Thursday, June 10, 2021

What's A Scientist?

From the longer article, The New Clerisy.

In The Revolt of the Public, Martin Gurri traces the exalted status of the modern scientist to the mythical figure of the early twentieth century renegade scientific genius, embodied most famously by Albert Einstein. Einstein, Gurri reminds us, was hardly a creature of the academy. He nearly dropped out of high school, and when he began publishing his scientific insights he was working not at a university but at the patent office. But Einstein’s singular genius, combined with his tenacious devotion to The Truth, made him first the equal and then the superior of every credentialed academic in the world. Like Copernicus, the intrepidness of Einstein’s spirit and the independence of his mind elevated him above the banal muck of human affairs, bringing him a step closer to the gods of nature.

This mythological image, Gurri writes, remains the template for our popular conception of the professional scientist. But the myth is wildly at odds with the reality of what science is today.

The modern scientific research industry is like a cross between a giant perpetual motion machine and a game of musical chairs. Scientific research is underwritten, in large part, by a steady stream of government funding. To keep the lights on in their labs, scientists need to tap into that stream. They do so by designing research projects that conform to whatever the government prioritizes at any particular moment. If, for instance, there was just a major terrorist attack and Congress was concerned about the threat of bioterrorism, scientific research that related to that concern would be likely to be fast tracked for funding, so it may be a good time for a savvy principal investigator to start pitching projects aimed at developing vaccines for bioengineered pathogens. The successful scientist is the one who is particularly adept at writing fundable grant applications pegged to some politically salient research objective, and then generating laboratory results that make some sort of incremental progress toward that objective to justify a renewal of that grant funding in the next cycle.

The modern professional scientist is thus less like Albert Einstein than like his co-workers at the patent office. He is a bureaucrat, albeit a highly technical one. His goal is, to be sure, to seek The Truth, but only within the very narrow parameters of what other bureaucrats and politicians have deemed to be questions worth asking.

Anthony Fauci is the Platonic form of the scientist-technician-bureaucrat, ...


The scientific establishment, like the political establishment, is a human institution. It’s not an impartial supercomputer, or a transcendent consciousness. It’s a bunch of people subject to the same incentives and disincentives the rest of us are subject to: economic self-interest, careerism, pride and vanity, the thirst for power, fame and influence, embarrassment at admitting mistakes, intellectual laziness, inertia, and ad-hoc ethical rationalization, as well as altruism, moral purpose, and heroic inspiration. Scientific experts deserve the respect due to them by dint of their education and experience, and they deserve the skepticism due to them by dint of their existence as imperfect actors functioning in complicated and deeply flawed human networks and organizations. ...


  1. Great timing on this post, Mark ....

    See the articles on Derek Lowe's respond to the FDA approval of the Aducamduab - Alzheimer treatment ( and the story on the "growth potential" for the mRNA vaccines to alleviate us all of any worry of disease and/or dismay ....


  2. I used to provide support at a research institute, this article is so true.

  3. and, like any other business dependent on the "kindness of strangers" (h/t Tennessee Williams), these institutes have their "rainmakers" who are held in high esteem for bringing home the bacon, so to speak.

    y'know, I used to be an IG in my salad days and one of our duties was to keep an eye out for potential problems and, if need be, propose an inspection to look into the matter before it erupted into a scandal worthy of the WaPoo...or worse. And, due to my gift of gab (h/t the Blarney Stone) I was adept at crafting such proposals and gaining the requisite signatures to allow the inspection to go ahead. In fact, on several occasions, I was told by colleagues: "you'll never get that approved" and my reaction was always: "hold my beer"...

    (BTW, I don't want anyone to think these proposals were frivolous in's just that it was such a target-rich environment that you needed triage skills to figure out which problem to address first and arguments along those lines would invariably ensue)