I’ve been incredibly busy this term, but not so busy I couldn’t create more work for myself. Specifically, by writing an opinion piece for Physics World about the FTL neutrino business, that just went live on their web site:

The result quickly turned into one of the most covered physics stories of the year, with numerous articles in magazines, newspapers and on television asking whether “Einstein was wrong”. Just as quickly came numerous physicists denouncing the media frenzy, with Lawrence Krauss from Arizona State University and Cambridge University cosmologist Martin Rees both calling the coverage “an embarrassment”.

“A press conference on a result, which is extremely unlikely to be correct, before the paper has been refereed, is very unfortunate – for CERN and for science,” Krauss told Scientific American. “Once it is shown to be wrong, everyone loses credibility.”

A closer look, however, suggests that the OPERA researchers behaved exactly as scientists should. They did not write a press release, but a technical preprint on the arXiv preprint server; and they did not schedule a press conference, but a seminar at CERN. While some of the media coverage has been regrettable, OPERA scientists are not the architects of overhype, but the victims of a radically changed media landscape.

Click through for the whole article, which should be free to read, but might require registration. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out, though one bit that I liked got cut for length. I’ll reproduce it below the fold, because I can:

Interestingly, a positive example of science conducted in the open occurred the same week that OPERA made news. On September 27, mathematical physicist John Baez posted an article on his blog about another mathematician’sforthcoming proof that claimed to demonstrate the inconsistency of arithmetic. A spirited and highly technical discussion broke out in his comments, including the author of the proof in question and Fields medalist Terrence Tao. Four days into the discussion, Tao found an error in the proof, which the original author accepted gracefully, withdrawing the claim.

While the far-reaching nature of the original claim made this especially dramatic, the general phenomenon is relatively common in math. Numerous blogging mathematicians regularly carry on high-level discussions of mathematics in blog posts and comment sections. Physicists should study and adapt this model, taking advantage of new media, rather than continuing a hopeless fight.

I agree that removing this doesn’t change the main point, but I do think the contrast between the cases is interesting. They’re not precisely parallel, as a highly technical point of abstract mathematics is less media-friendly than an “Einstein was wrong!” story from particle physics, but the way mathematics has embraced blogdom while physics continues to fight it is striking.

This piece is going to end up doing double duty, by the way, because I’m teaching a writing-based course next term. I’ve been trying to think of ways to get students to take first drafts more seriously, and talking with some colleagues in the humanities made clear that some of the problem is a belief that drafts are only for amateurs– professional scholars who are really good at writing will just think about the subject until they have the entire thing perfect in their minds, and then write finished prose all in one go.

It occurred to me that one way to address this would be to show them how the process actually works. Because I do write in multiple drafts, and the first drafts frequently suck. The problem is, most of what I write is either more technical than they could handle or too long to make them read multiple times. A one-page op-ed article, though, is not unreasonable to make them read over a couple of times, and as a bonus, I have editorial comments both from Mike Banks at Physics World and Kate here in Chateau Steelypips, so they can see not only what I did to improve it, but how other people marked my writing up just as much as I’ll mark theirs up.

So, I get to claim this not only as public intellectualizing, but as ground work for teaching. Which justifies the extra work even at a time when I was crazy busy with other things.

Comments

  1. #1 Eric Lund
    November 10, 2011

    some of the problem is a belief that drafts are only for amateurs

    In fairness to the students, do they have any significant evidence prior to arriving at college that this isn’t the case? From my dim recollection of high school, we rarely got a chance to revise rough drafts of assignments. Most essays were either in-class assignments or homework assignments with short lead times (there would have been essay questions on AP exams, and today there is also the one that comes with the standardized tests). Even on assignments with longer lead times, there was no significant effort to refine rough drafts. I only remember one assignment where we were expected to hand in any preliminary version of our work. So they may not have any experience with the idea that in the real world it may take several drafts to produce a finished product.

    If you have any CDs with bonus tracks, that would be another example. Often the bonus tracks will include preliminary versions of the songs on the CD. One striking example is Paul Simon’s “Let Me Live in Your City”, a bonus track on There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. It’s the melody and verses of the song that became “Something So Right”, but Simon completely rewrote the chorus before recording the version released on the original album.

  2. #2 Ric Locke
    November 11, 2011

    This is an ongoing debate in the fiction-writing community. It’s too much fun, and there are too many anecdotes, for the debate to be resolved, but there are perhaps some early conclusions.

    An SF writer, Sarah Hoyt, calls the two extremes “plotters” and “pantsers”. Plotters plan everything out in detail before starting on the final version; pantsers just start writing with at most some dim notion of how it comes out. Between the two there seems to be, as usual, a distribution, with most having some part of each characteristic in varying proportions.

    “Draft and revise” appears to be the middle position between the two extremes. You might advise your students, to their profit, that the distribution exists, and that they will, over time, find out where they are in it. If your class is fairly large, it is likely to contain at least one person who works best using outlining and incremental infill, the basic “plotter” technique, and possibly one who can, in fact, do all of that in his or her mind before sitting down and producing the final product. Telling them that doing it that way isn’t possible is likely to create disruption in the class, as they produce anecdotes to the contrary.

    Regards,
    Ric

  3. #3 Alexander Woo
    November 11, 2011

    There is an essential difference between the economies of theoretical physics and mathematics that contributes to this difference.

    To vastly oversimplify, in physics, there are more people than problems, and in mathematics, there are more problems than people.

    What I mean is that, in physics, there are a few problems which are universally recognized as important, and one becomes recognized by being the first to make significant progress on one of them. Hence other physicists are competitors.

    In mathematics, no problems seem particularly more important than others, and, in most cases, one becomes recognized by convincing others that the problems one can solve are actually important ones. Hence other mathematicians are potential collaborators.

  4. #4 Kea
    November 12, 2011

    Alexander, there is something in what you say, but it is not necessary that the (deeply bigoted) physics culture be that way. It should be completely unacceptable to value competitiveness over truth, or trendy problems over other essential ones. Now no doubt most professionals will scoff that they do any such thing, but we do have the ultimate proof … 10 years of blogging, monitoring their behaviour.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.