When good scientists go bad?

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Tessa K
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Re: When good scientists go bad?

Post by Tessa K » Tue Dec 07, 2021 10:18 am

Bird on a Fire wrote:
Tue Dec 07, 2021 12:39 am
Tessa K wrote:
Fri Dec 03, 2021 10:20 am
noggins wrote:
Thu Dec 02, 2021 5:04 pm
Nobel prize winners are lucky. They had a hunch and it turned out to be true.
Good scientists aren't lucky. There's no such thing as a hunch. It's a combination of experience and talent that lets them identify potentially fruitful lines of research and then put in many many hours of work. There's a certain amount of confirmation bias in calling them 'lucky'; there will be many ideas/theories etc that turned out to be fruitless in their careers.

It also helps to be a white male in a well-funded lab. Which isn't luck either.
I'm a bit confused by this.

Call it a "hunch" or a "potentially fruitful line of research", science can nevertheless only be judged after you've put in the many many hours of work. Maybe "luck" isn't quite the right word, but I don't think it's the case that the Nobel Prizes simply go to the "best" or "most hard-working" scientists - what label would you give to the remaining variation?
There is of course a certain amount of chance involved with the skill, hard work and experience but I'm always reluctant to use the word luck as it has woo connotations that ignores the human effort.

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Re: When good scientists go bad?

Post by Sciolus » Tue Dec 07, 2021 11:10 am

Top-flight success in any highly competitive field requires three things: talent, hard work and luck. A shortfall in one area can partly be made up for by an excess in the others, but if a competitor has more, you're nobody. There are plenty of talented, hard-working bands who never get their big break because they don't get spotted by the right person at the right time. There are plenty of potential Nobel prize winners who don't get started because they are born in a sink estate in Grimsby or a back-of-beyond village in Burkina Faso or are female in Afghanistan.

In what way is being white or male not a matter of luck?

(Maybe you prefer "chance" or "fickle whim of fate" but it's different words for the same thing.)

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Re: When good scientists go bad?

Post by Tessa K » Tue Dec 07, 2021 12:23 pm

Sciolus wrote:
Tue Dec 07, 2021 11:10 am
Top-flight success in any highly competitive field requires three things: talent, hard work and luck. A shortfall in one area can partly be made up for by an excess in the others, but if a competitor has more, you're nobody. There are plenty of talented, hard-working bands who never get their big break because they don't get spotted by the right person at the right time. There are plenty of potential Nobel prize winners who don't get started because they are born in a sink estate in Grimsby or a back-of-beyond village in Burkina Faso or are female in Afghanistan.

In what way is being white or male not a matter of luck?

(Maybe you prefer "chance" or "fickle whim of fate" but it's different words for the same thing.)
See my post above for the connotations of 'luck'.

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Re: When good scientists go bad?

Post by Bird on a Fire » Tue Dec 07, 2021 1:34 pm

Tessa K wrote:
Tue Dec 07, 2021 12:23 pm
Sciolus wrote:
Tue Dec 07, 2021 11:10 am
Top-flight success in any highly competitive field requires three things: talent, hard work and luck. A shortfall in one area can partly be made up for by an excess in the others, but if a competitor has more, you're nobody. There are plenty of talented, hard-working bands who never get their big break because they don't get spotted by the right person at the right time. There are plenty of potential Nobel prize winners who don't get started because they are born in a sink estate in Grimsby or a back-of-beyond village in Burkina Faso or are female in Afghanistan.

In what way is being white or male not a matter of luck?

(Maybe you prefer "chance" or "fickle whim of fate" but it's different words for the same thing.)
See my post above for the connotations of 'luck'.
By "woo connotations" do you mean things like good luck charms?

I propose "stochastic variation" as a suitably scientific, value-free term.
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Re: When good scientists go bad?

Post by dyqik » Tue Dec 07, 2021 6:57 pm

Sciolus wrote:
Tue Dec 07, 2021 11:10 am
In what way is being white or male not a matter of luck?
The probability of me not being white, male and English (born) are, and always have been, zero. Because if I wasn't, I'd be someone else.

ETA: A priori probability/luck doesn't necessarily make a whole lot sense when you are talking about selection biases like this.

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Re: When good scientists go bad?

Post by Tessa K » Tue Dec 07, 2021 7:14 pm

Bird on a Fire wrote:
Tue Dec 07, 2021 1:34 pm
Tessa K wrote:
Tue Dec 07, 2021 12:23 pm
Sciolus wrote:
Tue Dec 07, 2021 11:10 am
Top-flight success in any highly competitive field requires three things: talent, hard work and luck. A shortfall in one area can partly be made up for by an excess in the others, but if a competitor has more, you're nobody. There are plenty of talented, hard-working bands who never get their big break because they don't get spotted by the right person at the right time. There are plenty of potential Nobel prize winners who don't get started because they are born in a sink estate in Grimsby or a back-of-beyond village in Burkina Faso or are female in Afghanistan.

