Jan 23 2007

Mediocrity and Meritocracy

I love the movie Amadeus and its portrayal of Mozart. But my favorite character in the film is actually Salieri . Salieri is also a composer, and a contemporary of Mozart, although older and more established in his career. In Amadeus, Salieri fumes with jealousy and anger against God for cursing him with the dual burdens of his own mediocrity and the ability to recognize the astounding musical talent of Mozart, a talent not generally appreciated in his own time.

One of the aspects of the institutions of science that I find most appealing is that at its heart science is a meritocracy. Scientific claims and ideas survive because of their merits of logic, evidence, and elegance. This is not to say that there are no politics in the halls of science or academia – humans are political animals and politics follows us into every institution we inhabit. It is also not to suggest that forces of culture, authority, national pride, and other biases do not play a role in the social construct of science.

But – the dominant force within science is the shared genuine desire to describe nature as accurately as possible and to minimize error. Collectively, the methods of science bang ideas against the anvil of reality. The result is an albeit imperfect meritocracy of ideas.

Meritocratic systems are also inherently elitist, not egalitarian. We don’t get to vote for what we want to be true in science, the nicest person is not always right, and it is even possible to be right for the wrong reasons. Egalitarians would like every idea to be equally valid, every scientist to be of equal value. Science will have none of that. Also, those with greater resources of intellectual talent and those who work the hardest and longest are more likely to succeed.

I am often reminded of this aspect of science when confronting pseudosciences invented and promoted by amateurs. Now an amateur can make valuable contributions to science, and having a position of scientific authority is no guarantee of correctness. Some amateurs are inherently brilliant, are self-taught, and put in the hours and hard work. However, it is a simple fact that most people are mediocre at most things. Most amateur scientists are mediocre and not brilliant, and this is often compounded by the fact that they do not have any formal training. This may leave them blissfully ignorant of exactly how mediocre they are – or conversely of how smart, thoughtful, and hard working top scientists are.

Amateur pseudoscientists therefore often construct their childish theories and notions without first understanding the current state of science. They lack the rigor and care that is necessary to survive in a true intellectual meritocracy. They simply are clueless as to the gulf that separates them from the cutting edge of professional science. This has several results:

First, their scientific ideas are often hopelessly wrong, naïve, and even absurd.

Second, they are largely unaware of the first result.

Third, they assume that the scientific community has failed to even consider their basic observations or “insights.”

Fourth, the scientific community does not have the patience or inclination to deal with them. This leads to feelings of being shunned and ignored, which are almost always interpreted as fear and conspiracy (or, the most deluded of such cranks will conclude that their brilliance is just too far advanced to be understood by others).

I – and many science writers and even just amateur science aficionados – find ourselves in the position of Salieri. We love science as Salieri loved music, and we understand science enough to discern brilliance from delusion and insight from nonsense. Incidentally, even working scientists are in this position with respect to fields other than their own area of expertise. However, unlike Salieri, most of us are content with our mediocrity (yes, I never harbored any hopes of winning a Nobel prize) and are happy to vicariously thrill in the advances of science made by people who are more brilliant and hard working than us.

But there are many who are not content. They think they can do science without ever studying it sufficiently. They readily assume that working scientists are closed-minded idiots who lack their vision. They are simply too ignorant to notice their own ignorance. The halls of pseudoscience are as filled with such people as the audition lines of American Idol are filled with those poor deluded fools who think they can sing and that Simon Cowel doesn’t know true talent when he sees it.

And when they fail to succeed in the meritocratic world of science, they complain that science is not more egalitarian. They then ply their trade in the subculture of pseudoscience – a world that exists within the pages of paranormal tabloids, on conspiracy websites, and TV pseudodocumentaries (and unfortunately in certain fields that have managed to use political and social forces to gain a false legitimacy, such as so-called alternative medicine). A world that is egalitarian in that it celebrates “open mindedness” to such an absurd degree that it renders all ideas – no matter how childish or contrary to evidence – as equal.

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