Friday, June 24, 2005

The Science Elite

Over dinner yesterday, several of the interns and I were (not surprisingly) discussing physics, science, and the academic environment here at the lab. Eventually, the discussion turned to the science vs. Engineering debate. Jokes were made, and anecdotes about academic tifts between the two groups at JLab were told. All's well and good. But, unavoidably, the conversation wandered over to other areas of study. Much of what was said reminded me of several things I dislike about most scientists, and has prompted this post (read: rant).

Scientists have a ridiculous superiority complex (this is obviously a generalization and the following criticisms do not apply to all who study science). Physicists, I'm sad to say, are by far the worst. This ego can be broken down into two categories: "Physics is the best of all the sciences" and "Science is the best academic discipline."

The first comes from the idea that there is a hierarchy of scientific disciplines, which is based on what philosophers call reductionism: Because particle physics looks at the smallest parts of what make up our world, it is the closest to finding "the truth." Understanding all of particle physics will explain nuclear physics, which will explain atomic physics, and so on. On the broader scale, it is the reasoning behind the "all chemistry is physics, and all biology is chemistry" argument. It sets up a totem pole of disciplines, with physics sittin' pretty on the top. Obviously, physicists love this and cling to it for dear life. Not only does it make them the best, it also provides them the illusion that a "theory of everything" is out there.

I hate reductionist science for several reasons, the primary one being that it's wrong. Even if you know why the puzzle piece exists and what it's made of, you have no idea what the whole puzzle looks like, or how in the world all the pieces fit together. I mean, honestly, it's just terrible logic. When you can use quantum mechanics to explain the projectile motion of a baseball after it's hit, let me know.

The "science is the best discipline," to a certain extent, stems from this idea. But this part of the scientific ego seems slightly more complicated. In talking with scientists, it manifests itself in the form of a lack of appreciation for other areas of study. For example, in the conversation mentioned above, one of the interns actually said the following: "My roommate is an economics major. I love making fun of him for it, and telling him his major is useless." And I'm not exaggerating. After commenting that I liked going to art museums and wanted to find some in the area, other interns said that they hated art--essentially, that it was worthless.

From the conversation yesterday, it seems that many science-minded people place their esteem in science based on it's mathematical rigor, and thus dislike subjects that are not strongly founded in math. One of the guys in the group talked about how it was stupid for political science to call itself an "actual science". I countered his idea with the fact that, based on what many people think to be the fundamental structure of science, political science is far more scientific than a lot of fields he would consider science. Karl Popper (one of the most well known philosophers of science) thought that something was scientific if it produced theories that could be tested, that made predictions, and that could be potentially proven wrong. Political science does just that. They observe, try to find patterns and trends, and develop theories which make predictions about the future. How is that not a science?

Amusingly, he had no counter argument for this and instead moved on to economics, saying that people who claim it to be scientific are ridiculous. I made the exact same point as before, since economics functions in much the same way as political science. His response: "But it doesn't use mathematical concepts and formulas." This is hilarious partly because economics is very math-based. But I also find it funny that science-minded folks judge a discipline's worth via how mathematically structured it is. This is, yet again, bad logic that puts science on top.

I suppose I understand why scientists feel that mathematics gives something validity. Scientists take pride in objective knowledge. Mathematical formulas don't fall victim to subjectivity (at least they don't seem to)--as they say, the numbers never lie. Something expressed in a mathematical form seems like the most objective way to state something. So, even if a disciplines such as political science and economics qualify as sciences in principle, they are not real sciences because they lack true objectivity. But, I'm not so sure that mathematics is the only real way to objectively state something (if one can even truly do anything objectively). But, this is getting a bit off topic.

Their mathematical foundation obviously isn't the only reason scientists have such inflated egos. If it were, then I'm pretty sure that scientists would respect mathematicians far more than themselves. Most, though, make fun of mathematicians along with all of the other academic disciplines. Another factor that contributes is the general public's respect for science. Usually, when I tell people I'm an engineering physics major, I get comments like "oh wow, I wish I were that smart." I've never understood comments like these. Just because I study something in science doesn't mean that I am any smart than someone who studies, say, history. Neither field requires more knowledge than the other, just a different kind of knowledge.

There is also the fact that the government and corporations pour out billions of dollars every year in support of scientific research. However, this doesn't particularly mean that they care about the field of science. I'm pretty sure that Congress and President Bush couldn't care less about the strange quark. All they care about is the technology that may eventually come out of scientific research, which will improve their national defenses and economy. And sure, science does have all of the technological developments to it's credit. But it is most certainly not the only field of study to produce useful knowledge. (It is, however, one of the only academic areas who's knowledge is used for harm and destruction on a regular basis.)

Of course, perhaps scientists have this unjustly inflated ego out of necessity. They need to think that they're the best for motivation to continue on. If I were the MIT undergraduate who's degree culminated in a senior thesis entitled "Drift-Time Properties of the CEBAF Hall A Vertical Drift Chambers," a paper almost entire composed of number tables, I would need to think what I was doing was incredibly important to keep myself from giving up out of sheer boredom. (Admittedly, a low blow. All in good fun, though.)

This little ditty might sound very anti-science. I'm sure those of you who know me well and have heard me babble on forever about physics are somewhat confused as to where all of this is suddenly coming from. My point here is not to put down science. If I were doing so, I would be no better than the scientists I am criticizing. I simply get frustrated by elitist ideas within academia. All academic areas are interesting and worthwhile. The knowledge that one produces is no more or less valuable than any other, they are simply different. So, seriously, scientists, get off your high horses. Why can't all the nerds just be friends?


Anonymous Lis said...

wow I'm glad i'm only a silly arts & crafts major.. that stuff was tought to digest! Way to go!

8:12 AM, June 27, 2005  

Post a Comment

<< Home