Incompetence and fraud are separate.

My impression is that being a scientific fraud is hard work. The system is designed to catch honest mistakes -- reviewers will tell you "this analysis doesn't make sense" or "this is a source of error you didn't control for," or even "we don't know what's wrong, but we don't believe this result." And they'll say it anonymously and confidentially when they don't publish your paper.

Being a fraud requires deliberate dishonesty. You would know if you were faking data. And if you are an LW reader, you probably would notice if you were doing selective reporting in such a way as to undermine your statistical tests. You would know if you were committing fraud. If you don't do it, you aren't it.

That brings us to incompetent. I don't think there's a category of otherwise-intelligent non-handicapped people who just cannot do lab work. The prior probability on "gets accepted to grad school / undergrad research / whatever and cannot learn" is low. Do you find that in general there are things you can't learn?

The people I've known who failed out of science did not fail through inability or catastrophic mistake. They got distracted by something else in life, or they never got very interested in their work, or they were very badly advised, or the like. Sometimes it's bad luck -- the funding runs out unexpectedly, their advisor turns out to be a bad match, the data or samples get destroyed by accident, or somesuch.

Many people aren't good enough or dedicated enough or lucky enough to make important scientific contributions. Certainly, most people don't make important contributions. But that's a different problem than incapacity, and probably shouldn't worry you too much. You can very easily have a happy life as a mediocre scientist. You can even do something important. To pick an extreme example, Angela Merkel doesn't seem to have done anything notable as a researcher, but has left her mark in other ways.

Something I didn't know until just now is that Merkel's PhD did actually help her career in politics. Fairly early in her career, she was made minister for the environment and nuclear policy -- and I assume that her chemistry PhD was part of her qualification for the post.

As for feeling like a fraud: I don't fabricate data, naturally. But there's always that moment at the mass spec where you go "eh, that looks like it should be the right peak, rather than this slightly smaller, but closer peak." It's not fabricating data, but it feels like it's in the same vague region, from the same source. But I meant something more like "other people are doing your work for you, you're a burden, they're just humoring you until they're convinced you're to be got rid of."

As for incompetence: I do find it difficult to un... (read more)

More "Stupid" Questions

by NancyLebovitz 1 min read31st Jul 2013498 comments


This is a thread where people can ask questions that they would ordinarily feel embarrassed for not knowing the answer to. The previous "stupid" questions thread went to over 800 comments in two and a half weeks, so I think it's time for a new one.