Pigheaded Specialists

Kumar: “Excuse me, Professor Jones, could you explain why I was rejected for graduate study in your illustrious science program. I’m Vinay Kumar.”

Jones: “Ah yes, Mr. Kumar. You had excellent grades and test scores, and your teachers testified to your intelligence and work habits. However, you scored poorly on our new `scientist’ personality test – your pigheadedness score was near the bottom. We are sorry, but the NSF’s new rules for promoting progress give us no choice but to reject you.”

Kumar: “So I’m too pigheaded to be a scientist?”

Jones: “No, you are not pigheaded enough. You are too likely to objectively evaluate research on its methods, rather than on whether its conclusions match your previous positions. You are too willing to change your mind when evidence changes.”

Kumar: “But isn’t such objectivity a scientific ideal?”

Jones: “Well some say so, but the wise know otherwise. If all scientists were like you, they’d agree too much, and all work on the same projects. For robust scientific progress, we need different scientists to work on different projects. And to get that, we need them to pigheadedly draw different conclusions from the same data.”

Kumar: “But our modern economy is based on a vast specialization of labor. Are you saying that modern economies would be impossible without us all being pigheaded, because otherwise we’d all do the same job? Can’t we just pay people to do different jobs?”

Jones: “Money might motivate ordinary people to do different jobs, but in the magestarium of science money matters not. Scientists only pick research topics based on scientific beliefs. So to get different research, we need different beliefs.”

Pretty crazy, right? Behold this oped by Cordelia Fine in Saturday’s New York Times:

Scientists … rated the paper’s methodology, data presentation and scientific contribution significantly more favorably when the paper happened to offer results consistent with their own theoretical stance. … This is a worry. Doesn’t the ideal of scientific reasoning … shun the ego-driven desire to prevail over our critics … ? Perhaps not. Some academics have recently suggested that a scientist’s pigheadedness and social prejudices can peacefully coexist with — and may even facilitate — the pursuit of scientific knowledge. …

An irrational tendency like pigheadedness can be quite an asset in an argumentative context. A engages with B and proposes X. B disagrees and counters with Y. Reverse roles, repeat as desired — and what in the old days we might have mistaken for an exercise in stubbornness turns out instead to be a highly efficient “division of cognitive labor” with A specializing in the pros, B in the cons. It’s salvation of a kind: … by way of positive side effect, these heated social interactions, when they occur within a scientific community, can lead to the discovery of the truth. (more; HT Eric Schliesser)

This idea that humans disagree because disagreement is good for society, by getting people to take different actions, is an old one. I’m rather skeptical about it in general, and especially regarding academic research. Academics are easily motivated by money and other personal perks, and if such payments are insufficient, I see no advantages to a diversity of beliefs that a diversity of values can’t supply. Given enough value diversity, I see no net social gain from folks being unwilling to update based on evidence.

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  • I think this is more an effect of how science is funded, and the types of scientists that survive the battle for funding, rather than how science is actually done.

    Who gets funded, the scientist who is absolutely certain that he is right? Or the scientist who knows more, and knows that the actual outcome of the experiment is uncertain? Eventually the truth will come out, but pigheadness can delay that eventuality a long time. Especially if contrary views are supported, as the global warming denialism is supported and the correct interpretation of the data (that global warming is real and is anthropogenic) is suppressed.

    Who does the Emperor support, the fashion critics who like his new clothes? Or those who don’t?

  • Given that people ARE pigheaded, disagreement is necessary for progress. People are better at finding arguments for their own positions than for opposing positions. Thus, disagreement is beneficial.

  • Disagreement is only useful when the original idea is wrong. If the idea is correct, there is no value to disagreeing with it. The idea of anthropogenic global warming is correct. Those who disagree with AGW out of pigheadedness are not helping.

    To elaborate more, pigheadedness is an advantage in playing chicken, it is not an advantage in doing science. To the extent that the funders of science turn science funding into a game of chicken, those funders of science are funding sub-optimal work. Everyone involved knows this.

