In defense of those “dull” scientists

The other day, Chad at Uncertain Principles linked to a very odd argument on the site Medical Hypotheses: “Why are modern scientists so dull? How science selects for perseverance and sociability at the expense of intelligence and creativity”, by Bruce Charlton:

Question: why are so many leading modern scientists so dull and lacking in scientific ambition? Answer: because the science selection process ruthlessly weeds-out interesting and imaginative people. At each level in education, training and career progression there is a tendency to exclude smart and creative people by preferring Conscientious and Agreeable people. The progressive lengthening of scientific training and the reduced independence of career scientists have tended to deter vocational ‘revolutionary’ scientists in favour of industrious and socially adept individuals better suited to incremental ‘normal’ science.

The article has been out on the ‘tubes since February — published in the journal Medical Hypotheses — and is so over-the-top polemical I’m tempted to think that it is a Poe of sorts.  However, it seems to be a sincere article, and so I thought I’d take a brief moment to give some rebuttal.

The article suggests that modern scientists are appreciably less intelligent — “dull” — than their predecessors, producing only mediocre and “incremental” science.  The reason for this, Charlton suggests, is that the lengthy educational process required to become a research scientist deters smart and creative people from pursuing the career and instead encourages people who are not easily deterred (“conscientious”) and who tend not to make waves (“agreeable”).  Since, the argument goes, creative people is opposed to agreeableness, the educational system churns out people who just want to get along and don’t want to do good science.

Chad already did a nice job pointing out that, in physics at least, there are plenty of genius scientists who were also very easy to get along with.   I thought I’d start by taking a stab at criticizing the central thesis of the article: modern scientists are “dull”.

Question #1:  Sez who?

Question #2:  Seriously, sez who?  None of the references cited seem to address specifically this question, and the article itself just states it as an assertion.  This makes it an unproven assertion, in my book.  It seems rather ridiculous, on its face, to blast an entire profession, in general, as lacking in intelligence and creativity, without a large body of evidence backing it up.  Though I’ve known some quite dull people in the sciences myself, I’ve also known lots of brilliant ones.

The argument seems mostly based on a comparison of the performance of modern scientists and scientific progress with that of times past.  On the surface, it is easy to say that there’s been no scientist of the caliber of Newton or Einstein in the past thirty years, and no major, paradigm-shifting discoveries of the caliber of quantum mechanics or relativity in that same amount of time.

There are two reasons why the comparisons are flawed.  First is what I would call, “they don’t make movies like they used to”-itis.  We’ve all felt this way at one point or another — after going out and seeing yet another complete-load-of-crap movie in the theater (this seems like a good bet, if you need inspiration), we say to ourselves, “Gosh, modern movies are trash — they used to make them so much better in the old days.”

There may be some truth to this, but we also have a skewed perception of the “old days”.  We remember the good, classic films, but quickly forget the crap films.  It is easy, in other words, to recall the 80’s as the golden age of screwball comedies such as Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, and Better Off Dead, and forget the countless Police Academy and Porky’s films.

Similarly, the contributions of Newton, Einstein, Faraday, etc. have stood the test of time and are well remembered, but there were also many, many other scientists who did incremental and forgotten work.  Having browsed the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society back to its very beginning, I feel pretty confident saying this.  Any study which claims that scientists are “duller” than they were in the past must convince me that it has looked at all the scientists of the eras being compared.

Second, criticisms that modern research is “incremental” compared to the groundbreaking research of the past suffers from several flawed assumptions.  One is the same “old days” problem mentioned above.  An equally poor assumption is that paradigm shifting discoveries are totally dependent upon the brilliance of the researchers.  As often as not, the technology of the era limits the ability of researchers to probe further.  The standard model, for instance, could not have been conceived until high-energy particle accelerators had been developed.  It is also important to note that science progresses; the research being done now is appreciably more advanced than the work done a hundred years earlier.  If the rate of progress has slowed, I would argue it is because we are climbing a much steeper hill.

While I’m thinking of that, by whose measure has the rate of progress slowed?  From what I’ve seen, amazing discoveries are made all the time — anyone who reads research blogs will be aware of this.

