Talking Back to Your Elders

When I was young and as yet unformed as a theoretical physicist, cosmology was in a transitional period. We had certainly moved beyond the relatively barren landscape of the 60’s and 70’s, when pretty much the only things one had to hang one’s hat on were very basic features like expansion, rough homogeneity, and the (existence of) the cosmic microwave background. By the late 80’s we were beginning to see the first surveys of large-scale structure, there was good evidence for dark matter, and the inflationary paradigm was somewhat developed. In the 90’s things changed quite rapidly, unbelievably so in retrospect. We detected primordial anisotropies in the CMB and began to study them in detail, large-scale-structure surveys really took off, we discovered the acceleration of the universe, and techniques like gravitational lensing matured into usefulness.

My students and postdocs will readily testify that I am fond of complaining how much harder it is to come up with interesting new ideas that aren’t already ruled out by the data.

In an interesting and provocative post, Peter Coles bemoans a generational shift among cosmologists: “When I was a lad the students and postdocs were a lot more vocal at meetings than they are now.” In particular, Peter is worried that people in the field (young and old) are “willing to believe too much,” and correspondingly unwilling to propose dramatic new ideas that might run counter to received opinion. Or even, presumably, just to express doubt that received opinion is on the right track. After all, even with all we’ve learned, there’s certainly much we don’t yet know.

I’m not sure whether there really has been a shift or not; there’s a big observational bias from the fact that I used to be one of those young folks, and now I am a wise old head. (Old, anyway.) But it’s completely plausible. Is it a bad thing?

There’s an argument to be made that widespread agreement with a basic paradigm is actually a good thing. People agree on what the important questions are and how to go about answering them. Ideas are held to a higher standard. Furthermore, it would be very hard to blame a young scientist who wanted to play by the rules rather than rocking the boat. It’s easy to say “challenge conventional wisdom!”, but the thing about conventional wisdom in a mature field is that it’s usually right. The exceptions are important and memorable (remember when everyone thought the cosmological constant was zero?), but most controversial new ideas are just wrong. Being wrong is an important part of the progress of science, but it’s hard to tell other people that they should be wrong more often.

At the end of the day, though, I agree with the spirit of Peter’s lament. I do think that the discourse within cosmology has become tamer and less willing to try out new ideas. Dark matter is well-established empirically, but we certainly don’t know that it’s WIMPs (or even axions). Inflation has had some successes, but we are very far indeed from knowing that it happened (and the problems with eternal inflation and predictability are extremely real). I have my own prejudices about what’s settled and what are interesting open questions, but the field would be healthier if youngsters would challenge people like me and make up their own minds.

Then again, you gotta eat. People need jobs and all that. I can’t possibly blame anyone who loves science and chooses to research ideas that are established and have a high probability of yielding productive results. The real responsibility shouldn’t be on young people to be bomb-throwers; it should be on the older generation, who need to be willing to occasionally take a bomb to the face, and even thank the bomb-thrower for making the effort. Who knows when an explosion might unearth some unexpected treasure?

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59 Responses to Talking Back to Your Elders

  1. Gizelle Janine says:

    @Sean: Well its the reason some people have blogs. People thrive on new ideas, much like this movie I saw with Donald Sutherland. :) Obviously, physicists dont know everything and anyone who can offer an intelligent idea that has something solid to it is worth hearing. Its when people stop listening to ideas that make sense just because you dont have a piece of paper to make yourself look important. Ideas, if they hold relevance, deserve nothing less than everyones full attention. All I do is think for a living, and my paintings are up on someone’s wall, that’s for sure. :)

  2. John Duffield says:

    Meh: Imagine if Einstein hadn’t had Max Planck. He’s the guy who said science advances one funeral at a time. What he didn’t say, is Who is this guy? He hasn’t even got a PhD. Anyway, sauce for the goose and all that. The science and the logic and the evidence is what counts, not the qualification. And I think the bottom line is this: if scientists don’t let the public talk back, then in the end the public won’t listen to them, and won’t want to fund science. If the public don’t perceive any benefit (sadly many don’t), and if they perceive that scientists are talking at them rather than to them, then funding pressures will only grow. Outreach is important, but if it ends up being perceived as dilettante propaganda, it’s not just a a dead duck, it’s worse than useless.

  3. Eric Habegger says:

    @ JohnDuffield
    I think you are making misjudgments in your arguments. I also think it stems from an exalted self opinion of yourself. You are the same person who recently commented on another physicist’s blog, and after arguing in a very cranky manor told the blogger, “Do you know ANY physics?” Aside from the fact that you understood only the most superficial aspects of the blogger’s article, you still had the temerity to act like an insolent brat. If you had any humility at all you would be laying low for awhile. When I overextend my arguments and my demeanor (and I generally know later when I have) that’s what I do and use the previous episode as a learning experience.

    And by the way. I too do not have the official credentials that so many people want to require of me. Yours and others behaviour makes me just cringe because you have not put in the time to understand the issues in physics. It hurts me personally when people act like you do because it makes the people with the credentials resentful of all people without the official credentials. It’s human nature to take a specific example (someone without the credentials) and then erroneously apply it to all people that do not have the credentials. It’s just simpler for people to discriminate against someone like me because of people like you. Your thinly veiled argument that you just might be the next Einstein that a modern day Max Planck would recognize only hurts your image.

    Oh, and the Eric on that other blog was me.

  4. John Duffield says:

    IMHO this thread is a perfect demonstration of the “talking back to your elders” issue, one that’s crucial for the well-being of physics and cosmology. And irony of ironies, the blog Eric is referring to is called backreaction.

