Physics and Society Oct '97 -- Articles

Volume 26, Number 4 October 1997


In this issue we focus on the uses and abuses of science. The polls tell us that the American people still respect science. When they gather at Roswell, N.M. in homage to "flying saucers" and their late crews, they voice their suspicion of government, not science. But what is their science? They certainly know very little of normative science - as is illustrated by the brief items in the News section of this issue. All-too-commonly, they follow charlatans - who I would define as those who use the language of science in non-scientific manners, for non-scientific purposes. A good example of such misuse of science as a tool for attaining power, rather than as a search for knowledge, is given in the article by Ortiz de Montellano on some aspects of "Afrocentric science". The perversions of science illustrated therein are not restricted to the fringes and exteriors of academia. The notion that reality is created by the individual or her/his society, and that therefore anything they do about it is acceptable science, seems to have moved to the center of some academic regimes in the guise of "postmodernism", actually a throwback to the pre-modern Nietzsche (cf. Robert N. Bellah, "Class Wars and Culture Wars in the University Today: Why We Can't Defend Ourselves," Academe, July/August 1997, p.22.). So, to remind ourselves of what "science is", what is it that has earned the public's respect, and yet make sure that we realize that it can be productively extended beyond its customary realms, we present the articles by Craig & Stechel and by myself (Saperstein). These are followed by excerpts from the autobiography of Earl Callen, the first Chair of the Forum on Physics and Society, illustrating some earlier examples of the impact of science on society and its reverse. We conclude with a reminder, by Hammer, that the public's respect cannot be taken for granted - it must continually be re-earned. One way of earning this respect is to communicate honestly with the public - the subject of Marc Sher's short article.


Post-Modern Multiculturalism

Bernard Ortiz de Montellano


Postmodernists and adherents of the "social studies of science" school claim that science is in crisis because it can no longer claim to be an objective or accurate reflection of the real world. These criticisms have been shown to be fallacious and to stem from a serious lack of scientific knowledge by Gross and Levitt (1995). Gross and Levitt quote and refute numerous postmodern gurus, such as Jacques Derrida, who claims that the speed of light is not constant (1995:79). This lack of knowledge was also shown in the gullible publication of Allan Sokal's parody as a serious article in a leading cultural studies journal, Social Text (Sokal 1996a). As Sokal (1996b) points out, the editors published an article, "which any competent physicist or mathematician (or undergraduate physics or math major) would realize... was a spoof" because it critiqued science as hegemonic, culturally determined, and subjective. Both Gross and Levitt's book and Sokal's article have provoked much comment.


The interaction of postmodernism with multiculturalism has not drawn as much attention, but it can have serious consequences because proponents of postmodernist approaches are heavily involved in K-12 education. Claims made include: 1) other "ways of knowing" are as valid as or better than science, 2) Euro-science" is motivated by capitalism and imperialism, 3) people of color are more spiritual and moral than Europeans, 4) the paranormal is a valid scientifically proven fact, and 5) myths are valid explanations of natural phenomena. The end result of a wide adoption of these ideas would be to decrease an already deplorably small participation of minorities in science.


Feminist philosophers of science and postmodernist critics argue that science is a set of conventions produced by the particular culture of the West at a particular historical period, rather than a testable body of knowledge describing the "real" world. They claim that the agenda, methodology, and conclusions of science are determined by the interests of the male dominated capitalist system. This approach has been called "strong cultural constructivism". Postmodernists state that because science is just a "situated" mode of discourse and not reflective of the real world, other modes of discourse (such as feminist, African, or Aztec, which include intuition, magic, and religion) are comparable to and may even be superior to "Western" science. These critiques claim that the advent of quantum physics and particularly of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle has shown that physics can no longer provide reliable information about the world and has lost its claim to objectivity. Postmodernists distort Thomas Kuhn's The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions and the writings of Paul Feyerabend to reflect their own claims that western science is simply a socially determined mental construction. Similarly to the "uncertainty principle", the term "chaos theory" is used to convince the scientifically naive that science can no longer make reliable or accurate predictions.

___________________________________________________________________________"although many people believe in "science" as an explanatory mechanism of great prestige, they believe in science religiously...not because they understand scientific explanations."



Hunter Havelin Adams , the author of the Portland Baseline Essay in Science, a text that is used by teachers in a number of large urban school districts including Detroit (Adams 1990; Ortiz de Montellano 1996) makes the same claims, using the exact postmodernist wording, in a widely used text in Afrocentric science (1983:41): "Nobody has a monopoly on truth. ...There is no one correct way of knowing: There are ways of knowing. And Western conceptual methodology cannot discover any more basic truths to explain the mysteries of creation than can a symbolic/intuitive methodology."


The thesis is that Western science is inferior to that of people of color because it proceeds from evil motivations. According to Deloria (1995:41), "scientists lie and fudge their conclusions as much as the most distrusted professions in our society-- lawyers and car dealers." Adams (1990: 14) argues that Western science, "has as its "main concern," "nonethical considerations such as cost effectiveness." Amen (1193: 68) claims that "...the basic character of African Science is the promotion of life, as opposed to the Euro-centric preoccupation with destructive [sic] or weapons based technology."


Multiculturalists also claim that Western science is methodologically inferior because it is materialistic and relies only on natural law, neglecting the supernatural. Adams (1990: 11-14) states that the Ancient Egyptians used Ma'at as their scientific paradigm, which among other things included "Material & Transmaterial Cause and Effect," and that "For the ancient Egyptians as well as contemporary Africans world-wide, there is no distinction and thus no separation between science and religion."


