Thursday, February 18, 2010

Are Scientists Dull?

Bruce Charlton has a provocative paper that argues that they are indeed dull, and identifies the cause: "the science selection process ruthlessly weeds-out interesting and imaginative people."

If you think, like I do, that science already has too many psychotics (borderline, or worse!) or that it rewards them with leadership positions, you'll be surprised and upset by the proposed remedy:

... As well as high IQ, revolutionary science requires high creativity. Creativity is probably associated with moderately high levels of Eysenck’s personality trait of ‘Psychoticism’. Psychoticism combines qualities such as selfishness, independence from group norms, impulsivity and sensation-seeking; with a style of cognition that involves fluent, associative and rapid production of many ideas. But modern science selects for high Conscientiousness and high Agreeableness; therefore it enforces low Psychoticism and low creativity. Yet my counter-proposal to select elite revolutionary scientists on the basis of high IQ and moderately high Psychoticism may sound like a recipe for disaster, since resembles a formula for choosing gifted charlatans and confidence tricksters. A further vital ingredient is therefore necessary: devotion to the transcendental value of Truth. Elite revolutionary science should therefore be a place that welcomes brilliant, impulsive, inspired, antisocial oddballs – so long as they are also dedicated truth-seekers.


  1. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    Given the recent events in Huntsville, Alabama, I wonder if this is the most appropriate time to argue for "psychoticism" in scientific departments.

  2. Sachin Shanbhag said...

    I disagree with the assertion that academics are boring. *Quickly* skimming through the article, I couldn't find any quantitative diagnosis of the problem for which he makes an elaborate prescription. But I found this, an example, perhaps, of too much imagination, with too little evidence.

    "(Of course, such an accusation of dullness is less likely to fit those scientists who are reading this article than the average scientist, since it is generally acknowledged that people who read or publish in Medical Hypotheses are atypical and tend to come from the more vividly colourful end of the scientific spectrum!)"

  3. Anonymous said...

    How is Faculty job


    The hiring process for a faculty job is US is long (8-12 months). We typically get 200-300 applications per position advertised. All these applications are from highly qualified individuals with very promising PhD/Post Doc research. We sort them and eliminate many and narrow them down to 10 applications for phone interview. Based on the phone interview, we invite 4-5 applicants for 2 day campus visit and presentation. In the end, search committee based on inputs from faculties recommend an individual for the position to the department chair. The department chair on approval from the Dean, now negotiates salaries, startup funds and other goodies with the candidate concerned. Offer letter with job description and salary along with a letter describing the startup commitments are issued to the candidate. Startup funds widely varies depending on nature of work (theoretical versus experimental) and so does the lab space. Salary is always for 9 months.

    Normally a new Assistant Professor gets two PhD students funded by the department along with some summer salary for two years with light teaching load. But the honeymoon period after securing the job is shortlived. For any research active University, the tenure requirements mandates about 1 million dollar of funding from grants, 10-12 publications in top journals, good teaching evaluations and good service record. Currently in US external funding agencies like NSF, DOE, DoD etc have hit rates of 8-10 %. So a new Assistant Professor has to work relentlessly to secure money from these agencies. For every 10 new ideas, he might get 1 funded if he is lucky. People in IT can trust me that writing each proposal takes enormous amount of time and effort. Not only you have to propose something transformatory but also back your idea with some preliminary data and calculations. This means even before submitting a proposal one has to do some significant research to test certain key ideas. On the top of that alignment of one’s research with his/her advisor or teaming up with advisor or extending PhD work is not good and not encouraged. In addition, to survive this hostile environment one needs to team up with other colleagues in the university to secure funding and probably publish.
    Research publications on your own is difficult initially and requires lots of effort. Furthermore publishing in top journals require even more sweating. So general rule of thumb is that beyond startup period, an Assistant Professor needs to bring in on an average $ 300-400 K per year to support 3-4 graduate students, summer salary and research expenses. This will go on for ages even beyond tenure. Moment one relaxes and stops writing proposals, he/she will fall into a spiraling vortex and become irrelevant in the field after sometime. The loop is simple, money is needed for student support and without it there cannot be any paper.

    In essence, in US a Professor is a researcher, manager, entrepreneur and teacher all rolled into one. The job requires hard work and continuous thinking.

    Dr. Saptarshi Basu

  4. Yeti said...

    From Ferris' Science of Liberty, here is another dimension to the requirements for flourishing of Science from a political science perspective - ".. The only societies in which true science has ever thrived are those based on classical liberalism....". More insightful observations in the book review linked above. I am sure a good subject of debate between scientists and political philosophers on the so called "role of govt."