# A worrisome trend in attitudes towards physics?

1. Jun 11, 2010

### Nereid

Staff Emeritus
I'm not sure if this thread should go here, or in GD (please, someone, move to its best home, if necessary).

http://www.bautforum.com/index.php", in intention.

Most "space and astronomy" questions that get asked there are handled well, I think.

However, a great many physics question that get asked there are not.

For example, check out the http://www.bautforum.com/showthread...ething-huge-suddenly-accelerated-disappeared".

In that you may see something that I find quite worrisome; namely, anger and denial directed towards those who try to explain that there are limits to "what if" physics questions, who point out that certain questions, as asked, are meaningless or nonsense.

To me this seems to reflect a profound misunderstanding of the nature of science, and physics in particular. Worse, an apparent unwillingness to even try to understand it.

So, to my questions:

Do you, members of PF reading this thread, find something similar, out there in the internet?

To what extent do you share my puzzlement at EDG's apparent inability to grasp the meaninglessness of the key question under discussion there?

Have you come across similar cases, where you have been quite unable to get across some fundamental characteristic of physics?

Have I, do you think, completely misunderstood the situation?

Last edited by a moderator: Apr 25, 2017
2. Jun 11, 2010

### pgardn

1. Yes, but a minority.

2. I would have probably stated something to the effect of "I cant play this game because I dont know the rules". The Edg fellow is playing a game without rules, anything goes, you can give him any answer and you cant say whether its right or wrong based on the accepted rules because there are no rules for his question. I personally would have stated this question is "beyond" my ability to answer. I think if you got those posters in a room face to face they would most likely reach an understanding... Internet bravado and frustration (Edg).
Imo the internet is a very tough place to have completely meaningful discussion on difficult topics because of all the other input we get from the tone of a voice, facial expressions, etc... I also personally believe the Edg fellow does understand the argument. I think there is probably some history of confrontation with him and others.

I have not had many problems as illustrated in the threads you posted. I should have prefaced this by also stating that most of my encounters have involved prior time to lay down what science is and is not based on my understanding. So questions about evolution and ghosts are very easy to answer.

3. Not really. IMO there was some clear frustration because a few posters want to play a difficult game and are too lazy to read the rules and got called on it. But I believe they know they have not read the rules.
messed up my numbering, sorry... too late.

Last edited by a moderator: Apr 25, 2017
3. Jun 11, 2010

### Staff: Mentor

Nereid, Hi!!!

4. Jun 11, 2010

### DaveC426913

A question such as "what if an object were made to disappear instantly" when asked here is usually met with an answer along the lines of:

So you're asking "How would the universe behave if the laws of phyiscs weren't the laws of physics?"
To which our answer is: faeries, unicorns and ghosts.

I don't know what else there is to do. The distinction between a thought experiment and a fantasy is lost on some. They just don't get it.

Maybe point put to them that thought experiments may be fabulously contrived in how they handwave details of how something is done, but they do not break laws of physics.

How the vial is built in Schrodinger's Cat experiment may be fanciful but it does not violate any laws.

Magically making a planet disappear is ... magical. The thing that they are proposing to ignore directly affects the answer they get. Make nonsense of the laws of physics and you get nonsense answers.

But I'm preaching to the choir. You know this.

5. Jun 11, 2010

### lisab

Staff Emeritus
Perhaps it could be pointed (gently, haha) out that these "what if" questions may fit better into the realm of science fiction, not science. After all we're still trying to figure out how things actually are, not how they would be if they were different.

Myself, I have little patience for such inquiries, if I sense the person is a crackpot. I find people sometimes just want to hear something like, "Hmm, that's a creative way to look at things. I've never thought of it like that before." I don't finish the thought with "Because I took a lot of science in college."

And it's not just an internet thing, it's everywhere.

Oh and I like 01101001's reply:

6. Jun 11, 2010

### DaveC426913

I caught that and was going to quote it too. Good one.

7. Jun 11, 2010

### Moonbear

Staff Emeritus
Not understanding there's a limit to "what if" questions is really nothing new, though it's relatively rare that people do it without knowing they're being goofy rather than serious. The ones that are serious get noticed because they are so bonkers they start driving you bonkers too.

It becomes more noticeable now because we're not as "sheltered" from these random thoughts from the completely clueless with the internet in the state it's in.

Reading comprehension is seriously lacking in the world today. People skip straight to "it's meaningless" and completely overlook the rest of the sentence preceding it that explains why it's meaningless or unanswerable.

