Show and Tell

Well, it is almost the last day of Black History Month and I am behind on answering the traditional emails I receive at this time of year. As I said last year (with a few modifications):

clifford v. johnson at the board Pretty soon after February starts, the deluge of email I get every day gets enhanced a bit by emails from students from all over America. I become part of an assignment, you see. It seems that these students are instructed to find a black scientist and write something about them and do a presentation to their class about them1.

I’m always willing to help with this sort of thing (see the footnote for why), and so I usually send some links: to my personal webpage (here), or one of two profile pages for me at USC here and here (the latter by Katherine Yungmee Kim), a Daily Trojan news story by Diya Chacko here, or the departmental page on me (here), and a list of publications, and I hope that this is all of some use.

As to the standard “what is your date of birth?” question that is usually asked too, I don’t pass out that information over the web, but if you’re an interested student, you can email me for a bit more information if you wish, although I will not give out the exact date.

For a bit of biographical narrative, students can look on the “My Hero Project” (tremendously embarrassing name, I know) site where journalist Jennifer Lauren Lee reports on her chat with me about aspects of my life and work. (For the record, I tried in vain to get them to give up on the idea that I am some sort of science hero to be included on their site. they would not hear of it!)

It may be too late for Black History Month projects by time it comes out, but I ‘ll be doing a guest post at the blog Backreaction sometime very soon, all about what inspired me to choose this career. Check there periodically for the post.

I should write some more, but I’m falling asleep on my feet for want of sleep after my long trip. Sorry to be so brief.



  1. Of course, this is a very good thing overall (see earlier discussions here, here, and here -including the illuminating sometimes depressing discussion threads- (and more recently here, here and here, for example) about increasing the number of times that young people are made aware of a career choice that they can make that society, through the media, etc, tells them that they can’t make), and I’m very willing to help where I can. [return]
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6 Responses to Show and Tell

  1. Blake Stacey says:

    That “My Hero Project” interview is pretty good! I particularly liked the experiment with rice. And people say theorists are disconnected from the real world! 🙂

    On a not-so-related note, I was wondering if you could give a figure for the number or percentage of string theorists working on AdS/CFT calculations of quark-gluon plasmas. The subject came up over at The n-Category Cafe, and nobody seemed to have an actual number at hand. Since you’re on record saying that it’s a lot of people, I thought you might be a good person to ask. Of course, I recognize there could be considerable ambiguity in the answer: some people publish one paper on the subject, others might have a team of grad students hacking at this or that, and so forth.

    Again, I’m very happy to see you taking the time to inspire people!

  2. Clifford says:

    Hi Blake.

    Thanks. I fondly remember that experiment, and the feeling (see the earlier post on the Feeling) that came with it. Just great.

    About the other thing:- I’m on record as saying that there’s a lot of people working on string theory in order to understand strongly coupled gauge theory phenomena (confinement, high temperature phase transitions, high nuclear density, and other phenomena of the strong nuclear interactions). This includes writing papers specifically on the RHIC matters, but is not limited to that. Those who are writing RHIC-specific papers are using and further developing results and tools developed by people who are working on stringy descriptions of strongly coupled gauge theory phenomena, and so it is silly to focus only on papers that mention RHIC.

    The discussion was in the thread of the fourth of the “Storm in a Teacup” posts, and I made specific comments there such as this and this.

    I’ve not done a count, but there are entire workshops and conferences on it (large sessions thereof too), several people working on it in many groups around the world, and untold numbers of students doing projects on those sorts of things…. It will continue. I don’t know the total number of people in the world working on string theory, and so I cannot give you a number. But there is very significant activity in terms of the number of people I meet who are working on these things, the number of people I meet at conferences , the papers that I read and the authors on them, etc, etc.

    My central point was that the hype-masters selling their misinformed books (that attack all research in string theory) to the public are dismissing a very significant part of the effort of research into string theory by (for example) largely claiming we’re all sitting around playing with the landscape and anthropic arguments. So many people are doing so many useful and wonderful things…. there’s a great diversity of activity and ideas and powerful tools are being developed. You hardly hear about it in the press, sadly*, as it is not controversial, and so of course nobody is willing to try to write an honest book about it.



    *Although -coincidentally or not, I don’t know- since some of those discussions I’ve seen more instances in the press of mentions of this type of effort, although it might be that it just turns into a new press bandwagon of stuff to overstate about the RHIC connection.

  3. Blake Stacey says:

    Thanks for the elaboration!

    I have wanted for several months to do a study of science journalism and the flaws thereof. It’s not too difficult to find examples in areas where the “real story” is better known and easier to understand than string theory, for example in linguistics where the math is less abstruse. One classic case is the story of British cows purportedly moo-ing in regional dialects. Apparently, this became ideal meme-fodder. It propagated rapidly throughout credulous media organs, prompting the linguist Mark Liberman to write,

    It’s a tradition in anglophone journalism that the late summer is treated as a sort of extended April Fool’s Day, known as the “silly season”. Because both newsmakers and subscribers are on vacation, the laws of journalistic supply and demand motivate attempts to stir up interest with extravagant nonsense. A similar phenomenon is called Sommerloch (= “summer hole”) in German. But this silly-season cow-dialect case is not very different from the journalistic treatment of animal-communication stories throughout the year. Even though the cow-dialect story was created out of nothing as a PR stunt, it exemplifies a relationship between facts and their media presentation that is, alas, the normal one. In the world’s science sections, it’s always silly season.