A common thread that runs through much of multicultural literature is that people of color are more spiritual than whites. Among Afrocentrics, a group, I have called melanists (Ortiz de Montellano 1993), provide a pseudoscientific explanation. Melanin has extraordinary properties, and these properties confer great powers on people with a large amount of it. A few of the properties attributed to melanin are: superconductivity, electromagnetic absorption at all frequencies, extremely sensitive magnetic susceptibility, the ability to function as a microcomputer and process information. Melanin is supposed to regulate all physiological and psychological processes in humans. Black athletes supposedly have superior coordination and reflexes because of their melanin. Melanin is also responsible for the superior intelligence, the potential extra-sensory ability and the greater degree of spirituality of Black people. These properties provide a pseudoscientific validation for a mythic charter, i.e., that Egyptians were Black and the greatness of their civilization was due to the gifts that melanin conferred upon them.


According to melanists, Ancient Egyptians were able to discover many important concepts thousands of years before "Western Science" because of their melanin and their spirituality. Some of these precocious Egyptian developments were: philosophical aspects of the quantum theory in contemporary physics (Adams 1990: 20), full-size gliders (Adams 1990: 52-54; Van Sertima 1983:), electroplating of gold (Adams 1990: 51), the theory of evolution (Adams 1990: 19), the existence and period of Sirius B (invisible to the naked eye) (Adams 1983; Welsing 1987), Leyden jars and lead-acid batteries (Amen 1993, 8, 13), vacuum tubes and semiconductors (Amen 1993: 27), infrared lasers (Amen 1993: 68).


Postmodern multiculturalists emphasize spirituality by claiming that it is really an "alternative scientific paradigm". A similar strategy is to claim that myths are accurate eyewitness testimonies about reality. For many years religious (mythic) explanations were the basis on which people explained the world. Even in the West, religion was the prime explanatory source for both natural and supernatural phenomena. The success of science (and technology) and disillusionment with religion have led to an acceptance of science as an explanatory source for natural phenomena, as a validation mechanism and perhaps even as a source of truth. Science has in fact become the secular religion of the West, but I mean this in a very particular sense.


Scientific illiteracy is rampant. The rate of scientific illiteracy in the United States was found tobe 95%, with similar results in other developed countries (Hively 1988). The result is that, although many people believe in "science" as an explanatory mechanism of great prestige, because of their scientific illiteracy, they believe in science religiously, i.e., by faith, not because they understand scientific explanations." This has had unfortunate consequences. Such people can be victimized (or deluded) by others who take advantage of their illiteracy and claim the "prestige" of science using the language of science to support fictitious claims. Much of the New Age mantra consists of putting old wine (mediums; chi; chakras) into the new bottles of pseudoscience, i.e., channeling, energy flows and the laws of thermodynamics, and "technobabble."


Using this strategy, Adams (1990:41-42) redefines Egyptian hekau ("magicians") as "professional psi engineers" who dealt with "psychoenergetics (also known in the scientific community as parapsychology and psychotronics) [which] is the multidisciplinary study of the interface and interaction of human consciousness with energy and matter." Adams further claims that, "The Ancient Egyptians were known the world over as the masters of 'magic' (psi)," and further that, "psi, as a true scientific discipline, is being seriously investigated at prestigious universities all over the world..." Adams (1990: vi) tries to support claims such these by misquoting Louis de Broglie. However, de Broglie (1955: 235-236) clearly decries such beliefs a few pages after the passage used by Adams.


Arg|elles (1987: 50-59) claims that Mayan myths about the cyclic creation and destruction of the world according to their calendar are actually true, and that the Maya are superior beings from another star who were beamed to Earth as DNA code in order to synchronize our solar system with the galaxy. Arg|elles wrote that a world-wide crisis is coming as we approach A.D. 2012., the end of the current great Maya time cycle, and people need to act on this harmonic convergence beginning on August 16-17, 1987. If this were done, "The unique moment, the moment of total planetary synchronization, on the beam will arrive--the closing out not only of the Great Cycle, but of the evolutionary interim called Homo sapiens. Amidst festive preparation and awesome galactic-solar signs psychically received, the human race in harmony with the animal and other kingdoms and taking its rightful place in the great electromagnetic sea, will unify as a single circuit. Solar and galactic sound transmissions will inundate the planetary field. At last, Earth will be ready for the emergence into inter-planetary civilization (p. 194)." Thousands of New Agers still gather yearly at "power points" such as Sedona, Arizona, the Great Pyramid in Egypt and at Chichin Itza, Yucatan.

___________________________________________________________________________"Rigorous and accurate multicultural science teaching is possible. We do not have to settle for magic and religion parading in the guise of science."



One of the possible consequences of believing that myths are as true or truer than science is an adherence to catastrophism and Young Earth Creationism. Both fundamentalist creationists and postmodernist multiculturalists are forced to deny the validity of most scientific disciplines. A prime example of this is Vine Deloria's (1995) book. Deloria (1995:168-176), based on catastrophism, claims that the earth is very young, that the Biblical flood actually occurred, and that there was a single Ice Age. According to Deloria, the Earth's prehistory is described by this scenario. Prior to the flood, the earth was covered by a thick water vapor canopy and there was no rain; therefore, rivers in North America were dug out by rapid glacier melting (Deloria 1995: 234). Before the flood, there was a much higher concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere than at present. This had a number of consequences. First, higher carbon dioxide concentrations led to gigantism and to longevity validating both Biblical and Indian myths about giants and people living hundreds of years (Deloria 1995: 168-171). A comet or meteor composed almost wholly of ice and water collided with the Earth dumping ice in massive amounts on the magnetic poles and precipitating an ungodly amount of rain on temperate regions. This catastrophe caused both the Flood and the Ice Age (Deloria 1995:172). The cold water dissolved much of the carbon dioxide reducing it present levels (Deloria 1995: 174). "The coefficient of gravity would have been somewhat different and perhaps the Earth, minus the tremendous amount of ice and water dumped on it might have been a different place. A collapse of that atmosphere once the dinosaur age ended and again in the Pleistocene would significantly reduce the size of the animals over several generations until they were again adjusted to the present atmosphere.... The problem with orthodox interpretations of the relationship of the megafauna to creatures of our present size is that most scientists have looked for genetic change..."


