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Why Justice Roberts understands physics more than an MIT professor

This is a continuation of the story about the U.S. Supreme Court and affirmative action.

Thomas Levenson, an MIT professor doing science writing, wrote an essay for the Atlantic:

What Chief Justice Roberts Misunderstands About Physics
The title is a provocative question. But what is the answer? What does Roberts misunderstand about physics? Levenson's answer is summarized by the subtitle:
Science is not a separate realm that sits outside culture.
But science is a realm that is separate from culture. More precisely, the idealized science has this characteristic. In the real world, we deal with a real-world science that is a mixture of the idealized science and some culture. But the more this mixture deserves to be called science, the more separate from culture it is!

Strangely enough, Levenson starts with argumentation by a quote from Einstein's memories. When Einstein was old, he described something that many of us know – that already as a young man, he was intrigued by the world and its laws that exist independently of our – sometimes troubled – everyday lives, social, and cultural interactions.

You would think that we may agree that this is both a wise and realistic description of the situation and scientists' motives by Einstein and it is an argument in favor of the separate existence of science with respect to culture. The separation is what has allowed Einstein and others to escape the dirtiness of the real world and spend some quality time with science in the realm of ideas. But Levenson wants to draw the opposite conclusion. If you're waiting for an explanation by Levenson what's wrong about Einstein's quote and its obvious interpretation, you must wait for a while.

Needless to say, what Levenson is annoyed by is Roberts' important question:
What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class? ... I’m just wondering what the benefits of diversity are in that situation.
Levenson conjectures that Roberts would agree that diverse cultural backgrounds may be helpful in the humanities but Roberts seems to indicate that they're not helpful in science. But Levenson wants to argue that science is something that sits in the history and the human culture which is why the (racial etc.) diversity is very important in science, too.

The only problem with this thesis is that it is clearly garbage as I want to demonstrate in some detail.

But first, let us get back to Einstein's views. Levenson mentions how Einstein described his discoveries of special relativity when he makes a comment that he believes to be relevant for his pro-affirmative-action thesis:
As he struggled to finish the theory, Einstein found that “even scholars of audacious spirit and fine instinct can be obstructed in the interpretation of facts by philosophical prejudices.”
Right. Other physicists were confined in prejudices of classical physics while Einstein has liberated himself from the straitjacket. Einstein was a particular creative person whose thinking was "simpler" in the right respects but who also doubted the "simplicity" about other issues that everyone else assumed to be right. Einstein was a person who had lots of characteristics that were unrelated to his breakthroughs.

And when it comes to some characteristics of Einstein and his life, we may have doubts whether they were helpful for him to discover relativity etc. You know, correlation (let alone coincidence) is not causation. For example, some historians – I mean Peter Galison – argue that it was essential for him to work with the train patents. You need to know how to synchronize them etc. and that's why you realize that the simultaneity is relative. I don't buy this particular meme because as far as I know, Einstein was already thinking about the relative speed of light and other objects when he was 16, well before he worked with patents, and that's what led him to mix the space and time. The trains weren't too helpful because people working in the railways assumed – and were able to assume – the absolute simultaneity and the validity of Newton's theory just like miners, astronomers, postmasters, policemen, teachers, and everyone else. All the occupations sometimes need some synchronization and clocks which doesn't mean that they're pushed to discover relativity.

Einstein also read texts by philosophers such as Hume, Schopenhauer, and Mach. Was this reading essential for him to make his big discoveries? I don't know. Mach's thoughts were most directly relevant to physics and Einstein has praised Mach for having made Einstein think about gravity in a certain way but at least when interpreted strictly, these thoughts by Mach were ultimately refuted by Einstein's general relativity. In some sense, the punch line of general relativity was the exact opposite of Mach's principle. Mach wanted to argue that the empty space was even emptier than Newton had thought – that there was even no objective way to define acceleration (of a world line) in that space. General relativity concluded that it was not only possible to distinguish accelerating and non-accelerating (geodesic) trajectories; even in the absence of any particular trajectories or observers and all localized objects, there was a difference between a curved and flat spacetime! Gravitational waves are the clearest prediction of GR that Mach would have almost certainly prohibited.

