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Physics Envy?

Discussion in 'Off Topic [BG]' started by BassyBill, Mar 6, 2006.


  1. BassyBill

    BassyBill The smooth moderator... Staff Member Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 12, 2005
    West Midlands UK
    I always find Richard Dawkins thought provoking. He generally doesn't attempt to pull any punches. Any thoughts on this quote?

     
  2. Dawkins is kind of a douchebag, but it's true. If you've ever had to read post-Marxist philosophy, you'd understand.

    I wouldn't necessarily call it "physics envy," though. There's a great deal of "economics envy" in the other social sciences.
     
  3. BassyBill

    BassyBill The smooth moderator... Staff Member Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 12, 2005
    West Midlands UK
    "Physics envy" is not Dawkin's term, as he says. In fact, it might not even be Peter Medawar's originally; I know it does find a fairly wide usage. It's the phenomenon rather than the term itself that I find of interest.

    I'm not sure of your reasons for referring to Dawkins as "a douchebag". I met him once and he seemed a really genuine sort of bloke. I know he has "hardly been reticent" (his phrase) about some emotive topics and has attracted a lot of flak for this, which in turn has led to a fairly combative stance on his own part. This hasn't stopped him being right, though.
     
  4. sinophysiker

    sinophysiker

    Feb 7, 2006
    Shanghai
    haha.
    as a physist, i have to say this's a great one.

    those guys in chemistry department may not think so though.
     
  5. dlloyd

    dlloyd zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

    Apr 21, 2004
    Scotland
    I don't think it's directed towards chemistry, more towards social sciences and humanities.

    There's an infamous (and hilarious) paper by Alan Sokal that illustrates the concept. He published, in the journal Social Text, a prank paper entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity".

    Basically, it's meaningless, but impressive sounding gibberish that got accepted for publication because it asserts the importance of postmodernist philosophy to science, particularly to mathematics and quantum physics.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_Affair
     
  6. lamborghini98

    lamborghini98 The Aristocrats

    May 1, 2005
    NYC; Portland, OR
    I think that idea is pretty unfounded. I dont think physicists try to make their field inaccessible anymore. They definately used to, and there was an author (I cant recall his name) who was writing for the common man... bassically as a result of this, he was shunned in the community. These days, however, with people like Michio Kaku and Brian Greene... people who are really on the frontier or physics and who write for the common man using very simple language (in fact, Einstein once said -and Kaku agrees with- if you can't explain a physics concept to a 5-year old, its completely worthless)... I don't think that's an accurate description at all. Besides, of all the people I know, none of them are envious of me for wanting to go into physics in college.
     
  7. westland

    westland

    Oct 8, 2004
    Hong Kong
    I think Dawkins purposely tries to stay controversial, he's got some great insights, and he's in one of (IMHO) the politically toughest fields in the natural / social sciences -- evolutionary biology (which is it ... natural or social science?). It's a tough field because Darwinism has been fighting an uphill battle forever.

    I'm a business professor, and a lot of my work does invoke economics, because generally the smartest guys doing business research are economists. But much of economics borrows heavily (and often without justification) from physics.

    'Physics envy' is a great meme ... we all use it to grouse about some of the specious c**p that comes out in the journals, all prettied up with borrowed equations.
     
  8. westland

    westland

    Oct 8, 2004
    Hong Kong
    He really caught a lot of heat for humiliating the sociologists ... but I understand that he had been chastising the social sciences publicly before this little trick.

    There was another similar sort of trick, but more substantive, where 20 papers that won their authors Nobel prizes were altered cosmetically (new names, data, etc.) but otherwise kept the conclusions intact and sent to major journals in their respective areas. Apparently 19 were rejected (I don't have a reference for this, but was told of it).

    Academic journals in their current form are increasingly useless anyway. They don't catch fraud, and any number of recent high profile fraudulent publications should make this obvious (think 'stem cells'). I think journals of the future will look more like little versions of wikipedia.
     
