Of Particular Significance

First It Was The Political Scientists…

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

ON 08/06/2013

Big changes are coming to the US academic world.  It’s a confluence of influences: recession, the climate argument, the online revolution, political gridlock, expensive university education, …

A major accomplishment by one side has been the elimination (more precisely, the attaching of impractical conditions that made a funding process impossible) of all NSF funding of a social science discipline with few external defenders: political science.  Here’s a little article with relevant links, by Sean Carroll.

Of course you can see what will happen next; having succeeded, these folks will go down the list of academic disciplines and eliminate a few more.  What will be the foreseen and unforeseen consequences?

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54 Responses

  1. You made a few an awesome experience points presently there. I actually sounded on the internet with the problem and located most people should go in addition to with your website.

  2. No, I do not.

    The people who do numerical galactic models are faced with problems similar to those who do numerical weather / climate models – how do you account for what’s going on below the scale at which you can model things? Note that adding in dark matter (or MOND, for that matter) is straightforward, as long as you have a good model for it. It can be much tougher and more problematic to deal with things happening below your resolution limit.

    I don’t get the reference to lines of code.

    1. Yes, weather/climate are at least 10 times more complicated than gravity. There may only be one level below a graviton, a preon and I am not going to model that either, far too may things. A line of coding is a Fortran or C++ statement. MOND and MOG are good but I was hoping someone had a program for systems (galaxies/solar) in the universe, and was implying that about 50 lines of coding changes might product the best model of ALL.

  3. “do they consider a run of a computer program an “experiment” that teaches us something about the world we live in? ”

    I will take a shot at this. I work from time to time in the celestial mechanics of the solar system. Now, how do you decide things like whether asteroid X is in a resonance? Well, now-a-days, you mostly do it with numerical integrations of the equations of motion. I have done plenty of these, and they are very much like experiments. You have to decide which bodies to include (Pluto ? Makemake ? How many main belt asteroids ? Just by mass? What about Yarkovsky forces – do you include them ? Etc., etc.) Then you spend a few hours of computer time and see what happens, compare with other runs, plot things like close approaches, etc. It is common to systematically vary runs (say, by adding extra terms to your force model).

    Are these “experiments” ? That depends on your definition, but I considered them experiments back in the 1970’s, and still do today. This is how celestial mechanics runs (by and large), how space missions get planned, and how people evaluate things like the probability of some asteroid impacting the Earth, so I would also argue that these do tell us something about the universe.

    I also have some experience dealing with climate science and numerical weather prediction, which operate in a very similar fashion, so I don’t have any problem with call those sets of large computer runs experiments as well.

    1. Reasoning is right on. Do you model out side of the solar system ?
      Inside there are about 3 problems; flybys, Pioneer, and some comets. Outside, between galaxies by a factor of 10 and between center of galaxy and its stars by 2-3. Maybe only about 50 lines of coding to fix that . If not, where can one find a working code ?

  4. I think you really need to make a distinction between STEM research and social science research and grants for the humanities. Political “science” is not a science at all. I see no need to fund women’s studies profs, literature profs etc…The vast majority of papers published in the soft sciences and humanities are simply worthless.

      1. Probably not, but my point is that the problem is self-inflicted because real scientists allowed all sorts of at best pseudo-scientific disciplines to coexist with them, thereby devaluing the word “science” in the eyes of the public and the politicians. There is a handful of people (Jonathan Jones, Phil Moriarty, Freeman Dyson) from other disciplines who have called out climate science over its lack of integrity, but on the whole the silence is still deafening. I also hear no howls of outrage when something that is referred to as a “Nobel Prize” is awarded to economists.
        It’s the role of government to direct public spending, so they can’t be criticized for doing so. It’s understandable that you’re now worried about the consequences of the earlier lack of action on the part of actual scientists, and I too would like to see continued funding for things like physics and space exploration. But I won’t shed a tear for “political science”.
        Maybe it’s not too late to start restoring integrity to science and start distancing the hard disciplines from pseudo-scientific gibberish?

        1. In every field, including particle physics, some amount of poor quality research gets done. You should always ask: what are the consequences of throwing out the baby with the bathwater? We do not have a breakdown of how that $10 million/year on political science gets spent. I imagine some of it gets spent on studies of societal trends, and I would not be surprised if you approved of some of those studies.