    Turning human activities into a zero-sum competition, is to turn them into games of chicken. A game of chicken can be won by getting your opponent to quit before you do. If you can get your scientific competition to quit before you do then you have won too, you have won, even if you are wrong.

    This is what squeezing your competitors does. If you can drive them out of business, then you have a monopoly and can charge what ever you want to charge. If you can drive them out of competition because they need another source of income to buy food.

    If you drive all the scientists who accept AGW from the field with death threats, or by killing them, that will not change the science of AGW by one bit. That is what Lysenkoism did. It destroyed the scientific study of genetics in the USSR. Political interference with science killed many through starvation, but the politicians retained their power.


    That is what some are trying to do with global warming scientists. What is interesting is that:

    “the only opponents of Lysenkoism during Stalin’s lifetime to escape liquidation came from the small community of Soviet nuclear physicists. But as Tony Judt has observed, “Stalin left his nuclear physicists alone… [He] may well have been mad but he was not stupid.”[3]”

    • The idea of anthropogenic global warming is correct.

      If it was correct, the warmists would be publishing the evidence instead of stonewalling freedom of information requests. The climategate files reveal, for example, that no one knows how the surface record was constructed – they enriched the raw data with value added data, and then discarded the original data. The skeptics publish data, the warmists publish consensus.

      The most incriminating part of the Climategate files is the dog that did not bark in the night time – that no one, except for Harry, showed any interest whatsoever in the data, in checking the data out, in the process of reasoning and mathematics connecting data to results, that Phil Jones delegated what was supposedly the major job of the CRU (estimating global temperatures) to a postgrad and never asked how that postgrad obtained the desired result – that everyone, except for Harry, viewed science as the task of building a consensus and imposing that consensus on all, not the task of gathering evidence and trying to figure out what the evidence reveals.

      What is most significant about the climategate files is what is not there. What is not there is science, or even any interest in science.

      • You somehow think that the climate-gate files are the sum total of all information that has ever been gathered as to AGW?

        And because that sum total of all information that has ever been gathered was gathered and handled by criteria that don’t meet your expectations as to how it should have been gathered and handled, then AGW is false?

    • I suppose I qualify as “lukewarmist” (think AGW is real, not especially concerned, support Mankiw’s Pigou Club), but your comparison of the plight of climate scientists to Mandel-Morganists under Lysenko is ridiculous. Opposition to AGW research in rather fringe in climate science. And to quote a (sloppy) evolutionary psychologist “The smart few will realize that there is something wrong with creationism and naturally opt for evolution. They belong with us. Who cares about the rest? […] Really, what can Christian fundamentalists do to us? Refuse to pump our gas? Spit in our Big Mac?”

      • TGGP, the problem is the positive feedback and hysteresis in the system. At current CO2 levels Greenland is unstable and will melt. Not might melt, will melt. The only question is the timing.

        When Greenland melts, sea level will go up by 7 meters. What is the value of all property below 7 meters above sea level? What is the value of delaying the destruction of that property by sea level rise by one year? Presumably that is the value of the interest on the replacement value of that property.

        The problem isn’t the opposition, the problem is that the opponents have the ear of politicians because they bought it, so the politicians are doing nothing and trying to thwart any effective action.

        What Christian fundamentalists can do is use their theological reasoning to welcome and encourage AGW because to them, the “end of the world” means The Rapture.

        To them, God has said He won’t destroy the world by flood again. That means that to them, sea level rise can’t happen. What they “think” is that God will intervene (with The Rapture) before sea level rise causes wide spread destruction. Since they expect to be Raptured up into an eternity of Heavenly bliss, they want The Rapture to happen ASAP. Anything that accelerates AGW is something that accelerates God’s Plan.

