Count me among the weak of science.
Here I am again, feeling defensive, irate at reviewer critiques of our recent sub-Nobel prize work. Only in this case, the reviews are in my mind, yet to arrive. In fact, we haven’t even drafted the paper yet! But I can foresee what will happen. After all, if I’m honest, our contribution is clearly incremental.
Is it a failure? Were my expectations way off, again?
Like you, I want to do big things in science. Hit home runs, make a splash. And when I don’t, I have an immediate negative emotional response. Disappointment in myself.
But when I take a breath and think about it, the disappointment makes little sense. There’s no doubt we stand on others’ shoulders to see. The cliché is completely true. To say it in different words, there are a lot of smart people who have been working on the big and small challenges in our field for a long time. Should any of us really expect to divine major things apparent to no one else?
I can’t even claim a defense of incrementalism is original. But I think it’s important to consider the issue actively as we plan and write up our research. We need to stay sane, remember the good work that we do. Not as much as we want, maybe, but plenty to be proud of.
A great example of incrementalism is my own set of contributions to the weighted ensemble method. I hope you know that I didn’t invent this method! I don’t feel bad about that. Even the authors, Huber and Kim, didn’t invent it! A 1951 article by Kahn and Harris [“Estimation of Particle Transmission by Random Sampling,” National Bureau of Standards Applied Mathematics Series, volume 12] discusses the key “splitting” idea of WE very clearly … and goes on to credit yet someone else, none other than John von Neumann. For myself, perhaps I can claim extensions, applications, popularization of the weighted ensemble, and these of course with great collaborators, students, postdocs. Incremental stuff. But I’m very proud of this.
Science is a team sport. But the team is not just our group members and collaborators, it’s the whole community. In the big picture, even our competitors play on the same team: they help spur us to our best work! We’re part of a vast network with a shared base of knowledge, goals, and ethical norms (overwhelmingly, I think). It’s a great privilege to play on this team.
We don’t all contribute to the team in the same way, and that’s fine. It’s good, even. Some folks are great in the lab, others are highly effective coders, data analyzers, organizers, explainers, or whatever. They all are necessary to advance science.
I was surprised and disappointed to see a Wikipedia entry which is basically devoted to the disparagement of incremental science: “good science typically involves high risk and larger leaps” [accessed Dec. 28, 2021]. Is that a fact or an opinion? Is it based on research? Very few references on that Wikipedia page, I might note. You can read it and judge for yourself.
As I see it, the heroic myth of the lone scientist — or even a single team — making major advances on their own is indeed a myth. Sure, you can point to a few cases. But do those cases account for more than an infinitesimal fraction of scientific progress? I doubt it. The more you know about a field, the more you can trace back the precedents. Do your homework, and you will see.
So, if I’m such a fan of incrementalism, am I saying you should give up on ambition, on new ideas, on big ideas? Definitely not! Just trying for them is a true joy of science. And I would say one of the best ways to learn something new (in the world of theory, at least) is to “invent” it. Just make sure you do your homework to see if anyone else got there first. Your default expectation should be that they did; I have experienced this many times. But if you can think up an idea on your own that was published, even decades ago, consider that a real achievement! It means you certainly belong in this business.
On the darker side, I think the myth of heroic science encourages exaggeration in science and does more harm besides. As I’ve discussed before, I think there are a lot of inflated claims in the literature. Perhaps there’s a negative feedback cycle: subconscious expectations on the part of researchers for themselves, plus actual or perceived expectations of reviewers for big advances … and then who wants to submit incremental results for publication? I think our community is best served by factual representation of our findings. Less experienced scientists deserve to know that there are very few real wizards out there, just other smart humans.
I suggest we embrace our limitations, and celebrate incremental advances. These constitute the overwhelming majority of research, after all. It doesn’t serve science in the long term to pretend otherwise.
Incremental science – that is, science as it is – has done amazing things. Let’s keep it going.