M. R. Showalter
S. J. Kline
Stephen J. Kline and I have been permitted to make an extensive submission
to George Johnson's forum, REALITY BYTES. We're
asking that some very controversial but potentially very important work
be checked, and put in a large scale scientific context.
George Johnson, and THE NEW YORK TIMES are offering us help we could
get from no other source (though NATURE helped us considerably.)
We believe that the help offers an example of the special role these forums
can play, and should play, in the scientific enterprise.
The Mysteries of the Universe forums are special because they are
moderated by George Johnson. They are special because
they are NEW YORK TIMES forums. Forums like REALITY
BYTES, edited by senior writers under the aegis of major newspapers,
fulfil roles that are being filled nowhere else in society.
They can do it very well.
I am submitting results that say * that I have broken a major part of "the code of the brain," and that Kline and I have found a massive mistake at the interface between mathematics and the measurable * that can be expected to change many established results * , and that may wipe out some established subfields in some sciences *.
(insert: Kline has also shown that the nature or our intellectual enterprise strongly discourages work that involves many disciplines. This leaves important gaps in our proceses and knowledge. The New York Times can help fill these gaps. )
The work will have major medical and intellectual significance * . A major misunderstanding, that goes some way toward explaining why mathematical physics has seemed so "magical," has gone undetected and even unsuspected for 300 years.
The * symbol stands for "unless Steve Kline and I have made an as yet undetected error."
We are asking to have
the work checked to see if mistakes can be found in our work. Because the
error we believe we have found in conventional work is so big, and so disruptive,
the conventional academic journals are not adapted to the checking we need
done. If we are right, and we are well nigh certain that
we are, there will be extensive disruption in three well entrenched fields,
mathematics, physics, and neurophysiology. We are confronting
these fields as outsiders. In addition to our need for
specialists, we need to have our work checked by people who are NOT academic
mathematicians, who are NOT academic physicists, and who are NOT academic
physiologists. This is work where we cannot trust the "invisible
colleges" of mathematics, physics, and physiology to do the right
thing unsupervised. This is work that should be done
"in public." We're very glad to have the help
of THE NEW YORK TIMES here.
have a role to play in science, for essentially the same reasons that make
them important elsewhere. Newspapers shape our common
culture, and may even define what that common culture is. A
high Washington bureaucrat once spoke to me as follows:
town, some think that they can do everything within specific, codified
rules, and that behavior not in violation of specific rules is all right.
It isn't so. There is one set of rules, one test, above
the others in this town and elsewhere. Ask yourself, from your
own point of view, and the point of view of people you are interacting
with, the question
"HOW WOULD THIS LOOK, IF WRITTEN UP OBJECTIVELY, AND IN DETAIL, IN THE NEW YORK TIMES?"
His point was much broader than the idea that any particular
meeting or action might be reported. The point was that
the "what would it look like in the TIMES?" standard
always applied. Violations of that standard, for any
reason, were always suspect, or worse than suspect. He
went on to say that we lived in a common culture, and among those with
a literate stake in power, the rules were surprisingly homogeneous.
We knew what these rules were when WE read articles in newspapers.
I was listening to this bureaucrat as part of a working group.
In discussion, everyone in our group thought this was an extremely perceptive
lesson about the way things work, and have to work, in the United States
It is important that science and scientists not be immune from the scrutiny that helps shape and motivate the communal responsibilities and standards of other citizens. As a society, we have committed to science. Science matters a great deal. People who are not scientific specialists need to understand something about it. We as a society should not give scientists unconditional trust, or unconditional privacy. There is no reason to grant scientists any more immunities than are granted to engineers, or soldiers, or doctors, or elected officials. We've learned as a society that "war is too important to be left to the Generals." For similar human reasons "science is too important to be left to the scientists."
(Most of life is not reported in newspapers, nor should it be. Usually war is left to the generals, and science is left to the scientists. But if something looks unusual, experience tells us that the socially responsible human actors involved may reasonably be asked to explain themselves in public.)
"science is too important to be left to the scientists," then
major papers have a duty to report and study science and scientists.
THE NEW YORK TIMES does this reporting very well, and is also one
of the leading sources of ideas about science. (insert: few
other papers do these jobs.) George Johnson's
forums serve an important role in the definition, incubation, and assessment
of ideas about science. Difficult ideas (that is, ideas that cause somebody
difficulty) may be operationally undiscussable without the public presence
that newspaper attention, and the potential for newspaper coverage, represents.
and groups in the public eye often do duties that they might not do if
they had invulnerable privacy. Currently, specialized "invisible
colleges" in the sciences can act as if they have invulnerable privacy.
