Was a terminal degree ~necessary for inventing Boyle's desiderata?

by AllAmericanBreakfast4 min read10th Jul 202018 comments

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My composition teacher in college told me that in some pottery schools, the teacher holds up your pot, examines it, comments on it, and then smashes it on the floor. They do this for your first 100 pots.

In that spirit, this post's epistemic status is SMASH THIS POT.

Is an MD/PhD practically ~necessary for groundbreaking scientific work of the 20th century?

I went into this project believing that an MD/PhD is ~necessary on a practical level to do groundbreaking STEM work. My model was this:

"These degrees come with credibility; access to expensive equipment, funding, and data; access to mentors and collaborators. A smart person who sets out to do groundbreaking STEM work will have a much lower chance of success if they don't acquire an MD/PhD. Massive, sustained social coordination is ~necessary to do groundbreaking research, and the MD/PhD pipeline is a core feature of how we do that. Without that degree, grant writers won't make grants. Collaborators won't want to invest in the relationship. It will be extremely difficult to convince anybody to let someone without a terminal degree run a research program."

Ideally, we'd answer this question with an RCT. Perhaps we'd take a pool of 100,000 successful biology PhD applicants, deny half of them the opportunity to enroll in a PhD or MD for the rest of their lives, and find some way to compare the two groups for their scientific accomplishments.

Nobody's going to let me run that experiment. So I tried looking at the proportion of recent STEM Nobel Prize winners who hold terminal degrees.

Of the 2018-2019 winners of the Nobel Prize in biology, chemistry, medicine, physics, and economics, all of them have a PhD. I also peeked at the 2018 Fields Medal winners. 3/4 have a PhD and the last one completed at least several years of PhD work. The most recent 3 individuals listed for an OpenPhil grant (7/9/2020) in Human Health and Wellbeing (a category I chose arbitrarily) all have PhDs.

Do credentials determine who gets the awards for groundbreaking work?

Zvi asks whether these awards might be mainly just reflections of the credentials of the applicants. Are these awards cherry-picking from among the set of all possible groundbreaking discoveries or projects the ones that are invented or headed by terminal degree-holders? If so, then these awards and grants might be severely under-representing groundbreaking STEM discoveries made by scientists and inventors who don't hold a terminal degree.

An alternative approach is to look at historical lists of inventions-yet-to-be-made and see who invented them. Did they have a terminal degree?

For fun, let's evaluate Robert Boyle's desiderata. I'm not sure when he wrote it, but he lived from 1627-1691.

"It's 1673! Where's my Varnishes perfumable by Rubbing?"

Some of these can't be readily disambiguated, so we'll either ignore them (strikethrough) or choose a few inventions that fit the bill. Becoming a doctor only required a 4-year degree starting in around 1930, and I think it's reasonable to limit ourselves to inventions of the last 100 years (1920-2020).

  • The Prolongation of Life (can you really call this living?)
  • The Recovery of Youth, or at least some of the Marks of it, as new Teeth, new Hair colour'd as in youth (cosmetic surgery was mostly pioneered prior to the 1920s).
  • The Art of Flying (first manned flight and airplane prior to 1920)
  • The Art of Continuing long under water, and exercising functions freely there (SCUBA and submarines invented prior to 1920)
  • The Cure of Wounds at a Distance. Robotic surgery? The first example, the Arthrobot, was invented in 1985 primarily by "biomedical engineer James McEwen, Geof Auchinleck, a UBC engineering physics grad, and Dr. Brian Day as well as a team of engineering students." McEwen has a PhD, Auchinleck has a BASc, and Day has an MD. Who knows about the engineering students?
  • The Cure of Diseases at a distance or at least by Transplantation. The first kidney transplant was performed in 1954 by a team of MDs led by Joeseph E. Murray.
  • The Attaining Gigantick Dimensions (do you even lift, Boyle?)
  • The Emulating of Fish without Engines by Custome and Education only (ummm...)
  • The Acceleration of the Production of things out of Seed. Norman Borlaug, who led the Green Revolution, had a PhD.
  • The Transmutation of Metalls (conversion of radioactive thorium to radium was discovered prior to 1920)
  • The makeing of Glass Malleable (clear plastic was invented prior to 1920).
  • The Transmutation of Species in Mineralls, Animals, and Vegetables. The first transgenic animal was created by a team led by Thomas Wagner and Peter C. Hoppe, both PhDs holders.
  • The Liquid Alkaest and Other dissolving Menstruums (ambiguous)
  • The making of Parabolicall and Hyperbolicall Glasses (invented prior to 1920)
  • The making Armor light and extremely hard (first commercially sold bulletproof vest invented prior to 1920)
  • The practibable and certain way of finding Longitudes (invented prior to 1920)
  • The use of Pendulums at Sea and in Journeys, and the Application of it to watches (invented prior to 1920)
  • Potent Druggs to alter or Exalt Imagination, Waking, Memory, and other functions, and appease pain, procure innocent sleep, harmless dreams, etc. Anesthetics were pioneered before the 1920s. Let's go with LSD and antidepressants. LSD was invented by Albert Hoffman, who had a PhD. The first antidepressant was invented by Irving Selikoff and Edward H. Robizek, both of whom were post-1930s American MDs.
  • A Ship to saile with All Winds, and A Ship not to be Sunk (invented prior to 1920/never invented, unless you count the Titanic)
  • Freedom from Necessity of much Sleeping exemplify’d by the Operations of Tea and what happens in Mad-Men. Modafinil, I guess? Michel Jouvet invented it, and had a PhD.
  • Pleasing Dreams and physicall Exercises exemplify'd by the Egyptian Electuary and by the Fungus mentioned by the French Author (If MDMA counts, it was synthesized prior to 1920)
  • Great Strength and Agility of Body exemplify’d by that of Frantick Epileptick and Hystericall persons. They already had powerful domesticated animals and machines to harness wind and water, so Boyle was probably thinking of a combination of great strength with a guiding intelligence, like a robot. George Devol, inventor of the first robot, had no higher education.
  • A perpetuall Light (the lightbulb was invented prior to the 20s, but mine still burns out, and I hear that entropy is always increasing...)
  • Varnishes perfumable by Rubbing. Uh, saving the best for last, Boyle? Gale Matson was a 3M chemist, inventor of the technology underlying scratch and sniff in the 1960s, and he had a PhD.

