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Ask Slashdot: Should More Math and Equations Be Used In the Popular Press?

Soulskill posted about a year ago | from the readers-shouldn't-be-distracted-from-drooling-on-their-shoes dept.

Math 385

raque writes "The NY Times recently published two op-eds in their Philosophy section, The Stone, discussing how Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle is abused. The second is a followup to the first. The author struggled to make clear his point and left the impression he was creating a strawman argument. In his followup he said he was avoiding equations because he was writing for a general audience. I replied to both articles, asking whether showing some basic equations would have worked better, allowing math to illustrate where metaphors struggled. Now I'm asking the same question to everyone on Slashdot. Would Dr. Callendar have been better off just diving in and dealing with Heisenberg and quantum mechanics using the tools that were developed for it?"

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385 comments

I just say (5, Insightful)

Chrisq (894406) | about a year ago | (#44432701)

Probability that more maths equations should be used > 0

Re:I just say (3, Interesting)

Spottywot (1910658) | about a year ago | (#44432743)

Haha yes, of course people who are never exposed to equations are rubbish at reading them. It's a self-reinforcing feedback loop. I fear that the only way to get the general public to become more familiar with how to read equations would be to sneak them into sports coverage or something. Other than that my only other thought on the subject, is that surely anyone even a little bit interested in the Heisenberg uncertainty principle would be prepared to at least attempt equations and if not merely skim them and come back to them if needed?

Re:I just say (4, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44432771)

It might be useful in some areas, but quantum mechanics... is one of the hardest places to start.

To put it another way, even if you introduce some equations for quantum mechanics, you are still going to look like an idiot compared to someone from the field... even someone from the field as it existed in the 1920s.

It might be better to go find experts in the field, and have them write short articles for the general public that are about established but not widely known things.

Re:I just say (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44432817)

It might be useful in some areas, but quantum mechanics... is one of the hardest places to start.

To put it another way, even if you introduce some equations for quantum mechanics, you are still going to look like an idiot compared to someone from the field... even someone from the field as it existed in the 1920s.

It might be better to go find experts in the field, and have them write short articles for the general public that are about established but not widely known things.

I don't agree. People that read the NYT or other newspapers are not idiots. They have presumably attended school up to 12th grade and maybe even college. They should have as part of their general culture at least a "basic" understanding of maths.
So you can certainly write popoluar accounts of science using equations. The question therefore becomes how much is enough ? Now I don't think you can go as far as Roger Penrose did in Roads to Reality, that book even as a general science book is nearly unreadable.
On the other hand his previous 2 books, The Emperor's New Mind and Shadows of the Mind contain just enough basic quantum formulas so to at least understand some of the problems and solutions the author is describing in his book.
Authors that write for a layman audience are not writing for idiots, nor are they writing for 5 year olds. Show respect for your audience don't treat them like twerps. And popularizing science is difficult, so you have to find the right balance between metaphorical descriptions and equations. Go to far in one sense and you end up with a university textbook, go to far in the other sense and you end up with nonsense because all "physical informations" will have evaporated. Make things simple but no simpler. That's the magic and it's awfully difficult to achieve.

Re:I just say (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44432881)

I don't agree. People that read the NYT or other newspapers are not idiots. They have presumably attended school up to 12th grade and maybe even college. They should have as part of their general culture at least a "basic" understanding of maths.

I think the parent referred to the fact that in Quantum Mechanics you can have the equations right and still talk nonsense. The point is that the equations alone don't say much. This is especially true for the uncertainty relation. For example, the position-momentum uncertainty equation and the energy-time uncertainty relation look quite the same, but their meaning is completely different (this is related to the fact that in quantum mechanics there is no such thing as a time operator).

Re:I just say (4, Interesting)

Absolutely.Geek (2913529) | about a year ago | (#44433091)

I would generally agree; but generally don't go beyond linear algebra; and in the wonderful modern age add a link or a QR on a printed article with links to improve understanding.

On these extra information sites have further links to more detailed information for those that are interested, further to this the same technique could be used with any technically dense subject matter...main artcle with basic scientific info ->link-> more in depth about original content ->link-> specific detail about relevant fields

Re:I just say (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44433231)

I fear that the only way to get the general public to become more familiar with how to read equations would be to sneak them into sports coverage or something.

If there's one thing I learned, it is that the general public is able to memorize things facts related to an advanced concept, but they are not able to gain a deep understanding of said concept (e.g. why and how it works); they're 'users,' not innovators. Even something as simple as the Pythagorean Theorem is beyond the general public's comprehension, but they can easily memorize the actual equation and learn how to use it (e.g. "Do this, this, and this with this and you'll get the right answer.").

