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Sunday 20 March 2016

Standing On The Shoulders Of Some Other People Of About Average Height

The Myth Of The Misanthrope

Science in the popular media is largely depicted in a very strange way. Scientists, we are told, are either "baffled" or "solving mysteries". Few scientists really exist in a state of genuine bafflement, at least not for the fraction of time the media would have you believe. Rarely do good scientists, at least, ever think they've definitively solved a problem. In reality it's a fuzzier process, usually just swinging the balance of probability in a different direction rather than proving or disproving anything. Often it's not even clear which way the probability has swung.

Another expression of this very black and white view is that of the lone genius - probably the most enduring public image of scientists. It appeals to us on all sorts of levels, from the psychotic, "they said I was maaaad !" evil genius bent on destruction with his (and it's always a he) neo-magical powers, to the subversive misanthrope who's too radical for mainstream academia. Being chronic loners seems somehow to compensate for the scientist's great intelligence, as though the ability to solve differential equations was in some way perfectly anti-correlated with the ability to hold a conversation.

Like most stereotypes, there's a grain of truth here. But it's only a grain, because while a few lone geniuses certainly do exist, the vast majority of scientists are not (particularly) socially maladjusted weirdos. And they're certainly not staggeringly intelligent for that matter.

Here we see a group of scientists solving veeery tricky mathematical problems using beer pong.
Here we see another bunch of scientists wincing in pain as their favourite theory is disproved.
But, perhaps, only the geniuses tend to be socially maladjusted weirdos. Could be, but I rather doubt it. For example Alan Turing was not the irritable, impossibly arrogant twerp depicted in The Imitation Game  - that's just the character Benedict Cumberbatch prefers to play. Though if you go back to the previous century another pioneer of computing, Charles Babbage, was hardly a party animal. So often did he complain to The Times about street musicians that one of them threw a dead cat at his house.

Breaking the image of the scientist as the misanthropic old white man is important, but it's even more important to break the myth of the infallible genius - and most importantly of all, the lone genius. Never mind the social lives of scientists. What about the idea that science is driven by occasional breakthroughs by lone radical geniuses while mainstream academia works on unimportant, easy problems that don't really advance knowledge ?

It will probably come as no great surprise that the reality just isn't that simple.

Academia Is Not Some Crazy System For The Supression Of Freedom Of Thought, You Berk

Even the word "lecture" is all too often perceived to mean, "shut up".
Lone geniuses do happen, from time to time. But they are never entirely isolated from the larger research culture. In short, no-one is that smart. Even geniuses (evil or otherwise) don't just stand on the shoulders of giants, as Newton put it, they also stand at least as much on the shoulders of the ordinary scientist. The day-to-day business of science is to very slowly chip away at the coalface of knowledge and often get clobbered by great boulders of ugly facts that come smashing down on preferred theories like, well, like great terrible boulders.

Two recent articles are doing the rounds about this, so this seems like a good time for me to add a few comments.

The first is from the Huffington Post and points out, quite correctly, that most revolutionary scientists don't discover things all by themselves. The second is from the excellent Backreaction blog and points out that actually a lot of the time science can consist of individuals thinking in isolation. While this is true, I think it's missing the point entirely.

For once, I'm not going to argue for the middle ground - I strongly prefer the Huffington Post article. There's this very appealing aspect to the notion that a single lone genius can come up with a revolutionary idea and disprove all those stuffy, closed-minded, elitist, ivory-tower eggheads. We like the idea that the supposedly most intelligent (or at least the most qualified) of us can get things wrong. It gives us a license to opt for whatever idea we happen to prefer even if that flies in the face of the available evidence. "Well it's only a theory", they say, or, "would these be the same experts who said the Titanic was unsinkable ?"

Of course, as I have pointed out at length, individual scientists do get things wrong and they do make catastrophic errors even within their own fields of expertise. And yes, on very rare occasions the consensus is overturned and some moron with a seemingly crazy idea is proved right. But it is very rare indeed - perhaps never happens at all - that a single individual is solely responsible for a scientific revolution.