At least partly for this reason, some actions that outsiders
would regard as intellectual duties go undone. Here is
an example, that I regard as important and, as a citizen, outrageous.
Stephen J. Kline, my coworker, was named the most important contributor
to fluid mechanics this century by the Japanese Society of Mechanical Engineering.
He has many other honors. Steve's in the National Academy
of Engineering. Most would agree that Steve is one of
the most distinguished analytically oriented engineers alive. Steve
has been very much involved with the thermodynamics and physical mathematics
that engineers do.
to do their jobs, have to pay careful attention to thermodynamics under
circumstances more complicated than any a physicist is likely to work on.
The body of theory and practice in engineering thermodynamics
is surprisingly disjoint from "thermodynamics" as it is taught
in physics courses. Physicists say that the statistical
thermodynamics of these physics courses can "do everything."
Engineers often doubt that it can do much of practical complexity and importance.
Steve Kline wrote CONCEPTUAL FOUNDATIONS FOR MULTIDISCIPLINARY THINKING
(Stanford 1995). A central message of that book was that the
disciplines had to be able to judge each other, and had a responsibility
for mutual consistency. In his appendix B "Two Standing
Bets" Steve wrote
"The results of this book dispute overclaims that have long been seen as true by many disciplinary experts about what their particular discipline can do. Disciplinary experts have tended to dismiss, out of hand, comments from anyone who is "not a member of their club."
a politician claims too much, newspapers notice, and this fact helps keep
political assertion within the realm of the plausible.
When an invisible college claims too much, if the
invisible college is immune to public criticism, claims may balloon, and
become implausible indeed. These days, physicists
who can calculate very little of practical importance in the domain of
classical physics pursue "theories of everything" and resist
public discussion of what their "everything" may refer to. Thermodynamics
is a specific example, of much practical importance, where the issue of
overclaims between physics and engineering matters and OUGHT to be discussable.
After consultation with many colleagues, Steve Kline bet the physicists that they could not provide a logically correct derivation of the complete second law of thermodynamics from statistical mechanics. (He was asking for a derivation that would work on the complicated cases engineers have to deal with.) Steve believes, I believe, and other engineers believe that the physicists have overclaimed and been sloppy about what their field can do, and what their field can prove. Based on what we can see, if they were engineers, they might be criticized for taking money under false pretenses. Still, we're prepared to be shown the error of our ways. So we invited the physicists to come and show us what they could really do with statistical mechanics, with people watching, and some operationally effective umpire present.
Insert: Kline chose this example because it lies where microscopic physics links to larger scale problems. Kline is fleshing out just what has gone wrong ( ) in a book to be titled "Interpretive Thermodynamics, or, the lowdown on entropy."
member of the larger culture might expect that issues like this would be
fought out, as a matter of duty, when they arise and become public.
(The public sense seems to be that theoreticians, and particularly mathematical
theoreticians, fight to the finish, and fight at the drop of a hat.)
No such sense of duty seems to be apparent. The physicists
have simply ignored Steve, although he wrote to many senior physicists,
several Senators and members of Congress, and senior bureaucrats.
Steve Kline is a big name. He's had other big name engineers
on his side. There have been no responses. The
bet was for 1000 bucks (at 10:1 odds). (Of course, the stakes
in physics and mechanical engineering were far bigger than that.)
Even so, a thousand bucks on the street would be enough for many academics
to stoop down for. If it had been easy to answer Steve,
some physics grad student would have responded, and made 1000 bucks.
No one responded.
business, different parts of a firm are expected to reach workable agreements
about what the truth is. Commercial realities force this.
Some of the forces are internal and some external. Claims a
firm makes are often subject to scrutiny by public agencies, and overclaims
that result in loss to customers can draw lawsuits. In engineering
(particularly in fields like automotive or aeronautical engineering, where
safety is a major issue) requests for right answers are "command performances."
However, in the academy, major, operationally important disparities between
fields can go unresolved for many decades. I believe that academic usages
are irresponsible in this way, and would remain so regardless of the stakes,
even if hundreds of millions of dollars, or tens of thousands of researcher
years, or thousands of unnecessary deaths were at stake. If
scientists are better than ordinary citizens in some ways, they are worse
When one field challenges another field to a duel on subject matter, these days, the challenged field doesn't have to fight to challenge its "owned" subject matter. (Except in engineering.) The challenged field can just ignore the whole thing. Issues of duty don't seem to enter, no matter what the public interest related to the issue may be. (Except in engineering.) When a member of one field challenges a member of another field to a duel of ideas, or challenges a whole field to a duel of ideas, there will usually be no resolution. A central assumption of the public is that these issues WILL be resolved, and obligations based on a mutual respect for truth will be dominant considerations. In reality public interest does not seem to be a significant issue (outside of engineering). It seems that nobody fights outside of their own "invisible college". THIS MEANS THAT MISTAKES THAT CROSS DISCIPLINARY LINES ARE UNLIKELY TO BE CORRECTED. ACCORDING TO CURRENT USAGES, THE MORE IMPORTANT THE MISTAKE THE LESS LIKELY THE MISTAKE IS TO BE CORRECTED.
