Those Who Can, Teach. Those Who Can't, Do

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Popular wisdom has it that "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach," implying that people with real practical skills are out doing constructive things, while those who can't cut it in the "real world" find a less demanding refuge in teaching. Unfortunately, the record of "practical" people and "applied" scientists in backing crank science has historically been so outrageous and appalling that the truth is more nearly the exact opposite: Those who can, teach. Those who can't, do.

This might be a good place to deal with a couple of misconceptions about professors. To hear many people tell it, professors get a three month vacation, and are insulated from the risks of the marketplace. A bit of vocabulary drill is in order.

So if you get by for three months every year on your savings and alternative employment like most professors, you can talk about dealing with "the risks of the marketplace." Until then, stay out of subjects you know nothing about.

Eggheads and Practical People

Pseudoscientists have a strong belief that "practical" people have greater ability to see the merits of new ideas better than the ''eggheads'', who are only out to protect their pet beliefs. C. J. Ransom,  a vociferous advocate for the ideas of Immanuel Velikovsky, wrote: 

It has been my experience that the general public is quite open to new ideas, especially if their results do not drastically degrade their lives. Also industrial scientists, who are more closely related to reality than theory, appear eager to encourage the discussion of new ideas. It is the academic scientists, however, who historically have reacted to new ideas less scientifically and more violently than other people.

There are a lot of problems with these comments. 

Put Up Or Shut Up

So, before we go any further, engineers and applied scientists, tell me what you personally are doing to debunk pseudoscience among your colleagues. Do you speak out when a colleague espouses some moonbat theory about the moon landings being a hoax, the World Trade Center being an inside job, or global warming being a figment of the imagination? If you're not doing anything about the situation I describe here, don't complain.

Practical People and Pseudoscience

Anyone who studies pseudoscience will soon be struck by how often engineers and applied scientists turn up as supporters. Creationist authors Henry and John Morris of the Institute for Creation Research were engineers. Duane Gish, author of a number of creationist books, is a pharmaceutical chemist. Harold Slusher, another leading creationist, is a former petroleum geologist. A typical pattern is the makeup of  the members of the ICR Technical advisory Board. In March, 2007, the board consisted of four engineers, three medical professionals, one industrial scientist, one food scientist, three science faculty from conservative religious schools and two non-scientists. Not a single one was an an academic scientist at a secular university. Harold Hill of the "missing day" fable was an electrical engineer. Much of the support for Velikovsky came from industrial scientists. C. J. Ransom, quoted above, was a plasma physicist for General Dynamics Corporation. Other scientific supporters included Robert C. Wright, Senior Development Engineer for the Princeton Applied Research Corporation, and Raymond Vaughan, a technician for the Carborundum Company. The infamous TV program Conspiracy Theory: Did We Go to the Moon? featured Bill Kaysing, described as an engineer and analyst for Rocketdyne, Brian O'Leary, a "NASA astronaut in the 1960's", Paul Lazarus, a producer, Ralph Rene, "Author/Scientist", Bart Sibrel, "Investigative Journalist", Jan Lundberg, described as a technician for Hasselblad, Donald Percey of the "Royal Photographic Society" and Howard McCurdy, "space historian at American University." Not a single academic scientist in the bunch.

When we turn to the past, the same pattern is evident. Hans Hoerbinger, originator of the popular "glacial cosmogony" catastrophe cult of the 1930's, was a mining engineer. L. Ron Hubbard, originator of Dianetics and founder of the Church of Scientology, enrolled in but never completed engineering school. Perhaps the most interesting was John C. Campbell, late editor of Analog science fiction magazine and for a long time one of the most vigorous and eclectic champions of crank science in America. He was trained in nuclear physics at MIT and worked as an industrial scientist. Campbell introduced America to Dianetics (and thereby helped launch L. Ron Hubbard's career), championed the Bridey Murphy reincarnation craze of the 1950's, and published the details of the fabulous Hieronymus Machine. The Hieronymus Machine is a classic "threshold" device; the subject strokes a plate which feels "sticky" when the subject is receiving the right psychic input. 