        Since those who don’t believe as they do are destined to be Damned and go to Hell instead of Heaven, they have no sympathy and no compassion for those who God has Damned. Why should they? If God has Damned them, even God has no use for them.

      • Beachfront property, and property near coasts generally, is still quite expensive. Checking Wikipedia, by 2100 the U.N expects the Maldives to be uninhabitable. The melting of Greenland will take several millenia. At that time scale uncertainty builds up so much it is barely worth thinking about.

        You mentioned crops below. Warm weather tends to be good for crops (the “Little Ice Age” was a bad time). So, incidentally, is carbon dioxide. The acidification of the ocean seems a real problem though that most proposed “global cooling” geoengineering methods won’t fix.

      • The melting of Greenland will take several millennia only if Greenland melts like an ice cube.

        No ice sheet has ever been observed to melt like an ice cube. Every ice sheet that has been observed to melt has melted and then collapsed catastrophically. When Greenland melts, it will do so catastrophically, it will not melt as an ice cube.

        The reasons ice sheets always melt catastrophically is because they first melt from the top down. Melt water on the top is denser than ice, so the pressure at the bottom of a column of water is higher than at the bottom of a column of ice. The water propagates down because the ice yields and moves out of the way. The deeper the water, the higher the delta pressure and the faster it moves.

        At the bottom of large ice sheets, the ice is at the melting point due to geothermal heat. That heat is conducted through the ice sheet and radiated into space when the ice sheet experiences winter. The only reason that heat can flow from the base of the ice sheet to the top, is because there is a temperature gradient. The ice sheet is coldest near the top, where the heat radiates into space during the winter.

        Because the base of the ice sheet is at the melting point, the middle and top of the ice sheet has to be colder. Because the Greenland ice sheet melts at the top during the summer, there is melt water at the top which flows down. That water could flow all the way down to the base, and it would, if it did not encounter ice that was below the freezing point. When melt water does encounter ice below the freezing point, the melt water freezes, releasing its heat of fusion and warming the ice that is below the freezing point up to the freezing point. The heat carried down by the melt water has to conduct back up to the surface when the surface gets cold during the winter.

        The strength of ice goes to zero at the melting point, so the ice sheet can’t support itself.

        But the temperature gradient isn’t as steep as it was before. When hundreds of meters of ice is raised up to the melting point, no heat can be conducted through that ice because there is no temperature gradient. The geothermal heat has no place to go, so it accumulates and melts more ice. That water accumulates and because water is denser than ice, the ice sheet will float on the melt water. Now you don’t have a 3,000 meter ice sheet, you have a river with a floating layer of ice on it. As the 3,000 meter thick layer of ice starts to move down hill, it releases gravitational energy. That gravitational energy is dissipated at the region of slip, at the base where the melt water is.

        Every meter that the ice sheet falls, dissipates 3,000*1000*9.8 J/m2. Or enough to melt 88 kg of ice. Once the ice sheet starts to move, there will be no stopping it.

        If you read the estimates of how long it will take Greenland to melt, they always add the caveat, unless it melts catastrophically. The IPCC report had this caveat too. Researchers who study the melting of ice sheets know that it will collapse and melt catastrophically, but they don’t know how to calculate or estimate or model that collapse. Because they can’t model it, they report what they can model (melting like an ice cube), even though they know that is not what is going to happen.

        What has already started to happen is that the actual melting of ice is starting to outpace the worse-case estimates. Extrapolation of models into non-linear regimes is extremely difficult. If you stand a brick on end, you can push it a little until you reach the tipping point. Once it starts to go over, there is no stopping it. We don’t know when the various ice sheets will reach their instability points. That they will reach them we do know.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      Prof Hanson:

      Given enough value diversity, I see no net social gain from folks being unwilling to update based on evidence.



      To elaborate more, pigheadedness is an advantage in playing chicken, it is not an advantage in doing science.


  • Disagreement probably isn’t necessary to get scientists to do different things, but it probably helps them feel better about doing different things.

