Volume 29, Number 3 July 2000


The letters are dedicated to free expression on societal topics of interest to the physics community. As a forum for all physicists we welcome all views, but of course the Forum on Physics and Society does not necessarily endorse any particular view found in these pages. Readers are most heartily invited to respond to letters, comments, or others items in Physics & Society. Letters should not be longer than 500 words.

Science and Ethics (Letter from student in "Physics for Poets" class)

There is an ethical dimension to the pursuit of universality as it arose out of Enlightenment positive science. If Newton could do it in physics, then it could be done in the social sciences as well--that is the gist of thinkers such as Comte, Bentham, and Marx. Universality is attractive because, by definition, it transcends cultural differences. If one believes that humans are essentially good and will treat each other properly if they understand each other (optimistic and debatable assumptions that are prevalent in much humanistic and social scientific literature), it becomes clear that universal knowledge, i.e., knowledge that is not culturally conditioned, is the backbone of a universal community. The immediate goal of science may be a workaday synthesis of observed fact, but a larger and more important goal is the adumbration of a systematic theory whose predictions are correct and verifiable by all observers. This larger goal has an ethical dimension.

Let me explain why. Before Newton and Galileo, even educated people believed that there were two distinct and mutually exclusive physical realms, superlunar and sublunar, i.e., the heavens and the earth. Different rules applied there than did here. Newton's hypothesis was so enamouring, aside from the mathematical brilliance involved, precisely because it proved that the same laws applied here as did there. In fact, it no longer made sense to speak of here and there; things were, physically speaking, everywhere the same. But what does this have to do with ethics? It has everything to do with ethics. If one believes that different moral rules apply to one's own group than apply to another group, then disputes, confrontation, and possibly violence will ensue. If one values the people who live here more than those who live there, then inevitably conflict will arise, especially concerning scarce or essential resources. On the other hand, if one believes that all people are of equal moral value, then the possibility of mutual cooperation amongst people and groups is greatly enhanced. The analogy between ethics and science should now be clear. A 'pre-Newtonian' ethic sets up opposing camps, us and them. In a 'post-Newtonian' ethic it makes no sense to speak of us and them; things are, morally speaking, for everyone the same. Strongly implied in such an ethic are the values of reciprocity and tolerance. This is corroborated by the history of physics. It has always been, continues to be, and will continue to be an international effort. It crosses gender, racial, ethnic, national, and religious boundaries in the pursuit of truth. I think this is a tacit performative statement of the tolerance and sense of community that lies at the heart of the modern scientific enterprise. Just because many--or even most, for all I know--physicists may not consciously recognize this does not detract from the importance of this ethical component of Science. Maybe the scientists can learn something from what the humanists have learned from the scientists.

John Turri, Jr.

26222 Annagrove Lane

Chesterfield, MI 48051



Science and Creationism

I think that the educational (or lack thereof) developments in Kansas need to be viewed in proper perspective: a major problem in the philosophy of science has been that of the demarcation between science and non-science. However some years ago Larry Laudan showed that there is no rigorous way to distinguish the two. Hence we are entitled to make any theories or models we wish. The distinction between good science and bad or non-science lies in the success of the former. If the creationists wish to replace a consistent, factually supported view of the universe with it's creation in the last 10000 years they are entitled to do so, but it is extremely unlikely that it will provide any insight into or be able to answer the many questions which still exist. Unfortunately as a result of the KBOE's action it will be the students who suffer most, but hopefully the gap in their education will eventually be corrected.

Derek Walton

Dept. of Physics and Astronomy McMaster University


Licensing Journalism

I could not agree more with Melott's assessment (P&S, April,2000) of the role of "journalists" in the sad saga of science education. In fact, Americans are - in general - ill served by our popular press. Despite their protestations to the contrary, and despite any useful functions they may otherwise serve, Melott's analysis is too true. Our own error, however, is to view the unacceptable performance of journalists through the narrow lens of physics. In fact, the problem is at once deeper and broader. Let's be specific (using Melott's words): 1) Journalist's have an unacceptably high rate of "substantive errors". 2) The press is unable to distinguish expertise from propaganda. The "opinion of someone who (is a true expert) is no more worthwhile than the opinion of anyone else". 3) "...the need to cast every story as a conflict" Now, let me broaden the context from physics to politics. I happen to have been in the Middle East during one of the periods of highest anxiety when Israel opened what became known as the "tunnel" near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. As usual, our press immediately leaped onto the conflict aspects without so much as a sidelong glance at the facts. As usual, the opinions of careful expert observers were given no more weight than those of the most radicalized Arab propagandist. And, as usual, journalists got the facts wrong. (For starters, the "tunnel" ran away from -- not toward -- structures on the Temple Mount.) We routinely license plumbers, hairdressers, and others whose impact is minuscule in comparison with society's need for a high-quality press. Again, despite protests to the contrary, licensing is not censorship. The minimum citizens must demand is that journalists be knowledgeable in the area on which they report. This knowledge should be established by a university degree in the subject matter (be it physics, politics, or any other), be current via required ongoing training, and be subject to discipline by revocation of the journalist's license. There are countless mechanisms whereby idiots can make their views known. One, as a society, we should not permit is mass media (general distribution newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, etc.). Working to improve the quality of the Fourth Estate gives us common ground with others (no matter their specific field) fighting for intellectual integrity, gives added meaning to responsible citizenship, and will reduce the opportunity that "creationists" and their elk have to hijack society.

Bernard H. White, Ph.D.



Criticism of P&S

In the January issue of P&S you asked for feedback on your decision to reduce typesize so that you could CRAM more stuff into each issue.... There HAS been a problem with P&S and it is related to your desire to cram more material into each issue. But, the solution has nothing to do with typesize. You have been entirely unselective in the articles you print and many of them are too long and too boring to be read in any typesize. Most of the articles could benefit from the imposition of some length constraint which, apparently, you have been unwilling to do. As a result, when I receive my (hard)copy of P&S I start one or two articles, grow bored and impatient, and throw away the entire issue. Talk about a waste of paper....

In my view, the function of the FPS newsletter should be to keep us informed about issues in general by providing readable overviews while pointing us towards those articles where we could, if interested, find more quantitative details. Physics Today often does a very good job of this in its specialized sections. In my view the FPS newsletter would be successful if it introduces its readership to new issues and stimulates us to learn more about them. Speaking, perhaps, only for myself, my eyes glaze over when reading an overly detailed, quantitative article on a subject which is new to me and which may have lacked an introduction designed to tell me why I should be interested in the subject.... Permit me to suggest that you consider publishing concise articles which begin with a statement of the issue/problem and why I should be interested in it, followed by an overview of its past, recent and current status. These articles need not go into the depth of detail or argumentation appropriate to, for example, a refereed manuscript, but should provide enough information so the reasons behind the conclusions/recommendations can be understood, along with references to more detailed articles and further reading.

Gary Steigman