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How science celebrities often hurt science

Backreaction responded to Lawrence Krauss' essay which argued that celebrity scientists such as Einstein, Feynman, Sagan, and Tyson are generally good for science and the society because they motivate young people, help to fight scientific nonsense, promote scientific literacy, and improve decision making.

Sabine Hossenfelder says that the celebrity status is just very weakly correlated with one's being a great scientist, she instinctively avoids fandoms, those celebrities do influence what scientists discuss and study, but she believes that they don't hurt, after all. In her perspective, the most serious related problem is that the vast majority of quality science gets unnoticed by the public; I agree with this comment. And she promotes science blogs as windows into the real science. Well, my reactions to this comment are mixed.




Before I write a few remarks about the general science pop star issue, allow me to reply to Hossenfelder's revelation that she never liked Feynman's writing. Well, while I have never been a worshiper, I always did like Feynman's writing. A few months after the Velvet Revolution, I borrowed (the Czech translation of) "Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman" from a friend of mine.

I couldn't resist reading it during the German language class (which replaced Russian for a year). When my teacher saw it, she confiscated the book. It was a problem because the copy wasn't even mine. So I was following her and when she sat next to the principal in the school canteen to have a lunch, and after she left to bring some tea, I asked the principal whether I could simply take the book, because I was allowed, blah blah blah, I pretended that I understood his answer as "Yes", thanked him, and took the book back.

She was a bit upset when she came to the classroom but she forgave me the fair unstealing of the book, thanks to my pretty eyes. ;-)




But back to Feynman's writing. The popular book was a lot of fun and meant a huge compensation for the very serious texts by Einstein that I was spending lots of time with at home up to that moment. More generally, I like (and almost certainly share) various idiosyncrasies of Feynman's writing. His native tongue was really "basic English" which I prefer over "English". And when he explains something, he always thinks about the context and when he says that something works in this way or another way, he also implicitly or explicitly says that it doesn't work in this different way, or yet another way – he sees all the relevant silly mistakes related to the issue that people like to do.

Many other thinkers and explainers avoid this "dichotomy" or they even think that it is not important, or it should be omitted because it is creating controversies and they're no good. But you will almost certainly agree that I am a canonical living example of the attitude I have attributed to Feynman. Every meaningful proposition not only sufficiently clearly says what is right; it also comprehensibly enough says (with some examples that must exist) what is not right. This is needed for balanced logic.

But back to the celebrities.

I weakly agree that celebrities considered to be scientists may

  • become role models that attract young people to science (although I think that this point is highly overrated – kids who are naturally inclined to become scientists instinctively avoid cults of personality)
  • help to collect the funding (this point is overrated as well because the would-be courageous "science pop stars" who actually love to preach against significant funding for science have become a new norm)
  • often help to improve the opinions spread among the laymen (except that the "science celebrities" often believe wrong things about questions they are passionate about, so they sometimes push the ball in the wrong direction)
and so on. But I would like to argue that one doesn't really have to be a good scientist to play these roles. A good high school teacher may do the same thing. And most of the living science celebrities (Hawking is an exception) are not good scientists. Krauss' list, mixing Einstein+Feynman with Sagan+Tyson, is comical because the first two men were top 20th century scientists while the latter two men were almost entirely entertainers and as far as I can say, none of them would make it to the top 10,000 best scientists of their era.

So I have mentioned that the "positive roles" attributed to the science pop stars don't depend on their research quality or, more generally, on their knowledge of and relationship to the cutting-edge science. While this fact makes it possible for many people – including mediocre men such as Neil deGrasse Tyson – to play these roles, it also leads to a general problem.

The problem is that these "pop stars" usually don't correctly convey the status of the ongoing research – and they don't even make their listeners understand what it means to do research and how it should be done or evaluated etc.

Last September, I wrote about a particular bad trend that Tyson is bringing with him (and Sagan was doing the same, to one extent or another): smug condescension. These people seem to convey the point that you don't have to be terribly careful or to study the scientific questions accurately. What's more important is that you declare yourself a member of the "hip new church" that uses the word "science" all the time and you use this membership in the church to dismiss others.

