The A@#hole Scientist

Can a vexing sense of entitlement actually aid in the pursuit of knowledge?

By Aaron James | February 1, 2013

DOUBLEDAY, OCTOBER 2012The mechanical engineer Thomas Midgley (1889–1944) did some pretty unsavory deeds with the help of his scientific reputation. If his promotion of climate-changing CFCs was an honest mistake, the same cannot be said of his brazen advancement of “anti-knock” lead additives. Midgely arguably knew there was compelling evidence that auto workers were suffering dearly from exposure to the neurotoxins. Yet he offered misleading public demonstrations of their supposed safety anyway, knowingly exploiting the public’s trust in science for personal profit.

Midgley qualifies as an “asshole” according to one definition of the term. An asshole (henceforth abbreviated “a-hole”) is a guy (or gal) who allows himself special advantages in social relationships out of an entrenched (and mistaken) sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people. In my latest book, Assholes: A Theory, I develop this definition, along with the pros and cons of this distinctive kind of vice.

While Midgley failed his obligations as a scientist to society at large, scientists are often a-holes to each other. Well-known examples include Edward Teller’s famous machinations against J. Robert Oppenheimer, or Thomas Edison’s proprietary manipulations against Nikola Tesla. There is also a plethora of workaday a-hole moves such as: denying funding to one’s competitors, disparaging them or their results, getting them fired, delaying publication of their work—all simply for vanity, supposed superiority, or envy dressed up as rightness.

If Midgley, Teller, and Edison were a-holes, they weren’t necessarily bad scientists. When famous scientists blather on in public as amateurish philosophers, they aren’t necessarily any worse as biologists or physicists. And when the International Panel on Climate Change suppressed evidence and celebrated the deaths of its critics, setting back its own good cause, its mistakes were mainly political rather than scientific in nature.

All of this poses a more difficult question: can one be an a-hole in the practice of science itself, even in its more private pursuits, such as running an experiment or analyzing data?

It might seem not. The scientific method has strict standards for assessing a hypothesis, but the standards aren’t plainly moral or interpersonal obligations. And if anything, acting like an a-hole can be a boon for science. When Robert Millikan determined the charge of the electron in the early 20th century, did he wrongfully neglect data points (in an error that took 30 years to correct), or did he appropriately trust his instincts, even if from sheer overconfidence? A scientist driven by ego and entitlement might work longer hours, more rigorously analyze data, and seek grander, more powerful explanations—all in the firm conviction that he is today’s Isaac Newton. Yet if he gets big results that pan out, who cares? We are in his debt all the same.

Even so, I submit that there is a line between helpful scientific bravado and a-hole territory. Suppose someone disregards the theory of his rival mainly because it is his rival’s theory and not his own, or ignores data that stands to undermine his favored hypothesis, because he fancies himself a “game changer.” That would go far beyond what one is entitled to think and do in good scientific practice, and for assholish reasons.

And, yes, such a-hole moves can still be a force for good, by leading to major breakthroughs. But this will be so only at the margins of scientific practice.

That is because there is only so much time in the day to figure things out for oneself, let alone to labor in the search for novel results. Scientists therefore have to see themselves as part of a common endeavor and rely on each other’s judgments. In that case it matters a great deal whether and how reliably scientists faithfully submit themselves to the authority of science’s best methods, even in their “private” researches. There may be a few lucky a-holes. But science won’t be the amazing force for good it is unless scientists in the thousands cooperatively labor in humility before the demands of reason. 

Aaron James is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of California, Irvine. He was awarded the Burkhardt Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, spending the 2009–10 academic year at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. He’s an avid surfer (the experience of which directly inspired his book). Read an excerpt of Assholes.

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Avatar of: Susan Worley

Susan Worley

Posts: 2

February 7, 2013

I found the "Reading Frames" essay on p. 66 of the current issue interesting, but I disagreed with the categorization of Midgley as an "a-hole."

I believe that when you place the health and lives of others at risk, and for some reason your conscience does not intervene, you qualify as a sociopath.