Hume and Schopenhauer may have communicated some provoking conceptual ideas about broader issues to Einstein. Were they helpful? I don't know. I am just pretty sure that Hume and Schopenhauer were never close to discovering relativity. ;-)

But even if you decide that the philosophers were helpful for Einstein to discover relativity, you must see a big problem with Levenson's claims such as:
The diversity of Einstein’s particular background, sensibility, and cultural circumstances all played a role in bringing Special Relativity to fruition.
Even if the philosophers and other details from Einstein's background have been helpful, it was particular intellectual views and their diversity that may have been helpful for someone to find relativity. But the proponents of affirmative action talk about the skin color. While the ideas of relativity may be positively correlated with some writings by a philosopher, the skin color just isn't correlated with claims about relativity. Relativity holds for people of all skin colors and equally intelligent people of all races are equally capable of understanding or discovering relativity.

Take Barack Obama. Somewhat misleadingly, he is referred to as a black. His race is in between. But culturally, if you ignore his Islamic years as a kid, he's largely a white Marxist. So you expect him to make the same contributions to general relativity as other white Marxists with the same intelligence. For example, you may predict him to contribute a piece of a footnote in a crackpot paper about the curvature of the constitutional space. And that prediction works beautifully. The affirmative action preferring Obama's skin color would have clearly brought no benefits to physics.

If some diversity were helpful for physics research, it would be the intellectual diversity. As I have repeatedly argued, it may be easier for some Christians to get the foundations of quantum mechanics than it is for typical atheists. So maybe many more Christians should be hired to study foundations of quantum mechanics – and perhaps more hard scientific disciplines such as quantum gravity. Well, the Christians and conservatives are among those who are frequently rejected or fired in order to increase the diversity of the skin color so if this kind of diversity helps, the affirmative action makes things worse, not better.

At the end, I don't actually believe in a "systematic advantage" of one religious or philosophical direction when it comes to finding and understanding novel scientific paradigms. Science ultimately deals with the evidence and with the simplicity and beauty of theories etc. And a good scientist is simply capable of processing all these factors. That's why I believe that the chance to produce important paradigm shifts – or at least understand them – primarily depends on the skills of the scientist.

If you look at all those atheists who have to search for the nonsensical "realist interpretations" of quantum mechanics, you may say that they're too prejudiced. It may sound as an explanation but at the end, the inability of a scientist to overcome his prejudices simply means that his thinking isn't sufficiently sharp and penetrating. People who keep on saying that there's something wrong with quantum mechanics and a "realist interpretation" has to be found are simply not as smart as they pretend. To blame this thing on the "culture" is just a lame excuse. Pretty much by definition, a good scientist simply has to be able to separate himself from all the cultural baggage. The completeness, internal consistency, and (to some extent) inner beauty of quantum mechanics is a demonstrable fact that a good enough scientist must be able to discover or re-discover or verify – it's as objective a fact as the validity of a proof in mathematics.

I have already said that if some diversity could be helpful, it's a diversity in those aspects that the social justice warriors don't care about or directly suppress – the ideological diversity. But at the end, I think that even this kind of diversity is largely inconsequential for progress in physics. At the top, I said that the idealized science is the "part" of the real-world science that is separated from the culture.

Here, I may rephrase a similar assertion at the personal level. The better a real-world scientist is, the more capable of suppressing his cultural habits and social prejudices he is while doing science! In science, culture simply is one of the sources of noise and errors. So all the cultural and other backgrounds only matter for those things that aren't helpful to do the actual science – the idealized science part of the real-world science.

