Science Book Essays

Dear colleagues and friends,

For many years now, I have been interested in how personalities tacitly shape interactions between scientists. While science is generally viewed as an objective activity, I have repeatedly been struck along my scientific career by how self-centered scientists with a big ego (i.e. high in narcissism) are often the most successful. Reading about social personalities and evolutionary psychology, I have tried to decipher how social dominance influences interactions between scientists within their community. This travel through emerging fields of psychology has been summarized in a book entitled “An Essay on Science and Narcissism: How do high-ego personalities drive research in life sciences?”. This book is an attempt to compile many implicit factors that are often the focus of informal discussion at meetings but rarely conceptualized. It also provides an overview of our knowledge of the narcissistic personality as well as insights into how the recent increase in narcissism in Western society, which is of great concern for its sustainability, could explain many ethical issues that have arisen in science. Since I could not find an editor interested in the manuscript, this book is published as an auto-edition and can be obtained via internet. I am still exploring ways to diffuse it at a cheaper prize worldwide. If you enjoyed it, do not hesitate to spread the information among people interested in personality and science!

For a short synthesis, see ” Science, narcissism and the quest for visibility“, The FEBS Journal March 2017. Open access

Click Here for Abstract

Scientists are often seen as meticulous and impartial individuals solely devoted to their study and the search for scientific truth. But a deeper analysis reveals that many of them are highly egocentric and sensitive to their public image and its associated privileges. Egocentrism, elitism, strategic media occupation and self-enhancement strategies are some of the first particularities that strike a newcomer to the academic world.

An Essay on Science and Narcissism analyses the influence of narcissism, an important human personality dimension, on science. The central idea is that narcissism is an advantageous trait for succeeding in an academic environment. Scientists with a high ego are better at convincing others of the importance of their research and, as excellent networkers, they are well placed to exploit the different facets of the research system. In his essay, Bruno Lemaitre also discusses the psychological and sociobiological origins of narcissism and investigates the possible connection between narcissism on one hand, and dominance and short-term mating strategy on the other. The recent increase in narcissism in Western society and how this destabilises not only our society but also scientific practice is also discussed. This essay offers an alternative view of science by analysing the narcissistic personality: prevalent among leading scientists, but rarely placed in the spotlight.

This book contains five illustrations done by Tom Reed. You can download the table of content here.

Click Here for Comments in the Press & Social Media

‘In his fascinating exploration, Bruno Lemaitre uncovers the complex face of narcissism in the world of science. This isn’t about science as most people think it happens, but the real – often personal and ego-laden – science. The science that people who aren’t insiders don’t see. This book will be an eye-opener for people on the outside of the scientific community, as well a treat for those interested in the positive and negative manifestations of narcissism in the scientific community.’

W. Keith Campbell, Department of Psychology, University of Georgia, Athens, USA

‘An immersion into the world of life science research, with an exquisite and sensible description of one fascinating character, the narcissistic scientist. Very instructive not only for people working in academia but also for those who want to understand the research world, and our society in general. Includes brilliant cartoons and text boxes, which convey clear and simple messages.’

Virginie Orgogozo, Research director, Institut Jacques Monod, Paris; France

The Gardian: article & podcast (January 2016)

Labtimes: Interview on the book (december 2016)                                                 Part 1: Defining the problemPart 2: Bad beahvioursPart 3: Solution?

