Gibson replies: I appreciate the healthy response to my Opinion piece. The writers added many valuable insights, and several echo my sentiments. My original piece was intended as a condemnation of the behavior that most of us would identify as arrogant. Most of the disagreement is due to semantics concerning the meaning of the word arrogance. I came not to praise arrogance, but to bury it.
Admittedly, the word arrogance is technically inaccurate to describe the positive behavior that I defended. My poetic license may have confused some readers. The dictionary definition of arrogance suggests overbearing behavior based on inappropriate views. “High degree of self-confidence”—Richard Noer’s phrase—or even assertive may well be more accurate to describe the positive side of arrogance. Because arrogance and self-confidence seem intimately related even though one is bad and the other is good, I chose to blur the distinction.
Physicists are, as Leonard Fine-gold observes, more open than other professions to admitting uncertainties. We physicists have much to be proud of, but for our own sake, we need to admit our weaknesses.
I disagree with Robert Adair’s comment that the varying representation of different races and genders in physics follows entirely from causes outside the field. If that were true, wouldn’t all professions experience the same degree of representation?
Harry Lipkin makes the valid argument that stupidity may be mistaken for arrogance. He correctly notes that gender representation is slightly better in some other countries and that we can learn from that. We Americans are known around the world for our hubris, and this may explain some of the differences.
The combination of brilliance and humility that Leonard Weisberg mentions is the ideal paradigm for a physicist; I intended in my piece not to argue against that combination of traits but instead to discuss why it is uncommon.
T. N. Narasimhan makes a profound point when he observes that man’s arrogance toward nature is dangerous. I also like James Kellinger’s apt metaphor for the misguided teacher as a forester waiting for seedlings to spring up from the soil so that he can then hit them with a hammer.
Fortunately, very few writers disagree with my concern about the downside of arrogance, and most object only to my apology for it. I stand corrected on the technical usage of the word. However, knowing that the boundary between bad arrogance and good self-confidence is blurred helps us fulfill our aim to stamp out one and not the other. Frankly, I anticipated more radical disagreement than is reflected in this set of letters; instead, almost all the writers view arrogance as a real problem for the profession. I hope that view is representative of the community.