Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Science and Democracy III

[I was reminded that I’ve promised repeatedly to continue the previous posts Science and Democracy I and II. To my own surprise I found an almost finished draft about the danger of using marketplace tactics in scientific research, and I added some recent comments out of the blogoshpere to underline my arguments.]

I vividly recall the first thing my supervisor told me when I was an undergrad: "You have to learn how to sell yourself." Since then I have repeatedly been given well meant career advises how to survive on the scientific marketplace (most of which I ignored, but I’m still around, so I guess I’m not doing too badly).

Many of my friends and colleagues in physics regard these marketplace tactics as an annoying but necessary part of the job. To begin with, this concerns me because I feel that there is a gap between how science is, and how it should be – and an unnecessary gap in addition. But more importantly, the application of economical considerations to scientific research is inappropriate, and the reason why I did not take these career advises is that I don’t want to support strategies that will hinder scientific progress on the long run. So, if you were hoping for some career advises, you're on the wrong blog.

Though comparisons between science and economics often have a grain of truth in them, they are doomed to fail when extended naively. Whether or not you believe in the infallibility of the 'Invisible Hand' [1], scientific theories are not sold like candy bars. If one uses an economical model to analyze the dynamics of research programs, one has to be aware of the limitations of this analogy.

I: The Marketplace of Ideas

The 'marketplace of ideas' is often claimed to act as a self-regulating mechanism that ensures progress in science. It is based upon the believe that all scientific theories when made accessible to the public compete freely among each other, until it eventually turns out which idea is the best description of nature.

Being an optimist, I have no doubts that this works if one looks at the history of mankind over centuries when nature is the ultimate judge on our scientific endeavors. However, there is no reason to believe that this automatically works on shorter time periods as well. On a time scale where we do not have nature to judge (typically a couple of years, maybe up to decades - that is how long grants and employments last), the scientific community is its own judge. The obvious difference to the economical marketplace is that we do not offer our ideas ‘for sale’ to a neutral target group, and depending on whether it is bought or not our product is a success or a disaster.

Ia: The Measurement Problem

No, we are selling our theories inside our own community. And our demand for products can easily be biased if the competitive pressure is high. The situation is significantly worsened by an increasing specialization into many sub-fields and a lack of communication between these fields. Needless to say, the genuine enthusiasm that researchers have for their own field does not improve neutral judgement. If you want to use the analogy to the economical marketplace here, you’d expect it to work even if products are only sold to company managers [2].

This difficulty to find criteria to judge on research programs might not have been a major issue in the previous decades, but it becomes increasingly important if

    a) the community grows to a complex system whose dynamics is little understood (E.g. the increasing influence of 'fashionable topics' is a typical sign for a non-linear feedback effect, the emergence of sub-fields with their own group dynamics is a sign for self-organization)
    b) changes in the sociological, cultural and technological context require adjustment of criteria
    c) financial and peer pressure endangers neutral judgement
    d) timescales that are set through (inappropriate) external constraints.

In other words, it’s a 21st century issue. With increasing complexity, we are left with a decreasing number of people who have an overview on the whole ‘marketplace’. Little people are funded independently of their projects, so their opinions are biased in favor of their own research. Under such circumstances, the ‘marketplace of ideas’ will eventually result in a small number of approaches caught in feedback loops of increasing separation.

As Thomas Dent remarked at 4:27 PM, June 29, 2006:

    It should be obvious that there is no theoretical physics analog of capitalism or the free market. In capitalism there is profit which can be measured objectively, and the one who can make profit wins, the one who cannot must get out of the game. […] Since there is no objective measure of success in theoretical physics, there can never be a free market. Simple.

I would add: there is no such obvious measure on the time scale relevant for funding today. But obvious or not, measures have to be applied, and are applied, and the least we can do is to chose them wisely. Being scientists, it should not be so hard for us to find out how science works best, and to analyze whether the current conditions are optimal.

Ib: Primary goals and Secondary criteria

The primary goal: to support the most promising approaches and researchers, is of little help when you are faced with a 3 inch pile of application documents. Instead, one commonly uses derived secondary criteria that have shown to be useful. There is nothing to object to this procedure, except that the validity of secondary criteria has to be readjusted every now and then. In a time like ours, when the sociological and technological environment changes rapidly, neglect of questioning and re-adjusting applied secondary criteria can result in misleading feedback effects and sub-optimal selection processes.

