Fourth Floor Studio

June 12, 2007

The utility of arrogance

Filed under: science — chris @ 12:01 pm

Here’s something that has begun many a bar conversation: why are (some) scientists arrogant? From the grand old men of our time to first year graduate students, science seems enriched with people sublimely convinced they are all right, all the time. Here’s a couple of reasons why this might be a selected trait:

  1. Survival. Don’t kid yourself – academics is a cut-throat business. A certain self-confidence is required to navigate the heady political heights of grantsmanship, institutional funding, and policy making. There are many ways of making yourself heard, and it seems that shouting loudly is one of them. Science (unlike the humanities) is fortunate in that eventually data can objectively show who was right, so this doesn’t get too out of hand.
  2. Sanity. Have you ever pinned your career on a five-year project that you have no evidence is even possible? Welcome to science! Given the likelihood of failure, it takes a modicum of self-inflation to even get out of bed in the morning – especially after you’ve just received a vicious, cursory review of your latest paper. Feeling like a twelve-year-old with red ink all over their homework is not something many people continue to face throughout their careers.
  3. Blazing your own trail. Research is essentially a process of making things up as you go along. It involves challenging current wisdom, scrutinising others’ findings, and, at some level, thinking you can do things better. It does take a certain arrogance to do all these things: it’s enshrined in the belief that you can add something to human knowledge.

Now, I’m not saying that arrogance is good, or even excusable. There are plenty of good (and quite a few great) scientists who are modest, kind, even demure. But don’t kid yourself – there’s a little seed of arrogance deep in their souls somewhere. They just don’t let it get out of control.



  1. There are a few genuinely-arrogant cases (in the unpleasant sense) of course, same as any sub-population but I think you’re right. I think that abruptness or directness is sometimes misinterpreted as arrogance too.

    It is part of the belief that you can make a difference. Nature is so vast and complex, people so tiny and insignificant. What makes us think we can ever understand even a tiny fraction of any part of the world? Well, you have to believe that you can.

    Comment by nsaunders — June 13, 2007 @ 12:52 am

  2. My old boss had a rather insightful breakdown of the average grad’s emotional career. The bright-eyed start; connection and understanding to material leading to arrogance; the mid-PhD dip when you realise your work is a drop in the ocean; and the final sort-of-adjustment.

    Assuming you’ve made it this far, you’ve probably come up with all sorts of psychological tricks to keep you sane. Arrogance (in moderation) is one of them, I suppose. A “why not me?” factor, if you like.

    Comment by chris — July 18, 2007 @ 1:21 am

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