Jul 20, 2009

Eight Ways To Spot A Mediocre Scientist.

It's easy to spot a poor scientist. Lack of publications, inability to communicate, and blatant incompetence are hard to overlook for more than a few hours. Sorting the mediocre from the first-class, however, is much more difficult. Brilliance sometimes looks like biasedness, and vice versa. Sub-par people may still publish good papers through a combination of luck, the right working environment, the right supervisor, and good funding. Eloquence can mask shallowness (for a while.) On the other hand, smart guys may be too young for a strong track record (or may have been unlucky), may be deliberately soft-spoken, may use self-deprecating humour, or may agree to stupid statements out of politeness.

One would need to have excellent insight into the relevant field in order to recognize true outperformance. If you're teaming up with a collaborator across domains (e.g. a computer scientist teaming up with a linguist) you will lack this level of insight. (If not, why team up?) Getting stuck with a mediocre scientist as a collaborator, student, supervisor or colleague is guaranteed to cause frustration, a dent in your career, lots of extra work, and mild to severe psychological damage. Over the years, I learned, the hard way, that mediocre scientists (henceforth MS) share some traits among themselves, which can serve as a early warnings:

1. Monologue
The MS likes to elaborate. Droning on and on, the MS will not have time to listen. Make casual, but relevant, statements, and check later whether he remembers any of them. Look for email responses to simple questions of over four pages in length.

2. Quirky Categorization; Meta-Theory
The MS has usually developed idiosyncratic systems of categories for several domains. He regards these, as well as his general meta-theory of scientific insight, as absolutely essential in order to get any work done. Without using those categories, nothing makes sense. Anyone not using his "system" (i.e. everyone except himself) has no chance to make real intellectual progress. He will, however, freely share this insight with anyone (remotely) interested (cf. point 1).

3. BSing outside of his Speciality
When discussing topics outside of his field of expertise, (which he will be eager to do, cf. point 1), the MS will quickly talk some form or another of utter BS, like, e.g. US per capita GDP being hundred times bigger than global average. The MS may be aware, and admit, that he has only the most casual knowledge of the domain in question, but will nevertheless deliver his statements with utmost certainty (cf. next point).

4. Preaching, Teaching
The MS is sure of what he says. Absolutely. He has had this discussion a hundred times before, with people smarter than you, and none of those people were able to provide solid counterarguments to his position. Sure, some tried, some tried really hard, but after a few hours of discussion, or a few 5-page-long email exchanges, their arguments all melted away, and they admitted defeat. Or at least stopped responding. Check the archives. The MS is as sure of his access to privileged knowledge as a maths teacher in front of grade-schoolers, and it shows.

5. Misses Appointments
When working with you, the MS will be late, will, at first, rush, to make up for the time lost, but then slow down, and suggest having a coffee or two together. Then he suddenly realizes he needs to be elsewhere, and leaves early.

6. Belittles Textbooks, People, Publications, Institutions, Methods...
Nothing is good enough for the MS. He will give you an earful about the textbooks being confusing, too detailed or too superficial, everyone except himself lacking true insight (cf. point 2), publications being based on flawed methodologies, institutions funding the wrong kind of people, and so on and so forth. This is not the usual whining of the underprivileged - he himself may have good funding. It's more of an aesthetic complaint.

7. Doesn't Follow the Literature
When Caliph Umar the Great ordered the books of the Library of Alexandria to burned for heating bathing water, he is said to have stated that "they will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, in which case they are superfluous." (Wikipedia says this is a hoax.) The MS, however, has an analogous view of the literature in his field (the "Koran" being his own work, in particular his meta-theory, cf. point 2). Pick his brain, and you will find he's completely unaware of publications which could help him a lot in his efforts.

8. Would Prefer to do His Own Stuff
The MS is an independent spirit. He will not compromise. He will not team up. He demands flexibility. He will not precommit. He will not allow anyone to "interfere" with his work. He'll play it by ear. While all this can also happen with a truly great mind working in a destructive environment, in combination with the seven points above it's an indication that you have an MS in front of you.