Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

The Fundamental Delusion of Scientists?

  1. Dec 3, 2016 #1
    I was listening to a lecture by Peter Thiel. He argued that "scientists never make any money", and are "always deluded into thinking they live in a just universe that will reward them for their work, and this is probably the fundamental delusion that scientists tend to suffer from in our society."

    It certainly is an interesting concept, and well worth some reflection by scientists and engineers.

    Is it true? Close to true?

    at 28:00
    Video and transcript: http://startupclass.samaltman.com/courses/lec05/
    Transcript: http://genius.com/Peter-thiel-lecture-5-business-strategy-and-monopoly-theory-annotated

    "We've lived through centuries of enormous amounts of innovation in science as well, and the thing that I think people always miss when they think about these things is because X and Y are independent variables. Some of these things can be extremely valuable innovations, but the people invent them, who come up with them, do not get rewarded for this.

    If you create X dollars in value, you capture Y percentage of X, I'd suggest that the history of science has generally been one where Y is 0% across the board.

    The scientists never make any money. They are always deluded into thinking they live in a just universe that will reward them for their work and for their inventions, and this is probably the fundamental delusion that scientists tend to suffer from in our society. And even in technology there are many areas of technology where there were great innovations that created tremendous value for society, but people did not actually capture that much of the value.

    So I think there is this sort of whole history of science and technology that can be told from the perspective of how much value was actually captured. And certainly there are entire sectors where people did not capture anything.

    So you're the smartest physicist of the 20th century, and you came up with Special Relativity, and you come up with General Relativity. You don't get to be a billionaire. You don't even get to be a millionaire. It just somehow doesn't work that way."
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 3, 2016 #2


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    I think the fundamental delusion of Peter Thiel is thinking that scientists and engineers want or expect to become billionaires from science and engineering.
  4. Dec 3, 2016 #3
    Albert Einstein’s patents
    about 50 patents.....no, he did not want to make money from his ideas; he was above that.

    But that is not the point Peter Thiel is making.
  5. Dec 3, 2016 #4


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    And Theil is deluded into thinking that everyone is driven by greed as he apparently is. Besides, why would you think he has any particularly valid take on scientists? He's NOT a scientist. He's not even an engineer, he's a philosophy major turned investment banker. He's into greed, not scientific recognition and I doubt he'd really understand the thrill of invention and discovering new scientific knowledge even if you explained it to him.

    He's very successful at what he does but like many guys who are very successful in one field he thinks that makes him an expert in other fields where he doesn't necessarily know his bum from his brain.
    Last edited: Dec 4, 2016
  6. Dec 4, 2016 #5
    Peter Thiel is giving a lecture on Startups. He discusses the difference between X and Y, where X is the value produced by a business and Y is the percentage you capture of X; they are independent variables.

    Technology startups, often based on innovative, scientific breakthroughs, do not necessarily lead to high Y values. People usually think that if they develop a new technology, they will get rich. But they often don’t make any money. He gives examples.

    He then extends the idea to scientific breakthroughs, and the greatest one was Einstein’s work. The theories of Special and General Relativity have high X value, but Einstein captured almost no Y value. Thiel laments it, and states “It just somehow doesn't work that way.”

    Maybe that is why billionaire Yuri Milner gives the Fundamental Prize in Physics, or Alfred Nobel, who was also very rich., set up the Nobel Prize: it is a way to give cash to the creators of great X, as a way of compensating them for the low Y. Apparently Milner and Nobel already understood the comment “It just somehow doesn't work that way.”

    The point of the lecture is that to create a high-value company, you want both high X and high Y. You get high Y with a monopoly; that should be your goal. Capturing a great return is not a given, despite producing a high X. Scientists and engineers, as creators of high X, should be aware that X and Y are independent of each other; they can then plan more intelligently.

    What if you came up with an idea that lead to a billion dollar industry, that made many millionaires, even billionaires, but you made essentially nothing from it?

    What if you came up with a great idea, but others took credit for it, and your role was diminished, even ignored, and you received no credit or recognition?

    The thrill of discovery is likely to be overshadowed by other, negative, feelings. That is pretty common, I am guessing.
  7. Dec 4, 2016 #6


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    In science? No, it is my guess that it is not common. This is because we publish our ideas and discoveries. While there are instances where the initial discoverer may be overlooked or not credited, it is a lot more often now that the persons who are responsible for the significant advancement are recognized. And by its nature, such publications are open to everyone in the sense that it is adding to the body of knowledge that anyone can use.

    I think you missed the point here. While we certainly want to be well-off, there is a difference between making money as the central occupation, versus it being a means to another ends. Many of us want to make a living by doing science, versus doing science to make a living. And if you are good at it and successful at it, you might even make quite a good living out of it. It is why tenured professor positions are such desirable. It has nothing to do with being millionaires or billionaires, as if THAT in itself can be an "ambition".