Discussion

Full disclosure: most of the inventions from prior to 1920 were created by people without terminal degrees, ranging from the tailor who created the first bulletproof vest to the Wright brothers, who didn't have high school diplomas.

I also knew that Borlaug and Hoffman had PhDs before I made this list. They both seemed like the most obvious 20th century choices for the categories in Boyle's list, but still, you could accuse me of cherry-picking. But my process in general was to choose an invention that seemed to fit the bill, and only then look up the inventor.

I also revised this post when I realized that Soddy and Rutherford discovered nuclear transmutation in 1901, which is outside of the domain of this analysis. This changes the analysis.

Of the 15 named scientists who headed up the 9 groundbreaking inventions on this list, 2 didn't have terminal degrees (Auchinleck and Devol).

It's hard to say which, if either, of the following two arguments the existence of post-1920 non-PhD/MD STEM Nobel Prize winners supports:

a) The fact that STEM Nobel Prizes do sometimes get awarded to non-PhD/MDs confirms that they're awarded on merit, not credentials. Thus, the fact that the overwhelming majority do have PhDs/MDs suggests that terminal degrees really are ~necessary.

b) The fact that STEM Nobel Prizes do sometimes get awarded to non-PhD/MDs confirms that you don't need one to do groundbreaking work. Perhaps innovative people just tend to get PhDs/MDs, but they would still have found a way to make their groundbreaking inventions without those degrees.

Conclusion

It's a small sample, but overall, I'm surprised that 13% of these inventors didn't have PhDs/MDs. That's a point against my original argument.

It's interesting that both of them worked in robotics. I'm hesitant to generalize, but if I did this with other historical lists, I wonder what the proportion of non-credentialed groundbreaking inventors would be, and what fields they worked in. That might be a way of getting at the fields or types of important inventions most tractable for a smart, motivated outsider.

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Great post! And as a costly signal of me liking the post I just went through and replaced all of your unicode-strikethroughts with proper strikethrough text, that is available in the new editor (which you can access if you opt into beta features)

Well, as a costly signal of me appreciating it, I just held my mouse button down an extra couple of seconds to give you a strong upvote! Thanks habryka :)

Not to be a jerk about it, but surely correlation doesn't imply causation. A better explanation is that being <the sort of person who will eventually do groundbreaking work> will cause you to get a PhD, but the PhD may not be causally implicated.

We can see a good example of this in Judith Rich Harris, who was the sort of person to go to a PhD program, but was kicked out before she could finish, and yet went on to revolutionize developmental psychology anyways.

Also note that it was harder to get a PhD in the past. These days it's easy enough that if you want to do research you might as well.

a) The fact that STEM Nobel Prizes do sometimes get awarded to non-PhD/MDs confirms that they're awarded on merit, not credentials. 

No. I just shows that there are cases where the merit is strong enough to counteract the lack of credentials. 

I don’t necessarily disagree, but why are you confident that STEM Nobels are heavily credentialized? Can you give some examples of breakthroughs in bio, chem, physics, medicine, or math that you feel deserved the prize, didn‘t win, and were discovered by a non-PhD/MD?