  5. Meh says:

    Wasn’t special relativity his doctoral thesis? I’m pretty sure he had his undergrad degree at the time as well. I think Eric might be on to something. You seem to only understand the most superficial aspects of the discussion and this article. Read what Sean Carroll wrote in the above post one more time. It’s not about every breathing human being talking back to senior members of a profession, it is about cosmologists talking back (presenting radical new ideas which don’t agree with current, well supported ideas) to the senior members of their field. Scientists who do not conform to the popular beliefs of their field. No person who has commented on this blog post has talked back to anyone who could rationally be considered an elder. I’m a student. Others are young(er) professionals. And some just enjoy Sean Carroll’s style. I would ask “What are you talking about?”, but I really don’t want to encourage you to continue with your damage control. The one thing you said that encourages me to side with Eric:

    “If the public don’t perceive any benefit (sadly many don’t), and if they perceive that scientists are talking at them rather than to them, then funding pressures will only grow.”

    Yes. In the age of technology when Geek couture is so fashionable that victoria’s secret has a special geek themed model; people will surely have a problem understanding any benefit that comes from science. In an age when NASA is being asked, by the president, to create a plan of action for capturing an asteroid that we can SPACE MINE. Oh woe are we, how will science carry on? My cell phone is more powerful than my computer was 2 years ago. My 4G speed is at least 3 times as fast as the internet speed for any building or home that I’m in. All scientists have to do is outreach their finger and point at a person’s phone, or their robotic artificial limb that can feel for them and write for them, or their electric car that produces more torque than a gas fueled car, etc.

    The irony here is that you are the perfect example of why the “elders” ignore new ideas. You are the perfect example of why there are so many filters a person must pass through before those elders will even talk to a person. I’ll trust you any time you say something is ironic, because you are an expert, kiddo.

  6. Thomas Walsh says:

    My concern with the ‘successful paradigm’ is that I doubt it is sufficient for even middle term survival. Highly successful, yes, but we still burn chemical fuels in massive quantities (directly or indirectly) and are still overpopulating the planet. The Egyptians had a long lasting and highly successful civilization. However all their art and culture was a variation on the same repeated theme (paradigm) and today they are long gone.

    Just a question: Is there a catalog for all of the discovered lensing objects? That is, is there something similar to the Messier catalog for these object? Are these objects re imaged and re studied over time? How many such objects are currently known and, of these, how many do not have a detected large mass lensing source?

  7. John says:

    I think one of the biggest obstacles is the formal jargon that scientist use. There doesn’t even have to be a complete understanding of the topic before a type of jargon is applied to it. For instance, consider dark matter. We don’t even know for sure that it is really even “matter”. So then if you developed a theory based on the jargon that it is matter you could only find the correct solution if it is actually matter. There would be no other way to find an understanding of how or why it works if it was not matter. If we only based our possible solutions on it being matter than every attempt will just be a shot in the dark that will never find the real solution. We need to do away with this idea that, if it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it is probably a duck.

    Often I wonder if dark matter is just a problem of not calculating gravity correctly when adding another body. It could be right if you only consider two bodies from which it was developed. But do we really know for certain that we know how to make it work by adding 3 bodies or 4 bodies, even a million different bodies of mass? To me dark matter only becomes a problem when there are a lot of different bodies of mass being calculated at once. Then you wouldn’t expect this “dark matter” to act as though it was involved in a collision between two galaxies. It wouldn’t be anything colliding, it would just be more of an error of more bodies of mass coming into the equation.

    Then how can we have so much faith in the Standard Model and then just assume that there are more unknown particles? How can we have faith in the Standard Model and General Relativity when one has found all the particles and the other has accounted for every influence of gravity, and they can’t both be combined in a single theory and neither can explain this extra presence of gravity? It shouldn’t be hard to say that something is amiss here. I think a lot of people just practice science religiously, and have faith in their correct understanding of the universe. Then it could be impossible to then create a new idea that says that there is an unknown or something is wrong with our current understanding.

    I really think we could come to a halt in progression in science if we neglect to develop a better understanding of everything in terms that everyone can understand. The technical jargon could just be too general to define actual mechanism’s but only serve as an accurate description of the unknown mechanisms that we have detected their influences that gave rise to our current jargon.

    It could be as simple as just replacing the frequent use of the word regime with the word jargon. I don’t think it would be a good idea to try to only explain dark matter with only a single jargon that comes from descriptions of matter. You could only find a logical solution if dark matter actually comes from this regime of matter.

  8. Robert G. says:

    People asking after the esteem in which the field holds black hole dark matter have been met with scorn and derision before, and it\’s not a healthy response, no matter how annoying or amateur or impolite they are. Why does the public owe us any special deference? Who do we hurt when we lose our composure when confronted with lay skeptics whether their critiques are well informed or not? If the particle detector experiments don\’t stop contradicting each other I\’m sure we\’ll see more than just the usual trickle of BH DM papers soon. I can\’t say how much of the urge to lash out in response to criticism is due to funding pressures, legitimate relative strength of the evidence, or groupthink, but I suggest that maintaining a professional decorum when the public asks difficult questions is going to make it a whole lot easier for all of us if we have to go back to and explain why we need to re-tool for what we and our colleages are on record as dismissing out of hand five years ago, and oh by the way the last ten million was spent on wild geese, sorry.

    Debating amateurs won\’t help, but I suggest we should be in a position to do damage control in case we need to about-face. I think we all have some pretty good ideas on how to go about that, and I think we all know losing our cool in response to critics is not one of them.

  9. John Duffield says:

    Well said Robert.