The laws of physics are undemocratic

The Shard in London, currently the European Union’s tallest building and a prime location to test the idea that the laws of gravity are merely an opinion. Credit: Miroslav Petrasko, reproduced under a Creative Commons licence.

Yesterday saw the start of the Circling the Square conference at the University of Nottingham. This is a rather unusual meeting which has the lofty aim of bringing together social scientists, those in the arts and humanities, policy ‘wonks’ (for want of a better term), science communicators, and natural scientists (including physicists, of course) to discuss the various interconnected aspects of research, politics, media, and impact.

As one of the conference organisers, I was delighted that the first day featured fascinating keynote lectures, lively discussion, and a rather heated exchange amongst panellists (more on this below). In the afternoon, two of the UK’s most successful science bloggers, David Colquhoun and physicsfocus’s own Athene Donald, gave their thoughts and opinions on the role of new and old media in science communication, debating and discussing the issues with the other panel members – Felicity Mellor and Jon Turney – and a number of contributors from the floor. Andrew Williams’ media keynote lecture preceded the “Researchers facing the media” panel session and was full of important and troublesome insights into just how science can be distorted (for good or bad) through the lens of the media.

But it was the first panel session of the conference, on the science-policy interface, that got me somewhat hot under the collar. (Well, OK, I was wearing a t-shirt so perhaps this isn’t the best metaphor…). That’s because that particular panel provided a telling insight into the gulf that still exists between natural and social scientists when it comes to the interpretation and contextual underpinnings of scientific data. Until we find a way to reconcile views spanning this gulf then we’re going to continue to exist in our silos, as two distinct cultures, arguably even more divided within the sciences than CP Snow could ever have envisaged for our separation from the arts and humanities.

The panel featured a ‘robust’ exchange of views – if you’ll excuse my borrowing of a hoary old euphemism – on the interpretation of scientific data and just how it is used to inform political debate and decisions. Chris Tyler, of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, forcefully put forward his view that we can never consider scientific results in isolation from the political process. Sheila Jasanoff, Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Harvard, had earlier made very similar comments in the light of engaging presentations made by Daniele Fanelli and Beth Taylor on the interface between scientific research and policymaking. The overall tone of the debate is perhaps best summed up in this tweet from Roger Pielke (who is also speaking at the conference today in the “Challenging Established Science” panel):

Fanelli made an impassioned argument countering the idea that scientific evidence must always be considered in the context of its political framing. His comments certainly resonated with me, and I’d be rather surprised if what he said didn’t also strike a chord with the other physical/life scientists in the audience. We spend our lives aiming to do experiments in as disinterested a fashion as possible. It therefore rankles to be told that objective – and I use that word unashamedly – scientific evidence is nothing more than opinion.

For my colleagues in sociology and science and technology studies, I should stress that I am not for one second suggesting that scientists are immune to social biases. John Ziman, physicist-turned-sociologist, rightly disparaged the idea that scientists are always disinterested seekers of the truth, describing it as “the Legend”. Nor am I suggesting that data interpretation is not part and parcel of the scientific method (as Neuroskeptic argues convincingly).

The discussion yesterday, however, dangerously strayed very close at times to the ‘cultural relativism’ that was so successfully lampooned by Alan Sokal back in the nineties. Yes, scientific evidence must be considered as just one element – and, unfortunately, it’s often a very small element – of the political process. It would be naïve, at best, to argue otherwise. But the entire rationale for scientific research is underpinned by the understanding that we, as scientists, should always aim to put aside those socio-political and cultural biases. Otherwise, objective scientific evidence is reduced to pure opinion. Newton’s laws of motion, E=mc2, the Schrödinger equation, the speed of light, and the first and second laws of thermodynamics are not culturally or politically determined. Those same laws are just as valid for a race of small blue furry creatures from Alpha Centauri as they are for us.

Or, as Sokal famously put it,

“…anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)”

 

Philip Moriarty

Philip Moriarty

Philip Moriarty is a Professor of Physics at the University of Nottingham. His research interests lie in what has occasionally been described as “extreme nanotech” in that he works alongside a talented bunch of nanoscientists to prod, poke, push, pick, and pull individual atoms and molecules in order to explore forces and interactions down to the single chemical bond limit. Moriarty also has a keen and long-standing interest in science communication and public engagement. He is a member of the Sixty Symbols team that was awarded the Institute of Physics Kelvin prize in 2016 for “innovative and effective promotion of the public understanding of physics”. While he doesn't share his infamous namesake's fascination with the binomial theorem, Moriarty enjoys exploring the maths-music-physics interface including, in particular, the deep and fundamental links that exist between quantum mechanics and heavy metal music (a theme discussed at length in his book, “When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11”). He blogs at https://muircheartblog.wordpress.com.
Philip Moriarty
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