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Reader Letters

Monkeys, Really?

After a youth spent in American public schools, I have tried to understand that there is no such thing as a “dumb” question. And yet over and over again, I am forced to confront that in every situation, there are in fact dumb questions. For example, the following, posed by Robert Birnbaum during his interview with Lisa Randall published Feb. 9, 2005:
RB: When you talk about extra dimensions, why not posit there are an infinite number?
While Ms. Randall gives a short, concise explanation why, let me see if I can do better. You don’t posit that there is an infinite number, because that makes no sense whatsoever based on prior knowledge. Science is not about coming up with ridiculous unfounded questions. You might as well as ask, “Why not posit that these dimensions are filled with monkeys?”

I can’t be sure I’m reading this interview correctly. It strikes me as broadly insulting to its subject and her field of research, but it’s possible that it’s meant to read it as a sort of Socratic dialogue. Perhaps Mr. Birnbaum’s naive questioning is meant to provide a framework on which to hang Ms. Randall’s truthful philosophic teachings. But then again, Socrates’s characters knew how to listen and when to shut up.

Mr. Birnbaum seems aggressively ignorant of science throughout the article, and seems largely uninterested in the actual content of Ms. Randall’s research. Pointing a finger like a child at scientific vocabulary and asking “What’s that?” is not an interview; it’s an insult. By the end of the interview, I don’t get the impression that Mr. Birnbaum has learned anything new. To ice his cake, he brings up Ms. Randall’s choice of writing nonfiction, and then goes so far as to contemptuously suggest that Ms. Randall is just too afraid to write fiction.

In his introduction, Mr. Birnbaum states, “Every so often I find it useful to venture into an area where I am a without much knowledge and understanding.” It would benefit your readership if he could show some humility, and stick with whatever it is that he actually has an understanding and knowledge of. Intellectual arrogance seems appropriate to me.

Regards,
Jacob Barss-Bailey

Robert Birnbaum responds:

As a scientific ignoramus I stand by my inquiries and questions.

I do take exception to the arrogant and mean-spirited opinions that my conversation with Lisa Randall is “broadly insulting,” “aggressively ignorant,” and “contemptuously suggestive.” Those characterizations, it seems to me, reside within the letter writer. I do know something about Socrates and while I may and probably do fall far short, I do aspire to infuse my conversations with the spirit of honest inquiry so dazzlingly exhibited in the Socratic dialogues.

Also, I am amused at Mr. Barss-Bailey’s humility in speaking of how I might benefit our/my readership. Kind of a snappy paragraph when you read it. All I can say is, “Yo mama.”
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