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To Mediocrity

Lewis McCaffrey* sings the praises of those who never win the glittering prizes.

hkljAwards season is with us again, like a prodigal relative, who turns up uninvited and reminds us of our own comparative inadequacy.  We should congratulate the winners, of course; but spare some change for those who are, every year, left out of the celebrations.

In fact, new research shows that a large majority of UK geologists will never win an award. This research, done on the back of an envelope and destined never to be even submitted let alone accepted for publication, shows that around 0.002% of Fellows of the Geological Society will win one of its awards in their lifetime. 

If this tiny percentage are the winners, then what does that make the rest of us?  Not necessarily losers, I hope.  I suggest that we are the merely mediocre.

No shame

There should be no shame attached to this label.  Sure, the culture of ‘excellence’ is ubiquitous.  We all strive to be outstanding.  But we cannot all be ‘above average’, as geologists or indeed anything else.  Only a scientifically illiterate Education Minister could utter a statement saying that he will not rest until ‘all schools are above average’. 

Instead, I suggest that we should take heart from Sir Isaac Newton’s assertion that he saw so far because he stood ‘on the shoulders of giants’.  Who, do you think, were the giants standing on?  Yes, the scientists of medium stature, who were themselves probably standing on scientists of less than average height, performance-wise.

Indeed, how many Fellows of this Learned Society are employed where doing an unspectacular, predictable, competent job is absolutely required (and to do anything else is to miss the point)?   The forward march of science relies, partly, on the competent, unimaginative repetition of someone else’s research as verification.  Don’t forget – this is what makes science so – democratic.  Even a mediocre scientist can make valuable if unremarkable contributions.  Who wants to listen to a mediocre violinist?  Science is kind to the ordinary.  The arts are cruel, like nature.

Dalston & Gibbett

Those among us who view Dalston and Gibbett as our role models do a grand job of bulking out the bell curve of competence.  We should be celebrated - even given an award - for outstanding mediocrity.  But how to select the Most Mediocre Fellow; and who would show up to collect the award?  Who would put it on their mantel, or show it off to their mother?  Indeed, who in their right mind would pen a piece praising mediocrity, and attach their name to it?

So, as the new awards season gets under way, most of us will say a hearty “Well done!” to the winners (possibly through gritted teeth) as we return to our ‘me too’, Zombie research and our unexacting, routine positions.  We will make a sufficient, mediocre job of it, and there should be no indignity in that.


*Lewis McCaffrey PhD FGS CGeol is a moderately successful visiting assistant professor in the Institute for a Sustainable Environment at Clarkson University, New York, USA