Category Archives: Science Communication

Keeping It Colloquial

In the corners of academia where I hang out, a colloquium is a special kind of talk. Most talks we give are part of weekly seminars for specific groups. For example, the theoretical particle physicists here have a seminar. Each week we invite a speaker, who gives a talk on their recent work. Since they expect an audience of theoretical particle physicists, they can go into more detail.

A colloquium isn’t like that. Colloquia are talks for the whole department: theorists and experimentalists, particle physicists and biophysicists. They’re more prestigious, for big famous professors (or sometimes, for professors interviewing for jobs…). The different audience, and different context, means that the talk plays by different rules.

Recently, I saw a conference full of “colloquium-style” talks, trying to play by these rules. Some succeeded, some didn’t…and I think I now have a better idea of how those rules work.

First, in a colloquium, you’re not just speaking for yourself. You’re an ambassador for your field. For some of the audience, this might be the first time they’ve heard a talk by someone who does your kind of research. You want to give them a good impression, not just about you, but about the whole topic. So while you definitely want to mention your own work, you want to tell a full story, one that gives more than a glimpse of what others are doing as well.

Second, you want to connect to something the audience already knows. With an audience of physicists, you can assume a certain baseline, but not much more than that. You need to make the beginning accessible and start with something familiar. For the conference I mentioned, a talk that did this well was the talk on exoplanets, which started with the familiar planets of the solar system, classifying them in order to show what you might expect exoplanets to look like. In contrast, t’Hooft’s talk did this poorly. His work is exploiting a loophole in a quantum-mechanical argument called Bell’s theorem, which most physicists have heard of. Instead of mentioning Bell’s theorem, he referred vaguely to “criteria from philosophers”, and only even mentioned that near the end of the talk, instead starting with properties of quantum mechanics his audience was much less familiar with.

Moving on, then, you want to present a mystery. So far, everything in the talk has made sense, and your audience feels like they understand. Now, you show them something that doesn’t fit, something their familiar model can’t accommodate. This activates your audience’s scientist instincts: they’re curious now, they want to know the answer. A good example from the conference was a talk on chemistry in space. The speaker emphasized that we can see evidence of complex molecules in space, but that space dust is so absurdly dilute that it seems impossible such molecules could form: two atoms could go a billion years without meeting each other.

You can’t just leave your audience mystified, though. You next have to solve the mystery. Ideally, your solution will be something smart, but simple: something your audience can intuitively understand. This has two benefits. First, it makes you look smart: you described a mysterious problem, and then you show how to solve it! Second, it makes the audience feel smart: they felt the problem was hard, but now they understand how to solve it too. The audience will have good feelings about you as a result, and good feelings about the topic: in some sense, you’ve tied a piece of their self-esteem to knowing the solution to your problem. This was well-done by the speaker discussing space chemistry, who explained that the solution was chemistry on surfaces: if two atoms are on the surface of a dust grain or meteorite, they’re much more likely to react. It was also well-done by a speaker discussing models of diseases like diabetes: he explained the challenge of controlling processes with cells, when cells replicate exponentially, and showed one way they could be controlled, when the immune system kills off any cells that replicate much faster than their neighbors. (He also played the guitar to immune system-themed songs…also a good colloquium strategy for those who can pull it off!)

Finally, a picture is worth a thousand wordsas long as it’s a clear one. For an audience that won’t follow most of your equations, it’s crucial to show them something visual: graphics, puns, pictures of equipment or graphs. Crucially, though, your graphics should be something the audience can understand. If you put up a graph with a lot of incomprehensible detail: parameters you haven’t explained, or just set up in a way your audience doesn’t get, then your audience gets stuck. Much like an unfamiliar word, a mysterious graph will have members of the audience scratching their heads, trying to figure out what it means. They’ll be so busy trying, they’ll miss what you say next, and you’ll lose them! So yes, put in graphs, put in pictures: but make sure that the ones you use, you have time to explain.