If one lives in a university, and sees the pressures people confront there, this is understandable. People's careers depend on the reaction of the "invisible colleges" of their specialty to their work. They depend almost not at all on responsibilities to a larger "body of scholars" or to the public at large.
(insert: A larger question arises here: what responsibilities do scientists have, particularly professors with lifetime tenure, to our social system. The answers can be unfortunate when they happen by default.)
Any faculty member has struggled desperately hard
for a paid place as a member of his specialty. Graduate students are under
severe pressure to make that same grade by the particular and specialized
standards of their invisible college. Publications are central
to gaining and justifying status in the "invisible colleges."
Published papers are a core requirement for academic hiring and promotion
- a publication is, in large part, a "chit" for employment, issued
after the writer has shown sufficiently high qualification according to
the specific standards of the particular discipline (invisible college)
in which the work is done. With a few elite exceptions, the
editors of the academic journals are overworked and undercompensated in
money. These editors are motivated by service to THEIR invisible college,
and by a desire to gain honor in THAT PARTICULAR invisible college.
Paper reviewers for the journals, practically always uncompensated, also
do their editorial work as a honorific duty to THEIR invisible college.
This is honorable work, motivated, as much of the good work of society
is, by notions of duty and status. Society derives enormous
advantage from such hard, careful work. Still, the question
arises - what happens if publishing an argument would reduce or endanger
the status of the editors and reviewers who let the work be published?
What happens if someone asks that a piece be published, or that an idea
be considered, that questions and may in some way undermine the invisible
college itself? In such cases, we cannot be surprised if all
concerned within the invisible college recall that
who troubleth his own house will inherit the wind."
11 - 29
How will an idea that strongly "troubles their own house" fare? For psychological reasons, that idea may not be understood at all. But suppose it is. How will rational (and often fearful) professors and graduate students react to it? What happens if a member of the group champions it? How long can she do so, and how vigorously can she do so, and remain a member of her invisible college in good standing? What happens to her if she loses that good standing?
What does this do to the publication prospects of an unwelcome idea?
Editors are human, and will not like to give the gift
of publication, which operationally exists in their sole discretion, under
these circumstances. The same question has redoubled
force if the people asking for consideration and publication are outsiders.
By understandable standards of professional fairness, OUTSIDERS
are not appropriate players in a competition for chits for employment and
promotion. The journals now deal primarily in such chits.
who radically questions an invisible college is an outsider by definition,
or becomes one very quickly.
rules make the task of the boatrocker harder still, by penalizing anyone
who becomes convinced by her. Federal grant requirements lock
investigators in, so that admission of the need to change, on the basis
of new ideas or new information, is an admission of defeat.
The upshot is that our professional journals, and other semi-organized patterns of our invisible colleges are not adapted to consider or publish controversial pieces that dispute the accepted wisdom of the invisible colleges involved. The notion of fairness to new ideas or fairness to outsiders is in conflict with the specializations in place.
The academic journals often do the jobs they are built for well. The professoriate and their subordinates and apprentices often do their jobs well. The jobs the academic journals are built for, and the professoriate is rewarded for, are essential jobs. Nonetheless, the journals are now repositories and developers of a carefully edited truth, according to self-chosen and self- enforced standards of specialized invisible colleges. The professors are engaged in the elaboration and defense of that truth. This may be ideal specialization so long as the ideas of the invisible college involved are right. This may be the usual case. Even so, these arrangements and specialized patterns are NOT adapted for discussion in the broad sense in which that term is understood elsewhere in society. In their natural, unsupervised state, these arrangements are not engines for determining truth as the notion of truth is understood elsewhere in society.
have a role to play in science. For intellectually
and practically important purposes, they can outrank the journals. (As
they can sometimes outrank other social actors.) The need
for newspapers in the sciences is, in important ways, the need for newspapers
everywhere else in society. When people ask
"HOW WOULD THIS LOOK, IF WRITTEN UP OBJECTIVELY, AND IN DETAIL, IN THE NEW YORK TIMES?"
they behave better, in the presence of distraction
and temptation, than they are likely to do otherwise.
