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.

Full version:

 http://medicalhypotheses.blogspot.co.uk/2007/07/from-nutty-professor-to-buddy-love.html

*