Hill-climbers vs. valley-crossers: is big science stifling innovation?

Mark Buchanan, quoting Lee Smolin, on how big science may be biased against innovative iconoclasts:

Some scientists, he suggests, are what we might call "hill climbers". They tend to be highly skilled in technical terms and their work mostly takes established lines of insight that pushes them further; they climb upward into the hills in some abstract space of scientific fitness, always taking small steps to improve the agreement of theory and observation. These scientists do "normal" science. In contrast, other scientists are more radical and adventurous in spirit, and they can be seen as "valley crossers". They may be less skilled technically, but they tend to have strong scientific intuition -- the ability to spot hidden assumptions and to look at familiar topics in totally new ways.

To be most effective, Smolin argues, science needs a mix of hill climbers and valley crossers. Too many hill climbers doing normal science, and you end up sooner or later with lots of them stuck on the tops of local hills, each defending their own territory. Science then suffers from a lack of enough valley crossers able to strike out from those intellectually tidy positions to explore further away and find higher peaks.

"This is the situation I believe we are in," says Smolin, "and we are in it because science has become professionalized in a way that takes the characteristics of a good hill climber as representative of what is a good, or promising, scientist. The valley crossers we need have been excluded or pushed to the margins."

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Part of the problem, IMO, is that professional scientists have invested many years in careers based on climbing their particular hill. Any indication that it's the wrong hill is a threat to a life-long investment. And of course, the higher they are in the food chain, the longer lifetime (on average) they've invested.

Another point to consider is that when doing science becomes a job, it attracts many people who "just want to do their job", not think about, and especially not adapt to changes. Such people are also threatened by paradigm changes.

I am convinced that all this hand-wringing about scientific innovation being "stifled" by the "system" is a load of bullshit. I don't know Smolin, but most of these hand-wringers are either (1) prominent successful scientists who have benefited their entire careers from the "system" and have now decided in their dotage that it is "stifling" and should be changed or (2) disgruntled losers who never made it. The vast majority of scientists manage to do creative valuable science while working within the supposedly "stifling system".

I can't speak on the sciences, but there's a similar distinction in the arts between, one might say, "experimenters" and "refiners" of style. The distinction only goes so far, but in general experimental work tends to disregard history and technique while more refined work picks up and improves upon an existing style in some way.

For better or worse, the favoritism seems to sway in the opposite direction in the arts...towards that of the experimenters. At least in the 20th century it appeared to.

By Joe Leasure (not verified) on 03 May 2009 #permalink