Tierney, science and the masculinist POV

July 15, 2010

Let me expand a little on the abbreviated critique of John Tierney in my last post. Back when his “more men than women are really, really good at math and science” story was making the rounds on the science blogs and Twitter, Chris Mims pointed out how bad Tierney is on climate change. See here and here. I tweeted something to the effect that Tierney thinks men make good mathematicians but bad climate scientists.

I think Tierney’s schizophrenia captures something significant about how conservative men of a certain age process science. Like the late Pops Minkel, they overvalue logic, certainty and control. Their paradigms for science are 20th century particle physics and the space program. To them, the scientific method is to pick apart the world, put it back together with new bits added and then build a really impressive machine based on the new bits. If you can’t put back together what you’ve picked apart, then it’s not science.

That’s why I’d be willing to bet there’s a strong correlation between where men like Tierney stand on climate change and where they stand on string theory. String theory tells us we live in one corner of a vast multiverse but gives us no sure way to confirm that belief. Climate science tells us Earth is warming dangerously but can’t give us reproducible, particle physics-style experiments to tell us so. They both frustrate the notion that an individual mind acting in isolation can solve any scientific problem.

What would Richard Feynman say? That’s what a Tierney type might ask himself when grappling with string theory or climate change. The individual human (read: white male) mind can solve any problem worth solving, after all, if only one is smart (read: male) enough. Hence the fetishization of Feynman, who was really, really good at solving math and science problems. We know Feynman expressed doubt that string theory was on the right track. And Freeman Dyson came as close to expressing Feynman’s views on climate change as we’re likely to get. (Although consulting the Ouija board would be soooo Feynman of us.)

String theory and climate change affirm an uncomfortable truth for the Tierney type: all we can do in the face of these problems is to accept the collective judgment of the experts who’ve immersed themselves in the relevant subject matter. As with God, you can’t prove string theory or the course of climate change beyond the nth decimal point of doubt. All you can do is have faith in your fellow beings and hang on for the ride.

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