What Are Students? We Just Don’t Know

I’m taking a pedagogy course at the moment, a term-long follow-up to the one-week intro course I took in the spring. The course begins with yet another pedagogical innovation, a “pre-project”. Before the course has really properly started, we get assembled into groups and told to investigate our students. We are supposed to do interviews on a few chosen themes, all with the objective of getting to know our students better. I’m guessing the point is to sharpen our goals, so that when we start learning pedagogy we’ll have a clearer idea of what problems we’d like to solve.

The more I think about this the more I’m looking forward to it. When I TAed in the past, some of the students were always a bit of a mystery. They sat in the back, skipped assignments, and gradually I saw less and less of them. They didn’t go to office hours or the help room, and I always wondered what happened. When in the course did they “turn off”, when did we lose them? They seemed like a kind of pedagogical dark matter, observable only by their presence on the rosters. I’m hoping to detect a little of that dark matter here.

As it’s a group project, we came up with a theme as a group, and questions to support that theme (in particular, we’re focusing on the different experiences between Danes and international students). Since the topic is on my mind in general though, I thought it would be fun to reach out to you guys. Educators in the comments: if you could ask your students one question, what would it be? Students, what is one thing you think your teachers are missing?

The arXiv SciComm Challenge

Fellow science communicators, think you can explain everything that goes on in your field? If so, I have a challenge for you. Pick a day, and go through all the new papers on arXiv.org in a single area. For each one, try to give a general-audience explanation of what the paper is about. To make it easier, you can ignore cross-listed papers. If your field doesn’t use arXiv, consider if you can do the challenge with another appropriate site.

I’ll start. I’m looking at papers in the “High Energy Physics – Theory” area, announced 6 Jan, 2022. I’ll warn you in advance that I haven’t read these papers, just their abstracts, so apologies if I get your paper wrong!

arXiv:2201.01303 : Holographic State Complexity from Group Cohomology

This paper says it is a contribution to a Proceedings. That means it is based on a talk given at a conference. In my field, a talk like this usually won’t be presenting new results, but instead summarizes results in a previous paper. So keep that in mind.

There is an idea in physics called holography, where two theories are secretly the same even though they describe the world with different numbers of dimensions. Usually this involves a gravitational theory in a “box”, and a theory without gravity that describes the sides of the box. The sides turn out to fully describe the inside of the box, much like a hologram looks 3D but can be printed on a flat sheet of paper. Using this idea, physicists have connected some properties of gravity to properties of the theory on the sides of the box. One of those properties is complexity: the complexity of the theory on the sides of the box says something about gravity inside the box, in particular about the size of wormholes. The trouble is, “complexity” is a bit subjective: it’s not clear how to give a good definition for it for this type of theory. In this paper, the author studies a theory with a precise mathematical definition, called a topological theory. This theory turns out to have mathematical properties that suggest a well-defined notion of complexity for it.

arXiv:2201.01393 : Nonrelativistic effective field theories with enhanced symmetries and soft behavior

We sometimes describe quantum field theory as quantum mechanics plus relativity. That’s not quite true though, because it is possible to define a quantum field theory that doesn’t obey special relativity, a non-relativistic theory. Physicists do this if they want to describe a system moving much slower than the speed of light: it gets used sometimes for nuclear physics, and sometimes for modeling colliding black holes.

In particle physics, a “soft” particle is one with almost no momentum. We can classify theories based on how they behave when a particle becomes more and more soft. In normal quantum field theories, if they have special behavior when a particle becomes soft it’s often due to a symmetry of the theory, where the theory looks the same even if something changes. This paper shows that this is not true for non-relativistic theories: they have more requirements to have special soft behavior, not just symmetry. They “bootstrap” a few theories, using some general restrictions to find them without first knowing how they work (“pulling them up by their own bootstraps”), and show that the theories they find are in a certain sense unique, the only theories of that kind.

arXiv:2201.01552 : Transmutation operators and expansions for 1-loop Feynman integrands

In recent years, physicists in my sub-field have found new ways to calculate the probability that particles collide. One of these methods describes ordinary particles in a way resembling string theory, and from this discovered a whole “web” of theories that were linked together by small modifications of the method. This method originally worked only for the simplest Feynman diagrams, the “tree” diagrams that correspond to classical physics, but was extended to the next-simplest diagrams, diagrams with one “loop” that start incorporating quantum effects.

