Perspectives on Psychological Science published an invited symposium on eminence in psychology, which starts with Robert Sternberg’s Introductory article called “Am I famous yet? Judging Scholarly Merit in Psychological Science: An Introduction ”*
As Bobbie Spellman pointed out on facebook – Only One Woman. Guess what topic?
Sure, judging scholarly merit is an interesting question (Meehl discussed it in his recorded last lecture series – along with its problems), and inquiring into why some individuals are considered eminent in a field, and others not is certainly a legitimate area of research both in psychology and sociology (not to speak of history).
But, the question – and the answers – seem ill posed. Science is about ideas. It is about advancing knowledge. It is created by people, but most likely not by individuals, and they seem to be looking for a way of discovering the feature of individuals that can predict eminence, rather than looking at systems for advancing ideas.
I’m reminded of Duncan Watt’s book “everything is obvious once you know the answer”. Once something has reached fame – be it Mona Lisa, Harry Potter, Star Wars, or your choice of famous scientist. What he claims is that beforehand, there was nothing in particular that suggested that this piece of art or that particular scientist was especially note-worthy. (Mona Lisa hung around for a long time until someone stole it. Harry Potter and Star Wars were rejected multiple times). But, once something or someone is famous, we tend to – in hind sight – attribute a lot of special features that we think are of obvious merit. Now, if these features are so obvious, how come it took so long to discover them, and why hasn’t anybody been able to come up with nice sure fire metrics for identifying the wheat among all the chaff?
I teach two papers that he wrote with Salganik where he investigated what might be the forces that create eminence (hint – people). I’ve blogged in more detail about it here (and here), but I’ll do a short summary.
Their product of choice was the pop-song. In fact 48 pop-songs by unknown bands. Participants were a thousands of people that were contacted via the internet (this was prior to facebook). They were invited to listen to and rate the songs, and as thanks they could download one of them for free. Only catch was that they would have to listen to them. (They didn’t have to listen to all 48). The participants were divided into “worlds”. In one control world they got no information about what other people thought of the songs. But, in the experimental worlds, participants got access to ratings and to popularity (number of times down-loaded). The ratings in the control world could be seen as a base-line on appeal (how “good” the songs were when you are not influenced by what others think). In the worlds where participants got information about ratings and downloads there were top songs that emerged. Interestingly, they were different in all of the worlds (in the second paper they had 8). Clearly people use other peoples endorsements when they decide which song to listen to and rate. The only thing that they noted, quality wise, is that those rated low in the independent world never made it to the top. To put it bluntly – we know crap, but we don’t know quality.
Might it be the same in science?
And, as always, I’m reminded of Hull’s “Science as a process”. As he states in the introduction, he was particularly interested in the interaction of the social and the knowledge-seeking aspects of research. His thesis is an explicitly evolutionary account of scientific progress. Individual scientists may have good ideas but if nobody is engaging with them – either collaboratively or adversarially – they won’t be passed on. Now, that lots of people engage with an idea is, of course, not a guarantee that in the end it is right. As long as it is engaged with (and allowed to morph) there will be an advance. For example, we like to, in hindsight, sneer at the idea of Phlogiston. But as rmathematicus lays out in this blog post, it was a highly fertile idea that likely paved the way for the discovery of the role of oxygen in combustion.
Do any of you know the names of the Phlogiston theorists? The names of the early oxygen proponents may be more known (Kuhn brings them up), but I can only recall Scheele, because he’s Swedish. The idea lives on.
Sure, when one over produce scientists, there may be a need for understanding better how to staff ones university, and making bets that may be a bit better than a coin toss. But, like grooming the next boy-band, that is extreme decision making under uncertainty.
But, eminence and fame shouldn’t be what to look for in science. It is ideas. And the aim might instead to be how to collect good teams that can tackle interesting questions. No eminence needed.
*I must confess, besides reading all of Sternbergs article, and skimming through Eagly’s I have only read the abstracts. Some of them are somewhat thoughtful, but still, to my mind, misguided.