Crick’s gossip test and Watson’s boredom principle: A pseudo-mathematical analysis of effort in scientific research.
Bruce G. Charlton. Editorial. Medical Hypotheses. Volume 70, Issue 1, 2008, Pages 1-3
Crick and Watson gave complementary advice to the aspiring scientist based on the insight that to do your best work you need to make your greatest possible effort. Crick made the positive suggestion to work on the subject which most deeply interests you, the thing about which you spontaneously gossip – Crick termed this ‘the gossip test’. Watson made the negative suggestion of avoiding topics and activities that bore you – which I have termed ‘the boredom principle’. This is good advice because science is tough and the easy things have already been done. Solving the harder problems that remain requires a lot of effort. But in modern biomedical science individual effort does not necessarily correlate with career success as measured by salary, status, job security, etc. This is because Crick and Watson are talking about revolutionary science – using Thomas Kuhn’s distinction between paradigm-shifting ‘revolutionary’ science and incremental ‘normal’ science. There are two main problems with pursuing a career in revolutionary science. The first is that revolutionary science is intrinsically riskier than normal science, the second that even revolutionary success in a scientific backwater may be less career-enhancing than mundane work in a trendy field. So, if you pick your scientific problem using the gossip test and the boredom principle, you might also be committing career suicide. This may explain why so few people follow Crick and Watson’s advice. The best hope for future biomedical science is that it will evolve towards a greater convergence between individual effort and career success.
The gossip test
“It came to me that I was not really telling [people] about science. I was gossiping about it. This insight was a revelation to me. I had discovered the gossip test – what you are really interested in is what you gossip about.”
Francis Crick. What mad pursuit: a personal view of scientific discovery, 1988 .
The boredom principle
“...Never do anything that bores you. My experience in science is that someone is always telling you to do things that leave you flat. Bad idea. I’m not good enough to do well something I dislike. In fact, I find it hard enough to do well something that I like.”
James Watson. Succeeding in science: some rules of thumb, 1993 .
The two most famous co-discoverers of the structure of DNA, Francis Crick and James Watson, gave complementary advice to the scientist who wishes to do the best work of which they are capable. The crux is that to do your best work you need to make your greatest possible effort.
Crick made the positive suggestion to work on the subject which most deeply interests you, the thing about which you spontaneously gossip – Crick termed this ‘the gossip test’; Watson made the negative suggestion of avoiding topics and activities that bore you – which I have termed ‘the boredom principle’.
This is good advice because science is tough. The easy things have already been done. Solving the harder problems that remain requires a lot of effort: either a lot of hours of investigative work, or a lot of hours of thinking – or sometimes both.
Effort must be sustained. Unless effort is fuelled by interest it will not last long enough to solve the problem, if effort is pushing against a counter-current of boredom it will be weakened. The story of the discovery of DNA’s structure is one of a massively concentrated joint effort over a relatively few years, but even over this unusually short time span there were many serious setbacks – enough to deter anyone who was too-bored or insufficiently-fascinated by the problem .
The effect of gossip test and boredom principle on Individual Effort can be expressed pseudo-mathematically as follows:
Let G equal the amount of time spent on gossiping about the subject that really interests you, and CP represent the time spent gossiping about the ‘current project’ on which you are supposed to be working. The percentage of maximum effort of which you are capable then equals the ratio of CP divided by G.
This is the gossip test of individual effort
However, all science has a certain percentage of boring aspects. The boredom principle could be framed to state that the percentage time spent on activities which are boring in your current project (CP) must be subtracted from the CP effort. This percentage is the ‘boredom quotient’ – BQ. Therefore:
Individual Effort(percentage of your maximum possible effort)=(CP/G)–BQ.
This equation places a bogus, but superficially-impressive, quantification onto Crick and Watson’s insight.
It must acknowledged, however, that individual effort in modern biomedical science does not closely correlate with career success as measured by salary, status, job security, etc. This is because Crick and Watson are talking about revolutionary science – using Thomas Kuhn’s distinction between paradigm-shifting ‘revolutionary’ science and incremental ‘normal’ science . Modern biomedical research is overwhelmingly ‘normal’ science – indeed, in organization and structure it resembles industrial R&D (research and development).
There are two main problems with pursuing a career in revolutionary science . The first is that revolutionary science is intrinsically riskier than normal science because you are less likely to succeed. The second is that even success in triggering a paradigm-shifting revolution in a scientific backwater may be less career-enhancing (generating less status, salary and job security) than mundane work in a trendy (=well-funded) field.
So, if you pick your scientific problem using the gossip test and the boredom principle, you should indeed give yourself the best chance of making a personal contribution to the achievement of a major breakthrough. But the statistical probability of actually achieving a breakthrough remains small – the bigger the problem, the tougher to solve. And you might also be committing career suicide, by working in a low status, poorly funded, scientific backwater.
These aspects can be included in a new equation for measuring the probability of ‘career success – CS’. This modifies the input of Individual Effort by introducing two extra phony-variables: 1. percentage ‘probability of solution’ of the problem (PoS) and 2. ‘professional status’ of the field (PS).
Revolutionary science has a much lower PoS than normal science – leading to a lower probability of CS. And the gossip test and boredom principle will often direct individuals to work in fields where the PS is sub-optimal – also leading to a reduced CS.
So we arrive at the equation:
Percentage likelihood of career success CS=(CP/G)–BQ×PoS×PS
where CP is the time spent gossiping about current project; G is the time spent gossiping about favourite topic; BQ is percentage of boring activities in CP; PoS is probability of solution of the problem; and PS is the percentage professional status of that branch of science as reflected in the proportionate funding, journal impact factors, number of jobs compared with the trendiest area.
This contrived equation yields the insight that the course of action leading to the greatest level of career success may differ substantially from the course of action leading to the highest probability of achieving a breakthrough in revolutionary science.
All of which may explain why so few people follow Crick and Watson’s advice. Implicitly the majority of scientists are not seeking their best chance of contributing to major breakthroughs in revolutionary science; but instead are seeking to optimize their career success by pursuing normal science in trendy fields. It also explains why so few people put 100% of the maximum possible level of effort into their current project – because they are working in areas which contradict the gossip test and boredom principle.
The best hope for future biomedical science is that it will evolve a convergence between Individual Effort and Career Success. Nothing can be done to alter the greater riskiness of revolutionary science compared to the predictability of incremental R&D. But maybe it is not unreasonable to hope that revolutionary science will increase its professional status .
 F. Crick, What mad pursuit: a personal view of scientific discovery, Penguin, London (1988).
 J. Watson, Succeeding in science: some rules of thumb, Science 261 (1993), p. 1812. View Record in Scopus | Cited By in Scopus (2)
 H.F. Judson, The eighth day of creation: makers of the revolution in biology, Penguin, London (1979).
 T.S. Kuhn, The structure of scientific revolutions, Chicago University Press, Chicago (1970).
 B.G. Charlton, Why medical research needs a new specialty of ‘pure medical science’, Clin Med 6 (2006), pp. 163–165.