Thursday, 31 January 2013

In praise of the eccentric scientist


The benefit of having all sorts of personality types in science is a theme of David L Hull’s Science as a process (Chicago University Press, 1988), which charts the history of evolutionary theory, and interprets it as a selection process.

Hull describes a galaxy of scientific personalities performing a wide range of scientific functions, and concludes that diversity is useful in providing the conceptual variations necessary to speed progress in unpredictable situations.


Past scientists usually worked alone and depended on conscientiousness and self-criticism for the validity of their research.

Therefore, scientists included a high proportion of shy, introverted, highly-focused and somewhat ‘autistic’ types – rather like the white-coated and stammering Nutty Professor played by Jerry Lewis in the 1963 movie of that title.

But under modern conditions different selection pressures apply, and Nutty Professors may not thrive except in the lower ‘technical’ levels of scientific careers (and in the mathematical and physical sciences where innate aptitude is so rare that all manner of weird personalities must be tolerated).


As medical and bio-scientific research has expanded, and Big Science ‘industrial’ modes of production have come to dominate, so the stereotypical successful scientist has changed.

The stars of modern science tend to be much more extraverted than the Nutty Prof, because they need the rhetorical, managerial and socio-political skills - and ‘type A personality’ – appropriate to a team leader.

They need to get grants, motivate large groups, enforce a high productive output, and act as a ‘front-man’ to present (and ‘spin’) collaborative research in specialist conferences, political arenas and for a broad media audience.


This leads to a greater dominance within science of characters who resemble the Nutty Professor’s alter-ego, night-club singer and womanizer ‘Buddy Love’ – into which the Prof temporarily transforms with the help of a potion he invented.

(Note: in modern science Buddy Love is often a woman, mutatis mutandis.)

The successful scientist nowadays benefits from being good-looking, charismatic, articulate – indeed, he may be an overbearing and manipulative psychopath, yet still highly effective at his job.


While the Nutty Professor was modest and understated, the Buddy Love-type is a master of hype – someone who pushes and exaggerates the significance of his work to the greatest degree he can get-away-with. In fact, Bud tends to go beyond this point, leading to fakery and fabrication.

In a nutshell, BL lacks exactly that capacity for self-criticism which was so common among scientists of the past.

As Hull describes, when there was little peer review, there was a strong incentive for scientists to self-regulate in order to protect their own future reputations.

Nowadays, research is so heavily peer-reviewed at so many levels that the major incentive of scientists is to satisfy the referees, not themselves.


Modern science encourages those who possess a fanatical and unshakeable belief in their own research, and a tireless industriousness in promoting it, which helps gain them a hearing in the crowded marketplace of ideas.

And one-sided zeal need not damage the progress of science, so long as the criticism of others makes up for lack of self-criticism.

However, this vital negative feedback from rivals may be blocked when - as is so often the case - Buddy is both powerful and vindictive.


The Jeckyll and Hyde transformation from Nutty Professor to Buddy Love should affect the way we interpret the public pronouncements of scientists.

While NP would usually provide a dull but accurate articulation of current informed opinion, BL provides appealing and memorable sound-bites – subtly calculated to benefit his self-interest.

After all, it is precisely this aptitude with people and words that enabled the elite cadre of Buddy Loves to discard their white coats for sharp suits, and rise above the mass of Nuttys.


This is an edited version of my editorial: From Nutty Professor to Buddy Love – Personality types in modern science. Medical Hypotheses. 2007; 68: 243-244.

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Boethius said...

I recall from college that modern scientists/researches create an atmosphere of intellectual conformism,female vanity,bureaucratic self-preservation,self-entitlement,extreme casualness and vulgar humor.Personally,I find this type of environment unbearable.

Arakawa said...

I'm not sure, but from my limited experience I think talented people entering the academic system might be divided into two categories:

(a) People who can be uncompromising and eccentric in their studies, but who have the social 'common sense' and conformism to avoid behaving in a manner that is overtly threatening to the careerists. Theoretically, they could carve out a niche where they might do meaningful research 'below the radar'. These people, however, are also very easy to praise into utter incompetence (by virtue of their conformism) at the early stages of their education and from there to steer into dishonesty; to maintain and cultivate their original zeal for Truth requires precisely the sort of spiritual guidance (dare I say, 'tough Love'?) that the Buddy Love types can't provide, even if they recognize on some level a need for genuinely talented people and wish to be associated with them.

(In short, if you are talented and polite, such that all but the most insane academics can't help but wish you genuine success, that is a spiritually dangerous place to be.)

(b) People who are uncompromising and eccentric in everything they do. Obviously, these are deeply threatening to the current institutions, and wind up being pushed aside.

People who attain completely unexpected breakthroughs (rather than merely contributing to 'meaningful research') are believed to predominantly belong to category (b).

Of course, the more corrupt a particular academic system becomes, the more 'unforgivably eccentric' becomes synonymous merely with 'morally upright' and this analysis tends to become irrelevant.

Bruce Charlton said...

@A - That is a valid distinction, in my experience.