The Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics (F34PPP)

Philip Moriarty and Penny Gowland, School of Physics and Astronomy. University of Nottingham

Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts 
RP Feynman (1918 – 1988)

What is physics? More broadly, what is science? And what is it about the scientific method that has made it so successful in explaining the world, and the Universe, around us? Does Feynman’s definition above really capture the essence of science?

We’ll be exploring these types of question in F34PPP. But we’ll also go beyond philosophical musings to cover key aspects of the history and sociology of science. These play an essential role in determining just how the politics surrounding scientic research (and data) plays out. Some sociologists would say that science can never be totally objective — that all scientific results, including the laws of physics, are “tainted” by cultural and social bias. I’ll show you a number of examples where the traditional picture of disinterested scientists chasing after objective truth does indeed break down. This is rather unsettling for a physicist to take on board, and represents a challenge to our perception of the reliability of the scientic method. It also raises serious ethical issues if fraudulent data are involved.

As Alan Sokal showed during the “science wars” of the mid- to late-nineties, however, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Science, and physics in particular, is remarkably good at producing quantitative, reproducible, and reliable laws and predictions. This is one reason why politicians like to trumpet the value of evidence-based policy. But in reality, just how important is scientific evidence when it comes to government policy? And why should governments fund scientific research in the first place?

These are just some of the themes we’ll cover in F34PPP.

I aim to keep the module as topical as possible so the content will vary somewhat from year to year. The slides and videos for the 2019-2020 session are provided below and student coursework for the module is available at the F34PPP blog. The following F34PPP coursework articles have also been published by Physics World, with a fourth, written by Elizabeth Taylor and on the subject of the generational divide in climate change (for the 2019-2020 session of PPP), due to be published soon.

August 2017 — Andrew Coe: A new mindset (See also this post written by Andrew for the School of Physics and Astronomy blog).

March 2016 — Aaron Iftikhar: Is physics just for the rich?

March 2015 — Luke Sibbett: Creating better opportunities

Handouts, Slides and Videos 

0. Introduction to PPP 2020/2021 Please ignore references to Prof. Almaini in the video below. This was made before it was known that Prof. Gowland would be the PPP co-convenor this year. My apologies.

1. Science Proves Nothing [Click on link to download slides used in the video below.]

2. What Is University For?


Additional Resources

In addition to the textbooks listed above, I also enthusiastically recommend the following books, videos, and blogs.

Gravity’s Kiss, Are We All Scientific Experts Now?, and Tacit & Explicit Knowledge, by Harry Collins. Harry will be an invited speaker for this year’s PPP module.

The Death of Expertise. Beg, borrow, or steal this*. (*Disclaimer: Don’t do the latter.) It’ll certainly feature more than once during the F34PPP module.

Calling bullshit. A course — yes, a genuine course — at the University of Washington designed and delivered by Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West for the reasons described here.

ContraPoints: Debating the Alt-Right This dissection of the pros and cons of debating is worth watching. (See also this discussion with Philosophy Tube on the value (or otherwise) of debate. And on the subject of Philosophy Tube…)

Philosophy Tube This is a fascinating channel that “gives away a philosophy degree for free”.

An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. Kent W Staley (Cambridge University Press, 2014). This is an engagingly written introduction.

University Inc. The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education. Jennifer Washburn, Basic Books (2005). Although it is over a decade since Washburn’s book was published, it remains a compelling overview of the evolution of the objectives of the higher education sector in the US.

The Great University Gamble. Andrew McGettigan, PlutoPress (2013). McGettigan’s book explores some of the same themes as covered in Washburn’s analysis but from a UK perspective. As the promotional ‘blurb’ puts it, “What will be the role of universities within society? How will they be funded? What kind of experiences will they offer students? Where does the public interest lie? With privatisation infringing on our universities and colleges education is threatened with transformation from a public good into a private, individual financial investment.”

Blogs and bloggers (in no particular order)


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