        2. Anyone who says “climate science is not a science”, as a blanket statement, is making a political statement, not a factual one. There are good researchers and bad researchers; there is good research and bad research; there are those who misrepresent what they know, and those who state clearly what they know and don’t know. The research methods used in climate science, as in any field, can be used well or poorly. But to suggest that there are no scientific standards or methods in climate science is ridiculous. There are a lot of physicists in that field, trained in the same way I was trained; for example, Brad Marston at Brown, http://www.brown.edu/Research/Environmental_Physics/Environmental_Physics/Welcome.html , who was a Princeton physics graduate student when I was an undergraduate.

          1. Matt. I agree with the good/bad dichotomy because no information is bad information and ultimately plays a role in getting to ‘a truth’ or ‘law’. We believe it is not that because……. x, y, z. Process of elimination.

          2. I made that statement in a post you’re apparently still holding in moderation, and I gave reasons why I think this way. Note that I wouldn’t say there are _no_ scientific standards or methods. The problem is that there is clear evidence of widespread use of unscientific standards and methods, by “bad researches” as you call them, and precious few people within or outside the field seem to find that worth mentioning or fighting against. My impression is that they are afraid that doing so would weaken the image of science, but I think the opposite is true, and this is directly relevant to this blog post: people are increasingly aware of shenanigans going on, and there is growing distrust of science as a whole due to the perception that it can’t get its house in order. That plays into the hands of the Republicans you are complaining about. If you don’t want science to be attacked or defunded, you must work to ensure it vigorously upholds its standards. That means throwing the bad apples under the bus.

            So, you know some people in the field you consider to be good guys. Ask them, what are their opinions – do they consider a run of a computer program an “experiment” that teaches us something about the world we live in? I was directly told so by someone who works in climate modeling (I had heard it before and up to that point considered it likely that it was just a half-truth smear used to discredit climate scientists). Do your friends think a “retrospective prediction” is something that has a place in science? If not, why do they not speak out? What do they think about “scientists” who hide their data from scrutiny or organize campaigns to get journal editors fired for daring to publish an article with a view differing from the party line? What about a scientist deceiving an audience in a talk by truncating a graph to discard the measurements that do not fit the message?

  5. You all are not looking at this cynically enough. How has to gain by defunding political science? Now this is the assumption I am going to base my argument on. Political Science people are Democrats. They are young, idealistic college students who want to improve the world for those with less. A Democrat philosophy. So, who has to gain by defunding polictical science. Republicans! I think it is a shear, well shaded, political grab that is 180 degrees opposed to the idea of making it easier for people to be represented and to exercise there freedom of speech.

  6. I don’t understand the concern. If you have ever actually talked to political “scientists” you will immediately realise that what they do is diametrically opposed to science. They are parasites on us; why should we not welcome flicking them off?

    1. So I take it you don’t agree with a different view. Your first response is to label them as the enemy and paint them with a broad brush of a simple minded judgement. You make them one dimensional simpletons which gives you the justification to fight them instead of listening to different opinions, seek out the facts, and judge with an open mind. But you do have the right to vote. It is just too bad you don’t spend enough time getting educated on the facts of the issues and not just the sound bites and opinions.

      Now this is my prejudicial OPINION of you. You can either reply with a well reasoned rebuttal, say nothing, or reply with more name calling. Ball is in your court.

    2. Because the steps from political science to climate science to all science are very small steps indeed. The concept of “thin edge of the wedge” applies here.

      1. Maybe physicists and other actual scientists should have protested loudly when folks like political scientists and climate scientists appropriated the term “science” and diluted the brand. If you had made it clear early enough what is a science and what isn’t, the steps wouldn’t seem so small now.

          1. >When congress decides it knows best…

            That’s kind of built into it, they are the ones we elect to make those decisions.

            1. They aren’t there to make *all* decisions; e.g., they don’t decide what medical care you get, they don’t decide what color you can dye your hair, and they shouldn’t decide which forms of an academic discipline are and aren’t worthwhile. They are not there to micromanage — and on the whole, they wisely don’t.

          2. Actually, indirectly they do. They delegate the authority to the Executive Branch but DO retain oversight. Under the Food and Drug act they allow the FDA (Section 820 of the CFR) to dictate what sort of medical care you get. They don’t decide what color to dye your hair but have oversight on those who decide what kind of dye you are allowed to use. Part of oversight is that sometimes they do micromanage as they are required to do under the Constitution.

            But none of this is the real issue. This is happening because in the past we taxed and borrowed and kicked cans down the road and there was plenty to go around. Now we are at a fiscal asymptote and things are going to get much worse. If science must be tossed under the buss to prop up entitlements for another election the people you vote for will do so. They won’t be happy about it, but they will pick them over you.