But that's very bad because the increased correctness and accuracy of the propositions isn't guaranteed by the word "science". Instead, it is a consequence of the clever and sometimes highly constraining (and often boring) principles and habits that we sometimes call the "scientific method". But the essence is the scientific method itself rather than the obsession with the words "scientific method". To increase his chances of finding the truth by the scientific method, one has to walk the walk and not just talk the talk!

That criticism may look like some particular "defect" of Neil deGrasse Tyson but this defect is shared by so many – almost all – of the "science pop stars" that we may view it as a universal structural problem. At the end, most of these people use all the fancy words such as "science" all the time but they actually teach their fans to evaluate the quality and validity of statements, theories, and scientists by a similar method that is used by average soccer fans. A repetition of some holy words, some personality cult to spice them, and spitting on those who are not in "our team". Sorry but whether you use the word "science" often or not, this is not the scientific attitude.

If the cult of personality is sold as "love for science", it's bad, especially if the worshiped personality is as mediocre as Neil deGrasse Tyson. I think that if I write it in this way, everyone understand what's wrong with these attitudes. But it's not just the cult of personality that is the problem. The not fully adequate "science pop stars" are spreading lots of other attitudes, opinions, and methods that are not scientific even though they associate those attitudes with science.

One obvious subset are inadequate opinions about important questions of the contemporary research. When it comes to high-energy particle physics, Neil deGrasse Tyson is just another crank who loves to say all the populist nonsense about string theory's being just mathematics, who loves to mock what is most valuable not only in string theory but in the theoretical physics of the last 40 years in general. These are no details. If you hold – and spread – opinions about the last 40 years in theoretical physics that are completely wrong, cheap, stupid, and copying the average bumpkins, you simply can't do a good job in bringing people closer to what the top scientists consider to be the current scientific image of the Universe: you are not close to it yourself.

I could mention some other wrong opinions – outside high-energy theoretical physics – that are often brutally distorted by the science celebrities.

Incidentally, it may be a good moment to say that I have always thought that Brian Greene was an example of an honest "science pop star" who successfully avoided self-glorification and cheap answers sold as "super serious science" with the help of the enhanced fame. Even though he has done highly significant contribution to physics himself, he remained modest and a speaker of all the smart folks in the "community". In recent years, he wrote some silly things about the foundations of quantum mechanics (and a few other topics), but even these imperfections may be blamed on his desire to convey the opinions of a research community. The problem is that the silly things he was recently saying about the foundations of quantum mechanics also correspond to the opinions of a "research community", the set of the chronic "interpreters" of quantum mechanics, and Brian's being wrong may be interpreted as his extrapolation of imperfections of real-world scientists rather than his own addition of nonsense.

But the problems don't end with the promotion of particular wrong opinions about individual scientific questions. There are also general misconceptions about the methodology. Well-known self-styled representatives of the scientific community often love to promote "consensus science" – and what is worse, they don't even mean the consensus among the top experts. They largely mean the consensus within their fan clubs and churches of scientism (or scientology). That's too bad because this ultimately leads the people to think that they should repeat what the majority says if they want to be more scientific. But that's exactly how they can never become more scientific. It took some effort for Galileo to construct the impersonal method that led to more solid opinions than what the masses of the believers could achieve; and than what the highest church officials and scholars could do, too.

Another widespread problem is that the "science pop stars" teach wrong lessons when it comes to the uncertainty. Some of them love to present science as "completely settled". Everything is completely clear and everyone who doubts that the rock-solid final answers to all questions are already available is incompetent, they teach. The other group knows that the first group is distorting reality so they are teaching everything as completely uncertain. Science is in the permanent fuzz where every insight may be reverted tomorrow.

