Fame!

“Being a famous geologist is like being president of your high school class.”–Brian Wernicke

Go ahead, name a geologist.  Take your time…. (if you are a geologist, I hope you can name a few).

Is your geologist alive today?  Odds are the answer is no.  If American, you might have named Powell or maybe King or even Whitney.  Perhaps Wegener? John Muir? Agassiz? Dana (if you took mineralogy, odds are that rings a bell)? Lyell? Maybe Charlie Richter if you live in California (though he was trained as a physicist). Europeans would tend to provide other names but, quite likely, of dead scientists. It is unlikely you named a member of the crowd that discovered plate tectonics (Hess, Ewing, Vine, Matthews, Morley, Dietz, Wilson, Bullard, Morgan, Runcorn, McKenzie are some of the names–most at least are famous enough to have Wikipedia pages).

Now, name a famous scientist.

Didn’t take so long, right?  Newton, Einstein, Hawking, Darwin maybe Bohr, Heisenberg, Feynman. Sagan or deGrasse Tyson if you favor scientists made famous on TV [though it galls GG to have astronomers with nearly no knowledge of earth history being the ones appearing to be experts on it on TV]. Or one of the many at that famousscientists.org site. With the exception of Darwin, it seems that the physicists and astronomers have the best publicists and many of these are relatively recent entries. This was not always the case: in 19th century America, geologists were the celebrity scientists. Clarence King was one of the most prominent, having written a popular book of his adventures (a book still in print), having dramatically exposed a great diamond hoax, and becoming the first director of the US Geological Survey.  Geologists in those days could go on lecture tours and speak before crowded auditoriums. Take a prominent geologist today into the heart of America’s biggest city to give a talk and you only need a medium-sized classroom.

The point? There is little fame in modern science, especially solid earth science.  Most of us are the lowest of the stonemasons working on a cathedral, putting in a stone or two and hoping that we are adding to the support of a larger structure. A few lucky ones get to work on the cathedral plans a bit. 

So why would anybody cheat? For money? Hah! As though you would get rich on summer salary from a pile of grants. And it is hard to cheat in finding resources like oil and minerals, so you won’t get rich practicing a sham technique for finding resources. For fame?  What fame?–we’ve been through that. In fact, geology is one of the few disciplines missing from Retraction Watch’s list of subjects, but there probably is some cheating going on somewhere (after all, it is present in other fields equally bereft of living famous scientists). For security in tenure? Now there is a high-risk decision as you’d be worried the rest of your career that somebody would expose that deception.

Now in some fields where there is more public prominence and there are much larger sums of federal and private research dollars floating around (think biotech and medicine), maybe the rewards from cheating are somewhat more. But even there, if cheating is your plan of action to be rich, which would you choose: science or Wall Street?

When you view all this from a scientist’s perspective, claims of scientists deliberately falsifying research in order to be famous or get more research dollars border on laughable.  You’d only get fame in some high-profile part of science where it is likely others would check your work (think cold fusion, cloning humans, etc.). This is even more unbelievable when the claim is that the data is falsified to match what others have gotten (in climate change research, arguably Dick Lindzen has gotten more fame from being a skeptic than all the climate-change chorus together, excepting James Hansen, whose fame arguably originated from being out of the mainstream in 1988). While there certainly can be a group-think problem in science (where a certain notion comes to dominate thought despite questionable underpinnings; think geosynclinal theory through the 1950s), it isn’t the same as deliberate falsification.

So if you are looking for fame in your lifetime, become an actor, a musician, an athlete, or a politician.  Forget science (unless, maybe, you have the chops to be another Feynman or Einstein). Scientific fame is usually being known to colleagues around the world and having others willing to build on your work; this kind of fame is what Wernicke meant: you are known to a few hundred to maybe a couple thousand other scientists.

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