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.

Comments

  1. #1 Pepsi Critic
    July 7, 2010

    What’s your opinion about the new PepsiCo blog at SB? http://scienceblogs.com/foodfrontiers/?utm_source=bloglist&utm_medium=dropdown

    Other bloggers are leaving SB — what will you do?

  2. #2 Rob Knop
    July 7, 2010

    I think the real problem is a “one size fits all” attitude.

    And, indeed, that characterizes academia. Professors are expected to be everything. Money raisers, team supervisors, researchers, public communicators, technical communicators, teachers, bureaucrats. And, indeed, for that job, there’s a lot of skills needed, although I think that Universities could do well by re-thinking the one-size-fits-all model they have for tenure.

    A lot of science is done in groups nowadays. Everybody in the group has to be able to communicate to the rest of the group. *Somebody* in the group has to be able to communicate with the rest of the scientific community, and, depending on proclivities and the nature of the work, potentially with the rest of the public. We need to recognize this communication as a vital part of the scientific process, utterly needed, and skills that need to be selected for. All the talk about “selecting the best scientists”, as if a single set of criteria could adequately do that, is highly misguided. Too often, those criteria try to select for the focused nerd without any consideration of the ability to communicate. (For instance, the “evidence” that men are better scientists than women on average generally use some set of criteria about abstract thinking that “seems” like it would make for a better scientists, without evidence that it actually does.) But, we shouldn’t go the other way either: demand that every single scientist be Carl Sagan.

    As Chad says, the problem science has right now is with there being not enough Carl Sagans, and with the Carl Sagans not getting enough respect as “real” scientists. Yeah, we don’t want to go too far the other way, but right now that’s what we need to work on more.

  3. #3 ponderingfool
    July 7, 2010

    As Chad says, the problem science has right now is with there being not enough Carl Sagans, and with the Carl Sagans not getting enough respect as “real” scientists. Yeah, we don’t want to go too far the other way, but right now that’s what we need to work on more.
    ******************************************************************
    The thing is does the rest of society really respect scientists who don’t work at top universities or companies? Interviewers seem to go for people at name institutions. To me that is because that is who society sees on “top”.

    Steven Jay Gould was aided by the fact he was a Harvard Professor. Would Carl Sagan have had the impact if he wasn’t at Harvard and then Cornell? Neil deGrasse Tyson without the affiliation with the Hayden Planetarium and American Museum of Natural History?

    Thus are scientists the reason or a mirror of the society in which they exist? Likely it is a two-way street but lots of talented scientists at non-major research universities who can communicate are available to MSM but are not called upon.

    I agree within the sciences we need to do a better job of appreciating the differing career paths one can take after getting a PhD, especially given the numbers dictate that most can’t be professors at research universities. I am selfish in that, as I have taken such an “alternative” path. However, in that we need to appreciate science is not separate from society but part of it.

  4. #4 maxwell
    July 7, 2010

    I think the comparison of a ‘good communicator’ to one of the four most influential scientists of the 20th century is a bit counter-productive. If we want to make generalizable statements about ‘scientists’ or ‘science’ it’s probably a good not to use the upper 0.01% of scientists represented by these four men to make such an argument. It is highly likely that no one person will live up to the accomplishments of those men, but that will not stop society from needed scientific results explained to them.

    If the question is whether or not needing strong communication skills are keeping ‘good thinkers’ out of science, we ought to be talking about the middle 2/3’s of scientists based on their scientific accomplishments. That’s where the brunt of scientific progress is being made and where it would be felt if the scientific endeavor was hurting.

    Just my two cents.

    Cheers.

  5. #5 Moshe
    July 7, 2010

    One minor quibble with what you are saying, which has nothing to do with your main point. I agree with you that communication skills are important for scientists in their work, and the clarity of thought required is also correlated with good science. But, this all has to do with communicating with other scientists, which does not necessarily translate to decent communication skills with the public. One may even argue that there is some tension with good communication skills with the public, because we speak a different language, and have different ways of thinking (e.g much more precise) when we discuss science with colleagues. All these tendencies become obstacles to overcome when you try to discuss your work with outsiders. Everyone who communicated even briefly with the public knows that there is some coarsening and simplifying involved, and constructing a compelling narrative etc etc. All of this is not bad, but it does involve a completely different set of skills from merely being a decent communicator.

    As a side comment, failure to notice the difference also results in distorted re-telling of the history of science. For example, I suspect that the role of the famous thought experiments in the discovery of relativity is not all that central, and at least as central a role is played by obscure differential geometry, which alas is not quite as easy story to tell.

  6. #6 Leah D. Gordon
    July 7, 2010

    As a communicator, I have found myself to be the “translator,” if you will for the public on behalf of researchers, and formerly civil engineers. Working with them has helped move their messages forward.

    Post grad school, a researcher begins to deal with IRB’s, grant proposals, and other logistics a PI and/or support staff may have taken the lead on. Communication is not a commonly acquired skill researchers receive formal training.

    If you don’t have the communication skills, ask a communication person for help. You need a plan that will turn research into practice.

  7. #7 Alex
    July 7, 2010

    As a student of science/engineering I feel like poor communication skills may be enough of a factor to prevent me from pursuing the field any longer, despite my intense interest.