My main thesis is that STEM nobels are the result of status competition and networking. To win one, it's not only a requirement to have created scientific value but it's also necessary to win the status competition to be elected. If you start with the assumption that academia is an immoral maze it's a logical conclusion that maze dynamics affect how voting for honors at the top of it is done. 

The first example for a breakthough that I think deserves a Nobel Prize but hasn't is the discovery of the link of lung cancer and smoking. Franz Hermann Müller seems to be the first person to establish the claim but we know very little about him. 

He does seem to have made the discovery during his dissertation and it's not clear what happend to Müller afterwards. 

He has no Wikipedia article. I pulled the information I could find into a Wikidata item (https://www.wikidata.org/wiki/Q97128811).

The problem is not only one of breakthough deserving of prizes but also one of credit. There are often many people in the sphere of an invention and academic politics leads to those with the best connections getting the price.

To get a better understanding of the role status and networking plays in Nobel Price giving, there might be someone in History and Philosophy of Science that studied the question.

Here's an article re-analyzing Mueller's paper. It finds that "The quality of the group comparison was modest and it did not add qualitatively new knowledge compared to a report published 8 years earlier." So I'm not prepared to accept him as a candidate path-breaker.

Overall, I'm just not convinced that we have the levels of intellectual parasitism that would justify the idea that scientific credit is doled out to, or stolen by, people merely based on their credentials. Nor that credentials and connections are little-correlated with actual contribution to the discovery in question.

I just feel like if that were the case, we'd hear more modern stories of stolen science, with a significant number being clear-cut cases of "An non-credentialed amateur discovered this, and some PhD came in and stole all the credit."

In this article on 10 famous instances of "stolen science," the cases are examples of:

  • Sexism
  • Science not actually getting stolen
  • Credit going to the perfected model, rather than the poor prototype
  • Two competing researchers/inventors (sometimes both PhDs) who published at almost the same time
  • Spying
  • Early death, leaving others to carry on the work

In the few cases here where it's clear-cut that credit was being unfairly stolen, it was sexism, not lack of a PhD, that was the real underlying problem.

This is just the first article that popped up on Google. Maybe there are lots more cases of stolen scientific credit that weren't sexy enough for journalism, where lack of a PhD was the root vulnerability that permitted the theft. If you can find them, I'm all ears!

Nobody got a Nobel Prize for discovering that smoking caused cancer when it was a very important finding of the 20th century. That's why I picked that example. 

Again, I don't think that the PhD is central. What's central is the academic network. 

There's little critical academic journalism as is. There's a motivation to fund research into stories where credit was stolen due to sexism (or racism) in a way there isn't for uncovering people who deserve credit.

The interview between Eric and Bret Weinstein on the Portal podcast provides one case of stolen scientific credit and is quite insightful.

I think the initial NLP developers discovered mimikri of bodylanguage and implementation intentions under different names decades before the concepts made their way into academic psychology. Francine Shapiro who developed EMDR was an assistent of John Grinder and never mentioned that publically and presented her discovery of EMDR was a surprise discovery when it's the kind of thing that makes much sense under the NLP paradigm.

Instead of crediting the NLP developers for their strong intellectual prodcutivity they aren't giving any credit and maligned as pseudoscientists. 

I'd chalk up the lack of a smoking/lung cancer Nobel to the fact that a rule of the Nobel Prize is that it a prize may not be shared among more than three individuals, nor awarded posthumously. I think it makes more sense to assume there just were too many contributions to select 1-3 individuals who should be credited with "discovering that smoking causes cancer."

Interpreted that way, the lack of a Nobel for smoking/lung cancer is actually evidence against your assertion that the Nobel Prize is about credentialism and against the phenomenon of credit-stealing by high-status individuals. Who wouldn't want to claim personal credit for discovering that smoking causes cancer if they could get away with it?

I'll check out the Portal podcast interview when I get a chance. Can you find a source for your claims about NLP and EMDR? It sounds like it needs an in-depth treatment to tease out the issues.

Remember, the overwhelming preponderance of PhD-holders among prize winners and discovery-makers means that there has to be a lot of mere credentialism and credit-stealing in order for those factors to explain the phenomenon. We should expect there to be plenty of clear-cut stories of out-and-out theft if that is true. Salient examples shouldn't be hard to find. Frankly, I just don't see it.

Can you find a source for your claims about NLP and EMDR? 

https://www.nlp.ch/pdfdocs/Historie_EMDR_Wingwave.pdf it's unfortunately no independent source. 

