Delusions of the Nature of Scientific Progress


Self-interested nepotistic shittebagges constantly assert this parade of horribles that if we don’t fund the right subset of scientists in today’s tight scientific funding environment (coincidentally them, their friends, their trainees, and their family members), then we are going to destroy scientific progress. This is because they are delusional about how scientific progress works, and think it depends on their individual magical wagical snowflake “genius”, as opposed to funders throwing money at particular areas of inquiry and ensuring that reasonable numbers of reasonably competent scientists work on the shitte. If “geniuses” like Watson & Crick didn’t figure out the double helix when they did, does anyone really doubt that some other schlubs would have within a short period of time anyway? Crispr/Cas would still be unknown if Doudna had no funds to study bacterial immune systems, but some other schlubs did?

The danger with tight scientific funding isn’t that some particular magical genius won’t get funding to pursue his magical vision. Rather, the two-fold dangers are (1) that no one gets funded to pursue various important lines of inquiry and (2) that the uncertainty of funding drives reasonably competent scientists out of the system and there is no one available to pursue various important lines of inquiry. But it is laughably absurd to think the concern is that the “wrong people” (always “not meeeeee”) are getting the limited funds.

Comments

  1. DrugMonkey says

    yes. the “lone genius” myth of scientific advance is really hard to shake but it is absolutely false in the biomedical sciences.

  2. Masked Avenger says

    Another problem with this proposal to “fix”:

    Most of the greatest and highest impact scientific discoveries were made by mistake.

  3. colnago80 says

    Re Masked Avenger @ #3

    As an example, consider the Michelson/Morley experiment which was designed to measure the absolute velocity of the Solar System. They ended up with a null result which wasn’t satisfactorily explained until Einstein in 2005. The result of that failed experiment was the Special Theory of Relativity with all its consequences, including 57 megaton bombs.

  4. says

    “If “geniuses” like Watson & Crick didn’t figure out the double helix when they did, does anyone really doubt that some other schlubs would have within a short period of time anyway?”

    Pauling was arguably the genius, but apparently sufficiently blinkered by the comfort of being so established that he was outdone by a pair of semi competent nobodies with a hypothesis based on other people’s data. There’s a lesson there, too. And the DNA story stands in every sense as a complete repudiation of both the Jungian hero fantasy and the ‘people not projects’ approach both.

  5. IanSudbery says

    The structure of DNA would have been worked out without Watson and Crick, sure. But i’m not so certain about CRISPR. Its not that Doudna is such a stand out genius that no one else would have been able to work it out, but rather, would anyone have bothered? The original studies of CRISPR were done without any thought to how useful it might be, but were purely curiosity driven. It was certainly not a case of “funders throwing money at particular areas of inquiry and ensuring that reasonable numbers of reasonably competent scientists work on the shitte”. Many of these things come from a large number of reasonably competent scientists pottering around in obscure areas with no obvious applications. A few of them will come up with something earth shattering. Not because they are brilliant (although it probably increases the chances), and but just by the laws of chance.

    This argues that if we want these chance discoveries we need to not filter funding on the trendiness of the project topic. But if not filter on that, or on the person, then what?

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