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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

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The Myth of the Rational Scientist

There is this myth that scientists are unemotional, rational seekers of truth. This is typified by the quote from Bertrand Russell: But if philosophy is to attain truth, it is necessary first and foremost that philosophers should acquire the disinterested intellectual curiosity which characterises the genuine man of science (emphasis added).  But just get any scientist going on his pet theory or project, and any illusion of disinterest will vanish in a flash.  I guess most scientists are not genuine men, or women, of science. Scientists, at least successful ones, are marked more by obsession than disinterested intellectual curiosity. They are people who wake up at one in the morning and worry about factors of two or missed systematic errors in their experiments, people who convince themselves that their minor role is crucial to the great experiment, people who doggedly pursue a weakly motived theory or experiment.  In the end, most fade into oblivion, but some turn out spectacularly successful and that motivates the rest to keep slugging along. It’s a lot like trying to win the lottery.

The obsession leads to a second myth—that of the mad scientist: cold, obsessed to the point of madness, and caring only about his next result. The scientist who has both a mistress and a wife so that while the wife thinks he is with the mistress and the mistress thinks he with the wife, he is down at the laboratory getting some work done. The myth is typified by the character Dr. Faustus, who sold his soul to the devil for knowledge, Dr. Frankenstein from Mary Shelley’s book, or in real life, by the likes of Josef Mengele. The mad scientist has also been a stable of movies and science fiction. But most real scientists are not that obsessed, and all successful people, regardless of their field—science, sports or business—are driven.

In terms of pettiness, Sir Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) takes the cake. He carefully removed references to Robert Hooke (1635 – 1703) and Gottfried Leibniz (1646 –1716) from versions of the Principia. In Newton’s defense, it can be said that the forger, William Chaloner, was the only person he had drawn and quartered.  I do not know of modern scientists taking things to that extreme, but there is a recorded case of one distinguished professor hitting another over the head with a teapot. According to the legend, the court ruled it justified. I guess it was the rational and disinterested thing to do. There is also an urban legend of a researcher urinating on his competitor’s equipment.  The surprising thing is that these reports, even if not true, are at least creditable.

In a similar vein, it has been suggested that many great scientists have suffered from autism or Asperger’s syndrome. These include Henry Cavendish (1731 – 1810), Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882), Paul Dirac (1902 – 1984), Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955), Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727), Charles Richter (1900 – 1985) and Nikola Tesla (1856 – 1943).  Many of these diagnoses have been disputed, but it indicates that ruling some of the symptoms of autism were present in these scientists’ behaviour, for example, the single-mindedness with which they pursued their research.

So, are scientists disinterested, autistic, overly obsessed, and/or mad? Probably not more than any other group of people. But to be successful in any field—and especially in science—is demanding. To become a scientist requires a lot of work, dedication, and talent. Consider the years in university. Typically there are four years as an undergraduate. It is at least another four years for a Ph.D. and typically longer. Then to become an academic, you have to spend a few years as a Post-Doctoral Fellow. It is a minimum of ten years of hard work after high school to become an academic. In my case, it was thirteen years from high school to a permanent job. To become a scientist, you have to be driven. Even after you become a scientist, you have to be driven to stay at or near the top. It is not clear if scientists are driven more by a love of their field, or by paranoia. I have seen both and they are not mutually exclusive.

If scientists really were the bastions of rationality that they are sometimes portrayed to be, science would probably grind to a halt. Most successful ideas start out half-baked in some scientist’s mind. Only scientists willing to flog such half-baked ideas can become famous. To become successful, an idea must be pursued before there is any convincing evidence to support it. It is only after the work is done that there can be reason to believe it.  Those who succeed in making their ideas mainstream are made into heroes, those that fail, into crackpots. Generally, it is a bit of a crapshoot.

While individual scientists are not disinterested, nor driven by logic rather than emotion, science as an enterprise is. The error control methods of science, especially peer review and independent repetition, average the biases and foibles of individual scientists to give reliable results. No one should be particularly surprised when results that have not undergone this vetting, particularly the latter, are found to wrong[1]. However, in the final analysis, the enterprise of science reflects the personality of its ultimate judges: observation and parsimony. They are notoriously hard-hearted, disinterested, and unemotional.

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[1] Hence, the recently noted medical research results that were wrong.

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