Monday, September 04, 2006

Popular science

Science isn't complex and difficult because freakish scientists like to make it that way. It's complex and difficult because the universe is complex and difficult. More accurately, because our minds, tailor-made for dealing with the comparatively super-simple everyday world and everyday life to which we are heir, must strain to function on the vastly different level of complexity that is required to understand even the simplest parts of the universe's workings.

Popularizing science means finding a way to bridge that gap. There are many good examples of this; Carl Sagan's works are the outstanding gem amongst them, though many others have done excellent work in the field. But what rankles me is a particular kind of bad way to do it that is perennially popular, one which I think is best typified by the "Tao of Physics".

Now, the book of that name may indeed have an insight or three in it worthy of the printed page (and if you go to your local bookstore and look at what's worthy of the printed page, that might not seem like a very tough criterion). However, while it pretends to offer an insight into physics, it not only does not, it gets in the way of such insights. And it is just one of a whole class of attempts to make science accessible by taking a metaphor far too far. (If I seem to be picking too much on that particular book, it's not because it's the worst example, not by far; just the most recognizable "banner" for this approach.)

Because that's what the Tao of Physics is: a metaphor that has been mistaken by its author, or at least by most of its readers, as something more than a metaphor. (Well, probably, it's more like a simile, but you get the point.) Along the way, the actual science got lost. Instead, the reader is left making spurious and entirely inaccurate conclusions about science and scientific concepts, conclusions predicated entirely upon mistaking the metaphor for an actual equivalence.

To me this is a disservice to science, to the reader, and probably to the concept of tao (or whatever is on the other side of the metaphor). The genuine insights in the book could just as easily have been expressed without having to be mired in the morass of a metaphor gone awry. And now any attempt to clue in the reader to what's actually amazing in science, already a daunting task, is now far harder, as these mistook metaphors provide so many paths by which the reader's mind can easily slip away from the path of understanding.

3 comments:

litlfrog said...

I grow more depressed by the year at our hopes for making science understandable. Physics, biology, astronomy, medicine, etc. are not just complicated--our understanding becomes more complex and layered every year. An educated man of the Enlightenment was expected to be well-versed in scientific matters, but such a feat seems quite impossible in today's world of detailed, specialized knowledge. Take this example: how unhealthy is it to be slightly overweight? A large new study released lass week showed markedly earlier death among overweight people, but this contradicts other studies of the past decade. For a satisfactory answer, I now have to learn about clinical trial methodology, statistics, morbidity rates, nutrition, etc. While I study these topics, I am not learning about ecology, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Republican gerrymandering successes, astrophysics, or third world economies.

I think this dilemma contributes more than is generally acknowledged to the layman's sometime frustration with science and scientists. Biologists routinely report in the press that GM crops are perfectly safe with no intelligible evidence to back their assertions. We are expected to believe them because they are a competent scientific elite. They don't say this of course; they decry the public's lack of knowledge in not having a proper understanding of biology and agronomy. Combine this "delivered wisdom" with a perceived lack of respect for religion and the jabs at fringe sciences that are occasionally proven right and you might see why respect for science is currently in a trough.

To sum up, I had no idea I was feeling so ranty today. ;)

HawthornThistleberry said...

I would have to recommend Connections (or at least the first episode) if I didn't know you'd already seen it.

HawthornThistleberry said...

Here's a good popularization of science: Made With Molecules. That she, almost, nanofabricates the products is even cooler.