The Myth of the Abrasive Genius

Via Steve Hsu, a lengthy rant by Bruce Charlton about the dullness of modern scientists:

Question: why are so many leading modern scientists so dull and lacking in scientific ambition? Answer: because the science selection process ruthlessly weeds-out interesting and imaginative people. At each level in education, training and career progression there is a tendency to exclude smart and creative people by preferring Conscientious and Agreeable people. The progressive lengthening of scientific training and the reduced independence of career scientists have tended to deter vocational ‘revolutionary’ scientists in favour of industrious and socially adept individuals better suited to incremental ‘normal’ science.

The paper in question goes on at great length about IQ and various other measures of intelligence, and how we ought to be selecting scientists. Frankly, the whole thing kind of gives me the creeps, mostly because the whole concept of IQ has been so thoroughly poisoned by the likes of Charles Murray and “Uncle Al.” While there may be a serious point here, it’s hard to read without hearing echoes of racism, crypto- and otherwise.

The “Uncle Al” vibe aside, I’m also a little bothered by one of the assertions Steve quotes:

As science becomes ever-more dominated by ‘peer review’ mechanisms, pro-social behaviour in scientists has been accorded primacy over the brilliant and inspired – but abrasive and rebellious – type of truth-seekers who used to be common among the best scientists.

This is a fairly common view of science: that brilliant thinkers are necessarily socially awkward if not actively obnoxious, and that this is somehow a key component of the personality required to be a brilliant scientist. The problem is, I’m not convinced it’s actually true.

Obviously, the field I know the most about is physics, and when I think about revolutionary discoveries in physics, I’m just not seeing that high a correlation between scientific genius and personal abrasiveness. I mean, OK, there’s Newton, but after him…?

The greatest revolutions in modern physics were the development of relativity and quantum mechanics in the early 20th century. And when you look at the people responsible for those theories, they’re not really lacking in social skills.

Einstein, for example, was a brilliant thinker, but also personally very charming. His enduring fame probably owes at least as much to his personality as to his science– he was well-liked and respected by pretty much everybody. He spent years arguing with Bohr about their deep disagreements regarding the foundations of quantum mechanics, but they were also great friends.

Of course, Bohr appears to have been friends with absolutely everybody. His falling-out with Heisenberg (dramatized in “Copenhagen”) is notable not just because of the context, but because it seems to be one of the few personal grievances he had. He remained on good terms with people on both sides of WWII.

Look at the other great figures of early modern physics, and you find the same sort of thing. Planck introduce the whole idea of quantization, and while he was never fully comfortable with what his desperate trick spawned, he was successful as an academic and administrator. Louis de Broglie’s wave theory of the electron was nothing if not revolutionary, and he was at least as influential as an academic as he was as a scientist. Rutherford was responsible for completely changing out view of the atom, but he was also enormously successful as an ambassador for science and as the head of the Cavendish Laboratory. Erwin Schrödinger had the morals of an alley cat, but he was evidently a charming fellow (he wasn’t getting all those women with his looks…). Of the quantum pioneers, Heisenberg may come the closest to the ideal of the abrasive genius, but his main problem was that he was kind of stuffy. That didn’t stop him from administrative success.

Do you really think that any of these people would’ve been weeded out by the modern academic selection system? I don’t.

Cast the net a little wider, and you see the same sort of thing. Michael Faraday was a renowned public lecturer. J.J. Thompson was as noted for his success building the Cavendish Laboratory as for the discovery of the electron. Fermi was successful as an administrator, Rabi was politically influential. Feynman was Feynman.

I suppose Schwinger might fit the mold, but I really only know of him as an incidental character in books about Feynman, so I can’t really say.

The myth of the revolutionary genius as someone who is scientifically brilliant but lacking in “people skills” is very appealing, especially to those who find themselves on the outside of the system of academic science, but I don’t think it really holds up to scrutiny. If you look at the lives of the great figures of physics, most of them turn out to have been awfully successful at working within hierarchical systems that are no less rigid than the modern academic system. Even Newton, who was apparently kind of a dick, managed to do well for himself as a political appointee.

So in addition to the creepy vibe I get from anything relying on IQ these days, I find the premise of the whole rant kind of dubious. It doesn’t look to me like “Agreeability” and scientifc genius are necessarily in conflict. In which case, the whole “Medical Hypotheses” rant seems more like a roundabout way of excusing the bad behavior of people who happen to be assholes than a bold and visionary statement of deep truths about how science ought to work.