Death and Progress

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.  — Max Planck

In a recent paper, “Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?“, Pierre Azoulay (MIT), Christian Fons-Rosen (Universitat Pompeu Fabra), and Joshua S. Graff Zivin (UCSD) study “the extent to which eminent scientists shape the vitality of their fields by examining entry rates into the fields of 452 academic life scientists who pass away while at the peak of their scientific abilities.” They conclude that “outsiders are reluctant to challenge leadership within a field when the star [scientist] is alive,” and that after the star’s death, the star’s junior collaborators publish less and are cited less, while non-collaborators and researchers who were “not previously active” in the field publish and are cited more.

They add: “these results paint a picture of scientific fields as scholarly guilds to which elite scientists can regulate access, providing them with outsized opportunities to shape the direction of scientific advance in that space.”

(The paper was covered at Vox with the headline “Elite Scientists Can Hold Back Science“, but the paper does not provide evidence that, all things considered, elite scientists do hold back science.)

To what extent, if any, is this phenomenon present in philosophy? Given that joint-authorship is much less common in philosophy than in the sciences, there would have to be some way other than collaboration to measure the residual influence of a deceased philosopher, but that doesn’t seem impossible. Philosophers are welcome to share their impressions, though it would be interesting if some of the more data-minded among us took up the task of figuring this out.

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