The disagreeable scientist conjecture

If you are a nerd, the Internet is a candy store… if only you stay away from mainstream sites. Some of the best scientists have blogs, YouTube channels, they post their papers online. When they review a paper, they speak frankly, openly. Is the work good or irrelevant? You can agree or disagree, but their points are clear and well stated.

You may expect that researchers always work in this manner. That they always speak their mind. Nothing could be further from the truth in my experience. We have a classical power structure with a few people deciding on the Overton window. Here are the subjects, we can discuss, here are the relevant topics. We have added layers and layers of filters to protect us against disruption. That is, there is free discussion… as long as you follow the beaten path. Here are some of the things that you must never discuss:

    • These people in field X are getting nowhere. I think that their work is no good. We should move on and leave them behind.
    • We have this theoretical modèle but it does not seem to help us very much in the real world, maybe we should drop it.

I find that the most interesting researchers break both of these barriers from time to time. In other words, they are not very reasonable.

My conjecture is that it is not an accident. To be precise, my conjecture is that the best scientists are disagreeable people. It is a technical statement. I am saying that they have the courage to offend as an intellectual.

The business of research is bureaucratic. In a bureaucracy, the day to day goes much smoother if you are agreeable. But being disagreeable at times might help career-wise: you can demand to be respected, demand to be credited. That is certainly valuable to get ahead and be promoted.

But I am not thinking about the business of science, I am thinking about science itself. The progress of scientific knowledge needs disagreeable people. The statement itself is obvious: to bring a new idea into the fold, someone must first champion it and since new ideas tend to displace old ideas. And so if you fear to displease others, you will never bring anything disruptive to the table. But that is not what I mean. Or it is not the only thing that I mean.

When we are thinking of new ideas, deciding whether to spend time on them, we weight many factors in our head. If you are a strong conformist, you will automatically, without thinking, prune out really disruptive ideas. There are some papers you will even refuse to read for fear that you might get in trouble, be rejected by some of your peers.

I believe that it takes disagreeable people to pick up the dangerous ideas and pursue them. Science needs risk taking, but the risks are disproportionnally taken by a few disagreeable people. To be clear, again, I use the term disagreeable in a technical manner: I do not mean that these people are not fun to have around.

My conjecture is falsifiable. I believe that after controlling for the potential benefits to one’s career of being disagreeable (insisting on credit and fighting for oneselve), we will find a strong correlation between breakthrough/disruptive research findings and being disagreeable.

It is a population-level prediction. I do not predict that a given individual will become known as the new Einstein. This being said, I have to wonder whether Einstein would have a YouTube channel where he voiced controversial opinions if he lived today. I bet he would.

My conjecture also leads to a cultural-level prediction, though it becomes harder to formalize it. I believe that cultures that protect more strongly freedom of speech in the scientific domain will contribute disproportionally to science. And that is because a culture of freedom of speech encourages and supports open dissent with established ideas.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

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

3 thoughts on “The disagreeable scientist conjecture”

  1. There is a George Bernard Shaw quote:

    The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one
    persists to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends
    on the unreasonable man.

    This is very similar to your point.

  2. Hi Sir,

    Sorry for the length of this comment!

    I’ve been following your blog for a while, and I appreciate so many things about it – the science headline links posts, the optimization posts, and the posts like this one about the effects of “politics” (in the non-government sense) on research and science. I agree with your perspective often.

    Are you familiar with Heterodox Academy? It’s a moderate group of people working in academia that seek to introduce differing viewpoints and include people of different political persuasions into academic fields of study that would benefit from more adversarial thought. You seem like someone who would be interested in that group.

    To extend what you say, I’m under the impression that academia might be too bureaucratic for disagreeable folks. I mean this in multiple ways:

    I think folks that are too disagreeable might not be able to “get along” for long enough to reach a position where they can find success by being disruptive.
    I think that disagreeable people who see the bureaucracy of it all might avoid academia and be entrepreneurs or find a job where they can introduce disruptive innovations in a more-specific context.

    Also, this reminds me of a specific example. I forget the name of the man. He quickly won a Nobel prize in his field. He decided that this gave him some protection. When deciding what to work on next, he figured out that there was some “funny business” going on in some of the departments at his university, and he started researching and talking about that. This quickly became a big problem for him. I’m not sure what all happened to him, but my understanding is that he quickly found himself eliminated from mainstream academic spheres.

    I heard about this in a long conversation between Peter Thiel and Eric Weinstein. They discussed their contrarian views on some systems operating in the world that are “Ponzi-like” or that smart people (who support the systems) admit are imaginary – where the emperor has no clothes. I recommend that conversation. It’s available on YouTube.

    Thank you for coming to my Ted talk.

    1. Are you familiar with Heterodox Academy?

      I am a member of Heterodox Academy (in Canada).

      I think folks that are too disagreeable might not be able to “get along” for long enough to reach a position where they can find success by being disruptive.

      My impression is that professors are more disagreeable than average.

      Also, this reminds me of a specific example. I forget the name of the man. He quickly won a Nobel prize in his field. He decided that this gave him some protection. When deciding what to work on next, he figured out that there was some “funny business” going on in some of the departments at his university, and he started researching and talking about that. This quickly became a big problem for him. I’m not sure what all happened to him, but my understanding is that he quickly found himself eliminated from mainstream academic spheres. I heard about this in a long conversation between Peter Thiel and Eric Weinstein. They discussed their contrarian views on some systems operating in the world that are “Ponzi-like” or that smart people (who support the systems) admit are imaginary – where the emperor has no clothes. I recommend that conversation. It’s available on YouTube.

      I listened to it. It is not a unique story. The gist of it is that freedom is something you earn at great cost and must be constantly fighting for.

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