Over in yesterday’s communications skills post commenter Paul raises a question about priorities:
I wonder to what extent good writers, public speakers and communicators are being promoted in science in place of good thinkers – people who can challenge prevailing dogma, invent promising novel approaches to old problems, and who have the intuition needed for deducing correct theories from just a few observations.
I think of this as the “Weinstein Perelman Theory” because Eric Weinstein on Twitter has been pushing something similar with respect to Grisha Perelman turning down major math prizes. It or something like it comes up a lot when you start talking about scientists needing to be good communicators.
I agree that it is, in principle, a possible problem for science. I don’t see much evidence of it being an actual problem, though. In fact, if you look at the history of physics, most of the great physicists are also very successful communicators in one way or another.
If you think about the history of physics in the twentieth century, there are four names that (at least to me) jump out as possible Great Geniuses: Einstein, Bohr, Dirac, and Feynman. If we’re looking for traces of genius being held back by an excessive emphasis on communications skills, I hope we all agree that we can cross Feynman of the list of exhibits for the prosecution. Feynman may have had faults and problems, but a lack of ability to communicate was not one of them.
Einstein is another fairly easy one to dispense with. If anything, he’s an example of a genius whose career was made through his ability to communicate. Most of the ideas for Special Relativity were kicking around in the scientific community before 1905– there’s a reason it’s the “Lorentz-FitzGerald transformation,” not the “Einstein transformation”– but Einstein was the one who put them together in a compelling package and convinced the international physics community that they had to be correct. Abraham Pais in Subtle Is the Lord… offers effusive praise for the clarity of Einstein’s writing, especially in German, and his popular book on relativity is spare, but extremely clear.
The most obvious possible counter-example would be Dirac, who was (in)famously taciturn– see The Strangest Man for plenty of good anecdotes. Taciturn does not mean unable to communicate, though, and Dirac got along reasonably well as a scientist– his relativistic equation for the electron was accepted very readily, and most physicists in quantum optics make heavy use of the compact and elegant notation he developed. You can still find people who swear by Dirac’s book on quantum mechanics, too.
Bohr is the last best hope for an example of a transformative genius who lacked communications skills– his writing was so thick with qualifiers and throat-clearing as to be almost incomprehensible, and he apparently had a tendency to mumble and trail off inaudibly when speaking. And yet, he became a towering figure in 20th century physics not because of any mathematical prowess– all of the flashy mathematics of quantum theory was discovered by other people– but because he managed to get his ideas across to the community in a compelling way. He wasn’t much of a public speaker or writer of papers, but he was tenacious and evidently had some sort of charisma, because he worked with and was on good terms with basically everyone who was anyone between 1920 and 1950.
If you look at 20th century physics, those are four of the biggest names, with the best claims to being the kind of genius who can “challenge prevailing dogma, invent promising novel approaches to old problems, and who have the intuition needed for deducing correct theories from just a few observations.” All of them were, in their own way, effective at communicating their big ideas to other physicists, which is why they’re names to conjure with, and not obscure figures.
There’s a reason for this, of course, which is that communication and great science have the same starting point, which is clarity of thought. This is the truth behind the old saw “You never really understand something until you can teach it to somebody else.” In order to be able to communicate the key ideas of a subject to another person, you have to start with a very clear and deep understanding of what those key ideas are, and how they fit together.
This is also the key to making progress in science. Einstein’s relativity comes out of the fact that he thought about the problems of time and motion more clearly than anybody else– all of that tedious stuff about synchronizing clocks and universe-spanning grids of meter sticks and the like is absolutely essential to relativity. The odd effects of the theory are seen as inevitable once you take the time to clearly define exactly what you mean by measuring the positions and times of events in space and time.
Now, you could argue that none of these people (save maybe Feynman) had to deal with the modern academic system, as they were working a hundred years ago before the current “publish or perish” culture got established. Maybe that’s true, but I don’t really think Einstein would’ve had any trouble negotiating modern academic science.
There’s this persistent myth that real geniuses are somehow disagreeable, and that the problem of science is that we insist everybody be too damn nice. I’ve written about this before, and probably will again. Looking at what I know of the history of science, though, I find this pretty implausible. There are certainly some prickly characters– Newton was a real piece of work– but most of the historical physicists who are hailed as great geniuses were also quite successful socially and politically (this is part of why they’re hailed as great geniuses).
The fact is, ninety-plus out of a hundred people who think they are unconventional geniuses being stifled by social conventions are just crazy. When you look at the real geniuses of history, in physics at least (math may have more truly crazy people, I can’t really say), you almost never find anyone who lacked the communications or social skills needed to succeed in modern academic science.
It’s possible, I suppose, that we beat down or drove off people who could’ve made even more amazing and transformative discoveries than Einstein, Bohr, Dirac, and Feynman, and if we weren’t so insistent about scientists having communications skills, we’d all be living in space colonies around distant stars. I kind of doubt that, though. The reason recent progress in theoretical particle physics has been slow is that the problems we’re facing are really hard, and particularly that the experiments are so difficult to do, not that we’re scaring away geniuses.