To consider yet another example, much of the resistance to the theory of continental drift came from geologists connected with the petroleum industry, and the last-ditch opposition to the final acceptance of the theory came almost entirely from that direction. Basically, one of the most prominent opponents was editor in chief of a major professional journal and he simply turned it into an outlet for anti-drift skeptics. Whenever a pseudoscientific theory claims endorsement from someone with scientific or technical expertise, in the overwhelming majority of cases the person is not an academic  researcher but an engineer or  industrial scientist. The only major exception that comes to mind is the (small) group of physicists who have supported paranormal research.

Why do Practical People Fall for Pseudoscience?

What can we make of this pattern? To some extent, the pattern probably just reflects sampling. If most people with scientific and technical training work in applied rather than academic fields, when a few scientifically trained people fall for pseudoscience, the odds are that most of them will be from industry. The single most important moral to draw from this result is that no credentials can serve to make a bad theory good, and that to claim that the word of an engineer is especially significant because he is "closer to reality" is simply ridiculous. 

Why might somebody with a solid practical background fall for pseudoscience? There are several possible reasons. Ransom suggests one; the notion that "reality" is somehow opposed to "theory", and that somebody with a "realistic" world view is entitled to disregard theory. Theories, however, are not like Greek myths, picturesque fables made up to provide a satisfying picture of the world. Theories are intended to work in the real world; celestial mechanics takes our probes to the planets with mind-boggling precision, quantum theory allows us to design solid-state electronic devices, and optical theory allows us to design lenses capable of reducing a large drawing to pinhead size, while silver halide chemistry gives us the ability to record the tiny image precisely. Put those three branches of theory together, and we have the ability to produce a microcircuit that is literally the equivalent of engraving a street map of Los Angeles on the head of a pin, complete with three-dimensional freeway overpasses. None of this would be possible unless theory matched reality to an astonishing level of precision. If theory and reality conflict, the theory is wrong or incomplete, or there are other phenomena not described by the theory that are at work.

Poor Theoretical Understanding

When NASA convened a commission to analyze the 1986 Challenger disaster, one of the panelists was physicist Richard Feynman, about as "ivory tower" as they come (in terms of his academic degree. In his personal style, Feynman was the antithesis of "ivory tower"). During a discussion of the hypothesis that launching under cold conditions might have caused the seals in the solid fuel booster to become stiff, many of the panelists agreed it might be a good idea, but it would be hard to test. Feynman took a sample of the seal material, dunked it in a glass of ice water, and showed that the seal became stiffer.

The most elementary kind of poor theoretical understanding is complete failure to understand what a theory is in the first place. We see this in people who dismiss whatever they don't want to believe in as "only a theory." A theory is any organized body of ideas. Theories can be established beyond any reasonable doubt (quantum mechanics), debatable (global warming) or false (Ptolemy's theory, phlogiston, creationism). They can be based on mathematical proof rather than observation (number theory). They don't even need to be scientific (music theory). A hypothesis is an attempt to account for previously unexplained facts; since a hypothesis is an organized collection of ideas, it's a theory. All hypotheses are theories, but all theories are not hypotheses, just like all residents of Montana are in the United States, but everyone in the United States is not a resident of Montana.

The next level of poor theoretical understanding is failure to realize that there are varying degrees of wrongness. Some theories are so precise that the tiniest deviation is a puzzle. For example, the Voyager spacecraft are deviating from their predicted courses and physicists are trying to determine whether the difference is due to some tiny effect in the spacecraft themselves or due to some new and unknown physical law. But the difference between the predicted and actual positions is far too small to see with the unaided eye from earth. Other phenomena are so complex that we cannot achieve high precision, either because we still don't have good enough theories, or because it may never be possible to get exact predictions. In those cases, having a prediction that is even approximately correct may be a real triumph. Predicting the path of a hurricane 48 hours in advance would be a huge advance.

This fallacy is rife in the debate over global warming. If the data being used to study climate change and the computer models being used to predict it were really ambiguous, we'd expect as many negative results as positive. We'd expect roughly as many studies to predict cooling as warming. But we don't. The vast majority support warming. The fact that a model predicted a temperature rise of one degree and we only observed 0.3 degrees doesn't change the fact that warming was predicted and actually happened.

