William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

The Democratization of Science Is A Bad Thing: Or, Why Bill Nye Perving Science Was Inevitable

It’s Science!

The democratization of any field of human knowledge is a bad thing; thus, the democratization of science is not something to celebrate but to mourn.

By democratization I mean two conjoined things: ever-increasing participation and diffused scope. There is a not-so-gentle insistence that a greater proportion of humanity participate in science, which after a point necessarily weakens the material produced. And in order to wedge more people into scientific fields, what counts as science broadens, which also weakens the quality of work.

Imagine next week it is mandated that all Americans must become research physicists. Perhaps this duty is discovered by the Supreme Court, a body which decides what the law means absolutely and beyond which there is no appeal. What would happen to physics as a field?

It would be destroyed.

Firstly, the publishing requirements would be an undue burden on infants: though they be experts on projectile pooping, they are terrible writers.

What’s that you say? No infants as physicists?

If we interpret the Court’s dictum that all means all, which we must, then infants must become physicists. Any other interpretation would be discriminatory—a philosophical truism. All as in all is true democratization.

The only possible reason to exclude infants would be because there is a discriminatory suspicion that this class of people are unable to perform as physicists. Not only that, but there would be the discriminatory belief that this class of individuals could not be trained to do physics, no matter what resources were thrown at the problem. Excluding infants is therefore undemocratic and discriminatory.

This is a proof, not an opinion.

Once the suspicions that some are unable and unteachable are allowed a foothold, it begins to be applied in practice, which destroys true democracy. Further, the suspicion is against the theory of Equality, which insists that all—we’re using this word in our now accepted sense—are equal in potential, and lack only the proper resources to be equal in fact. It is the theory of Equality from which the desire of democratization comes.

Physics, like music, does not necessarily require an education. Prodigies exist. And if and since they exist, it could only be, says Equality, because the resources present for these individuals were sufficient to produce them. If these same resources were given to others (in their nascent states), new prodigies would be created.

All right. Enough fooling around. Everybody knows infants cannot be physicists: everybody is happy discriminating against infants and against those who manifest no abilities to do physics. Everybody also knows, therefore, that Equality is false; though the powerful desire that it be true leads people to believe Equality to be true when they know it is false. That disordered state of mind is what causes the call for democratization, creates a horror at the thought of discrimination, while still believing quality can be maintained.

Two centuries ago, physics was done only by a handful of men, when it wasn’t so much a profession as an avocation. Only men of the highest intelligence, talent, and interest participated. Progress was slow because of the low numbers of working physicists, but also because physics did not then have a firm base upon which to build. Beginnings are the hardest.

It was realized that if there was to be sufficient progress, more people would have to be brought in. Recruits were sought, but the winnowing process was brutal. Physics was still an exclusive club, one with onerous membership requirements. Great strides were made. The quantum revolution began.

Things continued in this vein, with only a gradual democratization caused by the idea that a greater proportion of people should go to college. More colleges required more credentialed professors. Credentials also began its own democratization at this point.

And then, one quiet day, came a flood of money from our beneficent Uncle. Nay, a tsunami, an inexorable swelling of funds which none could hold back and which swept all before it. Inside physics, groups and factions formed which clamored after this largess. Politics started consuming more time of the working physicist. The money caused the number of physicists to swell.

Many wonderful things were discovered. But with these good things came the inevitable: the increase of the useless, trivial, and even false. Physicists must publish, both to secure a career and as a requisite for the government moola. Journals, which had been few in number and which contained worthy material read by all, began having progeny to accommodate the increased number of papers. The inbreeding led to inevitable mutations. Nobody “read everything” anymore, nor could.

Some called this trend “specialization”. Sometimes this was necessary, because certain narrow problems had to be solved before work could be carried forward. But it became more and more common that specialization was caused by people needing something to do. The money had to be spent.

The scent of green attracted not only physicists, but also the politically minded. In the spirit of democratization, who was doing the physics became as important as what physics was being done. Headcounts were made, and, oh my!, look at all those white men!

The pressure for democratization increased when “disparities” were noticed, a circular argument. The political forces told the money men in Washington that they were being watched. The groups and factions of physicists asking for this money knew what o’clock it was, and so committees to “address the problem” were formed. Segregation began when members from “under-represented” groups peeled off on their own at major physics meetings. Lamentations over the “disparities” in top journals appeared. Sober heads nodded. There was even tsk-tsk-ing in the rank and file.

It was recognized that in order to boost numbers to meet the unofficial-official quotas, what counted as good physics had to be broadened. There was an easing up in the requirements. Soon, talking about physics counted as doing physics. Then talking about talking about physics counted, which is to say, talking about feelings about talking about physics counted. Tiny tweaks at the edges of old and tired subjects were proffered at greater rates.

And then came Bill Nye. Watching that democratized Science video above, a user on Twitter wrote, “I wrote my suicide note when I watched this.” Get used to it.

