Incentive Schemes as a Verity to Scientific Knowledge

I was reading this very interesting story in the book “Why Zebras Don’t Have Ulcers” by Robert Sapolsky.

Two scientists, Roger Guillemin and Andrew Schally, were looking for a hormone that the brain produces that would give insight on the functionality of the pituitary glands, but the two scientists disliked each other so much that on one fateful night, they broke up and went separate ways. They were doing the same research, but in fierce competition with each other.

“Schally and crew were the first to submit a paper for publication saying, in effect, “There really does exist a hormone in the brain that regulates thyroid hormone release, and its chemical structure is X.” In a photo finish, Guillemin’s team submitted a paper reaching the identical conclusion five weeks later. One might wonder why something obvious wasn’t done a few years into this insane competition, like the National Institutes of Health sitting the two down and saying, “Instead of us giving you all of this extra taxpayers’ money to work separately, why don’t you two work together?” Surprisingly, this wouldn’t necessarily be all that great for scientific progress. The competition served an important purpose. Independent replication of results is essential in science. Years into a chase, a scientist triumphs and publishes the structure of a new hormone or brain chemical. Two weeks later the other guy comes forward. He has every incentive on earth to prove that the first guy was wrong. Instead, he is forced to say, ‘I hate that son of a bitch, but I have to admit he’s right. We get the identical structure.’ That is how you know that your evidence is really solid, from independent confirmation by a hostile competitor. When everyone works together, things usually do go faster, but everyone winds up sharing the same assumptions, leaving them vulnerable to small, unexamined mistakes that can grow into big ones. ” — pg 26-27 Read More

Learning Log #1 — Week of 1/1

1. The Key to Being Good at a lot of Things is to be Humble

I realized this on New Years. I was reading Robert Greene’s book called “Mastery” and one of the kinds of people he cautions against are envious people. Then I thought about that thought for a bit. Then I realized I was an envious person. I tend to see my world in the form of have-not and tend to look upon higher beings with envy. I don’t think it’s healthy.

Every time someone is better than me at something, say math (from when I was back in 8th grade), I would actual make mental calculations of self-worth, and in order to protect my ego, I was weigh his have-nots as personal advantages. I would tell myself “even though he is better at math, I’m better at soccer or socializing.” Then I would look down at him while being envious of his seemly innate ability to do computations. Read More