Friday, 7 November 2008

Why are scientists so dull?

Bruce G Charlton

Oxford Magazine - 2008; 281: 7-8.

The short answer is: because the selection and training process ruthlessly weeds-out any interesting people

Scientists are, as a group, dull and getting-duller. Duller both in term of less intelligent and more boring. And the science they produce is increasingly dull – although its tediousness is often concealed by shamelessly dishonest hype and spin.

This dullness is not accidental but a product of the fact that scientists are not even trying to do interesting research, funders are not prepared to fund interesting research (because it has a high risk of failing to deliver) and most journals are not keen to publish interesting research (because it is more likely to be wrong).

The premier scientific and medical journals have almost abandoned science reporting in favour of political advocacy or politically-correct moralizing. I hear that Nature has plans to recognize reality and rename itself Journal of the Theology of Climate Change; the British Medical Journal is to become Newsletter of the National Health Service Bureaucracy and the Lancet will soon be Acta AntiWar Propagandica…

No, I’m kidding, but it is almost believable.

Why are scientists duller than journalists?

The point is the editors and journalists running even the premier journals – those having the pick of modern science – themselves find science too dull to bother writing about. And they are too often correct.

The science journalists are themselves a clue. We need to ask why the smart and interesting people who nowadays run the premier science journals (and the many similarly-talented folk who work in the media generally, including bloggers) are functioning as pundits instead of doing science themselves.

The answer is obvious enough: being a modern scientist is too dull. In particular the requirement for around ten to fifteen years of postgraduate training before even having a shot at doing some independent research of one’s own choosing (but more likely with the prospect of functioning as a cog in somebody else’s research machine) is enough to deter almost anyone with a spark of vitality or self-respect.

And the whole process and texture of doing science has slowed-up. Read the memoirs of scientists up to the middle 1960s – doing science was nimble, fast-moving. Many experiments could be set-up and done in days. For the individuals concerned there was a palpable sense of progress, a crackling excitement.

Now there is an always-expanding need for advanced planning, committee permissions, and logistical organization; combined with a proliferation of mindless and damaging bureaucracy. The timescale of scientific action and discourse has gone up from days and weeks to months and years.

What a contrast with journalism! Where is equivalent hourly and daily stimulus of journalism in the life of a scientist? The kind of person attracted to modern science is (I presume) somebody who likes long term project management especially form-filling; and can persevere through difficulties without wavering in determination or changing tack (especially not deviating to explore unexpected leads or insights).

The filtering-out of intelligence and creativity

The kind of individual who can plough through endless years of coursework, a PhD, and cycles of postdoctoral training; and can stay out of trouble with their peers until they – eventually - get a long-term or tenured position; is on average going to be characterized by personality attributes of conscientiousness and agreeableness. The modern scientist who has passed these tests of character is not likely to be the kind of awkward, abrasive and somewhat wildly-creative personality which characterized many of the greatest scientists of the past.

Nor are the modern scientists likely to be as intelligent as in the old days, because IQ and the personality trait of conscientiousness are only slightly (or some people suggest inversely!) correlated. This means that that greatly increasing the demand for perseverance in a training program will inevitably tend to depress the IQ of successful trainees.

Having adding 5-10 years to science training over the past 40 years, means that those who now survive to apply for permanent positions are indeed more conscientious than scientists of yore. But since the most intelligent people are not always the most conscientious, this enhancement in perseverance has been achieved at the serious cost of filtering-out some of the highest IQ scientists. When appointing independent scientists in the fourth decade of their life, we are scraping the barrel for attributes of high intelligence (and creativity).

We can only conclude that science is dull mainly because its requirements for long-term plodding perseverance and social inoffensiveness have the effect of ruthlessly weeding-out too many smart and interesting people.

The smart and interesting people instead gravitate to fast-moving fields like journalism (or finance, or management, or entrepreneurship of many types) where they get hourly or daily stimulus, and have a chance of following their own inclinations and making their mark before reaching their mid forties.

Since people who nowadays eventually emerge from the lengthening pipeline of scientific training are quite different from the scientists of 50 years ago, they naturally tend to move science further in the direction which created their own success. So that modern scientific leader often elevate the requirements for very long periods of tedious make-work, and judge scientists mainly by their capacity for steady and reliable production.

Needed: more clever crazies

At the same time, high level journalism in science and medicine is full of very high IQ people who are virtuosically able to manipulate words and concepts (and, sometimes, numbers); but who often lack the common sense of a new-born kitten and indeed frequently propagate world views which are near-psychotic in their detachment from social reality.

These clever crazies should be working as scientists, not journalists! Science is the activity that really benefits from this kind of brilliant unorthodoxy, puts it to use in generating, critiqueing and testing new ideas, and passes it through the evaluative social mechanisms of science which tend to filter-out the mistaken craziness and leave-behind the correct-craziness.

Instead, these idiots-savants are going into journalism after graduating from the best universities; where they infuse their naïve and lunatic perspectives into the realms of public policy discourse.

On the whole, I believe that these brilliant fools usually do a lot more social harm than good as journalists - but either way, their personal contributions are invariably ephemeral. They have sacrificed long-term creative and constructive satisfaction for short-term stimulation and mischief-making. It is hard to blame them for making this choice – but this situation is neither optimal for the individuals nor for society at large.

What should be done? How can science be reformed and re-structured to enable the kind of people who now work in journalism and punditry to become the kind of people who work as scientists?

Can science again become a career that attracts and rewards the most intelligent and most creative individuals (even, or especially, when they are serious oddballs).

One thing is for sure, the answer is not going to come from within science.