This paper concerns a particular spinoff of this method, that can find relationships between certain one-loop calculations in a particularly efficient way. It lets you express calculations of particle collisions in a variety of theories in terms of collisions in a very simple theory. Unlike the original method, it doesn’t rely on any particular picture of how these collisions work, either Feynman diagrams or strings.

arXiv:2201.01624 : Moduli and Hidden Matter in Heterotic M-Theory with an Anomalous U(1) Hidden Sector

In string theory (and its more sophisticated cousin M theory), our four-dimensional world is described as a world with more dimensions, where the extra dimensions are twisted up so that they cannot be detected. The shape of the extra dimensions influences the kinds of particles we can observe in our world. That shape is described by variables called “moduli”. If those moduli are stable, then the properties of particles we observe would be fixed, otherwise they would not be. In general it is a challenge in string theory to stabilize these moduli and get a world like what we observe.

This paper discusses shapes that give rise to a “hidden sector”, a set of particles that are disconnected from the particles we know so that they are hard to observe. Such particles are often proposed as a possible explanation for dark matter. This paper calculates, for a particular kind of shape, what the masses of different particles are, as well as how different kinds of particles can decay into each other. For example, a particle that causes inflation (the accelerating expansion of the universe) can decay into effects on the moduli and dark matter. The paper also shows how some of the moduli are made stable in this picture.

arXiv:2201.01630 : Chaos in Celestial CFT

One variant of the holography idea I mentioned earlier is called “celestial” holography. In this picture, the sides of the box are an infinite distance away: a “celestial sphere” depicting the angles particles go after they collide, in the same way a star chart depicts the angles between stars. Recent work has shown that there is something like a sensible theory that describes physics on this celestial sphere, that contains all the information about what happens inside.

This paper shows that the celestial theory has a property called quantum chaos. In physics, a theory is said to be chaotic if it depends very precisely on its initial conditions, so that even a small change will result in a large change later (the usual metaphor is a butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane). This kind of behavior appears to be present in this theory.

arXiv:2201.01657 : Calculations of Delbrück scattering to all orders in αZ

Delbrück scattering is an effect where the nuclei of heavy elements like lead can deflect high-energy photons, as a consequence of quantum field theory. This effect is apparently tricky to calculate, and previous calculations have involved approximations. This paper finds a way to calculate the effect without those approximations, which should let it match better with experiments.

(As an aside, I’m a little confused by the claim that they’re going to all orders in αZ when it looks like they just consider one-loop diagrams…but this is probably just my ignorance, this is a corner of the field quite distant from my own.)

arXiv:2201.01674 : On Unfolded Approach To Off-Shell Supersymmetric Models

Supersymmetry is a relationship between two types of particles: fermions, which typically make up matter, and bosons, which are usually associated with forces. In realistic theories this relationship is “broken” and the two types of particles have different properties, but theoretical physicists often study models where supersymmetry is “unbroken” and the two types of particles have the same mass and charge. This paper finds a new way of describing some theories of this kind that reorganizes them in an interesting way, using an “unfolded” approach in which aspects of the particles that would normally be combined are given their own separate variables.

(This is another one I don’t know much about, this is the first time I’d heard of the unfolded approach.)

arXiv:2201.01679 : Geometric Flow of Bubbles

String theorists have conjectured that only some types of theories can be consistently combined with a full theory of quantum gravity, others live in a “swampland” of non-viable theories. One set of conjectures characterizes this swampland in terms of “flows” in which theories with different geometry can flow in to each other. The properties of these flows are supposed to be related to which theories are or are not in the swampland.

This paper writes down equations describing these flows, and applies them to some toy model “bubble” universes.

arXiv:2201.01697 : Graviton scattering amplitudes in first quantisation

This paper is a pedagogical one, introducing graduate students to a topic rather than presenting new research.

