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Accuracy or transparency ? June 13, 2008

Posted by dorigo in personal, physics, science.

Time and again, knowledgeable readers of this blog point out some inaccuracy in the physics I describe in a post. Often, it is just a simplification I made to make the matter understandable; more rarely, it is a blatant mistake, or a wrong statement that exposes my ignorance. I thank those who exposed me  -correcting wrong physics is a commendable action, and in some instances it has allowed me to increase my own understanding of a topic I had not completely digested. Sometimes, those readers are surprised by my naive reaction. The question, however, is whether I should worry about it.

After all, physics is my job, and I could well be concerned with my reputation at stake. Exams are never over in the life of a scientist, and this site has enough traffic to guarantee that now and then some of those who might one day be members of a committee which decides on my career advancement do read what is written here (I could name a half dozen).

The other side of the coin is that by occasionally (and accidentally) showing my own ignorance I actually make this site more appealing to many. The hidden but powerful message is that a reader who does not have a Ph.D. in high-energy physics does not need to feel an intruder if he lingers around or comments posts in this blog. This is very important since, in my opinion, when doing science outreach it is fundamental to bridge the gap with non-scientists, providing places where researchers and people with a real job can meet and interact. If scientists continue to stay in their ivory tower, they risk losing the support of society. I discussed this issue in some detail in a recent contribution to a symposium about science divulgation, Sci.bzaar.net (video here -unfortunately, in Italian only!). Another video with some further ideas, which I produced for the event, is available here.

So how would you run your own blog, if it was aimed at education in physics ?  Would you fact-check every sentence, or maybe remove those you would like to keep but fear could expose your fallacy ? Would you read wikipedia first ? Hell, I do not even spell-check my texts (I recently discovered wordpress does provide an automatic tool for that -but I do not think I am not going to try it), and I am not an English native speaker!

I guess the message of this post is the following: I am not an encyclopedia. I have holes in my education, delusions, misconceptions. I believe I understand things which I actually do not. I am only human, and not one of the most knowledgeable ones. But that really is ok: I do not need to be encyclopedic to run this site. And guess what, I am learning a lot by doing it! And I do not even have to pay attention: by being natural and by speaking my mind, I achieve my goals. This is important when writing a blog in my opinion.

Now, I hope the above facts are appreciated by those who are so glad to pay me a visit now and then…


1. Francisco Barradas-Solas - June 13, 2008

I’m a high-school physics teacher from Spain and I value your blog very much because it helps me in fulfilling my duty (to my students, and my pleasure!) in keeping up to date with research beyond mere popularisations (important as they are) in order to fill the multiple gaps there are (research – teaching, teachers – students…).
For instance, these days you can read and hear in the media about “finding the God particle” and I’m trying to teach my students things such as that you don’t find a new particle in the same way you could bump into a new species in the forest, or to distinguish between media hype and the physicists’ interest in the higgs particle, new physics, the standard model…

Thank you and keep going!

2. carlbrannen - June 13, 2008

First, there are plenty of famous physicists who have said stuff that turned out to be completely wrong but nevertheless retained their positions as well as their fame. Second, I haven’t noticed any really glaring errors around here, is there something I should have noticed? And third, while somewhere I read that to appear wise, one should keep one’s mouth shut, this is about appearing to be wise, and I doubt you were hired for that.

3. Tripitaka - June 13, 2008

I would guess that bloggers are far more likely to offend peers and/or jeapordise future appointments by expressing opinions and value judgments on various matters rather than in making factual errors within their area of expertise. Unless of course the blogger refuses to acknowledge factual errors when they are pointed out, thereby demonstrating to his peers that he is a fool.

A blog without personality is a blog that people are unlikely to visit, but, to the extent a blogger faces professional risks, the risks are likely to arise from letting your personality and views shine through.

4. dorigo - June 15, 2008

Thank you Francisco, input such as yours keeps me going!

Carl, well, sometimes I do have the impression I am ending up writing things I know half as well as many around do. One example was the explanation of convergent or asymptotic series in the calculation of g-2 in the former posts…

Hi Tripitaka, true – that you outline is the main risk in running a blog. And I think I did some damage to myself already in the past, although I have grown a little wiser. In any case there is nothing that really can’t be undone by a sincere apology, if one is willing to give it.


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