Oh! how near are genius and madness! Men imprison them and chain them, or raise statues to them. Denis Diderot

Sheppard a Top Scientist

Simon Sheppard belatedly reveals his credentials

A few weeks ago, that is in April 2021, I realised I was being very British and being overly reticent about my credentials. Further, that this was something that needed to be remedied, if only in fairness to myself.

I believe I can truthfully say that I am a “top scientist.” That is to say, I am in the top 1% of scientists worldwide. Precise rankings are of course difficult; I remember an old lady proudly telling me that her daughter, living in the US, was taking exams to become a professor. In the American and French systems, “professor” is synonymous with “lecturer.” In Britain a professorship (or “Chair”) is a very esteemed position, and pretty much as high as one can go. I believe I’m right in saying that British professors only lecture when they want to (and most would rather not). The British certainly don’t take an exam for a professorship. I don’t think it’s possible for ingenuity, capacity for original thought or cleverness at such a high level to be appraised according to a set formula.

A very simple metric for gauging the stature of a scientist (or other academic) is citation count. This is the number of times their work is formally referenced in later papers. This approach is deeply flawed, for a number of reasons. For a start, a paper might be cited as an example of bad work. Different fields have vastly different citation rates; an area of research which is fashionable and attracts media interest may be cited many times, while an arcane field, nonetheless extremely challenging, may only garner a few. There is someone in Africa who by one means or other has accumulated thousands of citations, if I remember correctly he was routinely collating other people’s work in meta-studies.

All of this being said, clear divisions can be drawn:

  1. For the vast majority of scientists, their work is routine. They perform analysis, diagnostics and replicate procedures according to existing knowledge. However essential their work (and it is), they are not engaged in original research. They publish rarely or never and so usually have no citations.
  2. Another tier is comprised of scientists who are named as a co-author. I have seen papers with twenty or more co-authors. Within academia, the politics of granting co-authorship are deep. Of course many (likely most) co-authors have made significant contributions as part of a research team, but at the extreme, co-authorship could be granted as a personal favour, in reciprocation, or for offering a novel perspective on a project during a coffee break in the staff room.
  3. The top tier is of scientists who are named as lead author or sole author.

For the three papers I have published to date, I was sole author. Currently my citation count is around 150. I have another publication in the pipeline. In place of an institution, I shall quote my status as “Independent Researcher.”

Formal qualifications

I shall now address my lack of higher qualifications. This involves some explanation of the origins of higher degrees.

In the old days, doctorates were conferred on people who added to the pool of scientific knowledge. Their achievement was validated by the publication of a paper, which disseminated the new knowledge. The process was that their work was written up then submitted to, accepted and published by a peer-reviewed journal. My own experience is that a paper encapsulates about three years’ work. When the paper was published, the university conferred a Ph.D. The paper had been independently reviewed and adjudged to be a significant contribution to knowledge, sufficient to warrant publication.

Then around the 1960s a great expansion in higher education began, which shortly led to a flood of papers being submitted to the journals. Postgraduates were desperate to have their work published, because otherwise they wouldn’t get the degree for which they had spent several years in research. The academic presses of the time were inundated with middling and often mediocre work, publication of which would diminish the integrity and value of their journals.

This was all before academia became practically an industry and the number of academic titles exploded (see Epstein Angles). At one point it seemed that new journals were starting up every week.

Due to this pressure on the limited number of journals in existence then, the system changed. The protocol became that it was only necessary for a postgraduate’s work to be evaluated by a panel at his own university, and papers and theses “published” in the university’s own library.

Under the old, superior system I have earned three Ph.D’s. However, since it was all done outside of a university, I don’t have formal qualifications beyond my B.Sc. in Mathematics.

As an afternote, I would never claim to be of really exceptional intelligence. There are plenty who are brainier than I. Other factors, notably my tumultuous upbringing and the Amsterdam environment I found myself in, did much to set me on my unorthodox scientific course.

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction. E. F. Schumacher

To estimate a genius you should not take the mistakes in his productions, or his weaker works, but only those works in which he excels. For even in the realm of the intellect, weakness and absurdity cleave so firmly to human nature that even the most brilliant mind is not always entirely free of them: whence the mighty errors which can be pointed to even in the works of the greatest men, and hence Horace’s Quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus [Sometimes even good Homer nods off]. What distinguishes genius, on the other hand, and provides a measure for estimating it, is the height to which it was able to rise when time and mood were propitious and which remains for ever unachievable to ordinary talents. Schopenhauer

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