APS News

November 2012 (Volume 21, Number 10)

Letters to the Editor

Peer Review Stifles Originality

The gathering clouds on print v. open access (APS News, October 2012) may presage a publishing Roe v. Wade war in which the printers seem to fear that established science might become tainted by a surfeit of free thought, some of which may actually be correct. My personal experience with peer review is that every paper which I would rather not be out there now, every paper which was trivial or even wrong, sailed through peer review with flying colors. On the other hand the papers of which I am proudest and believe to be the most substantial were the most at risk for being rejected. My paper on chiral-molecule photoelectron angular distributions, published in Physical Review A in 1976, would have been rejected had not an editor sent it to my former postdoctoral advisor, who gave it to a current postdoctoral fellow to check the mathematics. How rare an event do you think this is, which would not have happened had I been ten years or more beyond my degree and absolutely would not have happened today? Single-blind peer review is manifestly flawed. It is a kind of chat room, in which participation requires that you be on topic and say things that everyone else will agree with. This is not hard for most, given the homogeneity of the education system. The peer-review and publishing system persuades you to stay close to the work of your advisors, to be gathered to your fathers (to use an archaic expression), which may be close to the mark because indeed the system stifles independence and creativity. And then there is the emergence of an odd duck of an editor called an "administrative editor," who seems to be a sort of journal commissar to ensure that the journal's impact factor is maintained or improved. This is a misguided journal orientation which will surely filter out most or all original work.

Burke Ritchie
Livermore, CA

Communication can be Counterproductive

Got science?

Carl Safina, a man of many awards, exhorts scientists, in the APS News October Back Page, to bestow their superior wisdom on the benighted masses of this world. Not, to be sure, for filthy lucre, but out of the pure love of Truth, which is its own reward. Nevertheless, as a result of this effort, unrequited utopias will rise out of the warming surface of the Earth and, blinded by the Light, politicians will rain dollars on the blessed and the PhD’s. Maybe even on the MS’s.

Please don’t! Please don’t “communicate” with the innocent. No matter how simple and straightforward and fact-filled your argument is that cell phones don’t cause brain tumors or that nuclear power is safe, the Internet has provided everyone not only with their own opinions but, pace Moynihan, also with their own facts. There is a study from England or Sweden or Canada proving just about anything. It will not be your argument that is rejected, but its origin in the aura of prestige that surrounds any successful scientist. It is not your argument, but the fact that you, a figure of authority, are arguing at all, that will cause your public to perceive you as a threat.

Furthermore, scientists outside their narrow field of specialization tend to be naifs. They often are insufficiently informed and will inevitably try to reinvent the wheel. This would be laughable if it were not taken seriously but, coming from a certified expert, it can be downright dangerous. Heisenberg joined the Nazi efforts to develop an atomic bomb and his latter-day colleagues in Iran are happily working on the development of nuclear weapons to serve their country’s genocidal objectives. Sakharov fathered the Soviet hydrogen bomb before he got religion and became a dissident. Oppenheimer was easily manipulated by Haakon Chevalier and ensnared by Buddhist mysticism. Philby, MacLean, Burgess and Blunt spied for the Soviet Union out of idealism. Linus Pauling developed vitamin C into a cult. Even the giants of physics, Newton and Einstein, did not always have “something special to share.” Newton delved into astrology when he was done with mechanics; when Einstein was asked to become the first president of Israel, the people who asked him had to worry about a worst-case scenario: that he might accept.

There is an awful lot more to the workings of religion, law, politics and business than “just fooling around.” Regardless of the average temperature of the surface of the Earth, or the model-dependent estimates of the human contribution to it, basic thermodynamics tells us that organisms requiring energy to stay alive will inevitably warm their environment. The scientific solution is obviously to eliminate people. Now there’s “something special to share.” Try communicating that to your neighbors.

The unavoidable reality is that, no matter how deeply you, as a scientist, understand the acoustical and mechanical properties of a violin, it does not qualify you either as a violinist or as a composer. Or even as a music critic.

Walter Schimmerling
Washington, DC

Need to Bring All Vocations to the Same Table

Carl Safina’s Back Page commentary literally took my breath away. In the process of answering the question, “Why Communicate Science?” he claimed our work as physicists to be of such singular value that by comparison the work of lawyers, politicians, and business people was just “so much fooling around.” That Safina would so dismiss the vocations of those we need to most communicate with demonstrates more clearly than ever the problem we scientists have communicating with anyone outside our immediate purview.

