Saturday, April 04, 2015

This explains everything

Prospect preferred that I keep my short review of Steven Weinberg’s book To Explain the World behind the paywall. But he’s obliged by inviting further comment with his piece in the Guardian today, in which he talks both about the history of science and popular science writing. On both, his remarks are useful insofar as they encapsulate the worst of what drives me to despair when some (most definitely not all) scientists talk about these things.

The first thing to say is that Weinberg’s view of the history of science is not down to ignorance. It’s important to say this because that’s what it looks like. But no, Weinberg does not write Whiggish history because he doesn’t know what historians of science do these days, but specifically because he does know and disapproves of it. Yes, this high-energy physicist believes that historians don’t really know how to write history. It is hard to know why he nonetheless expresses “enormous respect for professional historians of science, from whom I have learned so much” – unless he means (as I suspect) that he is grateful to them for having dug all the facts out of the archive, but that he doesn’t believe they can be trusted to know what to do with them. Because Weinberg seems to have learned nothing from historians of science about how to be a historian.

If your view is that science was just kind of blundering around and dragging its feet until Newton’s Principia, then it’s perhaps not surprising if you conclude that the use of mathematics in science by ancients such as Plato and the Pythagoreans was “childish”. Again we have to understand that, while a remark like this coming from an undergraduate would simply indicate ignorance, from Weinberg it conveys something else. I am quite sure that he knows how incendiary such a claim is. But I fear that, in making it, he comes across like Jim Watson, evidently thinking that by saying the “outrageous” he is revealing himself as a bold and outspoken thinker whereas in fact he just sounds silly.

Talking of which… listen to this remark about science commentators and popularizers: “Ironically, as writers they were so much more popular than professional scientists that in many cases it is their comments on scientific research rather than reports of the research itself that were copies and recopied.” When you realise Weinberg is here writing about “the ancient world”, you see how anachronistic his whole perspective is. Those guys were kind of like, well, like Steven Weinberg, only in togas and sandals and doing really crappy maths.

His book is full of this sort of stuff. The generally uncritical reception it has got – with the splendid exception of Steven Shapin’s review in the WSJ – has left me rather depressed about how little general understanding there seems to be of what the history of science is about. So I can only imagine how professionals must feel; as one has said to me, “it's shocking that this sort of thing gets published by a major house”.

If Weinberg genuinely believes that pretty much the entire discipline has got things wrong, you’d think he would make the effort to explain why. But all he does in his book is shrug and say “I don’t buy it.” And all this stems from a total misunderstanding of what the historians are up to. Weinberg seems totally hung up on the idea that they are a nest of arch-relativists, convinced that the science we have today is no more valid than that of Aristotle or Roger Bacon, just a different story for different times. This says more about Weinberg than it does about the history of science. I think you’d have to look very hard to find a historian who truly believes that the theory of general relativity is no better than Newtonian gravity (and presumably therefore that it’s up to us whether or not to adjust our GPS satellite systems to take Einstein’s theory into account). As Weinberg puts it in his article (and now things really do get childish), “I argue with those historians who try to judge each era’s scientific work according to the standards of that era rather than of our own, as if science were not cumulative and progressive, as if its history could be written like the history of fashion.” In other words, he is not really interested in understanding why people once thought the way they did, but just whether they were “right” or “wrong”. A study of phlogiston theory would hold no interest for him, because it was wrong. Why think about wrong ideas? Well, as a scientist, he certainly has the luxury of not doing so. But then please, please don’t try to write history. The reason – one reason – to be interested in such things is that you have an interest in the history of ideas. Weinberg shows no curiosity about ideas that can’t be directly connected to ones we deem to be valid today. Someone with that view is going to be able only to convey a very limited picture of science to the general public.

