Before we begin this vivisection of the comments in this post, I’d like to quote a real physicist (I’m a Physical Chemist, and you note I’m not making original claims about the science here – I’m qualified to interpret the arguments of real nuclear physicist, but it would take years of additional study for me to become one) on what it takes to actually be a physicist. Although I will note that this holds true for all other disciplines of science as well:
Let's be blunt: if you want to even start to call yourself a nuclear physicist -- and by this I mean someone who actually understands what is known fundamental forces well enough to make meaningful predictions as to what they might do in unfortunate circumstances -- you might want to actually have authored a paper in the subject.
Wagner is throwing mud at the wall of credentials, hoping something with his name on it will stick. That is not how a real physicist behaves.
And here we come to the psychology of the individual. I spent a good 12 years of my life teaching and interacting with budding scientists, and I’ve come to recognize the particular archetype that we’re dealing with, here.
Most non-jocks and non-populars segregate out early in middle or high school. The largest remaining social segment is the geek pool, where many try to fit in. This collection of misfits generally has some pretty pathological norms because of the shared experience of rejection. Michael Suileabhain-Wilson ably described many of these peccadilloes in The Five Geek Social Fallacies.
But within the geek group there are the true nerds, and then the also-rans. Within the professional geek group, which includes scientists, engineers, computer programmers, mathematicians, and the like, an exclusionary hierarchy definitely emerges, and professional standards and exams serve as the means whereby slackers and non-hackers can be excluded from the group. It is at this stage that the pseudo-geek, the less talented ones, get their first taste of rejection from the geek group.
I’d venture to guess that no geek is truly unintelligent, but when swimming in a pool enriched in real genii, it is possible for a borderline geek to get an inferiority complex and start acting weird. The engineer “DW”, whom I blogged about when discussing the Young Earth Creationists, is such an example. Although DW was rather intelligent, he was not nearly as intelligent as he thought he was, and going from being a big fish in the High School pond to a little fish (with some real, bona fide genii in the class) at a world class engineering school made him act the way he did, and irritate the piss out of the rest of us.
Others, less intelligent that DW, found solace in geek-like activities such as chess and math games – but success in those endeavors did not necessarily mean success in the classroom or laboratory, and the more time spent on and talking about non-major activities, the more one began to suspect that the geek in question was hiding academic deficiencies. I knew one such individual in graduate school, who spent much time fiddling with bits of code and talking about his Amiga. Most of us chemists were competent but not excellent programmers and computer jocks, so talking with him gave the impression of wide ranging intelligence. My wife took a class with him, and was shocked to find out she did better than him by a whole letter grade. Then I had the same experience. He was a good, but not great, chemist on paper exams. He hid this by constantly talking about stuff we knew something about, but not as much as he did. When the rubber hit the road, though, he was barely average. He eventually flunked out of the thesis part of graduate school because he was not even a good chemist in the lab.
Geek Social Fallacy #1 keeps unfortunates pseudo-geeks in the geek social circle until the end of the undergraduate degree or the end of the required classes in graduate school. Then the slackers and non-hackers get shucked like a corn husk once the real graduate study part of graduate school begins. In many cases this second rejection episode turns their psychology pathological.
Wagner is such a personality.
Let’s first examine his claims that dance around being a scientist, without ever actually hitting the mark that Dr. Steinberg outlined in that quote above.
First, getting 80 / 80 on the CBEST, which is an “objective test” unlike the ones in graduate school. Some physicists and mathematicians are good calculators, others have problems adding 3 digit numbers with consistent accuracy. The ability to calculate (and especially the ability to calculate quickly) and the ability to conceptualize complex functions and hence do higher math are only weakly correlated. I would not go so far to say that they are orthogonal skills, but certainly the correlation coefficient is less than 0.3. Since this is one area where Wagner got a “win”, he keeps coming back to an irrelevant measure.
This is exactly analogous to my erstwhile graduate schoolmate talking about coding on his Amiga for problems that were not required in class. When it came to actually writing code to simulate the diffusion of electrolytes around an electrode for Electrochemistry class, well, he had to ask me for help. Wagner’s admitted he didn’t do as well on a test that measured calculus ability, but that was because they were asking how to teach physics, not how to do it. That’s a subject matter test, not a philosophy of education test. Suuuuure, Wagner, we believe you. And my ex-schoolmate’s ability to create games on his Amiga gave him the ability to simulate voltammetry. Not.
There is a term in physics – necessary, but not sufficient. Oh yes there is. How does performance on a standardized test qualify one to actually be a scientist? Only in the sense that published scientists necessarily did have to pass such tests in order to enroll in their degree programs. I mean, I passed my black belt test, but that does not make me Benny "The Jet" Urquidez. On the other hand, success on a speed calculating test is not even necessary to do high level science, evidenced by the fact that such sections appear on the CBEST and the ASVAB, but not in the GRE or GRE Physics subject matter tests.
