Yep, Richard Dawkins said something on Twitter again.
Physics is a genuinely deep and difficult subject. Physicists struggle honestly to explain it in simple language.
Physics Envy: Subjects lacking the genuine depth and difficulty of physics invent obscure language to try to make it sound harder than it is
Dawkin’s Law of Conservation of Obscurity: Obscurantism in an academic subject expands to fill the vacuum of its intrinsic simplicity.
What really struck me was that he was wrong in two profound ways.
Physics is actually very shallow and easy. General Relativity can be boiled down to the following axioms:
- Relativity: All things obey the same rules, no matter when or where you’re looking from. As a consequence, conservation laws exist (thank you, Emmy Noether)
- Locality: To get from A to B, you have to pass through all points between A and B.
- Limits: Light has a fixed speed limit.
- Matter and energy: they exist.
It’s actually simpler than Newtonian Mechanics, which failed when you were in an accelerating reference frame and required the addition of fictitious forces to handle that case. The theory is so simple that you can easily write the entire thing on a single line:
Quantum Mechanics is a bit more complex, mainly because you’re dealing with additional dimensions like “spin” and “charge,” but the math amounts to little more than “this is how a wavefunction evolves over time.” You still wind up with simple axioms like “matter/energy is quantized” and “information is conserved.” Sean Carrol could summarize all of everyday physics in two lines:
So why do we think physics is so complicated? Part of comes from the environment of those theories; General Relativity, for instance, lives within Reimann geometry and tensors, so behind that T tensor are a whole load of other assumptions like “space can curve.” Part of it comes from sheer numbers; solving a simple single-atom system is child’s play, compared to solving one with a trillion trillion atoms.
But part of it comes from the collision between our everyday intuitions and these core assumptions. We’ve never noticed the time slowdown that comes with increased velocity implied by General Relativity because we never move fast enough to spot it. Decades of experience have led us to form misleading conclusions like “time is constant” or “matter does not behave like waves,” so when those assertions are contradicted we have a tough time unlearning what we’ve learned. To a non-physicist like Dawkins, then, physics seems much more difficult than it actually is.
This leads to the second profound wrongness: Unlike physics, biology is genuinely difficult. Even something as simple as locating body parts requires memorizing unusual terms, and the complexity of living things requires a rich but rather opaque language.
- Hapaloid: “The number of chromosomes in a gamete of an organism.”
- Hypertonic solution: “A solution that has higher osmotic pressure (or has more solutes) than another solution to which it is compared.”
- Heterozygous: “Of, or pertaining to an individual (or a condition in a cell or an organism) containing two different alleles for a particular trait.”
You must invent new terms to efficiently describe complex concepts, and by virtue of being new and complex these terms will come across as “obscure” to a lay person. They may even shift and be redefined over time, as new information comes in. Compare the above to some feminist terms:
- Rape Culture: “the cloud of myths about sexual assault that exist within [a] society, which make it easier to excuse that crime and/or tougher for victims to recover or seek justice.“
- Patriarchy: “a term for societies in which male is the favored gender, and in which men hold power, dominion and privilege.”
- Sexualized Objectification: “The viewing of people solely as de-personalized objects of desire instead of as individuals with complex personalities and desires/plans of their own.”
If anything, the more obscure the language used to describe a topic, the more complex that subject must be. Dawkins is dead-wrong here, too.
Dawkins is also a biologist. He should be acutely aware that biology is full of obscure terms, and yet is a richly complicated subject. So either:
- Richard Dawkins has such a bee in his bonnet over the social sciences that he can’t spot a blatant contradiction in front of his face, or
- Richard Dawkins is no longer a biologist, and doesn’t realize he’s contradicting himself.
If you glance at his CV, you find an interesting shift starting around 1990; he stopped doing academic work and shifted over to being a cheerleader for science. That’s vital work, but it’s also divorced from the academic study of biology. Over the decades, it’s possible he’s lost his specialist knowledge and become a talking head; look carefully at this dissection of the laryngeal nerve, and note who’s dishing out the jargon and who’s giving the high-level picture.
You could argue that Richard Dawkins is no longer a biologist. I’m not quite at that stage myself, but the evidence is suggestive.