            1. Congress does and should manage and oversee, but it generally does not micromanage, and that’s important to the health of the country’s research and academic training.

              While I agree that fiscal irresponsibility in the past is part of the problem here, the present is also part of the problem. The challenges of needing to reduce a national budget are being handled irresponsibly. If you cut everything willy-nilly without thinking about it carefully, it usually doesn’t save you money in either the short or (especially) the long run. So I think your analysis is too simplistic.

          3. I agree things tend to be better when left to the peer review process. You are correct that the challenges of needed cuts are being handled irresponsibly.

            The problem is the member of Congress responsible for the offending rule (support economic or security goals) would agree with you and say he is promoting responsible cuts. Since we can’t fund all political science research, what’s wrong with Congress specifying where funding priorities should be? That may be disagreeable but it’s not willy-nilly.

            Now I do agree the budget is being handled irresponsibly. The problem is that there simply is no other way to do it in a political system. What one group thinks is necessary and vital is seen as destructive and wasteful by the other. The larger and more powerful government becomes the more unwieldy and corrupt it becomes. Human nature will not let it be otherwise.

            I think my analysis is dead on. What cannot be denied is that mandatory spending WILL choke off ALL science funding in just a few years. Do you disagree with that?

            The system does not exist to save money or govern for the long term. It exists to allocate political power and win elections. The politicians you support like science but not nearly so much as winning elections. They have your vote so you can be sacrificed if it means the can is kicked down the road until December 2014.

      2. I disagree strongly. There is a vast difference between “politically influenced real science” [which is how some people — *not me* — would describe climate science] and “total bullshit”, which is a valid description of political “science”. Look, climate scientists need to know physics, and a lot of the arguments among them revolve around quite serious physics. Could you say that about political “scientists”? If you really look at the sort of “research” done by the latter you will realise that it’s either trivial or crap. If we are seen to be defending such crap, *then* indeed the politicians will conclude that the step from them to us is small. The thing to do is to dissociate ourselves from them as emphatically as possible.

        1. I had to laugh at Dioscurides’ comment. I mean, isn’t Political Science a branch of Sociology which is a study of human behavior which is a branch of biology which relies heavily on chemistry which can’t exist at all without physics? I think Matt has nailed it. If you start pruning this tree, you will eventually kill it and leave us with nothing but religion to define reality.

    3. If they are stronger than you, you just cant “flick them off”, you have to live with them, or eventually you will be the one who will be “flicked off”.
      In other words, you can only win if you stay civil. Using strong language, etc., all is in reality a gift to the opposing view, because they can use that to further misunderstand you.

      Best Regards

  7. I find it depressing myself, particularly since IMHO there are “exciting discoveries” lying around like low hanging fruit already in the public domain, but the public and media don’t know about them. These things could create genuine public excitement – funding pressure could disappear in a flash. But when I try to point them out, people in HEP (the queen of physics, which is the queen of science) simply cannot believe that they’re actually out there or could be of any use to them. It’s like an army marching to a drumbeat, and I’m running alongside them, shouting. But they can’t hear me, and they’re marching towards a cliff.


    1. Well, maybe you should focus on the question of why you’re so ineffective. I hear you, and I am completely unconvinced. Partly because I hear dozens and dozens of people just like you every day, on this website and in my email, and you’ve never said anything that makes you different from the others.

      1. I try, but I just can’t get through. Here’s one: The Bs meson is comprised of a bottom antiquark and a strange quark, so it isn’t really matter or antimatter, it’s both. And it oscillates into its own antiparticle and back in about 18 picoseconds, so again it’s both. Take a look at positronium. It’s an exotic atom, neither matter nor antimatter, but both. Step back from the quarks a moment, draw a 2 x 2 table, and on properties alone, put the electron and the positron, and the antiproton and the proton into the table. Only after you’ve done this should you add the column headings “Matter” and “Antimatter”. Where’s the proton? Under the positron, in the antimatter column. Look again at that positronium: “it can be regarded as a sort of light hydrogen atom”. Ergo hydrogen is both too. So antimatter isn’t really missing. Apart from 0.05%, you are made of It.

        That would play well. And there’s loads more things like that.

        1. I think you “can’t get through” because that is not an “exciting discovery”; it is just a specious word game.

    2. You can’t change the current physics paradigm with hand waving. Only effective way is with a brute force. If your theory is the right one you should be able to construct for example antimatter bomb or in lesser scale for example ignition “spark” for fusion reaction. Can you?

      And yes, I can.