Mental capability (0)

Taco Cowboy (5327) | about a year ago | (#44432835)

Most of those who have studied advanced math have heard of the Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, but not every single one of them understand it

Putting the same Heisenberg's Unvertainty Principle to the "average Joe on the street" and you would most probably get a blank stare

This has nothing to do with elitism, this is about reality

Most people simply do not have the mental capacity to comprehend the meaning of 1 + 1 = 2, and if you do not believe me, go ask the people around you, why 1 + 1 = 2, and not 1 + 1 = 3 ?

Re:Mental capability (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44432891)

Most of those who have studied advanced math have heard of the Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, but not every single one of them understand it

Putting the same Heisenberg's Unvertainty Principle to the "average Joe on the street" and you would most probably get a blank stare

This has nothing to do with elitism, this is about reality

Most people simply do not have the mental capacity to comprehend the meaning of 1 + 1 = 2, and if you do not believe me, go ask the people around you, why 1 + 1 = 2, and not 1 + 1 = 3 ?

Give me a break. In the 1920s Einstein wrote a popular book about special relativity (with formulas) and general relativity for the layman. And we're talking about 2 theories which at the time were at the frontier of physics research. In the last 90 years we haven't suddenly become idiots, so if popular science books talking about special/general relativity and quantum theory (a theory 90 years old !!!!) don't use equations it is because of stupid preconceptions. I've said it before people are not idiots, they may not be specialists in physics research but you can certainly explain them the basics of 2 theories which are almost 1 century old using carefully selected formulas. Nobody goes apeshit if you write Newton's formula of gravitation, why would you go crazy for Heisenberg's uncertaintly principle ?

Re:Mental capability (1)

Pino Grigio (2232472) | about a year ago | (#44432911)

He wrote a book. How many people bought it? How many people read it? How many people understood it? How many people skipped the math?

Re:Mental capability (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44432971)

He wrote a book. How many people bought it? How many people read it? How many people understood it? How many people skipped the math?

Considering it has been in print ever since, I'd say it sold and continues to sell pretty well.

Re:Mental capability (1)

cheekyjohnson (1873388) | about a year ago | (#44433247)

To certain groups of people. I also doubt that many people truly understood it.

Re:Mental capability (2)

RabidReindeer (2625839) | about a year ago | (#44432965)

Most of those who have studied advanced math have heard of the Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, but not every single one of them understand it

Putting the same Heisenberg's Unvertainty Principle to the "average Joe on the street" and you would most probably get a blank stare

This has nothing to do with elitism, this is about reality

Most people simply do not have the mental capacity to comprehend the meaning of 1 + 1 = 2, and if you do not believe me, go ask the people around you, why 1 + 1 = 2, and not 1 + 1 = 3 ?

Give me a break. In the 1920s Einstein wrote a popular book about special relativity (with formulas) and general relativity for the layman. And we're talking about 2 theories which at the time were at the frontier of physics research. In the last 90 years we haven't suddenly become idiots, so if popular science books talking about special/general relativity and quantum theory (a theory 90 years old !!!!) don't use equations it is because of stupid preconceptions. I've said it before people are not idiots, they may not be specialists in physics research but you can certainly explain them the basics of 2 theories which are almost 1 century old using carefully selected formulas. Nobody goes apeshit if you write Newton's formula of gravitation, why would you go crazy for Heisenberg's uncertaintly principle ?

The cynic in me observes that in this country, every issue is expected to divide into 2 diametrically-opposed sides. Such as, for example, the party that eats their own babies which is the exact opposite of the party that eats everyone else's babies (yes, those are exact opposites and you can only chose one. Snarf).

Furthermore, in adherence to this post-Einstein Weltanschaung that everything should be as simple as possible, then made simpler, everything must be expressed in short sound-bytes suitable for framing on bumper stickers.

So shouldn't E=mc**2 be short enough? No, because statements like this require context. If you don't know what E, m, and c represent, it's just another math equation. And context won't fit on the bumper sticker.

I've actually had people tell me that no one but Einstein is smart enough to understand Einstein. The Gods themselves...

Re:Mental capability (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44433251)

The fact is, special relativity is something a person could wrap their minds around with equations accessible to a general audience. That would be good. Not it was not done with general relativity, which (in most cases) requires much more difficult math to demonstrate anything interest. And only the very very simplest dumbed down to the bottom of the barrel of quantum mechanical things are as mathematically simple. So do it with special relativity (if there is any need to in the news), or start with some classical mechanics that is newsworthy, but that case does not generalize.

Re:Mental capability (2)

Maelwryth (982896) | about a year ago | (#44432987)

"Most people simply do not have the mental capacity to comprehend the meaning of 1 + 1 = 2, and if you do not believe me, go ask the people around you, why 1 + 1 = 2, and not 1 + 1 = 3 ?"

Are you suggesting that we hide maths entirely? Look, there are some things I maybe understand a little, many things I don't understand, and probably an infinite amount of things I don't know about. Just because I don't understand something doesn't mean you should hide the problem from me. If maths is the best way to understand something then it should be used. If an article refers to data or a paper then it should be referenced. If you hide things from me (lies to children?) then I have to repeat the work of others to come to the same result. That is called a waste of time.

