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Prof. Martin Moskovits: Just how devoid of cultural, racial, gender and national tarnish is Science as an approach to understanding the physical world?
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Prof. Martin Moskovits: Just how devoid of cultural, racial, gender and national tarnish is Science as an approach to understanding the physical world?

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Emre Discekici and the Fall 2016 Dow Distinguished Lecturer, Prof. Martin Moskovits.

“No amateur has the right to have deep opinions about the areas in which they are an amateur.”-Prof. Martin Moskovits

In the style of Dr. Moskovits, I must first apologize for attempting to recapitulate his talk in a few hundred words, “but I said I would, so I will”. While Dr. Moskovits has had an extremely diverse career, he is most proud of his time spent as a teacher. With over four decades of experience in academia, he has mentored 5000 undergraduate students and 150 graduates/post-docs. He holds bachelor degrees in both Physics and Chemistry, and a Ph.D. in Chemical Physics from the University of Toronto. In addition to a remarkable career in academia, Dr. Moskovits has worn many other hats, including CTO of API Technologies (2007-2010), member/Vice Chair of the DOE Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (2001-2010), and co-founder of two companies (OHM Distributers and Spectra Fluidics). On December 2nd 2016, Dr. Moskivits began his talk by posing a question to a crammed audience at Elings Hall: “Are the physical sciences socially constructed?” His talk centered around three themes; scientists’ asymptotic search for truth, realistic vs idealistic worldviews, and social influences in science.

 

Does science search for truth?

Dr. Moskovits gave a great history lesson accompanied by occasional French monologues and frequent admission of not possessing all the answers. In short, science searches for the truth, but does so indirectly. Moskovits illustrated this point by invoking Karl Popper’s concept of falsifiable hypotheses; it takes just a single observation to prove a hypothesis wrong. The outcome of a scientific method is that from each set of experiments we identify what is not true, therefore “what remains must certainly contain more of the truth”.

He used the failure of Newton’s theory of gravitation to account for the attraction of light to large masses to show how it is essential that a hypothesis be falsifiable in order to be refined. This “wrong” hypothesis led to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which properly accounts for how masses and light travel. The falsity of Newton’s theory of gravitation was actually just truth within certain limits.

Realism vs. Idealism

According to Moskovits, physical scientists most likely think of themselves as positivists. Any assertion made that is rational and justifiable can be scientifically verified, or logically/mathematically proven. This means that scientists observe the world though the lens of realism, that the properties of matter are unaffected by the human mind observing them. In contrast, idealism “asserts that reality, as we know it, is fundamentally mentally constructed.” Moskovits mentioned that some scientists view the world through the lens of idealism. For instance, Michael Polanyi believed that scientific discoveries were intertwined with personal feelings and commitments of the scientist. A scientist is not separate from the universe they observe—which means that their beliefs and values are not either.

Dr. Moskovits expressed that the physical sciences are believed to be values-free. As an example, he stated that “an electron is neither good nor bad.” However, the way scientists and mathematicians describe the elegance of theories and proofs is reminiscent of how we view creative works of art.

Social Construction in the physical sciences.

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Dr. Moskovits quenching his thirst.

After a second apology for not being a social scientist, Dr. Moskovits delved into the possibility of social construction in the physical sciences. Social constructionism is the theory that meaning or connotation is placed on an object or event by the inhabitants of a society with regard to how they comprehend the object or event. In essence, human beings define their reality. Dr. Moskovits remarked how in the 1980s and 1990s, fields of medicine, anthropology, and law were proposed to be socially constructed. Inevitably, in the early 1990s, the degree to which realism defined the physical sciences was questioned.

The resulting debate between “scientific realists and postmodernist critics”, referred to as the science wars of the 1990s by Dr. Moskovits had implications on the credibility of science as an impartial source of knowledge. While the pettiness and “strong public sentiments” have subsided, a legitimate question remains; how much do social forces drive discovery in the physical sciences?

Dr. Moskovits’ summation of the science wars and Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What? illustrates that questions asked by scientists are somewhat influenced by social constructs. Moskovits expressed an idea that social need drives scientific discovery for technological advancements. Some examples he included were Tycho Brahe and Kepler’s developments of observational astrology for international navigation in the 16th century and thermodynamics being a product of need for fundamental knowledge of the steam engine. On the contrary, Einstein’s general theory of relativity arose “entirely out of his imagination” and was not driven by social need.

It is hard to have a completely idealist view in physical sciences and some areas in social science research. Moskovits expressed that it seems more plausible that in most cases, the physical sciences and social sciences operate through largely different methods and with separate areas of investigation. “For the most part, but not completely”, the physical sciences can be viewed through a positivist lens. However, Dr. Moskovits was uncertain of this approach in the social sciences. “They [social scientists] are correct in adopting other mechanisms in defining their variables.” Perhaps social science will one day, be defined in the same way the physical sciences are, i.e. a Schrödinger equation for a human behavior in society.

In understanding the physical world on the most fundamental level, science appears to be largely devoid of cultural, racial, gender, and national tarnish.  No matter where you are from, observed phenomenon in the physical sciences, such as the propensity of dropped objects to fall towards the Earth, are the same for everyone.

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Photos of Dr. Moskovits’ talk (Credit: David Cao)

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