Thursday, October 4, 2018

reasons for the decline of popular scientists (hint: a lot of it has to do with biology supplanting physics)

Excerpts from a really interesting reflection on science, scientists, and pop culture-- from Brendan Foht in The Hedgehog Review...

Foht opens by noting that few people (19% in a 2017 survey) can name a living scientist. Of those, Hawking, Tyson and Nye led the list. Hawking has since died; Tyson and Nye are "science popularizers" more than "popular scientists" (Tyson hasn't done research in years; and Nye has never been a "working scientist"). 

Hawking and others like him in theoretical physics (Einstein, Feynman, and Oppenhemier) "inspired awe" and were seen as geniuses. Their views were taken seriously-- on science and other matters. But why are there so few popular scientists today? 

Foht notes several factors. First, "It’s not that science has run out of newsworthy achievements...But who could be said to deserve the credit?" To the extent that credit cannot be extended to individuals, then fame is less likely. 

Second, Foht points to the "supplanting of physics" by biology. Foht cites Alexander Fleming-- of penicillin fame-- who discovered it "by noticing that fungus he had accidentally allowed to grow on a petri plate was keeping the growth of bacteria at bay—hardly inspires awe for Fleming’s intellect." 

Third and related: "it’s understandable that philosophers would have a special respect for the intellectual achievements of physics. The elegant formulation of laws and theories that explain the fundamental features of the universe are genuinely impressive in a way that other sciences just can’t match."

Fourth and back to biology-- which "may offer ever more detailed descriptions of living things, but its explanations for the big questions about life remain unsatisfying. There are no elegant laws to account for the growth of an embryo into an adult, and while the theory of evolution gives something of an account of what the tree of life looks like and how different branches have emerged, it’s far from a satisfying explanation for the whole history of life."

Potentially good news: "Perhaps there is, in reality, no deep order to the tree of life, but that’s not a truth that generates wonder at the human capacity to know the secrets of nature. Rather, it may imbue us with a sense of humility, and even a sober intellectual recognition that not all the questions have answers." 

This could be, at least in theory. But unfortunately, I haven't seen such humility in the popularizers of biology and its most avid cheerleaders. For one thing, they conflate the science of evolutionary mechanisms with sciency evolutionary narratives-- and insist that the science takes us farther than it does (or likely can). In most cases, this is because there's much more than science at stake for them. Their philosophical priors and religious commitments trump their respect for Science and motivate their use of science for (their) larger ends. 

Foht's bottom line: "Although the cult of genius surrounding men like Einstein, Hawking, Feynman, and Oppenheimer seems to have disappeared, we can probably better appreciate the collective enterprise of science without the worship of its Great Men. With the ascendance of the intellectually humble but practically useful science of biology over the lofty and theoretically ambitious science of physics, we may also acquire a more realistic appreciation of science as less a Promethean endeavor than a very human one, serving human goals and aspirations instead of transcending them."


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