Science Advances One Funeral at a Time. The Latest Nobel Proves It

The German physicist Max Planck said that science advances one funeral at a time. Or more precisely: “A new 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.”

Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, who won the Nobel Prize in economics on Oct. 9, exemplifies Planck’s observation. (See Bloomberg’s blanket coverage here, here, here, here, and here.)

Early in Thaler’s career, he had a hard time getting the establishment to take him seriously. Mainstream economists clung to a model in which human beings were rational and farsighted. The top journals rejected papers by Thaler that pointed to the all-too-human foibles of real people. His thesis adviser “was unimpressed and told me to go back to running regressions,” Thaler recalled in a 2013 interview with a Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis publication. It took 20 years for the old guard to give way to a new one.

Why do scientists sometimes seem to resist new ideas? On the day Thaler got his Nobel, I interviewed Pierre Azoulay, co-author of a research paper called   He and his co-authors found that at least in the case of life sciences, Planck’s epigram about funerals is correct. Here’s the synopsis:

Consistent with previous research, the flow of articles by collaborators into affected fields decreases precipitously after the death of a star scientist (relative to control fields). In contrast, we find that the flow of articles by non-collaborators increases by 8% on average. These additional contributions are disproportionately likely to be highly cited. They are also more likely to be authored by scientists who were not previously active in the deceased superstar's field. Overall, these results suggest that outsiders are reluctant to challenge leadership within a field when the star is alive and that a number of barriers may constrain entry even after she is gone. Intellectual, social, and re- source barriers all impede entry, with outsiders only entering subfields that offer a less hostile landscape for the support and acceptance of “foreign” ideas.

To put it differently, Azoulay found that the death of a star scientist is like the fall of a huge tree. It lets sunshine reach the forest floor through a hole in the leaf canopy, enabling new kinds of vegetation to flourish.

Azoulay, a native of France, teaches innovation and entrepreneurship at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. He said that by time he started working on his Ph.D. in the late 1990s, Thaler’s ideas were already well into the academic mainstream. Thaler was even elected president of the American Economic Association in 2015. In Azoulay’s opinion, Thaler’s ongoing portrayal of himself as a renegade is “a very clever marketing strategy.”

But Azoulay concedes that early in his career, Thaler really did have to fight an uphill battle. “Some of his ideas were blocked for a little bit longer than a benevolent, all-knowing social planner would have liked,” Azoulay said.  

The economists who resisted Thaler’s way of thinking didn’t necessarily die, but they did relinquish their grip on the scholarly journals and professorships that are the commanding heights of academics. A good example is Eugene Fama, a founder of the efficient-markets school, which is antithetical to Thaler’s way of thinking. Fama is a colleague of Thaler at Chicago Booth and a friendly rival; they even play tennis together.

“In the long run,” Azoulay said, “the best ideas probably win. But in the short run, lots of funky things can happen. Thaler’s career is an embodiment of the beginning and the end of that process.”

    Peter Coy
    Bloomberg Businessweek Columnist

    Peter Coy is the economics editor for Bloomberg Businessweek and covers a wide range of economic issues. He also holds the position of senior writer. Coy joined the magazine in December 1989 as telecommunications editor, then became technology editor in October 1992 and held that position until joining the economics staff. He came to BusinessWeek from the Associated Press in New York, where he had served as a business news writer since 1985.

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