Ginny pointed out something very important in the comments to this post:
One of the arguments in Jonathan Rauch’s “In Defense of Prejudice,” is another dirty secret is that, no less than the rest of us, scientists can be dogmatic and pigheaded. “Although this pigheadedness often damages the careers of individual scientists,” says Hull, “it is beneficial for the manifest goal of science,” which relies on people to invest years in their ideas and defend them passionately. And the dirtiest secret of all, if you believe in the antiseptic popular view of science, is that this most ostensibly rational of enterprises depends on the most irrational of motives–ambition, narcissism, animus, even revenge. “Scientists acknowledge that among their motivations are natural curiosity, the love of truth, and the desire to help humanity, but other inducements exist as well, and one of them is to ‘get that son of a bitch,’” says Hull. “Time and again, scientists whom I interviewed described the powerful spur that ’showing that son of a bitch’ supplied to their own research.” Shortly after I taught that essay we went to a family celebration, where one of my husband’s cousins, a geology ph.d. who worked for Exxon, explained to me that he was grateful Exxon had let him work for ten years before he showed he was right and he had found something useful. (I’m no scientist, if he explained it, I didn’t understand it.) But he phrased his explanation in just that manner: Those guys thought I was crazy and wrong; I was determined to show them I was right. In other words, what kept him going was his desire to show those sons of bitches. Of course, there are happier attitudes to have for ten years, but, then, the rest of us can be happy that some of those guys figured out better ways to find oil and to get it out of the ground.
The scientific method is a mechanism for the evolution of thought. Evolution depends on conflict and stuggle as its motive engine. Conflict requires competitive personalities. Those personalities are not always the easiest to deal with. QED, most good scientists are jackasses.
Greg Mankiw recently posted on the same subject:
Perhaps the skills that make a good economist are, for some reason, negatively correlated with the attributes associated with being an agreeable human being. That is, economics may attract people with a particular set of personality attributes, and perhaps these attributes are not the same set of attributes you might choose for your next dinner party.
As I pointed out in my last post, some of that nastiness is socially conditioned, and can be modulated. I say that because scientists and economists in Industry do modulate those impulses if they want to succeed. But modulation is not elimination. Quantitative jocks do not, in general, suffer fools gladly. I am gratified to see that economists beat up on the groupthinkers in the other social sciences:
Third, the set of advocates who are economists is quite small (I don’t know if this reflects treatment or selection). In general, economists are more likely to make up their minds about whether a particular policy works based on theory or data. They may have priors, but not the the sort of “do-gooder”priors that advocates have. One of the reasons that economists are so aggressive with the non-economists is that we want to expose all the priors immediately. In my view, a lot of non-economics social science is straight advocacy. There is an important role for advocacy. It may influence policy more than science. But the nature of advocacy is to simplify and ignore nuance and confounding. But our (economists) beef with advocacy isn’t its lack of nuance. We just get really upset when advocacy masquerades as science.
I’m the first to admit that most scientists are egotistical jackasses, more so than they need to be. However, every scientist needs to be a jackass to a certain degree. Everyone wants to be the maverick that comes up with a novel application of existing knowledge, or overturns conventional wisdom and wins everlasting glory. The progress of science depends on the majority of us being jackasses so that we can overcome biases. It’s an evolutionary system in action, and without external stimulus or competition, the stronger ideas, the ones that more closely model reality, do not beat out the weaker ones. Groupthink wins and we enter a new Dark Age. If one wants to see what that Dark Age might look like, attend a few sociology conferences.