Thursday, April 18, 2013

Physicists in a groupthink bubble

The distinguished physicist Philip Anderson reviews a biography of Freeman Dyson:
But we did not meet until the first energy crisis, when we both attended a workshop on energy that was sponsored by the American Physical Society. Afterwards, we met at disarmament seminars at Princeton University in New Jersey, which is where I first sensed his ambiguity about conventional liberal positions on subjects such as the "Star Wars" defence initiative – most of which I hold unambiguously. ...

Most recently he has delighted in maintaining minority views on a number of topics such as climate, religion (his Christianity places him in the minority for his profession) and genetic modification.
Dyson is a liberal Democrat, and yet Anderson finds a way to criticize him for not being politically correct on all issues.

Dyson and Anderson are two of the most accomplished living 20th century theoretical physicists. This review gives a glimpse of how we might compare them. What I get out of this is that academic physicists live in a leftoid groupthink bubble, with very little deviation tolerated. Why does Anderson have to tell us that he holds conventional liberal positions unambiguously? Is he worried that his fellow might think that any reviewer should distance himself from Dyson's politics? He sounds like a Commie who might say, "I did not deviate from Kremlin policy, and you cannot trust those who do."

My guess is that a physicist would really be an outcast if he endorsed a Republican. While physicists are entitled to their political opinions, of course, it shows that the field is intolerant of critical thinking. They are not experts on global warming, but Anderson has to denounce "Dyson's dreadful misjudgment on the climate question".

Peter Woit explains how Anderson invented the Higgs mechanism, but the high-energy physicists do not like to credit him because of his role in the Democrat cancellation of the Texas Superconducting Super Collider.


  1. >> My guess is that a physicist would really be an outcast if he endorsed a Republican.

    Assuming your guess is correct I'd infer that an aspiring young physicist might well consider the Grand [re-Unified] Old Party since the resulting ostracism might then ^ his/her overall lab time. One of my previous employers, a Princeton I.T. staffer, once bragged to me that she was one of the priceless few people thereabouts who "can deliver Hank Calaprice [from his lab] when [she] throw[s] one of [her] parties."

  2. What? I just read the article you linked to. It says nothing about politics.

    The particle Anderson proposed has a quartic (degree 4) action. Usually, action terms above the quadratic (degree 2) level are dropped, because they make it difficult to get anything testable from the equations, and thus open the door too wide to speculation. Before the particle was confirmed, it made sense to have doubts about it.

    Also it says Anderson believed in supersymmetry. Now that the LHC has falsified supersymmetry, perhaps physicists are blaming him for setting them on the wrong track.