Second, when confronted with the fact that it is apparent that the math test he’s been touting all over the net is a non sequitur, Wagner goes on the offensive against the entire system of graduate education the world over:
Now, as I understand it, you have not passed any objective examinations since your college days. Your 'orals' given by your buddy professors are not fully objective. Written objective examinations, such as the two I took, can be examined over and over, year after year, because they are objective.
Oh yes. Standardized tests are reproducible, which is not the same as being objective. IQ test scores are reproducibly rising due to education programs shifting over time to curricula that “teach the test”. Standardized tests serve as a first-pass filter. They strain out the complete non-hackers. Every holder of a B.Sc. in mathematical science can remember working on problem sets that took days, even weeks to figure out. Those problems can not be included in a timed exam, and yet are the very problems that separate the average geek from the exceptional one.
So, after the GRE (yet another “objective exam I have not heard any claims from Wagner about), how are the budding graduate geeks further sieved against incompetence? With graduate classes, containing the sort of “objective” exams that Wagner claims are superior to oral exams. In most cases two years of such classes. The kind of classes Wagner was not able to pass even one of in the Berkeley physics program. Those graduate exams make undergraduate finals look like middle school algebra tests. They are often “take-home” exams to give adequate time to do the problems, and as such contain problems completely unlike the ones in the books (although based on the same material), and require extensive thought. This kind of exam is getting closer to the kind of work a real scientist does, and is exactly why I asked Wagner if he’d ever passed one. You have to pass more than one to be a real, working scientist, and especially to call yourself a nuclear physicist.
After this come the oral exams. And guess what, Walter? Those are not really exams, they are quality control devices and plagiarism detectors. The “exam” from working on a single, difficult problem for 4 years or more is the peer-reviewed paper, as Dr. Steinberg pointed out. That is how real scientists are measured, and that is how graduate students are measured. It is almost impossible to obtain a Ph.D. these days without publications, and the peer review exposes any flaws in your arguments by subjecting it to criticism from potential rivals. It is only after publishing that the oral exams are taken. Their sole purpose is make sure that the work was done by the student and not the professor. The exam can ask about anything, not just what’s on the study syllabus for some test. I was asked to re-derive equations in my defense that weren’t even in the thesis document, they were just peripherally related. Reproducible? No way, different professors nitpick at different things. Objective? You betcha, because if I did not know the details of my own thesis material it would have become readily, painfully apparent.
So now we have a claim that timed calculation tests make one as smart as a nuclear physicist, and that being as smart as one makes you one. I think even the non-scientists reading this see the flaws in that logic. This is the logic of the also-ran, the slacker, the non-hacker who could not even get an undergraduate degree in physics. The geek who can’t handle rejection from the group. The sad thing is that a B.Sc. in Biology from Berkeley is nothing to sneeze at. It’s just that Physics sits on top of the difficulty heap in the hierarchy of science, and Wagner wants into that club so bad he can taste it. So bad he’ll claim to be in it under oath:
I am a nuclear physicist with extensive training in the field. I obtained my undergraduate degree in 1972 at Berkeley, California in the biological sciences with a physics minor, and graduate degree in 1978 in Sacramento, California in law.
Fortunately for Wagner, there is no legal definition of “nuclear physicist” which can be used to charge him with perjury. But by any scientist’s definition, he is not one (See Dr. Steinberg above). Deep down, he has to know that no real scientist takes this seriously.
I know he knows it because he then goes on to claim that his experience as a Radiation Safety Officer further bolsters his claim to be a nuclear physicist:
Essentially, my job was to look for and root-out the safety flaws overlooked by scientific researchers as it pertained to nuclear physics, as a protection not only for the researcher’s own health, but for the visitors and population at large.
I call bullshit, Walter. Why? Because, aside from investigators overseeing the administration of clinical trials, there are no "scientific researchers" as a normal human being defines the term, at the VA. And those clinical trialists certainly do not do any research "as it pertained to nuclear physics". They use radiomedicine, tried and true techniques far from the cutting edge of nuclear physics. The responsibilities of a Radiation Safety Officer have nothing to do with the calculations of risk at CERN. Proof? You want proof that the paragraph in that lawsuit about Wagner's responsibilities at the VA was an exaggeration?
Well, lucky for us we live in the age of the internet, where Wagner's very job description is advertised:
HEALTH PHYSICIST (Radiation Safety Officer)
The Department of Veterans Affairs New Jersey Healthcare System is seeking a full-time Radiation Safety Officer for our Imaging Service and Radiation Safety Program, which includes Radiation Oncology, Diagnostic Radiology, Nuclear medicine and research divisions.