So here we are. There are other forces at work beside democratization, of course. The need to publish causes physicists to spread their work as thin as a lone pat of butter over a loaf of bread. The need to slog through the resultant wealth of material and need to gain money slows progress. Physics is bumping up against metaphysics in places, which is causing confusion because of the lack of knowledge of the latter. Careerism and the hint of fame leads to more frequent cheating.

The situation is far from lost. There are still robust islands of elitism; and islands they have to be, else the democratization hordes would soon invade and impose quotas. Two problems. One, the attempted quantification of the elitism, an impossible thing to quantify, is used in place of actual elitism to make decisions. This relieves leaders of their duties of making decisions. “Impact factors”, anyone? (A particularly bad joke in physics, where impact used to have a physical meaning.)

Two, peer review. Yes, peer review stops rotten papers from appearing in this journal—but not that one, where the “peers” are not as discriminating. But mostly peer review guarantees conformity and mediocrity. Further, every elite physicist knows this. It is all they can do to stop themselves from bursting out in laughter when they hear a civilian offer a touching and teary eyed paean to peer review. Marginal and poor physicists rely on peer review to ensure existence of publishing cliques.

Still, there are islands of elitism. The newer a field is, the more likely we are to find these islands. Novelty distracts attention. Of course, everything said about physics applies with equal or greater force to every other scientific field. Some disciplines, as all know, have become so corrupt by the poison of democratization, they are no longer sciences, but mere branches of politics. Anthropology, for instance, with sociology coming in a tight second. (Not coincidentally, the closer the field is to the study of human behavior, the quicker it will become democratized.)

So much for the diagnosis. What about the treatment?

There is none. Well, prayer is a decent inoculation for those who will have it. Isolation from the contagion is medically sound. But, as time passes, the places where the mountains are high and the emperor far away disappear. Those “fighting for” democratization are puritans to an extreme degree; they continuously seek out heresy; they are full of terrible energy.

Prognosis? Except for odd archipelago and a few rare and robust individuals, death, ultimately. Democratization is a great leveler. Areas which are of service to the politics of the moment will be allowed a form of elitism, but it will be kept as hidden as possible.

Since the outcome cannot be avoided, some fun can be had in forecasting time of death. Physics will hold out longer than biology, which itself will last longer than medicine. The harder the area, the more elite it is, the longer it will last. Death has arrived when, pace Anthropology, a majority of practitioners in the field avow a goal of social justice (or the like).

Linearity is a dangerous thing. It may look, if you squint, that democratization has been (within a field) linear. Don’t squint. When the end nears, non-linearity strikes; acceleration kicks in. This makes it harder to prognosticate. But who said things should be easy?

What are your timelines?

If you put anything more than a century for any field, or are feeling too sanguine, here is the complete video from the new Bill Nye Science show. “That’s exactly the right message, Rachel.” Oh, it is, it is.

15 Comments

  1. This is a pet peeve of mine. This accelerating lack of familiarity with the subjunctive mood.

    “This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen and I wish I was dead.”

    It should be:

    “This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen and I wish I were dead.”

  2. trigger warning

    April 24, 2017 at 8:04 am

    I’m surprised that Barney the Purple Dinosaur of Science, Bill Nye, doesn’t cotton onto the fact that he’s become a joke.

  3. I did not know this!

    Bill Nye’s original claim-to-fame was as the winner of a Steve Martin look-a-like contest!

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/pat-gallagher/bill-nye-the-science-guy_b_4164241.html

  4. Wow, this is sick. I didn’t watch the whole thing, but I assume the show is at least somewhat targeted at children, if not completely, like his original show? That is absolutely disgusting. I fucking hate this planet sometimes. Peddling homosexuality, multiple genders, promiscuity and probably a bunch of other degenerate crap I didn’t even notice. The elites need to be replaced and the current crop of pedophile perverts need to be permanently relocated to gates to the arctic national park so they can build roads with a spoon for the rest of their lives.

    What a sell out that &(&(& Nye is too. I don’t want to believe he supported this without basically being bribed tons of cash.

  5. Are we really talking Hockey Stick?

    “Linearity is a dangerous thing. It may look, if you squint, that democratization has been (within a field) linear. Don’t squint. When the end nears, non-linearity strikes; acceleration kicks in. This makes it harder to prognosticate. But who said things should be easy?”

    Maybe that makes sense. As a human construct, there is no natural protection.

  6. I’ve always believed that life was like high school. After watching that video (which needs a trigger warning, by the way ;-)), it would appear it’s now like elementary school. All this talk about pee-pees, dress-up and make believe is so grade 3.

  7. But I think everybody should participate in physics. It is fun and you will enjoy it. I still have fond memories of the analytical mechanics course taught by Dr. Miller, AKA Dr. Death. The course started with 36 students and ended with 6 students. Today a professor with that attrition rate would probably be fired. What was funny was that Dr. Miller tried to get us to take the statistical mechanics course next school year. He assured us we would find it easy after analytical mechanics. I don’t think he got any takers.

  8. Bill Nye adds another data point in support of my research hypothesis: “anything (or anyone) described as cool won’t be.”