After this, Deloria makes numerous outlandish claims such as (1995: 241) that Indian petroglyphs are eyewitness images of dinosaurs such as Stegosaurus and that Indians were eyewitnesses to the explosion of the volcano, Mount Multnomah (Deloria 1995: 199-203), which geologists date to the Miocene 25-27 million years ago. To do this Deloria rejects fundamental principles of geology, such as erosion, plate tectonics, and radioactive dating. He also denies the validity of most of modern biology, physics, and astronomy. Regretfully this book has received laudatory reviews in the lead anthropological journal (Mohawk 1996) and by the magazine of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (Pierce 1995).


Postmodernist multiculturalist pseudoscience has consequences that should concern us. Adams' Portland Baseline Essay is widely used in urban school districts with large African-American populations. Deloria is active in the Indian science education movement. The tragedy is that not only are minorities greatly underrepresented in science but that their children are being exposed to pseudoscience in the classroom. Postmodernism is not just an academic parlor game in this case. As scientists we should make clear our opposition to pseudoscience in any guise. We should ensure that at a minimum schools are not engaged in disseminating pseudoscience. I am very sympathetic to the plight of educators in large poor urban districts and agree with their goals to improve the self-esteem and achievement of their students. The idea that Africans are biologically superior to whites, or that the Egyptians or Mayans had knowledge beyond that of modern scientists is attractive to teachers in these districts, who lack the scientific knowledge to properly judge these claims. However, worthy goals cannot be achieved through improper means. Teaching pseudoscience, regardless of motive, will only further impair the ability of minority students to succeed in society. We should also urge that children in large poor urban districts, who are most in need of it, benefit from the systemic reform of science education. Rigorous and accurate multicultural science teaching is possible. We do not have to settle for magic and religion parading in the guise of science.




Adams, H. H. 1983. "African Observers of the Universe: The Sirius

Question." In Ivan Van Sertima, ed. Blacks in Science. Ancient and Modern. 27-46. New Brunswick: Transaction Books.


-----1990 {1987] "African and African-American Contributions to Science and Technology". In African-American Baseline Essays. Portland, OR. Multnomah School District (hereafter cited as Baseline Essay).


Amen, N. A.. 1993. African Origin of Electromagnetism. Jamaica, NY: Nur Ankh Amen Co.


Arg|elles. J. 1987. The Maya Factor. Path Beyond Technology. Santa Fe: Bear & Co.


De Broglie, L. 1955. Physics and Microphysics, trans. M. Davidson. London: Hutchinson's Scientific and Technical Publications


Deloria, V. 1995. Red Earth White Lies . NY:Scribner.


Gross, P. R. and N. Levitt. 1994. Higher Superstition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.


Hively, Wm. 1988. "How Much Science Does the Public Understand?" American Scientist Sept/Oct.: 439-444.


Mohawk, J. 1996. American Anthropologist 98(3): 650-651.


Ortiz de Montellano, B. R. 1993."Afrocentricity, Melanin, and Pseudoscience," Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, 36: 33-58 (1993).


-----1996 "Afrocentric Pseudoscience: The Miseducation of African-Americans," Annals of the New York Academy of Science 775: 561-572.


Pierce, D. 1995. Winds of Change (Autumn): 56-59.


Sokal, A. 1996a. "Transgressing the Boundaries. Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," Social Text, 46 (#1,2): 217-252.


------1996b. "A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies," Lingua Franca (May/June): 62-64.


Welsing, F.C. 1987. Lecture: 1st melanin conference, San Francisco, September 16-17, 1987. Broadcast "African-American World View" WDTR 90.9, Detroit Public School's Radio, September 5 and 12, 1989.


Bernard Ortiz de Montellano is at

the Anthropology Department, Wayne State University



What is Science from a Physics Perspective?


Paul Craig and Ellen B. Stechel


Motivation: As current members of APS Panel on Public Affairs (POPA), we share POPA's long-standing concern about misunderstandings by the public about science and about what does or does not fall within the domain of science. We felt that a prerequisite to approaching the larger issue would be to clarify what science means to physicists. The following paper evolved from several discussions within POPA. The intended audience for this article is the physics community. The primary motivation is our sense that physicists need an agreed-upon statement to use as a foundation for discussing complex issues in the realm of "science or anti-science." For the most part, the physics community shares, a not often articulated, vision for science. With a clear view as to what science is, it becomes easier to also understand what science is not.


POPA has discussed and critiqued this article, which draws heavily on two carefully crafted reports by the National Academy of Sciences: "Science and Creationism" [NAS:1984] and "The Nature of Physics" [NAS:1972]. Our sense of the POPA discussion is that it would be useful to place this article before the physics community via the Forum on Physics and Society. We will welcome and appreciate any comments (whether pro or con).


The format for this article is a central statement supported by explanatory discussion framed as responses to anticipated questions. The first part defines the scientific method. The second part uses the device of questions and answers to provide clarification and further explanation.

What is Science?


