Friday, November 30, 2018

High Stakes Put Internecine Jibes in Science in Their Place

Geologist and professor emeritus at St. John’s University Larry E. Davis has taken to heart the slings and arrows aimed at geology by scientists in other fields, academia, and the popular culture, so much so that he feels compelled to ask, “Is Geology a Real Science?” (His essay with the same title appears in The Compass:  Earth Science Journal of Sigma Gamma Epsilon, volume 84, number 3, 2012).  The piece begins sounding like a Rodney Dangerfield routine (“I don’t get no respect.”)  It’s true that the slurs directed to particular sciences are often very clever, begging to be quoted endlessly.

To begin with, it’s not just the sciences where this kind of invidious comparison occurs.  Unfortunately there is, I think, a natural tendency for many of us to put people and their fields of endeavor into some sort of rank order on such perceived, but often unfounded, attributes as the utility of the work, the profundity of the questions explored, and the complexity of the mental challenges encountered.  An easy metric for many are the educational barriers to entry into the field.

Case in point.  Back when I was doing legislatively related research for the U.S. Congress, I remember taking umbrage when someone referred to me as a librarian.  Though my employing organization was part of the Library of Congress, I wasn’t a librarian.  Why did that label initially offend me?  Yes, a host of unfair stereotypes kicked in, but, more to the point, I knew the labeler sought to establish a pecking order with me on a decidedly lower rung.  It was a power thing and he was right, I did have much less power in that relationship.  But, more to the point, I came to realize that there was no inviolable line separating the work I did from that of my librarian colleagues.  I came to appreciate the frisson that could come from crossing lines between fields.  It sparked growth; we all benefitted, including the jerk on a power trip.

To my mind, one of the funniest expositions on the merits of various fields turns up in Act I, Scene 1 of The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593).  (Whether the humor here is intended or not, I don’t know.)   I recently came upon this after reading several of James Shapiro’s scholarly, stimulating, and highly accessible books on Shakespeare (e.g., 1599:  A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005) and Contested Will:  Who Wrote Shakespeare? (2010)).  Marlowe, one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, briefly cut a singularly dashing and tragic path in that world.  I’d had no exposure to any of Marlowe’s plays and Faustus happened to be on my bookshelf.

At the outset of the play, Faustus, a doctor of divinity or theology, ponders the relative merits and value of the fields of philosophy, medicine, law, divinity, and necromancy or black magic.  In doing so, he offers up a single aphorism for each field (save the last) that, in his mind, sums up its essence; each is then quite easily and humorously dismissed.  For instance, medicine goes by the board because its objective is good health which Faustus claims he already has.  Now, if medicine served to grant humans eternal life or bring them back from the dead, says Faustus, then “this profession were to be esteemed.”  Theology suffers a similar fate when Faustus sums up its central message to be – if you say you’re not a sinner, you’re a liar because everyone is a sinner, and, if you’re a sinner, your fate is “everlasting death.”  He opines,
What doctrine call you this, Che sera, sera:
What will be, shall be?  Divinity, adieu!
(I admit that I hear a Doris Day-like lilt when I read the phrase Che sera, sera.)

As to necromancy, Faustus posits,
O what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honor, of omnipotence,
Is promised to the studious artisan!
And, so, he sells his soul to the devil with tragic results.

It would seem that in the sciences this kind of offensive comparison among fields arises with some frequency (admittedly, it may be that just a few particularly biting old saws get repeated often).  Regardless, it’s been fun dredging up some of the pointed and vicious comments that scientists have made about various scientific fields in which that they do not practice.  Seems to be largely in the service of marking territory, of establishing a hierarchy of worth.  Ah, power trips.

And, for some reason (a concentration of hubris, perhaps), physicists appear to have been the source of most of the pointed put-downs that I find cited.  I’ve relied on secondary sources for these comments from physicists, so I cannot be certain that this what they really wrote or said.  Still, it may be telling that such sentiments are so generally attributed to physicists.

Physicist Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937) is often quoted as having said something to the effect that all science is either physics or stamp collecting.  (Rutherford’s comment and that of Louis Alvarez cited below appeared in a previous post on this blog.)  A classic slight, for sure, though the evidence that he actually said this is not convincing.

Physicist Louis Alvarez (1911-1988) helped develop the hypothesis that the end-Cretaceous event was the product of the impact of an asteroid.  Bill Bryson quoted him in *A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003, p. 198) as saying of the paleontologists critical of that hypothesis, “They’re really not very good scientists.  They’re more like stamp collectors.”