You, and I, (if you and I exist) are in a situation where the supposed greatest minds of our race understand maybe 2% of the rules. Probably far less. Although it is far more comfortable to sit in frount of media, dealing in made up social structures, assuming that what I can see is real, pretending I know it all and living in a fantasy land. I would quite like to have an inkling of what I don't know. It makes me humble, and it makes me careful.

The map is not the terrain. The rules are not the reality. Shine me a torch to see. And if it is dark, tell me of the possibilty of light.

Re:Mental capability (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44433123)

the fucking article starts with numb3rs reference.

connecting quantum mechanics as reason for someone having common sense is bullshit and math has nothing at all to do with it.

Re:Mental capability (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44433225)

>why 1 + 1 = 2, and not 1 + 1 = 3 ?

Actually people know "1+1=2" as a fact and never question it and what it really means. i.e. the formal proof behind it.
We did proofs like that in logic class and they were at least half a page long.

Re:I just say (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44432953)

Math != equations!! We need more actual math, AND less equations!

Here are some examples of actual math that I guarantee you *everybody* will love:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VIVIegSt81k
http://www.amazon.com/gp/mpd/permalink/m1Z01590ONXHXN/

In fact here's a whole book of actual math that is so good at teaching math exactly because it doesn't focus on color-by-the-number "art" of training to use equations without actually understanding anything:
http://www.amazon.com/Measurement-Paul-Lockhart/dp/0674057554/
(I’m sure you've all read Lockhart's lament. This is the same Lockhart. And he put his money where his mouth is.)

Re:I just say (1)

chrismcb (983081) | about a year ago | (#44432959)

The probability you are wrong is > 0. If you are writing an article for mathematicians, include equations, If you are writing for non mathematicians then don't use equations. You need to speak in a language that the audience is familiar with.

Betteridge (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44432719)

Betteridge's Law of Headlines says no.

Re:Betteridge (3, Funny)

Xest (935314) | about a year ago | (#44433019)

Do you have an equation to back that law up?

Re:Betteridge (5, Interesting)

hweimer (709734) | about a year ago | (#44433055)

Betteridge's Law of Headlines says no.

And at least in this particular case, "no" is indeed the correct answer. Equations can never be a substitute for actual understanding. You can use equations to develop understanding by starting from an earlier point and transform the initial equation to establish a new fact. But where do you start with quantum mechanics? "Quantum states are being represented by rays in a complex Hilbert space"?

If anything, equations can be used to create an argumentum ad auctoritatem, and I'm not sure that this is a good thing.

Re:Betteridge (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44433139)

Wait while I resubmit it as "Is there enough math and equations and popular press?"

PS: Betteridge's law doesn't work that way. Be so kind and GDIAF with other parroting it in all the wrong topics.

Why bother? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44432721)

You can use them all you want. It won't make people any smarter or able to understand them.

Hell doing so might even cost you viewers/readers. people don't like things that make them feel stupid.

Re:Why bother? (1)

Sockatume (732728) | about a year ago | (#44432761)

You'll make people smarter and able to understand the subject if you explain what's going on in the example you want to discuss. That's a pretty basic idea in writing popular science.

A Brief History of Time would suggest that (4, Informative)

auric_dude (610172) | about a year ago | (#44432783)

"The author notes that an editor warned him that for every equation in the book the readership would be halved, hence it includes only a single equation: E = mc2. Early in 1983, Hawking approached Simon Mitton, the editor in charge of astronomy books at Cambridge University Press, with his ideas for a popular book on cosmology. Mitton was doubtful about all the equations in the draft manuscript, which he felt would put off the buyers in airport bookshops that Hawking wished to reach. It was with some difficulty that he persuaded Hawking to drop all but one equation.[4] In addition to Hawking's notable abstention from presenting equations, the book also simplifies matters by means of illustrations throughout the text, depicting complex models and diagrams." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Brief_History_of_Time [wikipedia.org] it may not be true as after all the book sold rather well.

Equations as PR (1)

Sockatume (732728) | about a year ago | (#44432823)

Come to think of it, if the tendency for PR firms to arrange for an "equation for the best sandwich" [google.co.uk] etc. suggests that an equation is actually quite an easy way of getting the public's attention.

Re:Equations as PR (1)

gutnor (872759) | about a year ago | (#44433033)

That's because those equation are "funny". It is tongue in cheek for people school days "when they understood all that stuff"

If the equation look real enough, people will just zone out, or worse, assume that the author opinion must be true since there is a formula.

Re:Why bother? (1)

Mikkeles (698461) | about a year ago | (#44433161)

One should bother because pandering to the lowest denominator will ensure that most will meet that expectation.
There is a range of happy media between a wall of mathematical formulae and proofs and an awkwardly written, purely textual interpretation. Not everyone will have a full (or even good) comprehension of the meaning, but those willing to be challenged will have something on which to proceed.
Those who don't care or who like pap can just move on to the latest on Kate and William (who, I believe, just had a baby or something).

It's a newspaper. (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44432735)

Newspapers intentionally and consistently use language that does not require a master degree in English language to understand. So where is the point in writing an article that requires a PhD in physics for understanding?

Just point out the conclusions of the scientists.

NYT's Science Going Downhill (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44432739)

The science reporting of NYT is really going downhill. A year or two ago an article like this would never have been posted.

You can't write about quantum mechanics without equations - it is NOT an intuitive field.

Disclaimer: I'm an otherwise pleased, and paying, customer of NYT. I have no other relation to them. I was fucked in the ass by a goat yesterday.

Re:NYT's Science Going Downhill (1)

Sockatume (732728) | about a year ago | (#44432813)

You can write about the results - which is important - but you can't write about the mechanics without at least describing the mathematical concepts and their relations with physical reality. This is why it's such a problem, because everyone deduces from the results written up in the newspapers how they think the mechanics work, and of course they get it wrong because it's profoundly unintuitive.

Re:NYT's Science Going Downhill (1)

RabidReindeer (2625839) | about a year ago | (#44432983)

You can't write about quantum mechanics without equations - it is NOT an intuitive field.

The cat wants to know if he can come out of the box now.

Only for easy equations (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44432753)

You should insert just easy equations

Definitely (5, Insightful)

burisch_research (1095299) | about a year ago | (#44432763)

Without math, it's impossible to convey what you're trying to convey. The press is way too dumbed down already, and many times I've read science stories that are just plain misleading as they try to simplify the message.

Putting equations into news stories means that some people won't understand them, but most importantly it will encourage some of those people to investigate further, and learn how to read equations. If there's no math in the popular press in the first place, then there's no incentive for people to improve themselves.

Re:Definitely (4, Interesting)

cupantae (1304123) | about a year ago | (#44432845)

I agree with this. What I'd like to see is equations added in, where helpful, in the same way as small images in a body of text. Then you could put a caption below, just to say something informal but informative about the equation. I think that way it would be easy for people to decide whether they want to read it. Some people aren't going to want to, so it's important that it's not something you have to read through in the article itself.

Re:Definitely (5, Insightful)

martijn hoekstra (1046898) | about a year ago | (#44432875)

Without math, it's impossible to convey what you're trying to convey. The press is way too dumbed down already, and many times I've read science stories that are just plain misleading as they try to simplify the message.

Putting equations into news stories means that some people won't understand them, but most importantly it will encourage some of those people to investigate further, and learn how to read equations. If there's no math in the popular press in the first place, then there's no incentive for people to improve themselves.

no equations doesn't mean no math. Equations generally do a pretty poor job in explaining things. I'd much rather read an article containing "because acceleration is inversely proportional to mass" than one containing "because F=ma"

Re:Definitely (1)

Pino Grigio (2232472) | about a year ago | (#44432917)

Equations generally do a pretty poor job in explaining things. I'd much rather read an article containing "because acceleration is inversely proportional to mass" than one containing "because F=ma"

^ This needs a hefty upward mod.

Re:Definitely (1)

Guy Harris (3803) | about a year ago | (#44432921)

no equations doesn't mean no math. Equations generally do a pretty poor job in explaining things.

Yes, they do a poor job in explaining things to people who don't know what the terms in the equation mean; raw math often says little if anything, by itself, about the real world, as you have to connect the mathematical items to items in the real world.

But, BTW:

I'd much rather read an article containing "because acceleration is inversely proportional to mass" than one containing "because F=ma"

...I'd rather read an article containing "because, for the same amount of force applied, acceleration is inversely proportional to mass"; my mass is much less than that of a Porsche 911, but I can't even get to 100 km/h on foot or on a bicycle, much less do so as fast as a 911 can. Given equal driving skill and the same driving techniques, however, I could probably get to 100 km/h in a 911 slightly faster than somebody weighing 100kg could in the same 911.

Re:Definitely (1)

martijn hoekstra (1046898) | about a year ago | (#44432973)

Yes, they do a poor job in explaining things to people who don't know what the terms in the equation mean; raw math often says little if anything, by itself, about the real world, as you have to connect the mathematical items to items in the real world.

But, BTW:

I'd much rather read an article containing "because acceleration is inversely proportional to mass" than one containing "because F=ma"

...I'd rather read an article containing "because, for the same amount of force applied, acceleration is inversely proportional to mass"; my mass is much less than that of a Porsche 911, but I can't even get to 100 km/h on foot or on a bicycle, much less do so as fast as a 911 can. Given equal driving skill and the same driving techniques, however, I could probably get to 100 km/h in a 911 slightly faster than somebody weighing 100kg could in the same 911.

depending on the context that could be a good idea, though an example doesn't immediately come to mind. Completeness may be sacrificed for clarity if there is sufficient context. my above example is obviously a snippet without context, and as such is quite incorrect on it's own, but would also never occur in practice on its own. All context that I can imagine would make it sufficiently clear, especially since nobody would be thinking that acceleration would be a function of mass alone. It's almost like writing articles is a profession that requires more than stringing words together that are correct.

