The following is a reworking of a previous post, for this I would apologise, but am pretty sure you mostly do not care.
Let me start by talking a bit about The Big Bang Theory (TBBT) tv show. I like the show for the most part, it seems to work well and I only normally feel slightly surprised when they do things like putting on safety goggles to use liquid nitrogen, safe yes, often carried out, no. The characters have attributes that I could easily point to many of my colleagues and say “they act like x”. Therefore I would say I am neither a fan boy nor a critic of the show, if it’s on I’ll watch it, but I tend not seek it out.
More generally now, there seems to be a perception with the non-scientists of the world that we are an elitist group who spend all of their time agreeing with each other. This is often visible to me in the form of online forum posts but recently TBBT also alarmed me with the views of one of its physicists. I bet you can’t guess which?
This is very much not the case. Science is a hot bed of arguments and discussion. I have recently seen a public display of this with a well known (in the UK) public figure and a blogger I hold in high regard. I’ll go into this in a little more depth below. First I will explain some of the problems I have with the character from TBBT.
In science sharing is important. Without sharing there is no point in finding things out, it helps no one other than your own ego. This is why it offends me when Sheldon refuses to go to a conference to present his data. That is unlike every scientist I know. For one thing it would damage his career, and is just against the ethos of research.
To append to this he stated that people should just take his word for it. That is again showing a fundamentally flawed idea. Science is not only about modeling the universe and presenting the best predictions we can about how the world works but also about testing those predictions against reality, up to and beyond their limits. That’s the only way you can make progress and identify where new things are. To explain slightly more here, theories have limits. We know that when x is true then theory y will hold. For example take Newtonian mechanics, F=ma (where F is force, m is mass and a is acceleration), this is true as long as the relative velocities are much smaller than the speed of light and the mass is not changing (there are other assumptions made here but I cannot see much worth in listing them all). If you break either of those rules then you would expect the equation to not work. So what you need to do is test whether that is true and if it is try and find something new for the next range of possibilities, if it isn’t true and the equation still works that’s just as interesting because it means you’ve stumbled upon something…
Without experiments all you are doing is telling fairy tales, which, if you’re over 5 years old, helps no one.
Sheldon, if he was a real person and not some weird idea in a writers head would be aware of this, trust me, I know people who fit most of his other attributes very well. This saddens me, as for the most part I find the show is actually quite funny. I feel that is probably most saddening because in some peoples minds it is reinforcing the idea that scientists are closed minded, this is not true. Most (I’d say all but I’ve not met them all) scientists will listen closely and fully to an idea, but if they can dismiss it with a simple argument and experimental data they will not consider it further, it doesn’t agree with reality so it’s not worth pursuing. That’s not being closed minded, it is being open minded, which includes being open to the idea that ideas can be wrong.
Let me show a more realistic, and hopefully still accessible side to the science argument. The good side. Professor Brian Cox, I am not a fan, sorry I just am not. But he has achieved a lot for science literacy and when I’ve watched his shows with my parents I find myself either saying things he’s about to say or agreeing with his sentiments. There is always a fear with making science shows for people without a science background that you might simplify things to the point of being wrong. That is not the fault of the viewer, most people do not have the time to fully understand the concepts, often people have spent 30 years trying to understand them and yet they still cannot fully grasp them. The hunter gatherer human brain just isn’t built for it, but people try. This is often a point of contention between varying scientists and is one that can be accessible to people without the time to understand the nuances of say quantum mechanics.
Recently, Tom Swansont, a guy I have a lot of respect for, highlighted what he though was a case of simplifying to the point of being wrong in one of Brian Cox’s lectures. I’ll let Dr Swansont’s two blogs on the matter be your reading for his explanation as why as I do not see the pint of covering the same ground.
http://blogs.scienceforums.net/swansont/archives/11081 (With a bit of an explosive title I’ll grant you, but I think he was annoyed).
And one by Sean Carroll: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2012/02/23/everything-is-connected/
I’m not going to take sides, just allow the arguments to speak for themselves.
But I want to concentrate on that there was an argument. This wasn’t a physicist with a high profile saying something and everyone rolling over and going “yes master” this was several people going “urm wtf?” But it was more than that; it was a presentation of counter experimental evidence. And that’s the real key here, someone says something and it’s compared to the evidence and the evidence wins. The universe doesn’t care what you or I think about how it works, it just carries on going, if our models disagree with the observed evidence, the model is wrong. In this case there is a very good argument to be made that the explanation given has taken a well established concept and extrapolated it out to such a degree that it is wrong and this has been compared to the evidence and found wanting. Which leads me back to, modern predictive theories having a range over which they work, Newtonian mechanics works only at low relative speeds, quantum mechanics works only for small things.