Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Narcissism versus Arrogance (and Hubris)

Back to the correlation to narcissism, of various scientific disciplines.  (This is the continuation of an essay begun here.)
It is beyond contest, that (say) chemists and civil engineers have a reputation for very low doses of Drama, compared with (say) physicists.   But what are the traits that gave physicists such a rep?
It is seldom really narcissism, for that is a matter of individual, personal psychology.  If there is self-regard, that among physicists is more that of the guild -- a corporative trait, which might strike outsiders as arrogant. 

Ann Finkbeiner, in her fine history of the elite advisory group known as the Jasons (who were overwhelmingly physicists), gives an anecdote from an oceanographer (p. 138), recalling an uncharacteristic foray into oceanography by the Jasons:

I did resent this “the ocean is a wonderful summer playground for smart physicists who can do it in their spare time”.  You may know this thing called physics arrogance.  It’s real.

Indeed, Finkbeiner reveals (p. xvii) that at one point “I wanted to call this book The Arrogance of Physicists.”

Now, arrogance can co-exist with narcissism, and flavor it;   but they by no means need be co-present.  Thus, the eponym, Narcissus himself, was not arrogant in the least:  he was dreamily, solipsistically folded-in on himself.

Consider the humble confession of quantum wizard Wolfgang Pauli in 1925:

At the moment, physics is again terribly confused.  In any case, it is difficult for me, and I wish I had been a movie comedian or something of the sort, and had never heard of physics.

Yet many anecdotes are told about Pauli’s arrogance -- within physics : e.g. “What Professor Einstein says” (he concedes) “is not so stupid”.  Or the damning phrase “Not even wrong” (recently the title of a book attacking the very integrity of String Theory).   Or consider this joke (quoted by Ann Finkelbein in The Jasons, 2006):

A physicist gets to heaven  and God asks him if there’s anything he’d like to know, and the physicist says, “Yes, please.  Why is the Fine Structure Constant 1/137?”  God gives him the explanation, and the physicist says, “No, that’s wrong.”

Ironic note:   Any such explanation from God  would in fact have been wrong -- since (as we now know) the value of the Fine Structure Constant, though close to 1/137, is not exactly that, and thus is not a ration of (small) integers at all:  it’s just one of those boring physical parameters that drone on and on, and could just as well have been somewhat different.  The conjecture that it might actually be a pure integer ratio  caused a certain amount of numerological excitement back in the day, but that turned out to be a false alarm.


We have frequently written about the related but distinct notions of depth  versus difficulty (in math and science).   This comparison/contrast of narcissism versus arrogance (the former being key to our American culture, the latter to our politics) may likewise prove fruitful.

Stepping out a further circle of semantic nuance, we find hubris.  Like narcissism and arrogance, this can be an individual characteristic, as it was among the Greeks who named the concept.   But it can also characterize the goals and self-conception of an entire discipline. And beginning at least in the twentieth century, if not earlier, physics could well be described as hubristic.


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