Seven sins of scientists part 5: snobbery

snobI’m discussing the seamier side of science in a seven part series on what I call scientific sinning or the “seven sins of scientists”.

The first four pieces in this series really stoked a great deal of interest and debate, covering Failure to CitePaper or grant killingNeed for Speed, and hype.

Today in the fifth installment we go to the sin of snobbery.

You might ask is snobbery really a sin for a scientist?

Yes, it is, because it causes so much pain and is so counterproductive to science.

What do I mean by snobbery?

Where do I start?

Journal snobbery. Of course not every paper can be in Cell, Science, or Nature, but there is a whole hierarchy in scientists’ minds about which journals are top tier versus second tier, and so on. This way of thinking about journals definitely includes an element of snobbery. Scientists consider papers in hoity toity journals to be inherently better than papers in so-called “lesser” or “specialized” journals. However, the facts would suggest this is a false assumption in many cases. In my opinion many of the best papers ever were in fact not in the top, sexy journals. This journal snobbery can have profound impacts on people’s careers and definitely influences things such as “Investigator” scores on grant applications.

Institutional snobbery. What are the top three rules of real estate? Location, location, location. Is the same true in science? I don’t think it is quite the same, but there are a whole host of folks in science who judge their colleagues based on the institution where they are located. It’s not who you are, but where you are, right? Wrong.  I think this institutional snobbery is incredibly pervasive and at one time or another influences almost all of us even if we do not realize it. Is a person from Harvard or Stanford really by definition better than people from other places not considered as “top tier”? From my experience the answer is a resounding “no”, but this kind of bias is entrenched in science.

Personal snobbery: the royalty of science. I’ve been fortunate in my life to have been trained by some amazing mentors (more of my personal experiences with them can be found here including funny stories and here’s a great, autobiographical piece on the mentors who made a difference for him by Irv Weissman). One of the things I learned from them is to judge scientists fairly. However, it seems there is a royalty of science based on personal snobbery. Certain scientists are considered like kings and queens (or if you are an up and coming younger scientist, princesses and princes, etc). It’s like a club or fraternity/sorority. Either you are in or you are out. Most of us of course are out. This kind of field-wide snobbery is very harmful to both the “ins” and “outs”. For those outside this royal domain, we have to work harder and smarter just to keep up with the “ins”. However, I think this system is bad for the “ins” too because it warps their thinking. It makes them believe they are better than everyone else and so they start having a sense of entitlement that is bad for a scientist’s brain.

The bottom line about scientific snobbery is that it is, for lack of a better expression, very unscientific and hence bad for science. Scientist’s should be open-minded and judge things based on facts. Snobbery is, in my opinion, at least in part a result of a laziness of the brain. It is easier to categorize people and things in order to judge them that way than to actually individually evaluate each entity….so I say keep an open mind and try to avoid snobbery…it can sneak up on you.

1 thought on “Seven sins of scientists part 5: snobbery”

  1. On the Royalty of Science: I always think of it as more like the “pop stars of science”. You know those whose work is popular with meeting organizers and they seem to spend all of their time going from meeting to meetiing.

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