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On merit and being first

posted Jul 10, 2014, 5:38 AM by Kevin Esvelt   [ updated Oct 25, 2016, 9:32 AM ]
The practical merit of a scientific discovery or invention is defined by how greatly the world differs from one in which the inventor had not made it. How long would it have taken for some other scientist or inventor to come up with a functional equivalent, and to what extent would other discoveries and technologies have been delayed as a result?

Our culture places an inordinate and arguably irrational emphasis on who is the first to a discovery while largely ignoring how long it would have taken in their absence. Few breakthroughs are so earth-shattering that the world would not be functionally identical had they arrived a month later.

What does this mean for the practice of science? Only that we should be mindful of practical impact when choosing our projects, assigning lesser weight to those that are likely to be pursued by other laboratories.  Newton and Leibniz both deserve intellectual credit for the calculus, but would the world be different had only one of them discovered it?  On a practical level, perhaps not - and arguably we might be better off had one of them focused on a different problem instead.

All that said, we should keep in mind that science is a collaborative undertaking. The stereotype of the lone genius inventor is just that. Yes, many creative ideas arise from individual brainstorming, but they are refined and brought to fruition by groups. There are many brilliant people in the world, and it's flat-out hard to think of projects that no one else has. We may end up competing with other laboratories unknowingly. We may be first, or we may not. And that's OK. All we can do is give it our best and proceed with confidence as we strive to make the world a better place.


Tags: science, invention, merit, philosophy