"In broadest terms, scientists seek a systematic organization of knowledge about the universe and its parts. This knowledge is based on explanatory principles whose verifiable consequences can be tested by independent observers. Science encompasses a large body of evidence collected by repeated observations and experiments. Although its goal is to approach true explanations as closely as possible, its investigators claim no final or permanent explanatory truths. Science changes. It evolves. Verifiable facts always take precedence.... " [NAS:1984:8]


The scientific method. "Scientists operate within a system designed for continuous testing, where corrections and new findings are announced in refereed scientific publications. The task of systematizing and extending the understanding of the universe is advanced by eliminating disproved ideas and by formulating new tests of others until one emerges as the most probable explanation for any given observed phenomenon." [NAS 1984:9] [Italics added].


The NAS is careful to emphasize that science does not recognize absolute truth. [See, however, a question below on scientific "laws."]


Hypotheses. "An idea that has not yet been sufficiently tested is called a hypothesis. Different hypotheses are sometimes advanced to explain the same factual evidence. Rigor in the testing of hypotheses is the heart of science" [NAS1984:9]

Falsifiability. "If no verifiable tests can be formulated, the idea is called an ad hoc hypothesis, one that is not fruitful; such hypotheses fail to stimulate research and are unlikely to advance scientific knowledge." [NAS 1984:9]


One refers to the concept that a hypothesis can be proven wrong as falsifiability. A hypothesis is valuable only if it is testable or at least provokes further investigation. It is typically impossible to prove something true; however if there is also no expectation that it can be proven false then it is outside the realm of science.


Theory and accepted theory. "A fruitful hypothesis may develop into a theory after substantial observational or experimental support has accumulated." Scientists eliminate a hypothesis when it fails to produce predicted consequences. When a single hypothesis survives repeated opportunities for disproof and no other competing hypotheses remain viable, then that single hypothesis may become the accepted theory to explain the original observation. [paraphrased from NAS 1984:9]

Reproducibility. A hallmark of accepted science is that several research laboratories have reproduced the observed phenomena.

Prediction. "Scientific theories are also predictive. They allow us to anticipate yet unknown phenomena and thus to focus research on more narrowly defined areas. If the results of testing agree with predictions from a theory, the theory is provisionally corroborated. If not, it is proved false and must be either abandoned or modified to account for the inconsistency." [NAS 1984:9]


Provisional character of theories. "Scientific theories, therefore, are accepted only provisionally. It is always possible that a theory that has withstood previous testing may eventually be disproved. But as theories survive more tests, they are regarded with higher levels of confidence. A theory that has withstood ... many severe tests... is held with a very high degree of confidence ..." [NAS 1984:9]


Scientific "Laws." Higher levels of generalization are formulated into scientific laws. A law identifies a class of regularities in nature from which there has been no known deviation after many observations or trials. It is usually expressed mathematically...Scientific laws tell us the ways but not the whys of nature... We must heed them in formulating new hypotheses and theories." [NAS 1984:9]


Attitudes toward new discoveries "[S]cience accommodates, indeed welcomes, new discoveries: its theories change and its activities broaden as new facts come to light or new potentials are recognized..." [NAS 1984:26]


Science and Religion "Scientists, like many others, are touched with awe at the order and complexity of nature. Religion provides one way for human beings to be comfortable with these marvels. However, the goal of science is to seek naturalistic explanations for phenomena." [NAS 1984:26]


Questions and answers about science


In this part we use questions and answers to further explore the ideas outlined above.


Do scientists believe in an objective reality? Yes. The belief that there is an external reality is the basis for science. Scientists believe that the scientific method offers the best tool or technique yet devised for learning about that external reality. Scientists assume that the universe operates according to invariant rules. The concept of reproducible experiments, a cornerstone of science, is predicated on the idea that the universe operates according to fixed, discoverable, invariant rules. The evidence for the validity of these assumptions is the success of the scientific method at developing effective techniques for manipulating the world.


"Physics... is concerned with questions that cannot be decided by thought alone. Answers have to be sought and ideas tested by experiment. In fact, the questions are often generated by experimental discovery. But there is every reason to believe that the answers, once found, have a permanent and universal validity" NAS:1972:57


"The reality is that many experiments can be and have been repeated by many individuals, with the same outcomes. ....[Scientists] define objective reality as those matters about which the scientific public agrees". [Cromer 1993:145]


What do scientists mean by the word "Law"? "Law" is a technical term in science. The scientific meaning differs substantially from common usage. Moreover, the scientific meaning does not rank a high priority in dictionaries. In one well-known dictionary the scientific meaning shows up as the eleventh definition:


"[Law]: A formulation describing a relationship observed to be invariable between or among phenomena for all cases in which the specified conditions are met: the law of gravity" (AHED 1995).


The specialized use of the word "law" has lead to a great deal of confusion and numerous miscommunications. Scientific "laws" such as conservation of momentum and of mass-energy, and the laws of thermodynamics, are deeply felt convictions of most physicists. The use of the term "law" expresses the idea that it is inconceivable to the physicist that the concept might be violated. There is no option to repeal a scientific law. If pushed, the physicist should, however, admit in principle to the remote possibility of violations. When violations to accepted laws do occur, a generalization or enlargement of the theory becomes necessary.


A well-known example is the discovery and the subsequent theory of quantum physics. Quantum physics accounts for violations to Newtonian mechanics for particles with small mass. Quantum physics did not overthrow Newtonian mechanics. Newton's laws of motion are still laws with limitations on their validity. Similarly, under extreme conditions, Newton's law of universal gravitation yields to the more complete theory of Einstein's general relativity. Nevertheless, Newton's laws describing motion and gravitation are remarkably accurate descriptions of physical phenomena over a wide range of particle masses, velocities and distances.


