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What's with this We physicists stuff?

  1. May 8, 2013 #1
    What's with this "We physicists" stuff?

    I know people have joked about this before on this site, but still, everytime I hear it, I cringe. I don't understand the psychology of this.

    I mean, I'm sitting down just a short while ago, having a nice, informal virtual dialog with my friend Sean Carroll, when all of a sudden he starts talking about "we physicists!" I was just, uhhh, speechless. So much so that I lost track of what he was saying for a while. When I started getting back into the conversation, sure enough, he did it again! Check it out..


    You know, I'd expect this from Michio Kaku, Brian Cox, or one of those other pop physicists. But Sean Carroll? What's going on here? The reason I'm bringing this up is that I don't hear this kind of identity crisis from speakers in other scientific disciplines. I'm a biologist, I would never dare say the phrase "we biologists" when I'm giving a talk at a neuroscience conference. I wouldn't be able to keep a straight face. In fact, I don't think I've ever heard someone say "we biologists." I don't think I've heard anyone say, "we genetists" think such and such about so and so. either. "we chemists," "we anthropologists," etc. You fill in the discipline of choice.

    Again, what's going on with these guys? Is it case a of insecurity? Too risky to say that "I think this, or I think that?" Much safer to dilute the responsibility to everyone in the field? "We physicists assert so and so! (and if that turns out to be wrong please blame all the other guys first before you get to me)" I don't get it. Or maybe it's just some kind of meme virus that has spread through the pop physics community, perhaps incubated years ago when Michio caughed up the seminal "we physicists" phrase on TV.

    What do you think? And just for fun, I dare you guys to find a clip where some speaker says "we biologists, chemists, etc." I'll take anything. That would be fun to see.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 8, 2013 #2
    The difference is that your youtube clip is from a popular TV show. It is not a video of a conference. I doubt many people will say "we physicists" on a conference.
  4. May 8, 2013 #3
  5. May 8, 2013 #4
    Right. My point is, however, that you don't see this sort of thing on popular TV shows related to other disciplines. I watch my fair share of popular and diverse science programming, and I can't remember any of the experts on a, say "return to the Galapagos" type of program saying "we biologists," or "we geneticists." Or, say, an expert from an "Underground cities" type-episode saying "we archaeologists." However, I'm challanged to find very many popular physics or even astronomy-related programs where a "we physicists" phrase isn't snuck in somewhere.
  6. May 8, 2013 #5


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  7. May 8, 2013 #6
    He has used this phrase just once in the video you mentioned, and you need to actually provide the full sentence.
    "We physicists are going to have to take seriously the idea that the universe is made of fields..." It is common in the english language to use 'We' in place of 'I' for the sake of inclusiveness, for eg., a professor giving a lecture would use the term 'we' often because he assumes that the audience is with him and following his train of thought, however, this is not necessarily the case in practice - you may find people sleeping, reading the newspaper, or finishing their lunch. If you are implying that he is trying to 'preach' to other physicists that they should take his ideas seriously, well, it is not unusual for a person to try and impose his ideas on others, and its equally the other person's prerogative to have his own views on the subject. If you are trying to imply that the sentence is grammatically incorrect, that may be so, but the real test of a physicist would really be how good his physics is, and not how good his grammar is.
    I don't really get what your objection is.
    Last edited: May 8, 2013
  8. May 8, 2013 #7
    It's not about an objection, an indictment, or even any kind of "issue" with it. And it's definitely not about the grammatical correctness of it. I just think its humorous and curious that this tendency to collectivize the consensus of an entire scientific discipline seems to be unique to the (popular) physics community. I was just making an observation that you don't see this same kind of "assumption of consensus" in other scientific disciplines, and sought from the community here some ideas as to why they thought that may be the case.

    There is something curious about it because I could, very easily, produce at least 20 or more youtube clips with various physicists saying "we physicists" within the next hour. However, I'm doubting that anyone here can produce even one example of a "we_________" from any other scientific discipline within the next 24 hours. Don't you think that's kind of curious? Someone saying "We physicists" think this way and that way about a subject implies that that someone is speaking for the entire physics community, which is a very bold assumption to make. So, in my opinion the issue is not prosaic, it is interesting.

    Perhaps someone can meet my challenge to find a clip, we'll see. In any case, I'm sure to get a good laugh out of hearing someone use that line from another discipline, so it's all in good fun.

    Oh, and "we scientists" don't count. I'm saying that 1) because it's too general, and 2) because I just saw today that Lisa Randall uses that phrase in the intro to "Knocking on heaven's door" So that one's kind of spoiled already.

    And yes, Physwizard, you got me there. Good fact checking. However, in my defense, this 7 minute soliloquy by Sean was part of a larger lecture he gave at the Royal Institution. In the larger lecture he also used the phrase (several times I think, but I didn't count), so I was combining those two, my bad. Here's the full lecture:

    Last edited: May 8, 2013
  9. May 8, 2013 #8


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    This post just rubs me the wrong way.

    First off, regardless of their portrayal or quotes in popular science, Michio Kaku and Brian Cox are established physicists and professors at research universities. Each has contributed to the advancement of science just like any other researcher has done, in the form of academic peer-reviewed papers. I don't think it's right for you to drag them through the mud when your post had nothing to do with them.

    Secondly, with regard to what Sean Carroll himself said... I just don't see how a rational person could take issue with what he said. In your OP you speculate it could be because of identity crises, or perhaps insecurity or maybe just to shirk responsibility. Have you considered that perhaps it is because his role in that video is as an emissary of science? He is presumably communicating new ideas in physics to a lay audience.

    I speak as someone outside of the high energy community but inside of academic physics. I can pretty safely say that the consensus right now seems to be exactly what he is saying, at least in the high energy community.
  10. May 8, 2013 #9

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  11. May 8, 2013 #10


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    I don't get it. What's wrong with saying "we physicists"? I guess it's slightly longer than "physicists", and contains no additional information other than that the speaker considers himself one of them. But this doesn't seem to be a reason to freak out over it.
  12. May 8, 2013 #11


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    There are times when it ticks me off too. To give an example, here is a documentary about *you guessed it* Einstein, in which Michio Kaku starts off the video with: I just hate it when one person speaks for an entire group of people like that.
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  13. May 8, 2013 #12
    Right, I love that one. With one sentence, and not even 10 seconds into the show, somehow Kaku suddenly became Einstein. Nice trick. Lol.
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  14. May 8, 2013 #13
    I think you may be reading me wrong ZF. First, the anomoly I'm pointing out isn't necessarily negative. Sure, there are potential negative consequences there of someone taking it upon themselves to speak for a whole community. However, this tendency to use "we" by physicists may reflect an assured confidence in the intrinsic structure of the science, which perhaps scientists in other disciplines do not feel. Or perhaps it suggests a closer "community feeling or cooperation" than is found in other disciplines. Again, it doesn't necessarily have to mean anything negative. I was just exploring an anomoly I thought was obvious. However, it seems as though others in this thread don't think its obvious. So perhaps the point is moot.
  15. May 9, 2013 #14
    I think it does depend on the contexts, I am ok if a physicist uses the phrase "we physicists" when talking about some idea which is well established and accepted, but not when the idea is really not in the mainstream [like Higgs is linked to the inflation, though it could be], like what Michio Kaku did, not long ago.

    Further reading here: http://profmattstrassler.com/2013/03/19/why-professor-kaku-why/.
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