.

    This is what really ticks me off. It’s the same basic effect as having students hand in lab reports with common words spelled incorrectly. It’s not the error itself that pisses me off– I’m a notoriously bad speller– but the fact that fixing the problem would require an absolutely trivial amount of effort. If I see squiggly red underlines when I’m grading the reports on my computer, I’m damn sure that there are squiggly red underlines on the computer the student was using. The fact that they’ve chosen not to put in the trivial effort required to notice and fix the mistake suggests a certain level of contempt for the assignment.

    In the same way, Scott’s airy dismissal suggests a certain contempt for the subject of physics, particularly since he couldn’t even use the correct names for the complex and esoteric phenomena he was disclaiming knowledge of. I strongly doubt that he would react well to a similarly flip dismissal of the subject of his professional life. And yet, somehow, neither he nor his editors feel that science deserves that minimal level of respect.

  7. #7 reesei
    October 2, 2009

    RE: #4

    Well, in the 1930s apparently Dorothy Sayers felt enough of her readers of a casual mystery book would understand the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to make off-the-cuff jokes about it in conversations between her characters…

    NYTimes readers are _supposed_ to be more erudite than the general public. The whole point Chad is making is that we all ought to understand very basic physics, chemistry, or biology concepts as part of being educated, and be ashamed if we don’t. Just like Shakespeare or Chopin.

  8. #8 Cath the Canberra Cook
    October 2, 2009

    Dorothy Sayers was very insistent about not talking down to her readers. At times she went a bit far – a long letter in French was only translated at the insistence of her editor. Her casual reader was expected to know some Latin and a lot of poetry, too. Good stuff.

  9. #9 Pierce R. Butler
    October 2, 2009

    Can’t recall where I read it, but reportedly Schrodinger’s cat was a Siamese.

    Not that those don’t deserve to be in boxes just as much as tuxedos.

  10. #10 mad the swine
    October 2, 2009

    “If I see squiggly red underlines when I’m grading the reports on my computer, I’m damn sure that there are squiggly red underlines on the computer the student was using.”

    I fondly imagine that the NYT’s dissipate, Bohemian art critics drunkenly scribble their reviews on the back of cocktail napkins. Nevertheless, point well taken – even if the reviewer just brings the concept up to dismiss it, he can at least get the name right.

    “The whole point Chad is making is that we all ought to understand very basic physics, chemistry, or biology concepts as part of being educated, and be ashamed if we don’t. Just like Shakespeare or Chopin.”

    I’m not sure how much basic physics, chemistry, or biology Shakespeare or Chopin knew, tbh. :)

  11. #11 Thony C.
    October 3, 2009

    I’m not sure how much basic physics, chemistry, or biology Shakespeare [...] knew…

    As the three scientific disciplines listed did not exists at the time that Shakespeare lived the question has no meaning. However there is very good evidence in his plays that the author was well informed about the natural philosophy and natural history of his age.

  12. #12 Thony C.
    October 3, 2009

    I’m not asking him to do a full derivation of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle or explain Schrodinger‘s Cat in detail, but the effort required to Google the correct names for the principles in question is pretty trivial.

    Sorry Chad but I can’t resist;

    It’s Schrödinger and not Schrodinger!

  13. #13 CCPhysicist
    October 3, 2009

    Thanks for establishing that your dog is smarter than a movie critic at the New York Times.

    (Sorry for that ad hominem, but he deserved it.)

    @4: I’d guess that thousands of Times readers have at least an MS degree level knowledge of physics. It has a large readership among educated people.

    The real point here should be that it is certainly true that a layman CAN always give an ignorant answer to any question that might come up. We have those things called “books” and that experience called “college” (not to mention that tool called “Google”) to significantly reduce the chance that a layman would choose ignorance over minimal competence.

    What is sad, as Chad has pointed out more than once, is that a writer for the Times thinks that showing a deliberate ignorance of science makes him look more erudite than if he had simply said “fundamental concepts such as …” in his review.

  14. #14 Noam GR
    October 4, 2009

    This is the sort of thing that goes on all day in the mainstream media. Instead of popularizing *good science*, it only helps to further propagate people’s crazy notions, or worse: sets the stage for frauds like Rhonda Byrne to make money off the ill informed general public.


    http://noamgr.wordpress.com

  15. #15 Neil B ♪
    October 4, 2009

    Is that “good science” really as good as you think? The Schrödinger’s Cat Paradox may have been given an inadequate name in the move, but it is still really a paradox. It is not solved by decoherence. See my name link, or the discussion at http://scienceblogs.com/pontiff/2009/10/new_york_times_film_review_fai.php (likely better than continuing it here.) And perhaps I repeat myself about this issue, but that’s because I don’t get adequate answers IMHO.

  16. #16 CCPhysicist
    October 4, 2009

    @15:

    Every paradox I know of, isn’t. They should be seen for what they are, teaching tools. How can something that accurately describes the results of experiment be a “paradox”? Only if it encounters cognitive dissonance due to your holding onto some really wrong concept about the nature of Nature. Heck, a delayed choice experiment is even more counter-intuitive than the infamous cat!

