Thursday, March 22, 2012

Cartoonists, alarmists, linguists attack Dyson, Gell-Mann, physicists

This story began with the following cartoon by Zachary Alexander Weinersteinsmitherson-Grossman, or Zach Weiner for short, a rather well-known Internet cartoonist:
This old pet physicist has to be euthanized (SMBC comics)
Spoilers: A couple brings their ill pet to the doctor. They complain that the pet started to babble about the climate, neurology, and linguistics. The doctor is surprised that the pet already looks too old. He explains that physicists go from "young and learning" to "productive" and then to "senile" and in the latter stage, they internally suffer, so the best solution for everyone is to euthanize the physicist. The couple is sad but agrees. Before they do it, the husband leaves his wife in the bed in order to caress his good old pet, listen to some (totally valid) objections that climate models aren't reductionist enough, and feed him with a few beef tensors for the last time. ;-)

This cartoon – similar in spirit to TBBT Penny's joke about a physicist who waits for an attractive woman to materialize out of the vacuum fluctuations next to him in the restaurant because it's more likely than the possibility that a real woman would be interested in him – may be classified as disrespectful or insensitive but I am sure that many of you will laugh when you will see it and because no one else than physicists are the targets of the joke, it is politically correct to draw similar cartoons. Almost everyone hates genuinely smart people, after all, because almost everyone is a moron so there's no reason to regulate jokes about "putting them down". It's doubly puzzling why Zach Weiner, if he has these opinions about the physicists, began to attempt to study physics as well.

The fact that everyone hates smart people was quickly documented by a linguistics blog that discussed the cartoon.

The blog is called the Language Log and the blog entry is titled
The life cycle of physicists
The amount of intellectual envy penetrating through the linguists' comments over there, starting from the very owner of the blog, is kind of amazing.

Note that no one is officially learning at school that physicists are the smartest group of scholars even though it's pretty much obviously true according to various tests, see e.g. IQ in different fields. Still, the linguists managed to find out that it's the case and pretty much everyone "unofficially" knows it's the case so they reveal their unlimited jealousy and envy.

Some of the comments are just witty, however.

Let me look at all 23 of the comments:
Cy: Physics is a weird field. The public gives them a lot of slack - just enough to really hang themselves, but because science is so uncritically accepted, we become stuck with all this crackpot science, from individuals who should really know better. Murray Gell-Mann comes to mind. Feynman, who had that great speech about cargo cult science, wrote about his theories in passing completely uncritically. I'd like to think that means linguistics is cognitively more demanding and tricky than physics, but it's probably just the human tendency to assume that mastery of usage implies mastery of theory.
The only sense in which physics is a weird field is that it is the most fundamental natural science discipline among all.

Murray Gell-Mann may have defended one or two wrong claims about linguistics in his life but everyone who has tried to be creative had to do so. And otherwise he's as far from a crackpot or a senile guy as you can get. In fact, he's a rather characteristic example of something I want to mention: physics doesn't "invalidate" or "debunk" other disciplines. Quite on the contrary, physics underlies them and unifies them.

That's also why physicists almost never offer "uniformly negative" appraisals of other disciplines. They're smart enough to realize that most disciplines work and have led to progress. Some physicists including Gell-Mann are just trying to analyze the same problems more rationally, with the methods and standards that the non-physicists are usually incapable of achieving. In some cases, it may be a useless improvement and more vital things are being overlooked. But in others, it's a useful one.

Gell-Mann has helped Sergei Starostin to construct some of the theories and although many of them remained controversial, it has indisputably been a part of the work that must be allowed in linguistics and cherished once it leads to justifiable and nontrivial results. Again, the linguists are simply being jealous that Gell-Mann is capable of doing linguistics while they're not able to do any physics. The asymmetry is their nightmare.
MattF: Physics really does have a distinct cognitive style– the 'spherical cow' is a joke, but only just. On the other hand, an ellipsoidal cow…
It's a rather shallow, high-eccentricity elliptical way of looking at physics. The "spherical cow" may be more than a random joke but it doesn't capture all the cognitive wisdom that a physicist has to internalize in order to think as a physicist. The spherical and hyperbolic cows are meant to express the idea that physicists often like to or have to simplify the situation and replace it by a mathematically more well-defined, simpler situation. But that's very far from being the only thing that they're doing.

In fact, the physicists' universalist and perfectionist approach, on the contrary, often aims at including all the detailed aspects that almost everyone else would overlook. Linguists routinely omit relativistic and quantum corrections and most of them don't even know what they are. But they are omitting more important things in various contexts, too.
Ross Presser: From the forum thread on this SMBC comic:

Reading is hard and less panels usually = less words.

Oy gevalt. "Reading is hard"???

