Over at the Cosmic Variance discussion on Lisi’s TOE, the question of competition versus collaboration in science, and the existence of arrogance in many scientists in doing their professional activities has been raised.
Sure, one can be very successful making a science career being very competitive and aggressive. In fact, the system favors these characteristics. Why? Because science is made by people, and those who are more competitive and aggressive naturally tend to be more successful in climbing into key positions in the system. So the present situation in science is a somewhat closed cycle in this respect.
So yes, it is possible to do science under that scheme and be very successful. However, is it an optimum system in the long term?
I don’t think so.
Competitive and aggressive scientists probe nature under very specific motivations — that is, “how to be successful” in their careers. This may lead him/her to important discoveries and there are certainly many examples of them. But there are many fundamental and deep questions in nature that I really doubt that can be adequately advanced if you do not have a truthfully inquisitive, contemplative, genuine curious mind about nature’s deepest secrets. People with such an approach to science have learned the meaning of the words “humbleness” and “collaboration”, can also be successful, and there are certainly some examples of them, but I really think they are a minority, at least in our current epoch. The system definitely does not favor such people in science.
On purely philosophical grounds, I consider it very strange that we, supposedly intelligent people, let the situation develop into that closed cycle. The cycle can be easily explained, as I did above, but it is really a shame that we let ourselves into this. Is it not obvious that we need a healthy collaborative environment, with plenty of genuine modesty and humbleness, towards the understanding of the vastness of nature?
Aggressiveness and competitiveness can be the means to accomplish that goal, and you can follow them if they are attractive to you and to your aims in life, and indeed the achievements that may result from such a path can certainly make many satisfied. Yet, a vast sea of unknown is doomed to be hidden by construction to them, because the understanding of nature and our place in the universe are not things to be conquered (like territory and hunt were things to be conquered by our ancestors in order to survive), but things of the human intellect, that must be nurtured, grown and shared to all, with pain, persistence, reason, humility, curiosity. With our minds filled with wonder.
Update: Some technical discussions between Distler and Smolin finally appeared in the comment’s section over at CV after I wrote this post. If I find time, I’ll try to make a compilation of them in my blog.
Update: I have added my compilation in the post about Lisi’s paper.