Issues of communal responsibility are more carefully thought about, and
better looked after, than they would be otherwise.
(example: The Fall And Rise of Kilmer McCully )
Professor Kline and I have faced an impasse involving the invisible colleges, on a very high stakes life-and-death issue. This issue is far, far more important than issue of Steve's bet, and there was no response there. Conventional channels haven't worked for us. George Johnson, a distinguished intellectual working for THE NEW YORK TIMES has been the best person we could find, in the world, to talk to. Johnson's science forums on THE NEW YORK TIMES web site, have been the best place we have been able to find in the world to turn to. Forums like REALITY BYTES, edited by senior writers under the aegis of major newspapers, fulfill important roles that are being filled nowhere else in society. These forums are not just entertaining, though they are certainly that. These forums can be vital sources of new ideas, and an important agent in the focusing of policy.
forums, edited and umpired by intellectuals as distinguished as those likely
to be found in universities, can discuss issues that the focused journals
cannot. They can discuss issues at a higher logical level
than the invisible colleges can permit. They can deal with
issues without being much constrained by issues of territory and status.
They have a real, creative intellectual service to perform.
Johnson's forums, that have the gift of George Johnson's presence, have real, creative scientific services to perform. Some scientists have the strange idea that math is somehow "better" than language and other kinds of description. However, for most people (including the most sophisticated engineers, who build things that work) - mathematics only makes sense as part of a descriptive package including sharp, clear verbal definition of what is being talked about (practically always), pictorial description (most often) and mathematics (sometimes.) For descriptions of real things, there seems little reason to revere math as the "meaningless game played with meaningless marks" that pure mathematicians sometimes call "all of mathematics." Context counts. Contextual definition counts. Abstraction is not a virtue, but a (sometimes treacherous) convenience to be responsibly used, with the details hidden by abstraction available for reconstruction when that is necessary.
believe that the TIMES forums are important places for creative work. The
creativity that I have seen is not a miracle, but is the result of thoughtful
human behavior. Here is a kind of groundwork to
creative achievement that George Johnson does surpassingly well, and that
the Forums facilitate. Johnson, and the contributors work to
describe things clearly, sharply, from a number of points of view, with
careful connection to evidence, and with a concern for mistakes of their
own and of others. Is this so special? Only in
the sense that this is how human beings do some of the creative things
they do. If one is to have hope of working out a problem,
one must first sharply, carefully describe it.
Prior to sharp description, one may face a mystery, an unspeakable mystical strangeness in some body of relations.
Sometimes, after the work of sharp, careful, well checked
description, a mystery may be transmuted into something much different
and far more precious. The hard thought and description may have generated
a sharp, defined contradiction.
Such a clearly defined contradiction is a target identified,
a place to reassess and rebuild, a source of hope. A mystery
is a call to awe and stasis. A contradiction is a call to thought
and action. Johnson is VERY good at this kind of
descriptive sharpening. The forums facilitate this descriptive sharpening.
I believe that this focusing is very important work, and a contribution
to the culture. The academic journals, which are admirable
in many other ways, are NOT now adapted to facilitate this kind of hard
We owe an intellectual debt to REALITY BYTES, which I believe has been the most distinguished discussion of map-territory issues for some time past (at least in the English language.) I look at map-territory issues with new eyes because of the sharpening that happened, under Johnson's prodding, in REALITY BYTES. We also owe an intellectual debt to each of Johnson's books, and to much in his articles, as well.
is important, science coverage is a particularly hard thing for a newspaper
to do. It is a daunting thing to do at the level George Johnson does it.
I'd like to say some things about the difficulties George Johnson has taken
on and surmounted, as he has undertaken the coverage of the "journalistically
impossible" story that science, as George sees it, really is. Johnson's
work has meant a lot to me, and to my work. Without Johnson's
work of definition, some of my work could not have been done.
Without his work of definition, I do not see how I could present some of
my work at all.
Johnson is a police court trained, up-through-the- ranks journalist, who
got hired by THE NEW YORK TIMES and who got promoted rapidly once there.
George has the harsh, suspicious virtues of the journalist.
He has news judgement enough to become an editor of THE WEEK IN REVIEW,
and stay one. Like many of his colleagues at the TIMES, he
writes expository prose as well as a person can. He also writes
nuts-and-bolts technical description that flows into the mind, and relates
sharply to pictures. I have encountered no technical writer
who communicates so well, and suspect that I know of no technical writer
who thinks so clearly.
