Scientists are dull

Modern scientists are ‘dull and getting duller” according to Bruce Charlton, Professor of theoretical medicine at the University of Buckingham. His views have been summarized in the Times Higher Education Literary Supplement, or you can read the original article on his blog here.

Essentially, Charlton’s thesis is that the selection and training process of science weeds out any interesting people. In his own words

“In particular the requirement for around ten to fifteen years of postgraduate training before even having a shot at doing some independent research of one’s own choosing (but more likely with the prospect of functioning as a cog in somebody else’s research machine) is enough to deter almost anyone with a spark of vitality or self-respect.
…nowadays there is an always-expanding need for advanced planning, committee permissions, and logistical organization; combined with a proliferation of mindless and damaging bureaucracy. The timescale of scientific action and discourse has gone up from days and weeks to months and years.”

The result of all this is plain to see according to Charlton:

The editors and journalists running even the premier journals – those having the pick of modern science – themselves find science too dull to bother writing about. And they are too often correct. We can only conclude that science is dull mainly because its requirements for long-term plodding perseverance and social inoffensiveness have the effect of ruthlessly weeding-out too many smart and interesting people.”

Hmm. Some of this is undoubtably true. In a profile of yours truly in SPIN Science magazine (due next month) I myself comment that I eventually found the business of communicating scientific ideas a lot more fun than the actual getting of results, mainly because of the specialisation and patient measurement required to achieve anything specific  nowadays.

However, I disagree with Charlton in his deification of journalism:

“The smart and interesting people instead gravitate to fast-moving fields like journalism (or finance, or management, or entrepreneurship of many types) where they get hourly or daily stimulus, and have a chance of following their own inclinations and making their mark before reaching their mid forties”.

Except that a lot of journalists are irritating opinion merchants who care not a jot whether they are right or wrong. Which would you prefer –  a dull plodder who considers the evidence carefully before reaching a tentative conclusion , or a loud attention-seeker wedded to his own opinion and oblivious to scientific evidence to the contrary? There are plenty of such journalists, with opinions on everything from climate change to stem cell research and all they do is add noise to important debates.

Give me a dull plodder any day. Indeed, this is the great fallacy of the great climate change ‘debate’. Politicians and journaists state their fixed opinions on both sides with great passion, while scientists quietly go on gathering evidence. As a result, the population at large imagines there is a great debate that in fact is long over.

Finally, Charlton concludes with

“One thing is for sure, the answer is not going to come from within science.”

I disagree. I like to think the only hope is that we scientists  can persuade young people that science asks the right questions about the world, and seeks answers in the most logical manner…if that means changing the way we do research, let’s do it.

Meanwhile, me and my surfboard are off for a dull weekend on Inch beach in Co. Kerry. Wonder what excitement Professor Charlton has lined up?

That’s me in the corner – finding my religion

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