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How to answer the question of who is the better scientist.

Posted Feb 21, 2020

Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels.
Success in science, like in music, is not just about popular name brands.
Source: Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels.

“So she’s a lot better than you, huh?” This question was directed at me this year at a bar, when I was out with an academic colleague and a non-academic friend. We had just explained that my academic colleague, who was exactly my age, had been in a tenure track faculty position at a major U.S. research institution for several years, while I had been bouncing from year-to-year contracts working in research groups directed by more senior people. The intuition was that, because my friend had gotten a good job while I had struggled to find permanent work, she must be objectively better at the job we both do.

Of course, I think that my friend and colleague is quite good at her job, and was well deserving of a research position. But I had never thought of her as “better than me.” We have very different skill sets. I spent a lot of time learning about dynamic systems and emotions. She spent a lot of time learning about a different area of social psychology. This person might have imagined that there’s some sort of standard, “objective” test that can tell hiring committees who is the better scientist. But there isn’t. There’s no purely objective way to compare new knowledge about first impressions, romantic attachment, prejudice and stereotyping, or any of the dozens of other topics that fall under the umbrella of social psychology.

This friend’s comment stuck with me because it was rude, but also because it seemed to reflect a similar bias in the way psychologists talk about each other. Scientists routinely talk about “rock star” graduate students, researchers, and labs. They are nervous to talk to other scientists with the rock star label, and get giddy when they are noticed or praised by them. This prestige culture can be detrimental to our science, as the emphasis on Big Name researchers often means that people associated with that fame—collaborators and students—get preferential treatment and an inside track to a career, while outsiders with great ideas have difficulty getting a foothold in the scientific profession.

But to me, the “rock star” label is a telling one, because I think it provides a better metaphor for success in science. When we think of a rock star in music, do we automatically think that person is the best musician? When we look at who is at the top of the Billboard charts, do we think that’s the “objectively” best music out there? No, of course not. A pop hit with millions of listens and sold out shows might be very simple musically, but have just “caught on” through timing and luck. A musically sophisticated, beautiful song might languish in obscurity because no one knows the artist or it takes a lot of background knowledge to appreciate what’s being done.

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Just like there's great music outside the mainstream, there's great science outside the Brand Name establishment.
Source: Photo by anna-m. w. from Pexels

People will argue for hours over the best metal band or best rapper; they’ll more likely just throw up their hands if you asked them to compare the best metal bands to the best rappers. What does “best” even mean in that context? Among psychologists applying for the same job, how would you even compare someone with expertise in stereotyping to someone with expertise in positive emotions? What would “best” even mean?

It’s also well known in the music industry that labels can matter a lot. Record labels often spent a lot of money trying to nurture and develop young talent, and being signed to a good label could mean having more resources for launching a career: booking at better venues, better marketing, better profits. In psychology, coming from the right university or research lab can have similar effects: “booking” in better journals, more professional contacts when organizing panels of speakers, and a greater likelihood of getting hired at a prestigious university.

Many modern music fans understand the “big label” dynamic, though, and they realize that they might be missing great music by just listening to what gets promoted on the radio. The rise of hipsters in U.S. culture has been driven in part by a lot of people adopting an aesthetic that rejects the obvious, polished choices put in front of them. It’s an aesthetic that looks for the cool underground band or rapper that not many people have heard of. People are beginning to realize that there are a lot of talented independent musicians out there making great songs, but it takes some effort to find them.

The tastes of scientists—and the people who hire them, promote them, and fund their work—need to go through a similar change. We need to realize that there are now thousands of Ph.D. researchers being produced in a given area every year. Great ideas are coming from many of them, including the ones who don’t come from name brand universities or research labs. We see who gets promoted by “the labels” in our top journals, the keynote sessions of our conferences, and hiring decisions at “elite” programs. But we often miss the quality work being put out by the “indie artists” at the margins. There are more great ideas outside of the “mainstream” lane of scientific content than we often imagine.

Photo by Dimitri Dim from Pexels
Great science is about insight, observation, and critical thinking--and no institution or person has a monopoly on those.
Source: Photo by Dimitri Dim from Pexels

It’s not as easy doing “indie science” as it is doing Big Name, well-funded science. But it’s also a great way to get outside of existing dogmas and explore new ideas. I’ve met so many interesting researchers who have great ideas, but whose work I’ve never seen in major journals. So this article is my call to action to all science producers and consumers. Remember that you can:

  1. Read articles from smaller, less recognized journals (e.g., Collabra) as opposed to the famous journals (e.g., Science)
  2. Promote—whether through funding, writing about, or supporting with your time as a participant—research coming out of the “indie” scene, as opposed to “label science” (e.g., Hamilton College over Harvard)
  3. Invite speakers for your conferences and community events from smaller research labs and institutions, as opposed to “The World’s Leading Expert”—because the truth is you might get a more thoughtful and insightful take from the indie scientist

If someone were to ask me again if my friend and colleague was “better” than me, I would tell him that I’m on the “indie” scene right now and he should hold his tongue because my first album already rocks.