Usually in quantum field theory we do something called “second quantization”, thinking about the world not in terms of particles but in terms of fields that fill all of space and time. However, sometimes one can instead use “first quantization”, which is much more similar to ordinary quantum mechanics. There you think of a single particle traveling along a “world-line”, and calculate the probability it interacts with other particles in particular ways. This approach has recently been used to calculate interactions of gravitons, particles related to the gravitational field in the same way photons are related to the electromagnetic field. The approach has some advantages in terms of simplifying the results, which are described in this paper.

Outreach Talk on Math’s Role in Physics

Tonight is “Culture Night” in Copenhagen, the night when the city throws open its doors and lets the public in. Museums and hospitals, government buildings and even the Freemasons, all have public events. The Niels Bohr Institute does too, of course: an evening of physics exhibits and demos, capped off with a public lecture by Denmark’s favorite bow-tie wearing weirder-than-usual string theorist, Holger Bech Nielsen. In between, there are a number of short talks by various folks at the institute, including yours truly.

In my talk, I’m going to try and motivate the audience to care about math. Math is dry of course, and difficult for some, but we physicists need it to do our jobs. If you want to be precise about a claim in physics, you need math simply to say what you want clearly enough.

Since you guys likely don’t overlap with my audience tonight, it should be safe to give a little preview. I’ll be using a few examples, but this one is the most complicated:

I’ll be telling a story I stole from chapter seven of the web serial Almost Nowhere. (That link is to the first chapter, by the way, in case you want to read the series without spoilers. It’s very strange, very unique, and at least in my view quite worth reading.) You follow a warrior carrying a spear around a globe in two different paths. The warrior tries to always point in the same direction, but finds that the two different paths result in different spears when they meet. The story illustrates that such a simple concept as “what direction you are pointing” isn’t actually so simple: if you want to think about directions in curved space (like the surface of the Earth, but also, like curved space-time in general relativity) then you need more sophisticated mathematics (a notion called parallel transport) to make sense of it.

It’s kind of an advanced concept for a public talk. But seeing it show up in Almost Nowhere inspired me to try to get it across. I’ll let you know how it goes!

By the way, if you are interested in learning the kinds of mathematics you need for theoretical physics, and you happen to be a Bachelor’s student planning to pursue a PhD, then consider the Perimeter Scholars International Master’s Program! It’s a one-year intensive at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario, in Canada. In a year it gives you a crash course in theoretical physics, giving you tools that will set you ahead of other beginning PhD students. I’ve witnessed it in action, and it’s really remarkable how much the students learn in a year, and what they go on to do with it. Their early registration deadline is on November 15, just a month away, so if you’re interested you may want to start thinking about it.

The Winding Path of a Physics Conversation

In my line of work, I spend a lot of time explaining physics. I write posts here of course, and give the occasional public lecture. I also explain physics when I supervise Master’s students, and in a broader sense whenever I chat with my collaborators or write papers. I’ll explain physics even more when I start teaching. But of all the ways to explain physics, there’s one that has always been my favorite: the one-on-one conversation.

Talking science one-on-one is validating in a uniquely satisfying way. You get instant feedback, questions when you’re unclear and comprehension when you’re close. There’s a kind of puzzle to it, discovering what you need to fill in the gaps in one particular person’s understanding. As a kid, I’d chase this feeling with imaginary conversations: I’d plot out a chat with Democritus or Newton, trying to explain physics or evolution or democracy. It was a game, seeing how I could ground our modern understanding in concepts someone from history already knew.

Way better than Parcheesi

I’ll never get a chance in real life to explain physics to a Democritus or a Newton, to bridge a gap quite that large. But, as I’ve discovered over the years, everyone has bits and pieces they don’t yet understand. Even focused on the most popular topics, like black holes or elementary particles, everyone has gaps in what they’ve managed to pick up. I do too! So any conversation can be its own kind of adventure, discovering what that one person knows, what they don’t, and how to connect the two.

Of course, there’s fun in writing and public speaking too (not to mention, of course, research). Still, I sometimes wonder if there’s a career out there in just the part I like best: just one conversation after another, delving deep into one person’s understanding, making real progress, then moving on to the next. It wouldn’t be efficient by any means, but it sure sounds fun.

Is Outreach for Everyone?

Betteridge’s law applies here: the answer is “no”. It’s a subtle “no”, though.