You might ask why there's no independent reporting here. Imagine a reporter goes to his editor and asks to write a story. Ask Francine Shapiro whether she was employed by Grinder. Ask her about how her name came to be on the article on Eye Accessing Cues in the Holistic Life Magazine. Ask her why she didn't mention being enough into the NLP model of Eye Accessing Cues to write public articles but still billed her discovery as an independent surprise discovery without mentioning any of that history.

That's not a story that any editor of a major publication would sign off as it goes counternarrative. You don't challenge the credit that powerful mainstream people take and say that they didn't give enough credits to those that don't have strong mainstream backing. At least unless you are doing it for the ends of critical theory. 

The story of Francine Shapiro is an easy one to research given that it's well layed out in that PDF and it still doesn't get a reporter to write it up. There are likely plenty of cases of credit rippoff that are less well documented and thus it would be even harder for a reporter to write about them.

In general if you believe in the immoral maze frame you shouldn't expect that public credit goes to whoever is deserving of the credit. 

When it comes to more exploration of the media dynamics the Weinstein podcast is good.

I think that a massive trend of scientific theft would actually make for compelling journalism. I also think you’d hear about it through the academic whisper network. People would post about it on their personal blogs, on Reddit, Twitter, and talk about it in private conversations.

This just doesn’t seem to happen. And if the evidence is so hard to come by, I’m not sure you have a basis for being as convinced it exists as you seem to be.

I think that a massive trend of scientific theft would actually make for compelling journalism.

Going counter-narrative might be compelling narrative in the sense that people want to read the story but it's not a story that a newspaper wants to publish. How many US newspapers tell you that one of the most reputable US investigative-journalists wrote a story that about how the US military didn't kill Osama bin Laden? It's a compelling story, but not one that the US media wants to touch as it goes counter-narrative, so he had to publish it outside of the US while the US media mostly ignored it. 

To argue for a massive trend you also have to do a lot of work to document every case and therefore open a lot of fights against powerful people.

I also think you’d hear about it through the academic whisper network. 

The academic whisper network is not the place where I would expect a lot of talk about how academics rip off non-academics. 

If academia is a immoral maze as you suggested in Survival in the immoral maze of college  you wouldn't expect people in academia to talk about it because talking about it gets you shut out for being indiscrete. 

I think Nassim Taleb talks about it a bit when he says that a lot of what academics do boils down to teaching birds to fly.

One of Taleb's examples is the Black–Scholes equation. According to Taleb, the equation was used by traders before Black and Scholes did their work. Black–Scholes work was basically about how when you make a bunch of assumptions that don't apply to real financial markets you can derive the formula. Afterwards they tanked a headfund, that they capitalized with the reputation they got from a Nobel prize, because they acted as if all those assumptions are true.

Elaborating and making more explicit some of the other models here, I propose this alternative explanation which I don't think you've ruled out (and which I'm sympathetic to).

1. PhDs have no causal impact on research productivity.

2. PhDs, for the sort of person who does groundbreaking impressive original research, have substantial positive expected personal value. You get social legibility and status, you get higher pay, and it is a chance to do funded research for a few years while building useful connections. "PhDs are fun" is not a popular view in 2020, but I'm enjoying mine.

Now, I'd be surprised if this strong model is entirely true. The social legibility and status make it easier to spend more time on research, the presence potentially pushes people away from less interesting but more profitable problems, etc. But your current analysis does not allow us to distinguish between this model and its inverse (The entire observed effect of PhDs on research productivity is causal, and none of it is omitted variable bias).

I’m aware this is correlative, and I tried to address this in my post. My model is that PhDs are some mix of useful and attractive to unproven geniuses.

The reason they’re useful and helpful is an interesting issue of its own. My main goal, though, was to rule out the idea that they’re not actually useful or attractive as a platform for innovative work relative to either saving and self-funding or going straight into industry.

I actually agree generally with the idea that credentials aren't necessary, but that perhaps makes me all the more suspicious of evidence like the kind you present because I think it strongly risks suffering from unnoticed selection bias.

For example, maybe all the stuff that could be invented without having done the work to obtain a terminal degree was invented in the past, and newer stuff just couldn't be done without the degree. Sure, this is a noisy phenomenon and sometimes you'll either find some low hanging fruit we previously missed that someone without a degree can grab, or you'll find someone smart enough that a degree doesn't make a difference, but largely I think the data also fits a story where the present is different from the past in a way that implies degrees are needed now even if they were less necessary in the past.

I don't think the data you present does much to contradict this possibility, so it reasonably remains possible that you are both right (about the past) and wrong (about the present) at the same time.

You and I are in perfect agreement. The whole motivation for my investigation is that I think that in modern times, a degree is ~necessary for groundbreaking work, even though it clearly wasn't in the 1800s and early 1900s.

Oh, I may have misunderstood the conclusion you were drawing.