There’s one other point worth making here.  The lengthy academic process is criticized as driving out brilliant people who otherwise would be making groundbreaking discoveries.  This seems to me to be putting a stunningly ignorant emphasis of genius over education.  Brilliance isn’t enough to make great discoveries — one also needs training, be it in a university or self-taught over a significant period of time.  The increasing length of the educational process is in large part due to the rapid accumulation of scientific progress which must be digested and understood by the student.

Charlton’s work really reads like a rant written by someone with a grudge against the modern educational system — high on passion, low on facts (not to mention a lack of basic understanding of how science works these days).  Statements like “Great revolutionary science is therefore a product of transcendental truth-seeking individuals working in a truth-seeking milieu,” sound more like New Age woo than real insights into educational reform.

There are real problems with the modern educational system, but I’m afraid that reformers will need to look elsewhere to find solutions.

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13 Responses to In defense of those “dull” scientists

  1. Aydin says:

    The thing is, as you also point out, that the progress science hasn’t stopped. If the “dull” scientists have been responsible for the recent & current scientific activity, let us be all dull!

  2. John says:

    I agree that the problem isin the modern day educational system.

  3. IronMonkey says:

    I completely agree with your analysis gg. I might add that “incremental” research may appear dull and thus often does not get the full credit it deserves.
    I believe (and I don’t think I’m alone) that “good” science stems not only from “good” or “groundbreaking” hypotheses and their commensurate conclusions; but mainly from the techniques and methods applied to get to the results. Anyone can initiate a tough-provoking hypothesis, however the essence of a scientist lies in the systematic and meticulous approach taken to reach to a conclusion that outsiders will most likely find potent within the framework at hand.

    So my point is: science is not only concerned about the starting point or the destination; but everything in between. Every step in that journey must be weighted. This is why we should be patient and understand that great leaps often comes after several tiny steps.

    • IronMonkey: Very true. I probably didn’t emphasize enough in my original post that “incremental” research is very important, too. I reinforced this view last night by staying up until 1 a.m. browsing through late-1800s issues of the Philosophical Magazine. There’s a lot of great, groundbreaking research there (which I will blog about in the future!), but there’s also a lot of “incremental” stuff, such as measurements of the optical, thermal, and electrical properties of various materials. Somebody had to do those measurements, and though they’re not glamorous, they’re hugely important. (Which reminds me that I’ve got a Giant’s Shoulders post very much along those lines I need to get cracking on.)

      And you never know when an “incremental” measurement will produce something groundbreaking. One of the papers I ran across was Dewar’s measurements of the electrical conductivity of materials at temperatures “approaching absolute zero”. He was using liquid oxygen, which has a boiling point of about 90K, and the results he got probably didn’t hold a lot of surprises. But less than 20 years later, after liquid helium became available, these sort of measurements produced paradigm-shifting research.

  4. Blake Stacey says:

    It’s like the “Great Man” model of history applied to science by someone who doesn’t really know science. . . Ayn Rand, call your office.

    Any study which claims that scientists are “duller” than they were in the past must convince me that it has looked at all the scientists of the eras being compared.

    Just think of the great names of the past: Perrin, Nagaoka, Schott. . . they just don’t make ‘em like they used to! :-)

    • Blake: And here I went to all the trouble of trying not to link to my Gallery of Failed Atomic Models to get examples (I do that so much already), and you go and do it for me! :)

      • Blake Stacey says:

        Helping well-laid plans gang oft agley — that’s what I’m here for, ’cause that’s what I’m good at!

        Incidentally, the journal name Medical Hypotheses rang an overdamped bell somewhere in my poorly-wired memory circuits, so I looked it up on the Scientifickal Blogohedron. It is often not held in high regard. Irrelevant to the particular matter at hand, but still interesting to know, I think.

      • Blake: I had the same sort of feeling about the journal, and came to the same conclusion. I opted to link to the Wikipedia page and let people draw their own conclusions.

