- Why are modern scientists so dull? How science selects for perseverance
and sociability at the expense of intelligence and creativity
I stumbled across this on Information Processing, you can download the PDF here.
After reading the paper, I felt the need to check the Elsevier logo on the PDF is not a fake. It isn't. The thing got published in the journal Medical Hypotheses, Volume 72, Issue 3, Pages 237-243. Prof. Carlton btw is Editor in Chief of this journal.
The argument the author puts forward can be roughly summarized as follows.
Modern scientists are "intellectually dull" and "lack scientific ambition." The reason for this, so Charlton, is a failure of the selective process in the academic system. He argues that the education of scientists is taking increasingly longer. As a result, being a scientist nowadays requires "an almost superhuman level of [...] perseverance - the ability to doggedly continue a course of action in pursuit of a goal, over a long period and despite difficulties, setbacks and the lack of immediate rewards (and indeed the lack of any guaranteed ultimate rewards)."
A near-synonym for this perseverance that he uses throughout the paper is the Big Five personality trait called "Conscientiousness". (The "Big Five" is a fairly common personality test that you can do yourself eg here). Besides Conscientiousness, Charlton writes, scientists today need to score high also on a second Big Five personality trait called "Agreeableness."
In the rest of the paper he argues that actually relevant for scientific success is a combination of three different factors: Most importantly, the IQ. And besides the IQ, creativity and "transcendental truth-seeking." If scientists are selected because of other qualities than these, then the average IQ of scientists isn't as high as it could be and their research not as revolutionary as should be. And that is then the reason why scientists are so agreeable, so conscientious, so uncreative. Or in one word: dull. That bothers Charlton because science has a need for "revolutionary scientists" (Greetings from Kuhn) and we thus have a lack of these people. Instead we have an overdose of the normal scientists. Revolutionary science is what the NSF calls "transformative research".
After elaborating on the importance of a high IQ, Charlton claims we should be looking for people with a low score of conscientiousness because "working on your own problem requires much less perseverance than working hard for many years at non-scientific problems, or working hard for many years at other people's scientific problems."
In one section Charlton writes that creativity has shown to be positively correlated with psychoticism, and even though "high levels of psychoticism are maladaptive," "low psychoticism would therefore be a desirable trait for normal scientists, but undesirable for revolutionary scientists." In the following section, he further makes a case for "asocial and awkward individuals," which he means to be the opposite of "agreeable". (This was the part of the paper that put off Chad, see discussion at Uncertain Principles.)
In the light of his elaboration, educational achievement is then no longer a reliable factor to determine a student's promise. Charlton thus talks into existence the following relation
Educational attainment ≈ IQ x Conscientiousness
Since he claims that low conscientiousness is what distinguishes the "revolutionary" scientist, one then wants to measure this factor. A tedious calculation yields
Conscientiousness ≈ Educational attainment/IQ
Thus, what one should measure is simply a student's IQ, and look at their grades. If their grades aren't as good as their IQ suggests, then they are "under-achievers" and thus promising revolutionary scientists. It is noteworthy that it does occur to the author such a procedure to select scientists has the slight problem that it's not so hard to fake bad grades. His comment is "[A] person could make themselves look like an 'underachiever' by deliberately messing up their exams [...] - however this would only be achievable at the cost of lowering their exam results, which is not often going to be a helpful thing to do so."
Leaving aside that the content of the sentence is close to nil, it neglects the fact that if you'd listen to Bruce Charlton, it would become a helpful thing to cheat on your exams.
Since, as you know, the failure of the academic system to select the most promising scientists is a pet topic of mine, this can't be left uncommented.
First, the starting point of the whole article is unwarranted. Where is the evidence that something is wrong with modern science? How do you know that we have too few "revolutionary" scientists and too many "normal" scientists? This lacking basis, incidentally, is the same problem I have with Lee Smolin's call for more "risky" research. While I am sympathetic to the argument and personally tend to agree, it's not a scientific statement and anecdotes can't replace data. How do we know it's worse today than yesterday? Who determines whether we need more "revolutionary scientists?" Will somebody calculate a percentage? Who? Based on what? And wouldn't one expect that to depend on the field of research? And on the status of that field?
Second, it is highly doubtful low conscientiousness is beneficial for "revolutionary" science. Charlton's argument is based on his believe that "self-chosen problems provide much more immediate reward," thus requiring a lower level of conscientiousness. Unfortunately, this claim is just bluntly wrong. If you chose a problem yourself, if you are "non-agreeable" and left to your own devices, you better score high on perseverance and conscientiousness, and have a high capability to cope with frustration. I have no clue how Charlton came up with this assertion. In contrast to most of the other claims that he makes, this one is not backed up by any reference.
Third, note Charlton's claim is not merely that revolutionary scientists do not necessarily need a high level of conscientiousness, but that they need a low one, meaning conscientiousness must be understood as actually being harmful to their research.
Forth, any claim that the most promising scientists can be identified by measuring some numbers assigned to their name by itself limits the possibility for revolutions. You may be oh-so sure measuring three relevant factors will reliably select the best scientists, but I might disagree. Who are you to decide what's good for science?
Fifth, and what about that thing called "transcendental truth-seeking?" Let us see what Charlton has to say about that: "A further vital ingredient is necessary: that elite scientists must have a vocational devotion to transcendental values of truth," and "Great revolutionary science is therefore a product of transcendental truth-seeking individuals working in a truth-seeking milieu," and "detecting truth-seeking, requires a scientific system that explicitly and in practice values transcendental truth-seeking." That sounds all well and fine, just that lacking any explanation what "trancendental truth-seeking" is supposed to mean, you could replace "truth" with "banana" and not change the scientific content of these statements. Charlton further claims that "science nowadays [...] lacks the living presence of such transcendental values." I occasionally feel like some of my colleagues values' are a little to transcendental. I guess that means I'm a very dull and normal scientist. Dooh.
The problem Charlton runs into is the same problem all other such attempts to fix the academic system run into. They attempt to define absolute criteria for "success" or "good research," and fail to see that the definition of such criteria itself will work against their goal. Whenever you define a criterion, whenever you fix a percentage, whenever you claim we need more of that and less of that, you are twisting knobs on a system that works best without any twisting. It works without method, and it works without measure.
I argued previously there is no better way to do science than to let scientists do it themselves and just to make sure the research process isn't affected by external pressures. Scientists themselves are well aware of the need for revolutionary science/risky projects/transformative research. They also know brilliant people can be complicated. They know the value of disagreement. They are smart people and most of them know who Kuhn, Feyerabend and Popper are. They are in academia because they are dedicated to science and truth-seeking. The problem is not that they don't know what to do. The problem is that "the system" does not allow them to follow their instincts and various sorts of pressure (most notably financial and time pressure) deviate their interests. This in turn has consequences for the selection process. In the long run this can lead to a detrimental population of the academic research environment.
More details in my earlier post We have only ourselves to judge each other.
For completeness, here's my Big 5 Results, and I'm INTJ.