Which brings me to science communication. Given Weinberg’s dismissive attitude to professional historians, I suppose it should come as no great surprise to discover his view of professional science writers. Like Richard Dawkins selecting The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, he only has eyes for fellow scientists who try to popularize what they do. It is essential that such people exist, and the best of them (like Dawkins and E. O. Wilson) have produced much of the best science writing. But the fact that, in an article on writing about science for the general public, Weinberg fails even to acknowledge the existence of people who do this professionally gives us a pretty fair picture of what he thinks about science communication. We have to assume that, like history, this is not something that need be done by specialists – it is best left to scientists themselves, since only they really understand science. They can, you know, just “take time off from their own research” to knock it out.

Like Weinberg? Well, The First Three Minutes is deservedly a classic. But it is helpful that Weinberg starts his piece by saying that “It is mathematics above all that present an obstacle to communication between professional scientist and the general public”, because it tells us from the outset that we needn’t take too seriously his thoughts on science communication. I am quite sure I am not alone when I say that, having written about science (particularly physical science) for more than 20 years, I have almost never found myself frustrated, in wishing to convey an idea or concept, by the fact that I cannot tell it in maths. Indeed, a wish to do so is almost invariably a good sign that the underlying ideas are not properly understood by the author. If scientists cannot communicate a concept without falling back on maths, they don’t truly grasp what it is they are trying to talk about. It is a failure of the communicator, not of the audience.

But even putting that aside, Weinberg’s insistent refrain about the role of maths in science betrays his extreme parochialism. This is reflected in To Explain the World, which is not about the history of science but about the history of physics, particularly celestial and terrestrial mechanics. He still takes the view, popular a century ago but long discarded by historians of science, that no science has really grown up until it becomes thoroughly mathematical. I’m not even sure that there are many physicists who still cling to this absurd notion. It reveals a total lack of understanding of chemistry, materials science, evolutionary biology and cell biology, to name just a few areas. Of course, mathematical and quantitative models are important in all these areas. But they don’t define them in the same way as they do most of physics. Weinberg’s is the kind of thinking that says chemistry only became a proper science (and at the same time, an obsolete one) when quantum theory explained the structure of the atom and the nature of the chemical bond. And that, to use a popular physics slogan, is not even wrong.

This sort of parochialism is reflected in Weinberg’s list of “13 best science books for the general reader”. Only one of them is by a professional science writer (Timothy Ferris, who certainly deserves that place), and nine of them are about physics – and cosmological, nuclear or fundamental physics at that. No chemistry; no surprise. The shortage of women in Weinberg’s list is not because, as he tells us, “women were not welcome in science through most of its history”, but because he does not seem interested in the work of the many excellent science writers who happen to be female. Because they aren’t real scientists, you see. And so there is no room for the likes of Georgina Ferry, Elizabeth Kolbert, Margaret Wertheim, Dava Sobel, Deborah Blum, Gabrielle Walker... Instead, we get Lisa Randall – not, I suspect, because she is a particularly gifted communicator of science (sadly she is not), but because she works in theoretical physics. (If he’d wanted to limit himself to that, he could at least have chosen Janna Levin, who really can write well.)

The great thing about writing books, Weinberg says, is that it has given him “the opportunity of leaving for a while the ivory tower of theoretical physics research, and making contact with the world outside.” He should do it more often.


Niranjan Sridhar said...

I agree with most of what you say about the Weinberg's more eccentric statements, but I think it would be fair to say when he says science, he really means physics. Which is not really unexpected, though he should probably correct that.

E. Berry Drago said...

Thank you for this thought-provoking response. Personally, I was struck by his ability to dismiss history of science work and trivialize the history of fashion in a single breath! Quite an accomplishment. As if fashion history- a vibrant and culturally embedded history, revealing not only changing tastes but changing attitudes, mores, ethics- was not cumulative as well as contextual.

Anzel said...

Someday someone will publish The Great Condensed Matter Popular-Science Book, and I can finally explain a bit more about what MOST physicists actually study to folks. (And why the field isn't just a whole bunch of frippery about totally remote things).

I also wonder why I see Brian Greene's book so often in these lists--I found it to be rather poor in explaining how relativity and quantum mechanics actually work. Surely somebody can do better.