My Blank Pages VII: An Essay on Science and Narcissism

I recently finished An Essay on Science and Narcissism by Bruno Lemaitre. I found this book really insightful and thought I would write some notes about it here.

The book was published in 2016 although I only just got around to reading it. You can grab a copy for free here. There’s an abbreviated form of the book available as a short article in The FEBS Journal, which is definitely worth reading (with a lower time investment).

The essay explores how scientists, specifically those that lead research groups, are narcissistic. From the outset, the author is clear to distinguish narcissistic personality disorder (a psychiatric classification) from narcissistic tendencies (discussed in the book). Having these tendencies is termed having a high “N-drive”. The book essentially sets out the case for why scientists with high N-drives are selected for by the system. There are some vignettes of scientists with narcissistic tendencies to help illustrate the “phenotype” under discussion. Several examples of bad behaviour by senior scientists are also set out. A discussion of the psychology literature on narcissism follows. Finally, the author attempts to draw together these strands to argue that narcissism is responsible for many faults in the research ecosystem.

If you are looking for an answer to “why are some scientists completely despicable?”, you will be disappointed. The book is clear that it is dealing with one (and only one) dimension of personality and examining its effect on the scientific enterprise.

FWIW, the answer to that question is something like: “well, some people can be despicable and scientists are people, so…”

A thought-provoking read

Some of the observations are spot-on and will be familiar to most people working in the life sciences. For example, the alpha male scientist who builds an empire, indulges in nepotistic hiring practices, wastes resources by grabbing as much grant money as possible.

My favourite was the concept of the “casserole” paper. This is a paper, published in Cell/Nature/Science, that makes a lot of noise but is not really followed up because it is incorrect. The casserole refers to a cooking pot tied to the back of a newlyweds’ car: making a din as the car drives away but the strings attaching it soon break and the pot falls by the side of the road.

I recognised many of the behaviours of the high N-drive scientists described in the book. Lemaitre classifies them as “grandiose” narcissists who are distinct from the more common “vulnerable” narcissists. I think most scientists learn to deal with individuals with these phenotypes very quickly; usually by avoiding them at all costs. But as described in the book, high N-drive scientists are extremely motivated to consolidate power and resources which means that dealing with these people might be unavoidable. As Lemaitre points out, many low N-drive scientists can have narcissistic tendencies. So this is a trait that affects us all at some level.

The author reviews the psychological literature on narcissism and reports what is out there. Disappointingly it is rather flimsy. The literature says that development of N-drive could come from the parents either 1) not paying the child enough attention, 2) paying them too much attention or 3) transferring unrealistic expectations. So it’s something the parents do or don’t do. The generous interpretation is to say that the parental effect is complex or uncertain. The lack of a definite cause for development of narcissism, together with the fact that narcissism is hard to classify and may not be present at all times, makes this trait hard to pin down.

Summary

People’s personalities are incredibly complex and it seems to me that any attempt to classify them is like trying to compile a cloud atlas. The clouds of personality are many different shapes, sizes and forms. They shift over time. Attempts to simplify and reduce behaviour to a single facet of personality – grabbing one cloud type and sorting it from others – leads to opening ones fingers and finding the last whisps of vapour disappearing.

I came away from the book thinking that there are many egregious dimensions of personality that underlie bad behaviour of scientists or that motivate scientists to do things which are detrimental to the scientific enterprise. Narcissism is one of these dimensions and this book was an excellent exploration of its impact but it is not the only one.

A (very) occasional series of posts about books.

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