The A@#hole Scientist

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

Feb 1, 2013
Aaron James

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.