  8. Given that all particles with mass have a rest reference frame and all those frames see a photon move at C. (1) is the given true ? (2) does the photon have a rest frame ? (3) does the photon see all the other frames move at C ? (4) does a second photon see the other photon move at C ? If that can not be explained so that some one can understand it, What good does it do that person to fund science, every one else gets his money ?

    1. (1) True. (precisely true in special relativity; in the presence of gravity it is more complicated, but I don’t think you’re trying to ask about those additional subtleties.)
      (2) No. To some degree this is semantic. You could try to define a rest frame for a photon, but in such a frame, nothing ever changes — essentially, time doesn’t click over. It’s not much of a “frame” if you can’t do measurements.
      (3) Photons don’t see, or measure; observers do. And no observer can travel at the speed of light; to observe requires the perception of time [perception is about detecting the presence of something that was previously absent], and there is no time in such a frame.
      (4) Again, photons don’t see, and no observer can be traveling with the first photon to answer your question about the second.

      What is certainly true is that any observer will observe both photons traveling at the speed of light ***relative to the observer***. The distance between the two photons (from the observer’s point of view) may grow or shrink slower or faster than the speed of light… depending on whether they are moving roughly in the same direction or in opposite directions… but that doesn’t violate anything Einstein said.

      You can get very, very confused if you ask questions that don’t have answers. Mach, who inspired Einstein, set an example when he very carefully and pedantically defined what it means to measure something.

      1. “(3) Photons don’t see, or measure; observers do. And no observer can travel at the speed of light; to observe requires the perception of time [perception is about detecting the presence of something that was previously absent], and there is no time in such a frame.
        (4) Again, photons don’t see, and no observer can be traveling with the first photon to answer your question about the second.”

        Matt, your explanations sound incomplete. I think the point is elsewhere but not so much in if a photon “sees” like any observer or not (it does not “see” like a human observer, it seems.). What I wonder is if two photons (or any two massless particles or systems) interact with each other or not? and if so how/why(=mechanisms)? I guess they can but I do not know how. Photons can interact with each other even if their time is stopped or not ticking? How could that be possible? Any mechanistic or phenomenological explanations? Can special or general relativity accurately describe or predict photon-photon interactions (or massless particle-massless particle interactions)?

        1. Thanks, both of you. (1) So, the time in the photons’ frame never changes ? (2) If the photon is in some field does the time change ? (3) If (2) is no, than the photon only “sees” NOW ? (4) Then all massless particles only see now ? (5) so no massless particle accelerates ? (6) Then is there a chance that nature is very simple and all particles only see now ?

          1. Remember, the start of relativity for Einstein was when he started imagining how the Electromagnetic field would look if he was traveling with a photon at c – it would be a static field, and, yet, Maxwell’s equations do not admit such a static solution. The solution was, indeed, that the time in the photon’s frame never changes. The same thus has to be true for all massless particles, as they might be traveling alongside a photon. It cannot be true for massive particles – for example, the ones that decay at rest also decay in motion, just at a slower rate (as dictated, in special relativity, by the appropriate Lorentz transformation).

            I believe he was 17 when he first had this insight…

          2. So, from below (1,2,3,4,5) are true ? And (6) asks if all particles MAY only see now. (6) does not state that time in a rest reference frame with mass does not change. (Only seeing now means not the future, past is ok)

          3. Sir my humble view,
            why time destroys the matter. If we able to slow the time, could we stop the distruction ?
            If we drill the spacetime with high density (a molehill out of mountain), it may slowdown the arrow of time (entropy), as well as disappear the matter by cancellation of positive energy (matter) and negative energy (gravity) into the ultimate essence of no thing.
            If two enregies cancel each other, then it is like a still water with no ripples – it is ineffable no thing.
            Quantum mechanics explains effable no thing. Relativistic theory explains ineffable no thing – The “Tao”. Zen expression goes, “Ordinary life is very Tao.

            Common sense says, Light is observable, but physics and uncertanity principle say, light is unobservable (virtual). Light is immaterial, it is outside of space and time-clocks stop at the speed of light. So speed of light (effable quanta) is not determine the time, it is the ineffable “space” which determines the time. The quantum action is a phenomenon of space, not of time. The clock start to tick after the existence of spacetime – in which “c” is constant but space is changing with arrow of time (expansion).

            We have to live with the reality of uncertanity principle. Relativity eliminates the dizziness of various momentum around us. There is constant moment of inertia. This constancy of “c” (not the speed) makes the speed “c” as time dependent constant. This constant create “the time” out of space along with arrow of time called spacetime. the credit of spacetime idea goes to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Einstein made it divine and physical.
            Uncertanity principle = relativity + dizziness.

