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Does progress depend on personal rivalries between scientists?

By peeping_Thomist in MLP
Wed Mar 28, 2001 at 11:01:24 AM EST
Tags: Science (all tags)

Rivals: Conflict as the Fuel of Science, by Michael White, argues that progress in science is driven in large measure by personal rivalries between scientists...

The book consists of twelve historical essays describing episodes in the history of science in which personal rivalries have played an important role.

Interesting reviews of the book have appeared in The Sunday Times, The New Statesman, and The Electronic Telegraph.

Even if many great breakthroughs in science have involved personal rivalries, I wonder if the overall effects of personal rivalries on science are positive or negative?

(The links to the reviews are from Arts & Letters Daily, a good site for keeping up on general culture.)


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Does progress depend on personal rivalries between scientists? | 14 comments (14 topical, editorial, 0 hidden)
Rivalry is important. Read Kuhn (3.00 / 3) (#1)
by bgalehouse on Tue Mar 27, 2001 at 11:38:59 PM EST

People champion ideas. Sometimes unpopular ones. Sometimes the underdog wins. Read Kuhn.

When Kuhn coined the term paradigm shift, he was carefull to note that a significant fraction of the old guard never survive the transition. Twenty years after oxygen rebuilt the study of chemistry, formerly well respected chemists died refusing to believe.

So I think it is safe to say that such things can be very emotional, but that rivalry is an important part of scientific progress. Proffesional rivalry can clearly feed and feed from personal rivalry, even if we'd like to see them separate.

oh my yes (1.50 / 2) (#2)
by rebelcool on Tue Mar 27, 2001 at 11:54:03 PM EST

the foundations of what we know as science today were borne of rivalries. Mathematicians back in ye old times used to keep their ideas and formulas as closely guarded secrets. Newton and someone else (cant recall his name) had a deep seated rivalry, and some think that newton stole many of his ideas for calculus.

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Leibnitz? (none / 0) (#3)
by _Quinn on Wed Mar 28, 2001 at 12:06:40 AM EST

   IIRC, the `official' story on Leibnitz and Newton is that they developed calculus simultaneously and from two differenent directions (limits and infintesmals).

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[ Parent ]
sounds about right (none / 0) (#5)
by rebelcool on Wed Mar 28, 2001 at 12:59:01 AM EST

right, and theres a bit of belief there that newton may have "borrowed" a few things from liebnitz, then took the credit. Newton was something of a irrascable person, and not highly liked.

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[ Parent ]

Yeah (none / 0) (#6)
by wiredog on Wed Mar 28, 2001 at 08:03:06 AM EST

The integral sign, IIRC, came from Leibnitz.

The idea of a global village is wrong, it's more like a gazillion pub bars.
[ Parent ]

Oh yes! Cold War anyone? (1.75 / 4) (#4)
by nickb on Wed Mar 28, 2001 at 12:11:09 AM EST

Cold War has facilitated the biggest scientific rivlary in the history of the mankind and has produced progress in _all_ areas of science. Space and weapons research has benefited the most from it and ever since the end of the cold war, things have started going downhill. Remember the Moon landings? Russians were trying to beat US in that part but failed (they won in numerous others). When was the last time we landed on Moon? Why was the human Mars landing been delayed? Could it be the lack of Cold War? Most probably the answer to that is yes. Scientific advancements have been a great weapon in the PR war between the USSR and USA. Lots of things have been developed just to beat the Soviets at something. This PR war has been the main reason why gov has poured so much money into research. All of these budgets have been cut since the end of the CW. That's a shame. Lots and lots of products that we use today have been a direct result of the CW. Internet (Arpanet) anyone? Maybe we need a second one with China this time ;)

Other examples are numerous. Most recently synthetic insulin and insuling gene race springs to mind as well. There were numerous scientific organizations trying to find an insulin producing gene and the team that found it and filed for a patent one evening and announced it the other day actually beat the second team by a day.

It is in our human nature to race against others and better them and we ought to use these instincts and not burry them deeply just becasue it is not politically correct to do so. In kindergardens they teach kids not to compete by saying that there is no winners and looser etc. That is completely wrong IMHO and is a byproduct of overly liberal stance that some educators use.

