On Science and Science Writers


I ran across an article, Quantum theory via 40-tonne trucks: How science writing became popular, by Chris Chown, a science writer for The Independent, a popular English newspaper.

In it Chown talked about the physicist Richard Feynman, whom Chown was fortunate enough to have had as a professor while at Caltech, and about communicating science subjects to people.  After reading it I had to write my reaction as a comment, which triggered a dialogue of sorts with someone who apparently was a self-appointed attack dog defending science from an attack by me that wasn’t even an attack.

The exchange follows below the fold:

My initial comment:

Afterglow and interpretations of evidence

Afterglow of the Big Bang – In another era, both Wilkinson and the team of Penzias and Wilson might have framed microwave radiation coming from all different directions as evidence of the aether. Instead, their paradigm was an expanding universe and plopped it into that construct instead.

If the Big Bang is ever overthrown, past evidence will, of course, have to be re-fitted into that new over-arching new “reality,” and will – along with the rest of the new idea – be seen as strong confirmation. Times change, evidence does not, but interpretations of evidence do. The striations on rocks that for centuries overwhelmed most arguments that there was no flood came to be – under the eye of Agassiz and those he persuaded – evidence instead of ice ages.

Today’s truths are constructs, not necessarily reality, merely an interpretation of it. Hoyle’s (along with Gold and Bondi) Steady State was really a physicist’s stating of what almost everyone had believed since the firs man walked out of a cave (which is, in itself an interpretation of anthropological history). The Big Bang is the interpretation of the moment, and may be for a very long time. If a hypothesis comes along that fits all the evidence better, a century later learned people will look back on how quaint people in our era were, to have thought that all the matter in the universe (approximately 10^43 atoms at latest count, as I recently read) could be packed into one point!

It is for the science writer to describe for a wider audience the reality of science, but the reality is that science is an interpretation of reality, not reality itself. Thus, he is a spokesman for the current paradigms. Science writers of my childhood, when writing of the formation of mountains, talked only of a cooling and shrinking Earth and how the mountains folded in order to conform to the smaller planet, like the skin of an orange wrinkling as it rots. This was a good five decades and more after Wegner offered up another interpretation of the evidence (mountains themselves).

Some of the interpretations of today will not survive into the 22nd century, yet all of them are conveyed to the general public and are anointed with certainty in the mass media. It is the purpose of the science writer to not filter through any of the doubts of the scientists themselves, but to present present interpretations as if they were final pronouncements as of on high. The rarest of science writers are the ones who dare display the contentiousness and pettiness of the fight for public funding, of the politics and viciousness vented upon those who dare defy the status quo, the careers cut off and never realized when a scientist’s study violates the current paradigm.

A science writer’s function is a public relations position, an effort to ever and ever convince the public that the state of science is just fine, so “Move along, folks, move along – there is nothing to see here!” His job is to make sure everyone thinks scientists are bland and uninteresting folks whose only interest is to seek truth objectively. In a world of publish or perish, little could be further from the truth. Every scientist first and foremost must have an agenda, and that agenda is to fund next year’s research and the year after’s and so on and so on, and thus to finish out a career. It is not so far removed from the carnivore, whose agenda is to find the next meal, and the next one, and so on and so on, and thus to finish out a life in the jungle.

That elicited this response, and we were off on our little téte-a-téte
Re: Afterglow and interpretations of evidence
sickofstupidity wrote:

Sounds like you are a disciple of ‘Doubting’ Thomas Khun, and his naive portrayal of science as a socially constructed ‘narrative’ with no objective content.

The problem with his ‘paradigm shift’ model of scientific knowledge is that the same criticism can be leveled at his own ideas; his ideas were just a socially constructed narrative, inspired by the left-wing, anti-science, intellectually vacuous postmodern philosophy of the 1960s and 1970s. As such, it is his sociological deconstruction of science that is deeply flawed, and not science itself.

And if you think you have a better theory about the origin of the universe than the Big Bang, I’d love to hear it…

I wrote back:

The point is not whether or not I have myself any disproofs or replacements for any current paradigm, but that it is the history of paradigms to be replaced. And that will, with almost 100% certainty, include the Big Bang.

The slightly secondary point was the certainty with which science writers portray current thinking. If I had cataloged the number of times I’ve read in the MSM some scientist stating, “Well, that wasn’t at all what we were expecting; now it looks like we will have to go back to the drawing board,” I suspect my count would approach 50, if not 75. Science is the attempt to understand reality, not reality itself.

Any theory I myself have on the Big Bang or the extinction of the Dinosaurs or evidence of paleomagnetic shifts, or whatever – even if seemingly correct now, would also be overthrown in time.

None of the above is intended to say we shouldn’t be trying to understand reality, nor reporting on the current state of inquiry.

But it would be nice if scientists and science reporters would inform people that we’ve only been studying most of these things for a short time and that our understanding at any given time is tentative, though our best understanding at the current moment.

