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Sunday, November 13, 2005

public science

There have been some interesting discussions going on about public presentation of science at Cosmic Variance. See here and here for two related threads. When I say "public", I'd like to avoid the implication of a highly educated small special group versus a less educated large group of outsiders. I mean it more in the general sense of individual versus group communications. Using this meaning of public, I notice that some physicists show lesser and greater degrees of maturity in these debates. By maturity, I mean awareness with respect to one's role in the public debate. I think that some physicists have the attitude that everyone is as argumentative as they are and has equally strong opinions. But when you study a certain thing a lot, you are bound to have opinions about it that someone else can't really have, and this gives you both an authority and a responsibility to be careful with what you say. I think that some physicists want the former but don't know how to deal with the latter. Its a lot of work to try to understand one's audience so that one can understand the influence one has over that audience.

I'm not sure how clear that is, and if you read some of the discussion on the links I gave, I'm not sure how obviously relevant what I said is. I guess I'm trying to point out that physicists are not so good at this kind of debate. These issues underlie discussions, but many are not personally comfortable enough with them to deal with it in a responsible way. I hope that more public discussions like these will continue to take place and some physicists will gain maturity and humility in the process. I think that in this particular case, its really important that there is someone like Clifford Johnson who is well respected in his field, but also has good people skills and a sense of fairness and kindness, that balances the discussion and keeps it civil and productive. Some might argue that his bringing Lawrence Krauss to task in so public a way is mean and uncalled for, but because he backs up his criticisms with arguments and stands by them, putting energy and time into the ensuing debate, I think it was a bold and valuable thing to do.

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