Re:Definitely (1)

Dr. Spork (142693) | about a year ago | (#44433027)

I think that the equation whiners here overestimate the clarity gained when text does include actual equations. I hate to remind you that probably millions of people have stared at the equation with the deltas and the h-bar, and still managed to completely fail to understand quantum uncertainty. In fact, it's a popular view these days that Heisenberg himself did not understand just what his uncertainty results said about the underlying world. And it's not for a lack of seeing the equation. He derived the damned thing.

I also don't think that the author is getting enough credit for just how good a job he did in vividly yet accurately describing what was up with the uncertainty principle. A part of his point is that you don't automatically know what's going on in quantum mechanics when you can solve all the problems on your QM exam and get an A in the course. Even (maybe especially) physicists tell themselves sloppy stories when they think about conjugate properties - I won't say "observables", though that's what we called them in my QM courses. Then when the physicists try to dumb down their already sloppy interpretations for a lay audience, you're on the high road to atrocities like "What the Bleep".

Re:Definitely (1)

thegarbz (1787294) | about a year ago | (#44433235)

some people won't understand them, but most importantly it will encourage some of those people to investigate further,

Erm you do know the structure of articles and the state of the readership at large means that "investigate further" in some rare intelligent circumstances where the reader is particularly keen to explore further knowledge, rarely if ever extends to reading to the end of the article.

I don't think anyone at all will read an article and then start on a quest to understand equations within them unless the article is in some obscure field related magazine to the person's work, or they will be graded on their understanding.

Re:Definitely (1)

cbope (130292) | about a year ago | (#44433243)

...but most importantly it will encourage some of those people to investigate further, and learn how to read equations.

Wow, I must live on a different planet. In my opinion, all this will do is make Joe Sixpack say "this ain't important enough for me to learn math, is American Idol on?"

No (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44432765)

The first article linked is a fairly good layman's explanation. It doesn't need to delve into maths. It explains it better than you did in your comment.

In contrast, your comment has an ungrammatical first sentence, fails to explain the terms well at all, and leaves the reader scratching his head even if he knows the maths already. "the sums of all of the uncertainties - or differences - in a huge pile of measurements of the position and velocity of some particle we're measuring" - what the hell does that mean to a layperson? Now you need to define what the hell all those words and concepts mean, and you reintroduced measurement when the original article took pains to point out it's not about measurement. This is a classic "explanation that only makes sense to someone who already understands it".

Also, your use of 'x' as multiply is entirely non-standard at this level, but hey.

Professional Journalism 1, Rtbinc 0

A better question (3, Interesting)

korbulon (2792438) | about a year ago | (#44432767)

Should articles be written with intelligence and nuance when writing for a "general audience"?

Re:A better question (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44432837)

Should articles be written with intelligence and nuance when writing for a "general audience"?

Yes

Yes, please assume high school math (4, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44432779)

But they should start with adding footnotes with references first. Most popular science articles don't even mention their sources properly, which sometimes makes it really hard to follow up on them even if you are a scientist.

Mathematics is taught in schools... (4, Insightful)

gweihir (88907) | about a year ago | (#44432781)

Everybody not willing to understand simple mathematics (with explanations) is being willfully ignorant. There is no way to reach such people, they would not comprehend the text either...

Re:Mathematics is taught in schools... (1)

Pino Grigio (2232472) | about a year ago | (#44432931)

There are many ways to be clever. Understanding math is just one of them. There are many people I know who are engineers, very good at math, but who's writing is terrible (I don't mean handwriting, I mean use of language in written form).

Re:Mathematics is taught in schools... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44433163)

Whose.

Re:Mathematics is taught in schools... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44432975)

No. Mathematics is absolutely NOT taught in schools AT ALL:
A Mathematician's Lament -- by Paul Lockhart [maa.org]

Depends on the audience (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44432791)

Seeing the average education of the general American public, no. Maybe if you wrapped it in some "new" math...? Surely this time that'll work!

You missed the point. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44432799)

Maths is just a metaphorical language that even fewer understand.

A good start (3, Insightful)

rossdee (243626) | about a year ago | (#44432829)

They should start by using proper units. I know the USA is not metric, so they can use feet, miles and pounds, but football fields, states of delaware and volkswagens are not proper units. (and especially Library of Comgresses)

Re:A good start (1, Interesting)

ratbag (65209) | about a year ago | (#44432909)

Personally I think that part of the problem is the non-metric units that are still in use. By accepting that it is in any way sensible to use them, you've already given up on the logical, elegant approach to quantification. You've made it more likely that people resort to the "football fields" etc.

