The Beauty of Settled Science
post by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky)
Facts do not need to be unexplainable, to be beautiful; truths do not become less worth learning, if someone else knows them; beliefs do not become less worthwhile, if many others share them…
…and if you only care about scientific issues that are controversial, you will end up with a head stuffed full of garbage.
The media thinks that only the cutting edge of science is worth reporting on. How often do you see headlines like “General Relativity still governing planetary orbits” or “Phlogiston theory remains false”? So, by the time anything is solid science, it is no longer a breaking headline. “Newsworthy” science is often based on the thinnest of evidence and wrong half the time—if it were not on the uttermost fringes of the scientific frontier, it would not be breaking news.
Scientific controversies are problems so difficult that even people who’ve spent years mastering the field can still fool themselves. That’s what makes for the heated arguments that attract all the media attention.
Worse, if you aren’t in the field and part of the game, controversies aren’t even fun.
Oh, sure, you can have the fun of picking a side in an argument. But you can get that in any football game. That’s not what the fun of science is about.
Reading a well-written textbook, you get: Carefully phrased explanations for incoming students, math derived step by step (where applicable), plenty of experiments cited as illustration (where applicable), test problems on which to display your new mastery, and a reasonably good guarantee that what you’re learning is actually true.
Reading press releases, you usually get: Fake explanations that convey nothing except the delusion of understanding of a result that the press release author didn’t understand and that probably has a better-than-even chance of failing to replicate.
Modern science is built on discoveries, built on discoveries, built on discoveries, and so on, all the way back to people like Archimedes, who discovered facts like why boats float, that can make sense even if you don’t know about other discoveries. A good place to start traveling that road is at the beginning.
Don’t be embarrassed to read elementary science textbooks, either. If you want to pretend to be sophisticated, go find a play to sneer at. If you just want to have fun, remember that simplicity is at the core of scientific beauty.
And thinking you can jump right into the frontier, when you haven’t learned the settled science, is like…
…like trying to climb only the top half of Mount Everest (which is the only part that interests you) by standing at the base of the mountain, bending your knees, and jumping really hard (so you can pass over the boring parts).
Now I’m not saying that you should never pay attention to scientific controversies. If 40% of oncologists think that white socks cause cancer, and the other 60% violently disagree, this is an important fact to know.
Just don’t go thinking that science has to be controversial to be interesting.
Or, for that matter, that science has to be recent to be interesting. A steady diet of science news is bad for you: You are what you eat, and if you eat only science reporting on fluid situations, without a solid textbook now and then, your brain will turn to liquid.
Comments sorted by oldest first, as this post is from before comment nesting was available (around 2009-02-27).
comment by Vladimir_Golovin2 ·
2008-03-24T12:12:36.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
A steady diet of science news is bad for you
I was wondering why reading the PhysOrg RSS feed almost always leaves a bad taste in my mental mouth. I had it in my feed list for a couple of months, and I consistently feel that I just don't want to read it.
(A rather relevant quote from your previous post: "Asch's experiment shows that the power of dissent to inspire others is real". http://lesswrong.com/lw/ma/on_expressing_your_concerns/).
comment by Venkat ·
2008-03-24T12:23:42.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
My favorite example of both the controversies and the settled: the string theory controversies and Roger Penrose's careful treatment of what we do know in "The Road to Reality."
Of course, Popper and Feyerabend would have us believe that nothing is ever settled (and I tend to agree), but even in Popperian mode, the theory that displaces tends to subsume and refine at the asymptotes rather than invalidate directly.
I do not keep up with science news, but for different reasons: the sheer fire-hose volume of it. Especially in the gleeful stamp-collecting world of the biological sciences. I figure if something is important enough, it will eventually get to me after layers of filtering.
comment by Doug_S. ·
2008-03-24T17:11:39.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Can you recommend a good textbook for QM or general relativity? I took an introductory modern physics course in college, so I have a decent feel for special relativity and know a bit of QM (the Schroedinger equation and applying it to the hydrogen atom) but I'd like to see a bit more of the real meat of the subject. I want the technical explanation, not just words; I don't really understand it until I see the equations.
Also, any recommended reading in economics to go beyond my Econ 101 textbook (which, interestingly enough, is the most effective piece of propaganda I've ever read)?
Replies from: Jayson_Virissimo
comment by Tom_McCabe2 ·
2008-03-24T17:58:43.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
"A steady diet of science news is bad for you: You are what you eat, and if you eat only science reporting on fluid situations, without a solid textbook now and then, your brain will turn to liquid."
I would recommend digging up the paper that generated the press release; if you can't understand it, you don't understand the controversy.
"Can you recommend a good textbook for QM or general relativity?"
