Scientists: Humble, or Arrogant?

In his back page article in the January APS News “Sound Science or Sound Bite,” Michael Bugeja tries to convince the reader that the public perceives of scientists as arrogant, by providing the results of a simple Internet search experiment. The article quotes, “What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘scientist?’ Chances are it isn’t ‘modesty or humility.’ A simple experiment underscores this conclusion. Type ‘modest scientist’ or ‘humble scientist’ into the Internet search engine Google and you’ll be lucky if you get more than a couple of hits. Then do the same thing with ‘arrogant scientist’ and the number of hits increases by an order of magnitude.”

Naturally, favorable and unfavorable public opinion of a social class should almost be equal, unless (at least) some people in a class tip the public’s perception one way or another–for example, we have all heard about used car dealers. Although the result of Bugeja’s experiment concerns only one aspect of a scientist’s persona, the result still points toward an unbalanced public view.

I felt sufficiently troubled by the “order of magnitude” difference suggested by the article that I decided to carry out the experiment myself. Luckily, such an experiment does not need any funding or exceptional facilities and would not demand much time. I searched for the exact phrases “humble scientist(s)”, “modest scientist(s)”, and “demure scientist(s)”, which resulted in 1230(326), 620(232), and 53(0) hits, respectively. On the other hand, I searched for “arrogant scientist(s)”, “egotistic scientist(s)”, “pompous scientist(s)”, and “haughty scientist(s)”, which resulted in 609(517), 30(10), 398(1160), and 53(46) hits, respectively.

The “humble scientist” case yields the total of 2461 hits, while the “arrogant scientist” case gives 2823 hits. Amusing, isn’t it? The “humble scientist” indisputably scores more than “a couple of hits” and the two cases do not differ by an order of magnitude at all. In fact, they are comparable. That would be also the case if you limit the search to only “humble” and “arrogant” scientist(s). A quick look at a few pages of search results reveals even more. On each page of ten entries, one or two entries are either duplicate or irrelevant. That roughly corresponds to a 10 to 20 percent error in the outcome of Bugeja’s experiment, which makes the “humble” and “arrogant” scientist numbers even more comparable.

To be precise, and putting aside the humor, such a simple experiment is not credible enough to base any conclusion upon, but perhaps only good enough to give a ballpark estimate of what people, and in particular those who contribute to the Internet, may think of a scientist when it comes to the subject of humility.

What is disturbing, nevertheless, is the claim that an almost-effortless experiment would have a certain outcome to support a certain point of view, when it apparently has never been carried out.

Mehrdad Adibzadeh
Charlottesville, VA

Following the suggestion in the Back Page article by Michael Bugeja, I typed “arrogant scientist,” “humble scientist” and “modest scientist” into Google. The results: arrogant-668, modest-615, humble -1210. 668 is not an “order of magnitude” greater than 615 or 1210, and both 615 and 1210 are orders of magnitude larger than “a couple.”

Your humble servant,

Ronald Ransome
New Brunswick, NJ

There is no Truth in Science

I quite enjoyed reading Michael Bugeja’s Back Page in the January APS News. Everything was dandy until I reached his comments on TRUTH. Scientists observe and then attempt to correlate their findings through theoretical constructions.  If the constructions are good enough then we can use them to predict further observations. That is all science is, not truth seeking. There are no certitudes in science that can distinguish between truth and falsehood.

All I know about truth is very personal: when persons say or write what they believe they are telling the truth. When they falsify what they say or write they are telling a lie. Couldn’t be simpler than that. There are no truths in science but many falsehoods. God help us all if some truth seeking scientist says he has found TRUTH, and is believed. Let’s leave truth out of science. It never belonged there.
Moishe Garfinkle
Philadelphia, PA

Michael Bugeja Responds

Ah, the irony of it all!

I have been asked to respond to inquiries, such as the letter published here by Mehrdad Adibzadeh, concerning a quotation that was mistakenly attributed to me in part because APS News condensed my essay, cutting out a vital sentence.

To read “Sound Science or Sound Bite?” in its entirety, visit this URL:

The quotation in question concerns humility and appears in the journal In Character as a subtitle to an essay written by a scientist (not me, the journalist):

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “scientist?” Chances are it isn’t “modesty or humility.” A simple experiment underscores this conclusion. Type “modest scientist” or “humble scientist” into the Internet search engine Google and you’ll be lucky if you get more than a couple of hits. They the same thing with “arrogant scientist” and the number of hits increases by an order of magnitude.

As my essay notes, a scientist comes to my town to discuss why intelligent design is not science and seemingly makes an arrogant statement. The scientist is the same one who published the In Character essay. How could that happen? The rest of my piece addresses that sublime irony.

Journalists wait decades for irony like that to happen. To assume that I wrote the quotation misses the careful foreboding that propels the essay to conclusion.

And now, I confront another assumption. The editor of APS News writes, “Even though the author of the letter failed to notice that you were quoting someone else, it is still of interest (especially to physicists, who practice an experimental science) to test the assertion about the results of the Google search.”

