Posted tagged ‘Albert Einstein’

On Darwinism as a Term of Abuse

December 11, 2008

A while back, I posted a short piece criticizing the Rt. Rev. and the Rt. Hon. Lord Habgood, P. C., former Archibishop of York (number 2 in the Anglican hierarchy) and Ph.D physiologist, for his use of the terms “Darwinism” and “scientific orthodoxy” in a review of a history of creationism.  In that post I wrote,

Just to reduce this to the absurdity it is: does anyone out there think “Newtonianism” is a good term to describe the branch of knowledge that enables us, inter alia to calculate the trajectory of a comet?

Well, someone does.  Leslie Darrow, proprietor of the Mid-Anglican blog had this to say about what seemed to me to be about as banal an observation as I could imagine:

I don’t know why not. Calculating the trajectory of a comet doesn’t need anything more sophisticated than Newtonian mechanics.

I replied that I was afraid Darrow was being either silly or obtuse, for reasons that I think are obvious.  No one refers to the ideas in The Principia as the corpus of Newtonism.  Mechanics, maybe, or in the case of problems involving Newtonian gravity, celestial mechanics, but not Newtonism, or Isaackery or anything of the sort.  No one.

Similarly, no one refers to this or this or this as successful applications of the methods of Darwinism.  They are all, of course, results achieved under the umbrella category of evolutionary biology, using methods from specialized biological disciplines ranging from field ecology to molecular genetics — the latter a practice for which Darwin lacked even the vocabulary to imagine

That all seems pretty standard issue stuff  — and even if you don’t want to go all philosophical on me, it comes back to the practice, the use of terms in science.  Do we refer to the study of molecular genetics as Watson-and-Crickism?

We do not.

Unfortunately, Darrow proceeded to dig herself in deeper.


Do you need to be a scientist to be a science writer?…Dennis Overbye edition.

July 19, 2008

This question came up in the midst of a little blog kerfluffle I inadvertently ignited when I had the temerity to criticize Richard Dawkins’ criteria for inclusion in his anthology, The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing. See my posts: here, here, and here, and some of the responses here, and here, if you care about such inside baseball.

Now The New York Times physics and cosmology reporter Dennis Overbye has weighed in on the matter in his recent “talk to the newsroom” Q & A with readers. Check it out — it’s a good read, as are his two books. (Full disclosure — Dennis and I go way back; I was a cub reporter at Discover when he was writing there back in the early 1980s, and he and I collaborated on one article, I think, back then; we’ve since connected through a mutual interest in Einstein.)

The whole session is interesting, but this early exchange caught my eye, especially given the identity of the questioner:

Becoming a Science Reporter

Q. Do you think a degree in the sciences is necessary to be a science reporter? Is it most important in generating story ideas or in translating “geek speak” into language that most readers understand? Does your editor also have a degree in science?

I love reading Science Times and pounce on the stories when they come across the wire — as do others on the copy desk of The Roanoke (Va.) Times.

Thanks for taking the time to answer readers’ questions!

— Mary J. Lewis, copy editor, The Roanoke Times

A. Ah, an easy one.

The first thing you need to be a science reporter is a sense of humor because things will sound weird and then they will get even weirder. You are just going to sound foolish and you might as well get used to it. Luckily the scientists will not mind foolish questions for a few reasons. First of all, they are used to thinking of themselves as pretty smart and the people questioning them as, umm, not so smart. Secondly, being the kind of people who could stay up all night obsessing about an anomalous result in an experiment or an equation that didn’t quite work out, they can recognize and appreciate a similar ruthless determination to understand on the part of someone who is interviewing or photographing them. I’ve seen photographers coax sober minded physicists into rearranging their furniture and assuming all kinds of cockeyed poses — all in the name of getting the “right picture.”

Finally, there really isn’t any such thing as a silly question in science, where the best people often are those who are free enough to think up a really outlandish question. Einstein said his success was due to the fact that he kept asking a child’s questions when he was an adult. I am reminded of what Niels Bohr once said, “We are all agreed that your theory is crazy. The question which divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct.”

What does this have to do with your question? If you know too much going in as a journalist, it might serve you well, but not your readers, for whom you are the surrogate. I do see more and more people in my field who have Ph.D.s, but I don’t think it is the degree that makes them good, rather it’s the ability to be inquisitive, to learn on the spot, to size up people and to get them to talk.

The higher you go in science, the more you know about less and less, which is hardly a good prescription for a reporter, unless you have the prerequisite skills anyway. One of my colleagues, Jim Glanz, has a Ph.D. in physics from Princeton, but it didn’t stand in his way and now he is the Baghdad bureau chief. A random survey of my colleagues on a sleepy afternoon turned up college degrees in rhetoric, English literature, general liberal arts, and then law, as well as journalism, biochemistry and physics.

None of my editors have a degree in science, although they might have taken some courses. One of my former editors, Cornelia Dean, now a reporter, wound up in the science department after someone saw her with a copy of Scientific American. So you can learn a lot from reading, a concept we’re fond of here at the newspaper.


Image: John White Alexander: The Printing Press [showing Johannes Gutenberg] (from the cycle “The Evolution of the Book”). Photographer: Andreas Praefcke. Location: Library of Congress (Jefferson Building), Washington, D.C. Source: Wikimedia Commons.