Hermit Crabs and Maître d's: Arrogance in Physics

by Manuel García, Jr.

December 1, 2003


The article "Arrogance -- A Dangerous Weapon of the Physics Trade?" by J. Murray Gibson, of Argonne National Laboratory, appeared in the fall 2003 issue of the CSWP Gazette (Newsletter of the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics of the American Physical Society, Vol. 22, No. 2). Gibson describes the nature of arrogance among physicists as springing from pride in the acquisition of such a grand and difficult field of human knowledge, and the social difficulties the physics profession suffers because of an excessive display of this attitude. The primary difficulties Gibson sees are the male chauvinism of the white enclave which is American professional physics, and the failure to engage widespread public support for the government subsidies that sustain the profession. Gibson summarizes his argument (and his attitude) as follows:
My thesis, that physicists suffer from an abundance of misused arrogance, is presented in the hope that in the future we physicists can separate our profession from our science. Let us hope we can keep our razor-sharp "no axioms allowed" intellects at their most productive level while becoming humbler in our interactions among ourselves and with the public. Although we may be privileged to appreciate and discover the secrets of nature, we have no right to claim any ownership over them or to exclude others from decisions about what to do with our knowledge.
There is much in Gibson's description of contemporary physics practice to agree with, but why is it that physicists are so often arrogant? His ascription of professional arrogance to pride of ownership in esoteric knowledge is too simplistic (dare I say "axiomatic?").

Arrogance, like prejudice, is a prop for an intellectual deficiency: in the case of arrogance the deficiency is in education, while with prejudice the deficiency is of critical thinking.

Arrogance is also a prop for a lack of self-esteem regarding social standing. The imperious facade of the maître d' -- or many an American physicist -- is that of one who is essentially a servant trying to inflate the appearances of his position in order to convey what facts would negate: power, command, authority. Arrogance is unnecessary to a person of independent means achieved by professional success.

American physicists are superbly trained, but they are quite often poorly educated. They are like hermit crabs, relatively insignificant creatures but with one outsized claw with which to confront the world -- their physics. Whereas an Aristotle, an Archimedes, a Leonardo da Vinci, an Oppenheimer and Schrödinger might have received and absorbed an education both wide and deep in the sciences and the humanities, this is not generally true of American technical people today.

It is in the studies of "rhetoric" and "politics" and "poetics" (which Aristotle declared even more important then "history") and, of course "philosophy," that one refines the ability to think, to understand, and to write. Many an American technical person is little beyond an extension of mechanistic skills -- a tool. When confronted by the realities of the world, which far outpace the confines of the limited set of abstractions and recipes contained within the "skill-set" of their physics, our little hermit crabs can do little beyond waving their big claw with a big attitude. The alternative is to admit ignorance, and few have the character for that.

The deficiency in education of American physicists can be filled by an individual making an effort at self-education after their physics training (I almost prefer to say "conditioning," as Aldous Huxley described it in Brave New World). This can be quite an effort and take years, but certainly the determination and native intelligence that made physics training possible means such a committed individual can acquire a humanistic knowledge and understanding that would obviate a resort to arrogance.

The other way to eliminate the humanistic deficiency in American physics (and science, generally) education is to drastically reform the educational system of colleges and universities. The mere statement of this should emphasize the remoteness of such a possibility -- the principle involved here is inertia. The higher educational system is a battleground of personal careerism, faculty members strive for personal recognition and increased privilege by drawing in greater outside funding. The education of students is not the highest priority (indeed, it is often seen as a hindrance). Besides these academic environmental factors in limiting the likelihood of educational reform, there is the simple fact that most technical faculty have their own humanistic educational gap, and are unable to conceive of a different sort of education, let alone provide it.

What will American graduate physicists do, once they enter the work world? By and large they will work for large corporations involved in some aspect of the militarized economy -- the "defense industry." Some fraction may go into private enterprises engaged in non-military industry, their work focused on company "profits." A minute fraction of these new scientists will move into academia, as the fresh batch of clones of the professorial class. In all cases conformity will be seen as key to survival, not such nonconsensual attitudes as "reform." And, indeed, what capacity do they even have to envision programs of reform?

As students, what did these young people learn -- from their physics professors -- about the ethics, history, economic and social implications of their inevitable roles in the highly militarized American economy? Nothing. Their education was a lie because it was presented as detached from any social (and at the personal level, ethical) implications. They were taught the mechanics of a trade without a thought to the consequences of its practice. They are dependent on government and corporate subsidies (servants), which mesh their individual mechanistic efforts into an industrial scale of activity directed to the increase of government power (e.g., weapons, "energy") and corporate profits.

"Successful" physicists are usually techno-bureaucrats in the military-industrial complex, and people who have learned to adapt themselves to systems of patronage (i.e., are ethically "flexible"). Few physicists will move on to independent careers, like the "natural philosophers" of old, and artists and musicians even today, who strive to advance in their art as well as to advance the art, to some greater good in humanistic and social terms. Our poor little hermit crabs, tossed into a psychic, and social and political world, with such a deficiency of understanding as to how to connect to it, need their big claws and all too often an arrogant display of them, to hide behind.

But at least our little hermit crabs produce good physics, no? No. Much, yes, uniformly good, no; we have an abundance fueled by careerism and channeled by orthodoxy. My thesis is that the best physics will be produced by people who are as polished psychically, ethically and socially as they are technically, people who can walk off the military-industrial plantations and up-end the universities, people who have as deep an insight into poetics as into quantum mechanics, and people who can say it plain to any five-year-old.

· · · · · ·


America the 'beautiful' on Swans


Manuel García, Jr. is a graduate aerospace engineer, working as a physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He did underground nuclear testing between 1978 and 1992. He is concerned with employee rights and unionization at the nuclear weapons labs, and the larger issue of their social costs. Otherwise, he is an amateur poet who is fascinated by the physics of fluids, zen sensibility, and the impact of truth.

Do you wish to share your opinion? We invite your comments. E-mail the Editor. Please include your full name, address and phone number. If we publish your opinion we will only include your name, city, state, and country.

Please, feel free to insert a link to this poem on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting the first paragraph or providing a summary. However, please DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans. This material is copyrighted, © Manuel García, Jr. 2003. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
· · · · · ·

This Week's Internal Links

The Silly Season Amidst Terminal Decay - by Gilles d'Aymery

Homeless - by Michael W. Stowell

Of Meds And Mendacity - by Phil Rockstroh

Tea Leaves - by Richard Macintosh

Campaign Financing - Cartoon by Jan Baughman

Matt Gonzalez For Mayor Of San Francisco - by Jan Baughman

The Question Of Turnaround - by Vanessa Raney

Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah - Book Review by Louis Proyect

Ethics And Priorities: Perspectives On Justice - Prose Poem by Scott Orlovsky

Additional Resources on Iraq - Dossier by Tanweer Akram

Letters to the Editor


Published December 1, 2003
[Copyright]-[Archives]-[Resources]-[Main Page]