A chip off the old block

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Supervisors don’t just train you in techniques, to a degree they impart their ideology as well. 

The mentoring process is an integral part of the scientific system, an inseparable feature of the art from its very earliest incarnations. Students apprentice themselves to masters to learn and inherit knowledge and expertise, and ultimately become masters in their turn.

While the choice of a mentor can often be alarmingly arbitrary (who gave an interesting lecture? who’s working on something you heard about a few weeks earlier? whose website lists two or three of your favourite keywords in their research description?), the consequences of the association – particularly for PhD level and above – are profound.

To a large extent, it will be the mentor’s influence that determines how young scientists do research, how they approach scientific problems, what their notion of high quality is, and how they think a research group should be led and run.

It shows how big a role luck plays in scientific development. Those arbitrary choices can end up calibrating the scientific antennae for the rest of a young scientist’s career, maybe even a lifetime. 

Conversely, it shows how great a responsibility a mentor takes on – sometimes thoughtlessly – when they accept a new member into their group. Just as in orienteering, it’s far easier to lose altitude than to gain it, and once a scientist’s notions of quality have been set, it can be very hard – indeed, it can constitute a cognitive blind spot of sorts – to lift individual standards above that level. Conscious self-improvement, and the maintenance of the highest possible standards, is hard when you don’t know what to aim for.

Mentorship doesn’t just impart techniques however, it also communicates ideology. Every field is populated by various competing models or conceptual frameworks, and scientists within that field will belong to one faction or another, with membership usually determined by the affiliation of their own mentors. The Jesuits well-understood the value of inculcation in the formative years, (“Give me the child for the first seven years, and I will give you the man”, their founder is reputed to have said), and it’s not stretching the point to say that the first seven years of a young scientist’s education at the bench is as likely to fix their ideological preferences as much as their practical ones.

In ideological terms then, what does it mean if your mentor is a proponent of a model that loses favour or is debunked? Conflicts between models are intellectual combat, and as in a physical battle some ideas ultimately become vanquished. In such cases, there may be a conflict between loyalty to your old boss, and the force of your own rational conclusions. Sometimes, quite often, young scientists will end up defending their mentor’s models at the cost of their own longer-term prospects.

In “The structure of scientific revolutions”, Thomas Kuhn noted the general intransigence of older scientists and their reluctance – entirely understandable, if they’ve spent a career propounding it – to give up the ideas and models that they have been wedded to. Ultimately, models and ideas expire when their biological advocates themselves die, and it’s that dying off rather than intellectual surrender that tends to settle a scientific issue.

That will hold for the big beasts that championed an idea, but what about their younger supporters? Joss Whedon’s science fiction classic “Firefly” explored what happens to people who end up on the losing side of a civil war, and young scientists too can find themselves in such a situation purely through their choice of mentor and a determination to honour their legacy.

It’s a strange and terrible thing to be in the twilight of an idea, like the last Viking settlers in Greenland or the last Romans in Britain. When scientists die, they don’t – like Egyptian pharaohs or Viking warlords – have their underlings sacrificed to go into an afterlife with them (though some would undoubtedly find that flattering and possibly even appropriate).

Sometimes, through nothing more than a choice of mentor and a devotion to the ideas that were bequeathed, young scientists can find themselves in that twilight.

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