Why Good Scientists Are Boring & Poor Ones Are Famous

To spoof a popular personal finance book, we may call this law:

The poor scientist, rich charlatan law.

Or, we also call it:

  • Uknown scientist, popular guru law

They’re similar anyway.
The law states that people who do and share good science are bound to be unknown, poor, and boring.

And those who become famous and rich instead do or popularize poor science.

Let’s see why:

Good Science Is Antithetical to Fame

Good science is inherently for niche audiences.

That’s because the traits of good science stand in direct opposition to anything that helps the charlatans build an audience or a following.

That is because most modern science is:

  1. Tentative VS definitive, and tentativeness reeks of “low confidence” while “definitive” feel high power.
    It’s charisma, conviction, confidence -anything that exudes power and certitude- that builds audiences
  2. Complex VS simple, and complex doesn’t sell. What sells are simple, brief, and catchier “laws”, “rules”, or slogans
  3. Conditional VS absolute, which is a subset of “tentative”, while what sells are the “always” snake oil that work in all conditions or environment, and cure everything
  4. Incremental VS revolutionary, and incremental doesn’t attract the big titles, scoops, and news.
  5. Supportive VS miraculous. Science is fundamental to be effective at life, but not enough to win. Lots of effort is also almost mandatory to achieve anything worthwhile, as is luck.
    Good science embraces that truth, and that doesn’t sell. What sells are the shortcuts, the cheat codes, the utopian solutions of “think big to achieve big”

The good scientist knows all of this, and acts accordingly.

When he speaks he is more tentative, adds conditions, maybes, confounding factors, and the ubiquitous “more research is needed”.

When offering advice to achieve goals, he stresses the importance of long-term adherence, of exceptions and limitations, and of the possibility of failure -and who wants to hear that?-.

So when the good scientist steps into the self-help arena, or even just into the public discourse, he is powerless against all the loud-screaming confidence players that include the politicians, the charlatans, the self-righteous virtue signalers, and the gurus:

Tony Robbins is a popular self-help guru who often spins and misquotes studies

Good Scientists Are Low Power

High-power personalities build audiences.

And low power ones, don’t.

The reason why good scientists don’t become famous is that they’re low power and low narcissism.
The good scientist is inherently low power because science always comes before the scientist.

And the reason why charlatans and gurus become famous is because they seek power and are high narcissism.
The gurus and charlatans, contrary to the scientists, put themselves right, left, and center -and far ahead of “science”, which is only a mere tool of influence and a means to an end for them-.
What matters most with the guru is his own interpretations, his own beliefs… Science only serves as a crutch for power when he needs an appeal to (scientific) authority.

The good scientist instead is like a prime minister in absolute monarchy: a figurehead, a spokesperson.
Just like a prime minister always takes a step back and bows to the ultimate authority the king, so the scientist always takes a step back and bows to science as the ultimate authority.

good scientist approach to bow to science

Or, if you prefer, the scientist is like a grunt soldier, serving a bigger mission.
A cog in a far bigger wheel. A crucial cog, but a nameless cog in the service of the wheel’s own forward motion.
The guru is not cool with that, of course.
The guru wants to be the loud engine that uses the cog, or the general who gets the accolades and monopolizes the spoils.

Playing the good science game also binds you to bowing to future scientists.
It’s like playing an “ace take it all game”.
You’re only as right as the next paper or research.
And if they contradict you, good science calls for your deference.
You must relinquish all your authority, and bow to the new evidence.

Good Scientists Are High Conscientiousness (Boring)

The split “poor scientist, rich charlatan” starts with self-selection bias.

Good scientists are boring.

Remember that science is mostly incremental, tentative, low power?
Well, it also happens to be tedious at times, pouring over data and data analysis, often to only confirm what’s already known, or what seemed simple logic to begin with.

That type of work almost demands a personality that is cool with long, detailed, and attentive work without the big champagne bottle in the end.

Gurus Are High Narcissism (Charismatic)

Good science also self-selects against charlatans.

The inherent traits and work of good science are charlatan-repellant because they seek the shortcut to fame and riches.

