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.