Integrity vs. Impact?
I got really depressed about science (the method) and Science (the social body) after watching Sandy Pentland speak recently. Is there a tradeoff between integrity and productivity? How much of a showman is it right and wrong for me to be and not to be?
In my research I have been very careful to look as closely as possible at the old literature for shadows of the ideas that I am presenting. I am also careful about not imposing my desires on my results in any of the countless, subtle insidious ways that that can happen to even an honest researcher. Because of these measures, I feel myself seeing problems more clearly and doing better work.
Of course, if you look too closely into your mistakes, you will always find something wrong, and if you look deep enough into the past, you will always find that what you have to say has already been said. It is easy to lose the sense that you have anything original to say at all. One reason that this sense is false is that originators really get too much credit for their ideas. Another player who makes real changes in a community's understanding is the popularizer, the one that comes by 50 years later––maybe with a formalization or at the right time––and changes how science gets done.
These possibilities give researchers an incentive to ignore the past and make underinformed claims to originality. Time spent reading could be spent writing. And this is where I get stuck. I get the sense that the more integrity I have, the more I must marginalize my work. I'm comfortable marginalizing my work to myself, but by making it second rate in the community, I interfere with my own ability to make any worthwhile contribution.
Here are some snippets from economist George Stigler, from his 1955 essay "The nature and role of originality in scientific progress." The essay is an argument to me for why I should become more salesmanny and maybe a little snarkier. I'm still developing the arguments and counterarguments and trying to figure out how I feel about it all.
About rhetoric in science: "
The techniques of persuasion ... are generally repetition, inflated claims, and disproportionate emphases, and they have preceded and accompanied the adoption on a large scale of almost every new idea in economic theory.
About J.S. Mill: "
John Stuart Mill is a striking example with which to illustrate the foregoing remarks. He is now considered a mediocre economist of unusual literary power; a fluent, flabby echo of Ricardo. This judgement is well-nigh universal: I do not believe that Mill has had a fervent admirer in the twentieth century. I attribute this low reputation to the fact that Mill had the perspective and balance, but not the full powers, of Smith and Marshall. He avoided all the tactics of easy success. He wrote with extraordinary balance, and his own ideas––considering their importance––received unbelievably little emphasis. The bland prose moved sedately over a corpus of knowledge organized with due regard to structure and significance, and hardly at all with regard to parentage. One must search carefully in Mill's Principles to discover his own ideas. The only one of which he boasts––the immutability of the laws of production vs. the social plasticity of the laws of distribution––is at least unhappy. The rest receive no fanfare: Mill devoted some seven pages to summarizing the work of John Rae on capital accumulation and one paragraph to his own important idea of non-competing groups. Yet however one judges Mill, it cannot be denied that he was original. In terms of identifiable theories, he was one of the most original economists in the history of the science. ... The fairest of economists, as Schumpeter has properly characterized Mill, unselfishly dedicated his abilities to the advancement of the science. And, yet, Mill's magisterial quality and conciliatory tone may have served less well than sharp and opinionated controversy in inciting his contemporaries to make advances.
The argument may be a bit dated. But even if Mill did find fervent admirers in the second 50 years of the 20th century, there is still a substance that I don't have my head around. I don't know what balance I should strike. My best current ideas include the following:
- Personally, be honest with myself about my place in a history of ideas and read as far and deep as I can. But, publicly, acknowledge the role of rhetoric in scientific discourse, play up my originality, and play down my predecessors (and maybe contemporaries).
- Write sober, conciliatory science when presenting results, but follow Chomsky and also write violent book reviews.