Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Judith Curry on "rock star" scientists: "the incentives in place don’t seem to reward humility in a scientist"

How might intellectual humility lead to scientific insight? | Climate Etc.
Scientists engaging with the public is a good thing; but the incentives in place don’t seem to reward humility in a scientist.

The policy relevance of climate science has created a caste of ‘rock star’ scientists who are frequently in the media and have established themselves in position of power (within the scientific field and to some extent in the policy arena). The career awards going to these rock star scientists are substantial; not just research awards from professional societies, but often cash awards in six or even seven figures. By the 1980′s standards, some of these rock star scientists would not necessarily have been particularly noteworthy or remarkable.

In the wake of ClimateGate, a common criticism of the scientists and those who defended them was arrogance. The value of science is not judged by whether or not the scientists are arrogant or humble; however arrogance and defensive behavior can blind a scientist to the idea that they might be wrong and lead to unjustified dismissal of skeptical arguments. When arrogance is institutionalized (e.g. the IPCC and AAAS have been criticized in this way), then the self correcting methods of science are put at risk.

What motivates an individual scientist can be complex; somewhere all research scientists started with a passionate curiosity about a scientific question. Over the course of trying to succeed in a scientific career, issues of promotion, salary increases, research funding and peer recognition can become substantial motivators, often at the expense of intellectual courage and other traits that made them a good research scientist in the first place. When conducting research on a politically controversial topic such as climate change, the potential for conflicts and challenges to intellectual integrity increases.

The scientists, universities, funding agencies, and professional societies seem to have a social contract whereby scientists with ‘flash’ are unduly rewarded.

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