Finally, we have simple neglect of theory because the individual doesn't see any reason for it, but prefers to focus on more immediate needs. People with poor theoretical understanding may be quite skilled at using a practical application of a theory, while at the same time having no idea why the theory really works. The reason that some engineers championed Velikovsky while others have backed creationism is that they do not know enough science to understand why Velikovsky and creationism are wrong.

Narrow Training and Experience

Although an industrial scientist may be intimately familiar with real-world phenomena that interfere with theories from being completely fulfilled in reality, that person's perspective may also be limited to a very narrow range of phenomena that bear on his or her work. It would be quite possible for such a person to perform competently in a specific field and still have very poor theoretical understanding, or be quite unaware of the broader theoretical implications of an idea. In his own work, Ransom may spend his entire professional life without encountering a fact that refutes Velikovsky, but he may be completely unaware that there are other fields where workers encounter such facts every day.

This "tunnel vision" can lead some applied scientists to overestimate their own competence and underestimate the difficulties of other fields. The geologists who opposed continental drift in the late 1960's and early 1970's were perfectly competent at finding oil; they failed to recognize that much of their experience was simply irrelevant to the evidence and techniques that were involved in the confirmation of continental drift. Essentially, they drilled the same oil well for decades without broadening their experience in the slightest. A good general rule here: if you can't get a paper published in some field, you are not qualified to reject the consensus of workers in that field. If you can get papers published in astronomy, you can advocate for Velikovsky, but not until.

At the other extreme from arrogance is the possibility of inferiority complex. A joke that has made the rounds of nearly every profession involves a scientist who needs a brain transplant. The scientist is offered a brain from a graduate student for $10,000, from a well-known professor for $25,000 and from an industrial scientist (fill in the profession of your choice) for $100,000. When the scientist asks why so much, the answer is that the industrial scientist's brain has never been used. Unfair as it may be, there is a certain disdain for applied research in some academic circles. An applied scientist might be impelled to pursue some off-beat theory that offered the hope of making a great theoretical advance because of a feeling that applied research is not as respected as theoretical work, or at least not as appreciated, or the possibly out of resentment at the theoreticians.

When a "practical" person espouses pseudoscience, his "practical" knowledge doesn't elevate the theory to respectable. Instead, it shows that his understanding of science is so poor he may not be all that good at his "practical" calling.

True Story

I have a friend who was the safety officer at a nuclear power plant. One time he told me about an emergency response drill they once had. It involved predicting the drift of a brief puff of radiation and deploying response teams. The scenario had the wind blowing ten miles an hour. He pointed out to me that the formulas used for predicting dispersal of radiation by the wind are good only to order of magnitude, that is, the nearest power of ten.

I said: "If I were doing it, I'd put monitoring teams a few miles downwind while I did the calculation, then direct them from there."

He said he would, too, but the engineer that was running the teams spent forty-five minutes on his calculations before sending out a team.

I said: "By that time, the radiation is seven and a half miles downwind!"

He said: "You know that, and I know that. Do you think I could make this engineer see that?"

Irrelevant Credentials

Gavin Menzies, a former British Royal Navy officer, argued in 1421: The Year China Discovered America, that the last great Ming Dynasty sea voyage was a global exploration venture that took the Chinese to every continent except, curiously, Europe. Menzies puts great store in his naval experience to give him credibility as an authority on maps, ocean currents, and navigation. Unfortunately, his book includes a host of really outrageous technical blunders that no experienced navigator or sailor should make. He claims the Chinese could not have determined latitude south of the equator until they discovered a star to take the place of Polaris. There is no south pole star, and there are simple ways to determine latitude using any known stars. He claims precession changes the distance between Greenland and the North Pole and that charts of circumpolar stars can only be drawn at high latitudes (they can be drawn at any latitude once you understand why some stars are circumpolar. Give me a star chart, put me in a windowless room, and I'll draw you an accurate map of circumpolar stars for any latitude). He gives a completely wrong description of the ocean currents off West Africa. For all his years in the Royal Navy (in submarines), Menzies does not know celestial navigation, nor does he know the oceans, nor does he really know very much about maps.

