Archive for March 5, 2018

Talent versus Luck

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on March 5, 2018 by telescoper

I’ve remarked quite a number of times on the blog that I think I’ve been exceptionally lucky in my scientific career, the latest example being the good fortune that the position at Maynooth University came up precisely when it did, enabling me to relocate to Ireland.

It struck me further the other day that the people who think that science is genuinely meritocratic, tend to be those who have done well in the system rather than those who haven’t. It’s rather like the way that very rich people tend to think that they have earned their wealth and that makes them better people than those who are less well off, even when that’s demonstrably not true.

Likewise, luck plays a definite role in winning grant funding. Having been on grants panels I’m away that many very good proposals are not funded. A scoring system is generally used that introduces some level of objectivity into the process, but the fact is that a lot of proposals come out with similar scores and the ranking of these is a bit arbitrary. A slightly different panel would produce slightly different scores, but perhaps a large difference in ranking would result.

Anyway, there’s a paper on the arXiv (by Pluchino et al) with the title Talent vs Luck: the role of randomness in success and failure that
discusses the role of good fortune in scientific careers. This is the abstract:

The largely dominant meritocratic paradigm of highly competitive Western cultures is rooted on the belief that success is due mainly, if not exclusively, to personal qualities such as talent, intelligence, skills, efforts or risk taking. Sometimes, we are willing to admit that a certain degree of luck could also play a role in achieving significant material success. But, as a matter of fact, it is rather common to underestimate the importance of external forces in individual successful stories. It is very well known that intelligence or talent exhibit a Gaussian distribution among the population, whereas the distribution of wealth – considered a proxy of success – follows typically a power law (Pareto law). Such a discrepancy between a Normal distribution of inputs, with a typical scale, and the scale invariant distribution of outputs, suggests that some hidden ingredient is at work behind the scenes. In this paper, with the help of a very simple agent-based model, we suggest that such an ingredient is just randomness. In particular, we show that, if it is true that some degree of talent is necessary to be successful in life, almost never the most talented people reach the highest peaks of success, being overtaken by mediocre but sensibly luckier individuals. As to our knowledge, this counterintuitive result – although implicitly suggested between the lines in a vast literature – is quantified here for the first time. It sheds new light on the effectiveness of assessing merit on the basis of the reached level of success and underlines the risks of distributing excessive honors or resources to people who, at the end of the day, could have been simply luckier than others. With the help of this model, several policy hypotheses are also addressed and compared to show the most efficient strategies for public funding of research in order to improve meritocracy, diversity and innovation.

Comments are, as always, welcome!