And because they’re rather come across as powerful, than be thorough.

So, instead of doing good science, they appeal to science as a tool to be more authoritative, and more dominant.

See an example:

Guru-Dom Requires Bad Science

Science power dynamics explains why guru overlap with charlatans.

And it’s because the game of fame and influence requires putting the self before the quality of information.

That is almost a natural rule.
To become famous the guru has to put himself first, which inevitably leads to poor science since, as we’ve seen, good science inherently puts science first.

If the guru doesn’t put himself before science, he is almost precluded from even becoming a guru.
Guru-dom is about fame, confidence, and leadership -the more manipulative and sometimes value-taking type of leadership-.

It’s simply how the game of confidence (and con-artistry) works.
Gurus, preachers, and self-help authors are almost invariable sloppy with how they use science because they must sound confident and definitive.

The More Popular, The More Manipulative

The sloppy science of the self-help guru is actually one of the best cases of bad science.

But, as a general rule, the more personal power one seeks, the more he must puts himself above science.
And the more power one seeks, the more it helps to be ruthless and manipulative towards both his audience, and science.

So there is almost an inverse correlation between personal popularity and quality of information.

The guru seeks personal power, fame, and riches.
He only uses science as a tool to sound more credible.

Fame Requires Bastardization of Science

The charlatan needs conviction, easy solutions, and slogans.

The guru, who is a level below the charlatan, needs motivation and good feelings.
He needs to instill a “yes, of course you can” attitude, and that’s not always possible or easy with proper science.

For the guru, at the very best, research that leads to fame requires the”bastardization” of science.

Let’s see an example:

Bastard Science: Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell is a pop psychologist who sells millions of books.

This is no dig on Gladwell, he’s an incredible writer.

And some parts of his books are actually good.
He even added value with his own intuition and interpretations of science because he’s a smart guy.

But still, to achieve the success he’s achieved, he had to bastardize science.

By “bastardization” we refer to a mix of techniques that include:

  • Slogan-ization, or turning complex findings into simple one-liners
  • Law-ization, or turning complex findings into “laws” and “rules”
  • Wow-ization, such as, all the various marketing/persuasive tactics to make science more striking, catchy, or “shocking”.
    • Unexpected outcome, the technique of finding the contorted logic or scientific principle that surprises readers and catches them off guard
    • Cognitive biases exploitation: and why this thing that you and everyone else thought was obvious is instead… Wrong
  • Inspirational spins, so that readers can feel twice good with his books: they’re reading and learning psychology, while also feeling great
  • Spin-monstering: when you start from a correct principle or technically solid research, but disfigure it to the point that it becomes BS

Unluckily, Gladwell was also not above “spin monstering”.

10.000 Times Bastard

It’s telling that Gladwell’s most famous contribution was also one of his biggest bastardization sins: “the 10.000 rule” -or, better, the “10.000 hours myth“-.

The “rule” states that to get good at anything, you need to spend 10.000 hours at it.
See the bastardization techniques in there?

  • Simple: the sloganization part
  • Ubiquitous: doesn’t matter the field, the rule is almost magical, crops up everywhere
  • General: applies to everyone, doesn’t matter what’s your starting level
  • Easy: to get good, just do something for 10.000 hours

Note that Anders Ericsson, the original researcher behind the 10.000 hours myth, never became nearly as famous as Gladwell.
And that’s because he never bastardized his research into a simple “rule”.
Ander’s wonderful book “Peak“, at the time of writing one of the best books on the science of achievement, is almost a forgotten gem.

Guru Researchers: The Exceptions?

More than an exception, it’s a different, in-between breed.

The guru researchers are more driven, sometimes more power hungry and narcissistic.
But they’re also smart, and more conscientious than your average charlatan and self-help guru.

Their drive for fame and recognition leads them to some of the more marketing-oriented approaches and tactics of the gurus.
That is a risk to their reputation and status as good scientists though, because those tactics can come back to bite them on their asses as they stand on their guru soap-boxes.