Some further confusion arises because in some instances scientists have used the word "law" quite loosely as in Hooke's law and Ohm's law. In contrast to Newton's laws, the ranges of validity of Hooke's and Ohm's laws are quite limited. Yet at the same time we still refer to Einstein's theory of special relativity as a theory; certainly it would qualify as law. Similarly we refer to the theory or theories of evolution. Much of Darwin's theory of evolution and natural selection would also qualify as laws.


What is the meaning of "Progress" in science? New "laws" must explain at least as much as the old ones. Science is cumulative, always building on previous knowledge. It is the cumulative character of scientific knowledge that provides the justification for the claim that science is "progressive". The cumulative aspect of science is one of the most important distinctions between science and (for example) art.


Quantum physics provides a good illustration of the concept. As it must, quantum physics predicts everything successfully predicted by its predecessor, classical mechanics. Furthermore, it predicts and explains much more.


What makes one theory good or better than another? New theories in science are objectively better than old ones in the sense that they are able to make new predictions, or they provide more all-encompassing ways of integrating existing knowledge, or they provide simpler more elegant ways of explaining phenomena.


Do scientists make mistakes? Is science self-correcting? Human beings embark in the activities known collectively as "Science." Moreover, humans can and do make mistakes. They do so individually as well as collectively. They make both honest and dishonest mistakes.


Nevertheless, science is self-correcting; "science isn't dependent on the honesty or wisdom of scientists. The scientific enterprise rises above individual shortcomings" [Cromer 1993:165].


"The scientific enterprise is collective... It is never one individual that goes through all the steps in the logico-deductive chain; it is a group of individuals, dividing their labor but continuously and jealously checking each other's contributions... " [Cromer 1993:143]. "Science is the search for a consensus of rational opinion among all competent researchers" [Ziman 1968:10]


It should be noted that "failure" is very much a part of the scientific process. Most failures are never even reported but are part of scientific progress.. Nevertheless, reputations are often made by finding mistakes or holes in the work of others. Since, scientific findings are reported openly in the literature and at conferences this often happens very quickly, sometimes at the peer review stage prior to publication. It is the openness, self-skeptical and critical nature of science and the scientist that helps assure that science is self-correcting. Another frequent "mistake" in science is an interpretation of experimental data reported as observation. When used to "falsify" a hypothesis the scientist may and should question assumptions built into the interpretation of the experiment. This in itself often leads to self-correction and progress.


What is meant by the term "competent" researchers? Who decides which researchers are competent and which are not? This is an unstructured social process. The process apparently works remarkably well. It again depends on the openness in the physics community. Credibility of a researcher develops as one's work is reproducible and consistently advances the current state of knowledge and stimulates further research.


Is science sometimes counterintuitive? Yes. The physics of motion provides a good example of counterintuitive behavior. Studies of student's anticipation of the motion of objects dropped from moving platforms, such as trains, rotating turntables, pitched ball, etc. show that actual behavior is strikingly counterintuitive to many students. New discoveries are often counterintuitive even to the discoverers. Aspects of quantum mechanics and the wave-particle duality remain counterintuitive even to many physicists who use these concepts regularly. However, experience typically causes concepts to become more intuitive. Students trained in physics make the kind of errors described here far less frequently than do untrained students.


Do scientists "understand" how the world works? Theories unify phenomena. Whether they provide "understanding" is a matter of definition. Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann put it this way:


"All of modern physics is governed by that magnificent and thoroughly confusing discipline called quantum mechanics invented more than fifty years ago. It has survived all tests. We suppose it is exactly correct. Nobody understands it, but we all know how to use it and how to apply it ... : and so we have learned to live with the fact nobody can understand it" [quoted in Wolpert 1992:144]


In other words, operationally quantum mechanics is well-understood. It is probably fair to say that many practitioners feel they do understand the wave-particle duality as well as the concept of the non-separability of the system and the act of measurement. They also understand the Heisenberg uncertainty principles. However, understanding what the wave function means and some of the implications tend to challenge intuition.


Will there be an "End to Physics"? "It is possible to think of fundamental physics as eventually becoming complete. There is only one universe to investigate, and physics, unlike mathematics, cannot be indefinitely spun out purely by inventions of the mind... Is there an irreducible base, or design, from which all physics logically follows? The history of modern physics warns that the answer to such a question will not be attained just by thinking about it. .. But without experimental exploration and discovery, new ideas are not generated. Physics will remain an experimental science at least until very much more is known about the fundamental nature of matter" [NAS 1972:80-82]. In short, experimental and theoretical physics is still very vibrant with no apparent decrease in the pace of innovation. At the present time no "end of physics" is in sight.


Why do scientists show so little interest in flying saucers, spoon bending, cold fusion, psi phenomena and the like? The world is very complex, and science is challenging. To be successful a scientist must work in limited areas where progress is feasible. Decisions on which areas are likely to prove fruitful are a matter of style. The Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman told a believer in flying saucers that flying saucers are not impossible, just unlikely. When charged with being unscientific, Feynman said it is scientific to say only what is more likely and what is less likely, and saucers are less likely. Science, he said, proceeds by informed guesses that lead to predictions which are experimentally testable. [told in Wolpert 1992:139]


In areas outside the main stream new claims must bear a far greater-than-normal burden of proof. This requirement allows one to understand why the scientific community accepted high temperature superconductivity, but broadly rejected cold fusion and "psi" phenomena.


