The best way to get your theory to succeed is to kill its opponents

By | 13.8.2016

While progress in technology development is driven by demand and supply forces, progress in academia and research does not reflect market signals (at least not as sensitively). Therefore the path of evolution is not paved in such a straightforward way and progress is more chaotic and long-winded.  Max Planck argued that progress in research, which is given by accepting a new theory, is reached when its opponents die rather than when they are convinced by proofs. To explore this thought, Azoulay, Fons-Rosen and Zivin (2015) tested how the death of excellent scientists affects the subsequent academic output. The authors analyzed more than 31 000 distinct sub-fields and defined more than 12 000 scientists as “stars of a sub-field”. Moreover, they managed to distinguish who, from contemporary scientists, were collaborators and non-collaborators with the passed star scientist.

The results show that when a star scientist dies, her collaborators suffer a drop in output, whereas the output of non-collaborators tends to increase. The overall effect is rather increasing, but nearly insignificant, as the decrease of collaborators’ output is offset and overcome by the increase of non-collaborators’ ones. Furthermore, as authors pointed out, it means that current scientists restrict the entry of new and innovative thoughts, opinions, and methods.

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Reference: Azoulay, P., Fons-Rosen, C., & Zivin, J. S. G. (2015). Does science advance one funeral at a time? (No. w21788). National Bureau of Economic Research. Available here.

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