Preposterous Universe

Friday, October 29, 2004
Arrogance, aggressiveness, competitiveness

No, I'm not talking about politicians -- it's about physicists.

Sometimes, you see a hornet's nest, and some wise part of you knows that you shouldn't go poking it with a stick. But if you were smart enough to resist, you wouldn't have a blog, would you? Peter Woit mentions a recent colloquium at Fermilab by Howard Georgi, in which Georgi discusses the lamentable under-representation of women in physics. Peter says some sensible things about how complicated the problem is, but being a provocateur, he can't resist getting in a dig at Lubos Motl at the end of it. Lubos, getting into the Halloween spirit, dons his caveman costume and responds with an explanation of the situation, which seems to rely on hormones and the fact that women have fewer neurons than men. (He mentions, generously, that women can be both smart and beautiful; this is only fair, as he frequently mentions how this or that male physicist is kind of dreamy.)

I've chatted before about the issue of gender disparity in physics, but there is a separate but related issue worth remarking on: the arrogance, aggressiveness, and competitiveness of many physicists. Of course such a characterization is a careless over-generalization, but there is enough truth to it that it's worth exploring. The fact is, many physicists can be overbearingly macho about their field. Why is that? Is it also true in other fields, to the same extent? My limited experience seems to indicate that other parts of academia are just as competitive as physics is, but somehow don't have quite the arrogance that we often do. I know that academics in the social sciences or humanities will find this hard to believe, but I really do think that physicists are even worse, on average.

We could indulge in some cheap psychology here. Most of these physicists, after all, were not exactly quarterbacking the football team in high school. It would not be a stretch to imagine that many of them were -- what do we say -- kind of nerdy. We may just be dealing with a certain amount of overcompensation. Finding themselves in a relatively isolated community of like-minded folks, where the ability to do integrals is more prized than the ability to do push-ups, it might be natural to deal with some lingering resentment about being picked on as a child by picking on others as a somewhat-developed adult. In other words, the macho posturing of physicists (scoring points by ridiculing the ideas of others, angling to shout the loudest during seminars, looking disdainfully at any sign of weakness or lack of knowledge) may be the same phenomenon that creates schoolyard bullies, played out in a very different arena.

Admittedly, that is some really cheap psychology indeed, and the truth is undoubtedly more complex. For one thing, the field is competitive, whether we like it or not, for the most basic of reasons: too many people chasing too few goods. In the case the goods are positions of various forms -- acceptance at the best graduate schools, getting good postdocs and faculty jobs, winning awards. There are many more people who want to be scientists than there are jobs for them, so competition is inevitable. And that creates an unfortunate situation where everyone is constantly evaluating the worthiness of everyone else, estimating in their own minds where they deserve to be in the hierarchy of desirable goods. I don't see any way to possibly escape that syndrome -- even if we lived in a utopia of wealth where everyone received a substantial stipend to pursue their individual passions, there would still be competition to get located in the best places, which are limited by definition.

But there's a difference between competing for jobs (sad but inevitable) and acting as if doing physics were itself a competition (sad and untrue). Nature is a big complicated thing that is smarter than any of us, and we should all be in this together. Almost everyone will admit under examination that cooperation is a more effective way of doing science than pure competition. And although becoming a professional physicist is by necessity a difficult task, it doesn't have to be torture, or even unfriendly. Too often in my field we mistake aggressiveness for intelligence, or at least refuse to make the effort to nurture talented people who don't push themselves forward as shamelessly as some of their colleagues. Perhaps it's gradually changing for the better, but I have no way of knowing.

I suspect that a large number of people (of any gender) leave the field simply because they look around and think to themselves, "Wow, a substantial number of my colleagues are hyper-competitive jerks, this really isn't worth it." And that's too bad. Fortunately, along with the jerks are a large number of very sweet and supportive individuals who I am happy to call my friends. So if anyone out there is a friendly non-competitive person with a passion and talent for physics -- stick with it, we need more like you.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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