In the former case (high temperature superconductivity) the discoverers provided detailed information on what they had done. It was possible to replicate their experiments. Consequently, many researchers did replicate the reported observations. In the latter cases (cold fusion and "psi" phenomena) the information provided was insufficient to allow replication of the process used in observing the so-called phenomena. The main stream scientific community considers the cold fusion and psi observations likely to be wrong. A long history of scientific errors supports this way of thinking. For example: N-rays, polywater, and Bienveniste's "infinite dilution" experiments that claimed to show that water has memory [Wolpert 1992:142].


Does this mean it is possible that cold fusion could be real? Yes. At the present time the preponderance of scientific opinion is that cold fusion is an experimental artifact. However, should someone develop a repeatable procedure for demonstrating the phenomenon of cold fusion, researchers in many laboratories quickly reproduce that procedure, and would become a part of science. Reproducibility is the key, not basic understanding. Many phenomena have remained unexplained for decades. Low temperature superconductivity was first discovered in 1911, but remained unexplained until 1958. Many phenomena in high temperature superconductivity remain unexplained today. However, unlike cold fusion and psi, both phenomena are readily replicated and therefore readily accepted.


Are science and religion incompatible? Science and religion are not necessarily in conflict or incompatible. One may characterize the gulf between science and religion by degrees of faith. To the scientist, every idea is in principle open to question. Religion requires unquestioning faith. To Einstein, "a religious person is devout in the sense that he has no doubt about the significance of those supra-personal objects and goals which neither require nor are capable of rational foundation...Science focuses on the how's and what's in nature. It does not address questions such as why we exist, is there life after death, and is there intelligent design underlying the existence of the universe and of life. The latter questions fall outside the domain of science, but are often addressed in religions.


Could the world have been created in an instant -- or in a day or in seven days? In principle. "... Bertrand Russell has argued that there is no evidence, scientific or otherwise, that can disprove the statement that 'the world was created two days ago'. Our memories, this book, everything around us would be part of that creation. The trees would have many rings to show their apparent age, and old people would have wrinkles to indicate the many years they appear to have lived. The fact that our experience is so real to us does not serve as a logical proof that the world is any older than two days, frustrating as this argument may be.


Russell was, of course, only presenting an argument in which neither he nor anyone truly believes, but it is an argument useful in illustrating the limitations of scientific proof for what is essentially a philosophical notion -- that the earth is (or is not) as old as it appears to be. This also illustrates the concept of falsifiability. Conjecturing that the world was created only two days ago with all the appearance of being around for billions of years is impossible to prove false and therefore is outside the real of science.


In the words of Albert Einstein... 'The truth is by no means given to us; given to us are the data of our consciousness'. " [Kantor, 1989:3]


What is the difference between science and engineering or technology? Science is about advancing the forefront of knowledge, about discovering unifying or simplifying concepts. Science is about framing well posed questions and designing clever experiments to probe nature in order to unlock its carefully guarded secrets. Engineering is about applying knowledge in novel ways to solve specific problems. Much of scientific inquiry is about engineering carefully designed experiments. Often in the process of problem solving scientific discoveries occur. In other words the distinction generally gets blurred. Nevertheless, the essential difference remains.


Science focuses on the search for reproducible laws that govern the workings of nature. Technology seeks to produce devices for some human purpose. Technology often draws upon science, and scientific research makes heavy use of technology. The objectives, however, are entirely different.


How do physicists think about practical applications of science? Science is a specific way to search for underlying truths about the structure of the universe. As such, science is value-neutral. Scientists themselves take diverse views about the applications of science. When they do so, they are not acting as scientists. Accordingly, it is no surprise to find scientists on virtually all sides of debates concerning the applications of scientific knowledge.


What is the ethical obligation of the scientist when the applications of new scientific knowledge become evident? Scientists have often found themselves in difficult ethical terrain when they realized that their search for basic understanding of nature had unforeseen practical applications. Such dilemmas are intrinsic to science. It is rare that a scientist has the prescience to anticipate even a portion of the applications of his/her work.


J. Robert Oppenheimer strikingly expressed this difference:


"The scientist is not responsible for the laws of nature, but it is the scientist's job to find out how these laws operate. ... [I]t is not the scientist's responsibility to determine whether a hydrogen bomb should be used. That responsibility rests with the American people and their chosen representative" [Wolpert 1992:157]


Nevertheless, at the stage when the prospect of particular applications of scientific knowledge come to light, the thoughtful scientist will reflect on the moral and ethical implications of success. He/she may then make a personal decision not to continue the work along lines that would lead to negative consequences. However, often times even when there appears to be potential negative consequences, there are simultaneously positive consequences. Then it may still be very important to continue further investigation. In either case, it is the responsibility of the scientist to help the public and policy makers to understand the possible implications of his/her research.


Is performing science a social process? Yes. "Science is very much a social process. This appears with clarity in perceptions of subjectivity and objectivity... [T]he idea of scientific objectivity has only limited value, for the way in which scientific ideas are generated can be highly subjective, and scientists will defend their views vigorously........ Being objective is crucial in science when it comes to judging whether subjective views are correct or not. One has to be prepared to change one's views in the face of evidence, objective information. It is... an illusion to think that scientists are unemotional in their attachment to their scientific views; they may fail to give them up even in the face of mounting evidence against them. [A major goal of scientists is] finding a common explanation for all the relevant phenomena, and an explanation which other scientists would accept" [Wolpert 1992:18]


How do physicists think about deconstructionist and postmodern analyses of science? Deconstructionism and postmodernism are relatively new areas of sociology. Practitioners of these fields hold to a diverse set of views. One central (extreme) strand is the idea that reality is a human construction. When applied to science, the extreme deconstructionist viewpoint is inconsistent with physicists' view of the world. The fundamental basis for the scientific method is the assumption that there does exist an external reality. Physicists believe that the scientific method provides for the best means yet discovered for learning about this assumed external reality [NAS 1972; Ziman 1996].


