This post started off as a comment on Gibberish on the blog Backreaction. But then I decided to write on it on my own blog. It was inspired by some abrasive remarks by Lubos Motl on his blog (read the line about female reproductive organs helping in getting jobs for example, clearly disparaging Sabine. Having followed her blog for a while, I think she is a smart woman) for the said post and comments by him on Sabine’s blog and by her in response.
I just find it very upsetting and even disgusting how Dr Lubos Motl writes sometimes about people or countries he does not like or agree with. I find it upsetting because in midst of well thought out and totally rational arguments he gets so angry with someone who has a different point of view and pops up something totally abusive, disgusting and ofcourse politically incorrect which kills his point. For Example look at this. I am reminded of this simple but very profound quote:
He who angers you, conquers you.
Whatever it is, his point gets lost in his angry abuses and abrasiveness. I still read his blog everyday (even though sometimes it upsets me) as once in a while it definitely carries a GOOD point hidden under his dark “humor” and abuses. Thus, though he has good points it seems that they sink in rhetoric.
I don’t know for sure what was the objective for Dr Sabine to write her blog post. If she wrote it just for fun, in the sense making fun of how incomprehensible the abstract seemed to be (as yes, the abstract is simply beyond understanding for the uninitiated) then it was perfectly all right. I mean come on, we all laugh sometimes when we for example look at a textbook in which we can’t understand a word in the beginning. So if she wrote in that sense then it is perfectly okay and even funny. :)
But if not, then my point being that papers in such specialized disciplines can not expected to be written to be comprehensible to the general public. Which is exactly what Lubos was thundering about here. I have often seen Motl sparring with Sabine, Peter Woit, Lee Smolin and others mostly on opposing theories and having very heated discussions. Sometimes coming to the point like: Your ideas are shit and so are you and your brain and so on.
These exchanges often come down to the following: What drives Science? And what should drive it. And what is “good” science and what is “not so good” science. And who decides that?
And I will write about this and not about Motl or any other person I mentioned above. They and their discussions only served as an inspiration to write. Let me make that VERY clear.
Let me write about what i think about this:
We can write about things after having done our work in a way that the general public understands and that more and more people are attracted to it. It is probably the duty of all involved in science to try and make their work look exciting once completed so that more and more people are attracted to science and technology BUT they can’t do some work only with an eye that it would gain currency amongst audiences (this could sometimes be true for some new technology but not for pure science).
Science IMHO is not driven by social forces (yes sometimes research in a particular discipline can be started due to social needs, but once started it is driven by its own internal logic and by objective facts of nature). And if it is then it should not be.
I am an engineer by training and not a physicist, so I don’t claim to be understanding beyond a broad outline about most things these guys have animated discussions about. Technology but NOT pure science i.e the search of truth, is probably greatly driven by social forces but I wrote this as papers would always seem to be incomprehensible and estoric to the general public. Science can never be done with a view on public opinion and it should ideally develop on its own logic (keeping a check with experiment) and not as how we would like to see it develop. Even if that means getting incomprehensible papers like these.
Making them comprehensible after doing your work to the public to make science look attractive is the duty of people who want more and more people attracted to science as I said earlier. But doing science only to make it attractive is unacceptable. Science is only driven by the quest to understand nature. (these three lines are repeated again on purpose)
I would like to quote Freeman Dyson here on something highly related:
In the modern world, science and society often interact in a perverse way. We live in a technological society, and technology causes political problems. The politicians and the public expect science to provide answers to the problems. Scientific experts are paid and encouraged to provide answers. The public does not have much use for a scientist who says, “Sorry, but we don’t know”. The public prefers to listen to scientists who give confident answers to questions and make confident predictions of what will happen as a result of human activities. So it happens that the experts who talk publicly about politically contentious questions tend to speak more clearly than they think. They make confident predictions about the future, and end up believing their own predictions. Their predictions become dogmas which they do not question. The public is led to believe that the fashionable scientific dogmas are true, and it may sometimes happen that they are wrong. That is why heretics who question the dogmas are needed…We are lucky that we can be heretics today without any danger of being burned at the stake.
I know that we were not talking of “Heretics”, but what i wanted Prof Dyson to convey for me was that most people who talk “clearly” about science are only trying to talk more clearly than they themselves understand the facts. These facts can only be understood by objective analysis of the observations that nature presents us, even if that means going towards a direction in science that is highly estoric and beyond the understanding of the general public.
For me, In reality science is partly driven by social factors and partly by its internal logic but it is ultimately driven to what nature decides what more important is, not what we want to be more attractive.
For a scientist the main reward should not be to gain adulation by doing “attractive work” (work that appeals to the general population) and thus work towards the singular aim for that, but to try and catch a glimpse of the transcendant beauty of nature. And if doing that leads to more and more estoric work, as long it can be verified by experiment then be it. Probably this is the reason why some people are opposed to String Theory as there as of now can’t be experiments to prove things on it, and it is just regarded as an ugly or beautiful (this view varies w.r.t the frame of reference) mathematical construction nothing else. People have lots of hopes from the LHC. But again having a “hope” is only because we are human, nature alone will decide what is true and what is false.
I would again quote Dyson here, as his views on this topic are most closely aligned to what I have always thought.
One might believe that in science nature will ultimately have the last word abd still rescognize that an enormous role for human vainglory and viciousness in the practice of science before the last word is spoken. One might believe that the historian’s job is to expose the hidden influences of power and money and still recognize that the laws of nature cannot be bent and cannot be corrupted by power and money. To my mind, the history of science is most illuminating when the frialties of human actors are put in juxtaposition with the transcendence of nature’s laws.
Francis Crick is one of the great scientists of our century. He has recently published his personal narrative of the microbiological reolution that he helped to bring about, with a title borrowed from Keats, What Mad Pursuit. One of the most illuminationg passages in his account compares two discoveries in which he was involved. One was the discovery of the double helix structure of the DNA, the other was the discovery of the triple helix structure of the collagen molecule. Both molecules are biologically important, DNA being the carrier of the genetic information, collagen being the protien that holds human bodies together. The two discoveries involved similar scientific techniques and aroused similar competitive passions in the scientists racing to be the first to find the structure.
Crick says that the two discoveries caused him equal excitement and pleasure at the time he was working on them. From the point of view of a historian who believes that science is a purely social construction, the two discoveries should have been equally significant. But in history as Crick experienced it, the two helixes were not equal. The double helix became the driving force of a new science, while the triple helix remained a footnote of interest only to specialists. Crick asks the question, how the different facts of the two helixes are to be explained. He answers the question by saying that human and social influences cannot explain the difference, that only the transcendent beauty of the double helix structure and its genetic function can explain the difference. Nature herself, and not the scientist, decided what was important. In the history of the double helix, transcendence was real. Crick gives himself the credit for choosing an important to work on, but, he says only Nature herself could tell how transcendentally important it would turn out to be.
I would, as most would say that science should be driven by its own internal logic with a reality check with naturally observed facts (experiment). Social factors and doing it for the sole purpose of making it look “attractive” might either act as a catalyst or as a reverse catalyst in reaching the final point. Let nature decide and let us keep working on what WE think is right till we get a judgment.
Any deviation from the basic scientific ideals (like doing science to only make it attractive) might result in something that is not science in the first place.
The Inertia of Scientific Thought – Thomas Gold (A critique on the herd mentality in science and the peer review process).