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Is There Such A Thing As Scientific Luck?

Andrea Paoletti/Getty Images
Tania Lombrozo ponders whether there is such a thing as "scientific luck" similar to "moral luck."
Andrea Paoletti/Getty Images

Consider two people: Amanda and Bethany. They both have too much to drink at a dinner party and they both drive home while under the influence of alcohol.

Amanda drives through an intersection just as a pedestrian darts across the street. She doesn't respond quickly enough and she hits the pedestrian, who dies shortly after. Bethany would have done exactly the same in Amanda's situation. But on Bethany's drive home, no pedestrians happen to be in her path.

Amanda and Bethany were equally irresponsible in driving while under the influence of alcohol. Their ability to avoid a pedestrian was equally impaired. And neither intended to harm anyone, let alone cause someone to die. Despite these similarities, Amanda is potentially on the hook for vehicular manslaughter; Bethany will only face a charge of driving under the influence.

This pair of vignettes — the stories of Amanda and Bethany — illustrates what philosophers refer to as "moral luck." We're inclined to evaluate Amanda and Bethany very differently, even though the difference between them — the presence of an unexpected pedestrian — was effectively a matter of luck: bad luck for Amanda; good luck for Bethany.

Moral luck is puzzling because we typically take ourselves to hold people responsible only for what they can control. Since Amanda couldn't control the presence of the pedestrian, one might think she is no more deserving of blame and punishment than Bethany. Or to put it the other way, since Bethany couldn't control the absence of a pedestrian, we should blame and punish her to the same extent we blame and punish Amanda.

Why our moral judgments are sensitive to luck — and whether they ought to be — are sources of interesting empirical and theoretical debate. For today, though, I want to use the case of moral luck to raise a parallel set of questions about science. Is there such a thing as scientific luck?

Consider two scientists: Claire and Daniela. They both work equally hard on a difficult scientific problem. Let's say they're searching for evidence of some fundamental particle. They build equally good detectors and collect equivalent amounts of data. For reasons out of their control, Claire finds evidence; Daniela does not. Claire goes on to win a Nobel Prize in physics; Daniela struggles to publish her inconclusive results. We praise Claire as an exceptional scientist; we never learn about Daniela.

As with the case of moral luck, we might question whether these assessments of scientific merit are appropriate. After all, Claire and Daniela worked equally hard and built equally good detectors. We can further stipulate that they were equally careful and insightful, that they mentored and managed their research teams equally well, and so on. If we had changed some factor out of their control — say, the exact trajectory of a given particle on a given day — it would have been Daniela who found the evidence and went on to Nobel fame, not Claire.

In light of this, should we reconsider our assessment of Claire? Perhaps she's no more deserving than Daniela. Should we reconsider our assessment of Daniela? Perhaps she should share in Claire's accolades. Or should we embrace scientific luck as a legitimate feature of scientific evaluation, endorsing the idea that Claire is, in fact, a better scientist and more deserving of praise?

There's no question that scientific discoveries are influenced by luck, both good and bad. And there's no question that scientific luck can shape careers, for better and for worse. It's also true that in most cases, the Nobels and the Nobodies aren't quite as similar as Claire and Daniela. If someone makes an important discovery, that's typically good evidence that the person is really careful, insightful and an excellent scientist in other ways, as well. It doesn't mean the unlucky person isn't equally worthy but, in most cases, we have better evidence for the lucky scientist's scientific merit than for that of her unlucky peer.

Yet the case of Claire and Daniela — and the role of luck that it exemplifies — should also give us pause.

Some moral philosophers argue that, for various reasons, moral luck will (and perhaps should) influence our actions, including whom we punish and hold legally responsible. After all, there's a death to hold someone responsible for in the case of Amanda, and not in the case of Bethany. But they also argue that when it comes to assessing a person's moral character, we shouldn't be too quick to differentiate the merely lucky from the merely unlucky. We should be wary, in other words, of declaring Bethany a "better" or more moral person than Amanda.

With science, too, we might distinguish between the way we judge particular scientific contributions — the sorts of outcomes that we can hold individuals responsible for — and the way we make judgments about an individual's scientific merit. After all, Claire made a discovery and Daniela did not. There's a Nobel-worthy outcome in one case, and not in the other.

But the analogy with moral luck can help us appreciate that rewarding contributions shouldn't be the same as evaluating merit. Behind every lucky and celebrated scientist there is likely to be a host of less lucky peers; peers who are — in some respects — equally praiseworthy. We should be wary, in other words, of declaring some people better or more brilliant scientists, at least when our basis for doing so is, to a large extent, grounded in factors that were outside their control.

Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo