Reply to Glenn

John W. Burgeson (
Sun, 16 Mar 1997 15:44:20 -0500

Glenn bashes P. Johnson, recently (again) by writing, in part:

"I was recently pointed to a book review by Phillip Johnson which clearly
shows the disdain in which Johnson holds scientists. It is in Books and
Culture, March/April 1997, p. 11..."

How Glenn can see "science distain" in this story lifted from the German
biochemist Bruno Muller-Hill is beyond me. Phil uses it, of course, only as
an anecdote to illustrate his point -- that -- in some cases -- not
necessarily all cases -- the trait of "docility" plays a part in what
people, including educated people, including scientifically educated
people, perceive.

Speaking from a perspective of 37+ years with IBM, where I rubbed shoulders
with some truly brilliant people, that story rings all too true. Yes, there
were times people took positions opposing their management; there were a
lot of times they did not. Most of us knew the "yes-men" among us -- some
of them went quite a long way in the organization.

I personally think the concept of "Harter's law" makes every bit as much
sense as "Parkenson's law" and the "Peter Principle." That does not mean it
always happens. Preventing it from happening is what many of us spent more
time doing than was good for our careers. But it was a necessary action to
establish and hold firm a degree of self respect. Saying "it never happens"
is simply not the case. Where Glenn and I might disagree is how often that

Glenn continues: "Johnson and Muller-Hill get the wrong lesson out of this.
The first thing is that regardless of future profession, kids will be kids
and are generally unwilling to stand out in a crowd of their peers."

Were that so, my friend. The world is full of adults who do no better.

Glen continues, in testimonial form, " As a manager of a group of
geophysicists..., I can personally attest to the fact that scientists are
anything but docile. When I want one of these guys to treat the data in a
particular, but scientifically acceptable manner, if they disagree with
that approach, they can be as stubborn as mules.... Of course, the lawyer,
Johnson, has no experience of what real scientists are like."

I assume Glenn speaks with real knowledge of his group. Such groups do
exist. All I suggest is that such groups are not always encountered in the
rest of the world. And that his conclusion about Johnson, therefore, does
not flow as a necessary consequence.

Again, Glenn writes: "If Johnson had any experience with science himself,
especially astronomy, he would have noticed several technical errors in
this story and would have been more skeptical about this tale that I think
may be false.... Anyone who has had a telescope will recognize the
following problems in the above tale."

The story is not Johnson's but the other guy's. And why Johnson has to be
real familiar with telescopes to use it escapes me. But even so, Glenn's
"problems" are bogus. (BTW, I used to teach astronomy classes to young
female students (tough job, but someone had to do it) as a grad student
(1955) at Florida State on a telescope that sounds like the one used in
the example).

Glenn writes: "First, this was a portable telescope. ... he does not know
that a portable telescope must be carefully aligned (often by trial and
error). You can't simply set a telescope out in a playground and have it
automatically be pointing at the object of interest. To align the scope,
the teacher would have had to have looked through the scope and make
adjustments to its aim, even if it were pointed in the general direction of
the planet. It is absolutely impossible for the professor NOT to have
noticed that the lens-cap was on the scope prior to showing the students
the planets. If the professor didn't know this simple truth about scopes,
then this is a story about stupid teachers, not slothful scientists."

The scope I used was "portable" in the sense that I dragged it from its
shed on the Science Hall roof, and found the celestrial object by looking
through a spotting scope. When the spotting scope was on target, the main
one was also. If I had foolishly left the main cap on, the experience
related sounds fairly reasonable. Yes, not to have looked through the main
scope sounds dumb. But after a while of showing the same old thing to many
generations of students, perhaps the professor knew the telescope's

"Secondly, if Johnson knew science, he would also have known that a
telescope does not stay pointed at the object in question unless it has a
motor which then requires an extension cord. "

Such devices were quite common, and were part of our telescope, in 1957.

"Third, the constant fiddling with the focus (which is mentioned in this
story) would be quite likely to cause a problem. Motorized and
unmotorized telescope mounts can be moved by putting too much pressure on
the scope. A slight bump is often enough. This has happened to me a lot.
Surely one of these inexperienced students would put too much pressure on
the mechanism, causing the telescope to rotate off target.
This in turn would cause the teacher to have to realign the scope. But
Johnson's inexperience with telescopes shows through as he gullibly
believes Muller-Hill's tale."

After 40 years, I can't remember how much fiddling was required. I do
remember advising folks NOT to touch the instrument and, being a somewaht
bored grad student, would probably have not looked myself as lind as
everyone reported they were seeing what they were supposed to see.

"Fourth, it was not the "docile" students nor was it the scientists,who
forced poor Harter to work in a factory. It was most likely his financial
condition or temperment, or the lack of patience with the stupid teachers
he had to endure."

WHo knows? A useless part of any argument meant to bash Phillip.

"Fifth, the docility of the students might be explained by the treatment
Harter received when he challenged the teacher."

Fair point. We have all, I expect, run into some of his relatives along our

"Sixth, I might step on some toes here, but I don't think a teacher is
necessarily a scientist. .... Thus this is not a tale of a scientist
teaching his charges to go along in order to get along, but simply a bad

Fair point.

"Unfortunately, this story reveals more about Johnson's opinion of
scientists than it reveals about scientists themselves. Johnson's contempt
for scientists colors all that he writes, and it appears to be getting
worse with time. It also would appear that Johnson is susceptible to the
same self deception that he accuses scientists of. Afterall, he can tell
no difference between a thirteen-year-old school child and a trained
scientist. This must be self-deception of the highest degree."

Sorry I can't agree, my friend. The story is just that -- a story. What you
& I "see" in it appears to be quite different. I don't understand at all
why you find such delight in Johnson-bashing. Phil and I disagree on a
number of points -- that makes us opponents on issues, not personalities.

I disagree with you, too, on some issues. Shoot -- I can't think of many
people I DON'T disagree with on one thing or another. But that makes us
issue-opponents, not enemies.