Why (physical) science is hard.

In our household, growing up, math and physics were held in high regard. My mother had been a math major in college; my father was a Ph.D. mathematician, by turns a professor and then a researcher in government and the private sector. My uncle was a plasma physicist (he’s still doing DARPA-funded research today, at 80+ years of age). My younger brother was on his way to earning a Ph.D. in operations research and a distinguished career at Bell Labs. [Smarter, richer, and better-looking, he’s been retired something like 14 years.]

Math and physics felt natural.

In my high school in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, I was an exception. Most of my fellow students were mystified by science and mathematics. They thought it was beyond them. They could get by in history or English, but they were at sea when it came to algebra, or geometry, or physics or chemistry. And they wouldn’t be caught near the course on calculus. I was a total social misfit (another story for another time), but took comfort in my ability in science.  I bought into what they were telling me, that science was hard. Even my science teachers (!) said science was hard.

College was eye-opening. Contrary to my expectations, I wasn’t anything like the best student in science there. Moreover, many of the liberal-arts majors excelled in science as well. All my stereotypes…including the notion that I had any special ability…found their way into the trash bin. It was a scramble to get by.

And I had a revelation of sorts…one that’s stuck with me most of my adult life…but which I’ve been progressively unlearning.

The revelation was this: I decided that the humanities and social sciences were in fact more difficult than the physical sciences – not the other way around. Why? Because (to my adolescent mind) in physics or mathematics, based as they were on a simple logic and experiment, it was easy to tell quickly when you were having an off-road experience. The sums wouldn’t check out, or the observations and the lab results would point in a different direction. Such evidence would quickly force you back on track. By contrast (or so I told myself then), in the humanities…say, in the analysis of a poem, or in the study of a work of art, or the mastery of a school of philosophy, the scholar had to supply his or her own discipline to the task at hand. It wasn’t provided from outside, at least not that I could see at the time. It had to come from within, from an internal compass, from a strong, internally driven personal integrity, from massive and focused contemplation. And it sure was easier to deal with an electron in a potential well than with a fellow human being.

How naïve.

In two ways.

First, In my life and career since I’ve come to realize and appreciate the structure and discipline intrinsic to the humanities. Much more there in the way of ground rules and structure than I’d realized! I’ve come to be thankful for all those humanities professors who had the grace to allow me to graduate with the rest of my class instead of holding me back. I should still be there…taking remedial everything!

Second, throughout my career it’s slowly dawned on me that physical scientists have to develop that same internal discipline, find and obey that same internal compass, exercise that same high degree of self-control just as do those in the humanities. Our laboratory experiments, field studies, and mathematics don’t provide complete cover. They can’t always save us from mistakes – or outright folly.

Why bring this up today?

Because of a recent exchange in the Wall Street Journal.

 You can check this out by going to Andy Revkin’s Dot Earth post of January 31. That’ll link you to a 16-author Wall Street Journal op-ed entitled “No Need to Panic about Global Warming,” and a rebuttal by 37 authors entitled “Check with Climate Scientists for Views on Climate.”

The whole makes for interesting reading. But read the original article that triggered all this – No Need to Panic about Global Warming – carefully. Ask yourself…were those authors as disciplined in writing this as they were writing all the papers that established their careers? It doesn’t look like it. And because they took shortcuts, they made it necessary for climate scientists to drop what they’d been doing to write yet another rebuttal. They reinforced a bunch of pre-existing ideas in WSJ readership that will now be even harder to dislodge. They’ve provided political cover for politicians to cut sorely needed R&D, and worse, take no action on badly needed policy changes.

This won’t be the last time scientists will show a lack of sorely needed self-control. The problem won’t always be confined to any one side of any argument – whether on climate change or some other topic. And the problem isn’t confined to scientists. Our deficiencies reflect a universal human condition.

But sometimes we physical scientists seem unique when it comes to our complete lack of self-awareness – our failure to comprehend or admit to ourselves and others that we share this flaw. We could stand to learn a bit more, maybe a lot more, from our colleagues in the humanities.  Including humility.

Gosh, physical science is hard.

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