INITIAL REACTIONS: Drum says "fabric" is close enough!


Part 1—Not Isaacson's fault, scribe says:
This morning's Washington Post includes a brief but intriguing report.

The report was written by Valerie Strauss, a long-time education blogger for the Post. In the hard-copy paper, it appears beneath this headline:

"What to believe about Albert Einstein's childhood and education"

In hard copy, Strauss' report is just 507 words long; it's derived from this blog post, which is slightly longer. The report appears on page B2 in this morning's Metro section. On most Mondays, the page is devoted to education reports.

Strauss' report isn't especially long; it isn't prominently placed. That said, we think it's a fascinating report. Strauss begins like this:
STRAUSS (2/22/16): There is huge news in the science world: Scientists just announced that they have detected gravitational waves from the merging of two black holes in deep space—something predicted a century ago by Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

The finding serves to underscore—again—the prodigious genius of Einstein, a theoretical physicist whose work fundamentally changed the way humans view and understand their world.

The outlines of his life story are well known: He was born in Germany in 1879, worked as a patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland, starting in 1905, and in 1915 completed the earth-shattering General Theory of Relativity, which helped explain how space, time and gravity interact and propelled him into the scientific stratosphere.
Strauss goes on to answer some questions about Einstein's childhood and about his education. These are the findings in the slightly longer blog post:

It isn't clear that Einstein started talking late, as he once seemed to say. It would be wrong to say that he was a bad student, as is sometimes claimed.

No, he never flunked math, Strauss says. Beyond that, "the evidence strongly suggests that he was not" dyslexic.

One last point:

According to Strauss, "researchers at Cambridge and Oxford" said, apparently in 2003, that they believed that Einstein "displayed signs of Asperger’s as a young child."

Was that a sound judgment? We have no idea, but as we all know, "researchers" have said everything that possibly could be said at some point in time.

Most shocking was Strauss' claim that Einstein declared, at age 13, that Kant was his favorite author, based upon his reading of the “Critique of Pure Reason.” Flawlessly, we imagined the scene as the youngster announced his judgment:

"He had me at 'the transcendental unity of apperception is that unity through which all the manifold given in an intuition is united in a concept of the object,' " we pictured the youngster telling the elders. Of course, everyone gets to make a mistake, or so we say around here.

Strauss focused on Einstein as a child. For ourselves, we were intrigued by those first three paragraphs, in which she set the stage for her rumination.

No, it doesn't actually matter, but we couldn't helping wondering this:

How many readers of the Post could discuss "gravitational waves" in any significant way? Put a bit more baldly, how many readers have any idea what gravitational waves actually are?

Our second question cuts a bit closer to the bone:

How many readers of the Post could discuss what it means when Strauss says that the General Theory of Relativity "helps explain how space, time and gravity interact?" How far could the typical reader get with any such discussion?

How far could the typical reader get? Not far at all, we'd guess. That said, nothing actually turns on the fact that most of us couldn't discuss these subjects. In the conduct of our daily lives, it doesn't actually "matter."

Various other situations don't actually "matter" either. It doesn't matter if a string of best-selling books about relativity will, in the end, be incomprehensible to the vast bulk of readers.

It doesn't matter if those best-selling books give rise to multi-part PBS programs which would also be very hard for the typical viewer to discuss, summarize or explain.

In the vast sweep of things, it doesn't matter if reviewers at major newspapers swear that those incoherent best-selling books make relativity so easy to understand that even a dachshund could get it.

Some folks may shell out money for books they won't understand in the end. That too won't be the end of the world, especially since many such people may not realize that they didn't understand the books!

In the real world, nothing turns on the average person's ability to discuss or explain any of Einstein's discoveries. It doesn't matter that professors have produced a wave of books that no one actually understands, despite what reviewers say.

It doesn't matter that this syndrome exists. That said, we've long thought that this is a fascinating part of our academic and journalistic cultures. And no, the phenomenon isn't restricted to books that purportedly make Einstein easy, although Einstein-made-easy is the leading edge in a fascinating publishing/PBS industrial complex which purports to make a wide array of academic subjects accessible to us the laymen and shlubs.

(Have you ever read Professor Dennett's 1991 book, Consciousness Explained? Twenty-five years later, we haven't read it either! Eventually, we'll try to explain. We'll also examine a set of puzzling but reliably lauded mathematics-made-easy books.)

Are our basic judgments correct about this intriguing realm? Is there a set of Einstein-made-easy best-selling books which actually don't make Einstein easy? Have reviewers and professors reliably vouched for the clarity of these books despite their incoherence? Does PBS keep airing programs which don't make Einstein easy? Last November, was Nova's treatment of Einstein's lady on the fast-moving train an instant classic in the field of non-elucidation?

We began advancing such claims last week. Over the weekend, our favorite blogger responded.

To tell you the truth, we aren't real sure whether his posts agreed with our claims or took the opposite stance. In each of his two weekend posts, he seemed to be arguing both sides of the issue at various times.

That said:

On Saturday, Kevin Drum discussed our incomparable complaints about a passage near the start of Walter Isaacson's best-selling book, Einstein: His Life and Universe. (For Sunday's post by Drum, click this.)

We had said we were forced to describe Isaacson's passage as bafflegab. "Somerby is complaining about a big problem here," Drum said. "But it's not Isaacson's fault."

His analysis continued from there. In comments, we the people joined in.

For what it's worth, we're not after "fault" or blame as we examine this fascinating part of academic culture. In the main, we're looking for coherence and comprehension.

Eventually, Drum seemed to say that bafflegab is close enough for Einstein-made-easy work, especially since such work is aimed at us the laymen. He specifically referred to the puzzling claim that spacetime, whatever that is, is or should or can be viewed as some sort of "fabric."

It's sometimes said that Drum is no Kant, but he's our favorite blogger. Could someone possibly tell the Maddow Show about his fantastic work on lead?

Tomorrow, we'll look more closely at what he said about that Isaacson passage. We'll also be posing this thoughtful question:

Whatever happened to standards?

Tomorrow: "For laymen, fabric is fine"

Coming: Certainty voiced in some comments


  1. What is the point of this series?

    You could also say: "How many readers of the Post could discuss what it means when Strauss says that Einstein displayed signs of Asperger's as a young child?" How far could the typical reader get with any such discussion [without reference to Sheldon Cooper]?"

    For one thing, psychologists don't like to put labels on young children. For another, it isn't clear what symptoms would indicate Asperger's in a young child, especially an intellectually gifted child. For a third thing, the diagnosis of Asperger's itself is controversial and some psychologists don't believe it belongs on the autism spectrum or that it is necessarily a disorder. A fourth point is that Asperger's has captured the imagination of school psychologists to the point that large amounts of money are being spent on children who may not need the intervention, because it provides backdoor funding to school for special services.

    I find myself wondering why people like Kevin Drum and Bob Somerby, neither of whom has the proper background to understand theoretical physics, labor so mightily at reading these books.
    It doesn't make you smart to do so, nor does it make you dumb if you cannot understand them. It doesn't make the general public any better educated to read the equivalent of a physics self-help book and feel knowledgeable without the slightest clue how this stuff matters in our world. Indeed Somerby has said it does not matter. I doubt that is true.

    Somerby forgot to mention that Einstein is also being claimed as a religious person and by atheists, based on selective reading of his letters. Picking and choosing personality characteristics and childhood anecdotes to suit one's desired conclusion is no more justified.

    Einstein sounds like an arrogant, thoroughly unpleasant, self-absorbed person during his adolescence and young adulthood. He treated his wife miserably. Later he was canonized and apparently acquired some wisdom. You can be an arrogant jerk without being autistic, even Aspergian.

    1. "What is the point of this series?", you ask.

      Who knows. Bob clearly does not. He numbered it, but he has not even named it. Perhaps by Part 5 he will have a name. And a point. By Part 7 all that may change, however.

    2. Oh clearly, the point is this: Since Bob doesn't understand completely how the universe works, neither can the "average reader of the Post," and thus both science and journalism have failed us.

  2. The purpose of trade press books on arcane subjects is to attract contributions to the endowments of universities. This game is especially played by the Ivy league schools, Harvard, Yale, Princeton. Faculty are pressured to write such books with the expectation that they will become bestsellers if sufficient accessible anecdotes and thought experiments (ladies on trains) are included. This is part of how we fund higher education.

    People in the actual fields working in research do not read these lay or trade press books. They are a waste of time, even for smart undergrads.

    Somerby should be differentiating between the actual discussion conducted by intellectuals in various fields among themselves and the dog and pony show produced to obtain money and prestige for their universities. If he thinks these trade books gloss difficult subjects to the point that they become meaningless, he should go read the actual literature -- but without the proper preparation, he will find that frustrating and no doubt give up.

    Is he seriously complaining that one cannot become a competent physicist by reading an accessible book in one's spare time? Why would he think that should be possible?


    2. How Trump-like of you Nona Nym"

      An ad hominem, short for argumentum ad hominem, is an attack on an argument made by attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, rather than attacking the argument directly.

  3. Drum's lead thesis is controversial too. Someone who thinks he should be able to grasp general relativity should grapple with the controversies in Drum's proposed explanation, not just swallow it whole.

    1. Lead is not like a fabric.

    2. You are right. Lead is a thesis. And best if unswallowed.

    3. You've gone from "not just swallow it whole" to "unswallowed." Which is it, Dr. Slippery Slope?

    4. Not just swallow it whole and unswallowed came from different commenters.

  4. Anon Feb 22 11:40AM -- Reading about general relativity made me smart. It might work for you, too.

    1. Feeling smart and being smart and two different things and they don't necessarily go together.

    2. But not necessarily smart enough to figure out how to reply to a person under that person's post.

    3. I was replying to @12:36 impCaesarAvg. How is my reply in the wrong place?

    4. Can we measure how dumb @ 1:25 is in two dimensions? Or is being self centered dumb?

    5. General relativity is a heck of a lot more interesting than any comment system.

    6. Don't be so hard on yourself, Ceez.

  5. Close enough is not good enough when doing science. Thinking that way is a bad habit.

  6. "In comments, we the people joined in."

    When one of Drum's readers took a shot at Somerby, Somerby responded. When the commenter came back for more, Somerby fled the scene.

  7. "Eventually, Drum seemed to say that bafflegab is close enough for Einstein-made-easy work, especially since such work is aimed at us the laymen."

    Eventually, Drum seemed to say Bob doesn't understand philosophy either. He also seemed to ignore the term bafflegab after guoting Bob using it.

  8. Last October the Post's Valerie Straus had an intriguing report Bob Somerby avoided like the plague.

    You might say he disppeared it even though it stuck out like a bad rule of thumb.

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