Nobel prize or GTFO.

After reading this great and thought-provoking post by scicurious on ‘failure’ in academia, I came across this comment (which was itself a reply to another comment):

Jenna, with respect, this is a description of how to do incremental science – but it’s NOT how discoveries are made. Not big discoveries, anyhow. Big discoveries DO require inherent creativity and vision .. and we are systematically weeding those qualities out of biomedical science, thanks to the hyper-conservatism exercised by NIH panels.

Please, go read Thomas Kuhn. I’m begging you.

Allow me to respectfully present the opposite view: please don’t read Kuhn. Or at least, don’t read him with the wide-eyed adoration that he’s afforded. Kuhn was dangerously anti-scientific and I place at his feet a great number of the current structural problems with science. His disdainful view of plodding ‘normal science’ and focus on revolutionary ideas is – IMO – a direct precursor to what I might call the ‘Nobel Prize or GTFO’ disease that permeates science now. You either get the cover of Nature and Science, or you’re a waste of time as a scientist.

And what’s wrong with incremental science? For one thing, it’s the way that a lot of science is done. As James Franklin1¬†points out, fields like ornithology or oceanography work on the incremental accumulation of knowledge and aren’t prone to paradigm shifts. Are they not science? Have we learned nothing from the explosion of scientific fraud in recent years as people are forced to come up with ever-sexier results or lose their funding? Or the recent push for replication, is that just plodding normal science? Kuhn makes us feel good – if no one’s listening to our ideas then it’s not because they’re bad, it’s just because of the establishment, man! – but his contribution to philosophy aside, he’s no basis for a useful approach to the work of science.

  1. In What Science Knows: And How It Knows It, a good book on the subject.