    I would also point out that if Tim Berners-Lee actually decided to either copyright or patent his idea of the World Wide Web just so he can make money out of it, it would probably NOT take off and shaped the internet the way we have it today. So you could say now that he missed a financial opportunity to become a "billionaire", but there's nothing there in that parallel universe to say that if he did not do what he did, it would have become as popular and revolutionary.

    A lot of science is done via public funds. This can be via direct public grants, or using facilities that were built using public money. While scientists certainly get rewarded financially for important discoveries, work, or long-term careers, this is different than private individual or companies producing their own products or services and are able to reap all the rewards of such success. It is by its nature that publically-funded work belongs to the public as dictated by the funding agencies. One may be compensated for a discovery, invention, or a patent, but one does not own that work. The people who paid you to do that work do.

  8. Dec 4, 2016 #7
    One can make the case scientists and engineers are deluded about being rewarded, but that isn't really what prevents them from becoming wealthy. There is a fundamental difference between the mindset of a scientist and the mindset of a billionaire which makes it impossible for either to be the other. The scientist's efforts will go nowhere unless he agrees to submit completely to the tyranny of physical reality. The billionaire doesn't have that restriction; he can spin, bully, obfuscate, misdirect, subvert, bribe, etc. The scientist is working with nature, the billionaire is essentially manipulating people.

    When you try to run science like a business, it doesn't work. When you push medical engineers to create a drug by some deadline that cures X disease so you can sell that drug, you often get something that works in 1 out of 25 patients and causes unwanted side effects in 20 out of 25. You get smart diesel engines that know how to subvert the pollution tests. Above all, you get the holy grail of science-as-business: planned obsolescence.
  9. Dec 4, 2016 #8
    I need to work now, and will vanish for some time, but first...

    Zoobyshoe, yes, the mindset is different. Many scientists and engineers presumably want to commercialize their ideas, but they need to study some business ideas, to help align their thinking better. Peter Thiel's comments should be valuable to them; that is why I shared it. As a venture capitalist, he sees this delusional thinking.

    For ZapperZ, a survey of discontent might be revealing. I did find this survey that concluded scientists were happy with their jobs but worried about money. See http://www.nature.com/naturejobs/science/articles/10.1038/nj7413-685a

    Digressing somewhat, I'd not seen this until now, or had forgotten it. Here is a billionaire Russian helping a Nobel laureate: "On 4 December 2014, Usmanov paid $4.9m for Dr James Watson's Nobel Prize Medal in Physiology or Medicine, which was auctioned at Christie's in New York City. Watson was selling his prize to raise money to support scientific research. After auctions fees, Watson received $4.1m. Usmanov subsequently returned the medal to Watson, stating "in my opinion, a situation in which an outstanding scientist sells a medal recognizing his achievements is unacceptable. Watson's work contributed to cancer research, the illness from which my father died. It is important for me that the money that I spent on this medal will go to supporting scientific research, and the medal will stay with the person who deserved it." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alisher_Usmanov

    But think, James Watson.... wow, that was super high X value. And he has to sell his medal? Watson created high X, but Usmanov created high X and Y.

    For the billionaire to get a concept to be a commercial success requires way more than manipulating people. And you don't think scientists fight? They are just as human. Here is a famous quote from Henry Kissinger: "University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small."
  10. Dec 4, 2016 #9
    He does not think it, he sees it. He is a venture capitalist. http://foundersfund.com/team/peter-thiel/
    The guy is talking from experience. This is wisdom he is offering to those who can listen.
  11. Dec 4, 2016 #10
    I understand this. What I'm saying is that, if you're authentically good at science or engineering you will automatically be handicapped in understanding "business ideas," because business is fundamentally about manipulating people's perception of reality rather than about understanding physical reality.
    Like what? A "vision" of what things could be? Those are a dime a dozen. Convincing large numbers of people, or simply the 'right' people, to share your vision is where you make billions.
    Are you equating fighting to manipulating people?
  12. Dec 4, 2016 #11


    User Avatar
    Homework Helper
    Gold Member

    Again, at the risk of repeating what others have been saying in this thread (i.e., @zoobyshoe, @ZapperZ, @billy_joule, @phinds) the problem is Peter Thiel's presumption that scientists pursue academic research -- including long years of effort in the lab or study, the publishing of academic papers to peer reviewed journals, etc. -- for the primary purpose of becoming billionaires. That's not true, and that's where the objections are targeting.

    They [scientists] do it because they are curious about universe in which we live. A bit of notoriety might be a close second for some scientists. Of course they need enough money to feed themselves and their families, and that comes from modest grants -- but nobody expects billions of dollars for a academic paper or two.