As a scientist, you will always need to be able to communicate your work. Most of the time you can get away with papers and talks aimed at your peers. But the longer you mean to stick around, the more often you will have to justify yourself to others: to departments, to universities, and to grant agencies. A scientist cannot survive on scientific ability alone: to get jobs, to get funding, to survive, you need to be able to promote yourself, at least a little.

Self-promotion isn’t outreach, though. Talking to the public, or to journalists, is a different skill from talking to other academics or writing grants. And it’s entirely possible to go through an entire scientific career without exercising that skill.

That’s a reassuring message for some. I’ve met people for whom science is a refuge from the mess of human interaction, people horrified by the thought of fame or even being mentioned in a newspaper. When I meet these people, they sometimes seem to worry that I’m silently judging them, thinking that they’re ignoring their responsibilities by avoiding outreach. They think this in part because the field seems to be going in that direction. Grants that used to focus just on science have added outreach as a requirement, demanding that each application come with a plan for some outreach project.

I can’t guarantee that more grants won’t add outreach requirements. But I can say at least that I’m on your side here: I don’t think you should have to do outreach if you don’t want to. I don’t think you have to, just yet. And I think if grant agencies are sensible, they’ll find a way to encourage outreach without making it mandatory.

I think that overall, collectively, we have a responsibility to do outreach. Beyond the old arguments about justifying ourselves to taxpayers, we also just ought to be open about what we do. In a world where people are actively curious about us, we ought to encourage and nurture that curiosity. I don’t think this is unique to science, I think it’s something every industry, every hobby, and every community should foster. But in each case, I think that communication should be done by people who want to do it, not forced on every member.

I also think that, potentially, anyone can do outreach. Outreach can take different forms for different people, anything from speaking to high school students to talking to journalists to writing answers for Stack Exchange. I don’t think anyone should feel afraid of outreach because they think they won’t be good enough. Chances are, you know something other people don’t: I guarantee if you want to, you will have something worth saying.

“Inreach”

This is, first and foremost, an outreach blog. I try to make my writing as accessible as possible, so that anyone from high school students to my grandparents can learn something. My goal is to get the general public to know a bit more about physics, and about the people who do it, both to better understand the world and to view us in a better light.

However, as I am occasionally reminded, my readers aren’t exactly the general public. I’ve done polls, and over 60% of you either have a PhD in physics, or are on your way to one. The rest include people with what one might call an unusually strong interest in physics: engineers with a fondness for the (2,0) theory, or retired lawyers who like to debate dark matter.

With that in mind, am I really doing outreach? Or am I doing some sort of “inreach” instead?

First, it’s important to remember that just because someone is a physicist doesn’t mean they’re an expert in everything. This is especially relevant when I talk about my own sub-field, but it matters for other topics too: experts in one part of physics can still find something to learn, and it’s still worth getting on their good side. Still, if that was my main audience, I’d probably want to strike a different tone, more like the colloquium talks we give for our fellow physicists.

Second, I like to think that outreach “trickles down”. I write for a general audience, and get read by “physics fans”, but they will go on to talk about physics to anyone who will listen: to parents who want to understand what they do, to people they’re trying to impress at parties, to friends they share articles with. If I write good metaphors and clear analogies, they will get passed on to those friends and parents, and the “inreach” will become outreach. I know that’s why I read other physicists’ outreach blogs: I’m looking for new tricks to make ideas clearer.

Third, active readers are not all readers. The people who answer a poll are more likely to be regulars, people who come back to the blog again and again, and those people are pretty obviously interested in physics. (Interested doesn’t mean expert, of course…but in practice, far more non-experts read blogs on, say, military history, than on physics.) But I suspect most of my readers aren’t regulars. My most popular post, “The Way You Think Everything Is Connected Isn’t the Way Everything Is Connected”, gets a trickle of new views every day. WordPress lets me see some of the search terms people use to find it, and there are people who literally google “is everything connected?” These aren’t physics PhDs looking for content, these are members of the general public who hear something strange and confusing and want to check it out. Being that check, the source someone googles to clear things up, that’s an honor. Knowing I’m serving that role, I know I’m not doing “just inreach”: I’m reaching out too.

