Why We Need Jackasses in the Academy

 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.

39 thoughts on “Why We Need Jackasses in the Academy”

  1. It has been my experience that the most rewarded scientists tend to be jackasses. That is, they tend to be people without shame, who have no qualms about imposing on other people, who have no dislike of confrontation, who display no embarrassment in being proven wrong or any hesitation in championing another theory immediately afterwards.

    I am unconvinced that this is a necessary condition for being a good scientist.

  2. John Jay,

    I am sorry & want to apologize. Evidently the tags don’t work (or I did something wrong); anyway, Rauch said most of what is credited to me above (and on the comment). His words begin with the “dirty little secret” and end with Hull’s statement. I do like Rauch’s argument; like so much that makes sense, he starts with the premise that we aren’t by nature altruistic or good, but sees how that human nature can be put to good use.

    Of course, you can be a polite but stubborn scientist, an original thinker who doesn’t lord it over others, a person who may be the smartest guy in the room but doesn’t feel the need to prove it. But a lot of civility is feeling not thinking.

    Aren’t we back to the old problem of hubris? A willingness to take chances, to risk much, to think you are right when everyone else says you are wrong – all these take some hubris (we may call it healthy self-pride, but it falls into hubris easily). Civility generally comes from some humility, some willingness to see what the other wants.

  3. Ginny – what Angie says is true – one does not have to be a egomanic to be a top-notch scinetist, but many are. The issue is the one that I touched on in my last post- the Academy excuses and protects bad behavior, especially in the most talented. Not that it doesn’t happen in business, but the most boorish businessman has social skills that many of even the better-behaved academics lack.

    Modulation is the key as with all behaviors, we have to learn where one facet of our personality is appropriate to trot out, and where it is not. I’m a small guy, and I love physical confrontation with bigger opponents in the ring, but outside the dojo, I’m pretty quiet. Being aggressive on the street will get you knifed or shot, and I had that pounded into my head (literally) by the cops and prison guards who were my teachers.

    Academics don’t get that kind of mentoring. In my experience, most Academic scientists can’ turn off the ego because they’ve never been punished for bad behavior and forced to develop coping skills that help them modulate the less socially accpetable parts of their personalities.

  4. The general public must realize that scientists are – first and foremost – human beings.

    Thus scientists can, and often do, display petty behavior, personality quirks, intense hatreds of those deemed less educated, narcissism, political beliefs as scientific facts, and – for those in academia – a knowing of being above reproach for personal speech and behavior that would get anyone else fired or killed.

    Scientists can have all those defects that afflict us lesser mortals. When a scientist makes a dramatic claim, keep all of the above in mind. As a scientist, I do.

  5. John Jay,
    We are back to another of those old but true cliches: power tends to corrupt – and it is the ego that is corrupted. We might think twice about giving any group (academics, for instance) the kind of power to do whatever the hell they want with their subordinates and peers (and take whatever subjective and dishonest position they can toward the administration – e.g., Harvard, etc.) Tenure as it has become is one thing that we might question – the fact that the AAUP went to Churchill’s defense (at least at the beginning, I don’t kmow where they are now) means that it, like the AMA, etc. isn’t there to define and uphold standards but to act as a lobbying group.

  6. It might be that the very nature of those whose character shorcomings are disliked are the types that are attracted to science, teaching, life in the academy. In business, a certain “slickness” at lower level moves you along toward a higher position. Thus those at the top often are no smarter, skilled but know first and foremost how to play the game. In the academic world, judgements are often rendered selecting for different qualities, ie, expertise in a field, publication, ability to get grants, teaching effectiveness.

  7. Teaching effectiveness? You’ve got to be kidding. (Though perhaps you have a definition of effectiveness that fits.)

  8. Getting pigeon-holed as a “teacher” is professional death, from what I hear. I recall a guy years ago, when I thought about getting a Ph.D. in poli sci, telling me “do NOT get into this business if you want to teach. You’ll end up in Appleton Wisconsin making $20,000 a year for the rest of your life.” That was twenty years ago, and that description would actually be considered a good outcome these days. Now, he’d say “you’ll be an adjunct and have to rent apartments month to month and gypsy around the country and be lucky to have enough money for food and rent.”

  9. “They laughed at me! Laughed! The fools, I’ll show them! And then let’s see who’s laughing! Mwuahahah!”

  10. I just left Boston (traded one teaching hospital for another) and I have many, many thoughts related to this post. None of which I will share in this particular comment section, pseudo-anonymity and all.

    Well, why offer any ‘real’ feed-back, even in sucha an oblique and opaque form. I am, after all, a product of the academy…..

    Anyway, the world is often a bad place and the ivory tower is really no different: sometimes, bad people are rewarded for doing bad things. The adult part of me accepts this; the adult part of me also understands that makes me a bit of a coward :)

  11. I guess I did offer a some comment on the post. Hmmm. Comment sections are inherently seductive, aren’t they?

  12. “bad people are rewarded for doing bad things”

    The reason I write about this stuff is so that good people might see it and perhaps stand up more often, and also it helps me see the process in myself and try to arrest it.

  13. Dear Ginny–you mocked my statement about teaching effectiveness. In short techers should be given tenure without regard to their abilities as teachers and there is no way to know if they are or are not good teachers? I know I had been effective as a teacher because years later any num ber of my former students let me know how much they felt they had developed and learned from my teaching. Hope something like that happens to you some day.