Well, none of these groups is right. In science, we have different degrees of certainty about different questions. The probability that a proposition is right may be – according to the scientific evidence – equal to 0.0000001% or 0.001% or 0.1% or 10% or 50% or 90% or 99.9% or 99.999% or 99.9999999%, not to mention other possible numbers. I only wrote one number between 10% and 90%, namely 50%, because it doesn't make much sense to divide this part of the interval much more accurately. When your "certainty" about a scientific proposition (which is one of a type) is smaller than 90%, it is no "certainty" at all. For most purposes in science, 80% "certainty" is the same thing as 50% "maximal uncertainty".

Sufficiently well-established results begin at 95% or, which is better, 99.7% or 99.9999%. (The three numbers are also known as the 2-sigma, 3-sigma, and 5-sigma level.) But science can achieve certainties that have dozens of "nines", too. To start to think about our knowledge scientifically, one must first of all learn that there exist different levels of "confidence" or "certainty" and when we are offered any proposition, we should have a rough idea what the level of certainty is. And a priori, it may be extremely close to 0%, very close to 0%, close to 50%, very close to 100%, or extremely close to 100% etc. And whether a statement is right or certain often depends on details of the proposition – we must be very careful what we're exactly saying or asking.

Most importantly, there is no "religious" or "universal" method to guess whether a proposition is right or not, and whether it's really certain or somewhat uncertain, that would avoid the hard work. You always need some hard work – some real technical arguments or evidence – to decide about these questions. I am afraid that almost all the science celebrities are offering easier solutions and shortcuts and they actually help the public to think less scientifically than many ordinary people would think without them! Why are they doing so? Because almost everyone who is famous (a scientist or someone else) is partly famous for the hope and easy solutions (Winston Churchill must be quoted as a nice exception because instead of some "Yes, we can" shortcuts, he offered "blood, toil, tears, and sweat" to the Britons; that's pretty much what every science popularizer should offer but the number of Churchills among these folks is too low).

And how do real scientists react to the science pop stars?

Really good scientists are truly ignoring this stuff – and they try to be very systematic and proud about their being systematic in overlooking all this popular stuff. Someone may be well-known or a celebrity. According to a good scientist, and I really have some top-cited HEP physicists in mind when I am writing this sentence, it neither helps nor hurts. A scientist is ideally "blind" to all these things.

Of course that the typical assumption is that someone who likes to show himself or herself on TV is suspicious and probably not necessarily up to his research job. But there have been so many counterexamples that people are already very careful and they realize that even someone who is very well-known to the public may be extremely good if not ingenious.

Almost 25 years ago, I learned my lesson, too. A (girl)friend of my mother was reading Hawking's Brief History of Time which I hadn't seen at that time yet. I didn't think (and I don't think) too much about her relationship to science so of course that my assumption was that the book had to be pulp and the author (whom I didn't know well at that time) had to be a kitschy bubble created by the media. (Yes, I think that I haven't dramatically changed in certain respects during the last 25 years.)

It took me some time to understand that Hawking was (and, to a lesser extent, is) the "real deal" – one of the most powerful minds who have ever worked on the quantum/gravity interface. Yes, I think that it was a coincidence that the woman was reading a book from a genuine big scientist – but such things may happen, too.

Physicists and mathematicians have learned a lot about their brilliant colleagues who are very good actors, musicians, and those who have made billions in hedge funds (Jim Simons) or who ran for the U.S. presidency as representatives of the Natural Party and ancient Indian meditation cults (greetings to John Hagelin), among other things. Those combinations are possible, physicists realize. But someone's being a very good researcher is a different characteristic than his being famous or his being rich or his being well-positioned in a church or many other things from the world of the laymen.

Even though physicists do try to be completely "blind" to these earthly virtues (such as money, fame, and indeed, influence over churches as well LOL), I do agree with Sabine Hossenfelder that someone's (or some paper's) being mentioned in the mass media make him (or it) more widely discussed and studied, even among the scientists who claim to be "completely unaffected" (although the expected sign of the relationship may be both positive or negative). At least, I am intensely aware of this influence on myself as well as many "fame blind" physicists I have known for many years.

As you can see, I think that the influence of the "science pop stars" on the scientific research and the status of science within the society is a mixed bag – with lots of of positive, negative, and nearly perfectly canceled and therefore vanishing (and vastly overestimated) influences.