Feynman Lectures vol. 3 for QM, and Gravitation for GR (be warned that the latter uses grad-school-level math).
comment by Richard_Hollerith2 ·
2008-03-24T18:42:06.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I second the endorsement of the Feynman Lectures vol. 3 for people as young, bright and well-educated as Doug S (who has a degree in math). I say "young" because it becomes much harder to learn as you get older. Although it does not mention the many-world interpretation, it seems to have the best reputation for helping people learn the core of the subject matter, which has nothing to do with interpretation.
comment by Psy-Kosh ·
2008-03-24T19:19:28.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
As far as GR, I'll second the vote for Gravitation, by Meisner, Thorne, and Wheeler.
Been teaching myself GR (slowly) out of it. IT's not absolutely perfect, but it's a very very very good text.
As far as the level of math, it uses some high level stuff, but it builds it up.
I do wish someone had constructed a solutions guide for problems in that text though. There're a couple of exercizes that are more or less the only places certain derivations are dealt with for things that are important later.
And some of those things I had/have a bunch of trouble solving. But still, it really is a good text. Besides, it uses the word "antibongs" (in the context of talking about one-forms)
Warning: the text is a bit of an empirical one. That is, it's large and heavy enough that you can do direct observations of the effects of curvature of spacetime. :D
comment by TGGP4 ·
2008-03-24T21:45:56.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
There is still a danger of getting an Astrology or Philosophy textbooks, and wasting years on them.
I'm glad someone else is promoting the meme.
comment by poke ·
2008-03-24T22:49:08.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I agree wholeheartedly. The other downside of popular science and the news media is that it gives the impression that very little is known. Neuroscience is a good example of this; cosmology another. By reading a textbook, even if you can't follow everything in it, you get a good idea of the overwhelming amount of knowledge we have in a particular discipline and the kind of evidence that supports it.
For what it's worth, I wasted years on philosophy and there isn't a single work I find myself able to recommend, so if anyone wants to take unsolicited anonymous advice on the matter: don't waste your time on it. The one useful thing I got out of it was realizing that most of the platitudes we usually associate directly with science (science is inherently uncertain, science is inductive, science is about falsification, science is based on skepticism, science doesn't make metaphysical claims, etc) are premised on untenable philosophical arguments.
comment by Z._M._Davis ·
2008-03-25T00:54:37.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
"For what it's worth, I wasted years on philosophy and there isn't a single work I find myself able to recommend [...]"
Poke, don't you think most of Eliezer's posts here count as philosophy?
comment by poke ·
2008-03-25T02:08:02.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Some do. Others are science, logic, math, advice, strategy, etc.
I wouldn't count this current run of posts as philosophy.
comment by Michael_G.R. ·
2008-03-25T03:49:02.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Definitely good advice on textbooks.
I've been slowly, sloooowly reading Molecular Biology of the Cell (5th ed, brand new) by Alberts, and Lehninger: Principles of Biochemistry (4th ed). So far, I prefer the first one.
Until recently I was too intimidated to buy them because that's far from what I studied, but now I regret it. I should have started sooner.
comment by Doug_S. ·
2008-03-25T05:08:59.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
For the record, my math background consists of an undergraduate degree in computer engineering along with a math minor. I took the standard four-semester calculus sequence through differential equations, "Advanced Calculus I," two courses in linear algebra, and one course on calculus with complex numbers. My engineering courses covered Fourier analysis, transforms, Laplace transforms, and Z-transforms (all non-rigorously), and I also had one engineering course on (frequentist) probability theory. Finally, I also cheated on my humanities requirement by taking philosophy courses on formal logic that were basically math courses in disguise, and have picked up a lot of random trivia by reading things that looked interesting.
I've always been very good at math, picking things up quickly; even at Rutgers University, I was always among the best math students in my classes, so I think that I really can justify a claim that I'm among the top 1% of the population in terms of mathematical aptitude. I certainly don't know as much mathematics as someone with a math major is expected to know, but when it comes to reading about science, I'd much rather have the math available than hidden, even if I can't follow it all.
Anyway, thanks for the physics book recommendations; I'm seriously considering ordering at least one of those textbooks.
comment by [deleted] ·
2011-01-18T02:55:32.328Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Oh, this is good. Perennially good, which is why I am commenting two years after it was written.
comment by Unknow0059 ·
2021-07-17T07:34:11.417Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Yeah, pop science is inaccurate and irresponsible.
But overall I think this is a disservice to how interesting science and history actually are. History isn't merely a stepping stone, a tool, boring and necessary.
The wording isn't helping either. It'd be absurd trying to convince someone that something described as "settled" is interesting. It's almost inhuman.
Science is interesting because of 'semiotics', questions, answers, and what makes both valid. It's epistemology, ontology, pragmatism...