The best known example might be the citation index and number of publications. These criteria are of course correlated with the originality and quality of the research, but whenever possible, one should ask for primary goals to be met. (I am not telling you this because it is something new, or because I think people in hiring committees are stupid, but to make the matter less abstract.) Other secondary criteria that have grown important over the last decades are e.g. previous employment at well-known institutions, or classifiable work on mainstream topics.

There is an obvious danger in just rewarding those who meet secondary requirements. If these criteria do not exactly match the primary goals, one promotes tactics that are sub-optimal for scientific progress but optimal for career building (see section 'Survival of the Fittest'). If you combine that with the non-linear feedback effect in complex systems, things can easily go seriously wrong.

An issue related to the necessary re-adjustment of secondary criteria to primary goals is to guarantee fairness on the marketplace. The 'Invisible Hand' always needs to be balanced by politics to ensure the marketplace is really 'free' -- this is one of the earliest lessons we have learned from industrialization. If we want the ‘marketplace of ideas’ to optimize progress in science, we have to ensure that every idea gets a chance, irrespective of its origin [3] - the matter of origin plays no role for the question whether an idea is worth supporting.

Ic: Risky Research

Another important point is that supporting risky start-ups is one of the most relevant factors for progress. Unfortunately, this factor is severely neglected by present funding strategies. Sounds familiar? Okay, okay, it’s not my idea:


"Do you want a revolution in science? Do what businesspeople do when they want a technological revolution: Just change the rules a bit […] Create some opportunities for high-risk/high-payoff people […] The technological companies and investment banks use this strategy. Why not try it in academia? The payoff could be discovering how the universe works."

~ Lee Smolin, The Trouble with Physics (p. 331)



Risk averseness is a rather unsurprising consequence of insecurity caused by a lack of communication in a community falling apart into sub-fields. It is also supported by chronically short resources (if we hire anybody, then someone who works on what I find interesting), short-term funding (it takes time to work out new ideas, for more info see e.g. Temporary Display and comments to this post), and by falling for the derived secondary requirement 'If she's interested in what I do, she must be intelligent.'

In the absence of a final judgement by nature on our approaches, it is very short-sighted to discard alternative options. However convinced I am of my own research project, I always have to acknowledge the possibility that it turns out to be a dead end. As Albert Einstein said so nicely "Mathematics are well and good but nature keeps dragging us around by the nose." In the London debate, Nancy Cartwright underlined the need to keep doors open by referring to J.S. Mill's essay 'On Liberty'. She argues that in the absence of nature's judgement the smart thing to do is to not prematurely discard alternative options

    "We need to allow as much liberty as possible (for people in designing their lives) because we don't know what is the best way (to live). And that's in part because we don't know what are all the good alternatives to chose from."


II. Product Placement

Presenting our research results to colleagues is an essential part of our job, in written form as well as in seminars, talks, and discussions. Clearly presented arguments, and well structured seminars are definitely beneficial to progress. However, as with many things in life, it is a matter of balance. Advertisement should not become more important than content. The most entertaining presentation can not make an idea better than it is, and scientific arguments have to remain as honest as possible – even if this means drawing attention to the flaws of the product.

For example, Thomas Larsson remarked

    At 5:53 AM, March 17, 2007,
    There are some good things about the string/LQG conflict, though. Without it, I would not know about the limits of the string black hole prediction, nor would I know that LQG quantization does not work for the harmonic oscillator.

and illustrates with that a problem that arises when researchers feel the pressure to advertise their own work. Today, many praise results in a rather unbalanced way – not because they don’t know better, but because they have to compete with a large number of people. If you put a paper out and don’t have a prominent co-author, a catchy title and exaggerated claims is the way to get others to read it. This tactic is okay for fish sales on mediterranean markets, but it is very dangerous to the standard of scientific research. It leads to rather uncritical status reports in which problems are either not mentioned, or downplayed (and if this shortcoming is pointed out, the author will claim that the problem is obvious and widely known.)

Whether published articles are balanced crucially depends on the referee process [4]. One could say a lot about peer review, but to say the least, it doesn’t always work as it should, and many reports are not as objective as they ought to be. An example that I have repeatedly witnessed myself: when it comes to numerical simulations, it is common practice to point out where the model fits the data very good, and just not to mention the problematic observables. Most often, numerical simulations are hard to check, even if the code is available, and the not-so-good results just don’t get published.

