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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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October 1, 2002

Silver Tongues, Golden Hands?

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Posted by Derek

I've been thinking more about Sam Waksal's interesting career (see the September 29 post below, and this link for an online version of the story - thanks to Charles Murtaugh for coming up with it.) What I'm specifically wondering about is the phenomenon of the silver-tongued hot-talking scientist that he represents.

Charles mentions that he's run across a few of these himself (and I'm pretty sure we overlap on a couple of them, research being the world that it is.) There's no doubt that in every scientific field, some people are better at creating a mystique, at getting other people to talk about them and their work. My question is: is there any correlation between the ability to do these things and the ability to do great science?

If you go Cartesian and map out four quadrants, you get these categories:

Fluent Talker and Really Good Scientist (the late Peter Medawar comes to mind here, but there are a number of examples)
Awkward Speaker but Really Good Scientist (even more examples - think about the various Big Cheeses you've heard giving seminars.)
Fluent Talker but Poor Scientist (Waksal and his ilk.)
Awkward Speaker and Poor Scientist (legion, unfortunately.)

I'm willing to hazard that if there's a correlation, that it's a slightly negative one. Scientific prowess and a gift for communication can be orthogonal to each other, because the results can speak for themselves (they don't, always, but if they hit at the right moment, they can.) Meanwhile, if someone does low-quality work, the only way for them to achieve recognition is to be able to talk a good game.

By the way, I'm simplifying here by classing written and spoken fluency as the same thing. They certainly aren't - Vladimir Nabokov, for example, said once that he thought like a genius, he wrote like a distinguished author, and he spoke like a child. (Which is why he never gave extemporaneous interviews!) I'd say that the spoken fluency is more important for making a big splash, the written more important for lasting impact.

That doesn't mean, of course, that you should give the next wonderful scientific speaker you hear a fishy glance of suspicion. Sometimes a person's verbal facility outruns their scientific ability, but they don't necessarily use it for harm. It's the BS artists that we have to watch out for - the ones who can spin out wonderful ideas and stories, and who always make sure to leave themselves a starring role.

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