To which I then added:

A great example of my semi-quote:

October 15, 2009: For years, researchers have known that the solar system is surrounded by a vast bubble of magnetism. Called the “heliosphere,” it springs from the sun and extends far beyond the orbit of Pluto, providing a first line of defense against cosmic rays and interstellar clouds that try to enter our local space. Although the heliosphere is huge and literally fills the sky, it emits no light and no one has actually seen it.

Until now.

NASA’s IBEX (Interstellar Boundary Explorer) spacecraft has made the first all-sky maps of the heliosphere and the results have taken researchers by surprise. The maps are bisected by a bright, winding ribbon of unknown origin.

This is a shocking new result,” says IBEX principal investigator Dave McComas of the Southwest Research Institute. “We had no idea this ribbon existed–or what has created it. Our previous ideas about the outer heliosphere are going to have to be revised.”

That is from http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2009/15oct_ibex.htm

This is not a criticism, oh defender of the faith, my dear Mr sickofstupidity. All I have said is that our knowledge is incomplete, at all times, and should be clearly presented as such. We are not only learning, but we really have not been learning for very long, not on a planet 4 billion years old and in a universe approximately 12.5 billion years old (as best we can tell so far). There must be many sapient cultures which have existed or do presently exist, which have a continuity to their study of reality that exceeds tens of thousands of years, possibly longer. Our 300 years is only the briefest glimpse and most momentary contemplation upon what is.

Instead, science for some reason continually presents its current state as the apex of all knowledge, when it is, in reality, just a moment early on in a continuum of speculation and inquiry. We have a long way to go, and I encourage us to keep at it, vociferously and on many fronts. But to do it with a lack of chest puffing.

Science is the most humbling of endeavors, because it should, most of all, always remind us of how little we know. It IS a big universe, after all.

sickofstupidity wrote:

[(Quoting me) The point is not whether or not I have myself any disproofs or replacements for any current paradigm, but that it is the history of paradigms to be replaced. And that will, with almost 100% certainty, include the Big Bang.]

100% certainty? How can you be so sure? That is the problem with the postmodern cultural relativist perspective of science (and of so much else); it is based on a *fashionable and misguided belief* that all truths are relative and impermanent, and that all accepted knowledge will be overturned given sufficient time. But this betrays a woeful ignorance of the nature of scientific theories and the scientific method. It is not the case that today’s theories are no better than the ones they replaced, and therefore are as likely to be replaced themselves. They replaced previous theoriesprecisely because they ARE better than them, and science is approaching the ‘truth’ asymptotically, like a logarithmic curve tending to a limit, and not linearly.

Therefore, many current theories are extremely close to being 100% correct, and it will be a long time before they are overthrown by new ‘paradigms’, if at all. Some may only require minor tweakings before they are 100% correct. And some of them may already be as correct as they will ever be, and cannot be improved upon further. If you don’t appreciate this, then you do not appreciate science, and probably don’t understand it.

[(Quoting me) Science is the attempt to understand reality, not reality itself.]

A trite and obvious remark, which in now way undermines the scientific method or the countless breathtaking successes of the scientific enterprise to date.

[(Quoting me) Any theory I myself have on the Big Bang or the extinction of the Dinosaurs or evidence of paleomagnetic shifts, or whatever – even if seemingly correct now, would also be overthrown in time.]

Nonsense! You state that as a dogmatic belief, and have no arguments to support it. Tell me, when do you expect the atomic theory of matter to be overthrown, or the heliocentric model of the solar system, or the laws of thermodynamics, or Maxwell’s electrodynamics, or our understanding of the structure of DNA, or the entire corpus of organic and inorganic chemistry, or the germ theory of infectious disease? And what do you imagine that these theories could be replaced with – alchemy, astrology, wiccan magic and religion?!

[(Quoting me) But it would be nice if scientists and science reporters would inform people that we’ve only been studying most of these things for a short time and that our understanding at any given time is tentative, though our best understanding at the current moment.]

I think you’ve been reading the wrong science books; most GOOD science writers and scientists DO go to great pains to admit and explain the tentative nature of scientific theories. But this still does not mean that they cannot and should not be trusted, and it does not mean that all these theories must necessarily be overthrown in the future – much as postmodern philosophers might wish them to be, because of their crushing inferiority complex and petulant intellectual jealousy with regard to the sciences…

To which I replied:

My, how you misrepresent. You blockquote me, then immediately misrepresent me, with the evidence right there for everyone to see. …”almost 100% certainty” is twisted by you to read as “100% certainty,” quoting me out of context, when the qualifying adverb is right there, only one word away. Tsk tsk.