Then there's the essay by Jerome J. Schmitt, "Numerical Models, Integrated Circuits and Global Warming Theory," on the Web site American Thinker, February 28, 2007. Schmitt, who works in the semiconductor industry, draws an analogy between models of vapor deposition on computer chips and climate modeling, because they both involve gases, I guess. He argues that because it's difficult to predict what happens during vacuum deposition on chips where conditions are precisely controlled, therefore you can't put any credence in computer models of climate. You hardly know where to begin with something like this. The process of depositing films on chips is roughly equivalent to predicting how dew will condense on surfaces. Its relevance to issues like infrared absorption by the atmosphere and global heat transport? About the same as a climatologist's credentials to manufacture computer chips. And although Schmitt claims to have "studied fluid mechanics and gas dynamics and have a general understanding of computer models used in process engineering," he doesn't have a clue that those skills have only marginal relevance to climate.

Some of the sorriest pseudoscience comes from lawyers and judges who feel that their experience in dealing with evidence qualifies them to dabble in science. One of the more famous was Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael A. Musmanno, a respected populist jurist and World War II naval officer, who spent many of his final years debunking the Vinland Map and defending Christopher Columbus as the discoverer of North America (the Vinland Map is widely regarded as a forgery, though I am not terribly impressed by the evidence, but the Viking presence at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland is incontrovertible). You can respect Musmanno for his many accomplishments and being on the right side of a lot of cases, but still note that he forgot that judges are supposed to recuse themselves from cases where they have strong personal interests. Far less honorable is the case of Philip E. Johnson, considered by many the father of the intelligent design movement and author of Darwin on Trial. Johnson considers himself qualified to write about evolution as "an academic lawyer with a specialty in analyzing the logic of arguments and identifying the assumptions that lie behind those arguments."

The sad reality is that the legal conception of evidence is absolutely worthless from an intellectual standpoint. The mere fact that it is possible to exclude evidence from courtrooms, even though it is known by all parties to be factually valid, demonstrates beyond doubt that a law degree is completely without value in any field that deals with objective fact.

Practical People In Action

For the thirtieth anniversary of Pac-Man, Google designed a logo to look like a Pac-Man game, complete with sound and interactivity. The Practical were appalled:

Please be courteous to all of the PROFESSIONALS out there that use google. It wouldn't be so bad if it didn't have any SOUND on it. PLEASE PLEASE turn the SOUND OFF!!!
Hell I was running foxfire (sic) and was not even on google, but the sound keeps playing no matter what page I am on. when it started I thought I had a virus and ran a full virus scan. Thanks google now I lost like 1.5 hours with this issue.
WHAT IS WITH THE ANNOYING PACMAN AUDIO PLAYING ON YOUR SEARCH PAGE TODAY? Some people WORK for a living and can't have that kind of bullshit NOISE going off. TURN IT OFF ... and don't say MUTE my PC, I need the sound ON to hear other PING type alerts. I will switch to BING if you don't fix this. WTF ?!??!

Up on my ivory tower I spent the whole day unaware that Google even had this logo, even though I used Google quite a few times. Unlike all the "professionals out there that use Google," I am so lacking in practical experience that I use the Google toolbar or Chrome. Only "practical" people know you have to go to the Google home page to search with it.

Likewise, "practical" people wouldn't waste their time looking at the play screen for the little speaker symbol at the lower left corner. Only ivory tower types do that. And only ivory tower types who spent a lot of time playing video games might suspect that, as a last resort, you could play the game and use up all your lives quickly.

It is only fair to close this discussion by stressing again as loudly as possible (since many people can't disentangle their emotions from facts) that few professionals in any field are vocal advocates of pseudoscience, and that the level of acceptance of pseudoscience in all probability is lower among professional workers than among the general public. Still...

Engineers and applied scientists, tell me what you personally are doing to debunk pseudoscience among your colleagues. If you're not doing anything about the situation I describe here, don't complain.


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Created 09 March 2007;  Last Update 15 April, 2011

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