Are wealthy, white, male mavericks part of science’s problem?

From philosopher of science Adrian Currie at Aeon:

There’s a scarcity of jobs compared with the number of applicants, and very few high-ranking and ‘big impact’ journals. This means that the research decisions that scientists make, particularly early on, are high-risk wagers about what will be fruitful and lead to a decent career. The road to academic stardom (and, for that matter, academic mediocrity) is littered with brilliant, passionate people who simply made bad bets. In such an environment, researchers are bound to be conservative – with the stakes set so high, taking a punt on something outlandish, and that you know is likely to hurt your career, is not a winning move.

The resulting mediocrity shows.

The biologist Barbara McClintock devoted enormous effort and paid a very high price for her path-breaking research into so-called ‘jumping genes’ in the mid-20th century.

The response from the scientific community was initially hostile – not to the basic phenomenon McClintock had discovered, but to the complex, interwoven picture of biological systems that she developed on the back of the discovery. For 20 years, McClintock was forced to switch gears completely and work on the study of maize. It wasn’t until the 1970s that her peers came around, and she was duly awarded the Nobel Prize in 1983. ‘One must await the right time for conceptual change,’ she wrote in a shoulder-shrugging letter to a fellow geneticist in 1973.

Mediocrities’ most valuable bureaucratic skill, besides enforcing orthodoxy, is wasting other people’s time. We all grow old, we all die, they figure, so let time cart out the good ideas that never had a chance… while we retire in comfort, where all shall have prizes.

This part is an alarmingly bad direction:

There’s also a worry about the kind of mavericks we’re listening to. Most of those floating around today are wealthy, white and male. That’s not surprising: to be a successful maverick, chances are you’re already pretty privileged. Why? Well, you need a sense of entitlement and the confidence to take on the mainstream. More.

Ah! Class, ethnicity, and sex are a reason to avoid new ideas? A person who thinks that has abandoned science anyway for the endless solace of grievance identity politics. But then marchin’, marchin’ may be good for their personal health, if nothing else.

Science can be productive as science or else as identity politics. One must choose.

See also: Iconic Darwinian John Maynard Smith on teaching the controversy

Eureka! Scientist discovers that the post-modern left hates science the way it hates every form of external reality


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