True, but irrelevant... (none / 0) (#11)
by davidduncanscott on Wed Mar 28, 2001 at 09:33:16 AM EST

since the post pointed to personal rivalries between scientists, not national rivalries.

The Cold War certainly spurred funding for the sciences, but that's a different issue from whether, for instance, Darwin would ever have gotten off his tail and published The Origin of Species if Wallace hadn't informed him that he was about to publish his own work on the subject.

The space race, in fact, speaks against the "personal rivalry" theory, at least for NASA, since the Soviets kept their lab-coat-and-slide-rule people anonymous. As I recall, their chief designer was simply referred to as, "The Designer" due to fears that we might kidnap or assasinate him.

[ Parent ]

What's the difference? (none / 0) (#13)
by nickb on Wed Mar 28, 2001 at 02:20:08 PM EST

It's a sceintist vs. a scientist on the other side of the curtain. You make no sense dude.

[ Parent ]
"Personal" (none / 0) (#14)
by davidduncanscott on Wed Mar 28, 2001 at 03:27:20 PM EST

No, the Cold War was a rivalry between governments. Here in the States, Congress got all kinds of fired up and pumped money into R & D, while over in Redland Kruschev et al did the same. That has little or nothing to do with rivalries among the scientists.

In sports terms, it's the difference between fans and players. In that arena, the competition is very different -- players might be bitter personal rivals with their own team-mates, while holding players on other teams in respect and friendship. Oriole players don't hate the Yankees, but Oriole fans do.

We already know that national rivalries can stimulate funding and therefore probably produce results, but the question is whether individual competition -- "I'm twice the scientist that Hawking guy is, and I'll prove it!" -- is useful or perhaps even necessary. My point was that the engineers in the Soviet space program were deliberately kept anonymous, so it would have been tough to get that kind of personal rivalry going -- "I'm twice the engineer that guy or woman or group of people is or are or ...ah screw it, let's go blow up an Atlas or something!"

[ Parent ]

Who cares? (3.00 / 1) (#7)
by DesiredUsername on Wed Mar 28, 2001 at 08:14:07 AM EST

What does it matter what spurs a scientist on, so long as the actual decision between theories is made on their merits?

Someone here mentioned Kuhn. Kuhn has a great story to tell, but he basically assumes (and elsewhere explicityly says) that there's no objective difference between theories--it's all just a matter of "new punks" vs "old fogeys". The trouble is, our knowledge about the world IS getting objectively better. People used to die from polio and smallpox. People used to not be able to fly. We walked on the moon. We're decoding DNA. Etc. The new theories are objectively better than the old theories, therefore the "theory replacement process" is working correctly.

There's a similar assumption underlying a discussion of the personal motives of scientists. I have no problem discussing these motives as an exercise in psychology. But trying to undermine scientific output based on the motives of the people involved is to completely ignore the fact that it DOES in fact work.

Play 囲碁
There's more to life than epistemology! (none / 0) (#10)
by peeping_Thomist on Wed Mar 28, 2001 at 09:31:36 AM EST

What does it matter what spurs a scientist on, so long as the actual decision between theories is made on their merits?

If we can figure out what spurs scientists on, perhaps we can arrange things so that more progress is made. Maybe the gladitorial elements of scientific conferences could be accented, with laurel wreaths going to the victors and the losers being fed to the lions.

You seem concerned with how this question about motivation might be thought to undermine a certain kind of epistemology, but there are other concerns about scientific progress than epistemological ones, such as: how do we get more of it?

[ Parent ]
Much like in economics.... (1.00 / 1) (#8)
by daystar on Wed Mar 28, 2001 at 08:27:24 AM EST

Competition spurs growth.

There is no God, and I am his prophet.
Pretty much true (4.00 / 1) (#9)
by RangerBob on Wed Mar 28, 2001 at 09:26:41 AM EST

Not all scientists suffer from this, but I'd say that it's sadly pretty accurate. I run into this a lot even in comp sci research that I do for the government. I have a group now trying to take credit for something that not only did I accomplish first, but I accomplished on a lot smaller budget than they did. The ironic thing is that I'm working on another project with them this year.

