Thursday, October 12, 2006

Turing test for physicists: Can physicists tell the difference between answers to physics questions written by a real physicist versus those from a sociologist masquerading as a physicist? Apparently not.
In a recent experiment of his design, British sociologist Harry Collins asked a scientist who specializes in gravitational waves to answer seven questions about the physics of these waves. Collins, who has made an amateur study of this field for more than 30 years but has never actually practiced it, also answered the questions himself. Then he submitted both sets of answers to a panel of judges who are themselves gravitational-wave researchers. The judges couldn't tell the impostor from one of their own. Collins argues that he is therefore as qualified as anyone to discuss this field, even though he can't conduct experiments in it.

It will be interesting to see if Collins' results can indeed be repeated in different situations. Meanwhile, his experiment is plenty interesting in itself. Just one of the judges succeeded in distinguishing Collins' answers from those of the trained experts. One threw up his hands. And the other seven declared Collins the physicist. He didn't simply do as well as the trained specialist -- he did better, even though the test questions demanded technical answers. One sample answer from Collins gives you the flavor: "Since gravitational waves change the shape of spacetime and radio waves do not, the effect on an interferometer of radio waves can only be to mimic the effects of a gravitational wave, not reproduce them." (More details can be found in this paper Collins wrote with his collaborators.)