To the extent that criticisms of science emerge from extreme perspectives that deny the possibility for the existence of an objective reality there appears to be little possibility for common ground. However, scientists do recognize that this extreme perspective is held by a minority faction of science and technology studies.


Scientists do recognize that they are a part of a social enterprise and that their techniques for exploring reality are subject to human failings. Investigations of the process and the culture of science is a domain where dialogue with postmodern tradition could prove rewarding.



AHED. American Heritage Dictionary. (1995 : CD version 4)


Cromer, Alan. Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.


Kantor, Mattis. The Jewish Time Line Encyclopedia, Jason Aronson Inc. .230 Livingston Street, Northvale NJ 07647 (1989:3)


NAS. Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences. National Academy of Sciences Press, 1984.


NAS. Physics in Perspective. Volume I: The Nature of Physics. Physics Survey Committee of the National Research Council, D. Allan Bromley, Chair. Washington DC 1972


Shamos, Morris H. The Myth of Scientific Literacy. New Brunswick: Rutgers University, 1995.


Weinberg, Alvin. "Science and Trans-Science." Minerva: A Review of Science, Learning and Policy X (#2 1972):209-222.


Wolpert, Lewis. "The Unnatural Nature of Science". Faber and Faber, London 1992 pp192


Ziman, John M. Public Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968.


Ziman, John M. Is Science Losing its Objectivity. Nature 382, 751-754, 29 August 1996



Paul Craig is at the

Department of Applied Science, University of California, Davis, CA 95616,

Ellen B. Stechel is at the

Physical and Chemical Sciences Center, Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, NM 87185-1421,



Dynamical Modeling in History

Alvin M. Saperstein


In the usual "hard" sciences, the test for understanding of phenomena is prediction. Once that understanding is validated by successful predictions, it may be used to create another level of theories which can not be so validated - e.g., the "Big Bang" theory of the creation of the universe. With such higher level theories, we can be said to understand our physical universe based upon predictive knowledge of physical facts.


In history, the goal is to understand the past. But in general we only have an incomplete knowledge of the "facts" of the past and so historians must fill in the necessary information using their current understanding of people, their organizations, and their environments. Hence the historian uses current theory (subject to change!) to retrodict the past. Thus there is a fundamental similarity between history and science - current theory is used to predict/retrodict the future/past. The prediction/retrodiction may be "testable" in some sense, i.e., experiment or future observations may test the prediction, the acquisition of additional information about the past may test the retrodiction. All such tests, past and future, can only deny - never confirm - the validity of the theory being used. (Even denial is not straightforward since unavoidable observational or experimental error or misinterpretation may obscure differences between the prediction/retrodiction and the "facts".)


So both history and science depend upon theory and modeling. By a "model", I mean an application of the "theory" to a specific case - e.g., specific variables, parameters, and starting conditions. For example, the theory might be Newton's Universal Theory of Gravitation whereas the model might be the collection of moving mass points taken to represent our solar system. Or the theory might be that of Adam Smith's rational acquisitive man, the model the neoclassical stock market. It is the model which is supposed to represent the historical or physical reality; its functioning - running forward or backward in the parameter representing time - which is the prediction/retrodiction.

______________________________________________________________________________" ease and precision of manipulating mathematical models, not found in verbal models..."



Theories and models may be either deterministic (in which each step in time is uniquely related to the previous step) or stochastic (in which the linkage between steps is a probability relation). The resultant prediction/retrodiction is thus either a definite outcome or a probability of outcome. The probability outcome is only useful - can only be tested - if it can be compared with an ensemble of identical cases. Such ensembles are easy to assemble in physics; e.g., identical atoms are identical systems by hypothesis. Historical ensembles are only possible to construct if many facets of the situation can be ignored.


Many deterministic theories become stochastic when some of their important variables are ignored - e.g., the classical ballistics of a tossed coin (this is true for both physics and history). The converse is also true - some stochastic physical theories become deterministic when the number of variables is reduced (e.g., the deterministic gas laws follow from molecular chaos when appropriate variables are averaged). Thus it is possible to have determinism imply stochasticity which in turn implies determinism again (classical molecular dynamics implies molecular chaos implies the gas laws). Or, pure stochasticity may imply determinism, as quantum molecular dynamics also implies the gas laws. Thus physics can lead to determinism for complex systems without the initial assumption of determinism. This determinism can then lead to unique predictions/ retrodictions - no ensembles required - and thus to the practical consequences of engineering and the scholarly consequences of theory testing and understanding. Perhaps the same can be true for history, where the dichotomy between deterministic and stochastic might be analogous to that between organized and disorganized behavior or, perhaps, that between "emergent behavior" and "simple" (elemental) behavior. Using these dichotomies as paradigms, the historian might be interested in how the complex structure of a nation arises from the contingent behavior of many individual people (self-organizing behavior?), how the nations of the international system behave (deterministically or stochastically? self-organized criticality?), or how that system can transform itself in the contingency of war (deterministic chaos?). I am currently interested in the third question (though recently fascinated by the first), and therefore must make an assumption about the second question.


I assume that some important aspects of international behavior are deterministic, whether or not these complex human structures are founded upon a reductionist determinism - rational man - or emerge from the stochastic behavior of multitudes of people. (If I do not make this assumption, how do I test my ideas on the past? What does it mean to say that there was a 30% chance that Athens would rape Melos?) This determinism can be used for retrodiction - given a set of "laws", what behavior do we expect to have occurred? A successful retrodiction leads to some faith in the validity of the assumed rules with the practical consequence, for statecraft, that the rules may still be equally valid in the future and can thus be used to test proposed policy - how will the system react if my government does such and so? The scholarly consequence is that the past can now be said to be understood. And of course this program provides ample opportunity for historians to "test", and create understanding and philosophy.

