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Monday, February 12, 2007

One Of My Favorites

The Reference Frame is a blog written by a Harvard physicist. This week he's covering Harvard's Faustian bargain, recommends a quantam field theory textbook which I think I will buy, and takes a glance at some of the cosmic ray flux climate theory.

I realize that a lot of very intelligent people almost reflexively flinch away from certain types of quantative thinking, but even if you hate numbers and hate equations, this blog is for you. The reason is that Motl is a true scientist, as evidenced by his discussion of Professor Jahn's comments about the closing of the Princeton ESP lab. Real science, and real scientists, think this way. People who are non-technical but who concede that science is important need to reconnect with how real scientists think.

Real scientists are constrained by evidence and uncertainty. They also share a common trait of relative humility with respect to other people's quantative argument, whether the argument is made by someone credentialed or not. The question for a genuine scientist is not whether you are entitled to call yourself a Herr Professor Doktor Doktor in Hamburg, but whether your theory and your evidence offered in support of your theory are reproducible and self-consistent, and whether they contradict other evidence. Failure and confusion are a given in science, but they are never an eternal given.

There is a type of intellectual humility before reality that becomes a habit of mind in real scientists. This trait seems to be on a wane in our wider society, and I think that ebb is a severe cultural danger. The psychological effects of shifting all arguments from the objective (is this true? how could we figure out if it is?) to the subjective (do you support me or are you against me?) is the eternal subjective argumentation of the cause-haunted public figures of our day produces endless, irresolvable conflict.

David of Photon Courier has frequently referenced his suspicion that part of our cultural breakdown is rooted in the lack of objective education and training of the majority of people in our society. I think David's right.

More on the Faust brat from Motl, and here's what Howard had to say. If you read the Motl links you'll see why he didn't pull his punches. It is nice to see two men willing to tell the truth about this sort of thing.

"Objective education and training" not only (or maybe even primarily) in the sense of formal training, but as a function of overall life experience.

A farmer or a machinist is likely to have a sense of the "hardness" of reality, even if he has no formal education of which to speak.
Or a carpenter, or whatever. Anyone whose work focus or study focus depends upon an objective reality which the individual cannot manipulate.
Ninety nine percent of all scientists have been wrong. That's the nature of science. A significant amount of contemporary science is "being done" in areas that we can not possibly subject to experimentation. These include cosmology, particle physics, much genetic research, climate, etc.. These problems are permanently and irrevocably unanswerable due to problems of complexity, energy levels or quantum uncertainty. We must be more skeptical than ever.
Good point Roy. However, I would rephrase it to "cannot be answered absolutely at the current time". Science has been extraordinarily effective in coming up with ways to test theories, such as the microscope. Remember, germ theory was proposed first!

Yes, we all have the duty to be skeptical, and any real scientist understands that.
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