Leoboiko: @Ross: Let’s go mathing! Wait…
Reading is hard for some people. Ross clearly wanted to say that at least in some cases, the cartoons are optimized for readers who are lazy to read too much. Leoboiko didn't get it.
CY: I certainly hope you are not talking about Quantum Chromo-Dynamics!
Note that while KeithB realizes that Gell-Mann has done some very important physics which surely can't be classified as a crank's fantasy, he doesn't realize that Quantum Chromodynamics isn't really one of them – the existence of quarks isn't the same as Quantum Chromodynamics – and for a linguist, he offers a rather poor spelling of Quantum Chromodynamics.
Coby Lubliner: This supposed joke doesn't describe any of the many physicists I have known; it's just that physicists have the habit of solving problems by going back to first principles. Now, economists are another matter.
The first comment that brings something sensible and valid to their discussion. The focus on the link between the studied phenomena and the first principles is what is much more characteristic of physicists than spherical cows.
Cecilieaux Bois de Murier: Clearly, the rambling on linguistics was the physicists undoing!
We haven't learned much new here, have we?
Martin J Ball: Sheldon Cooper does make some very prescriptivist linguistic remarks…
The word "prescriptivist" surely sounds impressive – and his fellow linguists will be impressed – but I am not sure whether Martin understands its meaning because I am not sure whether it's the right adjective for Sheldon's remarks. The word encodes the belief that ethical statements determine people's behavior.
Rube: @Martin J Ball — Would you say that Sheldon's in his "juvenile" or "productive and fun" phase?
This interesting question was never answered. It's also interesting that Rube hasn't offered the senile phase as an explanation of Sheldon's personality but this omission may have been due to the lack of creativity rather than the writer's sufficient respect.

I think that Sheldon is in his learning/productive/provocative stage and for real physicists, this universal stage really can't be divided to pieces because all the activities sketched in the "life plan" by the animal doctor are essential for physics, however blasphemous they may sound to others.

The younger physicists' stage, involving lots of learning, is something that physicists have to do throughout their life as well: they have to learn all the time. In the same way, the old physicists' stage, involving attempts to address far-reaching questions, is something that a real physicist tries to do from the beginning as well. And indeed, it's also true that sometimes he or she errs. And even young physicists are often productive, something that advisers with good graduate or even undergraduate students skillfully exploit.
Sili: Coby,

That's the problem. xkcd has done work on the arrogance of physicists as well. 'They' have a tendency to think that they can ignore everything ever done outside their field and solve every problem on the back of an envelope. And as a result we get techno-utopians like Freeman Dyson and denialists like Luboš Motl muddling the waters on good science in the public's mind.

To be fair, surgeons and doctors tend to play at the game, too, thinking that their training makes them scientists. And hence we get the likes of Egnor: a mind-body dualist brain surgeon.
It's an honor to appear as the fourth physicist here, after Gell-Mann, Cooper, and Dyson. It's an even greater honor if you realize that the people who mentioned me are some of the intellectual titans who make living out of writing "scholarly" papers about the arrogance of physicists! :-)

In general, physicists aren't arrogant. Arrogance is overbearing. Note the prefix "over". Most physicists are just *bearing* their superior intellects. If you're really the smartest person in the building, it's not arrogant to realize that although this insight may be hard to explain to any linguist who can't experience this feeling in their own skin.

Whether surgeons or doctors are scientists depends on the detailed definition. They must know some science in general, they know lots of technicalities about their discipline, they may be unusually useful in helping other people, but they're clearly not the naturally unifying minds in the search for the truth about the world in the most comprehensive sense. Medicine is an applied science, after all.
Sili: Rube,

Look at the diagram. Some people skip the middle stage and go straight to Time Cube territory (*cough* undergraduate philosophers *cough*cough*).
Some people skip the first stage as well.
Xmun: Never mind the physicist. The satire on vets is exactly right.
I am not so sure even about this general point. In the past, old people were the natural intellectual authorities due to their experience etc. Of course that being old has disadvantages, too. But even if it often leads to unspectacular or faulty results, successful old people's attempts to say general things is something totally sensible and justified and a sensible society may often try to listen to them.

As one gets older, he or she statistically gains the capability to talk about far-reaching, universal questions that affect whole disciplines or the whole Universe.
Rubrick: Thank goodness there are no linguists who fancy themselves qualified to expound on, say, politics.
Thank goodness, indeed. That would be really crazy, especially if such linguists were also employed by institutes of technology to add another field to their "expertise". BTW have you sent your condolences to this linguist after Obama executed his famous friend and admirer in the Middle East?
Jonathan Badger: I think the issue is that traditionally, physicists knew a lot of math and how to analyze things quantitatively at a time when most other fields were qualitative. Then the physicists really *did* help other fields — biology was put onto a much more mathematical framework after World War II, in part because there were a lot of physicists who had gotten fed up with weapons and became biologists.

The problem is that today many physicists don't understand that the rest of us study math these days and that computational biologists exist. It wouldn't surprise me that they don't know about computational linguists either.
The first part is OK. The second part is very bizarre, especially if Mr Badger talks about the likes of Gell-Mann. He knows the "map of the field" of linguistics in quite some detail.