The Huffington Post article rightly gives the example of Einstein. Einstein was no lone genius - he relied on the ideas and discoveries of Maxwell, Poincare, Lorentz and many others. Even the idea of time as a dimension had been around for more than a decade before special relativity came along. Einstein was a genius for tying together disparate strands of thought and understanding how they could apply to the real world, but he was not a free agent of chaos. True, he had a lot of spare time to work in the way he wanted since he wasn't (initially) in academia himself. But relativity simply would not have happened without all the decades of research from all those other, supposedly lesser scientists toiling away in relative obscurity, who are today largely only known to other scientists.

While some people are more intelligent than others, no-one is omniscient. Everyone depends on others to some extent. No man is an island and all that.

Einstein provides a very nice example of the "free to fail" dilemma that besets academia. On the one hand, as a young researcher he had unusual freedom to pursue his own projects as a patent clerk that he wouldn't have had as a university postdoc. The result was the triumphant theory of relativity. On the other hand, with his reputation firmly established he spent decades of his later life attempting an even grander theory. He was equally free to fail... and indeed, he did fail. It is foolish indeed to pretend that it's an easy decision as to how much leeway to give a researcher in pursuing their ideas, and ridiculous to act as though "they should have known better" on those occasions where mistakes were made.

Some more examples. Maxwell's Equations aren't terribly well-known outside the scientific world - despite being essential in understanding electronics - but they are really a set of equations constructed by Ampere, Faraday and Gauss. Maxwell, jolly clever bod though he was, certainly did not come up with the theory of modern electromagnetism all by himself. Similar, the brilliant Faraday - while famously self-taught - was not immune to the previous discoveries of many far less famous scientists. Even the stupendously intelligent Gauss, though he indeed made many important discoveries out of his own sheer genius, did not shun collaborations with other scientists.

What about the other household names ? Darwin certainly didn't work in isolation or learn everything all by himself. Galileo relied on Brahe, Copernicus and others. Though intensely controversial, Hubble has even been accused of outright plagiarism. And Newton, of course, was the very one who coined the phrase, "standing on the shoulders of giants".

Much as the idea of One Man Against The System might have a certain appeal, the reality is far more nuanced. Many areas of research certainly require a basic level of raw problem-solving individual intelligence - but almost none have researchers working in total isolation, cut off from the research of their peers or those who went before them. Yes, there are geniuses, and yes, they make discoveries unique to themselves. But if you don't recognize that those discoveries were also dependent on the smaller actions of legions of other researchers, you're doing a lot of people a great disservice. As Backreaction eloquently puts it :
True, scientists always build on other’s work, and once they’ve built, they must tell their colleagues about it. Communication isn’t only a necessary part of research, it’s also the best way to make sure you’re not fooling yourself. That talking to other people about your problems can be useful is a lesson I first had to learn, but even I eventually learned it.

Lonely But Not Loners (Or At Least Not Losers)

The Backreaction post author claims to disagree with the idea that the loner is a myth, despite emphasising the importance of communication. This had me rather confused until I realised that Backreaction and the Huffington Post are actually talking at cross-purposes : there are two quite different processes at work here. The Backreaction author rightly notes that sometimes the process of science is indeed a lonely one :
Still, there is a stage of research that remains lonely. That phase in which you don’t really know just what you know, when you have an idea but you can’t put into words, a problem so diffuse you’re not sure what the problem is.
Physics isn’t all teamwork and communication skills, it’s not all collaboration and conferences, it’s not all chalk and talk. That’s some of it, but physics is also a lot of reading and a lot of thinking – and sometimes it’s lonely.
There are stages in your research in which you will hit on a problem that no one can help you with. Because that’s what research is all about – finding and solving problems that no one has solved before. And sometimes you will get stuck, annoyed about yourself, frustrated about your own inability to make sense of these equations. You will feel stupid and you will feel lonely and you will feel like nobody can understand you – because nobody can understand you.
This is of course true, but there's nothing here that's incompatible with the Huffington Post article. Which would be absolutely fine if the author hadn't stated that she was in disagreement. You can't really have it both ways. Yes, you can be a lonely scientist. You can even be a socially maladjusted weirdo and do really great science - that's cool too. But you cannot be a truly isolated scientist, and I think that's by far and away the most important point. The crux of the matter is :
But attracting new customers shouldn’t scare away the regulars. We have use for the nerdy loners too... I hope that you, too, find a niche in life where you fit in. And if you want to be left alone, don’t let anyone tell you there is no place for loners in this world any more.
The thing is, the myth of the lone genius isn't about scientists' social skills at all : it's about how the system itself works. No-one is saying you can't be a crazy loner genius if that's what works for you, but plenty of people are saying they've come up with an idea that's "obviously better than anything produced in academia" who can't even spell "academia".

