New study explores the influence of death

Death is a highly persuasive agent. It emboldens the testimony of prophets,  focuses the impact of literature and allows rockstars to transcend into deism. It’s a mistake to encourage the poetry of the reaper, even if the consequences of doing so are sometimes advantageous to societies at large.

The same Shepard that surged suicide rates following Kurt Cobain’s, galvanized a nation after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.  The same mechanism that ensured Christianity endure for centuries upon centuries, elevated the last lecture of Christopher Hitchens, one of the institution’s foremost detractors. Sometimes martyrdom is assigned retroactively, and sometimes the effects are unconventional.

The intrigue of death

A new paper co-authored by MIT economist Pierre Azoulay, an expert on the dynamics of scientific research, Christian Fons-Rosen, an assistant professor of economics at the University of California at Merced; and Joshua Graff Zivin, a professor of economics at the University of California at San Diego, identifies a new face of the posthumous phenomenon. According to their research, when a prominent scientist passes away, their subfield receives a subsequent 8.6% increase in literature written by researchers that have not collaborated with said prominent scientists.

When an individual becomes an established and well-regarded voice of their respective subject, over time they grow less and less tolerant of foreign ideas that might contradict there own, so with their death, intellectual barriers are let down, allowing pioneering scholars to augment and or outright reject the findings of their predecessors.

“The conclusion of this paper is not that stars are bad,” Azoulay told MIT  News,  “It’s just that, once safely ensconced at the top of their fields, maybe they tend to overstay their welcome.”

Planck’s Principle

The paper, titled Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time,  was stimulated by the musings of celebrated theoretical physicists,  Max Planck. 

Planck, renowned for his discovery of Quantum Energy, believed that heuristic research was obstructed by a bias towards familiar and seminal work  that proceeds it, once writing, “a great 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.” More cynically phrased: Scientific change rarely occurs willingly.

In order to properly test Plank’s hypothesis, the researches behind the new study employed a life scientist database. Azoulay and Graff Zivin have been building this lexicon for more than 10 years, indexing the careers of life scientists and all of their accomplishments, which includes funding awards, published papers and citations, and patent statistics.  Following the unexpected deaths of 452 active scientists, papers authored by new scientists in their discipline increased while papers published by their collaborators decreased by roughly 20%. The latter suggests that alternative ideas are sometimes proscribed by a network of influential colleagues.  Researchers have dubbed this diversifying factor-Planck’s Principle.

“The fact that if you’re successful, you get to set the intellectual agenda of your field, that is part of the incentive system of science, and people do extraordinary positive things in the hope of getting to that position,” Azoulay explained. “It’s just that, once they get there, over time, maybe they tend to discount ‘foreign’ ideas too quickly and for too long.”

Virtually every epistemological eureka has been scanned meanly behind a peephole- from Alfred Wegener to Aristarchus. It’s important for experimental ideas to spar with veteran ones, so long as the loser is willing to kneel when reason demands.

Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time is set to debut in The American Economic Review and has been handsomely received by the National Science Foundation, the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, and the Severo Ochoa Programme for Centres of Excellence in R&D.