    Most scientists probably enjoy being able to say, at cocktail parties, “I’m doing working on this exciting line of research that will totally change the world!”

    Most scientists would probably hate having to say, at cokctail parties, “I really needed the money, so I agreed to work on this project that probably won’t go anywhere, but which my backers wanted to check out just in case.”

  • Doug


    Your first post you could replace scientists with business executives and the science funding mechanism with financial markets.

    Who knows what the right format for next gen cell phone chips are RISC or CISC? Who knows what the right level of integration between hardware and software is? Who knows whether the open source Android-esque model is better of the controlled ecosystem iOS model is? How about Wi-Max vs. LTE vs. iBurst. for 4G?

    There are still firms and groups within firms pursuing each avenue, and thousands of people risking their careers, wealth and prestige on each one. Is their a diversity of research because the developers, engineers and executives are pigheaded and irrationally dedicated?

    No, it’s because even if a technology only has a <10% of succeeding or proving to be the best option if no one is pursuing it then the expected returns for investing in it are skewed but high. A firm like Apple will still dedicate hundreds of employees to working on something that has a low, but not insignificant chance of becoming viable. Venture capitalists will still fund firms doing the same thing.

  • One point people here seem to be missing is that there may be more than one reason to reject a conclusion, in particular a policy conclusion, and pigheadedness may provide an incentive to look for problems in the accepted arguments other than the ones that the consensus is (correctly) defending.

    Consider the case of global warming. I have no expertise in climate science, no strong views on how reliable consensus predictions are. But as an economist, I find the usual conclusion—that significant global warming would be catastrophic—implausible, since it takes for granted a conservative bias that does not seem to me to have any good economic basis.

    There is a presumption that rapid change is costly, since our current arrangements—what crops go where, how our houses are constructed, and much else—are optimized against the current environment. But a century is long enough so that before it ends most farmers, with or without global warming, will have switched crops multiple times, most structures will have been torn down and rebuilt, population distributions will have shifted. Current climate was not created for our convenience, so why the confident belief that a climate a few degrees warmer would be, on net, worse rather than better for us?

    That is one example of the sort of argument that may be missed in a culture where scientists are too ready to go along with the current consensus.

    • David, what is the “cost” of a 7 meter rise in sea level? Presumably it is the cost of replacing what has been flooded. For things that have a finite life and that can be replaced, the timing does matter. For things such as land, there is no replacement method so the loss is permanent. A 7 meter rise in sea level would flood most of Florida. If that happened gradually and uniformly over 100 years, then buildings and infrastructure could be abandoned as they were flooded. If it happened more rapidly, or if it happened in aperiodic surges as large masses of ice flowed into the Atlantic (as is expected), then there might be only a few weeks warning. Time enough to evacuate people, perhaps time enough for insurance companies to cancel flood insurance, but not much else.

      Humans cannot tolerate a wet bulb above 35 C for longer than brief periods of time. Other animals have similar temperature thresholds. Plants do to. What happens when the temperature exceeds the lethal threshold for a few days? The average temperature doesn’t matter, what matters is the temperature that the organism is exposed to. If that temperature is acutely fatal, the organism will die.

      Do you know what crops can be grown at higher temperatures? Do they have the same yields, the same nutritive value, the same selling price? Heat stress already causes losses in many crops.

      I find it curious that an economist would castigate scientists for adopting a consensus opinion too soon, in a field where you have no knowledge and haven’t even seriously looked at. What possible basis do you have for suggesting that has happened? Has anyone demonstrated mitigation methods for the problems that AGW will cause? Has anyone even articulated all the problems? For some problems there isn’t a solution. Wildlife that cannot tolerate the new and higher temperatures will go extinct. Permafrost that becomes submerged by rising sea levels will melt. That melting permafrost will release greenhouse gases that are now trapped under it. Those greenhouse gases might be much larger than what CO2 emissions currently are. Release of greenhouse gases by melting permafrost can only be mitigated by preventing the permafrost from melting. If we wait until it melts, then it is too late.

