Monday, April 18, 2011

Examining the man behind the curtain

I was reading earlier on "The man behind the curtain" , where Tony Rothman describes how the lay person understanding of physics ascribes a higher level of clarity to them than what they really have, and that the scientist have been hiding this, equating it to the way Dorothy saw the Wizard of Oz for the first time.
But I wonder...Is this description truthful? It seems to me that some of the most famous science popularizers of physics have always described this state of lack of knowledge as the most intriguing part of physics (and of science in general). Feynman was the greatest at stating this, in multiple ways, like  "Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, "But how can it be like that?" because you will get "down the drain," into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that." (Source of Quote: Wikipedia). Even more modern ones like Brian Greene don't hide this. He even has a section called "Puzzles and Progress" in his book, The Fabric of Cosmos, and I would say that he is one of the most "positive" physicists in regards to the possibilities of science. 
So, where does this perception comes from? I would use Mr. Rothman's quote from Eugene Wigner's book, "The Unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the Natural Sciences"  to find an answer. Well, the thing with physics is that it works ( . To an unreasonable level. The fine structure constant has a precision of 0.37 parts per billion. We have now quantum clocks that won't get out of synchronization of more than 1 second in one billion years. And I could go on and on with examples of superbly precise levels of knowledge.
And for most of the general public, the "science" part that they see is what will affect them, not what it explains of nature. So they see the great advances, the absurdly precise measurements, and they do not care about the little details. I do agree with Mr. Rothman that we should probably increase the public understanding about the real nature of science, which is to constantly doubt what you think is certain, and to constantly look where you haven't before. This would help us a lot when parts of science that have high probability of certitude but not the complete details of reality (like climate change for example) are being attacked due to "lack of 100% certitude.

Another point where I disagree with the article is in his tirade against the freshman/pre graduate level text books, and their lack of precision. Yes, they overgeneralize, and smooth out the rough points that are present in the edge of physics. But you know what? At the edge of physics (or any other science) there SHOULD be rough edges. That's why it's called research. Because we don't know what we are going to find!. But just as you don't teach the ballet beginners of all the issues that they may have on their joints/muscles on the first class (, and lots of other ones), you don't expect that freshmen in any area of knowledge will see the doubts that arise in the harshest of the intellectual environments. It's not the way that you teach people about anything.

There is also the issue of the conflating the present with the future. Yes, we may not know now how/what it is exactly happening, but it's a logic error to think that this will always be the case, that we will always remain completely ignorant.

And following this point, what he seems to be approaching is the issue of the possibility of knowledge, and how detailed can we get before we can't go further down, and if the fact that we can't have complete knowledge of anything without using unproven priors nullify the possibility of knowledge. As Feynman said "We can't define anything precisely. If we attempt to, we get into that paralysis of thought that comes to philosophers… one saying to the other: "you don't know what you are talking about!". The second one says: "what do you mean by talking? What do you mean by you? What do you mean by know?" (Source of Quote: Wikipedia) That is more for philosopher's to discuss than for physicists, although when the field becomes so advanced, it would probably benefit the physicist to dabble in philosophy, to clarify exactly are the epistemological issues of what they are doing. I don't think that the fact that we don't understand a problem completely means that we don't know anything about the problem. That ignores the fact that nature seems to have magnitude scale differences.  Even if  you don't know what happens in the lower scale, you can  KNOW what is happening in the upper scale.
He finishes saying that we should not confuse description with understanding. I would say that he shouldn't confuse incompleteness of knowledge with lack of knowledge.

1 comment:

Fer said...

Congrats for the writing. I think you provided thoughtful insights and comments about this complex paper.