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reader Dilaton said...

The worst problem arising from the fact that one does not need to be a (top) expert to be a "science celebrity", is that this role can too easily be played by malicious posers who have no (technical) knowledge about the field but a (destructive) personal agenda or campaign they persecute ...

The targetted lay audience can not decide who is an expert and who is a malicious poser, and people tend to listen to those who appear to have the most authoritative, loudest, and penetrant style of communication. Unfortunately, the degree of real knowledge or expertise and the loudness of "science celebrities" are often anticorrelated these days ...


reader MikeN said...

Bill Nye was a pop star about 20 years ago for his PBS show. Lately he has been trading on that celebrity to promote global warming and revealed himself to be an idiot of the first order who should never have been given a show.
Take a look at the end of this:
http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/3d0c94936c/bill-nye-addresses-deflategate


reader Giotis said...

Exactly Dilaton!

You totally nailed it.


reader John McVirgo said...

There's something about Tyson though that makes me very uncomfortable when I see him described as a "celebrity scientist". There's something about him that's... poncey, pretentious that isn't found in a true celebrity scientist such as Richard Feynman, Einstein etc.


Was Tyson brilliant as a student, shining more brightly than his peers academically?


Has Tyson written a famous paper?


His Wikipedia entry says he attended Harvard and majored in physics which suggests he was academically brilliant. Yet his research career afterwards seems to be bordering on comical:


"Tyson joined its dance, rowing, and wrestling teams. By his own account, he did not spend as much time in the research lab as he should have. His professors encouraged him to consider alternate careers and the committee for his doctoral dissertation was dissolved, ending his pursuit of a doctorate from the University of Texas"


I think Tyson is more of a science publicist rather than a celebrity, in helping to make science look more accessible as a career to people that aren't as gifted as people like Feynman, Dirac, Bohr etc, but would still like to play a part some how.


reader Pinot Noir said...

Celebrities have very good lives so they cannot understand that our world is full of greenhouse gases that produce global warming.
They will not care even if the planet will look like Venus, which was already defeated by CO2 emissions and now looks like an oven during the day. But luckily, not all the celebrities is he same.
These days, President Holland along with two Hollywood celebrities visited the Philippines and they called for more actions to stop climate change.
http://www.alternative-energies.net/frances-president-francois-hollande-calls-for-more-actions-to-stop-climate-change/


reader Dilaton said...

Right ...

But the real experts do not an efficient enough job debunking (or even better: shutting up) the worst notorious dangerous posers today. The increasing number of Clueless science philosophers and similar folks, who continuously claim in the public media that "physicists are confused" about since 100 years established knowledge, are among the more harmless ones, whereas the most evil ones most not be named ...


reader Wizard said...

I think you are referring to the confusion on the interpretations of QM? the thing is that even most "experts" are confused on that subject, not to mention the average physicist! lol. but yes, that's certainly less harmful than some of the other stuff...


reader Peter F. said...

I know what should happen: The Lumo brand of science and politics needs a new marketing manager.
At the right price I am for hire. ;-)


reader Gordon said...

My problem is not with good scientists who like making public statements, and appearing on popular programs and in lay scientific mags (eg like Lisa Randall, Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, even Carl Sagan...), it is with the mediocre ones who are instantly available to every "science" journalist and for scientific board directors to mags like Sci Am etc---eg Sean Carrol and, that media-wh@r$ par excellence, Lee Smolin.
The effect of their ubiquity in the mass media is that people are conditioned to accept them as go-to authorities, while, in reality, people should be running away as fast as possible.


reader John Harley said...

I'd mention Lenny Susskind as a great physicist, Feynman 2.0 who does edutainment on YouTube and in his series "The Theorectical Minimum," for an audience who wants more meat than the usual popular science shows and books but aren't quite ready for a full college course.