Though this is not strictly speaking wrong, it is just not good practice as it is exactly understanding the failure of an approach that could lead to improvement. However, those scientists who elaborate on difficulties and drawbacks risk being understood as negative, or maybe just not exciting enough, and cause problems for themselves (and probably get the well meant career advise to better sell themselves): Here we have another gap between what would be beneficial for scientific progress (primary goal: understand model), and what is beneficial for the scientific career (secondary goal: hide bugs or declare them as feature).



Now that I think about it, why not include a blurb paragraph to papers with warnings. Like ‘Possible side effects might contain decaying vacua, ghost fields and tachyons.’ Or ‘Do not use this model in Lorentzian signature, and not after the electroweak phase transition. If you consider using it in more than three dimensions, or together with matter fields, please consult a doctor.’

:-) I know, I’m being silly. I apologize, it is far easier to retreat to sarcasm than to come up with constructive criticism.

Were was I?

Uhm, this is another example where marketplace tactics fail in scientific research. We don’t want to sell our theories to as many people as possible and optimize the citation index, but we want to optimize the quality and usefulness of publications.

Another excellent example that shows how advertisement can promote scientific nonsense when secondary criteria (here: holding patents) are in conflict with primary goals (here: quality of research), can be found at the post Micro Black Day.

III. Survival of the Fittest

The survival of the fittest is another catchy phrase (often used by those who profit from the current system) to claim that a natural selection process ensures progress in scientific research. The irony is that those who argue such actually explain why the system fails.

Survival of the fittest doesn’t mean survival of the strongest, the best looking or the most intelligent. It means literally, survivors are those who ‘fit best’. Survivors are those who adapt the behaviour that minimizes existential conflict with the environment.

Now, ask yourself, what is this environment in the context of scientific research? Well, it is our own community with the selection criteria that we apply. If these criteria are not optimal for scientific progress, we don’t only have the possibility but the duty to change it!

The optimization implied in the ‘survival of the fittest’ crucially depends on the environment and available resources. Whether you like the subtitle of Lee's book or not, he makes the important point that we have to ask how science works best – how it works now and here, how it works in this century, in this sociological and cultural environment - and whether the presently applied selection criteria are indeed optimal for progress. Whether the fitness that we reward is actually the fitness that we need. Whether our secondary criteria agree with the primary goals.

We have to blame ourselves if we accept the current conditions even though we know they are not optimal.

    Amara Graps: At 2:51 AM, March 10, 2007
    One reason why the current system has been going on for so long is that scientists are a mild-mannered bunch and are passionate about their work. They are prone to self-abuse to pursue those passions too, being willing to absorb the most degrading conditions.

Repeatedly, I have met colleagues who agree that the situation sucks, but they shrug shoulders and say, that’s just the marketplace. Where does it come from, this believe that passivity is a guarantee for progress?

    amused: Mar 17th, 2007 at 1:17 am
    Of course, that’s hardly a new point in these discussions, and the standard response is to shrug ones shoulders and say “oh well, that’s just market forces”. Which is true, but it’s also relevant to ask whether it is in the best interests of physics. Hopefully it’s not too controversial to suggest that the interests of physics in the long term are best served by ensuring as much as possible that jobs go to the “best” people, regardless of their preferred research topics.

We are scientists. We should be able to analyze the present situation, and to draw consequences. Science is not coming to an end if we fail to meet the challenges that the increasing complexity of our field has brought. But we run in danger to reproduce the failures of the economic marketplace: bubbles of nothing, that are a waste of time, money and energy.

If left without attention, the naïve believe that the marketplace will make things right ‘somehow’ can seriously hinder progress. Nature might have supported an approach that failed too early – because it wasn’t advertised well enough, or because the capital investment was simply insufficient to allow it to compete.

Bottomline

There are important differences between the economical and the scientific marketplace. The most obvious ones being the absence of a neutral measure (like profit), and the pitfalls of advertisement.

Currently the ‘marketplace of ideas’ works anything but optimal. Times have changed rapidly, and our community has grown significantly. These changes need to reflect in our organizational structure as well, or we run in danger of getting stuck in a dead end.