Just as there "is a line between helpful scientific bravado and 'a-hole territory;" there is also a line between being an "a-hole" and being a sociopath (maybe that is addressed in the book?)

Avatar of: ingunear


Posts: 1

February 8, 2013

And when the International Panel on Climate Change suppressed evidence and celebrated the deaths of its critics, setting back its own good cause, its mistakes were mainly political rather than scientific in nature.

The author is a victim of his own theory. Review of teh science behind the models used by the IPCC reveal liberal use of the a-hole syndrone within science as well. When modelling you generally do not ignore real data simply because it does not fit with your model that shows your desired outcome. In general good sicience requires you to discuss why it does not work and what the possible solutions might be - rather than engage in the "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain" type of song and dance. Oh - and socially smearing your opponents - (maybe the two are connected after all).

Avatar of: Richard Cowart

Richard Cowart

Posts: 1

February 8, 2013

I have been around quite a few a-holes during my career.  There was one guy in grad school who thought the world revolved around him because he was going to cure major diseases.  Therefore, he was entitled to others' reagents, plastic ware, equipment, etc. without asking.  A few professors along the way made life miserable at times.  There was one post-doctoral advisor who continually told everyone he was 10-years ahead of his time, showed up in the lab around 10:30-11:00 am, all the while screaming at his people.  Then there is this one "gal" who came close to causing a scene at a Gordon conference because she disagreed with my research results.  She is also an editor and the two manuscripts I have sent to this journal have come back with reviews inferring that I am an idiot and perhaps should consider a career at Wendy's.  I have no evidence that she reviewed the papers, but ...

I do not think that scientists who intentionally misrepresent data that can have harmful and consequential effects on society are a-holes.  "Criminal" is a description that comes to mind. 

Avatar of: jeenious


Posts: 45

February 8, 2013

Responding to Susan Worley's comment.

You are quite right in assigning the term sociopath with the kind of behavior cited in the article.  Unfortunately sociopathy -- like other kinds of personality disorders -- is expressed not only by individuals as a pronounced clinical syndrome but, also, to varying degrees throughout all cultures.  And, too, while clinically sociopathic individuals can be dysfunctional in some social scenarios, they can, in some situations, alternatively, be enabled or even supported by others.

There are varying degrees of aggressiveness in sociopathic and psychopathic personalities.  Think of the serial killer as not merely disassociated from concern for his victims but aggressively so.  But on a non-aggressive scale of disassociation, a surgeon's judgement and objectivity may be better focused if he is dissasociated from emotional involvements in performing operations.

It can be argued that business schools in universities in the United States have enabled and have favored professors and students who are best able to view students who concern themselves "too much" with business ethics -- beyond constraints of predisposing the sociopathic business manager to getting caught and suffering consequences for crossing certain lines -- as being less fit.  Lots of articles have been written by and for those who praise and promote and support the "business manager" who can maximize profits by getting around ethical issues, laws, humane concerns for employees, consumers, invironmental harm...  

It can also be argued, with much evidence backing it, that many in scientific research succeed as a result of fudging the statistics they report, exagerating their merits in applying for positions, plagiarism, claiming more credit than they deserve for successful team projects, transferring blame for failed projects on others...  And, while those who get caught and exposed, at critical times in their careers do not fair well for it, clever cheaters sometimes never get fully exposed, or do not get exposed until after they have been promoted, or have profitte monetarily or professionally or -- in some cases -- until after they have retired or have moved on from a situation they unethically or illegally exploited.

It is bad enough that there is, to some degree, some level of sociopathic capability in most if not all humans.  But what is worse is that evidence abounds  to support a contention that some politicians, some agency heads, some topmost corporate inside managers, even some of those in our society who have become billionaires (and we all can name a few of those) have enjoyed advantages from being unencumbered with conscience, where that would have held them back.

Avatar of: Ed Rybicki

Ed Rybicki

Posts: 12

February 8, 2013

What the fuck is wrong with saying "asshole"?  Or, more properly, "arsehole"?  And I am afraid that the profession / endeavour ATTRACTS arseholes; you HAVE to develop a thick skin, relative imperviousness to criticism, and a willingness to act like an attack-trained German Shepherd, simply in order to survive in our environment.