There's absolutely no incompatibility between the idea that some people make discoveries through their own intelligence and the fact that they invariably depend on previous advancements. Rather, the danger of the lone genius myth - the point we should all be fighting - is that having an idea perceived as crazy doesn't mean you're right. Yes, you could be the next Einstein, but unless you took a degree in physics the chances are you're almost certainly not. Yes, in principle great discoveries could be made by people well outside the mainstream or even in another field entirely, but in practise, they're usually not.

The great problem with non-mainstream ideas, amongst other things, is that you can usually find a crazy moron who believes in anything. That when the consensus view changes some lunatic will pipe up and say, "hahah ! I was RIGHT !" does not mean they were responsible for the revolutionary breakthrough. The fact is that there are invariably hordes of crazed lunatics that you can use as a sort of dial-a-theory service. Getting things right due to chance doesn't automatically make their methods or reasoning any more sophisticated - they're still a bunch of deranged nutters.

And even though some particular geniuses have been incredibly important in scientific breakthroughs, we should not forget the importance of collaborations either. Just as Darwin could not have swum to the Galapagos Islands, and Einstein couldn't have developed relativity had all the maths not been in place, so in modern times the Higgs Boson and dark energy could not have been discovered by loners in sheds. Sometimes the individual matters, sometimes the group. It's just far, far too simple to reduce scientific revolutions to the actions exclusively of individuals.


Backreaction, I commend your defence of social loners wholeheartedly. As a staunch introvert myself I have nothing but sympathy for people who don't like talking to other people. It's taken me many years to learn how not to worry myself silly about giving a presentation for days beforehand, let alone actually be entertaining.

But in this case the defence of the loner is completely missing the point. There are two quite different aspects to the lone genius myth. First, we fight the myth of the social loner not because they aren't worthy people, but because they are widely perceived to be the norm (or even the exclusive demographic) in science. If you're a social butterfly, science, it seems, is obviously not for you. Science is for people who end up talking to potted plants at parties, not nightclub-going "cool" people.

Of course it doesn't actually matter one jot if you prefer to spend your evenings moshing out ('cos that's a term, right ?) in a dingy nightclub or reading The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire with a glass of warm milk. But science has the unusual position where the loners are seen as dominant. They don't need defending, so in this peculiar case it's the extroverts who have an image problem. That's why we fight the myth of social loners - to promote an environment suitable for everyone. That does not mean that loners aren't welcome.

Secondly, we fight the myth of the academic lone genius for entirely different reasons : because it undermines academia and the need for collaborative science. Virtually no-one makes a really significant contribution to science without at the very least reading the work of their forebears. People just aren't that smart. It may be nice to think that you can overturn decades of science in an afternoon with no formal training, but you can't. The lone genius myth fuels the fire of those who are convinced scientists are all ivory-tower closed minded snobs.

However, zoologists may well make significant discoveries by studying the actions of their four bears.
Not that academia isn't without its problems, of course. That's fundamentally impossible because it's composed of human beings who have all the same weakness as other human beings. But to view the hallowed halls of academia as entirely conservative, dogmatic places is just wrong. Not for the first or last time will I state it bluntly : if everyone is telling you your idea is nuts, maybe it really is.

Scientists are not exclusively loners nor are they exclusively geniuses. Some of them are indeed loners and some are geniuses, and some are both. But to all intents and purposes, none are truly the lone genius of myth, who tinker away working on some crazy idea without recourse to the works of their peers and predecessors. Even the most cantankerous, antisocial, even misanthropic scientists have to read what others have done. Like it or not, science is a fundamentally collaborative endeavour.

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