Easy question to answer: Yes, some scientists are assholes

richard owenby sergis blog

The A@#hole Scientist 
[Via | The Scientist Magazine®]

The mechanical engineer Thomas Midgley (1889–1944) did some pretty unsavory deeds with the help of his scientific reputation. If his promotion of climate-changing CFCs was an honest mistake, the same cannot be said of his brazen advancement of “anti-knock” lead additives. Midgely arguably knew there was compelling evidence that auto workers were suffering dearly from exposure to the neurotoxins. Yet he offered misleading public demonstrations of their supposed safety anyway, knowingly exploiting the public’s trust in science for personal profit.

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I always apply a form of Sturgeon Law to questions like this. Are a lot of scientists jerks? Yes. But a lot of people are jerks. The question is whether there are more asshole scientists than one would expect in a diverse population?

It might be hard to tell for sure but i do feel that the Scientific Method as we humans practice it actually can reduce any harm that these people do to scientific endeavors. The pressures are to actually remove these people from active research.

First, I agree with the definition of asshole in the article. It is not just someone who is a jerk  or egotistical or callous with others. 

An asshole (henceforth abbreviated “a-hole”) is a guy (or gal) who allows himself special advantages in social relationships out of an entrenched (and mistaken) sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.

Now, I will grant that the incentives that drive a lot of academic research – asking for grants, getting tenure, running a large lab – can select for a lot of people who feel they are entitled.

In addition, there is a very strong social pressure which works to drive some people into the beginnings of a-holedom. Science at the edges is very hard. That world is a fog where it is easy to get off track. But the differences between someone who is just off track and someone completely lost and going the wrong way are slim.

And, because everyone wants to believe that they are on track, it is very common for scientists – and this is a purely human trait – to accuse others of not only being wrong but being a bad scientist who are wildly off track because they simply do not know how to do science. You prop up your own tentative, fog-ridden view by pushing down others.

This can often be easier than actually showing you are correct; that can take years or decades to demonstrate. A well placed snarky comment can have immediate effects.

Now, this is certainly an aspect of being an a-hole; it is a defense mechanism when dealing with the margins of the natural world. It can, when coupled with the corrupting aspects of power, become full-fledged a-holishness.

So yes, there are some really big a-holes in science. And they can hold back the line of research by their power, by who they let get grants or by their ability to determine publication.

You will see a-holes like this almost anywhere – petty tyrants who make the lives of their employees miserable, control people’s lives and uses social settings to increase their power. They are the bosses we have all seen. 

But modern science has something up its sleeve that ameliorates the ability of these guys from doing as much damage as might be possible. 

First, every scientist, even the a-holes, know that, as Richard Feynman said, “We’ve learned from experience that the truth will come out.” Here is the complete quote from his remarkable Commencement address at CalTech in 1974 (I read it in the CalTech newspaper the first quarter I started:

We’ve learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature’s phenomena will agree or they’ll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven’t tried to be very careful in this kind of work. And it’s this type of integrity, this kind of care not to fool yourself, that is missing to a large extent in much of the research in cargo cult science.

REPUTATION. Good reputation as a scientist. An a-hole uses this idea of reputation for their own entitlement and power. But, this presents a problem for which there are also social remedies.

No one really likes an a-hole, even other a-holes. They isolate themselves by their behavior. So they often lose the benefits of a strong social network that can bring them information they can use against others.

Most importantly, there are thousands of independent researchers who would love to bring the a-hole down. Everyone gets a real thrill to see some powerful, life-controlling a-hole thrown into the mud. It’s probably in our genes. A community made up of only a-holes would not be very stable, while communities that select against a-holes when they are no longer useful would be.

So, in science, if they want to be  world-class a-hole, they had better be right ALL the time, They have to have a blemish-free record of scientific endeavor.

Because if they are ever wrong, if a little crack appears in their reputation, a torrent of pressure will be brought to bear by those who want to enhance THEIR reputation by bringing the a-hole down. Often in public ways.

I could use recent  examples of this but I am a believer that people can actually change (yeah, I’m a dreamer) so until their complete story is told, I will refrain. 

So I will use the example of Richard Owen, the man who coined the term ‘dinosaur’ and was highly involved in biology in the 1800s. He also had a well-documented problem with other researchers, sometimes plagiarizing the works of others and destroying the reputations of some. Look at what he did to Gideon Mantell.

Science was different then, with fewer independent sources of research and much greater social stratification. The right social connections were often more important than the actual science done. Owen had these and Mantell did not.

He appropriated Mantell’s major discovery (the discovery of the first fossil teeth of Iguanodon, kept Mantell from publishing in the major research press of the day, and even wrote a scathing anonymous obituary when Mantell died belittling his influence.