In what way is being white or male not a matter of luck?

(Maybe you prefer "chance" or "fickle whim of fate" but it's different words for the same thing.)
See my post above for the connotations of 'luck'.
By "woo connotations" do you mean things like good luck charms?

I propose "stochastic variation" as a suitably scientific, value-free term.
That and the fact that luck is considered an external, often supernatural force

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Re: When good scientists go bad?

Post by Bird on a Fire » Tue Dec 07, 2021 7:26 pm

Fair point.

I guess what I'm calling luck is really better thought of as residual variation leading to better-than-average outcomes, rather than anything spooky.

But I think stuff like serendipity and happenstance and odd coincidences can be important - Feynman makes much of them in his (somewhat embellished) books, for instance. Or have I been reading too much Kuhn and Feyerabend? ;)
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Re: When good scientists go bad?

Post by Tessa K » Tue Dec 07, 2021 9:05 pm

I agree. I just have an instinctive aversion to 'luck". Of course, the skill is in recognising opportunities that others might not pursue

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Re: When good scientists go bad?

Post by Bird on a Fire » Tue Dec 07, 2021 9:23 pm

For sure. Thanks for the replies. I've heard those pithy quotes like "you make your own luck" and "the harder you work, the luckier you get" etc., and I think there's definitely some truth in it. Although (and I say this having just won a "best student prize" at a small conference, lol) I also reckon stochasticity is probably responsible for a greater proportion of variance in prizes and competitions than in other parts of scientific endeavour like collecting and publishing data.

In future I shall wow my friends by upbraiding their references to "luck", and talk about residual stochastic variation instead.
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Re: When good scientists go bad?

Post by Sciolus » Tue Dec 07, 2021 9:59 pm

Tessa K wrote:
Tue Dec 07, 2021 9:05 pm
I agree. I just have an instinctive aversion to 'luck". Of course, the skill is in recognising opportunities that others might not pursue
What about people who, not as a result of any choices they've made, don't get those opportunities in the first place?

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Re: When good scientists go bad?

Post by Tessa K » Wed Dec 08, 2021 8:52 am

Sciolus wrote:
Tue Dec 07, 2021 9:59 pm
Tessa K wrote:
Tue Dec 07, 2021 9:05 pm
I agree. I just have an instinctive aversion to 'luck". Of course, the skill is in recognising opportunities that others might not pursue
What about people who, not as a result of any choices they've made, don't get those opportunities in the first place?
That's not luck, that's the way society works against them.

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Re: When good scientists go bad?

Post by Sciolus » Wed Dec 08, 2021 9:02 am

Of course, but from the point of view of the individual, when society works against some people and for others, which side of the fence you land on is luck.

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Re: When good scientists go bad?

Post by dyqik » Wed Dec 08, 2021 4:58 pm

Sciolus wrote:
Wed Dec 08, 2021 9:02 am
Of course, but from the point of view of the individual, when society works against some people and for others, which side of the fence you land on is luck.
No, it isn't. It's not luck that I, a white man, was born a white man. It's just a historical fact about the thing that I call me. The child of my white parents would always be white. That their first child was male is a matter of probability, but if I'd been born female, I'd be a different person, with different experiences and even a different name.

From the view of an individual, the fact that that individual has that individual's identity is not a matter of odds or probability. It's the only way things can be.

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Re: When good scientists go bad?

Post by noggins » Thu Dec 09, 2021 11:54 am

Tessa K wrote:
Fri Dec 03, 2021 10:20 am
noggins wrote:
Thu Dec 02, 2021 5:04 pm
Nobel prize winners are lucky. They had a hunch and it turned out to be true.
Good scientists aren't lucky. There's no such thing as a hunch. It's a combination of experience and talent that lets them identify potentially fruitful lines of research and then put in many many hours of work. There's a certain amount of confirmation bias in calling them 'lucky'; there will be many ideas/theories etc that turned out to be fruitless in their careers.

It also helps to be a white male in a well-funded lab. Which isn't luck either.
But surely at the cutting edge of a topic there are a handful of hunches - A,B,C,D,E, At the moment they are all equally plausible.

One scientist decides to investigate Hunch 'A' first . Another takes a punt on 'B'.. etc.

Turns out 'D' is the breakthrough and the scientist that picked that one looks Great. But are they really any better than the others and is their opinion on the next subject any more valid ?


ahah - "Fortune" is a better term than "Luck"

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Re: When good scientists go bad?

