Narcissism in science

I have just read a great book on narcissism in science (“An essay on science and narcissism“). The author is a prominent immunologist named Bruno Lemaitre, and he is from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland. Narcissism is a phenomenon (I guess I can use that word) characterized by exaggeration of self-importance; exaggeration of achievements; a sense of excessive admiration; pre-occupation with fantasies about success, power, brilliance; taking advantages of others to get ahead; and arrogance. I am sure that most of us, who are (or have been) working in scientific research, have seen people with these traits. The book by Lemaitre is a wonderful exposition of narcissism in science and how the phenomenon has affected and continue to have effect on the integrity of science.

Lemaitre appears to be an ideal person to tell us about narcissism, because he had first hand and personal experience. In previous years, his work led to the discovery of the Toll-like receptor that subsequently won a Nobel prize. But he was not the winner; his boss Jules Hoffman was. According to his account, Hoffman was initially not interested in his work, but when Hoffman realized its importance he became interested in it and went on to claim Lemaitre’s work as his own! Anyway, the story is more complicated than that, but you get the overall picture. The conflict was actually featured in Science and various media outlets.

That incident stimulated Lemaitre to study the prevalence and impact of narcissism in science. And, he has done a great job. The result of his research is this book which is aptly titled “an essay“. In the essay, Lemaitre presents and articulates many lively and sometimes graphical accounts of scientists with traits that we are all too familiar with: arrogance, power games, fraternity networking, societal politics, exaggeration of self importance, and the propensity to get-ahead rather than to get-along. They are collectively referred to as narcissists. The exact prevalence of narcissists is unknown (because there is no systematic study on the phenomenon), but it is generally believed that narcissists are present in every domain and hierarchy of science. These narcissists are only interested in fame and glory. They shamelessly self promote their work, and in the mean time, radiate their achievements in the popular media and scientific conferences.

Based on empirical observation and analysis of narcissism, Lemaitre argues that in modern science, many people reaching the top of the hierarchy are not necessarily competent in their trade. These people actually possess non-scientific skills, including manipulation of power games, gaining media profile and fraternity networking, that helped project them to top academic post and glory. In other words, many “successful scientists” are not successful per se but they are narcissists. And, the presence of narcissists in science, therefore, represents a threat to the objectivity and integrity of science.

However, like two sides of a coin, narcissism can also have positive effect on science. In the book, Lemaitre points out that because scientists high in narcissism are often motivated by power and success, they tend to promote their own vision of science in a way that their own discipline is benefited from the vision. And, because narcissists can easily gain public recognition through their energized self-absorption, they also tend to attract more research funding than non-narcissistic scientists. Oh dear!

Scientists like analysis, and Lemaitre is not an exception. In the book, Lemaitre distinguishes two types of scientists: N-drive and S-drive scientists. N-drive scientists (or narcissistic type) are those with the following personalities: “seduction, writing and oratory skills, network size, connection with politicians and journal editors, board memberships, on journals and foundations, capacity for misconduct and unfair reviewing, personal wealth, presence of a trophy partner.” On the other hand, S-drive scientists are characterized by “hard working, good memory, creativity, manual skills and dedication to the production of solid data.” Ironically, N-drive scientists or narcissists are the ones who get an upper hand in terms of attracting funding and recognition. However, given that they have little or no substantive skills, their work may be superficial and irreproducible. Thus, the presence of N-drive scientists could partly explain why modern science is suffering from the crisis of irreproducibility. To me, this is an interesting hypothesis that deserves to be studied further.

Toward the end of the book, Lemaitre also touches on the work of Michael Polanyi (1891 – 1976). Perhaps, most of us have not heard of Polanyi, but he was a working scientist who has made important contributions to the philosophy of science. Polanyi argued that objectivism can never provide a true status of scientific knowledge. For those of you who are not well verse with objectivism, this school of philosophy postulates that science provides a direct view of reality which is correct and independent of emotion and passion. Polanyi thought that postulation was false, because in reality scientific knowledge as projected by scientists is a product of both objective observation and a dose of personal perspectives. Putting things in context, I guess we can say that narcissism does contribute to the distortion of scientific knowledge.

After reading the book/essay, I ask myself what moral lesson(s) can be learned from this exposition? Well, here is an advice from Lemaitre that may answer that question: “I think we need to remain closer to the reality of science (do not listen to the ‘buzz’), reduce the influence of the media, promote long-term evaluations (notably with retrospective analysis), look at productivity and not production, and increase the penalties against misconducts.” From my perspective, the lesson from this book can be summarized in a single sentence that was wisdomized by Trinh Cong Son (a famous Vietnamese music composer): “be kind to each other“. And, we should strive to be a S-drive scientist rather than a N-drive scientist.

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