Monday, October 5, 2009

In Favor of the Monomath

Edward Carr's article in More Intelligent Life discusses how there are no longer any polymaths like those of yesteryear. It's interesting and makes some good points. Scientific fields can be bogged down by specialist terminology and it is harder to criticize someone's work when they have devoted their whole career to it.

But the discussion of how it's too hard for one scientist to make a big advance individually these days strikes me as misguided. First, it's not entirely true. Check out Karl Deisseroth's work, a guy who doesn't even have his own Wikipedia page but has already contributed to neuro research in a big way by working on optogenetics. Second, the tone strikes me as whining. Look, if science were easy, that wouldn't be a Nash equilibrium. Big research teams are necessary to publish within a reasonable time scale for a reason. Plus, Carr seems to double down a little bit recklessly on the myth of the great idea. Because as Robin Hanson once said, "most of the innovations that matter are the tiny changes we constantly make to the millions of procedures and methods we use."

Ultimately, the fact that individual scientists are less well known today than were individual scientists 150 years ago is a reflection is a sign that the system is getting more efficient, not less. This change should be celebrated, not derided.