seth roberts on scientists as wandering ants

I’m competing for postdoc funding from the National Institutes of Health; my career path, if I follow it to its logical culmination, will be regularly punctuated with similar competition. So I’m keenly interested in claims like this:

Scientists don’t like thinking of themselves as wandering ants. But that’s how they are most effective. This goes against human psychology because wandering (Nassim Taleb calls it “tinkering”) is low status and lonely. The payoff is too rare and too unclear. It isn’t supported by powerful institutions, such as research universities and medical schools. Imagine an ant who says “I know where food is!” This is a way to get many ants to follow him, to feel important, to have high status, to get support from his employer. That’s why he does it. But he doesn’t know. The effect on the rest of us, the potential beneficiaries of progress, is that instead of having a thousand ants wandering everywhere, we have a thousand ants following one ant who doesn’t know what he’s doing. (Full post.)

This is one reason to move away from neuroimaging research: It’s slow and expensive. You can’t explore cause-effect space as finely. There are, of course, lots of good reasons to do neuroimaging research, and there is good, illuminating neuroimaging research out there — but there are big drawbacks. In light of that, it’s interesting and weird that cognitive neuroscientists seem to think that neuroimaging is required to get grants. (I have no reason to think they’re wrong about this, but I haven’t experienced it myself.) Wouldn’t granting agencies rather fund more, cheaper research, all things being equal?

Note: I neither endorse nor deny the assertion that my boss, or any other scientist I know, is an ant who doesn’t know what he or she is doing.


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