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.