Arguing with myself

Image: arguing Northern Mockingbird (© Chiltepinster CC BY-SA 3.0). I’m the one on the left.  And also the one on the right.

It was bound to happen sooner or later.  I’ve written about 240 posts for Scientist Sees Squirrel, and the other day I busted myself: I discovered that I’ve written two contradictory ones.  They’re both about originality (and yes, I can smell the irony in having written two posts on originality).  The first one (We praise originality, but we don’t value it) argued that we undervalue originality in research.  The second (Originality is over-rated – even by me) argued that we overrate originality in research.  Nice job, Heard.

Now, I’ve re-read both posts carefully*, and I can just barely build an argument that they’re not quite as contradictory as that.  In the first post, I examined citation data for my papers and found that my more original papers aren’t cited any more (and might be cited less) than my routine ones.  I argued that this suggests original work isn’t valued, partly because it doesn’t fit easily into the literature, and partly because it doesn’t fit other scientists’ preconceived notions about what one is supposed to do in a particular field.  That’s undervaluing originality.  In the second post, I argued that granting agencies or journals that insist on funding or publishing only the most original research are misunderstanding how science progresses (by the accumulation of related studies that, together, suggest the answer to a question).  That’s overrating originality. But the originality that’s undervalued and the originality that’s overrated isn’t quite the same originality, I think.  There’s a credible argument that we say we want originality (overrating it on the demand side), but that we don’t actually want originality (undervaluing it once it’s been supplied).  That is, we might demand original grant proposals but then not fund them because we’re not sure they’re feasible; or we might demand original papers but then not cite them because they don’t fit in with the established literature.

If this argument is right, then my dignity is preserved.  But it’s entirely possible that I protest too much.  Maybe I’ve just had my Walt Whitman moment:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

– Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, from Leaves of Grass, 1855**.

I’ll let you decide.

© Stephen Heard  December 27, 2017

*^If I’d re-read the first one carefully before writing the second one, we wouldn’t be here together now…

**^Yes, I know I just quoted somebody else’s words to make a point about originality.  Not only that: it’s actually the second time I’ve quoted those lines.  The irony detector may well burst.

8 thoughts on “Arguing with myself

  1. Jeremy Fox

    I was waiting for you to work in “I celebrate myself and sing myself/and what I assume you shall assume”. 🙂

    And “You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
    You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
    You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.” That one’s kind of a mixed bag for any blogger, especially one who both reads and writes books. 🙂


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