Volume 30, Number 1 January 2001
The letters pages 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.
Against Fiction in P&S
Your decision to publish the fps via the web is probably a good one since it will be much cheaper and you will therefore be able to include more items. You might also include a table of contents for the solely electronic issues in the following hardcopy issue so that it is a matter of the written record just what was "published". Your decision to include fiction strikes me as extremely unwise. As I see it the fps is a serious discussion and commentary about important questions confronting our society. These questions (e.g. global warming, nuclear stockpiling, SDI, decontamination of former nuclear materials sites, etc.) will involve billions of dollars, questions of public health and safety and questions of national security. As physicists we are uniquely equipped to deal in hard facts as well as informed opinions. Thus we are qualified for example to be cited by say, the New York Times, by congressional reports or by other first-rate sources for the general public. Any respectable journal, which mixes in fictional material, will inevitably be viewed less seriously than one which does not. When I read fictional material about these important questions, I tend to believe that I am being fed pure propaganda. Then the next step is to wonder just how much propaganda is contained in the rest of the journal. A mix of fiction and what purports to be fact produces a slightly hysterical tone, reminiscent of many underground publications which we all saw during the late nineteen sixties. What you are doing is degrading the status of the fps in the eyes of the general reader. Indeed, one then wonders just how much of the supposedly serious articles contain some fiction or fantasy.
Before you conclude that the inclusion of fiction should be a policy of fps, I hope you will call for a written ballot by the full membership of fps. This is a major policy shift and I cannot believe that a single person is making it unilaterally!
As our readers should know by now, there were two innovations in our October issue - its publication exclusively on the web and its inclusion of fiction. Neither "policy shift" was was made "unilaterally by the editor - I was initially against the first and dubious about the second. The first was made by the Forums Exec Board, the second suggested by the Forum Chair and concurred in by the Editorial Board and my editorial colleagues. So far, we have had a number of comments from our readers on the first shift, only the one above on the second. Most comments have been laudatory -the only common complaint being that it required too many steps to print out the entire issue, section by section. (We have taken steps to eliminate that problem - there is now a "one-step button".) Counter to my expectations, there was only one complaint about the absence of a hard-copy issue - most, if not all, of our members apparently have ready access to a web-capable computer. The only difficulty I anticipate now is the possible loss of non-subscriber readers who ordinarily get to us via library shelf browsing. I hope to alleviate this problem by incorporating the Table of Contents of the web editions into the following paper editions; library browsers can then use the library web access to read those previous web issue pieces to which they have become alerted by the library hard copy. As always, we welcome comments and suggestions from our readers - on these shifts as well as other Forum related matters. Physics is an "experimental science"; experiments are only experiments if they are continuously evaluated. We hope for no less with our physicists journal.
I have to agree with William Butler and disagree with Derek Walton regarding the ability to distinguish between science and non-science. Despite what any philosophers of science might claim to the contrary, I think there is a clear and widely accepted distinction between scientific claims and non-scientific ones.
Simply put, any scientific statement must be testable, and thereby falsifiable. A good scientific theory can never actually be proven, but it can certainly be disproven. Therefore scientific theories must continuously evolve to conform to new evidence as it arises. It is a hallmark of non-scientific theories such as "scientific" creationism to maintain the theory intact, and develop contorted "explanations" to "invalidate" the evidence.
Consider the statement, "God created the universe 'as is' 6000 years ago." There is no evidence that can possibly disprove this statement. "As is" presumably means complete with fossils in the ground, light in transit from stars billions of light years away, and all the other physical evidence that points to a much older universe. One can make no predictions of what will be discovered (or, more importantly, what can be ruled out) as a result of this hypothesis. The statement is not scientific. On the other hand, if we take the statement, "Life on earth evolved over 4 billion years through a continuous process of random mutation and natural selection, " there are certainly pieces of evidence that we can imagine that would render the statement false. In fact, while our understanding of the sequence and mechanisms of evolution are by no means complete, and have been continually improved and modified since the hypothesis was first proposed, all of the evidence gathered to date supports some variation of this evolutionary theory. The statement is scientific because it leads to testable predictions, and the fact that the available evidence does not violate any of those predictions means that it continues to be a viable theory.
Nothing prevents non-scientists, pseudo-scientists, charlatans and frauds from making scientific claims. However, if such claims are truly scientific they will be testable. In many cases such claims have already been tested and found lacking, in which case it becomes incumbent upon us to present the evidence and expose the errors in the claims. Homeopathic medicine practitioners have been claiming for years that there is therapeutic value in taking doses of poisonous substances that have been diluted to concentrations that are, in some cases, less than one molecule in the world. This clearly scientific claim is easily testable, though for some reason there seems to be little interest in carrying out such tests.
False scientific claims and theories provide no difficulty to science. They are easily dismissed if they have no usefulness, or maintained as convenient models if they do. Newton's mechanics, after all, has been known for a century to be false, but it remains such a useful approximation for so many problems that it continues to be more widely taught than the more accurate relativistic and quantum mechanical theories. The true test of a scientific theory may be not truth, but rather utility. No, the greatest difficulty comes when people make non-scientific claims, and then insist (through the political process) that those claims be treated on an equal footing with scientific ones. The average person, who is unfortunately inclined to be at best marginally scientifically literate, is far too easily swayed by argument that one cannot prove that evolution is right and creationism is wrong. In fact, we cannot prove such a claim, but that does not mean that the two theories are on equal footing. As any freshman philosophy student can tell you, we can no more prove that the universe was not created fresh this morning when we got out of bed, or in fact that the universe exists at all. As scientists, though, we must begin by agreeing that measurements, even in quantum mechanics, provide us with information about reality. It is certainly true that scientists do not agree on an exact statement of the scientific method. To some degree this is because the exact methods differ between disciplines. A field such as astronomy, that relies heavily on "found" evidence (observing what is there without the ability to manipulate the conditions) must necessarily proceed along different lines than a field such as solid state physics, where most conditions can be fully controlled within a laboratory environment. Nevertheless, even without a universally accepted definition of the term, I think all scientists share a common understanding of what constitutes science and what does not. Given a list of statements, I think the vast majority of scientists would agree on which were scientific and which were not scientific, even though they may disagree on the merits of the statements. I think much of the confusion arises because too often no attempt is made to distinguish between bad science and pseudo-science.
Bad science is when people make scientific claims that are contradictory to the facts. This can occur by mistake, or it can be the result of a deliberate attempt to mislead. In either case, it is relatively easy to uncover (though history indicates that uncovering the error does not necessarily stop people from continuing to make the claim). Pseudo-science is when people take non-scientific claims and try to pass them off as scientific statements. Such pseudo-scientific claims cannot be disproven, and the best that can be accomplished is to convince people that they are simply non-scientific statements of belief without supporting evidence.
Dr. Scott C. Smith
Mailstop 532-2 Lockheed Martin NE&SS 199 Borton Landing Road
Moorestown, NJ 08057-0927
Phone: 856-787-3656 Fax: 856-787-3344