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Q & A: discussing fringe physics

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Most recent answer: 02/17/2014
I have a question about teaching physics to curious people without a good physics background. I figured there couldn't be a better place than to ask people who do this all the time! When people hear that I have a physics degree, a fair number perk up and want to ask me all kinds of questions about electrons or blackholes or relativity or quantum mechanics and so on. People are really fascinated by this stuff. Some questions I cannot answer of course, but if it is within my grasp I try my best. However, lately I have a couple people that are really curious but have some seriously bizarre views on all sorts of things. Its particularly difficult, when in this internet age, they can always pull up some fringe physics paper that (to them) seems to contradict me and support their misunderstanding. I really really _really_ have trouble accepting that someone cannot learn, nor do I want to resort to labels like "crackpot", but no matter what I do I can't seem to help them learn anything. Since you've probably actually taught more students than I can imagine, can you tell me straight up: Are some people actually incapable of learning? Given the finite hours in a day, while it sounds awful to say aloud, how do you decide when to "give up" on teaching someone? Honest frank advice would be very much appreciated. Thank you.
- Mark (age 37)
New York

Those are great questions, but we don't have very definite answers. Given the enormous range of human beings in almost every regard, the answer to any questions starting "Are some people ..." are almost always "yes". Here, though, I doubt that most of the people you're talking with are intellectually incapable of getting basic physics. There seem to be many more people who have no strong motivation to understand science and strong motivation to believe things like "quantum mechanics shows we're all emotionally connected" etc. I don't know particularly how to win that argument. Perhaps it's not important.

Another familiar argument concerns the evidence that our activities are causing rapid global warming. There the motivations for denying the evidence including the wish to avoid financial loss, the wish to avoid some inconvenient lifestyle adjustments, and simple susceptibility to propaganda. Obviously this is an important argument to win. I really don't have any special advice about it, other than that factual preparation and patience are probably important.

Off in another direction, sometimes the weird fringe stuff turns out to be right. That's extremely rare for simple facts in the middle of the the better understood parts of science, but out at the edges of what we know (quantum gravity, early Big Bang, ...) the answers, if we find them, may be extremely weird.

Mike W.

(published on 02/17/2014)

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