It's very embarrassing for an MIT professor to be so wrong about an issue where Justice Roberts – who has no official physics credentials – is so profoundly correct. Levenson basically plays the role of the postmodern philosophers who believe (as described in the hoax paper by Alan Sokal) that the value of pi varies as a function of the amount of discrimination of vaginas by the penises. Levenson isn't using brutally straightforward words like these words but the essence of his claim is the same.

You must understand that Levenson isn't really a professor of science. He is a professor of science writing – and because it's writing, this discipline is closer to humanities. Because it's science writing, it may also look like a discipline somewhere in between the science and the humanities. However, the existence of jobs which are in between science and culture doesn't mean that science doesn't exist separately from the culture. The two essences, the scientific and the social one, should enjoy their separate existence. A professor of science writing may do both but if he can't separate them, it's too bad because the separation is absolutely vital for science to operate. To misunderstand this separation means to be incompetent about the foundations of science. Such people should better not write about science, either.
Roberts’s question about the “benefits” minorities might bring into a physics classroom suggests a classroom in which nothing outside physics may usefully impinge. That is, at best, a fatally narrow view.
It may be a "narrow" view but what's more important is that it is a true view. In a real-world physics classroom, the talk, layout, formulations, and other things may depend and usually do depend on the cultural background of the instructors and students. (An obvious example is that people may speak in different languages. Once, Einstein and Levi-Civita met and spoke in a language that both men called "English". But the actual main communication channel were the equations written on the blackboard.) But it's really just the physically irrelevant part of the events that take place in the classroom that depends on the cultural backgrounds.

Those who have read a sufficient number of TRF blog posts with the biographies of scientists or posts about the history of science know very well that my texts do reflect my particular cultural background. If some people were closer to the Czech lands, I may have been slightly more interested in them than in other people. If they had political attitudes or events in their lives that I recognize as "close to mine" in one way or another, they get a special treatment. And so on. I am not ashamed of my idiosyncrasies. On the contrary, I enjoy displaying them.

But the key point to notice is that all these views, backgrounds, and biases only apply to the part of the stories that don't belong to the natural science. Whether Johannes Kepler poisoned Tycho Brahe in Prague is a real or unreal historical event – something that belongs to the humanities. And even whether you find this question interesting is just about your cultural background. It has nothing to do with the science you have to learn when you want to understand Kepler's laws or anything else in science.

So again, there will be biases in the classroom that depend on the cultural background of the people. But these biases only manifest themselves at places for which the instructor is getting or should be getting $0. It's just not his job. As long as he is paid as an instructor in science, he may display any cultural vantage points he likes (or at least those that are considered legal or tolerable by the society or community) but he is only hired to teach science in some way. To add stories about murders in Prague is not a virtue of one physics course relatively to another. And a similar comment applies to students. When asked to construct a physical situation showing a certain law, a black student may refer to a rapper but using a rapper clearly doesn't make the physics answer better than an answer using a white composer of classical music.

To say that a physical situation involving a rapper is better than one involving a classical composer means to be biased in a way that isn't legitimate in science. The science is simply "color-blind" when it comes to races and cultural backgrounds and other things. To favor one cultural background over another – in the sake of some diversity quotas or in the sake of anything else – means to partially or completely abandon meritocracy because the meritocracy in science clearly implies that both physical systems must be treated equally. This meritocracy is also needed to get the "best people" where "the best" is defined according to the criteria that actually matter, i.e. the color-blind and culture-blind scientific criteria.
Roberts is thinking only about the answers, not the process of arriving at them.
Again, Roberts is right even when it comes to the process of the discovery. Science, when done correctly, builds on impersonal criteria, the evidence (of empirical or theoretical character) that is available to everyone. Some non-scientific interests or cultural background may sometimes be helpful for a scientist. But they are equally likely to be harmful, too. To increase the percentage of blacks may increase the chance for an important discovery of a certain kind; but it may reduce the chance, too. It's simply not true that "diversity" let alone "higher blackness" always comes with a positive sign.

