A recent dust-up between physicist/author Lawrence Krauss and philosopher of science David Albert should be of interest to anyone who studies science and wonders about how such studies interact with and are perceived by scientists. The controversy started with Albert’s NYT review of Krauss’s new book, A Universe from Nothing.
The book is part cosmological primer and part anti-religious screed (featuring an afterword by Richard Dawkins!), building on a lecture Krauss gave in 2009 that’s had over a million hits on Youtube. I haven’t read it, but I have seen the lecture, and based on that I’m not surprised that Krauss is regarded as a lucid and engaging popular science writer.
What Albert took issue with – and where the bickering began – was Krauss’s use of the word “nothing.” It turns out that Krauss can’t explain where things like the laws of quantum mechanics or the fields described by relativistic quantum field theory come from: instead, “nothing” means “the absence of material particles” but not the “absence of everything.”
This is where things get interesting. In an interview with The Atlantic, Krauss blasts Albert as a “moronic philosopher,” saying: “I don’t really give a damn about what ‘nothing’ means to philosophers; I care about the ‘nothing’ of reality.” And he doesn’t stop with Albert:
…the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics what so ever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it because it’s fairly technical. And so it’s really hard to understand what justifies it.
Now, there’s a lot to doubt here – Is it true that no one outside the field readers philosophy of science? If it is, does it matter? – but instead I want to offer a charitable reading, albeit one Krauss didn’t intend and would probably reject. To my mind, if we re-read “the ‘nothing’ of reality” as “the ‘nothing’ of common sense,” Krauss has a point that’s worth the attention of those in science studies.
For all the bad things about Krauss and his friend Dawkins (and there are many), they are committed to public engagement. And, while we can and should question the version of the “information deficit model” their vision of “the public understand of science” entails, we might take this episode as an opportunity to think about the work we do in science studies and the audiences for whom we do it.
By way of wrapping up, let me just note that today Krauss published some clarifying thoughts on philosophers, spurred partly by his friend Dan Dennett’s suggestion that it sounded like he was condemning philosophy as a whole. There, he moves even further from the position on public engagement that I’ve staked out for him – which is too bad, in a sense.
Why? Because when he concludes by defining “bad” philosophy as that which goes beyond describing what we (scientifically) know, what we might know, and what we can’t, he just barely misses making the point that we might all think more about how disciplinary puzzle-solving relates to what’s interesting about what we (and scientists) do as expressed in ordinary language.