Dull Scientists and the Reliable ‘Dumb’

Why are modern scientists so dull?
Medical Hypotheses. Volume 72, Issue 3, Pages 237-243
Bruce G. Charlton

“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. High general intelligence (IQ) is required for revolutionary science. But educational attainment depends on a combination of intelligence and the personality trait of Conscientiousness; and these attributes do not correlate closely. Therefore elite scientific institutions seeking potential revolutionary scientists need to use IQ tests as well as examination results to pick-out high IQ ‘under-achievers’. As well as high IQ, revolutionary science requires high creativity. Creativity is probably associated with moderately high levels of Eysenck’s personality trait of ‘Psychoticism’. Psychoticism combines qualities such as selfishness, independence from group norms, impulsivity and sensation-seeking; with a style of cognition that involves fluent, associative and rapid production of many ideas. But modern science selects for high Conscientiousness and high Agreeableness; therefore it enforces low Psychoticism and low creativity. Yet my counter-proposal to select elite revolutionary scientists on the basis of high IQ and moderately high Psychoticism may sound like a recipe for disaster, since resembles a formula for choosing gifted charlatans and confidence tricksters. A further vital ingredient is therefore necessary: devotion to the transcendental value of Truth. Elite revolutionary science should therefore be a place that welcomes brilliant, impulsive, inspired, antisocial oddballs – so long as they are also dedicated truth-seekers.”

This reminds me of George P. Hansen’s analysis of the Trickster archetype in terms of science.

In his book The Trickster and the Paranormal, Hansen discussed Trickster mythology, magicians, paranormal researchers, hoaxers, and debunkers. More interestingly, he went into some detail about Ernest Hartmann’s boundary types (which correlates to such things as IQ and personality traits) and Max Weber‘s concepts of rationalization, disenchantment, and bureaucratization. Relevant to the above quote, Hansen discussed the hierarchical nature of scientific institutions: how they maintain order, what personality types they reward with positions of authority, etc.

 * * * *

Reliable but dumb, or smart but slapdash?
Medical Hypotheses. 2009; Volume 73: 465-467
Bruce G Charlton

“The psychological attributes of intelligence and personality are usually seen as being quite distinct in nature: higher intelligence being regarded a ‘gift’ (bestowed mostly by heredity); while personality or ‘character’ is morally evaluated by others, on the assumption that it is mostly a consequence of choice? So a teacher is more likely to praise a child for their highly Conscientious personality (high ‘C’) – an ability to take the long view, work hard with self-discipline and persevere in the face of difficulty – than for possessing high IQ. Even in science, where high intelligence is greatly valued, it is seen as being more virtuous to be a reliable and steady worker. Yet it is probable that both IQ and personality traits (such as high-C) are about-equally inherited ‘gifts’ (heritability of both likely to be in excess of 0.5). Rankings of both IQ and C are generally stable throughout life (although absolute levels of both will typically increase throughout the lifespan, with IQ peaking in late-teens and C probably peaking in middle age). Furthermore, high IQ is not just an ability to be used only as required; higher IQ also carries various behavioural predispositions – as reflected in the positive correlation with the personality trait of Openness to Experience; and characteristically ‘left-wing’ or ‘enlightened’ socio-political values among high IQ individuals. However, IQ is ‘effortless’ while high-C emerges mainly in tough situations where exceptional effort is required. So we probably tend to regard personality in moral terms because this fits with a social system that provides incentives for virtuous behaviour (including Conscientiousness). In conclusion, high IQ should probably more often be regarded in morally evaluative terms because it is associated with behavioural predispositions; while C should probably be interpreted with more emphasis on its being a gift or natural ability. In particular, people with high levels of C are very lucky in modern societies, since they are usually well-rewarded for this aptitude. This includes science, where it seems that C has been selected-for more rigorously than IQ. Indeed, those ‘gifted’ with high Conscientiousness are in some ways even luckier than the very intelligent – because there are more jobs for reliable and hard-working people (even if they are relatively ‘dumb’) than for smart people with undependable personalities.”

This gets at the ideological divide. Conservatives tend to value high-C but not high IQ. Herman Cain, a typical far right conservative, gave voice to this view when he sought to explain away his lack of knowledge on important issues: “We need a leader, not a reader.”

It seems that American society in general has always valued high-C over high IQ. The American ideal has always been the “Self-made Man”, the doer rather than the thinker, the inventer rather than the philosopher. So the theory goes: Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. For people who argue American culture is fundamentally conservative, this would seem to be what they are pointing at. The businessman as the leader, as the moral paragon. This is what the American vision of capitalism is all about, the ideal of meritocracy, proving oneself worthy by action and deed, success as outward accomplishment and upward mobility (in particular, up the corporate ladder).

To connect this back to the first article, I would make clear that the personality type rewarded with positions of authority and power within the corporations also is the same personality type rewarded with positions of authority and power within scientific institutions. What corporations and scientific institutions have in common is that both are hierarchical and, in Weberian terms, both are bureaucratic.

8 thoughts on “Dull Scientists and the Reliable ‘Dumb’

  1. This kind of problem was also brought up in the book “The Trouble With Physics” by Lee Smolin. First he laid out a convincing argument that String Theory is a road to nowhere and it is consuming a lot of resources and brain power that could be used to better effect elsewhere, and then he pointed out that to get a physics position requires an extraordinary amount of politicking, including as many as ten letters of recommendation, and that this preselects the most boring, non controversial people.

    It is a system, in other words, that is designed to generate mediocre work with no one questioning the path.

    It’s interesting to see people arriving at the same conclusions from different angles.

    • I’ve never read “The Trouble With Physics” and I’m not familiar with Lee Smolin. His argument does seem related. It would be sad if some of the areas of research that get the most funding and attention turn out to be dead ends. But maybe all the people coming to this realization will help shake up science… or maybe not.

    • Personality traits, in and of themselves, are value neutral. It is only at the extreme ends that can lead to social problems. But even then it depends on context, the kind of situation and society.

      It’s like ADHD, which can be seen as an extreme expression of particular behavioral and cognitive traits. Such things as ADHD get diagnosed as ‘bad’ because of social expectations and social norms.

    • Maybe it’s because you’re too low on agreeableness. It causes you to have a bad attitude. I know that I can have a bad attitude. But all those people who play nicely, vote partisan, and support the ruling elite have good attitudes.

      • I wouldn’t say I’m not a nice person or not compassionate, but I certainly don’t fit the “mold” that people except in a “nice” person, especially as a woman.

  2. You know, we talk about teachers and respect/lack of respect. But for me I think it’s because growing up I was painfully aware that I didn’t have the traits that got authority to “like” me which I now recognize as agreeableness/Consciensciousness in the traditional sense, and this is especially acute at younger ages. At older ages like HS and College authority figures seem to be able to look beyond those in assessing a student’s value, worth, and intelligence…

    But peopel say childhood can affect you profoundly way into adulthood. Well, even complain that teachers are not respected, but even today I reflexively have a tough time respecting teachers, especially elementary school teachers, and I often think they’re dumb :/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s