    I guess that some of this is just the normal “telephone game” of human communication, where each writer adds bit of misunderstanding or embroidery to the interpretations or fabrications of the the last one. And most journalists know nothing much about science, and most editors seem to believe that audience appeal is much more important than accuracy, as long as there are no powerful groups to complain about falsehoods. So we get the predictable result: wildly inaccurate stories.

    Another case, more troubling in my judgment, involves Louann Brizendine’s book The Female Brain, which claimed — without evidence — that “women talk almost three times as much as men” and “while a man will think about sex every 52 seconds, the subject tends to cross women’s minds just once a day.” These statements also propagated throughout newspapers, magazines and websites. Entertainingly, one Daily Mail article got both the author’s name and the book title wrong, and other publications picked up the mistakes, allowing linguists to track the error propagation around the globe. Liberman wrote of this,

    The public reaction has mostly been that this is like doing experiments to discover that the sun rises in the east, or to confirm that animals deprived of food will starve. In fact, however, the “facts” about word counts and sexual thoughts are false: Louann Brizendine hasn’t done any research on either topic, the sources she cites contain no relevant evidence, and existing studies contradict her claims. […] But to insist on the concept of “fact” in this context is a recipe for frustration. As I’ve watched the reaction to Louann Brizendine’s book over the past few months, I’ve concluded that “scientific studies” like these have taken over the place that bible stories used to occupy. It’s only fundamentalists like me who worry about whether they’re true. For most people, it’s only important that they’re morally instructive.

    While understanding the flaws in these linguistic and psychological claims requires knowing a little about statistics (means, standard deviations and such) it’s significantly more accessible than the AdS/CFT correspondence. Having persuasive evidence in hand that media reportage on science can go horribly awry on familiar ground, what can we say about the journalistic picture of string theory?

  4. Blake Stacey says:

    Link to second Liberman piece.

  5. Blake Stacey says:

    Also, have you seen Chris Mooney’s article in the Columbia Journalism Review (December 2004)?

    Journalists face a number of pressures that can prevent them from accurately depicting competing scientific claims in terms of their credibility within the scientific community as a whole. First, reporters must often deal with editors who reflexively cry out for “balance.” Meanwhile, determining how much weight to give different sides in a scientific debate requires considerable expertise on the issue at hand. Few journalists have real scientific knowledge, and even beat reporters who know a great deal about certain scientific issues may know little about other ones they’re suddenly asked to cover.

    Moreover, the question of how to substitute accuracy for mere “balance” in science reporting has become ever more pointed as journalists have struggled to cover the Bush administration, which scientists have widely accused of scientific distortions. As the Union of Concerned Scientists, an alliance of citizens and scientists, and other critics have noted, Bush administration statements and actions have often given privileged status to a fringe scientific view over a well-documented, extremely robust mainstream conclusion. Journalists have thus had to decide whether to report on a he said/she said battle between scientists and the White House — which has had very few scientific defenders — or get to the bottom of each case of alleged distortion and report on who’s actually right.

    No wonder scientists have often denounced the press for giving credibility to fringe scientific viewpoints. And without a doubt, the topic on which scientists have most vehemently decried both the media and the Bush administration is global warming. While some scientific uncertainty remains in the climate field, the most rigorous peer-reviewed assessments — produced roughly every five years by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — have cemented a consensus view that human greenhouse gas emissions are probably (i.e., the conclusion has a fairly high degree of scientific certainty) helping to fuel the greenhouse effect and explain the observed planetary warming of the past fifty years. Yet the Bush administration has consistently sought to undermine this position by hyping lingering uncertainties and seeking to revise government scientific reports. It has also relied upon energy interests and a small cadre of dissenting scientists (some of whom are funded, in part, by industry) in formulating climate policy.

    He also addresses the supposed abortion/breast cancer link and the “Intelligent Design” movement. In the latter case particularly, the Net is replete with examples where journalistic “fairness” and “balance” lead to a bad portrayal of real science. Jacques Distler made the same point in connection with the Bogdanov Affair:

    The much-anticipated New York Times article on the Bogdanov scandal has appeared. Alas, it suffers from the usual journalistic conceit that a proper newspaper article must cover a “controversy”. There must be two sides to the controversy, and the reporter’s job is to elicit quotes from both parties and present them side-by-side. Almost inevitably, this “balanced” approach sheds no light on the matter, and leaves the reader shaking his head, “There they go again…

    Now, I haven’t read enough of the pop-science coverage to tell which biases are most prevalent and where. Heck, I haven’t even read The Elegant Universe — by the time I knew about it, I was taking a real class on the subject. The “poppy” books by real scientists I do recall reading — the tenth-anniversary reissue of A Brief History of Time and Ian Stewart’s Flatterland — treated the matter in what I’d call a sensible way. They laid out the problems string theory was expected to solve, gave information on the current state of its development, and indicated the hopes which string theorists had for the future.

    (“There’s just one problem,” says the Space Hopper in Flatterland. “It may not be true.”)

    How easily could the “may solve” of a few books be expanded into a “will solve” in newspaper and magazine articles?

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