You know me, I'm more a passive observer of discussions on SR/GR and there's TONS about those subjects I don't understand. However, I understood your very simple explanation of why the question was meaningless...because it posited a condition that doesn't exist within that theory.

I think if someone like EDG posted a response like that here, he'd be nailed to the wall as a troll, so we don't see as much of that here.

I've encountered people on other sites who seem to be willfully dense/ignorant or flat-out stupid, and really have never figured out if they're doing it on purpose to troll or if they really are just that determined to remain ignorant.

8. Jun 11, 2010

### DaveC426913

My theory is more forgiving. I think that the range of knowledge and culture is much wider than we expect, and this becomes evident on the internet when we can see the full range of people.

A spurious example: I live in a Megacity and I am surrounded by other city-dwellers. It seems like city life is all there is. I often forget that the way people live and think in the rest of the world is just not the same as what I'm always used to.

Same with the internet, and same with science.

Not everyone is raised with a purely rational, science-based education as we. That doesn't really make them "dense".

9. Jun 11, 2010

### Pengwuino

I remember someone I know saying something that sums of things like this very well: 'You will be amazed at how little people understand even the idea of science'. The average person doesn't know what laws are, what a theory is, what even the idea behind an experiment is. They just know theres something called "science" out there that "explains things". To us, the non-lay persons, it is not even conceivable to ask a question in the context of a theory that the theory is intrinsically incompatible with. However, to the average person, they don't even know what a theory really is let alone that it has limits and a formalism and certain assumptions built in (and this is theories in general).

I think the best way to answer questions like those are to say that such a 'what-if' is intrinsically incompatible with the theory, so the theory can't tell you anything. It's like saying.... what if money had no set value (as in, a $1 bill is a$1 bill and can't decide to be a $10 bill at will), and then proceeding to ask how much my payments would be for a 30 year loan on a house. The question is impossible to answer since loans and interest rates and really, all of finance is built on ideas that include the fact that money can't just change values in ridiculous ways such as that. Honestly, people probably would realize there are very obvious foundations for finance and things like that, it's just that they never think about it. However, in science, I don't even think they realize a foundation exists. 10. Jun 11, 2010 ### DaveC426913 Maybe you're right. Maybe a good answer might be something like: Let's make a thought experiment. Let's say one equals zero. Now, how much would you pay for your$100,000 house?

Wait, where are you going? Suddenly you realize that some questions are nonsensical?

11. Jun 11, 2010

### Moonbear

Staff Emeritus
I wasn't necessarily thinking of just scientific topics when referring to the willfully dense. And, I guess without seeing the conversations, it would be hard to demonstrate, but they really ARE being dense. It's more extreme than just not educated or don't know any better. It's more like selective reading to ignore the parts of the discussion they don't like.

12. Jun 12, 2010

### Astronuc

Staff Emeritus
Hey Nereid, nice to see you around these parts.

Hmmm - I'm not sure about the trend. I think the matter is one of how to answer a question, which perhaps depends on the person asking the question.

Taking the question "What would happen to space-time if something huge suddenly accelerated/disappeared?", I don't think it helps much to dismiss the question as an "impossible hypothetical".

Rather, an appropriate response would be to take the appropriate equations and show what happens in space-time, or the local graviational field, when 1) the mass accelerates, 2) the mass just disappears. And there may be caveats regarding the validity, because we can't make something just disappear. In part 2), there would be a discontinuity, which as far as we know, can't really occur, but could be mathematically approximated.

At one time, traveling faster than the speed of sound was considered impossible, because people lacked the knowledge of how to do it. But now we know a lot about it.

I suppose the responses to hypothetical enquiries are formulated based on the perception of the motivation behind the question? Or, perhaps it's a matter of some people being patient and thoughful, and others being ill-tempered or ill-mannered (?).

Clearly there are phenomena that are beyond our capability to test directly, and we can only simply observe from a distance, e.g., the physics in star, particularly highly energetic objects like novae, supernovae, neutron stars, GRBs, . . . We develop models and understanding based on that with which we can experiment, and then assume that the physics we can test applies in those cases where we can only observe.

13. Jun 12, 2010

### DaveC426913

If something can be instantly removed from spacetime, then gravity can bounce back instantly - i.e. faster than the speed of light (because we've just kicked open that door). The direct implication of this is ftl communication and ftl travel.

So, a question that assumes a violation of what we know will result in answers that violate what we know.

So we could humour the asker; we could say "OK, we pretend that it can be removed instantly, and the upshot of this is ftl communication".