The VA NJHCS is a consolidated facility comprised of two main campuses, one in East Orange and the other in Lyons, New Jersey.
SUMMARY OF THE POSITION:
The Radiation Safety Officer is responsible for investigating all overexposures, accidents, spills, losses, thefts, unauthorized receipts, uses, transfers, disposals, miss-administrations, and other deviations from approved radiation safety practice and implementing corrective actions as necessary. The RSO is also responsible for implementing, or causing to be implemented, all written policies and procedures related to radiation safety under the direction of the Medical Center Director, his delegates and the Radiation Safety Committee. Additional duties of the position include: Training of personnel, maintaining all pertinent records and permits, managing waste disposal for all users of radioactivity at the medical center
· All applicants must be U.S. Citizens
· Bachelor’s Degree in Natural Science that includes at least 30 semester hours in health physics, engineering, radiological science, chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics, and/or calculus.
· Experience as an RSO strongly desired.
· Certification as a health physicist by the American Board of Health Physics is strongly desired.
· Satisfy State and Federal regulations for RSO qualification in accordance with the National Health Physics Program for designation on an NRC permit.
Uh huh. Does that look like the job description of a nuclear physicist to you? Me neither. Now, let's take a look at the CVs of some people I found by googling "Berkeley particle physics", because I wanted to show how far from the mark Wagner's "credentials" are from those of real scientists in this very field who were in some way associated with his very school:
Joanne D Cohn
C. B. Thorn
Daniel T. Larson
Stephen D.H. Hsu
Joshua Simon Bloom
Go on, click on those links. See how many list even things like National Merit Scholarships, to say nothing of standardized test scores. Some mention Phi Beta Kappa, because that is something you earn through more than the effort put into a single test, and science CVs are all about the honors, publications and accolades you earn from years of hard work. Now go on, do your own google search. Most CVs of Academics are on the web. Match them up against Wagner. Now go to Google Scholar. Look up Wagner's publication record. Go ahead, do it again. Oh, I forgot, Wagner wuz robbed. Of his one and only publication.
Sorry Wagner. I know of Professor Price by reputation. He's a class act, and he's been in the National Academy since the 70s. He would not get 45 Ph.D. students and 44 post-docs by screwing people out of their publication rights. That happens once, and the world gets out. No more grad students for the good professor. Once again, I call bullshit. Once again, Wagner = non-hacker.
So Wagner looks like a preening idiot even to the non-delusional layman at this point. He does not care. This isn't the first time he's called a non-issue a "safety problem" to stroke his own ego. All he cares about is his standing with people like jtankers. Because his is a world class ego tied to a minor-league intellect, and keeping this little gravy train going is his only claim to fame. This is the ego that drives the pseudo-geek rejected by professional geekdom. And I'd never have even gotten into this fray if he wasn't costing me money via the courts, and if his idiocy hadn't earned death threats for a real, Nobel-winning scientist. But he is and it did.
Let me be clear. In this day and age of specialization, it is close to impossible for a layman to be on the cutting edge of science. The low-hanging fruit is gone. Edison would be a minor researcher in some industrial lab today. And in Academia, publications rule the day.
Wagner is going to trot out the old "the entire physics community has a grudge against me and I'm never going to get published in a peer-reviewed journal" tripe. Heh. Unfortunately for him there now exists Xarchiv. You can publish on Xarchiv without peer review, and should your genius be such that it does not need peer review, that will be self-evident. Even kooks and budding kooks such as Plaga and Werbos publish stuff on Xarchiv. It gets ignored (in the case of Werbos) or knocked down (in the case of Plaga), but it's there. Where' Wagner's opus? The same place his credentials reside.
And so to recap: today all physicists have undergraduate and / or graduate degrees in physics. Wagner is a slacker and a non-hacker who never managed to get an undergraduate degree in Physics. Physicists publish papers. Wagner talks about passing a test aimed at school teachers. Physicists publish papers. Wagner talks about objective” testing. Physicists publish papers. Wagner’s friends talk about his chess prowess (DW was a great chess player, BTW – and I still beat the pants off him in chemistry). Physicists publish peer-reviewed papers. Wagner talks about suggesting that concrete be poured over nuclear waste in a secret, temporary storage site to prevent terrorist attacks.* Getting Wagner on-topic is like nailing jello to a wall. Because there is nothing there but ego.
*A site that could be protected easily with a no-fly zone, as are all nuclear plants in the US. It’s likely that his colleagues laughed not because of the remote possibility of terrorist attack (and in pre-9/11 days, a ground-based infiltration was more likely, and possibly still is) but because sealing the waste without proper treatment and precautions would lead to dangerous gas formation and possible vessel bursting, as almost happened at Hanford before the stirrers were installed.
[Update - for all those who care, I'm a Leo. Shows, doesn't it? :D]