Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Big Scientist Theory of Science

Samson, alpha male gorilla in Givskud Zoo
The Great, or Big Man Theory of History posits that the course of history is determined by the ways in which powerful men use their power.  Thus, history can be explained simply by understanding the men who made it.  This idea was first bruited about by the Scottish historian, Thomas Carlyle, in the 1840's ("The history of the world is but the biography of great men").   The opposite view, that society makes great men (or, makes men great), was proposed by Herbert Spencer in the mid-1800's.  And one of the most famous novels in history, War and Peace, was Tolstoy's attempt to show that the Big Man theory was wrong.  Neither view has won out, both still have their proponents.

Here we propose the Big Man Theory of Science.  Or, let's call it the Big Scientist Theory so as not to exclude women.  Perhaps in a Spencerian world, science would advance from discovery to discovery, going where the natural world takes it. The peer review system, oversight by governing bodies, and so on do, in theory, ensure that this is more or less the way science moves forward.  The tide of progress would sweep all along in its path.

But in a Carlylean world, science advances as scientists with big names and lots of money or political influence wish it to.  A scientist made a discovery, got famous, got awards, and that brought more awards.  Now Big Scientist writes visionary papers paving the way forward, makes decisions about where grant money goes, and more insidiously perhaps, but with just as much impact, makes decisions about what lesser scientists can say in their publications, s/he doesn't cite publications by lesser scientists questioning his or her work. 

Big Scientists determine the nature of the grant applications that will be written and funded for some time to come, they determine where the technological and academic investments are going to go, and so on.  They have labs full of DNA sequencers, but the human genome has been sequenced?  The next big scientific endeavor must require their use.  Big Scientist even tells people s/he knows that what s/he is proposing isn't good science, but it has to be done because the grant money must keep coming.  And science and large numbers of scientists follow, because everyone has to follow the money.

When it comes to the media, they first call the Big Scientist.  S/he then gets to expound on this or that, which again serves to set the agenda for the future, and importantly (or mainly) for future research investment.  With few if any exceptions, the Big Scientist advocates an agenda that just so happens to involve things that fit his/her interests and lab needs.
These are subtle and not so subtle ways that specific interests are perpetuated, and this engenders conflicts of interest that turn out to be comfortably in keeping with how science works today.  It is not a utopian vision of how things should be done, but it is the reality.  Probably in the very long run, though, it doesn't matter -- important progress will eventually be made.  Scientific ideas can outlive their sell-by date, replaced by better ideas.  But in the short and medium (and sometimes long) run, fads and influence control the momentum as Big Science run by Big Scientists turns out to be good primarily for Big Scientists.

These considerations are about science, but they are also a part of science.  Objectivity of neutral observers trying their best to falsify their ideas, is about as much a fairy tale as you'll ever hear.


Holly Dunsworth said...

The "big scientist" problem translates to what are supposed to be fun corners of the field, like the bioanth newsgroup on Fb. It's painful to watch the "big scientists" smack down younger ones without such closed minds.

Anne Buchanan said...

An argument could be made that anthropology, which seeks to explain human behavior, should be at the heart of all the social sciences, political science, sociology, economics. Unfortunately, that doesn't necessarily translate into anthropologists understanding, never mind titering, their own behavior.

Arjun said...

Who are some particular examples of scientists that can be described by this theory?

Anne Buchanan said...

Well, Arjun, without naming names, as it's clear that I'm not a great fan of the way this works, I'll just say that you can look in the Science section of the New York Times any Tuesday and see who's being asked to interpret and clarify and assess the importance of the big stories of the week. Or, check out who's highlighted as the Scientist of the Week in any paper or journal. Or, look at Science and Nature and see who's writing the agenda-setting papers. Or, who is heading major funding agencies. Innovation and innovators are rarely if ever rewarded. It's hard not to conclude that what we're seeing is bottom-line, celebrity-driven science.

occamseraser said...

So who, in your opinion, should be speaking to science writers for commentary and perspective when "big stories" hit the fan? Big bloggers?

Anne Buchanan said...

Let's have a _little_ variety! There are a lot of people with expertise in any field that's of enough popular interest that stories are hitting the news. Journalists are on deadline, so of course it's easiest to call the most visible expert. But there are others. And it might even be more interesting to call on others -- they might say something unpredictable!

Ken Weiss said...

If we named the names, then _we_ would be the Big Guys, going against the very issues. But to be interviewed, you should not have to be the main opponent of an idea who's vocally been criticizing it (and hence has something to gain by being The Contrarian), you should not have to be at a major private university, or live in New York or be at Oxford to be knowledgeable enough to be consulted.

Even at the risk of some kind of lower quality, it is better (I think) to keep the old boy networks in a friable state.

It may never work, since humans are hierarchy builders, like authority figures (priests of various kinds), and resource dependencies lead to the problem (and it works that way for the media as well as the players being reported).

The social networks may be able to take on a greater role in this. There will be lots of chaff (we try not to be like that here!), but there is always a distribution of quality in any area. More democracy has its associated chaos, but enables more people to participate.