Post by Tessa K » Thu Dec 09, 2021 12:26 pm

noggins wrote:
Thu Dec 09, 2021 11:54 am
Tessa K wrote:
Fri Dec 03, 2021 10:20 am
noggins wrote:
Thu Dec 02, 2021 5:04 pm
Nobel prize winners are lucky. They had a hunch and it turned out to be true.
Good scientists aren't lucky. There's no such thing as a hunch. It's a combination of experience and talent that lets them identify potentially fruitful lines of research and then put in many many hours of work. There's a certain amount of confirmation bias in calling them 'lucky'; there will be many ideas/theories etc that turned out to be fruitless in their careers.

It also helps to be a white male in a well-funded lab. Which isn't luck either.
But surely at the cutting edge of a topic there are a handful of hunches - A,B,C,D,E, At the moment they are all equally plausible.

One scientist decides to investigate Hunch 'A' first . Another takes a punt on 'B'.. etc.

Turns out 'D' is the breakthrough and the scientist that picked that one looks Great. But are they really any better than the others and is their opinion on the next subject any more valid ?


ahah - "Fortune" is a better term than "Luck"
Fortune is no different from luck. Fortuna was a goddess, after all.

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Re: When good scientists go bad?

Post by noggins » Thu Dec 09, 2021 5:03 pm

Fortune is an external force, luck is intrinsic.

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Re: When good scientists go bad?

Post by dyqik » Thu Dec 09, 2021 5:20 pm

The term you are looking for is "historical accident".

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Re: When good scientists go bad?

Post by Tessa K » Fri Dec 10, 2021 9:41 am

dyqik wrote:
Thu Dec 09, 2021 5:20 pm
The term you are looking for is "historical accident".
Except that nothing happens in isolation. History is a process, not a series of isolated incidents

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Re: When good scientists go bad?

Post by dyqik » Fri Dec 10, 2021 7:30 pm

Tessa K wrote:
Fri Dec 10, 2021 9:41 am
dyqik wrote:
Thu Dec 09, 2021 5:20 pm
The term you are looking for is "historical accident".
Except that nothing happens in isolation. History is a process, not a series of isolated incidents
That's not what I mean by historical accident in this sense. I mean a single historical fact that was the outcome of a (at least partially) chance event, and which the rest of historical flow and process happened around.

In the proverbial "for the want of a nail", I mean the absence of the nail. Not the historical process that led to the large consequences of that. A battle being lost because a message didn't arrive, because the rider fell, because the horse lost a shoe as a result of the nail being missing is more a result of systematic fragility against chance events, rather than the random event itself. And so the battle outcome shouldn't be seen as an accident as such, because although this particular chain of events was triggered by an accident, there are thousands of other contingent chains of events that also had to happen for that particular historical accident to be relevant.

In terms of the five scientists, who got interested in which problem, who happened to run into a colleague and have a key conversation, and who got funding to pursue their idea can easily be viewed as a chance event subject to luck. In detail though, it's a combination of a huge number of contingent events and chains of events with probabilistic elements (who's bus was late so that they started talking to a colleague at the bus stop, etc. etc.). Some of which are affected by skill, some by social systems, etc. etc.

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Re: When good scientists go bad?

Post by Tessa K » Fri Dec 10, 2021 8:53 pm

dyqik wrote:
Fri Dec 10, 2021 7:30 pm
Tessa K wrote:
Fri Dec 10, 2021 9:41 am
dyqik wrote:
Thu Dec 09, 2021 5:20 pm
The term you are looking for is "historical accident".
Except that nothing happens in isolation. History is a process, not a series of isolated incidents
That's not what I mean by historical accident in this sense. I mean a single historical fact that was the outcome of a (at least partially) chance event, and which the rest of historical flow and process happened around.

In the proverbial "for the want of a nail", I mean the absence of the nail. Not the historical process that led to the large consequences of that. A battle being lost because a message didn't arrive, because the rider fell, because the horse lost a shoe as a result of the nail being missing is more a result of systematic fragility against chance events, rather than the random event itself. And so the battle outcome shouldn't be seen as an accident as such, because although this particular chain of events was triggered by an accident, there are thousands of other contingent chains of events that also had to happen for that particular historical accident to be relevant.

In terms of the five scientists, who got interested in which problem, who happened to run into a colleague and have a key conversation, and who got funding to pursue their idea can easily be viewed as a chance event subject to luck. In detail though, it's a combination of a huge number of contingent events and chains of events with probabilistic elements (who's bus was late so that they started talking to a colleague at the bus stop, etc. etc.). Some of which are affected by skill, some by social systems, etc. etc.
Yes, pretty much

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