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Analysis Science

Should ‘geniuses’ be paid extra?

A newsletter named Ideas Sleep Furiously had an essay propounding a “genius basic income” on May 28. Here are the first two paragraphs that capture a not-insignificant portion of the essay’s message:

Professor Martin Hairer is one of the world’s most gifted mathematicians. An Austrian-Brit at Imperial College London, he researches stochastic partial differential equations and holds two of maths’ most coveted prizes. In 2014, he became only the second person with a physics PhD to win a Fields Medal, an award granted every four years to mathematicians under 40 and considered to be the equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Hairer also won the 2021 Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics, which comes with a $3 million cheque. When the Guardian covered Hairer’s win, they noted: ‘[his] major work, a 180-page treatise that introduced the world to “reguarity structures”, so stunned his colleagues that one suggested it must have been transmitted to Hairer by a more intelligent alien civilisation.’ The journalist asked Hairer how he’d spend the prize money. His response: “We moved to London somewhat recently, three years ago, and we are still renting. So it might be time to buy a place to live.”

Most readers of the Guardian that day no doubt understood the absurdity of London house prices. Morning coffee in hand, many will have tut-tutted in dismay at Hairer’s comical remark and mentally filed it under somebody really ought to fix this housing crisis. But how many stopped to consider the greater absurdity? After all, here was a man who, not that long ago, would’ve had a team around him devoted to deflecting such petty problems, to getting others out of his way and allowing him to focus on the thing that only he and a handful of people could understand, let alone do. But the real story wasn’t that a maths genius in modern Britain couldn’t afford a comfortable home close to work. The real story was that it passed without comment.

Matthew Archer, the essay’s author (and who ends the newsletter edition with a request to readers to share it “to spread the gospel of rationality”), contends that people like Hairer ought to be freed of the tedium of figuring out where to live, how to get around the city, groceries, and other “quotidian constraints that plague mere mortals”. Instead, Archer argues, a “genius” like Hairer ought to be paid a “genius basic income” so that he, and his brain “built for advanced mathematics”, can focus on solving hard problems that contribute to human welfare and civilisation.

Archer’s essay addresses this problem both within and without university settings, but within academic ones. Another important thrust of his essay is the way American ‘child geniuses’ are treated at American schools, and how inefficiencies in the country’s school system have the eventual effect of encouraging these children not to develop their special skills but to fit in, leading to an “epidemic of gifted underachievement”. This is quite likely true of the Indian school system as well, but his overall idea is not a good one – especially in India, and probably in the West as well. Archer’s essay is undergirded by a few assumptions and this is where the problems lie.

The first is that a country (I’m highly uncertain about the world) can and must reap only one sort of benefit from the “geniuses” at its universities. This is an insular view of the problems that are deemed worthy of solving, by privileging the interests of the “genius” over the interests of the higher education and research system. If a “genius” is to be paid more, they must also assume more responsibilities than doing the work that they are already doing because they must also dispense their social responsibilities to their university.

If a mathematician is considered to be the only one who can solve a very difficult problem, encourage them to do so – but not at the expense of them also taking on the usual number of PhD students, teaching hours and other forms of mentorship. We don’t know what we will stand to lose if the mathematical problem goes unsolved but we’re well aware of what we lose when we prevent aspiring students from pursuing a PhD because a suitable mentor isn’t available or capable students from receiving the right amount of attention in the classroom.

The second is that we need “geniuses”. Do we? Instead of a “genius basic income” that translates to a not insubstantial hike for the “geniuses” at a university or a research facility, pay all students and researchers a proportionate fraction of their incomes more so that they all can worry just a little less about “quotidian constraints”.

There is a growing body of research showing that the best way to eliminate poverty appears to be giving poor people money and letting them spend it as they see fit. There are some exceptions to this view but they are centered entirely on identifying who is really deserving – a problem that goes away both in the academic setting, where direct income comparisons with the cost of living are possible, and in India (see the third point). I sincerely believe the same could be true vis-à-vis inequities within our education and research systems, which are part of a wider environment of existence that has foisted more than mere “quotidian constraints” on its members and which will almost certainly benefit from relieving all of them just a little at a time instead of a select few a lot.

(Archer quotes David Graeber in his essay to dismiss a counterpoint against his view: “To raise this point risks a tsunami of ‘whataboutery’—what about the average person who can’t afford a home? What about the homeless?! The same people tend to suggest that a highly paid academic doing a job he loves and living in one of the world’s best cities is enough of a reward. In itself this is a sign of a remarkable shift in values. It is also the inheritance of an older belief system, Puritanism, where, in the words of the late anthropologist David Graeber, ‘one is not paid money to do things, however useful or important, that one actually enjoys.'” When Graeber passed away in September 2020, I remember anthropologist Alpa Shah tweeting this: “I often thought of David Graeber as a genius. But of the many things that David taught me, it was that there is in fact a genius in each of us.”)