Editors of THE WEEK IN REVIEW must know what a good story looks like, and must know a thousand ways that a story can go bad. It is therefore wonderful to consider what Johnson, knowing these things, did with his own career. Johnson did smaller, sharper stories, and did them beautifully. But he committed himself to a big story that seemed hopeless and ill considered in a thousand standard journalistic ways. To have taken these risks, he must have cared a great deal. To have taken these risks and succeeded, as he has done, must impress anyone who thinks about the jobs done. George has taken an impossible story, and is making it into a great one.
Johnson undertook to cover a story, full time, that he could barely describe or define in conventional journalistic terms. Why was science so strange, so diffuse, so different from other affairs of ordinary, competent people, so far removed from the sharp realm of the 5 w's? What was the ineffable difficulty? Why did scientific matters seem, so often, to be so disconnected, or so implausibly articulated? The world is full of muddles and fiascos - these seemed unpromising subjects for stories. But the subject was important. In his articles, and in FIRE IN THE MIND, Johnson does more than cover this locus of stories. He defines it. Starting with a multifaceted muddle requiring more sheer brain power to master than most people could bring to bear, Johnson described, and sharpened, and redefined, and pondered, and stared into darkness. Mysteries came into focus. He didn't accept the mysteries as such. After the work of sharp, careful, well checked description, George transmuted some of these mysteries into sharp contradictions. He went on to dig where the contradictions were. He came to the following question, a question as serious as any one might imagine about science as a social enterprise.
"Do the patterns found by science hold some claim to universal truth, or would a visitor from another galaxy find them as quaint and culturally determined, as built on faith, as religious explanations of the universe?"
This is an amazing and wrenching question. It is amazing that it can be applied to science, our culture's organized seeking after physical knowledge. How strange this question would seem if it were applied to other adult, professional human endeavors, that were not science! How disturbing the question is. In FIRE IN THE MIND George Johnson makes a fundamental critique of science, and of science as the product of limited human minds. The notion that we should think of the territorialities and patterns of science in analogy with religious sects is one that Steve Kline and I have found useful, challenging, and new. We were educated to believe the opposite: that science is exclusively rational and empirically grounded. I hope and believe that the question will be important in the life of our culture. Johnson had put himself in the position of being a science critic, with the license in his field that a theater critic takes in his. More power to him.
Johnson has come to focus on the most fundamental issues of hardheaded, positive science. He asks the question:
is the relationship between a scientific model and the reality it
is meant to represent? "
Johnson makes some headway on that "unanswerable question" and makes it possible for others to help focus it. REALITY BYTES is part of that. Johnson then takes his focusing, and his work, and moves to the level of policy and morality. The following phrases, that seem so easy, would be revolutionary if we could make shift to take them seriously in routine scientific work.
must constantly remind themselves that the map is not the territory,
that the models might not be capturing the essence of the problem,
and that the assumptions built into a simulation might be wrong.
How I wish scientists and users of science took that imperative sentence with the authority that it deserves! Some powerful administrative and scientific-religious cult practices would have to change to make that possible. When George Johnson condenses so much of this thought into that admonition, he is doing something important. With questions and coverage like this, he is doing more than anyone else I know to make reexamination of basic scientific questions possible at the level of technical right and wrong and, necessarily, at the level of social right and wrong, too.
our current university dominated, invisible college fragmented science,
it makes sense to ask
"Do the patterns found by science hold some claim to universal truth, or . . . (are they) . . . as quaint and culturally determined, as built on faith, as religious explanations of the universe?"
So long as that question makes sense to ask, there is
plenty of reason for an independent, newspaper based presence for discussion
and criticism of science.
tower-of-babel university and invisible college arrangements make the following
admonition almost unthinkable to working scientists.
"Scientists must constantly
remind themselves that the map is not the territory, that the models might
not be capturing the essence of the problem, and that the assumptions built
into a simulation might be wrong. "
So long as that admonition is hard, there is plenty of
reason for an independent, newspaper-based presence for discussion and
criticism of science.
Kline and I have been given a chance to solicit checking of our work in
REALITY BYTES. We're asking for checking, and we're prepared
to imagine that our work is wrong. We don't think it is, but
we're made of flesh, and ANYONE can err. We've had those
difficulties because the work, right or wrong, has been a "boat rocker"
in a system that now has nearly impregnable immunity to boat rockers.
The issues we're presenting are matters of life and death on a large scale.
We're grateful for a chance to get our work checked, and presented to the
public, through the good offices of George Johnson and THE NEW YORK TIMES.