The myth of the noble, objective scientist

| September 16, 2013


There is deeply ingrained in American culture — particularly nowadays on the Left — the stereotype of the scientist as pure in intent and action, caring only for the Truth, let the chips fall where they may. The scientist works readily with other scientists (except when s/he is working alone, late into the night, thinking deep thoughts), accepts — nay, encourages — challenges to her/his theories and findings, welcomes new information and hypotheses, and is always willing to change his/her mind based on better data, models, and/or reasoning.

It is, to quote the late Douglas Adams, a load of dingos’ kidneys. A very large, steaming, rotting load of dingos’ kidneys.

Anyone who has studied the history of science (as I have) — and/or who has worked with actual scientists (as I have) — knows the truth of it: scientists are just as susceptible to human foibles as the rest of us — perhaps more so for most of them, because of the perennial insecurity of their positions and reputations. Science is every bit as much a human activity as politics, religion, and business, and just as subject to the same deadly sins: pride, envy, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, and sloth. In fact, it was while working with and for scientists myself, at the Lunar & Planetary Institute over thirty years ago, that I first heard the now-common saying (and saw it in action first-hand): Why are the politics so vicious in academia? Because the stakes are so small. I find it amusing (and hypocritical) that the Left is quick to point to targets such as “Big Oil”, “Big Pharma”, and “Monsanto” when research appears that they don’t like, yet they ignore the fact that far more research funding comes from private (and usually left-leaning) foundations with their own agenda, from universities which are (as no one can reasonably dispute) very left-leaning, and from the US Federal Government, which is likewise (in the unelected portion of the Executive Branch) openly left-wing.

All this was brought to my mind today by the following e-mail, sent by a fourth-year PhD candidate at a Swiss technical institute (EPFL) who is abandoning his pursuit of a degree for exactly these reasons. You need to read the whole thing — it’s a pretty damning indictment, yet exactly in line with my own observations and experiences with the scientific community. Here are a few selected quotes:

  • I’m starting to think of [scientific research] as a big money vacuum that takes in grants and spits out nebulous results, fueled by people whose main concerns are not to advance knowledge and to effect positive change, though they may talk of such things, but to build their CVs and to propel/maintain their careers.
  • Very quickly after your initiation in the academic world, you learn that being “too honest” about your work is a bad thing and that stating your research’s shortcomings “too openly” is a big faux pas. Instead, you are taught to “sell” your work, to worry about your “image”, and to be strategic in your vocabulary and where you use it. Preference is given to good presentation over good content – a priority that, though understandable at times, has now gone overboard. The “evil” kind of networking … seems to be openly encouraged. With so many business-esque things to worry about, it’s actually surprising that *any* scientific research still gets done these days. Or perhaps not, since it’s precisely the naïve PhDs, still new to the ropes, who do almost all of it.
  • I sometimes find it both funny and frightening that the majority of the world’s academic research is actually being done by people like me, who don’t even have a PhD degree. Many advisors, whom you would expect to truly be pushing science forward with their decades of experience, do surprisingly little and only appear to manage the PhD students, who slave away on papers that their advisors then put their names on as a sort of “fee” for having taken the time to read the document (sometimes, in particularly desperate cases, they may even try to steal first authorship).
  •  Clearly, [a PhD candidate] simply telling the advisor that the research is not promising/original does not work – the advisor has already invested too much of his time, reputation, and career into the topic and will not be convinced by someone half his age that he’s made a mistake. If the student insists, he/she will be labeled as “stubborn” and, if the insisting is too strong, may not be able to obtain the PhD.
  • Indeed, writing lots of papers of questionable value about a given popular topic seems to be a very good way to advance your academic career these days. The advantages are clear: there is no need to convince anyone that the topic is pertinent and you are very likely to be cited more since more people are likely to work on similar things.
  • Unfortunately, not only does this lead to quantity over quality, but many researchers, having grown dependent on the bandwagon, then need to find ways to keep it alive even when the field begins to stagnate. The results are usually disastrous. Either the researchers begin to think up of creative but completely absurd extensions of their methods to applications for which they are not appropriate, or they attempt to suppress other researchers who propose more original alternatives (usually, they do both). This, in turn, discourages new researchers from pursuing original alternatives and encourages them to join the bandwagon, which, though founded on a good idea, has now stagnated and is maintained by nothing but the pure will of the community that has become dependent on it. It becomes a giant, money-wasting mess.
  • Worse yet, there often does not appear to be a strong urge for people in academia to go and apply their result, even when this becomes possible, which most likely stems from the fear of failure – you are morally comfortable researching your method as long as it works in theory, but nothing would hurt more than to try to apply it and to learn that it doesn’t work in reality. No one likes to publish papers which show how their method fails (although, from a scientific perspective, they’re obliged to).

And there’s a lot more there. As I said, go read the whole thing.  ..bruce w..




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Category: Main, Scam, Science

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

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