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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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February 1, 2012

Smugness as a Warning Sign

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Posted by Derek

At Xconomy, Luke Timmerman has words of wisdom for people in the small biotech world: "Never back smug". That's a quote from venture capitalist Bob More, and it rings true to me as well. Says TImmerman: ". . .it strikes me that life sciences has more than its share of spinmeisters, hypesters, smoke-and-mirrors actors, and worse."

Then there’s smugness, that arrogance or sense of superiority. Developing innovative new drugs or devices requires a strong ego, high IQ, stamina, an inspiring personality that attracts other people, and other things. Often, that combination spills over into smugness or arrogance. More says he watches for a lot of the same cues that his sister, a teacher, watches for. . .

I suspect that many readers will have encountered this trait (very occasionally) in their careers. There's a particular danger in the sciences, because (on the one hand) there's so much to know, that a given person does indeed have a good chance of knowing something that others don't. But on that inevitable other hand, this knowledge is set against a background of the huge, vast, pile of what we don't know - and if you keep that perspective, that knowing little smile just starts to look ridiculous.

And consider the audience - scientists, good ones, pride themselves on curiosity and being able to master new material. That means that "You don't have to know about that" or "Don't you worry about that, that's my department" (not to mention "Oh, you probably wouldn't understand") aren't going to get a good reception, not from anyone who could be of any help, anyway. Someone with that kind of attitude ends up driving away people who are smart, competent, and motivated - they won't put up with it.

Comments (8) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Who Discovers and Why


1. Luysii on February 1, 2012 8:53 AM writes...

What could be more smug than "Junk DNA", "noncoding DNA" (for protein that is), "Pseudogene", "nonsense codon" etc. etc. Molecular biology is not without sin.

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2. milkshake on February 1, 2012 9:22 AM writes...

there is a thin line between investor pitch and oversell, self-confidence and self-delusion, between wishful thinking and outright fraud. When you bullshit you do not necessarily set out to lie, you are only indifferent to unpleasant little details and wave them off saying to yourself they are not "show-stoppers" and will be sorted out later. If you don't care to hear why your methodology is having problems and why the seemingly convincing data that you present repeatedly to the investors might be irrelevant or even an artifact, you end up selling stuff that does not work and will never work. Then you will need even more desperate bullshit to bridge over the widening gap between the facts and how they are spun, that is until the stock options can be cashed out ...

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3. pete on February 1, 2012 11:12 AM writes...

I'd like to believe that there's probably less smugness among Biotech management than there used to be because the Biotech fossil record is so rich with the bones of erstwhile bullsh*t artists. That plus the generally higher level of skepticism among investors and health care providers.

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4. CMCguy on February 1, 2012 11:27 AM writes...

Although I think Biotech does have numerous overly smug/arrogant characters I don't believe in general it comes anywhere close to the ingrained, dominance and as high levels that exist at Big Pharma. Most of the former are tempered by the struggle for basic survival while attempting to innovate whereas the latter may now be facing a similar challenge except fall back on "history of profit" that makes them even more prone to grandstanding.

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5. Rogi on February 1, 2012 12:26 PM writes...


Smugness born of arrogant indifference or certitude is vastly different than misplaced confidence drawn from or attributed to ignorance born from limited perspective and/or unintended but well meaning initial musings or hypotheses.

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6. lynn on February 1, 2012 12:37 PM writes...

Oh, lots of smugness in science... Some academics have it [when dealing with Big Pharma, for example]. It's a chain. Somehow this brings to mind Swift's poem:

So nat'ralists observe, a flea
Hath smaller fleas that on him prey,
And these have smaller fleas that bite 'em,
And so proceed ad infinitum.

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7. daen on February 1, 2012 12:52 PM writes...

I've worked for some of these people at a biotech startup that shall remain nameless. The founders' intransigence and smugness is what drove me away in the end. I think it kind of explains how they remain unprofitable after more than ten years, although by the same token, I'm not quite sure how they remain in business ...

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8. Evorich on February 2, 2012 8:55 AM writes...

"I don't know" is a very underused phrase. The higher in management/academia people get, the less they use it, despite the likelihood being that they are looking after a growing field of things that they don't know much about.

"A man who asks a stupid question is an idiot for a second. A man who doesn't ask a stupid question is an idiot for a lifetime."

VC's invest in three things:
1. people
2. people
3. people

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