Saturday, September 25, 2010

Are Physicists Smart?

Disciplined professionals serve power

by Denis G. Rancourt

First published on Global Research in 2006, presently not available on the GR site.


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 [1]. 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!

Notes:
[1] 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.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

I venture to guess that much of your article is equally applicable to geologists and deans...

Anonymous said...

Great post. The physicists are the High Priests, the Cardinals, of the religion that is Technology. That religion seeks to become one with a mythical Cosmic Creator through technological advancement. Apparently, in the view of the highest of the highest in this field, that is human destiny and they seek to fulfill it.

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-7141762977713668208#

Anonymous said...

Physics is indeed insinuating itself into all fields of endeavor. Witness the insinuation of it into the highly dubious field of economics. Economics is nothing more than haberdashery....voodoo. It is based off of so many outlandish subjective assumptions (how can an assumption be otherwise) that the foundation of its preposterous theories amounts to shifting sand forming and reforming predicated on the latest requested rationalization.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/10/science/10quant.html?pagewanted=all

Still others have opened an academic front, using complexity theory or artificial intelligence to better understand the behavior of humans in markets. In December the physics Web site arXiv.org, where physicists post their papers, added a section for papers on finance. Submissions on subjects like “the superstatistics of labor productivity” and “stochastic volatility models” have been streaming in.

Quants occupy a revealing niche in modern capitalism. They make a lot of money but not as much as the traders who tease them and treat them like geeks. Until recently they rarely made partner at places like Goldman Sachs. In some quarters they get blamed for the current breakdown — “All I can say is, beware of geeks bearing formulas,” Warren Buffett said on “The Charlie Rose Show” last fall. Even the quants tend to agree that what they do is not quite science.

anil said...

yea, am sure u got sacked...

CanSpeccy said...

An interesting discussion.

Physicists are undoubtedly the stupidest scientists on the face of the planet, with the possible exception of all the others.

But it is true that they generally fail to cope well with messy real world problems.

That's one reason, I think, why Richard Feynman seemed so unusual. He tried to understand lots of things, not just some incredibly obscure mathematical thing that meant nothing to anyone but another physicist, and which could only be put over on the public with some bogus analogy or promise of future benefit.

Anonymous said...

if i had to guess id say you're probably just a bad physicist and have animosity toward good physicists who think they are way better than you. hope that made you feel better

Anonymous said...

You do realize virtually all engineering is physics, right? This implies that you believe that nothing man-made is complex. This is objectively false. Further, we don't just think that physics can understand other fields. Nearly all of chemistry came from physics and much of molecular biology is driven by physics. And let's not forget earth science, astronomy, etc. are as much applied physics as engineering is. Many things in economics such as the Black-Scholes model for European option pricing came by applying a SIMPLIFIED diffusion/heat transfer equation to finance. Stochastic PDEs based on quantum statistical fermionic interactions have been used to figure out how music is created and how creativity works, even solos in jazz. Yes, physics can literally create music like a musician.

Physicists try to discover new physics, rather than new applications. That is their job. But that doesn't mean that others (or even they themselves) can't use physics to understand the complexity of the world

Anonymous said...

I think you're bitter.

Anonymous said...

now now everyone I do believe what the good man is trying to allure to is that regardless of the depth that we might develop through science, and progress, we should never forget the even bigger complexity that's life, because, as much as we'd like to break down life into a simple all encompassing equation, the truth is that we can't do this without robing it of its true essence.