This Week, at Scattering-Amplitudes.com

I did a guest post this week, on an outreach site for the Max Planck Institute for Physics. The new Director of their Quantum Field Theory Department, Johannes Henn, has been behind a lot of major developments in scattering amplitudes. He was one of the first to notice just how symmetric N=4 super Yang-Mills is, as well as the first to build the “hexagon functions” that would become my stock-in-trade. He’s also done what we all strive to do, and applied what he learned to the real world, coming up with an approach to differential equations that has become the gold standard for many different amplitudes calculations.

Now in his new position, he has a swanky new outreach site, reached at the conveniently memorable scattering-amplitudes.com and managed by outreach-ologist Sorana Scholtes. They started a fun series recently called “Talking Terms” as a kind of glossary, explaining words that physicists use over and over again. My guest post for them is part of that series. It hearkens all the way back to one of my first posts, defining what “theory” means to a theoretical physicist. It covers something new as well, a phrase I don’t think I’ve ever explained on this blog: “working in a theory”. You can check it out on their site!

Truth Doesn’t Have to Break the (Word) Budget

Imagine you saw this headline:

Scientists Say They’ve Found the Missing 40 Percent of the Universe’s Matter

It probably sounds like they’re talking about dark matter, right? And if scientists found dark matter, that could be a huge discovery: figuring out what dark matter is made of is one of the biggest outstanding mysteries in physics. Still, maybe that 40% number makes you a bit suspicious…

Now, read this headline instead:

Astronomers Have Finally Found Most of The Universe’s Missing Visible Matter

Visible matter! Ah, what a difference a single word makes!

These are two articles, the first from this year and the second from 2017, talking about the same thing. Leave out dark matter and dark energy, and the rest of the universe is made of ordinary protons, neutrons, and electrons. We sometimes call that “visible matter”, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to spot. Much of it lingers in threads of gas and dust between galaxies, making it difficult to detect. These two articles are about astronomers who managed to detect this matter in different ways. But while the articles cover the same sort of matter, one headline is a lot more misleading.

Now, I know science writing is hard work. You can’t avoid misleading your readers, if only a little, because you can never include every detail. Introduce too many new words and you’ll use up your “vocabulary budget” and lose your audience. I also know that headlines get tweaked by editors at the last minute to maximize “clicks”, and that news that doesn’t get enough “clicks” dies out, replaced by news that does.

But that second headline? It’s shorter than the first. They were able to fit that crucial word “visible” in, without breaking the budget. And while I don’t have the data, I doubt the first headline was that much more viral. They could have afforded to get this right, if they wanted to.

Read each article further, and you see the same pattern. The 2020 article does mention visible matter in the first sentence at least, so they don’t screw that one up completely. But another important detail never gets mentioned.

See, you might be wondering, if one of these articles is from 2017 and the other is from 2020, how are they talking about the same thing? If astronomers found this matter already in 2017, how did they find it again in 2020?

There’s a key detail that the 2017 article mentions and the 2020 article leaves out. Here’s a quote from the 2017 article, emphasis mine:

We now have our first solid piece of evidence that this matter has been hiding in the delicate threads of cosmic webbing bridging neighbouring galaxies, right where the models predicted.

This “missing” matter was expected to exist, was predicted by models to exist. It just hadn’t been observed yet. In 2017, astronomers detected some of this matter indirectly, through its effect on the Cosmic Microwave Background. In 2020, they found it more directly, through X-rays shot out from the gases themselves.

Once again, the difference is just a short phrase. By saying “right where the models predicted”, the 2017 article clears up an important point, that this matter wasn’t a surprise. And all it took was five words.

These little words and phrases make a big difference. If you’re writing about science, you will always face misunderstandings. But if you’re careful and clever, you can clear up the most obvious ones. With just a few well-chosen words, you can have a much better piece.

Socratic Grilling, Crackpots, and Trolls

The blog Slate Star Codex had an interesting post last month, titled Socratic Grilling. The post started with a dialogue, a student arguing with a teacher about germ theory.

Student: Hey, wait. If germs are spread from person to person on touch, why doesn’t the government just mandate one week when nobody is allowed to touch anyone else? Then all the germs will die and we’ll never have to worry about germs again.

Out of context, the student looks like a crackpot. But in context, the student is just trying to learn, practicing a more aggressive version of Socratic questioning which the post dubbed “Socratic grilling”.

The post argued that Socratic grilling is normal and unavoidable, and that experts treat it with far more hostility than they should. Experts often reject this kind of questioning as arrogant, unless the non-expert doing the grilling is hilariously deferential. (The post’s example: “I know I am but a mere student, and nowhere near smart enough to actually challenge you, so I’m sure I’m just misunderstanding this, but the thing you just said seems really confusing to me, and I’m not saying it’s not true, but I can’t figure out how it possibly could be true, which is my fault and not yours, but could you please try to explain it differently?”)

The post made me think a bit about my own relationship with crackpots. I’d like to say that when a non-expert challenges me I listen to them regardless of their tone, that you don’t need to be so deferential around me. In practice, though…well, it certainly helps.

What I want (or at least what I want to want) is not humility, but intellectual humility. You shouldn’t have to talk about how inexperienced you are to get me to listen to you. But you should make clear what you know, how you know it, and what the limits of that evidence are. If I’m right, it helps me understand what you’re misunderstanding. If you’re right, it helps me get why your argument works.

I’ve referred to both non-experts and crackpots in this post. To be clear, I think of one as a subgroup of the other. When I refer to crackpots, I’m thinking of a specific sort of non-expert: one with a very detailed idea they have invested a lot of time and passion into, which the mainstream considers impossible. If you’re just skeptical of general relativity or quantum mechanics, you’re not a crackpot. But if you’ve come up with your own replacement to general relativity or quantum mechanics, you probably are. Note also that, no matter how dumb their ideas, I don’t think of experts in a topic as crackpots on that topic. Garrett Lisi is silly, and probably wrong, but he’s not a crackpot.

A result of this is that crackpots (as I define them) rarely do actual Socratic grilling. For a non-expert who hasn’t developed their own theory, Socratic grilling can be a good way to figure out what the heck those experts are thinking. But for a crackpot, the work they have invested in their ideas means they’re often much less interested in what the experts have to say.

This isn’t always the case. I’ve had some perfectly nice conversations with crackpots. I remember an email exchange with a guy who had drawn what he thought were Feynman diagrams without really knowing what they were, and wanted me to calculate them. While I quit that conversation out of frustration, it was my fault, not his.

Sometimes, though, it’s clear from the tactics that someone isn’t trying to learn. There’s a guy who has tried to post variations of the same comment on this blog sixteen times. He picks a post that mentions math, and uses that as an excuse to bring up his formula for the Hubble constant (“you think you’re so good at math, then explain this!”). He says absolutely nothing about the actual post, and concludes by mentioning that his book is available on Kindle.

It’s pretty clear that spammers like that aren’t trying to learn. They aren’t doing Socratic grilling, they’re just trying (and failing) to get people to buy their book.

It’s less clear how to distinguish Socratic grilling from trolling. Sometimes, someone asks an aggressive series of questions because they think you’re wrong, and want to clarify why. Sometimes, though, someone asks an aggressive series of questions because they want to annoy you.

How can you tell if someone is just trolling? Inconsistency is one way. A Socratic grill-er will have a specific position in mind, even if you can’t quite tell what it is. A troll will say whatever they need to to keep arguing. If it becomes clear that there isn’t any consistent picture behind what the other person is saying, they’re probably just a troll.

In the end, no-one is a perfect teacher. If you aren’t making headway explaining something, if an argument just keeps going in circles, then you probably shouldn’t continue. You may be dealing with a troll, or it might just be honest Socratic grilling, but either way it doesn’t matter: if you’re stuck, you’re stuck, and it’s more productive to back off than to get in a screaming match.

That’s been my philosophy anyway. I engage with Socratic grilling as long as it’s productive, whether or not you’re a crackpot. But if you spam, I’ll block your comments, while if I think you’re trolling or not listening I’ll just stop responding. It’s not worth my time at that point, and it’s not worth yours either.