  9. nateo

    nateo Schubie Fan #1

    Mar 2, 2003
    Ottawa, Ontario
    It sounds like you might be talking about Wolfram and his book on Cellular Automata (he's a mathematician). There's no denying the fact that the guy's a genius, but the book was written directly for a public audience, not a scientific or academic one. The reason he took flak was, to paraphrase one mathematician, because he wrote the book for a non-critical audience (i.e. the public). There aren't many people in the world who have the education and/or intelligence (though your intelligence is debatable if you choose to persue a math degree) required to look at a subject like that objectively and provide criticism. By selling it to the general public it was like claiming to be the best violin player in the world but then refusing to play at Carnegie Hall in front of an audience of music critics and instead playing down at the local bus station. Sure people will appreciate it, but the average joe walking by will likely have to just take your word about being the best.

    But that's just one story I've heard, and it doesn't have much to do with the topic at hand. Sorry about the slight hijack.

    -Nate
     
  10. BassyBill

    BassyBill The smooth moderator... Staff Member Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 12, 2005
    West Midlands UK
    Everything in your post is in general agreement with my own observations, although I tend to come across more of the "specious c**p" in the social sciences. More from Dawkins on this topic here.
     
  11. Brad Barker

    Brad Barker Supporting Member

    Apr 13, 2001
    berkeley, ca
  12. The idea is that physics sounds hard even though physicists try to make it easy, and other scientists get jealous. Not that physicists try to make it sound harder than it is.
     
  13. The thing is, us "non-peer" people really laugh at these scientists when they bicker back and forth at each other over theories that none of us understand. Just like when people laugh at music critics when the argue over where Toscanini's direction of Beethoven's Third was slightly too pianissimo.

    Every branch of science has it's geniuses, and they all have personalities, some of which are going to clash. It's a kind of academic gang warfare. But instead of drive bys and drugs, it's published papers and research grants.

    Meh, it's all too high over my head for me. I would rather play with a pendulum than sit down with pages of proofs any day. My experiance with physics it that it EXISTS. Therefore, it's something to explore in the real world, not with math problems on paper.

    Rock on
    Eric
     
  14. Brad Barker

    Brad Barker Supporting Member

    Apr 13, 2001
    berkeley, ca

    sounds like sour grapes to me. ;)
     
  15. Brad Barker

    Brad Barker Supporting Member

    Apr 13, 2001
    berkeley, ca
    bull. math majors are trained to THINK, which makes them desirable in managerial positions (and i suppose outside of mcdonald's chains, too), if they don't want to make the attempt to be an academic.
     
  16. sinophysiker

    sinophysiker

    Feb 7, 2006
    Shanghai
    yeah the whole Sokal thing is really funny and amusing. i was trying to read that original paper once, and it has like a thouand footnotes, and i got choked.
     
  17. BassyBill

    BassyBill The smooth moderator... Staff Member Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 12, 2005
    West Midlands UK
    That's PURSUE. And MATHS. ;) Neither are debatable.
     
  18. BassyBill

    BassyBill The smooth moderator... Staff Member Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 12, 2005
    West Midlands UK
    Brad, I'm glad you (apparently) understood it! I was struggling to perceive any kind of meaning to that post at all. :D
     
  19. Anyone who's interested in reading more about this should consult Making Social Science Matter by Bent Flyvbjerg (he's Danish). There's a great deal in there about the ways in which the social sciences have tried to imitate the physical sciences, with decidedly limited success. Flyvbjerg, a scholar of urban planning (he's recently received some notice for his book about why gigantic infrastructure projects are always over budget and underperforming), argues that social scientists should abandon attempts to model themselves on physical scientists, and instead use judgment and intuition as part of their toolkits.

    Man, I can NOT believe that I would ever be talking about this stuff on TalkBass.
     
  20. BassyBill

    BassyBill The smooth moderator... Staff Member Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 12, 2005
    West Midlands UK
    Peter, you're dead right. Anybody who's interested in what Dawkins is talking about need only read this to understand. :D