Re: Popular(izing) Science

From: Amara Graps (
Date: Wed Feb 21 2001 - 12:46:06 MST

"John Marlow" <>
>**With the possible exception of religious fundamentalists, there is
>no other community as blindly intolerant of new ideas as the
>scientific community. None. Nada. Zippo. Zilch.

My first response to this: we seem to live in different worlds.
I find the scientists _very open_ to new ideas. Are we interacting
with different age groups, perhaps?

Question: what is the typical age group of the scientists that you
have had contact with?

The older they are, the less flexible they are in their thinking.
(This is true of many people, however, not just scientists.)
The older folks are also the ones more often in the public view.

i said:
>> I find these phrases antagonistic and a complete disconnect with
>> my knowledge and experience. I've been in the sciences 20 years,
>> and I've yet to encounter another scientist who treats
>> nonscientists with this kind of scorn, as you describe above.
>**Well, that could be because they're treating YOU as a colleague.

Or if they don't treat me well, then they won't get their data reduced...
(ok ok joking....)

>Were you in the company of nonscientists who were complete strangers
>with no knowlege of the disciplines?


>Or maybe you just hang out with nice guys.

Or perhaps a selection effect?

If I find myself in a work environment that has large factors against
me, then eventually I leave. No different than people in other

In my ~8 scientific research groups, in the last 20 years:

2/3 optimal ('friendly' group, great working conditions etc.)

1/3 suboptimal (supervisors with unscrupulous behavior or sexist
attitude or unpleasant disposition, so I eventually left)

>**Actually, the 'secret knowledge' thing is Gould's.

Was he joking?

>The 'unwashed
>masses' is mine. The same principle is at work with cops and
>religious leaders: Knowledge is power, and power shared is power lost.
> This is why cops fight open public access to public records,
>and why the Church conducted masses in Latin and hated Gutenberg.

This sounds to me like an entrenched and old-thinking perspective.

Your choice of words is sometimes inflammatory. If you describe
scientists with those words, then you'll probably find some or many
reacting with some hostility to you.

>**I've not met many scientists I truly disliked, though I've read
>(and read of) a good number of insufferable ones with the decidedly
>unscientific attitude that "If the facts don't fit the theory, they
>must be disposed of."

In my view, that is an unscrupulous attitude, and I couldn't accept it.
I have not had personal experience with any scientist who had the
above approach to science, however, although I'm sure that it exists.
(but rarely)

>Before you say it ain't so, consider plate
>tectonics as but a single well-documented example. More recently,
>you've got people with pet theories threatening to deny telescope
>time to people with conflicting theories--whose time on those devices
>could disprove the pet theories.

There will always be disagreements among scientists with incongruous
theories. There will always be disagreements among nonscientists
with incongruous philosophies. The disagreements may not always
be handled in the most principled way. Why single out the scientists?

Regarding 'pet theories':

Scientists occassionally (or more than occassionally) receive in the
mail pet theories from strangers in the public. I've received a few
of them myself. I'm far more open to considering the idea, if the
writer spent a fair amount of time (months, years) thinking of the
concept, learning of the basic physics involved, and learning
something of the historical background, than if the writer dashed
off the note while eating breakfast one morning, based on a dream
the night before. I wouldn't respond to the latter, while I would
probably at least carefully think about what the former person

I've witnessed scientists bending over backwards to help prove
or disprove pet theories, by the way. The Mars Pathfinder team,
for example, made a special set of observations of the area known
on Mars as "The Face". These observations didn't sway the pet theory

>**"All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed.
>Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-
>evident." -- Arthur Schopenhauer

There are different possibilities of stages that truth passes
through,the above is only one possibility.

I think that the best thing that the scientist can give to the
nonscientist is _not_ plain facts and answers, but instead, to
instill a sense of curiosity and wonder and awe, to aid the person
in thinking on their own, about the possibilities of humans in our

"Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers."

"You cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him to find it
for himself." --Galileo Galilei

"That's the whole problem with science. You've got a bunch of
empiricists trying to describe things of unimaginable wonder."
--Calvin (& Hobbes)

"The universe is not only queerer than we supppose, but queerer than
we can suppose." -J.B.S. Haldane

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is
the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a
stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe,
is as good as dead: his eyes are closed." --Einstein


Amara Graps email:
Computational Physics vita: finger
Multiplex Answers URL:
"Whenever I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair
for the future of the human race." -- H. G. Wells

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