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No More Mister Nice Guy

Reality Check

Milton Rothman

Volume 5.2, June 1995

One of the disadvantages of modern technology is that now anybody can publish his/her own book. All you need is a modest computer, a desktop publishing program, and a laser printer. The investment is $2,500 or less. With this equipment to print your master copy and a neighborhood copy shop to duplicate multiple copies, you can spew countless editions of your own original thoughts upon the world. In appearance they can have the professional look of Scribners’ or the Oxford University Press. The content, however, is likely to be of a quality worthy of immolation on the nearest bonfire.

One tome, hundreds of pages thick, described the author’s personal theory of gravitation. His idea was that gravity was not an attraction, but rather was caused by the pressure of things raining down from the sun. He was immune to my argument that his theory could not explain the inverse- square behavior of gravity-that is, the way the strength of the gravitational force becomes weaker as you go farther away from the earth. Indeed, he was opaque to the idea that the purpose of a theory is to explain things that are actually observed. It was his mission in life to convince me of the truth of his ideas. I, idiotically, had the idea that I could demonstrate to him the error of his ways. Inevitably I realized that this aim was a total impossibility and so stopped writing to him. This, however, did not discourage him, and letters kept arriving for many months from his indomitable word processor. Lucky for me, his mailing labels all contained a characteristic misspelling of my address, so that it was a simple matter, once I had steeled myself to the requisite ruthlessness, to consign his envelopes to the wastebasket without going to the labor of opening them.

Another correspondent published a book proposing a new (?) theory of atomic and molecular structure. Not for him are the mathematical rigors of quantum theory. Nor is there motion within an atom. His model consists of fixed arrays of positive and negative charges. I attempted to explain to him that there is a theory of electrostatics that proves the instability of any fixed array of electric charges. He scoffed at this notion, even though he had received several letters pointing out the same fallacy. Everybody was wrong except him. Undoubtedly numerous scientists had attempted to make similar models during the l9th century, but nobody could explain anything as simple as the structure of the hydrogen molecule before the advent of quantum theory. Eventually I decided there was no point trying to convince this person of the error of his ways. Let him have his fun. But it’s not going to be at my expense.

Yet another correspondent wanted to replace all of modern science with a single elegant and unified theory. Unfortunately, both my eyes and intellect gave out before I had read more than a few pages. It’s really tough understanding somebody who invents his own vocabulary, erudite though it may seem, and then proceeds to use it without defining any terms. One of the symptoms of scientific illiteracy is a failure to understand how important (and difficult) it is to define terms in a logical, consistent, and operational manner. Therefore I was forced to terminate our correspondence. No more nice guy.

A postscript to a recent column on scientific illiteracy in the media. In the Philadelphia Inquirer of April 20, 1995, the TV page sports a blurb for a “Biography” series on the Arts & Entertainment channel, as follows: “The Wizard of Menlo Park, Albert Einstein (1879-1955), is the subject of tonight’s profile. William Hurt narrates the look at Einstein’s scientific achievements and his politics.” Am I being too fussy when I rail against this illiteracy? What difference does it make that the wizard of Menlo Park was Thomas Edison and not Einstein? After all, Menlo Park is just a few miles north of Princeton, where Einstein hung his hat. So the writer was nearly correct. After all, is not consistency the virtue of small minds? Let’s relax and allow for approximations. Precision is for nerds and wonks. What difference does it make whether pi is 3.14 or 3.15? Come to think of it, I’m not sure that the above newspaper item appeared on the 20th. It might have been the l9th. But who cares?

Sometimes the consequences of scientific illiteracy take on a more sinister aspect, especially when coupled with paranoia and hysteria. Shortly after the Oklahoma City explosion, a tourist of Arab descent named Ibraham Ahmad was arrested in London on the grounds that his luggage contained materials used for bomb making. These materials turned out to be the kind of consumer electronics people from the middle east often buy in the United States: telephones, recorders, etc., plus the requisite cables. Apparently the customs officials couldn’t tell the difference between telephone wires and bomb fuses. Good thing the poor man wasn’t carrying any fertilizer.

Things are not going to get better. In March, 1995, the Alabama state board of education adopted a new set of guidelines for science teaching. (Science, 7 April 1995, p. 33.) These guidelines, which apply to textbooks from kindergarten to 12th grade, emphasize that evolution is to be taught only as a “theory.” This change opens the way for the teaching of creationism. It is part of the slide of the country towards the religious right.

Milton Rothman

Milton Rothman is a physicist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.