Talk about an a-hole. He continued to try and destroy a fellow researcher, whose ideas and work he had appropriated, after the victim was dead. A world-class a-hole!

Owen also got the science extraordinarily wrong, putting Iguanodon’s thumb on its nose. Owen presented Iguanodon as slow, quadrupeds rather the bipeds they were and that Mantell described them as. His social standing was such that he was able to dominate the then current views. 

Owen made his big mistake, though, when he went after someone whose own use of social means was even more formidable. And that guy  – Charles Darwin – had the advantage of being right. Darwin was not an a-hole but he well understood the social factors involved in research. He took so long to produce the Origin of Species mainly because he knew the social ramifications of that science and had to prepare the ground for its acceptance.

Even so, there was tremendous controversy, with Owen representing the status quo – species did nt arise from ‘transmutation’ of predecessors.

He attacked Darwin’s works – again in an anonymous report – claiming the Darwin’s theory was the same sort of abuse of science that lead to the French Revolution.

Darwin wrote that Owen became his enemy after the Origin of Species was published “not owing to any quarrel between us, but as far as I could judge out of jealousy at its success.”

Owen used his social powers to go against Darwin but Darwin marshaled his own social defenses and was eventually perceived as the winner. Owen ran into the dynamo that was Darwin’s Bulldog – Thomas Huxley.

Owen could not fathom that man and apes had a common ancestor, an ancestor that had transmutated into each. He went after Darwin and Huxley for suggesting man was descended from apes. Now he made a fatal error that demonstrates the danger for a-holes if they continue to stand in the scientific arena 

Owen was one of the first ones to describe the gorilla, He stated that the ape brain was different than the human – it lacked an important structure called the hippocampus minor. QED. Thus is mankind differentiated from the ape. 

This is wrong. The truth will come out and Huxley was the intrument.

Huxley demonstrated that the gorilla and other apes do indeed have these structures, doing so in very public presentations to other scientists. He revealed Owen’s error in a very definitive and social way.

Owen’s scientific reputation was badly damaged here. He tried to recoup it but, being a vile, vindictive and jealous man – apparently recognized as such by everyone who came in contact with him , as well as a wrong one – he now failed in many ways. Being so demonstrably wrong against a foe with just as strong a knowledge of social tools was very damaging.The same social tools that he used against others were now brought to bear against him. For instance, he was refused entry into the Royal Society Council.

Being an a-hole and continuing to do research is not a stable position. Eventually you make a mistake and the whole thing crashes down.

It is even more so today where instead of a handful of social peers doing science, there are hundreds of thousands, all ready to jump into the fray when an a-hole makes a mistake.

It does not completely get rid of a-holes. After all, they may do some important things simply because they are a-holes. But it is much harder for a practicing researcher to destroy a life as Owen did to Mantell. Even plagiarism, which Owen practiced during his career, is often found quickly due to new tools for searching.

The truth eventually wins. Most researchers will sometimes find themselves on the wrong side of it. That is part of research. You can seldom be right all the time.

However, being wrong is a killer for most a-holes. Being on the wrong side allows many of the same social manipulations used by a-holes to boomerang back on them, destroying what reputation they had.

The really smart a-holes realize this and often move quickly out of research and into administrative positions.

Even Owen did this, becoming the head of natural history at the British Museum and creating the Natural History Museum. In fact, while his scientific reputation has been largely degraded, with the recognition of the work by Mantell, Darwin and others supplanting his erroneous ideas, the Natural History Museum stands as a much stronger legacy.

So important was he to the Natural History Museum that his statue stood in the main hall. A picture of it is at the top of this post. 

Until it was moved in 2008, to be replaced with one of Darwin.  

In a delicious and visual tour-de-force of irony, you can watch Owen’s statue being moved from its place of prominence to an out of the way cubby at the upper left. Then Darwin’s statue is moved into the important location.

Even for a-holes, truth eventually wins. An even important a-holes eventually have to move out of the way for real creative geniuses.

Just like it does with actual scientific facts, the Scientific Method – or its social manifestations – can help to reduce the damage of an a-hole. Usually by moving them out of direct research in the lab.

They can still be a-holes. They can still affect people’s careers and gather more power for themselves. But their ability to directly affect the science itself is lessened.

Now they just become the a-hole bosses everyone has seen, really little different from other a-hole bosses.  But other researchers can route around them much easier, especially if the a-hole’s scientific reputation is ever tarnished.

And sometimes, they are actually better as administrators than if they had stayed in the lab. Owen is just one example. I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to conjure up some more modern examples.