Science is meant to be a marketplace of ideas where the best ones carry the day, regardless of where they come from. Or at least that is how it is advertised. As I recall, the Cosmos TV series had a pub sequence extolling this virtue, the idea that anybody could sit down and contribute to the conversation. Lovely idea, right? And many have contributed, from all over the world. And there are stories like Srinivasa Ramanujan‘s; he was a remarkably prolific Indian mathematician with little formal training. Still, the actual pub in the scenario would have been harder to access for women and people of color and people whose work occupied all of their productive time. The abstract pub of science is likewise not precisely accessible to all even if it is theoretically open to them.
I got thinking about the accessibility of science reading about how other physicists have reacted to Stephen Wolfram’s physics renovation project. I mentioned the project a few weeks ago as a possible stay-at-home learning activity; seems only fair to discuss other perspectives. The article has a good summary of Wolfram’s career path, centered on his status as an academic outsider (albeit one with a remarkable pedigree and ongoing connections). Being an outsider is also central to how the physics community is reacting to his latest work. Not being an academic myself, maybe I’m a little inclined to sympathize with such treatment. At the same time, I’m sure other physicists have a much better sense of the merit of his ideas than I do, and I’m sure that those ideas will get plenty of attention.
But the quotes from Wolfram in the Scientific American piece do temper my enthusiasm and my sympathy, perhaps even more than the reactions of fellow physicists. After all, nearly every science news piece has quotes from critics or skeptics. Most scientists do not respond to skepticism by calling the peer review system corrupt or complaining they deserve better critics, though. Peer review may not always yield the desired results, but that doesn’t mean it is corrupt. Another point of concern is his rejection of contributions by von Neumann and Conway. Of course, the article is written to frame these as concerns; we should at least acknowledge that editorial perspective.
I think what stood out to me most was the way Wolfram’s comments echoed sentiments from folks who are more skeptical of mainstream science. If he continues to feel left out, will his criticisms of science become stronger? And perhaps more importantly, do his sentiments tell us anything about broader science skepticism? Do people feel like science is not living up to its advertised ideals of openness and accessibility? Maybe we need to be more clear about how science works and how one actually can be a part of the conversation. I do think there is openness to contributions from outside the academy; at the same time there are expectations about a level of understanding and about the process of publishing that are not trivially met. Maybe those seeking to participate might feel less disappointed or rejected if they understood those expectations sooner and more fully.