Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Is It Possible To Popularize Physics Well?

Lubos Motl has an interesting post inspired by the nomination of the Higgs boson to be a "person of the year" in 2012, notwithstanding the fact that it isn't a person, and reacting to physics blogger Matt Strassler's rant on the inaccuracy of the five sentence story in a magazine directed at general audiences.

He acknowledges that points that Strassler makes are technically correct but goes on to qualify his criticism, in light of the Fool's Errand that any popularizer of physics for the general public faces.  In his view, there are fundamental reasons why popularizing physics for a lay audience is essentially impossible to do well.

In some cases, I would argue that the mistake wasn't "too bad". . . . There must be a moment at which one gives up certain pedagogical ambitions that are utterly unrealistic. While I think that the image of the world as painted by theoretical physics is a major part of the culture of our epoch (and knowing nothing about the W-boson or the genes is as bad as knowing nothing about Shakespeare), I find it obvious that an overwhelming majority of the mankind just can't understand its basics. The reason is an insufficient intelligence, insufficient motivation to follow these things, or both.

Journalists don't have any significant advantage. The average IQ of undergraduate students of communication/journalism is around 112 (compare with physics with 130 at the top). Among the college students, only education (109) and public administration (106) are closer to the average IQ (100). You simply can't expect too visible differences between journalists and average people on the street. They're not elite in any sense. In fact, this "mediocrity" of the writers is imposed upon us because if the journalists were too much smarter than the readers, the readers wouldn't be capable of reading the articles or they wouldn't be willing to do so. . .  
In fact, even if I restrict my attention to people who have dedicated a significant part of decades of their lives to studying physics at home and following events in modern physical sciences, the results are pretty weak. I would say that if most of these people were forced to learn a 2-hour introductory physics lecture in the same way they had to learn at school (otherwise they would be spanked), they would know much more than they know after 20 years of "being interested" in physics. In spite of that, many people are very proud about their "unusual extra knowledge of physics". . . 
A major reason behind this unreasonable ineffectiveness of the "home learning" of physics is that almost all these people pick sources that are full of garbage and myths spread by similarly confused and deluded average people. . . .  Authors of popular books usually contribute to this situation, too – even if they're good experts in their fields. . . .

So physics is interesting as a source of potential miracles, magic, telepathy, superluminal warp drives, and so on. But what about a solid proof that some of these things can't exist? Those insights just don't sell well. People are not interested in genuine physics; they are not interested in the truth whatever it is. They are interested in statements that pander to their prejudices and their special role among their peers. Either this sad fact or the reduced intelligence – or some superposition; it's often hard to disentangle what is at the very beginning – is the primary reason why we don't see any positive progress in the public's understanding of science. The public just doesn't want to understand those things well.

I believe that Matt Strassler still holds totally unrealistic ambitions. It's great to struggle for a better understanding of physics in the general public but if you want too much, you will be fighting the windmills. Various more or less inclusive parts of the public only have a chance to understand physics up to various levels of depth and sensible explanations of physics are likely to be a waste of time if they completely deny this distribution. That's why various types of simplifications (and various degrees of tolerance for certain misconceptions) have to be designed for variously inclusive target groups.

After all, the number of people in the general public who read (close to fundamental/particle/cosmology) physics blogs at least once a week – and redistribute tweets etc. going to physics blogs – is just totally tiny. It's really at most tens of thousands of people in the world. Even if we talk just about "interested laymen", it is just a few parts per million! The genuinely interested laymen aren't too much more widespread than the actual scientists. A larger group follows (and retweets!) science in the "mainstream media" and the distortions of science inevitably follow from this fact because the journalists usually don't know much more than the readers (and can't really know much more, for the communication to work efficiently).

We should think whether the public's belief in the "authority of the mainstream media" is inevitable, whether it brings more advantages or disadvantages, and whether we should struggle to undermine it in some way or not. Of course that there are many events after which I am tempted to think that the answer is a resounding Yes. But when I see what kind of much worse junk may be written in – and read from – some totally non-mainstream sources, I often change my mind again. In most cases, one has to choose between the bad, worse, and worst. ;-)
I am not nearly so downbeat in my assessment.  If I was, I wouldn't be a physics blogger.  But, obviously, there are difficulties inherent in trying to explain a discipline that involves at a very fundamental level mathematics that is incomprehensible in the form it is ordinary presented in, even to people who use math professionally like economists, actuaries, commodity traders, criminologists, biologists, physicians, high school math teachers, pharmacists, geologists, and baseball analysts. 

There are a fair number of people trained as physicists, engineers or mathematicans, who aren't practicing physicists who can understand new developments at a deep level (and the Internet makes it far easier for these people to participate in the discussion of the developments and get good primary source information), but there aren't all that many.

Needless to say, most lawyers seek out of the profession because they aren't mathematically inclined and I can read physics papers in their original form and make sense of them only because I was an undergraduate mathematics major who spent a couple of years studying physics and have devoted considerable time from late elementary school onward keeping abreast of new scientific developments on a regular basis - and I absolutely acknowledge my limitations in understanding some of the work being done.  As Motl notes, "genuinely interested laymen", like myself, "aren't too much more widespread than the actual scientists."

Still, there are definitely fundamental concepts of natural philosophy embedded in modern scientific knowledge about physics that are knowable, even by mere educated laypeople without advanced mathematical training, and I belive that there are benefits to making this level of understanding widely known.  The task of conveying this knowledge is one of the missions of this blog.

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