Wednesday, September 03, 2003

They Moot Horses, Don’t They?

Handicappers evaluate the outcomes of horse races. In a similar sense and probably with results of comparable reliability, I’m a science handicapper. That is, although I’m not a scientist, I bet on various scientific disputes on the basis of the form of the competitors and whatever savvy I’ve picked up hanging around the track. Just as it doesn’t matter that the handicappers of thoroughbreds aren’t jockeys, trainers, or, for that matter, horses, I and my ilk are not necessarily disqualified because of our pig ignorance of div, curl, and grad and the Sonic Hedgehog gene. In any case, because the sciences really are empirical, which is to say they are games of chance, even the qualified participants need to understand them as sporting propositions as well as airless exercises of technical ingenuity. And just as in the handicapping of horse races, the great object is not to determine the most probable winner of the race—that’s often enough pretty obvious—but to identify those entries that are better than their reputations and will pay a good price if they win, place, or show. The ambitious scientist is on the lookout for surprising hypotheses that nevertheless have a worthwhile chance of panning out.

The pari-mutual system partly explains why famous scientists are often colorful characters even though scientists in general are not. The public only takes notice of the high rollers, but betting on the long shots is not normal behavior for cautious, methodical people whose most salient virtue is as an almost supernatural tolerance for boredom. Indeed, granted the intense competition that defines the scientific enterprise and the huge premium for coming in first, the winners in the contest are increasingly likely to be, if not simply unsound by the lights of traditional scientific ethics, truly dodgy types who are willing to cut corners, jump the gun, make exaggerated claims, cook results in order to “frame the guilty,” and, above all, play to the cameras, all of which will be taken for signs of genius in the winners. You don’t hear much about the much more numerous losers, but I’ve met hundreds of them, mostly teaching in state colleges. At least they don’t make glue out of ‘em.

No comments: