The Scientist and the Financial Analyst

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Posted by Rezwan Razani on Oct 14, 2011 at 02:44 PM
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An excerpt from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “The Black Swan” captures the pain of pursuing science in a world of limited metrics for “success”.  Fusion, “oversold” yet underfunded, is the poster child for getting this kind of flak.

Peer Cruelty

Every morning you leave your cramped apartment in Manhattan’s East Village to go to your laboratory at the Rockefeller University in the East Sixties.  You return in the late evening, and people in your social network ask you if you had a good day, just to be polite.  At the laboratory, people are more tactful.  Of course you did not have a good day; you found nothing.  You are not a watch repairman.  Your finding nothing is very valuable, since it is part of the process of discovery – hey, you know where not to look.  Other researchers, knowing your results, would avoid trying your special experiment, provided a journal is thoughtful enough to consider your “found nothing” as information and publish it.

Meanwhile your brother-in-law is a salesman for a Wall Street firm, and keeps getting large commissions – large and steady commissions.  “He is doing very well,” you hear, particularly from your father-in-law, with a small pensive nanosecond of silence after the utterance – which makes you realize that he just made a comparison.  It was involuntary, but he made one.

Holidays can be terrible.  You run into your brother-in-law at family reunions and, invariably, detect unmistakable signs of frustration on the part of your wife, who, briefly, fears that she married a loser, before remembering the logic of your profession.  But she has to fight her first impulse.  Her sister will not stop talking about their renovations, their new wallpaper.  Your wife will be a little more silent than usual on the drive home.  This sulking will be made slightly worse because the car you are driving is rented, since you cannot afford to garage a car in Manhattan.  What should you do?  Move to Australia and thereby make family reunions less frequent, or switch brothers-in-laws by marrying someone with a less “successful” brother?

Or should you dress like a hippie and become defiant?  That may work for an artist, but not so easily for a scientist or a businessman.  You are trapped.

You work on a project that does not deliver immediate or steady results; all the while, people around you work on projects that do.  You are in trouble.  Such is the lot of scientists, artists, and researchers lost in society rather than living in an insulated community or an artist colony.

Positive lumpy outcomes, for which we either collect big or get nothing, prevail in numerous occupations, those invested with a sense of mission such as doggedly pursuing (in a smelly laboratory) the elusive cure for cancer, writing a book that will change the way people view the world (while living hand to mouth), making music, or painting miniature icons on subway trains and considering it a higher form of art despite the diatribes of the antiquated “scholar” Harold Bloom.

If you are a researcher, you will have to publish inconsequential articles in “prestigious” publications so that others say hello to you once in a while when you run into them at conferences.

If you run a public corporation, things were great for you before you had shareholders, when you and your partners were the sole owners, along with savvy venture capitalists who understood uneven results and the lumpy nature of economic life.  But now you have a slow-thinking thirty-year-old security analyst at a downtown Manhattan firm who “judges” your results and reads too much into them.  He likes routine rewards, and the last thing you can deliver are routine rewards.

Many people labor in life under the impression that they are doing something right, yet they may not show solid results for a long time.  They need a capacity for continuously adjourned gratification to survive a steady diet of peer cruelty without becoming demoralized.  They look like idiots to their cousins, they look like idiots to their peers, they need courage to continue.  No confirmation comes to them, no validation, no fawning students, no Nobel, no Schnobel.  “How was your year:” brings them a small but containable spasm of pain deep inside, since almost all of their years will seem wasted to someone looking at their life from the outside.  Then bang, the lumpy event comes that brings the grand vindication.  Or it may never come.

Believe me, it is tough to deal with the social consequences of the appearance of continuous failure.  We are social animals; hell is other people.

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