In India in particular, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research doesn’t pay students and researchers enough as well as has a terrible reputation of paying them so late that many young researchers are in debt or are leaving for other jobs just to feed their families.

(Aside: While Hairer suggests that he could think about buying a house in London only after he’d won $3 million with a Breakthrough Prize, the prize itself once again concentrates a lot of money into the hands of a few that have already excelled, and most of whom are men.)

The third assumption is that school and education reform is impossible and even undesirable. Archer writes in his essay:

“It was only in October last year that the then Mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, announced the city’s gifted programme would be replaced because non-white students were underrepresented. Yet as Professor Ellen Winner noted in her 1996 book, Gifted Children: Myths and Realities, scrapping gifted programmes in the name of diversity, equality, and inclusion, has rather ironic effects. Namely, gifted children embedded within a culture, which might not value high achievement …, have no other children ‘with whom to identify, and they may not feel encouraged to develop their skills.’ The activists, then, practice discrimination in the name of non-discrimination.”

This argument advances a cynical view of the sort of places we can or should expect our schools to be for our children. Keeping a policy going so that white students can receive help with developing their special skills is an abject form of status-quoism that overlooks the non-white students who are struggling to fit in, and are apparently also not being selected for the ‘gifted children’ programme. Clearly, the latter is broken. I would much rather advocate school-level reforms where the institution accommodates everyone as well as pays more and/or different attention to those children who need it, including arranging for activities designed to help develop their skills as well as improve social cohesion.

The fourth assumption is specific to India and concerns the desirability of the unbalanced improvement of welfare. Providing a few a “genius basic income” will heap privilege on privilege, because those who have already been identified as “geniuses” in India will have had to be privileged in at least two of the following three ways: gender, class and caste.

Put another way, take a look at the upper management of India’s best academic and research centres, government research bodies and private research facilities, and tell me how many of these people aren’t cis-male Brahmins, rich Brahmins or rich cis-males (‘rich’ here is being used to mean access to wealth before an individual entered academia). If they make up more than 10% of the total population of these individuals, I’ll give you a thousand rupees, even if 10% would also still be abysmal.

The Indian academic milieu is already highly skewed in favour of Brahmins in particular, and any exercise here that deals with identifying geniuses will identify only Brahmin “geniuses”. This in turn will attach one more casteist module to a system already sorely in need of affirmative action.

I’m also opposed to the principle outlined by contentions of the type “we don’t have enough money for research, so we should spend what we have wisely”. This is a false problem created by the government’s decision to underspend on research, forcing researchers to fight among themselves about whose work should receive a higher allocation, or any allocation at all. I thought that I would have to make an exception for the “genius basic income”, i.e. that researchers do have only a small amount of money and that they can’t afford such an income for a few people – but then I realised that this is a red herring: even if India invested 1% or even 2% of its GDP in research and development activities (up from the current 0.6%), a “genius basic income” would be a bad idea in principle.

The fourth assumption allows us to circle back to a general, and especially pernicious, problem, specific to one line from Archer’s essay: “A world in which the profoundly gifted are supported might be a world … with a reverence for the value that gifted people bring.”

The first two words that popped into my ahead upon reading this sentence were “Marcy Pogge”. Both Geoffrey Marcy and Thomas Pogge were considered to be “geniuses” in their respective fields – astronomy and philosophy – before a slew of allegations of sexual harrassment, many of them from students at their own universities, the University of California and Yale University, revealed an important side of reality: people in charge of student safety and administration at these universities turned away even when they knew of the allegations because the men brought in a lot of grant money and prestige.

Chasing women out of science, forcing them to keep their mouth shut if they want to continue being in science (after throwing innumerable barriers in their path to entering science in the first place) – this is the unconscionable price we have paid to revere “genius”. This is because the notion of a “genius” creates a culture of exceptionalism, founded among other things on the view (as in the first assumption) that “geniuses” have something to contribute that others can’t and that this contribution is inherently more valuable than that of others. But “geniuses” are people, and people can be assholes if they’re allowed to operate with impunity.

Archer may contend that this wasn’t the point of his essay; that may be, but ‘reverence’ implies little else. And if this is the position towards which he believes we must all gravitate, forget everything else – it’s reason enough dismiss the idea of a “genius basic income”.