No. (1)

DeathToBill (601486) | about a year ago | (#44432841)

Equations are a great way of explaining something to someone who is familiar with equations. Someone who has done first year undergraduate maths and done reasonably well at it will appreciate having an equation to explain something.

Someone who did fairly poorly at high school maths will look at an equation and say, "What???"

Take Newton's second law. You can explain it in two ways. The first:

When a force is applied to a body, it accelerates in proportion to the force and inverse proportion to its mass.

The second:

F = m a
F = force
m = mass
a = acceleration

To someone familiar with mathematical models, the second is intuitive; if you increase the force, the acceleration increases. If you increase the mass but keep the force constant, the acceleration will have to decrease to satisfy the equation. But you have to already have that intuitive grasp of what an equation means, or the first explanation is always going to be easier to handle.

Re: No. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44433291)

Perhaps stating that F is the cause and a is the effect would make things a bit clearer. Write an equation but state what it is.

Would Dr. Callendar have been better off (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44432843)

Would Dr. Callendar have been better off just diving in and dealing with Heisenberg

Maybe, but I can't wait to see how Hank Schrader is going to deal with Heisenberg.

Re:Would Dr. Callendar have been better off (1)

Chrisq (894406) | about a year ago | (#44432957)

Would Dr. Callendar have been better off just diving in and dealing with Heisenberg

Maybe, but I can't wait to see how Hank Schrader is going to deal with Heisenberg.

Also if he was diving wouldn't that mean that his position on this wouldn't be clear?

Most Ph.D. don't read mathematics (5, Insightful)

jarek (2469) | about a year ago | (#44432847)

I've written lots of reports with math formulas (in Latex) where they are needed. Most, if not all, the intended readers have a Ph.D. in experimental physics or optics but I noticed that unless the math is really trivial, they will not follow. Even the slightest math supported reasoning will throw them off. That experience tells me that math for the general audience is probably not a good idea. It is simply pointless the be correct if you are not coming across. Who hears the tree falling in the forest.

general rule (3, Insightful)

l3v1 (787564) | about a year ago | (#44432851)

The general rule regarding the depth of detail in publications should be that they need to be understandable by the target audience. If you write for the general public, then the base text should be layman style, with some pointers where to get more in-depth information for those, who are above the average and more knowledgeable in the specific field. If the target audience is academic and/or scientific community of a specific field, then that's a totally different matter, and the text should be as to-the-point and in-depth as possible, since anyone from the audience would be able to produce superficial treatment of a topic in their field, even if they are not utmost experts of the specific topic, and they'll require exact and deep elaboration of the subject to be able to judge the subtleties, novelties, benefits, etc. I'd say that's all, and it's really not 'rocket science', just spend some time getting to know who'll you'll address with your writing.

Not equations. Graphs. (1)

goodmanj (234846) | about a year ago | (#44432855)

The innumeracy of the public is at a lower level than that. This is like arguing about whether kids should be taught calculus in school when they're struggling with basic arithmetic.

What we need is not more equations in the press, but more graphs, tables, and diagrams. I can't count the number of times I've seen a journalist try to explain, say, changing poll results or the interplay between mortgage rates and foreclosures using text, plus a quote from an expert which they clearly don't understand, when all they need is a quick line chart.

I'm a college professor, and in my classes that require essays I insist that the students incorporate graphical charts, maps, and diagrams. Generally speaking, they're awful at it, but it gets them thinking about data.

Re:Not equations. Graphs. (1)

livingboy (444688) | about a year ago | (#44432997)

I think that graphs are often quite misleading. Especially when they are used to show statistical information. You can make very different graphs from same base data. One chooses the graph trying to get best propaganda value.

That is why we have the phrase "Lies, damned lies, and statistics"

Protip (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44432863)

You can safetly ignore any sentence that includes the phrase "according to quantum mechanics".
-xkcd

Re:Protip (1)

Dr. Spork (142693) | about a year ago | (#44433059)

In most contexts this is too true, and quite sad. However, if you aren't allowed to tell a story "according to quantum mechanics", you have no chance of explaining the functioning of the ordinary objects all around us, like lasers, LEDs, microwave ovens, fucking magnets, superconductors, sunshine, and many others. The real problem is that "according to quantum mechanics" has been so abused that people reflexively glaze over when they hear it. That abuse has made the world stupider and sadder, and undoing the damage is a valuable endeavor.

Re:Protip (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44433195)

Which xkcd?

Science articles are not written for a general aud (1)

physicsphairy (720718) | about a year ago | (#44432879)

Science articles, one would presume, are written for persons interested in science. The idea that there is some broad swath of persons who wish to understand quantum mechanics but stand to be chased off by a simple formula strikes me as unlikely.

