The myth of the scientist as a disinterested individual

We like to have an idealized view of the scientist. He or she is someone who chose against a high-paying career to pursue the ideals of science and academia. Unlike the greedy engineer or entrepreneur, he works not for himself, but for the greater good.

We often hold similar views of politicians, journalists and medical doctors. Politicians went into politics “to make a difference”. Journalists aim to expose the truth. All medical doctors, of course, chose their profession to “help others”.

As a model, the disinterested individual is a poor one. In fact, an entire academic school is based around the realization that politicians and civil servants seek to advance their own interests: public choice theory. And despite having entire TV shows dedicated to exposing this truth, most people have a hard time thinking of politicians as self-interested. But they are, of course!

Scientific research is even more problematic because most people cannot even imagine what a researcher does. However, once you start thinking about scientists as greedy for status, many things make sense. If scientists were primarily motivated by the public good, they would make their research papers accessible and they would carefully publish the data and software. There would be no need for funding agencies to try to compel scientists to share.

In practice, that is not what you find. Scientists are often silently pleased when their results are difficult for others to reproduce:

The people who dominate both the natural and social sciences primarily think in terms of reputation and career. They think that the point of making a scientific discovery is to (…) further your career. (…) they lament the additional year it’ll take just to confirm that something is true.

[They are] irritated with the idea that ordinary scientists should be able to replicate easily, several times, what they’ve done once, for the first time in human history. (source: Andrew Gelman’s blog)

Of course, being self-interested does not make you evil. A lot of scientists, in their quest for the Nobel prize, have made tremendously important advances.

Still, we cannot count on scientists to police themselves fairly. That some researcher is highly regarded among his peers might simply mean that he contributed greatly to the advancement of these peers… To illustrate this point, consider Marc Hauser. He was a star Harvard professor who earned high praises from his peers (including Peter Singer and Noam Chomsky). He only fell from grace when his research assistants (who were mere undergraduate students) challenged him. As it turns out, much of Hauser’s career was based on fabricated science.

How do we keep politicians in check? By limiting their power. That’s why we have constitutions. We don’t let other politicians be the judge of politicians: we ask independent experts (judges) to assess their actions.

Scientists similarly need to be assessed by independent experts, and it cannot be their immediate peers. You cannot trust Peter Singer and Noam Chomsky to tell you whether Marc Hauser is doing solid work. (They falsely told us that he was!)

In computer science, we have these independent experts: for every computer scientist, there are hundreds of highly qualified engineers who can put the science in practice.

Want to know whether the science is any good? Ask someone who independently put it in practice.

If I had my way, funding agencies would systematically rely on practitioners to assess the proposals. Sadly, that is not how it works.

Daniel Lemire, "The myth of the scientist as a disinterested individual," in Daniel Lemire's blog, February 21, 2014.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

8 thoughts on “The myth of the scientist as a disinterested individual”

  1. CS research does not have to be immediately practical in order to be valuable. If someone submits a proof that P != NP, then I would like that to be evaluated by peer review, not by software engineers.

  2. “most people have a hard time thinking of politicians as self-interested”
    Seriously?? Doctors and scientists, maybe.
    Good points anyway!

  3. I’m fine with having my work evaluated by people who are not computer scientists. Academics from other field might be much better at gauging the long-term scientific potential and see new opportunities. So if my next papers is judged by philosophers, chemists and anthropologists: cool! It’s great if software engineers read it too, but they are not necessarily the main audience.

  4. I agree that there is a need for external regulations and the system is far from being perfect. However I fear that practitioners are not always in the position to evaluate research, they are mostly able to evaluate only what they can directly apply, not the pieces of research that will eventually lead, composed with others, to practical applications in a far distant future.

    Henry Ford comes in mind “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

    Could you imagine practicioners to think that the first implementation of Lisp was something worth being published?

  5. @Frederico

    Could you imagine practitioners to think that the first implementation of Lisp was something worth being published?

    McCarthy invented the notation and Steve Russell, a grad. student who was more of an engineer than an academic, showed that it could be implemented on computers.

    It is precisely because an engineer recognized the value of Lisp that we still hear about it today. Otherwise, I conjecture, it would have remained in theory textbooks without much impact at all.

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