The main problem I see is that rivalries are done so that one company can find something and patent it before any others do. I think that the frenzy of corporate research would slow if the patent office were done away with :)

The biggest thing that scientists forget is that we're all in it for the same reasons: to advance knowledge. Sadly, many won't even talk to each other or even think about working with each other. We'd be a lot further along if people could get their heads out of their rear ends and work together for a change. I think it's silly for a bunch of people to be working on the same thing but each with their own different projects. If these people would pool their knowledge and resources, advances would come along a lot sooner IMO.

The good, the bad, and the ugly (5.00 / 4) (#12)
by iGrrrl on Wed Mar 28, 2001 at 10:22:46 AM EST

From the trenches of biomedical research, working in a field rife with competition, I'd like to share my opinions and observations.

  • Where competition seems to have good results
    Error correction seems to happen quite often as a result of rivalry and personal dislike. There comes to mind the example of the Big Gun who made groundbreaking contributions, but seems to think his stature means that no data or interpretation from his lab should be questioned. Arrogance of this sort irritates more careful scientists in the same field. They sometimes refer to their work as "cleaning up after the Big Gun's mistakes." In general, this works to straighten out problems arising from accepting the Big Gun's word for it without good peer review. .

  • Where competition can have bad results
    Sometimes two Big Guns get into a rivalry. "It must be X!!" "It must be Y!!" Quite often the reality can be that either X and Y are both true; or that X is true in system 1, and Y is true in system 2. Ego-driven to prove themselves right, these Big Guns can ignore their own data to the contrary, sometimes punishing underlings for daring to contradict the party line. Unintended fraud can arise from this sort of situation, as the underling tries to support the boss' pet idea. These sorts of rivalries can introduce errors into the record.

  • Where it gets ugly
    When a laboratory head puts two underlings on the same project in direct competition, the results might be faster discoveries, but the personal cost to the underlings can be tremendous. The ideal of "information wants to be free" becomes entirely subverted as people hide data, obfuscate techniques, and even sometimes sabotage co-workers. (Errors can also arise in this situation. The desire to be first can lead to less careful work. "Looks like a duck. Quacks like a duck. Must be a duck." But if you don't do the smell test because you're in a hurry, you might miss that it's well-carved decoy with audio.) And what happens if one post-doc gets it done a week before the other? Usually the other gets no credit for their work. I've seen deep depressions, complete disillusionment with science, and even marriages destroyed with people working in this dog-eat-dog, win or lose kind of environment. The heads of such labs do not care about the personal and professional toll of such a workplace. "Cream rises," say. My response to that is, "So does slime."

    I work in a fairly competitive environment, but rather than competing against each other, we compete toward a goal of excellence. Lab meetings can be quite painful for people who aren't up to standard. In most cases, however, one is not subject to personal belittlement, but rather shown the level at which they're expected to perform.

    One of the better scientists I know (in a snake-pit of a competitive field) used the following tactics in his laboratory:

    If you brought him a result right in line with his pet theory, he'd bet you a six pack of beer that you were wrong, and suggest several control experiments. If you (and his pet theory) were wrong, you could start a whole new branch of work leading to a novel publication and save the lab from error. If you were right, you got a six pack of beer. Win-win, for the underling and for the lab.

    He would sometimes put two people on different aspects of the same project. One might do the molecular work, the other the cell biological work. The underlings would get equal credit. Also they would be checking each other's conclusions through different experimental avenues (and because it's difficult to get two people to agree to lie about something). They might also have some competition to keep up with each other.

    I prefer to compete for something rather than directly against someone. But as the book cited says, the desire to beat out the other guy runs deep and can be harnessed to real progress.

    You cannot have a reasonable conversation with someone who regards other people as toys to be played with. localroger
    remove apostrophe for email.

  • Does progress depend on personal rivalries between scientists? | 14 comments (14 topical, 0 editorial, 0 hidden)
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