September 4, 2006
It is generally assumed that physicists are smart people. Even some chemists look up to physicists. Physics is reputed to be a difficult subject, the stuff of nightmares in high school. The greatest scientists that come to mind are often the physicists Einstein and Newton. The inventors of the atomic bomb are held in awe, as are the cosmologists that gave us black holes and worm holes into parallel universes. The proverbial rocket scientists are physicists. It is generally assumed that anyone who has studied quantum mechanics and can work-in the concept of entropy at a cocktail party is pretty smart.
I’m a physicist and I’ve trained physicists and I’d like to advance a different view: That generally, physicists, as a group, are pretty stupid, and certainly no smarter than any other group of self-centered and self-serving professionals.
Physicists limit themselves to physics, to simple phenomena that are amenable to manageable mathematical descriptions or to more complex phenomena that are reduced to simplistic descriptions via appropriate filters that are said to "capture the essential features". Physicists study only what they can, given their specific and limited methods, possibly more so than in any other natural science discipline.
This in itself is an efficient and productive approach but physicists go much further. As a matter of professional culture, physicists believe that their methods could eventually lead to a deep and thorough understanding of all phenomena (including human consciousness, learning, politics, etc., for example), given time, dedication, sufficient funding, and powerful enough computers. Physicists believe that all sciences and all branches of human knowledge are physics, ultimately. They arrive at this conclusion having never read or studied psychology, pedagogy, philosophy, history, politics, sociology, art, etc. as part of their professional training.
Indeed, the modern professional physicist has usually subjected himself (less often herself) to extreme specialization, to be able to handle the technical side of the profession. This training is also largely about adopting the culture of the professional physicist: Examples and examples of what are "good problems – good questions" and what are "bad (= 'unmanageable’) problems"; and examples and examples of how one tames a new problem and fits it into the mould of what a physicist can do. The physics student learns to bridle his curiosity and to restrict himself to what is doable, publishable, useful, profitable; using the unique methods of physics and providing "answers" that other professionals could not. That is the name of the game.
A broader education would not be compatible with this strategy – just enough reading outside of the field to spot new physics opportunities is the most that is recommended. A broader education might also cloud one’s professional identity and one’s professionalism: Eighty percent of physicists in North America work for the military, in the world’s largest military economy . But of course physics students are drawn to physics because all can be understood via the physics portal and because worm holes are neat. Students search for meaning and social status and find military and corporate service, often in an environment that maintains the neat-problem mental bubble first cultivated in sci-fi and electronic game land.
If you’re already smarter than everyone else (as is generally the working assumption in most professions), then you don’t really need to venture out into other fields – that are so primitive and qualitative and descriptive in comparison to physics.
Other fields…? Other methods…? Complexity…? Professional physicists have so buried themselves into their culture of the doable, the mappable, the reducible, the solvable, the codable, … that they are largely unable to perceive complexity.
Students are drawn to physics by its promise of a manageable mathematical description, an objective method to own the world, to organise and predict the outside. Emotional immaturity, a need for an objective solution to uncertainty or a need to escape reality, draws students to physics and accompanies them in their professional development. The same naivety that couples so well with the physics culture also blocks perception of the complex.
That is the main reason, in my view, that physicists are stupid: They are unable to perceive complexity, a complexity of the real world that goes far beyond what physics will ever be able to handle in any universe. They are unable to even get a glimpse of the textures and subplots that may be intrinsically incompatible with mathematical description. To them, mathematics is the language of reality, not a mere human invention or genetically delimited _expression. To them, the objective mind is all-powerful and able to open all doors. To them, useful perception is physiological and does not benefit from the uncertainties of one’s emotional state. To the physicist, communication is data transmission, not the subtleties that can only be captured by the right configuration of social and emotional attributes. The physicist deals in hard bits, not the imperceptibles that determine our animal and social lives. The physicist is unaware of his blindness and glibly confident in his perception, especially his perception of himself as systematic unraveller of the truth.
If at least he was harmless!
Denis G. Rancourt is Professor of Physics at the University of Ottawa
 Schmidt, Jeff. Disciplined Minds. Rowan and Littlefield Publ., NY, 2000. Parenti, Michael. Democracy for the Few. Bedford St. Martin’s Publ., Boston, 1995. Mitchell, Peter R. and Schoeffel, John (Eds.) Understanding Power – The Indispensable Chomsky. The New Press, NY, 2002.