Did you think that a journalist also would fail to test the assertion?

Before “Sound Science or Sound Bite?” found its way to Inside Higher Ed, it was a speech delivered at a biotechnology conference. I will conclude by quoting verbatim from that speech:

In the spirit of scientific inquiry, I tested this experiment on April 10, 2006. I thought you would enjoy the results:

There were 325 entries for “humble scientist” and close to triple that, 861 entries, for “arrogant scientist.” Well, I thought, “scientist” is such a generic term. Why don’t we refine that using “botanist,” “physicist,” “biologist,” “mathematician,” “chemist” and “geneticist”?

Who, would you say, are the most modest and most arrogant of that sample in the Google test?

Turns out, physicists are the most arrogant with 171 listings under “arrogant physicist.” That was followed by “arrogant mathematician” with 117 entries, “arrogant biologist” with 31 entries, “arrogant geneticist” with 22 entries, “arrogant chemist” with 10 entries, and a very respectful three entries for “arrogant botanist.”

Okay. Which branch of science was the most modest? There were 37 modest mathematicians, according to Google, 31 modest biologists with an equal number of modest chemists, 7 modest physicists, 1 modest botanist, and, as you might suspect, there were no Google phrases in the 1.5 million Web sites in the search engines directory containing millions, if not billions more pages of text, not one entry, mind you, for one measly “modest geneticist.”

Well, you might argue, why don‘t you try the same experiment using “modest journalist” versus “arrogant journalist.” Are you likely to get the same results? Google lists 163 “modest journalists” and 181 arrogant ones. That passes for “fair and balanced,” I guess.

Question: Why was this section omitted from my essay? Answer: I fact-checked the piece before publication with a scientist at Iowa State University who felt the Google experiment was cute but detracted from the irony of the piece.

Lesson? Don’t cut vital irony or irony will cut you.

Ben Franklin Blazes Trail for IBM Inventors

Ben Franklin’s experiments with turkeys (APS News, This Month in Physics History, December 2006) were not known to IBM colleagues and me when we discovered excimer laser surgery in 1981, using leftover Thanksgiving turkey.

Prior to this discovery, my colleague Rangaswamy “Sri” Srinivasan had co-discovered that short, high fluence pulses of ultraviolet (193 nm) light from an ArF excimer laser could photoetch plastic of the kind used for packaging of semiconductors. Sri and I then had casual discussions on the possibility of using the excimer laser to excise human and animal tissue. Together with our colleague Sam Blum, we irradiated our fingernails and observed clean etch patterns, but we were afraid to irradiate our skin.

The breakthrough occurred when “Sri” decided to bring some turkey leftovers from his Thanksgiving dinner to our lab (IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center), where he used the excimer laser to produce a clean incision in a sample of cartilage attached to a turkey bone. Soon afterwards, he showed the laser-etched sample to Sam and me. I took this sample and tried to make an incision using green (532 nm) pulses of light from a frequency-doubled, Q-switched Nd:YAG laser.

My “eureka” moment came when I compared the two irradiated regions of the cartilage under an optical microscope. The excimer laser-irradiated incision was extremely clean, with no visible evidence of burning, charring, or other collateral damage. In contrast, the green-irradiated region was black, looking like a piece of burnt toast.

A high-resolution electron micrograph of the sample gave us a real appreciation of the cleanliness of the three-dimensional groove that had been produced by the uv excimer laser, in contrast to the irregular, charred region produced by the green Nd-YAG laser. Then, with some trepidation, we shone the laser beam on our skin (my left pinkie finger).To our delight, it did not hurt.

We believed we had discovered a new form of laser surgery, in which living laser-etched tissue would heal without scarring, due to the absence of trauma to the collateral tissue. We wrote up an invention disclosure, “Far Ultraviolet Surgical and Dental Procedures,” which was eventually issued as a US patent, and which laid the foundation for today’s laser refractive surgery procedures, LASIK and PRK. For our invention, we were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2002. Today, nearly 15 million people been treated with laser refractive surgery to correct myopia, astigmatism, and hyperopia.

Little did we know that we were following in Ben Franklin’s footsteps in using a turkey as our first experimental sample.

James J. Wynne
Yorktown Heights, NY

Memo to APS: Practice What You Preach

I enjoyed Bill Hooker’s Back Page Article “The Future of Science is Open (Access)” in February’s issue of APS News. It’s a shame that APS isn’t part of that future: online access to the current APS News is restricted to APS members.

Geoffrey Crew
Cambridge, MA

Need Survey on Global Warming

Politicians and news reporters claim that scientists overwhelmingly “believe” man-made global warming is a fact and needs to be addressed using draconian measures. Who has done these surveys and where are the results?  As an APS member and professor at a college, I’ve encountered numerous other scientists who are skeptical about man-made global warming. As a scientific society, I believe you have an important role to play in this issue.  I suggest you initiate a web-based survey of APS members to determine whether in fact these news reports are correct.