______________________________________________________________________________"...the complex structure of a nation arises from the contingent behavior of ...people..."



We seek deterministic structures in both history and physics. The structures are usually defined verbally in history and mathematically in physics, but both subjects should be able to use both forms of expression. The mathematical laws of physics can be expressed in words (though not conveniently!) and it may be fruitful to express some historical regularities in equation form. Using the latter approach, within the paradigm that the transition to deterministic chaos in a model is the analog of international crisis instability, I have been able to address several interesting historical questions: is a bipolar world more or less stable than a multipolar world? are democracies more or less peaceful than oligarchies? are balance-of-power-alliance-making policies more or less dangerous than non-aligned self-security policies?1 This was done by modeling the arms race between competing hostile states as a set of non-linear, coupled, recursion relations; the political possibilities of dangerous international crisis instability are then found by mathematically exploring the stability regions of the relevant model equation systems.


Why Use Mathematical Models in the Social Sciences? There is an ease and precision of manipulating mathematical models, not found in verbal models, which leads to unique relations between the assumptions and out comes of the models. (All assumptions must be very explicit, all logical relations between them and their consequences clearly rigorous.) Thus for the social scientist/historian - the specificity of the logical chain between input and output allows the clearcut testing of assumptions about "causes". The policy maker who is given "believeable" assumptions and an explicit mathematical model can make policy decisions by matching predicted oucomes with desirable ends. In order to use mathematical models, simplifications are necessary, and very simple models may lead to nonsensical results. But when the input, logical chain, and output are transparent, as they must be in a mathematical model, it is much easier to detect the nonsense than in a verbal model.


What is the opposite of self-organization? God.


But physicists usually don't include God in their theories. Why should they get involved with 'self-organization' now? (And by implication, why think about the "self-organization", "other-organization" dichotomy as a productive analogy in history now?) Physicists have always been interested in 'self-organization'. The question of how the properties of bulk matter "emerge" from those of matter's individual constituents is fundamental to the discipline. The answer in the past has always been that in principle, the observed macroscopic (bulk) properties had to follow from the experimentally determined, or presumed, microscopic (molecular) properties, even if they couldn't be calculated. Presumably, such vague answers don't produce a strong enough hold on the imagination to warrant being seized upon by other scholarly disciplines as productive analogies. With the advent of new calculational techniques (e.g., the renormalization group) and the availability of powerful computers, the jump, between microscopic assumptions and macroscopic predictions considerably lessened. We began to "see" how the properties of the gross magnet followed from the "self-organization" of its constituent molecular magnets, how phase changes of bulk matter (e.g., gas to liquid) were linked to inter-molecular forces, etc. Such recent calculational successes have had impacts outside of physics much as did the Newtonian successes of previous centuries, and built upon a long tradition of "physics envy"2 in the social sciences and humanities. And so now we have the old physical problems of "emergent behavior" of thermodynamic laws from molecular disorder, of "self-organization" of crystal physics, "complexity" of many-body physics, giving rise to a new vocabulary and - perhaps - some useful analogies for history.



This is a slight modification of a "follow-up paper" for a conference on "chaos and complexity" held at the Contemporary History Institute of Ohio University in May 1994.

Alvin M. Saperstein is at

Wayne State University


1For more details and references, see, e.g., A,M.Saperstein, Chaos as a Tool for Exploring Questions of International Security, Conflict Management and Peace Science, 13, No. 2, 149-177, 1994.

2 Much of eighteenth and nineteenth century social science was initiated by, and modeled upon, the conceptual and practical successes of the Newtonian paradigm, e.g., economic and sociological determinism seems to follow on Newtonian methodology. Additional sources of envy in this century are physics' reputation for rigor, societal impact, big budgets, etc.


Sixties Society and Physics

Earl Callen


Mark Harrison, Chairman of the Physics Department of The American University, offered me a job. As I wanted to stay in Washington, I became a college professor. (But I continued to do research one day a week with Jim Cullen and Art Clark at the then-Naval Ordnance Laboratories.) Going over to AU was the best thing I ever did. A college professor has a great job. You have time for research and can pick your own problems. With tenure (I was a full professor with tenure) you have job security. In consequence, the job allows one to retain one's self-respect. You are treated with dignity by the administrators because they can't act like bosses. The only way they can win your active cooperation is through good will. For the teacher as much as for the student, teaching is educational. And it is emotionally rewarding. (Too much so. It is an ego trip. The occupational disease of college professors is hyperinflated ego.) At the college level one need not be concerned with classroom discipline and, I imagine, less with motivation than at lower levels. In most college courses students want to learn. Physics students certainly are eager to learn physics. It is great fun to teach them. It is especially rewarding to work with young people at that stage of their lives when they are groping with who they are, what career to follow, what they want to do with their lives. You can help. And a college professor can do controversial things. Now I could go out onto the public stage.

In a Georgetown Law Weekly article I showed (I was not the first to do so) that the military draft lottery was not random. Selective Service put balls with calendar dates in a goldfish bowl, mixed them up a while, and pulled them out. Young men were drafted to go to Viet Nam by the order in which their birthdays were called. But Selective Service did not mix enough. It is hard to mix things. The balls came out in the opposite order--December down to January--from the way they were dropped in. An unsuccessful court suit contested the draft lottery on that basis. I got called by someone on the White House staff, but I was not the right one to advise the Nixon team on how to draft troops for Viet