And it is easy enough to improve the situation:


  1. Question and doubt. Ask yourself whether the realized strategies are optimal for scientific progress, and if you don't think so, don't shrug shoulders. Don't accept criteria you have been taught are right without taking into account that times have changed.

  2. Analyze. Peer pressure, intense competition, short resources, project-dependent funding and short-term employment favours mainstream, conservative and low-risk work. Be aware of that. Remind yourself and colleagues that 'Good physics has to be open, critical, and responsive'. Research has shown that simply reminding people to think rationally influences their decisions.

  3. Trust yourself. Don't work on topics that you don't genuinely believe are relevant because you are afraid of your reputation. If this work is unavoidable, criticise - even if you are defeated, you make a contribution to science. (Hey - I told you, you're not getting career advises on this blog.)


Hmmm...

It seems, this piece got quite lengthy...

One could write books about it...




Footnote [1]: The 'Invisible Hand' was indroduced by Adam Smith in his book 'The Wealth of Nations' (1776) to describe the self-regulation of the marketplace. From Wikipedia: Many economists claim that the theory of the Invisible Hand states that if each consumer is allowed to choose freely what to buy and each producer is allowed to choose freely what to sell and how to produce it, the market will settle on a product distribution and prices that are beneficial to the entire community. Adam Smith already pointed out that the Invisible Hand's regulation mechanism alone does not guarantee the well-being of the society and needs to be balanced by govenmental guidance "[...] uniformity of [the employee's] stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind [..] His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expence of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which [...] the great body of the people must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it." Nevertheless, this metaphor is often abused to praise the merits of capitalism without given sufficient credits to its limitations. [Back]

Footnote [2]: In addition, there is also the question how our research is presented to the public - who after all pays us to explore the frontiers of our knowledge. This is an important point on its own but should not be mixed up with the question how the community selects promising researchers and research programs. Most people are crucially aware that it requires an appropriate education to judge on the value of very recent developments, and will rely on expert’s opinions for a good reason. The public is neither dumb nor ignorant. I welcome it very much that in the last decades - maybe starting with Hawking’s Brief History of Time - theoretical physics has become more accessible to the public. The resulting discussions of our research among non-experts are regarded by some scientists with concern and skepticism. I am sure it is only a matter of time until our community gets used to this attention and learns how to deal with this kind of feedback. I myself am perfectly sure this communication is inspiring for both sides - and one of the reason why I maintain this blog. [Back]

Footnote [3]: To give a concrete example, research papers should not be judged upon by the author. Researchers should not be selected because of the institutions they have connections to, or the country of origin. Conference invitations should not be made to famous people for the only reason that their name does attract interest – A scientific conference is not a rock concert. [Back]

Footnote [4]: At least one should be careful enought to use 'could' instead of 'does' and 'might' instead of 'will'. You can learn about the importance of weasel words here, in case you followed this discussion about this paper. [Back]



TAGS: , ,

78 comments:

rafa said...

Dear Bee

Also timeframe is important. An investor in Company X might want to see the quarterly results. Managers and workers are in fact under heavy pressure of the qtly performance. But regarding mini black-holes or strig theory, what's the right timeframe for measuring progress? Honestly I do not think is any. Working for what you call the 'economic' side, i.e not being a researcher, I think this is the fundamental point you researchers have to fight for. Your proposal, trust, analyze, doubt is fine but imo this won't work unless the whole society and you community understand your goal is not launching a nice product to kill the competition next fiscal year. This would lead you guys to a kind of supra-board of senior managers defining the priorities in a tactical way (you have to publish *something* or move to a more fashionable area). modern industry is trying to keep a trade off between next quarter results and long term plans. Modern industry tries not to get hysterically nervous just because a competitor announced some product to be released next month. Reacting with a 'me too' product is not used these days. So the 80/20 Pareto law might well be 20/80 for Science, where 20 is tactic and 80 a long term view with almost no time restrictions. Sorry for the poor english.

best

Bee said...

Hi Rafa,

yes, the timeframe is important. As I've pointed out, presently I think funding is generally based on too short-term plans.

But regarding mini black-holes or strig theory, what's the right timeframe for measuring progress?

You can not really expect me to give an answer in a number, can you? The whole point of my writing (title: Science and Democracy) is the difficulty to find a neutral measure - and this measure it is definitely not me. What I am arguing for is the necessity to formulate criteria under which research programs can be evaluated, and to assure evaluation is as unbiased as possible.

