The top of the pyramid is constant

[epistemic status: incomplete thought, perhaps to be followed up on in later posts]

I just read most of this article in the Atlantic, which points out that despite increasing investment (of both money and manpower) in science, the rate of scientific discovery is, at best commiserate with scientific progress in the 1930s, and may not even be meeting that bar.

(This basic idea is something that I’ve been familiar with for several years. Furthermore, this essay reminds me of something I read a few months ago: that the number of scientific discoveries named after their discovers (a baseline metric for importance?) is about the same decade to decade, despite vastly more scientists. [I know the source, but I can’t be bothered to cite it right now. Drop a message in the comments if you want it.]

When I read the headline of this article, my initial hypothesis was this:

Very few people in the world can do excellent groundbreaking science. Doing excellent scientific research requires both a very high intrinsic intelligence, and additionally, some other cognitive propensities and dispositions which are harder to pin down. In earlier decades science was a niche enterprise that attracted only these unusual people.

Today, science is a gigantic network of institutions that includes many times as many people. It still attracts the few individuals capable of being excellent scientists, but it also includes 10 to 1000 times as many people who don’t have the critical properties.

My posit: The great scientists do good work. Any additional manpower put into the scientific institutions is approximately useless. So the progress of science is constant.

(There’s probably a second order factor that all those extra people, and especially the bureaucracy that is required to manage and organize them all, get in way, and make it harder for the best scientists to do their work. (And in particular, it might dilute the attention of the best scientists in training their successors, which weakens the transmission of the cognitive-but-non-biological factors that contribute to “great-scientist-ness.”)

But I would guess that this is mostly a minor factor.)


Between 1900 and 2015, the world population increased by close to 5 times. It seems like if my model was correct, the number of “great scientists” today would be higher than it was in 1930, if only because of population growth (ignoring things like the Flynn effect).

Why aren’t there 5 x as many great scientists? Maybe the bureaucracies getting in the way thing was bigger than I thought?

Maybe the “adjacent possible” of scientific discoveries increases linearly, for some reason, instead of exponentially, as one would expect?

Or maybe “discoveries named after their creators” is not a good proxy for “important discoveries”, because it’s a status symbol. And the number of people at the top of a status hierarchy is constant, even if the status hierarchy is much bigger.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s