  8. #8 Chad Orzel
    July 7, 2010

    Steven Jay Gould was aided by the fact he was a Harvard Professor. Would Carl Sagan have had the impact if he wasn’t at Harvard and then Cornell? Neil deGrasse Tyson without the affiliation with the Hayden Planetarium and American Museum of Natural History?

    Of course, Michio Kaku is on every other goddamn program on the Science Channel, and he’s at CCNY. And the Mythbusters guys are just special effects artists.

    The institutional name helps, but there are a lot of other factors that go into science communication success. It’s not all about the name on the pay stub.

    One may even argue that there is some tension with good communication skills with the public, because we speak a different language, and have different ways of thinking (e.g much more precise) when we discuss science with colleagues. All these tendencies become obstacles to overcome when you try to discuss your work with outsiders. Everyone who communicated even briefly with the public knows that there is some coarsening and simplifying involved, and constructing a compelling narrative etc etc. All of this is not bad, but it does involve a completely different set of skills from merely being a decent communicator.

    I don’t buy that at all.
    The skills that you use to communicate with other scientists are very closely related to the skills you use to communicate with the general public. You need a little additional judgment regarding the appropriate level, but the central things that distinguish good research talks and papers from bad are the same things that distinguish good public talks and articles from bad. Clarity of thought, organization of material, and presentation style are essential to all forms of communication– if you can give a good research talk, you’re more than half the way to giving a good public talk.

    As a side comment, failure to notice the difference also results in distorted re-telling of the history of science. For example, I suspect that the role of the famous thought experiments in the discovery of relativity is not all that central, and at least as central a role is played by obscure differential geometry, which alas is not quite as easy story to tell.

    General or special relativity?
    I agree that general relativity is largely about developments in differential geometry (namely “Einstein learned differential geometry”), but the original work on special relativity is all about clock synchronization and grids of meter sticks and that sort of stuff.

  9. #9 Rod Livingston
    July 7, 2010

    The problem may run deeper than just skill. A scientist friend from Peru who was an excellent communicator in English and Spanish once said that Spanish is an absolutely terrible language for communicating technical concepts. The appropriate words are just not there to convey the subtleties. Conversely French is excellent for conveying emotions and more spiritual concepts.

  10. #10 Moshe
    July 7, 2010

    I don’t think we are going to agree on this point. Being a good lawyer or a good poet also involves good communication skills, but different ones. Being good communicator to your colleagues may involve vaguely the same principles, but as a practical matter, you have to acquire quite a few additional skills, and shed a few of your basic instincts, if you are going to be effective in communicating to the general public. Even teaching is quite a bit different than giving a research talk…

    On the side note, I take your point on special relativity. Still, it is the exception, the scientific process generally does not take place in the pre-mathematical world of science exposition. That exposition is almost always an after-the-fact construction.

  11. #11 Paul
    July 8, 2010

    Thanks for considering my comment. I do think it can lead to problems if too much emphasis is placed on additional skills like communicating, writing or public speaking, especially as those skills are much easier to evaluate and more common then good critical thinking skill so it’s easy for those who do the hiring to settle on good communicators. If this becomes a common practice I believe scientific progress will suffer as a result.

    Whether this is already happening I can’t tell. Perhaps it has something to do with lack of progress, there does seem to be a lot of groupthink in theoretical physics for example, it could be a symptom of this problem.

    Also it’s hard to argue anything from examples as we simply don’t know if there were brilliant people who could have moved the field forward but were crowded out of scientific establishment.

  12. #12 Dave
    July 8, 2010

    let the scientists be scientists,team them up with a English major to do the communications work.result,more employed English major’s and more real science output.

  13. #13 Karen
    July 15, 2010

    I have wondered if a related issue is causing a problem. Our colleges and universities have added many more general course requirements to degrees. Diversity, technology, interdisciplinary and other general degree requirements have either been added or increasingly defined. At the same time, science marches onward, requiring a broader knowledge base even at the undergraduate level.

    What happens at the intersection for those students with a deep interest and perhaps talent in science, but weaknesses in the other areas? In today’s science climate, there really aren’t ways into research other than through the gate keeper provided by degree systems. Likewise, our high schools are set up to produce more of a generalist than to support those who have a strong interest in the sciences.

    It’s easy enough for a humanities major to avoid doing much science in school. The converse is not true. It strikes me that for those earlier scientists who attended univeristy, both their early education and university years were more suited to focusing on the science.

    This relates to the communication issue as this often means that the science inclined are often put in a position of being evaluated on their communication in area that are areas of weakness for them, those areas where communications are often based on subjective evaluation. For some, this is merely something to get though. For others, it may put a major roadblock on their path into science.

    The difficulty many humanities majors have in science communications is unlikely to affect their career path – colleges accomodate them by offering them easier science courses and the required courses make up a very small portion of their total. Difficulties in the current level of non science core course requirements may end a science career before it begins.

  14. #14 MRW
    July 16, 2010

    I don’t think that communication skills are holding science back in any substantial way, but I don’t see how your examples really support that.

    The examples suggest (weakly, anecdotally) that there is a correlation between those who have made a large impact and those who have been effective communicators. What they don’t show is whether that is because of some correlation between scientific and communication effectiveness or whether that is because poor communicators were stifled before they could contribute.

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