Rather than dismissing the vocations of law, politics and business, we ought to engage them for the skills they bring to the table of our mutual concerns. Most important is the skill of making significant and difficult decisions based on the naturally occurring variety of opinion that exists in much of their work. Such work is necessarily subjective, and dismissing it as less than the objective work of the scientist is simply mistaken.

Bringing all vocations to the same table requires the proper consideration of what we know, even if what we know is uncertain. Better than arguing over who is correct is to accept the subjectivity of our knowledge and to proceed from there. Here Bayesian thinking simply works better than arguing over who is right or wrong as we focus not so much on where we are in the scheme of things, but on how far have we come.

Consider global climate change. We now know that even pre-schoolers left to their own devices make observations based on the accumulation of previous experience that allow them to make accurate predictions based on less than complete data. I suspect if children can do this, we can all do it and thus bridge our differences as we look at problems such as understanding global climate change. Only by getting all of us on the same page can we begin to address today’s most pressing problems.

David A. Robinson
St. Paul, MN

Carl Safina Responds:

In “Why Communicate Science?” I wrote that I believe most scientists should seek ways to make science more familiar to people outside of science. I wrote, “By ‘communicate science,’ I mean professional scientists explaining something about science to non-scientists,” because scientists, “have something pretty special to share.” A modest enough proposal, I think; a bit of cheerleading for the value of science.

Walter Schimmerling disagrees. In his first paragraph is a straw-man caricature, which contains none of what I said, except that yes, I guess I did imply that love of truth is its own reward. I infer that Schimmerling doesn’t feel that. I do.

In the next paragraph, he says, inter alia, please don’t communicate because the Internet exists. Lots of people get confused by conflicting information on the Internet. So, scientists, no reason to help anyone sort anything out, just because you happen to be an expert in your area. Need I comment?

Third paragraph. Scientists tend to be naïve, “and will inevitably try to reinvent the wheel.” Historically, “reinventing the wheel” included developing the first nuclear weapons, and being approached by people seeking their involvement in Cold War espionage and politics. The point?

Next paragraph. He chides me for an admittedly simplistic bit of hyperbole, and notes that, “There is an awful lot more to the workings of religion, law, politics and business than ‘just fooling around.’” One should not be simplistic, I must agree. He follows with, “basic thermodynamics tells us that organisms requiring energy to stay alive will inevitably warm their environment. The scientific solution is obviously to eliminate people.” One should not be simplistic, I must agree.

Schimmerling’s final point is the only one I can follow. He says, “no matter how deeply you, as a scientist, understand the acoustical and mechanical properties of a violin, it does not qualify you either as a violinist or as a composer. Or even as a music critic.” This is true, but beside the point. My little essay implies merely that you, as a scientist, could add something that no amount of playing, listening, or loving music could conjure. You could help the musician and the music lover understand the music that so moves them. Why does the same note sound different on a violin, a piano, a horn? Musicians call that difference timbre, but only science could have found out that timbre is the result of the shape of the sound waves each instrument characteristically creates. I’m pretty sure some violinists would be interested in knowing that. That’s a beautiful thing. And yes, I think that’s pretty special.

David Robinson also objects to my simplistic dismissiveness of law, politics, and business. It’s a valid objection. But law, politics, and business–and I think we can include religion nowadays–are, as far as I can tell, not designed to discover how nature works, nor how the physical and biological world functions, nor where we came from. Nor are they trying to get at objective truths. That’s a big difference. And my point was less to dismiss those vocations (hence my simplistic dismissal) than to remind scientists that science is very special, and unlike anything else. And while law, politics, and business are potentially noble things, they frequently pursue ignoble ends and narrow interests. That is partly because, as Mr. Robinson points out, their work is inherently subjective. Again, my aim was not to analyze those professions or their vulnerabilities, but to draw a distinction between the subjective ideologies and profit motives driving other endeavors and the main thing that makes science special, which is, indeed, its demand for evidence and its ideal of objectivity in its continuing search for truths. That should make scientists proud and excited to talk about what we do, and why we do it.

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Editor: Alan Chodos