    Start listening in the video at about 29:00 and continue to around 31:00 or so.

    "They're always deluded into thinking that they live in a just universe that will reward them for their work and for their inventions and this is probably the fundamental delusion that scientists tend to suffer from in our society." Then he goes on a little later, "So you're the smartest physicist of the twentieth century, you come up with special relativity, you come up with general relativity, you don't get to be a billionaire, you don't even get to be a millionaire."

    Einstein never expected to receive billions of dollars, or even millions of dollars for his work on special and general relativity. He never deluded himself into thinking that he would. The claim that Peter Thiel is implying, that Einstein developed his theories of relativity primarily because he had big dollar signs ($) in his eyes (or Deutsche Marks, or whatever currency symbol) is a false claim.
  13. Dec 4, 2016 #12


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Yep. We've all been saying the same thing basically, and it's clear that liometopum has the same delusions that Theil has and we are wasting our time.
  14. Dec 4, 2016 #13


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    Read the survey carefully. They are worried about FINANCES.

    I never said we don't care about making a living. We do! But this is different than what Thiel is urging us to do. The issue in that survey is what is happening lately where science funding has been severely affected due to various policies and economic decision. This isn't the need to make tons of money!

    Thiel should put his money where is mouth is. As a venture capitalist, he will be the LAST person to invest in the type of work that many scientists do! Has he put money into the LHC, the research on topological insulators, etc... etc.? Heck, I'm sure if he was alive back then, would he had put money into Watson and Crick's work? On Einstein's work while he was sitting all by himself in the Swiss Patent office? On the beginnings of quantum mechanics even though there was ZERO indication of any beneficial application of it back then? No, because many of these require govt. agencies who do not have the short-term and short-sighted need to make money and get immediate return on their investments!

    When Bell Labs split and became Lucent, and there was then pressure start producing marketable product (i.e. now the stock holders want something for their investments), the FIRST thing to go is basic research. Now, Bell Labs is a shadow of what it was before when some of the most innovative ideas in physics made it into a premier research center of the world. Point to Thiel and show him that this is what happens when making money becomes a primary motive. This is what happens when one live to eat rather than eat to live.

    No venture capitalists have invested their money in basic physics research. Period!

  15. Dec 4, 2016 #14

    Stephen Tashi

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    I agree. The presentation is not about scientists in general. The topic is how to recognize which businesses will profitable. The pitfalls Thiel describes are pitfalls that people make when they try to recognize such businesses. Not all scientists and inventors are focused on recognizing good business opportunities. Thiel is only talking about mistakes that those particular scientists and inventors who are trying to develop businesses make.
  16. Dec 4, 2016 #15
    No, he is saying all scientists have chronically failed to understand they must reap their own Y from X instead of buying into the "delusion" they will be rewarded by "a just universe":

    He's right that Y has been about 0% across the board, but wrong that scientists were/are, or should be, out to harvest their lion's share, Y.
  17. Dec 4, 2016 #16
    The subliminal message here seems to be that research into anything that has no guarantee of leading to a profitable technology is a waste of time.
    So I guess in his view (just thinking of an example), almost all the exploration missions of NASA + other space agencies are a waste of time and money.
  18. Dec 4, 2016 #17

    Stephen Tashi

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    It's not a subliminal message. The information in the talk entails how a person should spend his time if his purpose is to find profitable businesses. For the purpose of pursuing that goal, Thiel explicitly says that innovation in itself is not a guarantee of a profitable business.

    From the point of view of a person investing his own money in ventures in order to get a financial return, that is a correct conclusion. Whether space missions have a benefit because they satisfy peoples' curiosity, or strengthen the nation is a different question. That wasn't the topic of Thiel's presentation.
  19. Dec 4, 2016 #18
    I think the "subliminal" message is that scientists can be deluded, and this is their "fundamental" delusion, there being others he doesn't go into. It's a taint that primes the receptive listener for other bad news about scientist's beliefs. If you catch my drift.
  20. Dec 4, 2016 #19
    OK, but modern science strictly involves a review process, the point of which is to exclude irrational/delusional/biased/silly propositions.
    I guess there are some that have a political agenda to discourage that, but I can't really see why they would.
  21. Dec 4, 2016 #20
    What I'm talking about is all over the news, but it's a forbidden subject on PF: too many arguments erupted. Perhaps I can get away with saying Thiel is a supporter of a certain orange-faced personage who leans toward certain attitudes about certain scientific things.
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Similar Discussions: The Fundamental Delusion of Scientists?
  1. To be a scientist (Replies: 3)

  2. The GOD Delusion (Replies: 186)

  3. The Lonely Scientist (Replies: 8)