  5. stuwat says:

    The author of the article in question exhibits a deep naivety about science and to such as degree that it doesn’t really warrant the debate it has sparked. Having said that, I will address his point that scientists’ research programs are determined by available funding and that most function “as a cog in someone else’s research machine”, by drawing an analogy with the world of business. Would we expect someone with little or no education in the operations of a machinery company to be given a large salary and instantly promoted to CEO? Would the shareholders be happy with that decision, especially when this maverick comes in and declares they will no longer make tractors but that the future is in horse-drawn ploughs?

    Here’s my assertion: Major scientific discoveries are the result of very hard, incremental work and far less to do with a flash of creative genius.

    • stuwat: Yeah, it isn’t really worth the debate; it irritated me enough, though, that I thought I would take a few stabs at it for my own satisfaction.

      “Would we expect someone with little or no education in the operations of a machinery company to be given a large salary and instantly promoted to CEO?”

      Well, in the current corporate climate, I wouldn’t discount it, but your point is well taken! :)

      Your argument reminds me of a point I wanted to make but didn’t really get around to making. Putting an emphasis on “genius” tends to devalue the amount of training that the great scientists have gone through. This gives students the impression, which I think all physics professors must fight, that physics is a subject that you either “get” immediately without any effort or never understand at all. I think Einstein, and all the great scientists, in fact, would take offense if someone suggested that they’re just “naturally smart” and don’t need to work at it. Einstein spent years musing deeply and constantly about the meaning of space, time and gravity, and it is somewhat insulting to imply that his own effort was somehow secondary to his natural ability.

      (Though I’m no Einstein, I’ve often had family members say to me: “Oh, you do physics, you must be a genius!” Though they’re trying to be flattering, it always seems to me that they’re discounting the fact that I had to struggle very hard at times to understand what I was learning and keep up with the coursework. I’m proud of the fact that, any natural talent aside, I put a lot of effort into getting the understanding of science that I have now.)

      Similar arguments apply to other endeavors. I often wonder how irritated Michael Jordan gets when people refer to him as a “natural” basketball player. Though he undeniably has natural talent, professional players would have mopped the floor with him if he hadn’t trained very hard over the years to perfect his skills.

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  8. Jordan says:

    The point made on the site is over-exaggerated, the choice of wording in a few places makes it seem more provocative than it really is, and is clearly at the level of a speculative hypothesis rather than an empirically backed argument.

    However, there is something worthwhile at the core. The idea of attainment resulting from a combination of intelligence (G) and conscientiousness (C) are based on long standing notions in psychology that are far from lacking in evidence. To a lesser extent, this is also true about the tradeoff between “psychoticism/creativity” (PSY) and “agreeableness” (A).

    Its true that the length of education required before embarking on independent research is growing monotonically over time. Its likewise true that more and more research is collaborative and team based – look at trends in the numbers of coauthors on papers for example. Both of these are doubtless symptoms of the growing body of scientific knowledge – the more we learn as a civilisation, the “further” it is to reach the frontier of current research, and the more help you’re likely to need when you get there.

    So, over time, it seems like scientific endeavour is probably selecting more for C to the expense of G – not that there aren’t plenty of people who aren’t well endowed with both and make wonderful researchers, they’re just statistically rarer – and more for A, which is possibly at the expense of some necessary amount of PSY, although I think this whole strand is a bit more tenuous.

    Look at the likes of Evariste Galois, who was insufferably argumentative, terrible at communicating his ideas in a fashion peers could understand -and more or less single handedly invented group theory before being shot dead in duel while still a teenager(!). How would he fare in the modern world of mathematics?

    The big unanswered question to me is whether you really need the likes of Galois. The premise of the article is that you do – that you can’t replicate the feats of wild geniuses through incremental research. As other comments here have noted, this is perhaps symptom of a selection bias – the likes of Galois tend to stand out in the historical narrative, but “revolutions” are usually just the inevitable result of “evolutions”, and no doubt someone – or perhaps even more likely a variety of someones, each making partial contributions – would have come along and invented group theory if Galois hadn’t.

    So I don’t think science “needs” a leadership of rogue geniuses. Its merely a question of what’s optimal – does the current arrangement give us the fastest pace of progress possible? And if it doesn’t, how can we do better? People aren’t just sitting around twiddling their thumbs during those years of PhD work after all.

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