“It’s okay to ask those questions [on “the meaning of life”, “destiny”, etc.], but one should not expect to get a wiser answer from a physicist.”
“I deal with tough mathematical questions every day, but please don’t ask me to help with Brexit.”
-Stephen Hawking (After which he immediately offered his strong views on the reality of Brexit.)
i) Introduction ii) Michio Kaku iii) Stephen Hawking iv) Conclusion
Why do far too many people simply assume that well-known physicists will have insightful things to say on almost (or literally) all other subjects? (I have in mind Michio Kaku, Brian Cox, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sean Carroll, etc.) I noted this first with Albert Einstein, whose non-scientific words are quoted left, right and center. Yet much of what he said on politics and religion is fairly standard stuff. (Einstein’s ‘Why Socialism?’ is often quoted — usually in Facebook memes.) And even when true or fairly insightful, the words would have probably been ignored if said by a layperson or even by an unknown physicist.
Thus we give the superstars of physics (if not physicists generally) leeway to comment on all sorts of stuff that’s a million miles away from physics. This is like getting pop stars or actors to offer their profound insights on politics. It’s also a case of a positive ad hominem in that the man/women is automatically deemed to be saying insightful things simply because he/she is a famous actor, pop star… or physicist.
It needs to be noted, however, that I wouldn’t class all “popular science” writers in this category. (I have in mind writers and physicists like Brian Greene, John Gribbin, etc.) There is also, of course, a lot of snobbery about such books form academics and specialists. But my problem isn’t the populism and clear writing style: it’s the writers covering every subject under the sun.
In any case, I believe that this is primarily because physicists are seen as being the “brainiest” of all people — just behind brain surgeons. (Are brain surgeons brainy simply because they carry out surgery on the brain?) Many of them are indeed brainy and even highly imaginative. Yet, again, why does that give them a special insight into the price of bread or “the meaning of life”? Do psychologists, economists, etc. also have some insightful angles on quantum mechanics or wormholes? Such people could do, I suppose; though there’s no reason to simply assume that they do.
So, sure, superstar physicists may have extremely insightful things to say on the price of bread or Hilary Clinton. But why should we assume that they do? What is it about theoretical physics that gives Michio Kaku, for example, an insight into the price of bread or the meaning of life?
Take Michio Kaku again. He’s written and spoken on politics, God, consciousness, time travel, Donald Trump, environmental issues, fate, peace, social justice, biotechnology, the Internet, “play”, neuroscience, aliens, “the future of humanity”, “the world in 2030”, UFOs, déjà vu, Creationism, ad infinitum.
Even some of the issues that Kaku tackles which are indeed connected to cosmology and physics often seem a little esoteric, if not downright wacky. Thus Kaku has had a go at the whole lot: wormholes, teleportation, space travel, future civilisations, quantum computers, consciousness, etc.
Now for some of Kaku’s published or broadcast words. Take this statement:
“I have nothing against investment banking, but it’s like massaging money rather than creating money.”
Now that may be perfectly-correct economics. But why is Kaku commenting upon it?
What about this? -
“Leaders in China and India realize that science and technology lead to success and wealth. But many countries in the West graduate students into the unemployment line by teaching skills that were necessary to live in 1950.”
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this either; I just don’t know why a theoretical physicist is saying it and having it published/broadcast. Then again, I suppose, someone could reply by saying:
Why shouldn’t Michio Kaku comment on the price of bread and the meaning of life?
Now for this. -
“I think the ‘Terminator’ idea is a reasonable one — that is that one day the Internet becomes self-aware and simply says that humans are in the way.”
Here we can say that none of these statements are a result of Kaku’s original research. Yet he rarely acknowledges the sources of these ideas. In other words, many theorists have commented on the possibility — or inevitability — of the Internet becoming “self-aware”.
“The generation now alive is perhaps the most important generation of humans ever to walk the Earth.”
Now that’s as far from theoretical physics as you could go. However, I suppose there may be very tangential links to cosmology; though there can be tangential links between any x and any y if you try hard enough to make them.
Then there was Stephen Hawking, who also talked about politics, religion and, of course, God. On the God front, you could argue that there is physics-God link. But as for religion, that’s not really so… surely?
Hawking commented on, and been extensively quoted commenting upon, the Iraq War, euthanasia, Brexit, nuclear weapons, animal testing, Donald Trump, the NHS, the Labour Party, etc. However, as far as I know, none of these issues appeared in his books or publications. Thus, if Hawking was asked a question on any given x, then of course he had the right to answer it and offer his view. This is very different from a physicist superstar discussing the price of bread or the meaning of life in his books. In other words, Hawking and others can’t help but answer the questions they’re asked. And there’s no reason they shouldn’t answer them. After all, physicists are voters, members of society, human beings, etc.
Here’s an example:
“I regard Corbyn as a disaster. His heart is in the right place and many of his policies are sound, but he has allowed himself to be portrayed as a left-wing extremist.”
As already stated, this is fine because Hawking was simply responding to questions from the BBC.
“It is generally recognised that women are better than men at languages, personal relations and multi-tasking, but less good at map-reading and spatial awareness. It is therefore not unreasonable to suppose that women might be less good at mathematics and physics.”
At the risk of repeating myself, all the above may well be true (though many people may find it sexist or shocking). But I wouldn’t think that a theoretical physicist and cosmologist would have anything interesting (or special) to say on women and mathematics/physics.
I would suggest a little more modesty from superstar physicists. However, since millions are buying their books, and the books tend to stray way beyond physics and cosmology, then why should the superstars stop? That is, these theoretical physicists created a niche in theoretical physics and then branched out… And the more they write and get published, the farther out they branch. Now this branching out isn’t always unsuccessful. Indeed sometimes it may be insightful. However, why simply assume that all examples of this branching out will be insightful, let alone profound?