(As someone whose interests have expanded recently to embrace stamp collecting, I find such comments amusing and somewhat painful.  Is the activity really that pointless and worthless?  In the long run perhaps so, but in the near term it offers a needed break, stimulates intellectual exploration, and certainly satisfies that quintessentially human impulse to categorize and impose order.  Still, this is an argument to be had at some other time.)

Early in his career, physicist Leon Lederman (1922-2018) reportedly approached the gray-beard physicist Enrico Fermi (1901-1954) to ask about a particular elementary particle.  Fermi answered, “Young man, if I could remember the names of these particles, I would have been a botanist.”  (Dave Goldberg, The Universe in the Rearview Mirror:  How Hidden Symmetries Shape Reality, 2013, p. 230.)

It’s not just physicists who mark territory.  At the risk of raising a question I don’t intend to address (to wit, what is a science), I must quote German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855) who clearly knew the hierarchy among the sciences:
Mathematics is the queen of sciences and arithmetic is the queen of mathematics. She often condescends to render service to astronomy and other natural sciences, but in all relations she is entitled to the first rank.  (Quoted by Clifford Pickover in Archimedes to Hawking:  Laws of Science and the Great Minds Behind Them, 2008, p. 292.)
By “arithmetic” Gauss meant number theory.

In his essay (cited at the outset of this post), Davis laments the low esteem that geology has in academia, citing department closures among other slights.  As for popular culture, he finds The Big Bang Theory TV show feeding into a mindset that can dismiss certain scientific fields wholesale.  Where else but in a post in this blog would one wander from Faustus to The Big Bang Theory?  The disparaging remarks made by the character Sheldon Cooper, a physicist, about the other sciences draw laughs.  Sheldon’s sardonic observations may be the contemporary equivalent of Faustus’, and the latter, we know, led to calamity.

In 20th episode of The Big Bang Theory’s 7th season, there’s the following exchange between Sheldon and Penny:
Sheldon, pulling a book out of a bookshelf in his apartment:  Why do we have a geology book?  Leonard, did you throw a children’s party while I was in Texas?
Penny:  Wait, what’s wrong with geology?
Sheldon:  Let me put this in a way you’ll understand Penny.  You remember how you explained to me that the Kardashians aren’t real celebrities?  Well, geology is the Kardashians of science.
In the series, engineering, much more than geology, suffers Sheldon’s derision, in part because engineer Howard Wolowitz, a main character, lacks a doctorate.  In episode #12 of the first season of the show, Sheldon enters the university’s engineering lab, looks around at Howard and other engineers, and says,
Engineering, where the noble semi-skilled laborers execute the vision of those who think and dream.  Hello, Oompa-Loompas of science.
Does this kind of slight in a very popular TV show really have an impact, somehow feeding into attitudes toward particular sciences or perhaps fostering more anti-science feeling in this country?  Davis certainly seems to think so.  As a result, he devotes much of his essay arguing for the centrality of geology to myriad important endeavors.  He forcefully asserts that geology and its practitioners “play a key role in the continuing efforts to understand the relationships between our planet and humankind.”  Further, he maintains that the various sciences, per se, should not be considered or treated as “separate disciplinary silos,” rather the sciences “are all related.”  These contentions are, for me, clearly true and accepting them more widely is, I think, critical for us as we face certain critical challenges.

Take climate change.  The drawing together of myriad fields, ignoring any hierarchies, in fashioning our understanding of climate change and responding to it is fundamental.  This point was put into sharp relief by the recent Congressionally mandated report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program which spells out in stark detail the threat facing us from climate change.  I would argue that this is the challenge threatening, not just Americans, but all of humankind.  Scientists recognize this, if so many others in society do not.  I found it sad and telling that the Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II:  Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States was released the Friday after Thanksgiving in an attempt by the White House to bury its findings.  Nevertheless, it has received attention, and I hope (but don’t expect) this attention will persist.

Apropos of the topic of this post, this report represents the work of a host of committed scientists in this country whose expertise sweeps across many scientific fields, from meteorology to physics to astronomy to biology to geobiology to zoology to ecology to veterinary medicine and so on.  This places the petty jibes quoted earlier into context; they are just that, petty.  They are ignored in this effort because the stakes are so high.  This is science speaking with one voice, across all scientific fields.  With that strong voice, science is telling us:
the evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming and continues to strengthen, that the impacts of climate change are intensifying across the country, and that climate-related threats to Americans’ physical, social, and economic well-being are rising. (Report-in-Brief, p. 26.)
If we don’t listen, we, like Faustus, have only ourselves to blame.

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