It is not the case that today’s theories are no better than the ones they replaced

Again, a mispresentation. Your hysterical arguments could at least include true assertions about what I said. I did not say that the replacements were not better. In fact, it is because better ones will be found that the current ones which are replaced will be overthrown. Science does learn as it goes along. 300 years is not a long time to make improvements – and we have – and we will continue to have improvements. That is my entire point, that today’s interpretations are not the final understanding and thus will be replaced. Is it that you are you trying to usurp my assertion?

…science is approaching the ‘truth’ asymptotically…

Now here we differ only in how far along the asymptotic curve we believe we are, if I read you correctly. You seem to assert that we are far, far along that curve. In the 1880s, when that Congressman proposed to have the U.S. Patent Office closed down – because pretty much everything that was going to be invented had already, in his eyes, been thought of – it is quite obvious he, 130 years ago, thought we were far along that asymptotic curve. Would you agree with him that in 1880 there was not much left to invent? Of course not. Now put yourself in the shoes of someone in the year 2140, looking back at today: What will be his take on where we are on the curve? And he will also believe (most likely) that HIS time is very nearing the end of scientific understanding of reality. And he will also have people in his day who think too many people have a

postmodern cultural relativist perspective of science…

…many current theories are extremely close to being 100% correct…

Yes, this was a certain viewpoint in the 1960s, that all that remains for scientists is to fill in the particulars of the overarching and fixed-forever ideas of the time. Since then, Wegner’s continental drift has been accepted, to replace the shrinking orange-skin-Earth theory, String Theory has stepped up, PCR has opened the door of genetics to a degree not even remotely imaginable in the 1960s, the dinosaur killer impact has come along (and some say it is rife for replacement already), geriatric research promises life spans approaching 120, if not 150 years, LEDs will soon replace fluorescent lights which in themselves have replaced incandescents, fusion energy research is the new dinosaur – all kinds of things are much more than mere filling in the blanks, but are overthrows and revolutions, not the least of which is desktop PCs and Blackberries and Ipods and Nooks – things not even on the horizon even ten years prior to their development (unless you accept Dick Tracy’s wrist radios as scientific thought). These are not incremental developments; they are huge quantum leaps.

Huge quantum leaps will continue to continue. There are FEW developments in computer technology that were on the radar 10 years prior to their release to the general public. For someone in the 1960s to project the computing power I now type on would have projected a building-sized main frame computer, and I would have had to schedule computer time weeks or months in advance – and bring many boxes full of blank punch cards.

This – 50 years hence – is not even close to “100% correct,” not when we don’t even know what will be the state of things 10 years from now. All projections for 50 years now – as the ones from 50 years ago – will be proven to fall far short of what we can even conceive. My great grandkids will not be watching IMAX. What they will be watching, who knows? It will as likely be in their heads as it will be a ObiWan Kenobi on a table top. “Oh, that is only technology, that is not science,” you may argue. If so, there is nothing I can say.

the countless breathtaking successes of the scientific enterprise

And in what place did I argue this has not happened? Not one place; in fact, I argue that future countless successes will come, replacing and improving the current state of things. You argue for me quite well.

You state that as a dogmatic belief

Yes, I argue that any hypothseis I may have – even if correct as far as it goes – will be overthrown. You argue my simple humbleness as my dogma. If this made sense, I would argue it. If you re-read what I said, you will see the silliness of your entire diatribe. Cheerleading about science when I made a statement about myself – what illogic is that? I DO have a dogmatic belief that I can have a thought of my own, and that every one of my thoughts is likely to change. I do admit that, mea culpa, mea cuilpa.

…alchemy, astrology, wiccan magic and religion

I argue that science must move forward, and you throw outdated modes of thought at me, evidently in accusation of me wanting to take science backward by centuries and millennia. Do your hysterical misrepresentations never end?

What we are arguing here is that I have expressed an opinion about science’s future and about scientific reporting, and you have put on your pom-poms and skirt and done a lot of cartwheels and splits, and somehow by rah-rah-rah, I am supposed to be intimidated and let you bull-rush me into having the same opinion as you.

I argue that we are at one point on the asymptotic curve and you argue we are at another point. And what am I to say to that? That I am cowed more by your hyper-hysteria, or more by how well you cheerlead?

In the future science will advance. Some of that will replace the present paradigms. I assert a high degree; you assert a lower degree. We disagree on the degree, no more. I do not force my POV on you; I have no clue why you claim the right to shove yours down my throat. I merely stated my opinion, and you come on like a junk yard dog. You only make yourself to look shrill and like a know-it-all.

Please, allow me my own thoughts… You are welcome to yours.

To which sickofstupidity wrote, amazingly:
Please take all your books on postmodern philosophy and the sociological deconstruction of science – and BURN them!

They are rotting your mind.

Obviously, Mr sickofstupidity had become unhinged.  I concluded with a calm
Be careful what you send out. As you send out, so shall it be meted out to you.

I only wish to have my own thoughts.

As I said, you are welcome to your own.

Go in peace. I wish you no ill.

Before I go, may I suggest a less self-centered username?

.  .  .
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