  17. #17 Neil B ♪
    October 5, 2009

    CCPhysicist, I disagree. You are assuming that the universe itself can’t be “paradoxical” – can’t be strange and hard (or impossible) for us to understand and work out into realistic pictures. It may not contradict itself, but that doesn’t mean that our models can’t run into problems. “Wrong” concept of nature? But then, what is the “right” concept, regarding the wave function and its collapse?

    The SCP is a real paradox, because we can’t understand how the superposed states get pruned and localized. Many great minds have agreed, and didn’t indulge in glib confidence about our abilities to get a handle on things (to picture it, even mathematically; not just to predict results.) And no, decoherence doesn’t do the trick – see my arguments and the online SEOP re. And if you think it can be made sense of, do that right here.

  18. #18 Neil B ♪
    October 5, 2009

    CCPhysicist, I disagree. You are assuming that the universe itself can’t be “paradoxical” – can’t be strange and hard (or impossible) for us to understand and work out into realistic pictures. It may not contradict itself, but that doesn’t mean that our models can’t run into problems. “Wrong” concept of nature? But then, what is the “right” concept, regarding the wave function and its collapse?

    The SCP is a real paradox, because we can’t understand how the superposed states get pruned and localized. Many great minds have agreed, and didn’t indulge in glib confidence about our abilities to get a handle on things (to picture it, even mathematically; not just to predict results.) And no, decoherence doesn’t do the trick – see my arguments and the online SEOP re. And if you think it can be made sense of, please do that right here.

  19. #19 Neil B ♪ ♫
    October 5, 2009

    (duplication unintentional, despite tiny edit.)
    But I might as well make a new point: “teaching” examples (like “pole-in-barn” paradox in relativity, or even twin-traveler if you consider it solved), imply that the real experts know the way out and its part of “knowledge.” No, sorry, the SCP actually challenged experts and they couldn’t figure it out. That some people pretend to have, using circular arguments and semantic confusion, doesn’t mean it’s “solved.”

    And correctly predicting experiments in this case, implies (to a realist – unless you think we’re in “the matrix”) an extended “something” that vanishes with no regard for c when some special act of “measurement” is applied. You OK with that, really?

  20. #20 Jonathan Vos Post
    October 5, 2009

    When I started at the Space Shuttle Division of Rockwell, in Downy, California, I started at a salary about $10,000 per year more than an acquaintance of mine. He was openly jealous, but cynical. “It’s only because you were lucky.”

    Me: Lucky, how?

    He: Lucky that you graduated college.

    Me: Luck doesn’t enter into it. I worked hard through age 16 to do well enough in High School, on the New York regents Exams, in the Westinghouse Science Search, in the National Merit Scholarship competition, and got into the most selective college in America. Then I worked in very difficult classes to graduate in 5 years with 2 B.S. degrees. Then I competed to get into a graduate school. Then I worked for my M.S. degree. Then I earned over 50 more graduate credits towards a PhD, and so forth. Lucky? You’re lucky I don’t kick your ass.”

    He stayed resentful, put another community college buddy of his on a pedestal, and the two of them proceeded to plagiarize and defame me, and drive an MIT grad out of their department after plagiarizing him, too.

    I’m not just going over old grievances here. I’m saying that guys like A. O. Scott and the Rockwell jerks are not only intentionally ignorant, and proud to be intentionally ignorant, but actively jealous and contemptuous of those of us who sweated long into the night for 10,000 hours to master some discipline of Mathematics or Science.

    Screw ‘em!

  21. #21 mds
    October 6, 2009

    I fondly imagine that the NYT’s dissipate, Bohemian art critics drunkenly scribble their reviews on the back of cocktail napkins.

    …which then, thanks to the “augmented reality” Bruce Sterling is always on about, obligingly produce little red squiggles under the misspellings.

  22. #22 CCPhysicist
    October 11, 2009

    @17 and @18: You are assuming that the universe itself can’t be “paradoxical” – can’t be strange and hard (or impossible) for us to understand and work out into realistic pictures. You are making my point, not objecting to it. The so-called paradoxes highlight a lack of understanding that is usually due to the fact that the real world can appear strange when explored beyond the scope of what we generally refer to as “daily life” — the sort of observations we assimilate from childhood.

    A familiar example is Galileo’s argument against Aristotle. He never describes the results of an actual experiment at the Leaning Tower; rather he describes a paradox that Aristotle cannot escape from but that we recognize as reasonable from experiments we can do ourselves. “Barn and Pole” and “Twin” illustrate the danger of employing preconceptions about simultaneity in a theory that does not contain it as a basic principle.

    Schroedinger’s Cat is in a similar category. It addresses attempts to INTERPRET quantum mechanics within a classical framework by persons who invented quantum mechanics despite being trained to think classically. (IMHO, Bohr never left behind his deeply flawed semi-classical ideas about “quantum jumps” that have nothing to do with actual quantum mechanics, and those ideas permeate a half-century or more of philosophy on this topic.) It only begins to touch on the reality of how “weird” quantum mechanics is to someone trained to think classically based on daily life. My favorite is the actual experiment that could be described as “what happens if you shoot Wigner’s friend before he tells you what he saw”, and that said experiment confirms the predictions of quantum mechanics.

    I happen to think that a Realist who ignores the results of experiment has a flawed sense of what is real.