And anyone who thinks differently hasn't got tenure yet...B-)

Avatar of: laughingdragon


Posts: 1

February 8, 2013

I found it interesting that the author cited a few second rate physicists as ***hole scientists but not top ranked physicists. That may be because top rate scientists don't feel as much of a need to prove themselves to others by being unpleasant.

I have known geniuses who were intrasiegent in their negotiations or way of operating. It hasn't worked to their economic and professional advantage. Usually because other people withdraw from them, sometimes because the others make a point of desparaging them to new acquantances and cutting off their resources. 

Avatar of: JToeppen


Posts: 37

February 8, 2013

"Yes, he is an asshole, but he is our asshole, and every body needs an asshole"  Was a remark one fellow employee made about a program manager.

While the guy was effective in pulling in funding, he also turned on his own good people when they did not agree with him.  Certain stratigic goals are often not meet due to many poor tactical moves against technically competent adversaries.

So the meanest SOB can prevail for a while, with arrogance ultimately limiting overall performance.

Avatar of: Curculio


Posts: 61

February 8, 2013

All right when they get it right but what if they don't.  As you started with in  the essay, people died because your lead-in guy was an a-hole.  How many life-saying, theoretical ideas are -squashed- because of these a-holes.  How many, like the abused Arrhenius become abusers themselves?

Avatar of: Paul Stein

Paul Stein

Posts: 237

February 8, 2013

Corporations too are assholes when they are wildly, nay ungodly,  profitable yet lay off hundreds to thousands of their employees who have worked long into many a night and weekends and gave up vacations to meet almost impossible deadlines time and again, and willingly gave up bonuses, piddily cost of living raises, and accepted paying much more of a percentage of their health insurance premiums to maintain their companies' profitability.  For those reading The Scientist, I'm talking about medical device and pharmaceutical companies.

They give excuses like needing to "maintain shareholder value", which is pretty stupid because their stock share prices have not risen significantly with the layoffs, or they need to "maintain innovative competitiveness", which is pretty stupid because they lay off their expensive R&D personnel first so their new product lines have dwindled to almost nothing, or they need to reserve cash for "strategic technology acquisitions", which is pretty stupid because we've all seen those go horribly wrong most of the time.

When we talk about causing the most wreckage in a short period of time, corporations can be the biggest assholes.


Avatar of: JeffGrad


Posts: 4

February 8, 2013

This article contains the quote:

the International Panel on Climate Change suppressed evidence and celebrated the deaths of its critics, setting back its own good cause

I googled "IPCC celebratged deaths critics" and the only hit I got brought me back to this article. Could we have some more information on this?

Avatar of: mightythor


Posts: 88

February 10, 2013

The loose and ill-defined use of the word asshole in this discussion takes me back to a debate that raged between two of my college roommates for an entire year: whether "asshole" can be objectively defined and you don't like assholes because their behavior fits the definition, or whether an asshole is just a term that you apply subjectively to anyone you don't like.  The consensus in the dormitory favored the latter view, leading to the gradual abandonment of the term by the end of our sophomore year....

Avatar of: Ed M.

Ed M.

Posts: 45

February 10, 2013

Is this an ad for Hominem?

Avatar of: kienhoa68


Posts: 37

February 11, 2013

Really was it Thomas Midgley at fault for damaging an entire generation. Those he worked for, the chemical and auto industry, are the real perpetrators.

Science is not always the best judge of how discoveries are applied. That leaves the less scientific to ponder the possibilities.

Still shakes out to monkeys, monoliths and can it go boom. After that, the survivors are left to consider the results.

Avatar of: starman


Posts: 1

March 4, 2013

prefabricated mi prefabrik mi? prefabrik

Avatar of: Elleno


Posts: 1

June 28, 2013

Having read both articles by Aaron James I would like to humbly suggest that Aaron James is a perfect example of the people he writes about.

It appears that Aaron James is an asshole.


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