Friday, February 03, 2006

Physics blogs and physicists' blogs

Looking at the physics blogosphere, there is a notable tendency for those blogs that receive the most attention in terms of readers, commenters and incoming links to be physicists' blogs rather than physics blogs. By a physics blog I understand a blog whose contents are devoted to physics, as in physicists advertising their research, teaching the wider public about physics, etc. A physicist's blog, on the other hand, is a blog authored by a physicist, which may well mainly discuss politics, economics, religion, ideology, terrorism, war, drugs, sex, stamp collecting and other such contentious issues. From what I see, it appears pretty clear that many more people read the latter kind of blog than the former.

While I understand that in the current global situation people (and especially people in the US, which still seems to dominate the global blogosphere) become much more worked up about the daily issues in politics, economics, religion etc. than about even the most long-standing physics problems (with the notable exception of anthropic arguments and the landscape), what I don't understand is why they would consider the political, economic or religious views of a particle physicist over e.g. those of an entomologist, an electrical engineer or a seismologist, or even over those of a historian, economist or theologian. I know that theoretical physicists (and most physics bloggers appear to be theorists) have the (partially deserved) reputation of being the professional and academic community with the highest IQ, percentile by percentile, but that does not mean that theoretical physicists are any more likely to be experts on political etc. matters than e.g. limnologists, which as far as I know do not have the same reputation for brilliance.

My point is that being more intelligent in and of itself does not mean being more knowledgeable or having a more balanced point of view; in fact a normally intelligent person with a degree in international history probably has a much better chance of making an important contribution to the debate about, say, the Iraq war, than a highly intelligent rocket scientist, simply because they have the greater wealth of pertinent knowledge on which to base their opinion, and because they are more used to drawing the kind of inferences and analogies that are needed in that context. Even the most brilliant string theorist will need to do some serious study of, say, granular flows before making a serious contribution to that field. The same applies to these debates.

Now, of course, it was noted as early as the days of Socrates that in matters of public policy everybody is assumed to be entitled to hold a point of view, whereas in other areas (Plato mentions shipbuilding and architecture, if I recall correctly) every sensible person defers to the experts. I don't disagree with that at all; in fact I hold strong views on contentious issues myself, and I have no problem stating them where they are asked for, or where I feel that I can make a contribution. But I wouldn't normally proffer them on a global forum like a blog, because I recognize that having a PhD in Theoretical Physics (even if it is from Cambridge) does not make me an expert on foreign relations or the global economy, and I am simply amazed at the number of people who seem to believe that academic credentials in a physics subject confer some degree of importance to writers' views on topics far outside the scope of physics.

So this was a bit of a rant. Anyway, Life on the Lattice is a proud physics blog, and has no intention of becoming a mere physicists' blog. If that means fewer readers, so be it. At least I can rest safe in the assumption that I won't have to be ashamed of what I wrote here in ten years time.