Idolatry in Science

Gary Marcus recently celebrated Noam Chomsky in an essay about the famous linguist’s life and influence on the field of linguistics over the past fifty years. There is no doubt that Chomsky has had tremendous impact on American intellectual life over the years, from work on language to political and philosophical ideas. However, Gary Marcus’s description of Chomsky’s influence on the field and his colleagues is somewhat troubling and unfortunately not unique to Chomsky but prevalent in the sciences. In every scientific sphere, it seems, a handful of individuals have excessive sway; these one-percenters are revered to an extent that their opinions go unquestioned (unchallenged) at best or as dogma, at worst. As Marcus points out, young linguists have a hard time studying what Chomsky finds uninteresting, the tragedy of which manifests itself in those people either not getting jobs and recognition in the field, or abandoning their interests in favor of Chomsky’s: “A good way for a young linguistics graduate student to make a name is to develop an intriguing idea that Chomsky mentions in one of his footnotes; it’s a riskier move to study something that Chomsky doesn’t find to be important.”

This is also the case in the life sciences, where such idols serve on funding committees and editorial boards of journals, which not only serve as gatekeepers to young investigators’ professional lives, but also have huge influence on the technological and medical progress in Western society.

Growing up (i.e. in college), I had the impression or dream that scientists were in many ways removed from the regular vices that the rest of humanity was suffering from. I mean the need for social status. The typical scientist, in my imagination, was a disheveled person wearing ragged, ripped clothes, sometimes overdue on a shower. Presumably these people are so immersed in their thoughts and experiments that they simply don’t care to follow social customs; they have no need to impress people with fancy designer clothes; they forget to be social and polite not because they’re rude or too cool, but simply because they’re living on another plane, etc. Scientists don’t care to know what Lindsay Lohan did last night because they don’t look up to celebrities in the way that others do.

That was my imagination; the reality is not as cute. As the Chomsky example shows, scientists do have idols and status symbols. The most obviously silly status is what journals one publishes in. Over the years, a handful of journals have accumulated such reverence that even one paper published in them can make a scientist’s career. Publishing in Nature or Science is the equivalent to owning a Porsche or dating a supermodel or [fill in whatever people want for the sole reason that other people want it]. Everyone is guilty. Knowing that this is a problem is not enough; I am still impressed by papers published in such journals and would be ecstatic if my work appeared in those glossy pages. (The counterargument is that top journals publish scientific papers based on their merit, so it only makes sense that those publications should be bellwethers of good science. For this to be true, the editors at those journals would have to be blind to the authors’ and universities’ identities (which they’re not).

As far as idolatry goes, the real victims may be scientific theories that get shut down simply because the Chomskys of science don’t care for them (or have their own counter theories); or young scientists who need to publish and get grants (“the rich get richer”). I wish Dr. Chomsky all the best for his birthday and future, and can only hope for the sake of science that the old maxim attributed to Max Planck does not stay true much longer: Truth never triumphs — its opponents just die out.