The problem is, the asker then says "So, why aren't we putting research into this avenue? I've just figured out how to go faster than c!!"

To which we roll our eyes and say "No, you forget, it is all predicated on a lie."

Meanwhile, we have a public thread, dozens of posts long cluttering up the board, wherein thousands of users will think we are scientifically discussing ftl. And every second post we'll have to say "NO. Read the WHOLE thread."

14. Jun 12, 2010

### Mu naught

15. Jun 12, 2010

### Nereid

Staff Emeritus
16. Jun 12, 2010

### Nereid

Staff Emeritus
Thanks everyone for the comments (and welcomes!).

I particularly like this; it points to a 'don't know what you don't know' situation (such things are very hard to address). I also like the analogy, and may use it (with proper attribution, of course).

FYI, there's another thread on this topic, in BAUT, in case you have some spare time (and interest): http://www.bautforum.com/showthread.php/104870-Why-you-don-t-understand-answers-in-Q-amp-A". In that you'll see that I did some Q&D analyses, and came up with some somewhat unexpected results!

(more later)

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17. Jun 12, 2010

### Nereid

Staff Emeritus
An update: I did some research and discovered, much to my surprise, that the vast majority of problems in BAUT's Q&A section are nearly always directly related to relativity, both special and general.

Of course, this spilled over into a lot of threads about cosmology; given the role of GR in contemporary cosmology that's no surprise.

However, there seems to be almost no problem with any of the threads on QM!

If you visit the last thread I cited, you'll see there is an interesting debate going on about learning styles, teaching, etc. It's interesting - for me at least - to see how the explicit scope and purpose of a forum so strongly shapes the way long-time members participate in it. Don't know what I mean? Just compare PF with BAUT!

18. Jun 12, 2010

### DaveC426913

Maybe what you could do is propose to the board admins an FAQ, like we have here? A carefully written primer of relativity that member must read before posting?

19. Jun 12, 2010

### DrRocket

You understand the situation perfectly.

But I am not puzzled at all by EDG's inability. Some folks can understand and some cannot. Those that cannot are not all that rare.

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20. Jun 13, 2010

### pgardn

After reading the posts again the poster(Edg) has the "I have a unique insight and I will prove it with this thought question" syndrome. Imo there is a tendency for many people to think they have a fresh eye on a certain aspect of physics without realizing people spend their lives thinking about these problems intensely and from so many unique angles. So its so neat if one can come in (not infected by the subject's old ways) and turn the physics world upside down with only cursory thought. So because he asks a question that cannot be answered, it is unique and insightful, when it is anything but.

So we are starting a game of chess and all of the sudden all the squares dissappear and the board becomes infintely large, what will be the outcome of the game? Great insight and so thought provoking... Sorry for the sarcasm, but this is how I judge his (Edg) intent. You cant answer, I have stumped you. And I think he knows the problem with his query.

21. Jun 13, 2010

### DaveC426913

I think the overall problem is that many people think that physics is about concepts and models and not about the mathematics. All you have to do is find a new way of manipulating the model (if it's a fabric, can we sew it?) and we've founded a whole new avenue of exploration. They figure the math is just details.

It's actually analagour to armchair authors. "I've got this great idea for a story. I'll give you the idea - you just fill in the words. We'll make millions!"

22. Jun 13, 2010

### HeLiXe

This is the first physics forum I have ever posted to, and I am still a student, but I would like to answer your question #1 from my perspective. I asked a question, or series of questions, on this forum as it relates to the LCROSS and LRO missions and encountered some comments presented as answers but posed as questions, which were tainted with a bit of arrogance and a condescending tone. I figured maybe my questions are not clear enough, because after all I am asking about something I do not understand, so I expounded and asked more questions for those with the condescending answers. They were either unable or unwilling to provide answers to the questions. So I kind of understand EDG's sentiments as expressed here :
but my scenario is different because I was not asking a "what if" question on an unlikely occurence.

Thankfully, DH and Janus answered me. I'm still excited about the answer that Janus gave me because it brought up some very key and obvious variables I hadn't even considered like the pull of gravity from the moon on the LCROSS crafts; and I learned that dividing the mass of the moon into the momentum of the object hitting it determines the potential velocity change of the moon as a result of the impact. Of course I am still researching this and other things related to impact and craters, etc. But the answer Janus gave me was really instrumental in furthering my understanding and pointing my research in a better direction.