      When the scientists studying AGW say that it is not yet possible to predict the timing, even as they say the long term changes can be predicted, what basis do you have for saying that the timing will be slow enough that those changes can be mitigated?

      Who is being pigheaded? Not the scientists who know what they are talking about.

  • Michael Wengler

    I think its ludicrous to suggest pigheadedness accounts for scientific diversity. Science is hard and there is arguably an infinite amount of it left to be done. Even if I wanted to do the same science as someone else even in my own field, I’d have to be in constant contact with them to prevent a “natural” diversion of my path from theirs.

    Lots of non-pigheaded scientists do lots of different things just because there is so much to do. And we like talking to each other. Its the scientific version of a potluck dinner, it doesn’t require a pigheaded belief that cole slaw is the single best food ever to result in a broad range of things to eat at the potluck.

  • Konkvistador

    Given enough value diversity, I see no net social gain from folks being unwilling to update based on evidence.

    But don’t you see? Value diversity scares the bejesus out of modern Western man. We legislate, educate and signal away from it whenever we can.

  • Drewfus

    This post reminded me of this Edge conversation.


  • Matt Peppe

    I think this article has some relevance. The authors argue that grant structures allowing individuals to pursue their own less-accepted avenues of research have better results. Such structures essentially facilitate the pigheadedness of researchers.

  • Robin,

    I think one benefit from having pigheaded scientists is that it makes it cheaper to consider more sides of an issue. Paying people to take unfashionable positions, just to make sure no evidence in their favor has been overlooked, wouldn’t be as cheap as paying people who actually believed in those positions. They would look harder for evidence in their favor, given the same salary.

    Paying people to be pigheaded also solves an information problem. Pigheaded folks will out themselves as such, which means it will be easier to discount their opinions than it would have been if they had simply hid under masks of objectivity.

    Also, isn’t this idea similar to America’s adversarial legal system, wherein two professionally biased lawyers argue before a judge? If so, does that system suffer from the same drawbacks as the one mentioned in the blog post?

    Thanks for your time.

    • The cost of pursuing ideas that are wrong is not small, and the cost of implementing policy decisions based on wrong ideas can be catastrophic. What caused the housing bubble and the financial crisis? It was the inflated valuations put on toxic securities by the various rating agencies because of the pigheaded idea that their “financial models” addressed all risks.

      Yes, it was cheaper to pay the pigheaded financial analysts who were making money hand-over-fist buying and selling these bogus “securities” with fake values and fake ratings. The ultimate cost was the financial bailout, and now 3 years of recession and unemployment. When will the economy get back to “normal”? When will those tens of millions have jobs again? What is the cost of that? How many tens of millions of person-years of productivity have been lost? How much lost growth in the economy has there been? Will that lost growth ever be recovered? We all know that it won’t be recovered, that lost productivity is gone and gone forever.

      The financial crisis probably has set the Singularity back at least 5 or 10 years. What is the cost of that? The current pigheaded obsession with the debt and not jobs and growth probably adds another 5 or 10 years.

  • Matt

    Perhaps saying pigheadedness is bad is a lot like saying novelty seeking is bad.

    Rejecting existing, established ideas due to them not being sufficiently novel, despite them having a good fit to the evidence, is bad, like rejecting them through being pigheaded. But seeking novel ideas in areas not mapped out is good, like sticking to novel ideas even though groupthink says that you should not (pigheadedness).

    I like the analogy, as I get the gestalt impression a lot of anti-stubbornness people see themselves as openness and novelty seeking boosters, though the two are not really in conflict as such.

    I can see agreeing that stubbornness isn’t a good thing if you don’t agree that stubbornness maintains concept diversity against social pressures. After all, that’s why it is argued for, so if that does not hold, there is no arguement for it.