            The worm, snake, serpent or dragon biting or swallowing its own tail is a powerful symbol of infinity, and also of universal nature, of completion, perfection and totality. The snake is turned upon itself, the consciousness has recoiled upon itself – the space quanta.

    2. When we combine quantum mechanics with general relativity, there seems to be a new possibility that did not arise before: that space and time together might form a finite, four-dimensional space.

      Light is immaterial; it is without charge, rest mass or other properties. It is outside of space and time-clocks stop at the speed of light and the photon can traverse an unlimited distance without loss.

      “The quantum action” calculated with virtual particles is not having sufficient strength to make quantum action we feel in our Ordinary life (Ordinary life is very Tao)? Such enigmatic expressions warn that the ultimate essence is not a thing, it is no thing.
      It is not even necessary to put the pieces back together, for in recognizing that quantum action is the fundamental dynamic, we provide what early philosophers would have called a proof of God.


  9. Democracy based on globalized social medias and internet is misleading.
    God is a fascist. If you want to feel it, then go ahead. Mathematics survive since, well before human origin. Automated systems are uncontrollable dangers -particularly economy.
    Natural science or basic science keeping humans near the changing reality, in every micro second. Only relativity keeps the compassion – otherwise,like quantum mechanics and QFT – we have to taste the bitterness of real universe ?

  10. A bit more than a recession I think, UK does not make anything anymore. Most of our manufacturing resource is now in China. I think we are now well into a New Global Revolution and the West sinking into a 2nd world status. We will have to come up with something very Smart to turn this tide. China is going to be the Super State leaving the West to burn its tax dollars/£’s into military stuff in the nervousness that the Dictatorship may suddenly become Imperialistic.

    This has already started by building the RN supercarriers & USA the Joint Strike 35 aircraft built at the cost and in an environment when we don’t have any enemies to fight at this scale! I think the universities should start teaching Chinese so that the young school leavers can at least look forward to a successful career in China and retain some middle class luxuries. Just like the Indians did by teaching them English so they could get work as clerks in the British Civil Service receiving normal pay and pensions etc.

    China will have all our money ( unless it gives some back by way of development grants ), she will also have all the luxury of funds for curiosity driven Research. The classic Ivory Towers are changing a bright Red colour.

    1. >UK does not make anything anymore

      According to Bloomberg, UK industrial production surged (up 1.1%) in June. Factory output was up 1.9%.

      Just saying… 🙂

    2. Well, keeping up with China is certainly something we will have to do. They are certainly on a path to catch up; but will they pass us? Japan caught up but ended up on par.

    3. Your remarks on India and China is sarcastic – unless you have some genuine concerns.
      There is problem with “Indians did by teaching them English”, for the sake of career opportunities – interpreting their own culture like the “evolution” of super symmetry, super string theories.

      From my little knowledge…
      The quantization of relativity by Paul Dirac was surfed the reality that, relativistic theory and uncertainty principle have the same meaning with moment of inertia as the underlying principle.
      The uncertainty principle not necessarily means, that even “empty” space is filled with pairs of virtual particles and antiparticles. This was a semantic evolution of Max Planck’s application of Boltzmann equation.
      The virtual particles are the problem in defining quantum action. These pairs would have an infinite amount of energy and, therefore, by Einstein’s famous equation E = mc2, they would have an infinite amount of mass. Their gravitational attraction would thus curve up the universe to infinitely small size – thus leads to bizarre mathematical theories ?

  11. But you left out the root cause, none of the reasons you provide are what is actually happening. Consider:

    In 1970, discretionary spending was about 12% of GDP, today it is around 9% (it would be less than 7% where it not for the debt fueled spending of the last 5 years).

    In 1970 mandatory spending about 7% of GDP, today it is over 14% of GDP (BTW, defense spending has gone down over the same period of time so it can’t be blamed).

    Sometime between 2030 and 2040 mandatory spending will be greater than ALL government revenue.

    It’s not the sequester. It’s not the recession. If this continues, there will be NO funding for ANY science.


  12. Very good, and worrying point. I am afraid that all reflective science is -or will be- under pressure. I fully agree with Sam, although I do not understand why this position would imply risking a career and/ or reputation.

  13. This reminds me of the early years in the labor movement. Should a physicist risk career and reputation fighting for the future of social science funding? As the coal miners and garment workers learned, all scientists are brothers. De-fund one, and you injure the entire group.

    1. Yes, this is an issue facing all those who obtain funding from the government; the politicization of funding as a strategy for ending it can be used against anyone.

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