So sometimes us noobs ask questions that may seem "stupid," or it could be that the questions attract people who are unable to provide answers, but feel like posting condescending "answers." It did put me off, and I was just going to discontinue posting to this forum and wait until I got into a class that would cover the material to ask the question, but thankfully someone who knew the answer, provided me with guidance. And that made all the difference. I guess noobs have to have a thicker skin also....the 'internets' has all types :)

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23. Jun 13, 2010

### Moonbear

Staff Emeritus
It could just be that somehow a well-intentioned reply was somehow misinterpreted as condescending just because of the way things come across in writing versus in spoken word. Or, that our cultural differences can also influence the way we interpret words. Sometimes the way professionals in a field respond to questions and the way they write their sentences is more formalized than if we were just chatting on the street. Likewise, if they understood you to be a student, they may have been trying to prompt you to find the answer for yourself rather than just give it to you (the Socratic method of teaching) by asking questions. These are all things meant to be helpful but don't always come across right in writing without essential intonation of voice and body language we so rely on for interpreting conversations.

I can't speak for those on BAUT, but on PF, I would strongly encourage you to view every response received as given with the best of intentions to be helpful, not condescending. I've been around here a long time, and that really is the attitude that people around here have. If they were condescending, they probably wouldn't be bothered to even be here to reply.

Just to illustrate my point about how different cultural perspectives color our interpretations of words, I'm originally from NJ. There's a professor in another department in my building from NY. I was giving a lecture one day and was running a bit overtime (not running into his time yet, but was running into the break time between classes...my students generally don't mind, because they go directly from lecture to lab, so I'm only cutting into my own next class with them, so if I need an extra couple minutes to wrap up, no big deal). Anyway, I didn't realize that because of some scheduling changes, this other professor had a lecture immediately after mine. Usually nobody is scheduled right after me in the room where I lecture. So, when I was 5 min into the 10 min break between classes, he interrupted to tell me that he had a class coming in and needed all the time allotted (in other words, letting me know that I needed to end my lecture so his class could get into the room and get started on time). No big deal, I wrapped up quickly and classes switched on time for him to start as scheduled.

However, my students were HORRIFIED. Seriously. While those of us from NJ and NY are fairly direct about how we say things and think nothing of it, the fact that he didn't excuse himself for interrupting, or just wait and risk that I'd run past my scheduled time seemed completely foreign and rude to them. So, even though I was the one wrong in running over my scheduled class time, and he was perfectly within reason to interrupt and make sure I stopped lecturing so he could start his own lecture on time, and I fully understood it to be that and nothing more than that, to students with a different background, they interpreted him as being the one who was wrong.

On the other hand, there have also been times when I've gotten very upset and offended at something someone has said to me, only to realize later that I just took it all the wrong way because of the mood I was in that day due to completely unrelated events.

So, I just say all this to caution everyone to be careful about how they interpret intent on an internet forum, or anywhere really. We can't always help how we react to things at the moment we react to them, but if we can at least sit back a day later and recognize we maybe should have just taken it at face value rather than assign any ill-intent, we might be happier in general.

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24. Jun 13, 2010

### HeLiXe

Thanks moonbear. Did you read the responses I got?
I can appreciate the Socratic method, and I am not someone who always seeks just an answer as I am trying to increase my understanding. Some things can be misinterpreted because it is written, but I do not think I misunderstood this:
LOL.

Anyways I was answered appropriately in the end. Thanks for your thoughts.

25. Jun 13, 2010

### Nereid

Staff Emeritus
This is, I think, definitely part of what causes perceptions of elitism, intellectual snobbery, intimidation, and worse - culture.

And I'm sure it plays a part in BAUT, just as it does in PF.

A very common observation is that because text-based discussions are so poor in the normal cues to intent, etc - much worse than a voice over a telephone, and much, much worse than face-to-face dialogue - the opportunities (shall we say) for mis-reading of intent are vastly greater.

There's also, almost certainly, an additional factor in BAUT that is rare-to-non-existent here; namely, the constant influx of woo/crackpot idea/scientific rubbish. BAUT has an ATM (Against The Mainstream) section, which is supposed to work a bit like a much, much milder version of Independent Research. However, an awful lot of those who are keen to promote various ATM ideas have become adept at using the Q&A section as a means of sneaking their ideas in (on their home fora, they are proud of their success in doing this, they even boast when they are caught, and banned!). This has created a certain, shall we say, sensitivity in many long-timers ... they can see a sneak ATM attack when none, in fact, exists. Of course it's unjustified behaviour, even if understandable.