The survey might include a question such as:
Choose the statement with which you agree:
(1)  Warming of the Earth is occuring and is primarily caused by man-made sources. Drastic measures need to be initiated to reduce global warming.
(2)  Warming of the Earth is occuring but is probably due to cyclical temperature changes which have occured over millennia.  Man is probably a minor effect on atmospheric climate, and major measures are not needed in an attempt to minimize global climate change.

This would be a good way to determine your members’ opinions and contribute to the global climate change discussion.

Mark Campbell
Annapolis, MD

The Answer, My Friend, is Blowin’ in the Wind

Two statements regarding renewable energy contained in the Back Page interview with Steve Chu and Steve Koonin [APS News, December 2006] deserve correction. Renewable energy (wind and solar) are dismissed for reasons that do not stand up under principles that should be well understood by your members. The statements are that “[Sequestration and nuclear] are the only technologies we know that we can scale now to the magnitudes needed,” and “…because it is a transient source, without efficient and cost effective energy storage, the base line will be nuclear power and coal in the near-term future.”

Wind power can in fact be ramped up quickly and on a large scale today, without waiting for future technological breakthroughs.  Denmark currently gets 20% of its electricity from wind without “storage” or “back-up” capacity. In the U.S., a country with a vast wind resource, wind power is growing fast, and was the second-largest source of new power generation in the country in 2005 and 2006. Barriers to wind power’s growth on a large scale are regulatory, not technical, and a task force including the U.S. Department of Energy, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, American Wind Energy Association and utilities, foundations and other groups, is evaluating the goal of 20% of U.S. electricity from wind.

One of the keys to successful large-scale integration of wind are large regional electric power markets where variability of both load and generation are smoothed out and where system operators can more reliably balance electricity demand and supply. Another key is diversity in the mix of fuels used for electricity generation. Flexible generators such as natural gas-fired units and hydropower are generally much more economical than storage devices for system balancing. Third, construction of new transmission lines will be needed under any type of electricity growth scenario. A key to large-scale development of wind in the US is transmission investment to tap the vast resources of the US heartland-an investment that is quite affordable compared to that of carbon sequestration on a large scale or new networks of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) terminals and pipelines. In fact, the authors described sequestration in their reply to the previous question as “not yet demonstrated” and of “unknown cost.”

The annual rate of growth of wind generation over the past 10 years has been 28%. Globally, there is now over 70,000 MW of wind generation in operation. There have been 10,000 MW of wind capacity installed in the US to date, and not a single megawatt of backup capacity or storage for the wind generation has been required by the power system operators. This growth in wind is supported by a young, dynamic workforce, and major manufacturing companies (GE, Siemens, Mitsubishi, Caterpillar), major financial institutions (Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Berkshire Hathaway), as well as energy companies FPL, Iberdola, EDF, Shell and even Steve Koonin’s BP.

With this demonstrated ability to scale wind generation, we can look to actual experience as well as numerous peer-reviewed studies of large-scale use of wind for answers to the authors’ concern. (See for example GE Power Systems Energy Consulting for New York State, 2005, EnerNex for Minnesota 2006.) Chu suggests that wind and other renewables require storage because they are “transient.” This misunderstanding stems from a narrow definition of the energy supply. An energy technology does not have to be “baseline” (baseload) in order to make a large contribution to electricity supply. An example is natural gas, which now accounts for close to 19% of U.S. electricity supply, about the same share as nuclear. Natural gas is mostly valued because of its flexibility in responding to peaking demand.

Wind and other technologies can make a large energy contribution to the nation’s supply even while their contribution to baseload may be modest. In wind’s case, its value is in the large amounts of energy it can deliver, and in the fact that it is clean (zero-emissions, light footprint), cost-effective (cost of electricity produced does not vary over time since there is no use of fuel), energy-efficient (wind has one of the highest energy payback ratios of any energy technology), and that it strengthens energy security (wind is domestic and inexhaustible). Moreover, wind observed and captured at a single location is variable, but within patterns that can be anticipated on a seasonal and even daily basis and are modeled with increasing accuracy. What’s more, the circulation of air around the earth is constant, driven by the constant energy of the sun. To make practical use of this simple phenomenon requires some scale, which the wind industry is capable of delivering, despite the authors’ comment to the contrary.

Wind generation is added to power grids which can span portions of continents. Energy production is more concentrated than energy consumption, and transmission is key to keeping the supply and demand of electricity in balance at all times. Chu is correct in advocating greater attention to new, high voltage transmission. The point he misses is that the distribution of wind generation across a wide region allows a much greater reliance on wind, because the variation in wind production at any one location is offset by the production at other locations. Just as the wind is necessarily always blowing somewhere, windfarms spread across the Eastern or Western Interconnection of North America can, and already do, provide large amounts of clean, economical energy and even a measurable amount of reliability, what Chu called “baseline.”

Mike Jacobs
Concord, Massachusetts

Ed. Note: The author is Deputy Policy Director, American Wind Energy Association

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff