Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Callow postdocs are often the most caustic, but deadly accurate, observers of the scientific world. A postdoc has to be careful about what he or she says to a senior colleague, but get a few together and pretty soon the real scoop will emerge.

One of my buddies from those days, who is now a well known professor in high energy theory, liked (and likes) to use the term "fraud" to describe other physicists who didn't deserve their positions. So and so is a fraud! Did you see his last paper? Have you ever talked physics with the guy?

Of course, the presence of frauds is inevitable given a random component (sheer luck!) or additional factors (e.g., personal charisma, hype) influencing career success. Below is a figure from an old post on success vs ability. Let the vertical axis be career success and the horizontal axis the ability of the individual. Even if the correlation between the two is as high as .85, we'd still expect to see relatively incompetent individuals in high positions. (Or, equivalently, two individuals of vastly different abilities at the same level of success.) In fact, the correlation between ability and success in academic science is probably anomalously high compared to other fields, with the possible exception of competitive sports.

If you are still unconvinced about the existence of frauds among us, see this research article, as summarized below in the Times magazine.

“The Doctor Fox Lecture: A Paradigm of Educational Seduction,” a 1973 article still widely cited by critics of student evaluations, Donald Naftulin, a psychiatrist, and his co-authors asked an actor to give a lecture titled “Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education.” The actor was a splendid speaker, his talk filled with witticisms and charming asides — but also with “irrelevant, conflicting and meaningless content.” Taking questions afterward, the silver-haired actor playing “Dr. Myron L. Fox” affably answered questions using “double talk, non sequiturs, neologisms and contradictory statements.” The talk was given three times: twice to audiences of psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, the last time to graduate students in educational philosophy. In each case, the evaluations by the audience were highly laudatory. To these audiences, Dr. Fox was apparently articulate and intellectual, not a fraud.

Note: the figure is only meant to illustrate the amount of residual scatter present when two variables have a high but not perfect correlation. It does NOT represent any specific data set.


Carson C. Chow said...

Daniel Kahnamen remarked in a talk at NIH a few years ago that a job interview and especially the job talk was completely useless in determining if a candidate would go on to a successful academic career.

Anonymous said...

"If you want to succeed in science dishonestly," an advisor told me, "write papers noone understands."

There is a Penn and Teller piece on youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9J1b3MqiX8
that shows the same thing in putatively high end a restaurant.

Other examples include:

The USSR under Stalin
Nazi Germany
Formal education
(Steve Hsu: formal education :: Chekist: Stalinism)

If everyone believes and I don't. If I see the emperor is naked, but no one else does. I must be delusional. I am "a minority of one" as Orwell put it.

Give up "teaching" Steve. You're a fraud. All "teachers" are.


Anonymous said...

The "success v. ability" scatter is much less scattered outside the US and Canada. outside the US and Canada social rank is determined indirectly by standardized tests which correlate as highly with g as the SAT or any IQ test.

Although the standard of living in the US and Canada is high, it is embarassingly low for the natural resources of these countries.

Ken said...

Wonder where is the raw data of success vs. ability scatter plot coming from (not in this post and original post?)

Yup, I believed the above statement "The "success v. ability" scatter is much less scattered outside the US and Canada." But probably for other reason. If we want ability to correlate to success, we should have ample opportunities within reach of the talented ppl. So over the years, they will be successful and correlated to the graph, else we will see more highly talented ppls with less successes, in countries less developed and less opportunities than US & Canada.

Somemore, we should give more credits to talented ppl with courage, that takes the initiative to change the environment (i.e., lots of academics are migrant because there are no opportunities in their home countries). This is definitely not easy comparing with those that were born in countries with opportunities. i.e., from reason above, personally I would admire Steve's parents more than himself despite Steve has probably more success.

Ken said...

opps, should be much *more* scatttered outside US & Canada.

gs said...

Maybe some of the "frauds" who don't deserve their positions did deserve them once upon a time.

In my late middle age, I have become sympathetic to the science professor who is trying to hang on to summer salary for one last funding cycle. I admire people who keep plugging away at creative work even if age reduces their ability and energy.

Otoh, to put it mildly, I am skeptical of self-promoting elder sages.
Re the Doctor Fox lecture:

In the 18th century Lord Chesterfield persuaded Parliament to reform the English calendar. From Letter CXXXV to his (illegitimate) son:

...they thought I informed, because I pleased them; and many of them said that I had made
the whole very clear to them; when, God knows, I had not even attempted it.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me that Dr Myron Fox was just a great bs-er on a subject he had some basic level of knowledge of -- today, we might refer to him as Bernie Madoff.

Anonymous said...

It can also happen that a person is accused of being a fraud, because his accusers cannot understand him.

Heidegger, Hegel, and other thinkers have been wrongly so accused.

In general, though, a fraud is protected by the unwillingness of people to admit they don't understand.

Modern physics in large part is a fraud. Very few understand it, but it is completely useless.

Steve Hsu said...

>Modern physics in large part is a fraud.
>Very few understand it, but it is completely useless.

What exactly do you mean by "modern physics"? We couldn't have GPS systems without a proper understanding of both special and general relativity. Quantum mechanics is central to our understanding of chemistry, nanotechnology, lasers, etc.

Frontier physics of the past has become today's technology. There is no reason to doubt this will continue to be the case, albeit in an unpredictable way.

Anonymous said...

The usefulnesss of "modern physics" is measured by the employment prospects of its graduates. Particle/high-energy physics, astrophysics are useless.

Solid-state physics may be useful, but I doubt it. That is, as much would be accomplished without any theory. If a room-temperature superconductor is ever synthesized I can almost guarantee it will by accident.

You yourself have started a company which has nothing to do with your physics expertise, right?

"Frontier physics of the past has become today's technology."

Technology precedes science. Not the other way around. To this day, what engineering requires any physics past 1900? Shockley was mathematically gifted, but did the discovery of the first transistor require any theory?

"Quantum mechanics is central to our understanding of chemistry, nanotechnology, lasers, etc."

Who is "us"? The fact is "quantum-chemstry" is something for a handful of academics only. QM may be central to an "understanding" of the various spectroscopies, but none of them requires any such understanding to be used. They may have required QM for their development. I don't know, but I doubt it.

What about protein structure and rational drug design? For the most part it's a waste of time. But it is in its infancy.

Steve Hsu said...

"The usefulnesss of "modern physics" is measured by the employment prospects of its graduates. Particle/high-energy physics, astrophysics are useless."

This is not a good measure. There is a time lag. Something may turn out to be very useful decades or centuries after its discovery, even if the discovery is only of conceptual interest at the time (e.g., DNA, double helix; linear algebra; public key encryption; QM, ...).

Note that because the economic benefits of pure science cannot usually be captured by the discoverer (even if they are substantial in the long run), market-based systems will tend to under invest in basic research.

You didn't respond to GPS. Relativity is post 1900.

Do you know what an MRI is?

Do you know what x-ray lithography is?

Do you know how your hard drive and flash memory work? Do you know what spintronics is?

Do you know how a laser works? Do you think brute force engineers with no understanding of QM could have developed advanced lasers?

Perhaps even more importantly, frontier work *attracts* the best minds into science and technology. They may not spend their careers at the frontier -- economic forces will tend to move most of them into more short-term practical projects -- but their very presence is due to the appeal that the conceptual frontier has on first rate minds. I built my first company with a dozen PhDs in physics and computer science. A first rate brain trained in an esoteric area of physics (like particle theory) can get up to speed on applied stuff very, very fast, and solve problems that very few engineers could.

Anonymous said...

"You didn't respond to GPS. Relativity is post 1900."

How does GPS makes use of relativity? I know the moon missions made no use of it.

All of "did you knows" etc. do not require any theory. If they did QM would be part of engineering curricula. It isn't.

There is sometimes a confusion with an explanation and an "understanding" of technology and what it actually takes to make it work.

Anonymous said...

"A first rate brain trained in an esoteric area of physics (like particle theory) can get up to speed on applied stuff very, very fast, and solve problems that very few engineers could."

Apparently employers don't know this.

But of course Steve can be relied on to claim physicists are the smartest.

Anonymous said...

The small effect of relativity on GPS is big enough for its correction to be useful. I am surprised.

I wish I could be surprised more often about such things.

Another example about which I am uninformed but on which I can still speak dogmatically:

All the theorists of the Manhattan project were useless.

What do I need to make the bomb?

I need to know:

1. that nuclear fission happens.

2. fission releases an enormous amount of energy.

3. fission can be induced by some kinds of radiation --- alpha particles which is released by U-235 when it splits.

The only place theory comes in is how much explosive is required to set off the reaction.

Steve Hsu said...

You are completely wrong in your assertions. Theorists played a decisive role in the Manhattan project. The examples I gave are not things that could have been done without a good understanding of the "theory" involved. (Now that you know a bit about GPS, go look up NMR or spintronics.)

QM *is* on the curriculum (albeit in watered down form) in top PhD engineering programs (like EE, materials) that train people who are doing frontier work in things like lasers.

Q: What QM textbook did Yariv write for engineers?



Employers love to hire PhDs in physics. Have a look at where McKinsey, Goldman, Intel, Google, venture funds, ... recruit. Keep in mind how few PhDs in physics there are compared to other populations. My former students in corporate jobs make a heck of a lot more than those of a typical engineering prof.

Anonymous said...

"McKinsey, Goldman, Intel, Google, venture funds, ... recruit"

None of these companies use physics.

"Theorists played a decisive role in the Manhattan project."

There were a lot of them, but the whole thing could have been done without them.

I know what NMR is. I use it all the time. And I know that it's development and its use can do without theory.

I think you may be confusing the theory that explains NMR and what is actually required to build the apparatus and interpret the spectra.

Steve Hsu said...

Those companies don't use physics directly. They do use the skills developed in physics training. (Logic, mathematics, model building, data analysis...)

I don't feel that this discussion is going anywhere, but as a final point you should look more carefully at the invention process for lasers, NMR, A-bomb and think about how hard it would have been without a good understanding of the theory. (What's a spin? Pre-1900?) Building now and first invention are two different things.

Anonymous said...

The most hardcore "anti-theory" people I've met, were the types who had an intense hatred of intellectuals and other "eggheads". If these "anti-theory" types ran the government and/or the government secret police, they would relish with glee and excitement at ordering the execution of all intellectuals without trial.

Anonymous said...

"and think about how hard it would have been without a good understanding of the theory."

Thought about it. It would have been MUCH easier without having to waste time on puting experimental results into a theoretical context.

You're right, spin is post 1900. So by modern physics what I mean is any physics which doesn't disprove my theory that modern physics is a fraud.

Steve Hsu said...

One final point, which you might find interesting: the theory of fluid shockwaves had to be advanced considerably for design of the atomic and hydrogen bombs, and even for advanced ordinary munitions. People like von Neumann and Ulam (big, big brains, and definitely theoreticians) played a central role in this.

No brute force method was likely to stumble on an efficient design for explosive lenses needed for Pu compression -- theory played the key role.

Much of this is still classified and beyond the capabilities if other countries -- it is brainpower limited.




Anonymous said...

(a different Anonymous)
Yawn. Steve, I'm surprised that someone with such a high estimation of his own brainpower would waste so much time on an obvious troll.

Anonymous said...

A minor nit: the importance of GR to the GPS system is often overstated by physicists who lack a detailed understanding of how the system uses Kalman filtering to correct for clock drift, of which GR corrections are one source. See for example http://tycho.usno.navy.mil/ptti/1996/Vol%2028_16.pdf. My guess is that, in a world where GR was not understood, engineers would still have been able to kludge together a functional GPS system.

Anonymous said...

And cludge together evrything else.

engineer: physicist::
athlete: sports writer

Dr. Klubnika said...

Employers love to hire PhDs in physics. Have a look at where McKinsey, Goldman... ... recruit

This says more about the sociopathic behavior and low amount of morals possessed by PhDs in physics than their intelligence :-)

Anonymous said...


How exactly are these physics PhDs "sociopathic"?

Dr. Klubnika said...

How exactly are these physics PhDs "sociopathic"?

By their willingness to work for swindlers like Goldman Sachs. If they are Americans, then you can add the description traitors to their resume since they willingly work for banksters like Goldman Sachs who help destroy the economic foundations of the good old U.S. of A.

However, all this is moot now. The reign of Goldman Sachs is over! God be praised!

Anonymous said...


Why all the venom against Goldman Sachs in particular?

Why aren't you directing your venom against other "traitorous" enterprises or individuals, such as:

Circuit City?
General Motors?
Daimler Benz?
Ozzy Osbourne?
American Idol?
Ariel Sharon?
Gene Simmons?
Osama Bin Laden?
Wells Fargo?
General Electric?

Anonymous said...

Only Dell and Sharon are Jewish.

Anonymous said...

So is Gene Simmons. (He was born Chaim Witz in Haifa, Israel).

Dr. Klubnika said...

Why all the venom against Goldman Sachs in particular?

Why aren't you directing your venom against other "traitorous" enterprises or individuals, such as:...

For some on your list, because our host didn't mention these.

Anonymous said...

reply to 4:12 PM (a different Anonymous)

It's very common to see "Gotcha" type games being played against individuals who have a high estimate of their own brainpower.

For example, many news stories and documentaries about Mensa will frequently have reporters asking "Gotcha" type questions to Mensa members, largely as a way of making Mensa members look stupid and/or clueless. One news story I recall offhand (from 5+ years ago) featured a reporter asking "Gotcha" type questions to Mensa members like, "Who is Britney?", where the Mensa person didn't make the connection to Britney Spears. (Essentially the news reporter went out of their way to make Mensa members look stupid and clueless).

Our "anti-theory" troll here is probably doing something similar, hoping that our host Steve will trip up and fall flat on his face.

Anonymous said...


If I knew nothing about you, I would wager that you were in the teaching profession from reading your responses; how else to explain how patiently you respond to some pretty simplistic and silly questions? I understand that at the heart of some of these inane questions is something worthwhile.

But let's not mince words. The guy is an idiot. Which is not so bad per se, except he's cocky too.
How can anyone with a basic introduction to physics fail to understand the importance of relativity to GPS systems or be unaware of the essential role of 20th century physics to modern computers?

In regard to his comments about the finance industry, I was an investment banker for Morgan Stanley in NYC and I can attest to the fact that ceteris paribus (namely social skills), IBs love math & physics people. It's not just a trope. There is no way that guy is speaking from any first hand experience.

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