Dull

ResearchBlogging.org
“Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one’s living at it.”
(Albert Einstein)

As one who readily admits to the kind of stupidity identified here, and without taking offence, as per a paper flagged here, I’ve been having a smile at something I was led to from here. In a long ‘Editorial’ in the non-peer-reviewed journal Medical Hypotheses, its Editor-in-Chief, Bruce Charlton, postulates that scientists are dull. And, having told you that, you might now be under the assumption that I’ve taken umbrage and am about to embark on some retaliatory tirade. Well, err, no. Because, although I certainly find some of his argument challengeable, I am, to some extent, with him.

The title is a grabber: ‘Why are modern scientists so dull?’ By ‘dull’ does he mean lacking intelligence, or boring? Actually, both! But in case that piques you, this is quickly qualified in the first sentence: ‘Why are so many leading modern scientists intellectually dull and lacking in scientific ambition?’ So you might think that lets you off, but it doesn’t really. The gist is that any scientist worth his/her salt must want not just independence, but to pursue paradigm-shifting ‘revolutionary’ science. And if we don’t have, or don’t retain this ambition, then we, the vast majority of ‘normal’ scientists, slowly accumulating knowledge to bolster current prevailing paradigms, are… dull. Top (revolutionary) scientists are marked by high IQ. Well, yes. But most of us (normal) scientists are not so endowed (or not so highly). Instead, we are possessed of high conscientiousness (‘C’). But science now is requiring of so much education and training, and so dictated by funding mores and bureaucracy, that any dream of interested independence eludes most of us. What the laborious endeavour of modern science requires is not brightness or creativity, but that we fit in. This requires that we persevere; and be agreeable. Intelligence isn’t necessary; rather, we must be technically competent, dogged, careful.

IQ and C are not totally separate, mutually exclusive entities. However, Charlton considers that the changes in education over recent decades, with its increased emphasis on examinations, have led to a prominence of increased C amongst those choosing a scientific career. Thus, according to the ‘equation’:

IQ x C ≈ Educational attainment

the average IQ of long-term researchers is reduced, because ‘over-performers’ (harder working but less intelligent) are selected over ‘under-achievers.’ (Leaving aside the political argument that this derivative formulation is too over-simplified, omitting as it does an additional factor – opportunity – because it and other factors are ‘less certain or harder to measure’ than ‘probably the most important’ IQ and C.) Consequently, the conscientiousness and perseverance necessary early in a science career select against those of higher IQ, such that there are fewer ‘top’ scientists with high IQ, and so less revolutionary science is getting done because the modern science leadership, being too ‘normal’ (dull), is incapable of it. Charlton further argues that revolutionary science requires more than just high IQ; its practitioners must also be possessed of the creativity associated with the (moderately high) psychoticism that catalyses high achievement in the sciences and in the arts. But, we normals, we unoriginals, just go on complying and conforming. We react too slowly and take too long to yield product.

Okay, hang on a minute there. It’s not that I disagree; rather, I wonder whether Charlton kids himself that he’s hit on something when, in actual fact, most of us realise this already (Don’t we?).

One reason why scientific education and training gets longer, perhaps, is because the amount of background knowledge increases with time, due to the cumulativeness of science. Knowledge laminates: fill in a gap and we create two more. Hence, the increased necessity to specialise (one simply can’t know it all). We now need to look further, smaller, deeper, etc. And this requires sophisticated equipment and techniques, which require technically proficient people to develop, work up, test and conduct them…. which, in turn, necessitate collaboration – social, agreeable interaction – between disciplines. Hence, the need for co-ordination and organisation systems – institutions; and consequently, practitioners become institutionalised. Why? Because of circumstance. If we reach the point when, having invested so much time and effort without burning out, we’ve proven good and/or lucky enough to land tenure, we will be past the time in life when we would have – if we could have – had that ‘big’ idea (because most ‘big’ ideas, I was once depressingly told, typically occur to the under-30’s). And we’ll have likely accumulated baggage. Marriage, mortgage and children refocus one’s outlook from that held in idealistic youth, when we called for revolution, but neither had a clue what we wanted to revolutionise, nor how to bring it on. Responsibilities make conformists of us. That is why we’re agreeable; why we persevere; why we seek tenure – it’s more ‘secure’ and we get more dosh! But that’s not all. We garner compensation for this reluctant self-realisation that the big world-changing dream has eluded us through reputational respectability. Coveting the adulation heaped upon those famous ‘revolutionary’ scientists, we court the approval of our peers, colleagues, collaborators, reviewers, etc.

Maybe.

What of the three revolutionaries he lists as exemplars? Newton was indisputably brilliant; and a depressive, and an arsy bleeder who would often fall out with other scientists. Darwin, on the other hand, was the quintessential connected Victorian gentleman who abhorred antagonisation, to the extent that it probably psychosomatically contributed to his repeated illnesses. Einstein has been considered obsessive and conceivably aspergic. Well, that all reads like associative stuff. But boy, did they persevere! They surely demonstrated that no matter how bright you might be, you still have to work at the problem. I’m confused as to whether Charlton seemingly considers that, were academia populated by more Newtons, Darwins and Einsteins, paradigm-shifting science would just tumble out of their skies and upheave the world. As he points out, these types work(ed) on problems of their own choosing. Oh for the means to be able to so do! Not such a luxury of we normals: if we can (or are permitted to) identify one to start with, it will still have to warrant funding; which means it will have to be convincingly solvable; and thus it is unlikely to be very revolutionary, because that would be too risky. We’re too accountable to those who control the (taxpayer’s) purse strings. Doubtless, there are many brilliant scientists today whose applications are a shoo-in. There are also plenty who are irascible and/or possessed of the man-management skills of a honeyguide. But they’re either too normal, or there aren’t enough of ’em.

However, paradigms are paradigms for a reason. And the system as is has been largely built around them. Because they are important. (Maybe we’ve built it such to render it impregnable.) We lubricate the smooth running of this boat and its stabilisers through too-sociable interaction with other too-hard-working normal scientists who know what it’s like, paradoxical for those often perceived as borderline autistic social inepts. In any event, ‘revolutionary’ scientists need the ‘normal’ scientists. Imagine a football team full of George Bests or Paul Gascoignes. It would be bedlam: doubtless extremely entertaining, but would likely not win many games. Teams need ‘water carriers’.

As an unremarkable scientist (- among many -), I have little problem conceding that Bruce Charlton has points worth making. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy. But, if you need to feel better, you can exempt yourself by accessing the paper (full text here) and reading the surely tongue-in-cheek arrogance of the bracketed fourth paragraph. And know also that Charlton has encouraging things to say about bloggers.

Personally, I find cricket excruciatingly dull.

Charlton, B. (2009). Why are modern scientists so dull? How science selects for perseverance and sociability at the expense of intelligence and creativity Medical Hypotheses, 72 (3), 237-243 DOI: 10.1016/j.mehy.2008.11.020

2 responses to “Dull

  1. Lee Smolin in The Trouble With Physics (and elsewhere) distinguishes two types of scientists: Seers and Artisans. They correspond respectively (and roughly) to high “C” and high “IQ”. He claims we need both, but that science has in the last 30 years been lopsided in favor of the Artisans and that we are suffering from a lack of Seers.

  2. Thanks, Rafe. (Although, surely the opposite: seers to high IQ; artisans to high C, no?) I’ve not read Smolin, but he’s right in that we need both. Much the same as in any sphere.

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