If it is a problem, then the logic is the kind of the logic that will perpetuate the problem: the reason math is not as digestible to a public audience is because they're not accustomed to it, and they're not accustomed to it because the media is choosing not to present it to them.

Nah. (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44432887)

The author is a philosopher, not a physicist or mathematician, so he probably doesn't understand the mathematics used in QM anyways.

Re:Nah. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44432927)

The author is a philosopher, not a physicist or mathematician, so he probably doesn't understand the mathematics used in QM anyways.

So why is he writing about QM ?
Why not make Hilary Putnam write articles about the interpretation of QM and therefore about the significance of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle ?

blatherskite (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44432897)

Callender's op-ed was great. Quantum physicists are the biggest bullshhitters around.

Re: blatherskite (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44432985)

Most of the people doing the theoretical work are just mathematicians. They often use words without regard to their actual meaning. A great example was "imaginary" numbers. Whenever they write or speak in plain language, they don't know what their talking about because they have no clue what words actually mean.

Another good example is the line that "a positron is just an electron moving backward through time" - not if the plain language meaning of time is intended.

Igon Value problem (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44432901)

Use equations and references to equations at your own peril if your target audience has any clue of what you're talking about. Just as /. doesn't suffer fools, writers who write about the maths when they don't have a idea what they're talking about risk getting exposed and embarrassed. Pinker did this to Gladwell.

No... (2)

mendax (114116) | about a year ago | (#44432903)

Why reawaken the horrible and traumatic memories of school? Well, unless you were like me who was always good at math. In my case, I would object to news stories containing more references to bullying and teasing. But I've forgiven my childhood bullies of all that. It was easy to do and I've since and I've forgotten most of it. Forgetting it was just as easy as forgetting where I buried their bodies after I took my revenge. *muahahahaha* Ok, I'll take my pills now.

And make it more complicated (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44432919)

for laymen?

how about this one (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44432923)

M = h - c

Re:how about this one (1)

Chrisq (894406) | about a year ago | (#44432961)

M = h - c

I get the point - equations are meaningless without surrounding context

Re:how about this one (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44433075)

A perfect illustration of the value of equations. I read the two nyt articles and understood nothing. But then I read your post and now I understand physics.

Useless (3, Insightful)

Impy the Impiuos Imp (442658) | about a year ago | (#44432929)

Absolutely not.

Wikipedia has already fallen prey to this. Articles on all these things are just dense reference manuals iseful only to graduates in their subjects rather than enlightening explanations.

They failed when those same people got full of themselves taking over the subject matter. They are as useless as a "man page" on regular expressions.

Re:Useless (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44433013)

Manning got 136. thats not mathematically proportional to what he did.

Re:Useless (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44433193)

Just wait until http://simple.wikipedia.org [wikipedia.org] devolves into a million fiefdoms too.

Diagrams are the way forward. (3, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44432933)

Equations are short hand and full of a form of jargon specific to a field, in terms of the arcane symbols used to represent a property or constant, with the explanation of what each symbol means buried in the text. They are great at condensing meaning, and allowing somebody familiar with them to manipulate them easily. But they are actually terrible at conveying meaning to someone not familiar with the field it is describing.

Often diagrams are the best way to explain mathematical concepts where possible. In the end, most scientist presents with a set of equations or concept to understand, will inevitably spend some time plotting out or trying to pictorially described what it means, to help understand it. So why not short circuit that?

Yes (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44432935)

Been wanting to see this for a long time.
I am not particularly good with math but I'm sick of programming that targets the lowest denominator.
If the shows people watch are constantly making them feel like morons because they don't understand anything, maybe they'll actually be encouraged to learn something for a change...

Re: Yes (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44432989)

But that would make them switch off their television and stop consuming advertising. What self respecting media conglomerate wants to encourage that kind of antisocial behaviour?

Dumb and Dummer (1)

AndyCanfield (700565) | about a year ago | (#44432999)

My (48-year old Thai) girlfriend starts work at 6am and gets off at 6pm. She insists that means she works thirteen hours a day. It is amazing how incredibly dumb the average person is.

The Internet was invented at CERN to share research data among atomic scientists. Today the biggest use of the Internet seems to be Facebook.

The average IQ is supposed to be 100; until I moved to Thailand I had probably never even MET a person with an IQ below 110. Theory? Equations? Try "Unable to subtract 6am from 6pm". Science has all along been faced with the necessity of publishing conclusions, because the average person cannot comprehend the data or the formulas. Atomic science was ignored until Hiroshima; since then it is observed but rarely undrestood.

Re:Dumb and Dummer (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44433097)

Did you just call your girlfriend incredibly dumb?

Re:Dumb and Dummer (1)

captjc (453680) | about a year ago | (#44433223)

I don't know where you lived before moving to Thailand, but I want to go there. Here in the US, I have a difficult time finding people with an IQ over 110. Oh sure, there are colleges and R&D firms with plenty of bright people but step outside and find there is nothing but morons as far as the eye can see.

