Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Answering adds fuel

The most distinguished physicist of our time has had something wise to say to many of us in Nature last week:
Although the short text is technically a reply to an article (plus another paid one) about the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and Animal Liberation Front (ALF), two ecoterrorist groups that have attacked some biological labs in the northwestern United States, Witten's point is much more general and applies to all of science.

Much like many other famous scientists, he believes that it is counterproductive to answer the critics of science. They passionately believe that they are right and that their viewpoint is unfairly neglected by the establishment. They strike a popular note and introduce technical themes to the public discourse that few can properly evaluate. They are ready to spend a lot of energy and generate astonishing amounts of publicity. We all know examples from our fields and from the media, Witten writes.

Witten means more enlightened counterparts of ALF / ELF who criticize physics from outside the scientific establishment and sometimes even from within.

It is difficult to respond to the critics because they thrive on the "he said she said" situation and any explanation why the elitism charges are unfair is bound to sound elitist to the public. Well, it is still extremely difficult for me to accept this conclusion - the conclusion that the discussion should be suppressed in many situations - but nevertheless, I am clearly a walking piece evidence of Witten's assertion: it is simply a bad idea to get stuck in discussions with frantically believing activists who don't have the appropriate knowledge to discuss their favorite questions rationally.

It is just thoroughly incredible how many people - including people inside the Academia - are unable or unwilling to distinguish science from value-less non-science and intellectually content-free criticism even in the cases where the differences should be completely obvious: politely speaking, lots of people are just unable to distinguish sh*t from gold. It is incredible but it is true and this fact should be taken into account when you decide how to behave in a given situation.

Witten urges us and the journalists who are friends of science to continue to do what we're doing and if a more general discussion is necessary, one should always try to patiently explain why what we're doing is interesting, exciting, and possibly useful for the future of mankind.

The rest of the page is dedicated to the counterparts of the critics of physics in evolutionary biology, i.e. to the creationists, and to the problems they cause to science in several countries. One author writes from a non-creationist perspective while a Polish author, for the sake of "fairness", criticizes Darwin's theory. ;-) Also, Boris Striepen from a Center for Diseases defends the tofu-loving ecoterrorists because some of them work in his labs! It would probably be safer, from a biosecurity perspective, if such individuals only worked as lab rabbits in these facilities. Striepen also talks about the overlap of science and anti-science in subculture.

There is one point in which most well-known physicists would disagree with Witten: that the critics passionately believe their statements. At least in the blue case, most insiders are convinced that the critic knows very well that what he says is not right and the whole exposition is meant to attract attention and money.

While I had to confirm that answering the critics may add fuel to controversy, it is also often true that not answering the critics may add fuel to controversy. ;-) The nature of such conceivable differences in opinions could be analogous to the differences in the opinions on whether or not the bad and dangerous regimes and ideologies in the world should be dealt with. I tend to think that the answer should be "Yes" but we have clearly seen both examples where such actions are useful as well as examples where they're not.

And that's the memo.

Via Prof. C.V.

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