  14. Joseph Hill, you are missing the point.

    The mockery is of the idea that people who run schools care about teaching effectiveness. It is not a basis for raises or promotion, nor is it respected. It brings in no money. It is a distraction from research. It is a distraction from getting grants. It is a distraction from writing and publishing. To say someone is a “good teacher” is an insult in the guise of a compliment, much like saying someone in business is “a nice guy”. It is dismissive and is meant to be. It means “he’s a loser, he’s not competitive, he is focused on the wrong things, he lacks the killer instinct, he’s a chump, don’t be associated with him or seen with him because it will hurt your career.”

    Teaching students may be rewarding personally, but professionally it is not something that has any prestige. To the contrary, it is the backwater for people who are professional failures.

    That is how it is seen by the people who control the money and who exercise the power in the prestigious institutions, and in the places that are not prestigious, but want to cultivate an equivalent hardnosed atmosphere.

    This is a sad but real fact of life at most places where teaching goes on.

    My Dad was a teacher for 40 years, and he had students coming up and thanking him decades later. So I know all about it. He got no respect and no money. He did get personal satisfaction.

  15. I will add there are places that do value teaching but none that I’ve heard reward it monetarily. Indeed, sometimes the teaching awards at research schools go to people who are not good teachers or teach so seldom and to such specialized small classes that it is hard to gauge their teaching as teaching.

    Our school values it, but it is a backwater: we’re a junior college, pay is based completely on longevity (which actually I like, I think it leads to a more collegial atmosphere but I realize that is pretty much against everything this blog stands for). And, much as I respect and like my dept. chair and dean, I suspect our teaching ability is to a large extent gauged on whether we keep grading on a curve (unlike many schools, we get called in if we give too many A’s & B’s) and how much of a nuisance we are. That is, we are liked a lot better if there are no grade complaints. And if we are willing to teach 6 classes when they can’t get anyone else to teach one.

  16. It’s pretty clear that many if most universities tend to value research much more than teaching. If I can slychologize a bit, I would think this would lead to a fair amount of resentment on the part of those faculty members whose interests & abilities are more on the teaching side…after all, the university does *market* itself as a teaching institution.

    I wonder how much of the anger that some academics feel toward American society in general is to some extent a displacement of resentment toward university administrators and more senion peers? It’s probably much safer to express resentment against George Bush than against the dean and the world-famous researcher who rarely does any teaching.

    If this hypothesis has any validity, then it would also predict that the academics who tend to be most resentful are precisely those who are in most contact with students.

  17. So many scientists are such shits that it’s only the power of the controlled experiment that keeps them even half honest. “Scientists” who don’t do experiments – e.g. Global Warming modellers – are not subject to that constraint.

  18. “…pay is based completely on longevity …I realize that is pretty much against everything this blog stands for …”

    As long as that is the deal everybody signed up for, and it is a private institution, I don’t think it is against anything the blog stands for.

  19. Glad to hear it Lex – I was anonymous. I always forget to put my name in when coming from a different computer. I think we signed up for it and are happy with it because teaching really is what we do and most of us realize that any real judge of teaching is time – if ten years later someone remembers what went on in class or some point, then we’ve accomplished something. The generally high morale is because we do feel we are doing something. I suspect it would be less high if our pay were affected by what some administrator thought we were doing.

    Research is, at least to some extent, different. If you write an essay and it is published in a flagship journal and is then quoted widely, well, at least for the time being, your research has proved itself. If you publish a book with a top tier press, then it, too, has proved itself. (Perhaps it has proved itself “topical” or fitting in with current thinking, but it still has reached a certain level of appreciation that requires some thought and work; peers respect it by the standards of the time.) Of course, the criticism that is around fifty years later is another test – but, again, that isn’t one we are likely to appreciate in our lifetimes.

  20. Interesting thread. Nobody has mentioned that most experimental science is cooperative these days. Any article on gene sequencing will have ten, 20, or 30 authors from almost as many institutions, with the “senior” author (the one who got the grant) usually listed last.

    Economics is a holdout. It’s rare to see an economics article with more than 3 authors–is that because econ is rarely experimental?

    Also, I have found that some famous and busy researchers are also very good teachers. The two aren’t always contradictory.

  21. “most experimental science is cooperative these days.”

    Not true. The exceptions are genetics and particle physics, and perhaps a few others. Most papers in Nature and Science are just a couple of authors. Chemistry (JACS especially), physics (Phys. Rev. Lett., etc.), and even most biology papers are generally jsut a few authors. And I see a trend today of making minor contributors into co-authors who would have merely been mentioned in the acknowledgements in past years.

  22. There are a small number of teachers who earn millions of dollars. Have the respect of many people on and off campus. These individuals are evaluated yearly on their effectiveness. They work under intense pressure and competition yet often maintain a humility that is grounded in reality. These teachers are mostly male, though there are a few high paid and high performing females teachers. These female and male teachers are popularly known as “coaches”. Though they are the first to remind you that what they teach is not rocket science.

  23. Being very nice (I mean, almost exageratingly so) has worked for me until now. The nicer colleagues love it, and it infuriates the concurrents and jackasses like no other behaviour could. I guess it is a form of being mean, just better disguised than the usual.

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