Let’s see some examples:

Amy Cuddy & Angela Duckworth

Power poses and hormonal changes? Turned out, not…

Take a look at some of the most recent pop-psychology myths.

And what do you see?

It’s scientists who sought personal fame, sometimes putting personal success before science.

  • Amy Cuddy and power poses: Cuddy stumbled upon a finding that seemed “revolutionary” rather than “incremental”. Almost too good to be true. But rather than making twice sure, she jumps on it (and jumps the gun), gives it a catchy name, frames it as a women’s-empowerment thing (“link to fad” copywriter Joseph Sugarman calls it), and starts making the public appearance rounds.
    A scientist who prioritized accuracy over personal fame would have instead said “the findings of this first research are extraordinary and hope-inspiring, but more research is needed to confirm them and shed more light”.
  • Angela Duckworth and Grit: her research shows that “grit” impacts results -of course it does, it’s pure logic and it’s well known-.
    The impact in her original research was small though. But she didn’t let any of that slow her personal quest for fame.
    She twists her research it into an inspirational narrative around work-ethics, always popular-, and a “will to win” against all odds type of message -so inspirational-.

There are also doubts about whether “Grit” is not just “conscientiousness” under a different name, but Duckworth also brushed that aside on her way to the TED talks.

Duckworth also wrote in her book Grit:

grit beats the pants off I.Q.

See the simplification, sloganeering, and inspirational spin-monstering in that?

Most certainly now how a good scientist would speak if he cared to keep status and reputation among other good scientists.
But she wasn’t out for reputation and respect among the 0.1% of good scientists who value thoroughness. She was out for the mass audience that values inspiration and sloganeering.

Zimbardo: “Me’s” Bigger Than Science

Bad science, power dynamics, and fame before accuracy also became apparent during the psychology replication crisis with some of the biggest names in academia.

For example:

  • Bargh defends priming: when research on priming started to fail replication, Bargh wrote a scathing article against those who criticized or failed to replicate his findings. He later retracted that article, and now it’s out again
  • Zimbardo defends the prison experiment: Zimbardo became famous thanks to his “Stanford Prison Experiment“. And when people made good points about the experiment being unscientific, he lashed out in anger

What do you spot?
Both Bargh and Zimbardo became famous for their findings. That was their power.
So when those findings came under (legit) criticism, they defended themselves and their work, putting their own power before what should be the ultimate king of the model scientist: the scientific process itself.

You don’t need to defend yourself or your results.
Just let the science pan out, and the truth will emerge. If it’s on your side: good. If not, you learned something more.
Of course, that’s easy to say, but hard to apply.
Barg and Zimbard fell for that trap because, in truth, everyone has an ego and putting science first is hard.
Being a good scientist is hard.

Seligman, Pinker, & Freud

Then a look at some “famous” psychologists and academics:

  • Martin Seligman
  • Steven Pinker
  • Sigmund Freud

What do you spot?

It’s personalities that relentlessly sought fame, leadership positions, or personal power.

Sigmund Freud went so off the rails that he didn’t even do science.

Martin Seligman is a proper scientist.
But he didn’t become “popular” by putting his head down and crunching numbers -or being the “foundation guy” as Pfeffer calls it-.
He became famous because he relentlessly sought positions of power and leadership, and actively put his name forward as much as he could.
Seligman openly admits in his more autobiographical book that he wasn’t cut for the more methodical aspects of research. But as he grew more powerful he had high-conscientious people in the background that would take care of being methodologically sound.
Such as: he had “foundation guys” below him. And those foundation guys allowed him to focus on building the Seligman skyscraper: highly visible, and soaking the limelight.

Steven Spinker is the most scholarish of them all.
But read his (otherwise wonderful book) Enlightenment Now -or just simply check that review- and you’ll see the signs of me-me-me narcissism all over it.

By Lucio Buffalmano

Lucio Buffalmano is a social scientist, learner, and free spirit of many disparate interests.
While on The Power Moves Lucio follows its mission and focuses on practical issues and individual self-development, he uses this space for unbound, free mental roaming.

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