Ego and the Scientific Pecking Order

“Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides,
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old Time, and regulate the Sun.
… Go, teach Eternal Wisdom how to rule —
Then drop into thyself, and be a fool!” [Pope, 1733]

The scientific pecking order is another manifestation of the attitude of “me, in competition with them;  me, better than them; me, rather than them.” Like chickens, some scientists seem to be obsessed with climbing an imagined pecking order. Those ‘below’ such a scientist see a scornful user of their efforts; those ‘above’ such a scientist see a productive team player.

Beyond the local interpersonal pecking order is a broader pecking order of professions that is remarkably fluid in its ability to place one’s personal field at the apex. One common pecking order of scientific superiority is ‘hard’ sciences (i.e., physical sciences) > social sciences. Within the physical sciences physics <> mathematics (of course depending on whether one is a physicist or mathematician), and physics & math > astronomy >> other physical sciences. For example, the following provocative ‘joke’ by Rutherford [Blackett, 1962] makes a non-physicist’s blood boil: “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” Academics > applied scientists of industry, because of the hasty generalization that the latter are materialists first and scientists only second. Applied scientists > academics, because of the hasty generalization that the latter are marginally useful ivory-tower dabblers. For example, the applied scientist Werner von Braun said [Weber, 1973], “Basic research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I am doing.”

Theoreticians > experimentalists, because the latter are less intelligent grunt workers. Experimentalists > theoreticians, because the latter are out of touch with reality and think that ‘data are confirmed by the model.’ Oliver [1991], for example, claims that theories are useless except as an “organization of observations” and that “observation is the ultimate truth of science.” Full-time researchers (‘full-time scientists’) > college teachers (‘part-time scientists’) > high school teachers, though in reality the latter may have the most highly leveraged impact on science and the least glory. Professor > assistant professor > lecturer > student, because seniority is more important than originality. Ph.D. researchers > technicians > scientific administrators, because the latter are not ‘true scientists’, though they may be just as essential for science.

All of these hierarchies are counterproductive and hypocritical. They are counterproductive because the pecking instinct allows only one at the top of each of the many hierarchies; we all must be both pecked and peckers. This defensive ego building is successful in creating a feeling of superiority only by careful editing of perceptions to focus downward. It is also counterproductive because time and energy are wasted worrying about where one is. The scientific pecking order is hypocritical because it is an ex post facto justification. Almost no one picks their scientific specialty based on the above considerations (a possible exception is the choice between applied and basic research). Fortunately, we pick a field instead because it fascinates us most, and we pick a job within that field because it somehow suits us most. We might almost say that the scientific field chose us, and we obeyed in spite of rational reasons to the contrary.

Ego and the Scientific Pecking Order

For the explorers of nature, there are no box seats, no upper-balcony seats. Remember Dedekind’s postulate: every segment of a numeric series, however small, is itself infinite. Similarly, within every scientific field are infinities to be explored.

“And there is no trade or employment but the young man following it may become a hero,
And there is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheeled universe.” [Whitman, 1892]

How much of our pecking is, like chickens, a reaction to being pecked? How much is ego massage? How much is our need to have a status commensurate with our years of effort? How much is the desire to give a rational explanation for an emotionally inspired career choice?

The scientist’s banes are ego ism and egotism. The scientific pecking order is one manifestation of egoism, the self-centered practice of valuing everything only in proportion to one’s own interest. Egotism, pride, and self-conceit are enhanced by a combination of peer recognition, the value placed by society on intelligence and technology, and one’s own false sense of the importance of their contributions to science.

Egotism is not in proportion to peer recognition. Peer recognition and fame can aggravate egotism, but it need not do so. For example, on receiving the 1925 Gold Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society of London, Albert Einstein’s response was:

“He who finds a thought that lets us penetrate even a little deeper into the eternal mystery of nature has been granted great grace. He who, in addition, experiences the recognition, sympathy, and help of the best minds of his time, has been given almost more happiness than a man can bear.” [Einstein, 1879-1955]

Too often, “he who finds a thought that lets us penetrate even a little deeper into the eternal mystery of nature” thinks that he is hot shit. Perhaps this is the egotistical trap: we fool ourselves into thinking that we are wresting the secrets away from Nature or God and therefore we must be godlike. Campanella, a 17th century Italian philosopher, described man as:

“a second god, the first God’s own miracle, for man commands the depths, mounts to heaven without wings, counts its moving bodies and measures their nature… He knows the nature of the stars… and determines their laws, like a god. He has given to paper the art of speech, and to brass he has given a tongue to tell time.” [cited by Smith, 1930]

How much of the pride and ego of modern science is a cultural phenomenon? For example, the boasting about mental powers and control stems partly from the Renaissance feeling that humans are master of the earth. Contrast the ancient Greek perspective that wonder is more appropriate than self-conceit, because people can never achieve the ideals revealed by science. Empedocles [5th century B.C.] said:

“And having seen [only] a small portion of life in their experience, they soar and fly off like smoke, swift to their dooms, each one convinced of only that very thing which he has chanced to meet, as they are driven in all directions. But each boasts of having seen the whole.”

If scientists allow themselves to be seen as Prometheus giving the power of fire to humanity, then they may start thinking of themselves as demigods. J. Campbell [1988b] reminds us that “Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it.” Bronowski [1973] speaks feelingly and eloquently of the danger of this scientific egotism:

“[Mathematician] Johnny von Neumann was in love with the aristocracy of intellect. And that is a belief which can only destroy the civilisation that we know. If we are anything, we must be a democracy of the intellect. We must not perish by the distance between people and government, between people and power, by which Babylon and Egypt and Rome failed. And that distance can only be conflated, can only be closed, if knowledge sits in the homes and heads of people with no ambition to control others, and not up in the isolated seats of power.”

The luster of an individual’s contributions to science is tarnished by the near certainty that some other scientist would have made the same contribution sooner or later. One can help erect the scaffolding of the scientific cathedral, but the scaffolding later will be torn down and forgotten. One can cling to the comfortable fantasy of scientific immortality, but today’s scientific breakthrough will be tomorrow’s naïveté.

“Voltaire, when complemented by someone on the work he had done for posterity, replied, ‘Yes, I have planted four thousand trees’… Nearly a score of centuries ago, Marcus Aurelius reminded us that, ‘Short-lived are both the praiser and the praised, the rememberer and the remembered.’” [Teale, 1959]

“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” [Solomon, ~1000 B.C., Ecclesiastes 10:11]


Jarrard, R. D. (2001). Scientific methods. Online book, URL

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