Why Physicists Don’t Rule The World
Above Photo: Big Science: Atlas experiment at the Large Hadron Detector. Photo credit CERN
I was a physicist for 30 years. My brain still works that way. In a post-factual world, scientists are at a distinct disadvantage. That may explain why very few physicists hold positions of authority.
A few years ago, I had a moment of insight in Los Angeles, after watching eight powerful videos at a labor conference. One video documented the joy of accomplishment for dancers negotiating their first contract. Another video shared an unforgettably poignant moment for family members on opposite sides of the border wall between the US and Mexico. A third video connected workers around the world who would lose social, political and economic power through our misguided approach to globalization.
In the videos, we experience the dignity of work and the power of solidarity. We could see and feel our problems with inequality, immigration, weakened social cohesion, and climate change.
By conveying the lived experience of workers in the videos, they had crystalized the power people have when they organize around a common purpose. The videos had more clarity and meaning than all the resolutions, speeches, strategies, and policies woven into the business portion of the meeting.
I went outside the conference to process what I had just seen. Standing on S Figueroa St, I carried the effect of the videos with me. I looked one way, and saw fashionable restaurants with customers accustomed to comfort and privilege. Looking the other way, I could see systemic inequality.
I had a second insight. My approach to the world has been shaped as a physicist. I believe in an objective reality, which I observe and test. Nothing I say can change that objective reality.
If a beam of electrons passes through a diffraction grating, I can inspire the electrons, intimidate the electrons, or pray for the electrons, but I get pretty much the same diffraction pattern, either way.
On S Figueroa St, I saw that my approach to the world is well-suited to roughly 6 percent of human experience, which includes microwave ovens, the thermodynamics of the internal combustion engine, and the motion of roller coasters at Universal Studios.
For the other 94% of human experience, what we say does affect our lives. Most people don’t make decisions based on a number. They need a story. When I studied physics in college, I had no idea what happened in the Communications Department. I do now. They’re running my world.
Many years ago, a member of Congress gave one of the best technical talks I have ever heard on climate change, alternative energy, and distributed power generation. It was full of ideas, solid data, and solutions to real problems.
Later, in an office visit with him, we brought our facts and data to another policy discussion. He listened, and then said, “I need a story.”
I was crushed.
I thought he doubted our compelling logic and data. In my eyes, his credibility dropped like a stone. Years after that meeting, back on S Figueroa St, I realized he understood his business much better than I did.
We were content to be smart. He needed to be effective. He might intend to vote our way, but he also wanted our position to have broad public support. We could help him with our argument AND by generating 20,000 emails, 137 phone calls to his office, and endorsements from 17 popular organizations in the next election.
A good story would make him effective. That’s human nature.
Spiderman, among others, warns us that great power comes with great responsibility. The power of story comes with risk. Stories work whether the idea is good or bad, true or false, benign or destructive. When leaders have good character, things can work out. It’s a different story, so to speak, when a President with serious character issues says, “People will just believe you. You just tell them and they believe you.”
Science is all about sorting good ideas from bad ones. Ideas start as hypotheses, which are tested repeatedly against reality. In the technical world, scientists and engineers tell a story with facts and data. A well-designed graph tells a story, based on credible meaningful data. Professional doom awaits a scientist or engineer who relies on story, or ignores contrary information, or disparages alternative interpretations.
In the larger 94% of human behavior, a powerful story can sustain a bad idea for far too long. It is some comfort to scientists that we know, deep down, that you can’t just make shit up. Science is true, whether you believe it or not. Eventually, nature delivers a reality check.
Leaders will use a good story to be effective, because that’s its great power over human behavior. We can all also apply critical thinking to look through a good story to see the reality carried within it. That’s our great responsibility.