April 25, 2003

How Not to Be a Responsible Physicist

Daniel Amit is a well-regarded Italian-Israeli statistical physicist, author of an excellent book on the physics of neural networks on the shelf beside me as I write. Recently asked to referee a paper by Physical Review E, he refused, on the grounds that he "remembers 1939" and so is boycotting all American institutions. This led to an exchange with Martin Blume, PRE's editor, which is on-line online, and circulating by email. Thus Amit:

What we are watching today, I believe, is a culmination of 10-15 years of mounting barbarism of the American culture the world over, crowned by the achievements of science and technology as a major weapon of mass destruction.

We are witnessing man hunt and wanton killing of the type and scale not seen since the raids on American Indian populations, by a superior technological power of inferior culture and values. We see no corrective force to restore the insanity, the self-righteousness and the lack of respect for human life (civilian and military) of another race.

I think our war in Iraq is stupid, and our policy fills me with apprehension, but this is so multiply wrong-headed as to be a hydra; Amit must be reading the news from some hitherto-unknown planet out beyond the orbit of Saturn. To pick on a mere point of fact: Slaughter unprecedented since the Indian Wars? Are the total deaths, military and civilian, from all our wars over the last ten years (by my count: Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia) even within an order of magnitude of civilian deaths in the Yugoslav civil war? Would Amit have refused to referee papers for Serbian journals? If not, why not? (If it comes to that, our total deaths-inflicted for the last decade might just be within two orders of magnitude of the slaughter we visited on Indochina in enterprises which can only be called criminal. I don't see this as a sign of our becoming less civilized.)

The exchange is worth reading, though, for Blume's entirely correct defense of the idea that the scientific community ought to transcend national and political differences. (Found via Cris Moore.)

Physics; The Continuing Crisis; The Progressive Forces

Posted by crshalizi at April 25, 2003 13:39 | permanent link

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