  9. @Ray, I recall a professor like that, only his class was Physical Chemistry and ‘everyone’ called him “Snuffy”, for he snuffed out many a promising student’s career ;). 40 years ago, attrition like that was expected. My freshman year’s first Chemistry course was held in a large hall. There were at least 150 people there. When I earned my degree, there were 30 or so awarded that year. To this day I can’t recall Professor Smith’s given first name. I’d have to go dig out my old yearbooks.

  10. RE: “Isolation from the contagion is medically sound.”

    So true!

    So why the recurring focus on and presentations of prurient ‘contagions’ here?

  11. The surest sign that someone lacks an ethical or correct position is if they refuse to argue within the clear confines of a defined argument. When people say that all people are or should be “equal,” they mean that all people, under the law, in a civil society, should be treated equally – that regardless of their sex, or status, or money, or skills, all people have an EQUALITY OF HUMAN RIGHTS. NO ONE BELIEVES EVERYONE IS THE SAME. Only a liar or a moron would obfuscate or confuse these ideas, respectively.

    The strides forward in physics and other sciences (though physics could be said to be the foundation of all science, and I agree), here in America and throughout much of the world, regardless of educational or political systems, over the past century have been astounding, well outpacing advances throughout all the rest of human history (especially the Dark Ages of church and aristocratic rule). As these advances are discovered and expressed, they become part of the common understanding of the world around us. They become democratized in the sense that most all people can understand and utilize these understandings. The more opportunity for more more people to understand or to make these advances, the better for us all.

    The concept of “peer review,” which is certainly being misrepresented in this post, comes from the Scientific Method. If other “peers” (other physicists or biologists or geologists or whatever professionals in the sphere involved) can replicate, observe, test a theory and come up with the same results, then we can be more assured the theory is on the right track. If, on the other hand, relative peers find problems with the theory, then perhaps it should be reconsidered. This is not “democratization.” This is the SCIENTIFIC METHOD. It is a way of reducing subjectivity and increasing objectivity, and approaching subjects from as many angles as possible (for example, not just looking at models, but also observations, tests, other experiments). Assuming that some “elite” thinker simply must be right because he is ascribed “elite” is why we had a Dark Ages in the first place.

    I can assure you, Mr Briggs, you are no elite. Pointing out that modelling the earth’s climate has produced little exactitude, as it is a fantastically difficult endeavor, is not elite thought in action. Ignoring the obvious tremendous changes in our environment that have obviously been brought about by human activity is not “elite” thinking, but plainly just recklessly stupid. I have no problem with being careful not to rely on a priori “evidence,” (though that goes right out the window when your religion is involved), but to ignore clear and obvious facts and just assume all will be well is just asinine.

    JMJ

  12. That video is truly horrid. I don’t think America can be saved.

  13. The problem is JMJ, that most people, and many scientists, don’t know what science is all about. (I won’t put you in that class, necessarily, but you haven’t really shown that you have a knowledge of the history or philosophy of science, or now how science has progressed in the past.)

    What is wrong is the education people receive in science. Instead of learning how to solve problems of little relevance–stochiometry, orbital hybridization, pulleys, inclined planes–students should be taught the history of science to get them to understand that science is a fallible project, as fallible as the humans who engage in it. They should learn about all the discarded theories-phlogiston, the caloric, the ether, etc…. And that a theory that cannot be confirmed or falsified by reproducible empirical evidence is not science.

  14. The idealistic “propagandists” who have redefined science as “anything that conforms to the ideology (of Materialism)” must have these demonstrations to impose the prejudice because it is fundamentally irrational. The infamous “peer review” process has nothing to do with a scientific method; it is simply a mechanism to ensure the “ideological correctness” of teachings and publications. It is what made Copernicus keep his head down and part of what Galileo got blamed for. Interestingly, it was not the most astute theologians and philosophers that opposed the Copernican model but the “scientific establishment” of the day.

    Scientific Method has been described several times before on this blog. It is essentially the laws of logic adapted to the investigation of the physical. It is entirely unfriendly to the ideologues who wish to redefine science to suit their ideology and to whom “science” and “scientific method” are but words without concepts used as slogans to sell an irrational ideology. Logic itself is a scientific method for efficient, reliable, accurate and repeatable reasoning; and reasoning is extrapolation of what is known or believed (rightly or wrongly).

    Some of the high- falutin, lah-de-dah nutcases who are desperate to flog this ideological mental excrement masquerading as “science” which cannot be reconciled with observed and known reality are busily “developing” “paraconsistent logic”; which is not logic at all. Instead of basing reasoning in known reality it is based on some assumed “ideal”, for example, Materialism.

    One cannot be really, properly stupid without some smarts about them.

    Confucius say: “A fast runner can go a long way on the wrong road.”

  15. “One cannot be really, properly stupid without some smarts about them.”
    Keep in mind that the intellectuals believed in scientific socialism and history as a metaphysical force.

    There are some ideas so wrong that only a very intelligent person could believe in them. George Orwell

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