Otherwise yes, it has become necessary for other fields to study some maths, too. And indeed, physicists are among those who made everyone else realize that this was necessary. However, the fact that the other fields *need* to study maths doesn't imply that they're actually *good* at it.
Mark F: The Wikipedia article on Gell-Mann begins

Murray Gell-Mann (/ˈmʌriː ˈɡɛl ˈmæn/; born September 15, 1929) is an American physicist and linguist who received the 1969 Nobel Prize in physics for his work on the theory of elementary particles.

and later it says

Gell-Mann also is an avid birdwatcher, a collector of antiquities, and a gifted linguist. He notably assisted S.A. Starostin in his reconstruction of the Proto-Human language.

So now I know who Zach Weiner had in mind with "We can recreate the first language using statistics" (later in the strip).
Some of the linguists are even a bit slower than others but congratulations to Mark for his timely discovery.
Alex: This wouldn't be so much of a problem if other fields didn't suffer periodic paroxysms of physics envy. Not every field is suited to exclusively deductive, quantified methods. I'm not even sure physics is, but outsiders seem to see it as the archetypical hard science.

I'm in archaeology. It's a historical social science– very few relevent experiments can be conducted. And yet we've gone through phases where people feel the need to bash inductive and qualitative methods, in the hopes that being more like physics will get us more respect or funding or masculinity or something. Mostly what it leads to are really trivial research results (e.g. artifacts tend to migrate downhill) because half of your analytical tools have been discarded a priori.
Someone surprisingly managed to notice those "periodix paroxysms of physics envy" in fields like linguistics. I am afraid that it's especially the insiders, and not the outsiders, who realize that physics is the archetypal (not archetypical) hard science.

I just think that most of the physics envy manifests itself during the periods when the archaeologists find it necessary to criticize the physicists.

Can the linguists get those things by imitating physicists? I think that linguistics has enough funding. Masculinity is probably inherited so you can't train it. And whether a linguist emulating a physicist will earn some respect depends on the quality of his skills as an actor and the gullibility of the person whose respect he is trying to earn. ;-)

Finally, I would say that it's a misconception that physics avoids inductive or qualitative methods. In some sense, archetypal physicists are best in induction, too. They can extend it to the longest distance. They just try to avoid sloppy and irrational methods.
Carl: Speaking for all philosophers ever, I love it when physicists tell us that we've never done anything, and they've managed to solve all our problems over a lunch break.
And I love it when a philosopher finally understands this simple point after the last two thirds of the lunch break that the physicist spent by explaining it to the philosophers.
Maidhc: I remember a physicist whose approach to debugging a malfunctioning computer was to start with the assumption that the problem was caused by ions created by the cooling fan affecting the voltage levels of the system, and to develop increasingly elaborate schemes to remove the guilty ions.
It probably wasn't the right explanation over there but it may happen. Physicists are trying; most others would just throw any gadget to the trash bin immediately and they would be proud that they managed to distinguish the trash bin from the dishes in the kitchen.

Philsophers are the worst about this. "Hey, who cares about Plato, let's use some mathematical notation in our papers. That'll solve all our problems!"
These philosophers have to be treated as complete traitors. Instead of uncritically worshiping a guy who lived 2,400 years ago and guaranteeing that they haven't learned anything new since 400 BC, they dare to use maths.
Dakota: Totally OT, except that it is also from a comic; in the last panel Dilbert says, "I should take a picture in case someone ever asks me if ignorance has a tell." After getting over the cognitive dissonance I realized I understood it.

Link to Dilbert cartoon on Plan B
Totally off-topic, indeed.
Marie-Lucie: Gell-Mann also is … a gifted linguist. He notably assisted S.A. Starostin in his reconstruction of the Proto-Human language.

I am speechless.
The lady is speechless but she just managed to have proven that she is not illiterate.
Sybil: @marie-lucie: …

@leoboiko: I've recently been told that converting a mixed number to an improper fraction is something that only Math majors (in a well-respected college) should be expected to be able to do. We've gone way beyond "Math is hard". So I giggled and cried at your comment.
I appreciate that Sybil has optimized her reply to Marie-Lucie and removed all the unnecessary verbal garbage.

Concerning the other sentence, they have gone from "math is hard" to "math is tough". Sybil would probably not convert the numbers to fractions but someone may be good at giggling and crying instead.


  1. I'll be the first to bow down to physicists' vast intellectual superiority over myself. It's true.

    But that doesn't mean the comic wasn't funny.

  2. Seriously, you are trying to parody Sheldon Cooper, right? I can believe you are serious about what you think on how smart are physicists.

    PD: a physicist.

  3. Dear Ryan, I agree it was kind of funny, a tough black humor.

    Ontureño: quite on the contrary, Jim Parsons is making living out of parodying myself and others. It doesn't change anything about the fact that his character is right most of the time if not all the time.

    Maybe your sub-Penny IQ is just not enough for you to notice this empirical fact.

  4. Well, I like to think that I'm at least as smart as Dr. Leslie Winkle :P

    Still, I want to believe that you wrote this like some sort of twist of the original joke. People don't "know" that physicists (I would say that specially theoretical physicists) are smarter, people just think you (maybe us) are more arrogant. And this post does nothing but provide them with good arguments to believe so. It's so ironic that I can't believe you do not realise this simple fact, so I'll keep thinking you are just kidding.