Even if we took this "helpfulness of the background" seriously, and I've argued that you shouldn't do so, it's just rather simple for a scientist to emulate the other people's or nations' backgrounds. Imagine that because of some cultural reasons, it is easier for a Persian man to discover a geometric, 12-dimensional description of string theory called F-theory. I don't believe that it may be the case – I think it's a coincidence that Cumrun Vafa who discovered F-theory also happens to be Persian. But imagine that for a particular discovery, a particular nationality helps.

Even if you assume so, the amount of the "Persian spirit" that you need to make the discovery is tiny. It's likely to effectively be just one sentence. You don't need to learn Farsi. It's enough to learn the English translation of one Persian sentence! This is clearly available to people in other backgrounds, too. When it comes to the helpfulness of the "Persian spirit" for a scientific theory, you may become an "effective Persian man" within a minute! The Persians know tons of other things but these things are not helpful for mastering the theory. Maybe because of all these "trees", they may overlook the "forest", the single insight that is really helpful.

So the whole idea that to gain an advantage in the discovery, one needs to copy "most of the culture" of a certain form is just utterly unrealistic. If something in the cultural background is helpful at all, it's only some essence and people from different backgrounds may effectively and quickly import the essence. In fact, they are doing so all the time. Sometimes, they're doing too much of it. If there's something relevant for a science in a culture, all the scientists in the field (like all the F-theorists) de facto become "honorary Persians".

Take Erwin Schrödinger. He developed a huge interest in Eastern religions. Was it helpful for him to make some discoveries? I don't think so. Note that if some advantage were available to the folks in India, Schrödinger probably had the same advantage. Did he know too much about Eastern religions, or too little? I am pretty sure that if our goal is to advance science, he knew too much. When one becomes too deeply immersed in similar cultural things, he gets detached from the science, and that was the case of Schrödinger, too.

In other words, scientists may have cultural and religious prejudices but they must be kept in check. They are not terribly helpful, the scientist must remain independent of them, and he must be able to quickly and smoothly embrace important principles that used to have tighter relationships with other cultures. When a scientist becomes competent, he is familiar with all the essences that are needed in his field, regardless of their "cultural" origin. In this sense, a good scientist always stands above all the cultural backgrounds! It's not so hard to do because only a tiny portion of these backgrounds actually matters in science.
The case for diversity in American education (and life in general) turns on any number of reasons, from the historical to the instrumental (why throw away so much talent?).
America is throwing away talent when it enforces affirmative action. The affirmative action is artificially increasing the percentage of certain would-be "oppressed" groups relatively to the meritocratic situation which optimizes the utilization of the talent.
Einstein’s story suggests another: Physics, like any worthwhile inquiry, is not just a body of facts and methods. It is a way of being in the world that requires the full range of human experience.
But there's no rational reason to expect that when two students get the same score in a physics test, the human experience associated with one culture (let alone one skin color) will be more beneficial for doing physics than the human experience associated with another culture (or skin color). By defending the affirmative action, Levenson is implicitly making this wrong claim. The claim is wrong for well-known reasons: it is a manifestation of racist bigotry. It may be a manifestation of the "reverse" racism that Levenson boasts. But the "reverse" racism is a racism, too.

In the final paragraphs, Levenson claims that every scientific act of a Yugoslav female general relativist is framed by her memories of the battlefield in Sarajevo. This is such a stupid claim that I can't even imagine that I would respond to it seriously. If she weren't able to do general relativity without pictures of a destroyed Bosnian city, maybe she should look for a psychiatric assistance. General relativity has no helpful correlation with Sarajevo. To do general relativity in a way that displays a persistent correlation with Sarajevo means to do general relativity totally irrationally, or not do it at all.

Justice Roberts clearly understands the difference between science on one side and social ideologies on the other side much more clearly than at least one professor of science writing at MIT.

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