Re:Dumb and Dummer (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44433253)

subtract 6am from 6pm

6pm-6am = 6m(p-a)
That would be six milliprobabilityminusacceleration

God says... (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44433005)

task fishes lusted seest it'd_take_a_miracle Eternal assembly
stuff beguiling books observing denoted parents bathed
incorrect Vatican_City Every obey suffered overboldness
consistently parental longings appointed status top initiated
thirdly invest numberest heed yielded revenge inexpressible
Shepherd personages diversely contemplateth forgivest
etext02 text passengers fluttereth joining contradiction
boiled complaints well-done reads innocence small_talk
him

I have a relevant equation on the topic... (3, Funny)

Bomazi (1875554) | about a year ago | (#44433029)

...but /. doesn't support math markup.

in any field (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44433031)

what one would tell a layman would seem confusing and over simplified to an expert.
what you would tell an expert would baffle and confuse the layman.

Write for your audience, if you do it right, they may want more information and acquaint themselves with the more advanced versions of it.

More than equations are needed (2)

MarkWegman (2553338) | about a year ago | (#44433067)

Graphs are very helpful in really conveying what is going on. What we need more in discussions of politics is facts and many facts are about numbers. When discussing who has the right model of the US economy you really need to think of it scientifically. Each model is a hypothesis that needs to be tested. Economics is about aggregate behavior and so it's really a statistical statement. Yes the models are equations and those are nice to show too. But you need to show graphs. Folks who are not innumerate often prefer for example what Nate Silver put on fivethirtyeight.com to talking heads on TV who use neither equations or graphs. Many folks I know prefer Krugman's blog http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/ [nytimes.com] to what makes it into his columns in the Times.
If you can't show pictures of aggregate behavior you can only tell stories. Those stories can tug at heart strings and motivate people to feel strongly about an issue without really understanding the whole picture. That's one of the problems with our political discourse.

Heisenbergs is used as a metaphor (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44433135)

I work as a software developer, and when ever I am trying to find the cause of a crash that appears only when the debugger is NOT attached, I think to myself: "Damn this Heisenberg guy.". And then I giggle.

As long as no one comes up with a better word for the situation, I'll abuse Heisenbergs Uncertainty Principle –and will have fun while doing it.

Here in Germany, we call it "Heisenbergs Unschärferelation" which translates to Heisenbergs unsharpness relation. Which I find more to the point. Now I wonder, why it was not translated to Heisenbergs Mystery Principle, that would have been much more catchy. Inaccurate but catchy

Cheers
-- Benjamin

Advanced math = less equations (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44433145)

The more advanced you get in math, the more textual it becomes, so no, don't think more equations are needed. Some visual representations may be better suited (e.g. matrices). I doubt an elliptic curve equation would make anything easier to understand... its graph on the other hand might

Most people in the US have very limited exposure (1)

mark_reh (2015546) | about a year ago | (#44433151)

to the name "quantum mechanics" and probably figure that it is a guy who uses a wrench to do something on a car. "Heisenberg" is a guy who cooks blue meth on TV using methyl amine instead of the usual Nazi method.

You want to put math in newspaper articles? That would first require that journalists and editors understand the math. Journalists in the US generally can't differentiate between news and the crap they report on as if it were news (who won on American Idol, etc.).

America, F YA! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44433167)

I prefer to keep America stupid.

Arthur C Clarke (1)

kramulous (977841) | about a year ago | (#44433201)

Didn't Arthur C Clarke have this argument with his publishers? Every equation resulted in a 80% reduction in audience?

Something to that effect.

Re:Arthur C Clarke (1)

vossman77 (300689) | about a year ago | (#44433265)

In "Brief History of Time" Stephen Hawking states that "Someone told me that each equation I included in the book would halve the sales. I therefore resolved not to have any equations at all. In the end, however, I did put in one equation, Einstein's famous equation, E = mc^2. I hope that this will not scare off half of my potential readers."

http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Stephen_Hawking [wikiquote.org]

Absolutely !? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44433267)

Unfortunately our society is taught to fear mathematics. For some odd reason people do not want to go beyond qualitative reasoning, which is insufficient if one wants to really understand physics. I would not shy away from using Mathematics. Put down an equation and explain it in words. How hard can that be? If people don't know what a term means let them look it up. Newspapers should not contribute to enabling a lazy society. (PS: I am a physicist)

Use graphs (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44433273)

Most math articles use graphs to convey math principles. Because equations are hard to read and even harder to interpret right, while most people can understand graphs.

popular science (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44433283)

Lets face it, this is what popular science is, science with science taken out of it. To make an academic paper readable(not even understandable) for general public you have to strip it of all context, not just big and scary numbers and equations. Trying to explain advanced physics to layman is futile effort in the first place. Whats the point to even try to explain quantum mechanics to an average person who doesn't even understand Newton's laws of motion?

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