Maybe We Need Less Intellectual Snobbery?

Bumpersticker on Hayes Street, Boise, Idaho

Bumpersticker on Hayes Street, Boise, Idaho

WC encountered a car with this bumpersticker on Hayes Street in Boise, recently. WC suspects that three-quarters of Americans won’t get it. Physics isn’t a required course in high school and red shift/blue shift is pretty esoteric, even for physics. It doesn’t help you understand football, baseball, hockey or even soccer. Unless you know that the speed of light is a constant, and moving towards an object very, very fast can can shift light reflected from that to the bluish end of the spectrum, well, you won’t understand.1 “Very, very fast” in this case means a substantial fraction of the speed of light.

It’s a droll bit of intellectual snobbery.

WC has friends who, if WC explained the physics to them, would feel obligated to test it. You can imagine the conversation, visiting them in the hospital: “Oh yeah, I saw the sticker on the car ahead of me. I dropped back a bit, gunned it, and watched the sticker right up until I rear-ended the car, and it damn sure never turned blue.”

You probably have friends like that, too.

A bumpersticker like that is really a way of saying, “Hey, I’m in the Smart Guys  club, and if you don’t get it, you aren’t.” It’s a way of excluding the less well educated.

The late Carl Sagan hated stuff like that. In his outstanding book, A Demon-Haunted World, he made the point that the only way to move forward, to exit the demon-haunted world, was to educate the general public on science. Indeed, Sagan spent most of his too-short life in such an effort. He quoted George Washington, in his address to Congress of January 8, 1790:

There is nothing which can better deserve our patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.

Mocking ignorance isn’t going to help in that effort. It’s counter-productive. It needs to stop.

WC is as guilty as anyone of the same offense. Not that long ago, WC blogged about bumperstickers proclaiming, “Stop Continental Drift,” another bit of vague intellectual snobbery.

The task instead should be to educate, to get a better understanding of science into as many heads as possible. If Oklahoma voters had a better understanding of science, James Inhofe wouldn’t be their senator; he would have been laughed out of the last election. If American voters knew more science, Donald Trump wouldn’t be president.



  1. For readers who slept through physics. If you move quickly towards an object, the light reflected from it cannot go faster; the speed of light is an absolute limit. Instead, the light acquires more energy, or, more correctly, the observr’s eye or instrument does, and the more energetic light is more blue. Faster still, and it’s violet. 

8 thoughts on “Maybe We Need Less Intellectual Snobbery?

  1. “Mocking ignorance isn’t going to help in that effort. It’s counter-productive. It needs to stop.”

    Yes and I also think that the college educated need to stop thinking they are better or wiser than those who have gathered their intelligence and wisdom from life experiences. After all those skilled people are sometimes the people that we need to rely on to fix things that are broken.

    Treat each person like you would like to be treated is a good way to live life.


  2. Johann Christian Doppler’s paper “On the Colored Light of Double Stars and Some Other Heavenly Bodies” was delivered to the Royal Bohemian Society of Learning in 1842. In spite of the current significance of his contribution to science, he was so little regarded by his colleagues that today we know few details of his personality. He was born in Salzburg, Austria in 1805 and died at the early age of 49 of pulmonary disease. He worked in relative isolation as a professor of elementary mathematics and practical geometry at the State Technical Academy in Prague.
    Buys Ballot, a contemporary of Doppler, published his doctoral thesis in 1844 stating that he did not believe Doppler’s theory could explain the color of double stars. It was Ballot who felt Doppler’s theory should be put to the test and he conducted the now famous experimental verification of the Doppler effect. He chose to use sound waves rather than light waves, since the speed of sound, being much slower than the speed of light, was predicted by Doppler’s theory to result in a much larger frequency shift. Ballot was loaned a locomotive and a flatcar which was to carry a trumpet player able to play a note with perfect absolute pitch. A second musician, also with perfect pitch, stood in the train station and listened as the trumpet player passed. The stationary musician heard the trumpet note one half tone higher as the train approached and one half tone lower as the train passed. Although the experiment seemed to verify Doppler’s theory, Ballot published his account of the experiment in an article in which he voiced several objections to Doppler’s theory. Rather than establishing Doppler’s theory, Ballot’s article seems to have discredited Doppler for many years.

    1. D.N. White, “Johann Christian Doppler and His Effect-A Brief History,” Ultrasound in Medicine and Biology, vol. 8, no. 6, 1982, pp. 583-591.


  3. I don’t consider myself elite but I have to bring to your attention that you missed the T-Shirt with the inscription “Subduction Leads To Orogeny.”


  4. No, I had not seen this. Thanks. Back in my sailing days, I joked with sailing friends about seeing changes in colors and hearing changes in frequency as a function of our sailing speed.


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