EPFL Magazine: Interview in French on the topic (epfl-magazine-03-2016-interview_v3) (November 2016)

The Scientist: “The Narcissistic Scientist: Are leading researchers driven more by the quest for knowledge or the pursuit of fame?” and an excerpt of the book (October 2016)

Le Monde: «Le système de recherche favorise les personnalités narcissiques»

EMBO Encounters: Narcissism in science: good or bad? (Book review September 2016)

Bruno Lemaitre is professor at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland and he has been an EMBO Member since 2007. He recently published a book entiteld An Essay on Science and Narcissism: How do high-ego personalities drive research in life sciences?, in which he explores the link between narcissism and science, with a focus on life sciences. Lemaitre’s conclusion is that it is impossible to see narcissism as either good or bad. The trait is often useful for scientists and a certain dose of narcissism, maybe essential to becoming a scientist – and succeeding in an academic environment. Yet people with an overly strong narcissistic character negatively influence the community – in many different ways. “Unfortunately, the present system and science organization greatly favours narcissists, to the point that even bright people and hard workers may find the research environment too hostile,” Lemaitre writes. The author also discusses the origins of narcissism and its recent increase in Western society – with all the negative, destabilizing effects: “Narcissistic behavior becomes a serious threat as more and more individuals become increasingly self-centered.” James Briscoe, also an EMBO Member, recently commented on the book on Twitter: “Just read Lemaitre’s book on narcissism in science. Provocative, but depressingly familiar.”

Times Higher Education: “Is research a fertile hunting ground for narcissists?” by Matthew Reisz (August 4 2016)

Blog: “Labmosphere, a happy lab is a productive lab“(September 2016)

Blog “For better science” by of Leonid Schneider: “Bruno Lemaitre on Science and Narcissism“

How to buy this book ?

There is six ways to buy the book (prices include shipping):

If you are interested by an higher number of copies or to diffuse this essay on a larger scale contact me at: book@brunolemaitre.ch

 

 

 

BRUNO LEMAITRE, APRIL 2016Niels Jerne, the great seducer

Niels Jerne (1911–1994) was a charismatic Danish immunologist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1984. An interesting biography by the historian of science Thomas Söderqvist, Science as Autobiography—The Troubled Life of Niels Jerne, gives us an insight into his private and scientific life. This biography is based not only on written documents but also on a long series of interviews between Jerne and Söderqvist. Jerne did not want to accept a normal life but aimed for the sublime. He had gathered together all his personal papers in the secret hope that they would be kept for posterity. However, what he did not realize was that from these notes, his future biographer would be able to more accurately assess the development and success of this narcissist.

According to Jerne’s biographer, Jerne was not a bench scientist, could not pipette accurately and did not enjoy experimental work. Thomas Söderqvist notes that "Jerne later came to be considered very theoretical and 'extremely economical' in his experimental planning; it is said that he thought intensively before going into the laboratory, after which he carried out 'one or two critical experiments'." For Jerne, bench work was an inferior activity for a scientist of his calibre. His Nobel Prize was awarded for theories, rather than discoveries, notably the natural selection theory of immunology. Niels Jerne told his contemporaries that he had discovered the immune theory of selection while he was crossing a bridge in the middle of the night in Copenhagen. But in his article, he neglected to mention that he was strongly influenced by previous work from another immunologist Paul Ehrlich, which of course he did not quote. He transformed his discovery into a special and mythic moment, without recognizing any filiation with other scientists.

As is often the case for narcissistic scientists, he liked keywords and invented multiple innovative names such as epitope, paratope, idiotope, xenotope, pantachotope, cis- or trans-immunology, but only the word epitope is still in use. We will see later in this essay how the use of catchy keywords is often a way to increase recognition within the scientific community. Scientists high in narcissism are attracted by fields that use a special language full of jargon, as did immunology in the past, as this denotes that it is a conceptual field, whose main concepts can only be explained with difficulty to the lay public.

Interestingly, given narcissists' skill at networking, Jerne is also credited for a theory called the "idiotypic network" that was taught for many years (Jerne, 1974). It describes a speculative framework in which antibodies self-recognize each other, establishing a network paralleling the nervous system. This theory lasted for one or two decades, but now has been discredited as simply speculation based on very few empirical observations. But it did attract a lot of fans—an entire book is devoted to this network theory (Hoffmann, 2008). A significant number of prominent immunologists based their careers on this theory. While it could be imagined that past errors might cause these immunologists to become modest, this is far from being the case. In more general terms, many scientists, some being highly arrogant and dismissing other fields as minor, have built their careers on incorrect theories or papers that are completely insignificant today. In science, incorrect statements are rarely criticized openly. Eventually they simply discreetly disappear from the collective memory. Narcissistic people, as exemplified by politicians, have this capacity to impress and to appear to have the right answer at the right time, adapting all the while.