On a very different note, Kaku I can't stand. He indulges in the worst kind of science fiction speculation in the flavor of "it might be possible that" for anything that isn't absolutely impossible. A real media whore.


reader davideisenstadt said...

you effing cunt. jews die and you equivocate...statues are destroyed, and you cry. You should say the eff away from me.you are lower that whale excreta at low tide.


reader Cogniscentum said...

She's a Nazi.


reader Tony said...

That doesn't make any sense, If Hawking looked like Beckham and was dating porn stars he would probably be even more famous.


reader Tony said...

Somehow if get the feeling that Tyson is basically a PC race card.


reader Shannon said...

Great article. I agree with what you say and I would like to take advantage and say a big thank you to all the scientists like you Lubos who lend us all their brain everyday. In a world of idiocracy we so need your hand to get out of here ! :-)


reader Shannon said...

Don't worry, David, I like you as much as any other human being. Feel better now ?


reader Shannon said...

You are a Nazi.


reader Dave Miller said...

Paul,

I had to laugh about your quote from the Caltech professor. I was an undergrad at Caltech, and took QM from Feynman. We called it the "Feynman effect": during the lecture, everything seemed so incredibly clear. And, then we would pick up the homework assignment and go back to the dorm. He normally gave us twenty or so problems and told us to do any five we wished.

We could usually find two or three we could actually do.

Dave Miller in Sacramento


reader davideisenstadt said...

you live to surrender.
typical


reader Cogniscentum said...

Because you say so. Right. You are so quick with the slurs. I engaged with you for a long time before coming to my conclusion. To you everybody not French is a "Yid" a "Unitedstatesian", and all out to subvert the "glorious culture" that is France. whatever.


I invite anybody who doubts you are a Nazi to read your comment history.


reader Cogniscentum said...

Has she called you a "Yid" yet because of your name?


reader Cogniscentum said...

Nazis are always looking for a "Fuhrer" I am sure Putin relishes the role.


reader Cogniscentum said...

Wait 'til they get control of the Sphynx. You think the Buddhas in Afghanistan was a tragedy.


reader Shannon said...

Ok you're right then ;-)


reader Shannon said...

...or a kike :-D Lol !...


reader kashyap vasavada said...

I have lived through times when most newspapers and TV
channels totally ignored scientific developments. Even now most TV channels in
U.S. spend more time in evening news reports on dog shows than on Nobel prizes
in science! So, if the choice is between distorted or hyped reports of
scientific developments and total disinterest, I would choose the former. Obviously,
some people who know some science and are not great scientists themselves, but have
entertainment and oratory abilities like Tyson, talk about science, it cannot
be bad for science in the long run. Very often, great scientists do not have
either time or ability or both to explain science to majority of public who
does not even understand high school level science. If these talks lead to some
students to pursue science, that will be nothing but good for science. When
these students study science at depth, they would realize that the talks they
heard in the social media were naïve and some of it was total hype! But so
what? Eventually they will study correct science! Also as long as scientific
research is dependent on financial resources controlled by nonscientists,
public discussion is necessary and mostly will lead to good results. Of course,
completely wrong ideas floating in the public media should be corrected by
leading celebrity scientists.


reader Shannon said...

Here we go again... Godwin law...


reader Shannon said...

People are not as quick as you are to fall with you into the debilitating Godwin point.


reader Cogniscentum said...

That's the kind of joke Nazis think is funny.


reader Harlow said...

Why don't you write your own book on the foundations of quantum mechanics?


reader Cogniscentum said...

Quick? I have commented back and forth with you for months. Ignoring your racial slurs, etc. You were always enigmatic to me because I had never met a real Nazi before. Now you pretend that because there is an internet meme of "Godwin's Law" that Nazism is dead and cannot be discussed.

But you are having success: "7,000 French Jews emigrated in 2014." - The New York Times. So cheer up already!


reader Rehbock said...

And you know this, why?


reader Rehbock said...

Luzzem.


reader Shannon said...

"For months"? Wow time flies, Cognisentum, doesn't it? You are hilarious. I am "enigmatic", a mysterious fairy coming from the celtic land of the witches perhaps? :-). We were talking about Assyrian history and statues that have been destroyed by your new friends Daesh. I exposed my point and here you go about jews and my supposedly Nazism. You're wrong but you don't care, do you? I'm laughing! You only want to fight. Oh I don't blame you I like it too! As it appears I have a bit of time in front of me as I'm waiting for my paint to dry (I am renovating some wooden furniture. Although I shouldn't be working really as it is Sunday, a holy catholic day, but I am a sinner, I'll confess to God later). Anyway I am truly sad that our French jews are leaving France especially because it is for the wrong reason. Netanyahu wants to use them for his extreme right warmongering politics. Fine. I just think it is bad to do it but there again I am no jew so I have nothing to say. They are free to leave and to come back whenever they want to.
Now, your turn for the slurs.


reader davideisenstadt said...

yes she has, which is one reason I used the words i did to describe her.
The irony of that is that my people came from a town in austria called eisenstadt, which is where hayden was born. they invite you in, chase you to russia...go figure. anyway its really an austrian name, so there's that.


reader Shannon said...

My people come from a land of privateers like this one. One famous quote from Surcouf when discussing with a British officer : "you French fight for money, while we British fight for honour", Surcouf: "Sir, a man fights for what he lacks the most".
"http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Surcouf


reader davideisenstadt said...

I guess the french fight for courage then.


reader Shannon said...

One fights "with" courage, not "for" it.


reader davideisenstadt said...

ummm thats something that the french dont know too much about... thats why they fight for it, they dont have it. get it?
like your quip about the brits.
geez ....WWJD?
he'd tell you to get a brain.


reader John Harley said...

Grigori Perelman solves the Poincare Conjecture and then refusing it and being a recluse. P


reader John McVirgo said...

That crossed by mind as well, but he did pass the physics course and got accepted on a graduate programme at Texas university. I find it difficult to believe that Texas university would be prepared to take on a mediocre student just because he's Black.


reader Cogniscentum said...

You spend a lot of time on the internet defending racist slurs?


reader JonnyGodDamnnox said...

Sry I didn't know that your mother was a lesbian.


reader Rehbock said...

You and David call her names. I defend nothing but decency toward Shannon. I don't think you have supported such offensive language toward her.


reader davideisenstadt said...

I call her what she is: a jew hating citizen of a country full of apologists, collaborators and cowards,
a cunt.
And thats an insult to vaginas.


reader Cogniscentum said...

"Yid" and "Kike" are not offensive of course. And she uses those terms all the time. Review her comment history. Or are slurs like that just fine with you because she hates the right people?


reader Cogniscentum said...

So you are saying that there are absolutely no Nazis on the web? That is the implication of "Godwin's Law." I know that is probably too subtle a point for a person as filled with hate as you are to grasp, but there it is.


reader Don said...

Interesting article, Lubos, Thank you for sharing your ideas on this topic. There is another angle you didn't mention, and it is that of the "gate keeper" who sets the tone and content for what is acceptable and what is unacceptable discourse. The "science celebrities" certainly play such a role. This is important because science is one piece in the jigsaw puzzle of society. Societies, like organisms, are dissipative structures that seek to maintain homeostasis. The overall society has a specific form, and this form is reflected and reinforced in complex feedback loops with the media in general. The "celebrity scientists" serve to channel the thoughts and perceptions of a specific demographic, and coral them into the accepted mainstream discourse, which serves a type of homeostatic function in the greater society.

A good example of this, as someone below mentioned, is the case of science-guy Bill Nye, who has hitched his star to global warming, a topic that is much more political than it is scientific (something you do not need convincing of!). Nye's case illustrates very clearly the linking of the science popularizer with the greater political climate. It is more subtle in people like Smolin, or whoever, but is still one aspect of the effect they exert. In the subtle cases, the effect is more pernicious just because it is more hidden; somewhat analogous to viruses that go hide in the DNA before they strike as compared to other viruses that just overtly infect your cells.

Just some additional thoughts. Again, thank you for opening up a space to have an honest and intelligent discussion of this topic.

Best wishes,

Don