The Power of Hobbyists and the Impotence of Professionals

One theme of this blog (I hope) is that it’s insider/outsiders — people with the knowledge of insiders but the freedom of outsiders — who can produce real progress. Ordinary insiders have the necessary knowledge but not the necessary freedom; ordinary outsiders have the freedom but not the knowledge. This article of mine makes this point in detail.

A similar point was made in a comment on a blog post by George Packer, the New Yorker writer. Packer had written an article about the U.S. Senate and his post was about how he’d written it. Someone commented:

I think Packer covered Washington with the refreshing take of a short-timer, one who didn’t have to make his living or sustain his career there. The disservice inherent in careerism connects with the Senate’s paralysis a la Tom Harkin’s quote about senators spending more than half their time fund-raising, one of the most troubling realities of the story. (Years ago, Bill Clinton said the House was ineffective because the members were “sleep deprived” from having to attend fundraisers every night. If a six-year term requires half-time fund-raising, imagine what a two-year term requires.)

I think the subtext is that journalistic long-timers, unlike short-timers like Packer, must spend a lot of time nurturing relationships, and this makes it harder to write unpleasant and unflattering truths.

Professional scientists spend a lot of time fund-raising, which in their case means applying for grants. A typical grant lasts three years. During those three years, because they need another grant when the current one runs out, they must publish several papers, recruit several grad students or post-docs (to do the heavy lifting), and avoid pissing off anyone in their field (because they might review your papers or grant proposals). Just as members of the House of Representatives never ever want to talk about how the constant need for money cripples them — it would make their job seem irrelevant and them appear impotent — neither do professional scientists.

3 Responses to “The Power of Hobbyists and the Impotence of Professionals”

  1. disgruntledphd Says:

    Hey man, like the blog and the major theme of your post.

    However, scientists complain constantly about the grant treadmill, read any blog over at science blogs or scientopia and you’ll find at least three per day.

    That being said, its normally people who are new to a field who come up with the revolutionary theories, so i do see where you are coming from there.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Seth Roberts Says:

    thanks, disgruntledphd. I’ve heard lots of complaints from scientists about the need for constant grant writing — as you say, three per day on ScienceBlogs — but I’ve never heard any of the complainants say how much it had inhibited their work. Maybe I’m not reading ScienceBlogs carefully enough. If you know of any examples, I’d be grateful if you’d point me to one because it’s highly relevant to my work.

  3. Elizabeth Molin Says:

    This

    http://www.boingboing.net/2010/08/08/nope-high-fructose-c.html#more

    is only peripherally related to your theme, but I have been wondering whether you were familiar with boingboing and wanting to bring it to your attention if you’re not.