14 June 2012

The genius myth

This post by Dererk Lowe bugs me. And I might have let it slide, but then it got picked up by Discover Magazine, and I was annoyed all over again.

(M)ediocre scientists are, in fact, in long supply. Access to them is not a rate-limiting step. ... Who, exactly, would be clamoring to hire a fresh horde of I-guess-they'll-do science graduates? Is that what we really need to put things over the top, technologically - more foot soldiers?

... My emphasis would be on "How do we get the smartest and most motivated people to go into science again?". ... When someone seems to be born for a particular field, like R. B. Woodward for organic chemistry, I want them to have every chance to find their calling.

This implies that:

  1. Great scientists are easily identified.
  2. Great scientists are inherently attracted to science.
  3. Science progresses by breakthroughs made by great scientists.

Let me deal with these in turn.

“Great scientists are easily identified.” You know how we identify great scientists? Retroactively. Scientists are not deemed great because of their potential; they’re deemed great because of their work, often years after it was done. I’ll ask senior people who have tracked careers of their students: How many people have you seen who you thought were promising, and then watched them struggle at various times in their career? Some people fizzle out, and others are late bloomers. Charles Darwin would not be acclaimed as a great scientist if he’d had the misfortune to succumb to his poor health at age of 48, before publishing On the Origin of Species.

“Great scientists are inherently attracted to science.” I hate this notion that science is a “calling,” that that some people are just destined to do science. This implies that if you don’t feel the love for science at the very early age, it’s not for you. Sorry, you weren’t “called.” How many people learned that they enjoyed science only when they got into a lab with a great teacher?

This myth of destiny and inevitable triumph of genius is, to me, completely the opposite of what science is. The scientific method leveled the playing field for discovering truth. Anyone could follow the methods and get to the bottom of things, so truth was no longer subject to tricky things like personal revelation.

“Science progresses by breakthroughs made by great scientists.” Or, to use another of Derek’s analogies: what is the rate-limiting step in science? Derek says we don’t need more “foot soldiers.” In a comment on his original post, I noted that soldiers win wars. If they have bullets and body armor. They need resources. I contend that lack of resources are the rate-limiting step now in scientific advance (and I include employment opportunities as resources). Science isn’t limited because we have too many mediocre scientists who don’t have bright ideas; we have too many scientists who aren’t given the resources to do the science they want.

The “great scientists” trope also ignores the loose relationship between quality of science and quality of scientists. It’s almost a standing joke about how Nobel prize winners go off the rails and start advocating crazy woo after winning the award. Many bright scientists toil away on ideas that happen to wrong. The obsession with being first to publish means that if you develop a better mousetrap, you are more likely to be recognized as a “great scientist” even if other labs working on the science were just slightly behind in making the same discovery.

I’ve written before many times about the incremental nature of science. And there’s also this idea that you can get solutions to problems by going at them head-on. And it may not be that way. Neil deGrasse Tyson often talks about how so many breakthroughs came from unexpected sources. Advances, he argues, come from curiosity driven research. I don’t buy that entirely; I think a mix of approaches is better.

Related posts

Tales to astonish
I’m a pebble in the avalanche
What the Coburn report has in common with arsenic life

External links

Imposters, underdogs, and the status of science

Photo by quinn.anya on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.


3 comments:

Becca said...

Yes, because 'great scientists' are universally identifiable by their flunking out of college, and having a PhD dissertation with 27 references (I know there was less science in 1937, but still, it was a year's work).

More likely, sleeping only a few hours at a time, drinking and smoking hard and dying at 62 is what they want we should emulate. For the love of pete.

"The obsession with being first to publish means that if you develop a better mousetrap, you are more likely to be recognized as a “great scientist” even if other labs working on the science were just slightly behind in making the same discovery."
Heck, in the case of Woodward and quinine, you might even be recognized as a "great scientist" for building a *worse* mousetrap (fully synthetic quinine).

Can you tell I've always detested the prof who held up Woodward as an exemplar of The Great Scientist?

Alma Dzib Goodin said...

You work all the time, so hard, day and night for being the best, but the super stars never let you be around them, but the greatest science, sometimes is writing ro done but those who never expected anything, just enjoy every second what they were doing. Sceince is not about awards, or money, science is about passion.

27 and a PhD said...

"How many people learned that they enjoyed science only when they got into a lab with a great teacher?" So true, especially in my case. I hated, *hated* my first lab experience outside the confines of my undergrad school for many reasons, mainly because my boss then was too off hands. I had just landed a fellowship as an undergrad to conduct research in school for two years and was doing a summer internship. I thought of quitting. The following year I had an awesome mentor, followed a year later by my PhD mentor, who was an inspiration, a wonderful teacher, even if we didn't see eye to eye all the time. A great teacher, a great mentor can get people out of their shells and help them do great things. While I've met my share of "born to be scientists" I have also met other who under the right/proper direction become wonderful scientists.