Our obsession with eminence warps research
We can quantify exactly how much faster Usain Bolt is than the next-fastest sprinter. It's much harder to say who is the best scientist, let alone how much better they are than the next-best scientist. Deciding who deserves recognition is, at least in part, a judgement call.
On my optimistic days, I can believe that, despite all the noise, there's still a reliable signal: that we mostly manage to publish, fund and hire people who do the better research. As an editor, peer reviewer and grant reviewer, I have spent hours making consequential choices about others' work. It would be demoralizing to believe that I might as well have flipped a coin.
On my more cynical days, I worry that we scientists have far too much faith in our abilities to distinguish the truly excellent. Too often we assume that researchers with more grant money, awards, publications and citations must be better than the rest. Eminence, by which I mean prestige for a specific accomplishment, position or award, is given much more weight than it should be.