Thursday, April 17, 2008

Re: Defense of Kestenbaum

Usually I get where Michael Tobis of Only in it for the Gold is coming from, but I'm afraid that this time I'm completely lost. (Also, I wish that just once he'd spell my name right.)

To begin: he writes:
Science functions in a social context. Emergence of an educated class is as disastrous as emergence of a wealthy class.
Science might function in a social context, but that is not where scientific advances are made. An educated class has certainly emerged in the last 150 years and it is certainly where all scientific advances are made -- all of them. The average person in the average social context has little-to-no idea of what scientific advances are going around them -- it's strictly a function of the educated, scientific elite. I can't image it being anything else, ever, not in the time of Newton, or Kelvin, or Maxwell, or Bohr or Feynman or Weinberg or Guth or Witten. Ground-breaking science has always been in such a class.

Enough of that. Tobis writes:
The problem isn't that just one person gets it wrong; the problem is that it is easier to get it wrong than to get it right.
I have no idea what this means. Wrong is wrong.

Yes, science can get very "hairy." So what? QED is hairy -- every try to read Schwinger? Or Dirac on quantum mechanics? Or any modern physicist on quantum field theory? Or ... go on, and on....

Which is exactly why Kristen Byrnes isn't a scientist. She lacks the subtlety and deep thought required of them. She's a cut-and-paster, without benefit of much critical thinking, if any. She's just a kid, for god's sakes. Few to none of them have any sophisticated idea about what science is about. It's tough stuff. There are few real geniuses around. She certainly isn't one of them.

So what is she contributing? I really can't tell, at all. She's just some average, mediocre blogger. It's an extreme embarassment that NPR would treat her as the equal to people who have spent decades studying this subject in excruciating detail.

Somewhere in Toledo there is a girl scout troop meeting every Tuesday evening. I certainly hope they're having a good time. But I hardly am going to believe their calculations for the cross section of Higgs production at the upcoming LHC run, or their thoughts on the efficacy of SSRIs for long-term depressives. Are you?


EliRabett said...

It's ok, Eli used to misspell his name.

Michael Tobis said...

Your name spelling is fixed, sorry. I'll try to do better in future. I'm afraid you've missed my point, though.

I agree that scientific progress is made by elites and not by teenagers.

I don't think it's all that easy to identify the elite, though. If you start without social connections to the academy it is very easy to get it wrong.

Of course, that is the main strategy of the denial camp. People like Kristen are interesting because they demonstrate the process at work. They have put their faith in the worng authorities.

Here's my problem in a nutshell. If you simply go by institutional affiliations and endorsements, then academic economists are due every bit as much respect as academic climatologists. You will find that most of them, to the extent they think about sustainability at all, are Lomborgians. They respect the predictions of climate science but shrug and say "meh, so what".

My worldview has this entire discipline as made up of charlatans. That's a little bit of an overstatement; I think it's possible they may have some utility on short time scales. To the extent that they apply their thinking on time scales longer than twenty years I think they are completely useless, though.

According to your suggestion of how we establish trust, I should trust them simply because they have carved out a piece of the academy for themselves. I wish it were that simple.

WHat we believe is based not on what we ourselves think, but on whom we think knows what they are talking about. In our polarized and befuddled society, it is easy to get this wrong.

Kestenbaum clearly indicated that the girl who had thought about it less had got the matter right, and got to the core of the question. How do we decide?

You argue for authority. It simplifies matters but only works under conditions when authority is trustworthy. Many of us perceive this not to be the case these days.

MT said...

One of the pitfalls I think is that we think about "authority" too simplistically. We like to regard an authority on anything as an authority on everything--and as if incapable of mere opinion. It's like some instinctive deferential response.

Anonymous said...

I cannot believe that anyone would waste the time attempting to belittle Kristen Byrnes. She is not a scientist. She has no standing as a scientist. She is potentially as interesting as any 15 year old music virtuoso, ice skater, winner of a science fair, chess player or spelling bee champ. That is not to diminish what she has done, it is simply the facts of the situation. That PhDs should appear affronted by her says more about their fragile egos than about her precociousness.

John Mashey said...

Ms Byrnes' writing at ponderthemaunder isn't the interesting aspect of this, but rather:

a) The fervor with which some people immediately accepted what she said and propagated it onward as good and important. This provided an immediate calibration for me of some people I'd wondered about.

If someone allocates space on their home page to link to that, what does that tell you?

b) The blogosphere information flow patterns thus illustrated.

Both proved useful to me later on.