Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Robin Hanson would agree

Bruce Charlton, Professor of Theoretical Medicine at Buckingham and Editor in Chief of Medical Hypotheses, asks "Why are modern scientists so dull?"
In a nutshell, I am suggesting that:
  1. Educational attainment depends on IQ × C [conscientiousness]; but IQ and C are not closely-correlated.
  2. Modern education has progressively raised the floor for C (by lengthening the educational process and by changes in educational evaluation methods).
  3. Educational attainment therefore nowadays increasingly rewards C in preference to IQ.
  4. Yet revolutionary science still requires high levels of IQ, and the higher the better.
  5. So, in revolutionary science where IQ is vital, selection of personnel should not be determined only or mainly by educational attainments; but this information needs to be supplemented with direct, formal IQ testing.
  6. Furthermore, revolutionary science requires high levels of creativity; which are associated with moderately high Psychoticism trait – yet modern education and science selects very strongly in favour of Conscientiousness and Agreeableness and therefore enforces low Psychoticism.
  7. So, the education, training and career structure of modern science tends to depress average IQ and cull creativity – which are the prime qualities requires for success in revolutionary science. Consequently, modern top scientists are likely to be less intelligent and creative than is desirable, and probably significantly less intelligent and creative than top scientists used to be.

HT: NCBI ROFL. I don't know what they think is so funny about this, other than the difficulty of setting up a preferable selection mechanism. The explanation of the current mechanism seems entirely plausible to me. More from the original article:
Modern science is just too dull an activity to attract, retain or promote many of the most intelligent and creative people. In particular the requirement for around 10, 15, even 20 years of postgraduate ‘training’ before even having a chance at doing some independent research of one’s own choosing, is enough to deter almost anyone with a spark of vitality or self-respect; and utterly exclude anyone with an urgent sense of vocation for creative endeavour. Even after a decade or two of ‘training’ the most likely scientific prospect is that of researching a topic determined by the availability of funding rather than scientific importance, or else functioning as a cog in someone else’s research machine. Either way, the scientist will be working on somebody else’s problem – not his own. Why would any serious intellectual wish to aim for such a career?

The whole process and texture of doing science has slowed-up. Read the memoirs of scientists active up to the middle 1960s – doing science then was nimble and fast-moving in texture and also longer-termist in ambition. Unexpected leads could be pursued. It was common for people to begin independent (really independent) research in their early- to mid-twenties. For the individuals concerned there was a palpable sense of progress, a crackling excitement.

Nowadays, training to be a scientist is an exercise in almost-endlessly-deferred satisfaction. There is an always-increasing requirement for years of training (i.e., extra years of doing what other people decide you ‘need’ to do, and not what interests you) – and also for more advance-planning, application for committee permissions, and demand for logistical organization; combined with a proliferation of scientifically-irrelevant and energy-sapping bureaucracy.

The timescale of scientific action and discourse has gone up from days, weeks and months to months, years and decades. Yet at the same time, the requirement for unremitting annual high productivity means that the timescale for research pay-off has contracted to a maximum of 3–5 years. It is usually career suicide to take the time and risks entailed by scientifically-ambitious research [2]. In sum, the tempo of science has slowed but the time-horizon of science has contracted. Modern science is both duller and more short-termist: the worst of both worlds!
My remaining question: if high science filters out the highest g folks, where do they go?

Update: Robin Hanson emails (apparently, comments from LJ accounts are bouncing):
Well of course modern academia isn't optimized for revolutionary intellectual progress; why ever would one expect that? the more interesting question is what functions is academia adapted to perform; what have been the pressures that pushed it to the form it has? I have suggested that academia mainly functions to let people affiliate with credentialed as impressive folks.


  1. ummm - don't you have to show that Scientists are dull, or that modern science is dull, or that it requires 20 years of training before getting your own research, or that scientists can only research what is funded not what they want to etc etc BEFORE you posit the mechanism?

    I have been in science for quite a while at several universities and none of those thongs are obvious to me

  2. Cam: relative to the counterfactual. The most interesting potential colleagues have been filtered is the argument. Or, perhaps, those of us who have made it through are sufficiently dull not to recognize the problem.

    I'm not sure his stylized facts are that far out; aren't lengthy post-docs the norm in the sciences?

  3. @ Robin Hanson said: I have suggested that academia mainly functions to let people affiliate with credentialed as impressive folks.

    Sorry Robin - this sentence doesn't make sense - it's been through the grammar scrambler! Could you try again please?

    But it is nice to know that my idea has leaped straight to stage 3 of the 'false, trivial, obvious' sequence!

  4. I think what Robin meant (and this is likely a typo by me in transcribing his email) was that universities give a nice way of letting folks affiliate with high status credentialed folks, or getting credentials that signal affiliation with these high status folks. Hanson's talked often over at his blog, Overcoming Bias, about education mostly being about signalling. Well worth checking out.

  5. Eric - anecdotally I wouldn't agree that postdocs in the sciences tend to be long. I've known a few people to go straight into faculty positions without a postdoc at all! They maybe be longer than other disciplines, or maybe just higher variance of length - who knows?