Jerne did not like to participate in communal activities such as teaching, considering it a lower-class activity. Söderqvist notes that "his duties as professor were confined to a couple of lectures per term to the medical students; furthermore, he declared that he did not want to teach microbiology, since it has nothing to do with immunology ('bacteriophages don't make antibodies')." Jerne viewed certain disciplines such as microbiology, so important for understanding the origin and function of the immune system, with contempt. This illustrates the perpetual need of narcissists to differentiate themselves from others. During his interview with his biographer Söderqvist, Jerne often referred to "the happiness of feeling superior to a lot of people" and declared that he felt himself to be "superior or more intelligent than other scientists." He asserted that many of the researchers he had met were "so stupid that the lady in the bread-shop is more intelligent than them, she has an awareness and an ability to observe and articulate her observations."

Jerne excelled in the art of conversation, exercising a real fascination around him. It was one of his great talents, at the centre of his social existence. His colleagues noticed that Jerne often took an opposing position during discussions, which is a classic way of staying at the centre of attention. While he considered himself above the base material condition of the world, money was essential to maintain his high standard of living and was an important criterion for his accepting a job.

Jerne was married three times and was regularly unfaithful to his wives. His first wife, Tjek Jerne, was somewhat neglected by Jerne and later in life committed suicide. After an initial period of excitement, his second wife rapidly became essentially a domestic servant and nanny to Jerne's children. Jerne married a third time to what could be considered a trophy partner (see Chapter 5). Jerne exhibited many features related to what could be called sexual narcissism. Studies have shown that narcissists are not particularly interested in loving and caring romantic partners who can provide them with real intimacy. Instead, they prefer partners who can enhance their image and their self-esteem: partners who have high social status or partners who are physically very attractive (Campbell, 1999). Experts in social personality used the term "trophy partner" for a physically attractive partner that brings attention to the narcissist. Reading Jerne's biography, it becomes obvious that science at the time was much less competitive and, for some scientists, consisted largely of talking and being part of a club of well-respected experts. The book also reveals periods of difficulty with alcohol in Jerne's life. Narcissistic personalities can be prone to depression in middle age, notably when they realize that their life does not fit their expectations (Debray, and Nollet, 1997). Obsessed by their own image, they are also very sensitive to their appearance and to ageing. This is due to the fact that narcissists approach human relationships based on seduction rather than empathy, and more by a need to impress rather than to affiliate.

This portrayal of Niels Jerne reveals that the art of conversation and seduction, so essential for success in science, is also a great asset for narcissistic people. Narcissistic scientists are found everywhere, but their proportion is particularly high in research fields such as immunology and neuroscience, which are in the public's focus and more sensitive to swagger and catchy wording. Narcissistic scientists (and intellectuals in general) have a capacity to attract attention and to fascinate other narcissistic persons, this fascination greatly exceeding their real achievements.

In contrast to many scientific biographies that further contribute to the idealization of their subjects, the biography of Niels Jerne by Thomas Söderqvist illustrates all of the facets of his scientific and private life, thus providing a unique opportunity to penetrate the mind of a narcissistic scientist. The reader can even sense the biographer's disappointment and disillusionment as he truly gets to know the person he had initially thought of as a great scientist.

From An Essay on Science and Narcissism: How Do High-Ego Personalities Drive Research in Life Sciences? By Bruno Lemaitre, published by Bruno Lemaitre. Copyright by Bruno Lemaitre, 2016.

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