Thursday, October 16, 2008

Serious Scientist Syndrome

FQXi (The Foundational Questions Institute) has announced an FQXi Inaugural Essay Contest: the nature of time is the theme. The first juried prize is 10,000 dollars. I posted also my own contribution to the contest (in the noble and unashamed hope that this could help me to survive few months as an indepedendent researcher). Unfortunately, I hurried too much so that I am not completely satisfied with the contribution: the candle from the cake that I have been baking for decades was still lacking. The candle can be found from the updated variant of the essay at my home page.

The contest has irritated the special class of scientists who use to call themselves serious. Serious physicists do not write essays about the nature of time or problems of quantum measurement theory or about the possible role of consciousness in physics or vice versa. They have been taught already during their student days that everything interesting about time, quantum, and consciousness has been said for long time ago. Serious scientists were especially angry that there exists an institution like FQXi allowing non-serious scientists to express their ideas publicly. FQXi indeed means a bad failure of the censorship so effectively realized in so called respected journals and even in electronic archives like But maybe this is not the sole reason for bad feelings: grapes are sour as also serious scientists know.

During these 31 years I have many times wondered what goes wrong when scientist becomes serious. The patient seems to have a perfectly normal IQ but for all practical purposes he is immune against any attempt to communicate from outside unless the message arrives from the higher levels of the institutional hierarchy and from the narrow field of his specialization. "Statement can be considered seriously only if it is written on silk paper" is what serious scientist believes. Science is extension of our senses and by this extreme narrowness of perceptive field the contributions of serious scientist to science are doomed to be rather modest. Social pressures dictate to high degree what serious scientist believes to be true or non-true: maybe the behavior of serious scientist might be seen as an expression of some kind of collective form of stupidity. Institutional stupidity: could it be this?

Serious scientist syndrome brings to my mind a TV document about a young boy who had the highest IQ measured hitherto. His mother had worked hardly to have a son with the world's highest IQ. The irony was that the boy did not understand anything about what ordinary people tried to communicate to him! Perhaps the reason was his belief that these people belong to some kind of inferior species. The young genius treated also his mother incredibly cruel manner: just for fun he threw some things on floor which his mother with ordinary IQ humbly picked up.

So: can one really regard a person intelligent if he does not have a slightest idea about what ordinary people around him are saying? Or about how civilized human being should treat his fellow human beings? Does single number really give an objective quantification of intelligence? Or asking the same question in different context: does a position and monthly salary in some academic institution make a researcher serious in the real sense of the word? Might there exist some other forms of intelligence besides that measured by the IQ tests? For instance, could one speak about spiritual intelligence providing ability to develop bird's eye of views, to avoid dogmatism and change beliefs if necessary, and most importantly: to listen other people irrespective of their position in the power pyramid?

In Thomas Mann's book Felix Krull expresses the distinction between marquis and waiter by saying that waiter is a profession which means hard work and ability listen other people. Very few marquises can work as waiters. Marquis is not a profession, it requires only polite manners learned in childhood and good waiter can without difficulties pretend of being marquis. Serious scientist is indeed like a marquis: monthly salary makes him serious, and even if he would never contribute anything interesting to science - as it often happens - he genuinely feels that people working passionately in science but without funding belong to some inferior race of which he calls crackpots.


Anonymous said...

> Unfortunately, I hurried too much so that I am not completely satisfied with the contribution

Matti, I saw that some people (e.g. Dr. Nath) uploaded also material complementary to their initial essays (Word files). This was done as attachments to subsequent posts. Maybe you can do the same? Good luck, Viorel.

Anonymous said...

Nowadays leaders all over the world speak of far more important things than IQ. F. ex. emotional intelligence, social intelligence are those things which determine if you are considered a good leader, not ordinary intelligence.

In our world of tomorrow there will be complexity problems. Already now interdishiplinary teachings arise like swamps in autumn. If we are to really understand our world we must study these complexities, and then IQ alone is a quite bad tool.

I think these questions are just irritating, and they will be gone by force in our near future.

Kea said...

As you can see, I am also alarmed by these kind of comments from the In crowd. I have decided to write an essay, too, simply because I need the money so badly. Thanks for putting this in words.

Matti Pitkänen said...

It seems that the theoretical physicists -thanks to the combination of reductionistic attitude and wunderkind syndrome- have lost the boat in many senses of the word. They have wonderful tools to solve difficult problems but they refuse to admit that these problems exist!

By looking at physics blogs one learns that most of contributors still hold the extremely naive view about intelligence as ability to manipulate symbols. Second equally naive belief is that fierceful competion is the best manner to produce science: what has happenened (or rather, not happened) in theoretical physics during the last decades shows how wrong this belief is. Something should be done to the education of theoreticians.

Matti Pitkänen said...

Dear Viorel,

thanks you for the hint! I added a little comment describing the candle and link to my homepage.