Re: Popular(izing) Science

From: John Marlow (
Date: Fri Feb 23 2001 - 13:10:34 MST


On 21 Feb 2001, at 20:46, Amara Graps wrote:

> 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 guys I'm talking about are mostly older, which of course means
they're often the most powerful and influential and younger folks are

hesitant to butt heads for fear of ending their careers. I'm also
talking primarily about people in non computer-related disciplines.
(Would've said outside information systems--but then, one might say
we're all information systems!)

> 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.

**Yup--and the more powerful.

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

**Ah, see--then you didn't get the full brunt of it most of the time.

> >**Actually, the 'secret knowledge' thing is Gould's.
> Was he joking?

**Of course; big smile, "finger quotes." But he makes the point; many

consider it the turf of their clique. Otherwise they'd speak English,

right? (No offense; I'm referring to jargon--one of the points he

> >The 'unwashed
> >masses' is mine. The same principle is at work with cops and
> >religious leaders: Knowledge is power, and power shared is power
> > 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.

**Absolutely. Trouble is, it's still here.

**Also, going into fairly recent past for a prominent example other
than plate tectonics, consider the platypus--declared a fraud by
leading biologists even AFTER its discoverer BROUGHT one BACK WITH
HIM! Sorry; that's pig-headed (to be exceedingly polite).

> 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.

**Hey, I calls 'em as I sees 'em. (See just above, for instance.)
That's a journalist's job. A
scientist's job is to advance the frontiers of knowledge and
(arguably) to communicate his/her findings to society in a
comprehensible manner. When it comes to the latter, there is
frequently no effort whatsoever, or the effort is a total (perhaps
well-meaning) botchup.

> >**I've not met many scientists I truly disliked, though I've read
> >(and read of) a good number of insufferable ones with the
> >unscientific attitude that "If the facts don't fit the theory,
> >must be disposed of."
> In my view, that is an unscrupulous attitude, and I couldn't accept
> I have not had personal experience with any scientist who had the
> above approach to science, however, although I'm sure that it
> (but rarely)

**Excercise: Come up with a radical but plausible theory which
requires extensive testing and little or moderate time on restricted-
access equipment. Your theory must be one which will destroy
presently-held theories advanced or refined by leading scientists in
positions of authority and power. Put your theory forward.

**See what happens.

> >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
> >could disprove the pet theories.
> There will always be disagreements among scientists with
> 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

**Ah. Thank you. I agree. Why single out scientists? Because science
is a search for truth. A scientist by definition seeks truth, and
will follow wherever the facts lead. Anyone who does less is not
worthy of the name. There is (or should be) no room for those who go
about this--arguably the most important endeavor of the human species-

-in anything less than a principled manner. If truth were valued by
all scientists above all else, there would be no problem.
Unfortunately, often the most powerful and visible scientists have
the most to lose via the introduction of new, "incongruous" facts,
theories, and disciplines. And they don't want to lose it.

> Regarding 'pet theories':
> Scientists occassionally (or more than occassionally) receive in
> 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
> wrote.

**Understandable. However, some people are "idea people" and can't or

won't do the background research. Doesn't mean they have nothing of
value to propose. Teller spun off hundreds of ideas all the time--
90+% of which, by his own reckoning, were (if I recall his quoted
words correctly) "idiotic."

> 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
> proponents.

**LOL. Well, coupla things there: The Face is big with the public,
and NASA has to worry about public support. Secondly, while
technically not a gov't agency thanks to JFK, NASA is for all
practical purposes a gov't agency--and the Face proponents are not
going to trust that particular finding. After all--look at the way
they handled the life-on-Mars thing. (One of my very few criticisms
of NASA.) Actually, there may well be life on Mars NOW.

> >**"All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed.
> >Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being
> >evident." -- Arthur Schopenhauer
> There are different possibilities of stages that truth passes
> through,the above is only one possibility.

**Yeah--but it's soooooo appropo for science.


> 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
> universe.

**Could be--but if they lack the ability to communicate, it ain't
gonna happen. (So be nice to journalists.)

> "Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers."
> --Voltaire

**Beautiful, though of course the reverse may be said of those doing
the answering.

> "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)

**My favorite philosophers! "The strength to change what I can, the
inability to accept what I can't, and the incapacity the tell the
difference." --Calvin
> "The universe is not only queerer than we supppose, but queerer
> we can suppose." -J.B.S. Haldane
> "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It
> the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is
> stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe,
> is as good as dead: his eyes are closed." --Einstein

**Would I argue with The Man?

> Amara
> 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

John Marlow

John Marlow

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