It is an important question, but there can be no absolute answer to it. As I have mentioned in previous writings, new experiments in physics today take longer and longer time to be planned, constructed and run. This also affects the timescale on which theoretical physics receives new impulses.

Your proposal, trust, analyze, doubt is fine but imo this won't work unless the whole society and you community understand your goal is not launching a nice product to kill the competition next fiscal year.

The goal of theoretical physics is understanding nature. The necessity for fundamental research is well understood by my community, as well as by the whole society, and funding agencies. Launching a nice product to kill the competition next fiscal year is just not the point of our work - communicating the importance and the excitement in 'academically' exploring the frontiers of our knowledge is a different issue (see footnote 2) that I will address elsewhere in more detail.

The writing above is about the community itself, and my proposals are addressed to those already working in the field. I have good faith that most of them understand that measuring our progress in number of patents is inappropriate. How many patents have there been based on the discovery of asymptotic freedom? How many patents have there been based on the understanding of baryogenesis? Any applications of neutrino-oscillations?

Finding answers to the questions that men have asked since thousands of years is a progress that is not measured in profit, one should not expect it to be so, and it is very sad to justify our search with the possibility of eventually producing something that you might use one day in your kitchen equipment.

Best,

B.

Anonymous said...

hi,
that's all well and good, but did your advisor gave you any tips and procedures on how to "sell yourself"? just what does one do when "selling himself/herself".That would've been fair of him/her, at least when talking to someone who's not very good with metaphors and tend to understands them literary(like me).

Lee has a very nice suggestion with 'changing the rules of game just a bit'!

Moshe said...

I have no time for a detailed response, let me just say that any discussion of such issues should be in the context of alternatives. It may well be that the current system is near-optimal, in that any drastic change will make things worse. This cannot be discussed in the absence of concrete and practical suggestions for alternatives. As for small perturbations of the system, there are many good ideas out there, for example more long term jobs for young people, I think by and large those are not controversial.


Also, probably the most significant predictor to whether you think these are real issues or not is your satisfaction with your own status (so predictabely, I don't think times are any worse or better than any time before, certainly I see no "crisis").

One feature of the current system that I would strongly argue for is the self-management of scientific communities. Adding a beaurocratic level of "managers" to the scientific community is not unheard of, and typically makes all the ills you speak of worse, not better.

Bee said...

Hi Anonymous,

that's all well and good, but did your advisor gave you any tips and procedures on how to "sell yourself"?

he did, and so did others.

Hi Moshe,

I am not arguing for a drastic change. If you find the time to read what I wrote you will see that I consider the present system to be working fairly well. But I think the tensions that we are experiencing are a sign that we have to readjust it. If we do that soon enough, we can avoid a drastic change later.

Also, probably the most significant predictor to whether you think these are real issues or not is your satisfaction with your own status (so predictabely, I don't think times are any worse or better than any time before, certainly I see no "crisis").

I too see no 'crisis' in research itself, that's why I keep referring to it as the so-called-crisis. As I have pointed out, I don't find it too surprising that progress slows down the more difficult it gets for us to extract new information from nature via experiments.

What concerns me, and what is the content of this writing, is that we might be drifting into the wrong direction, and waste a lot of time and effort.

The point 'Analyze' hopefully helps you to realize that your satisfaction with your own status is not the relevant criteria to decide whether the situation is optimal.

I am aware that my perception of the problem is not objective, this is why I have proposed that to begin with one should clarify whether there is a need to act in the first place. (I'll see if I find the comment.) Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi again,

Here is a copy of my comment at Asymptotia

Let us leave aside for the moment the question who might have been insulted by what, or whether it was a particularly good idea to make this debate a public one. Before anything constructive can ever come out of this, I think one should set the stage.

Even though I am convinced Lee’s concerns about the present funding decisions and selection criteria are justified, apparently not everybody thinks so. My opinion is build up on the fact that every postdoc I know or have met and with whom I have discussed the question, agrees that the current system encourages working on established projects rather than investigating own ideas (which might possibly fail and/or not result in publications with well known top researchers on high-impact topics), and they agree that this is not optimal to progress.

However, the people I know are hardly a representative sample, and if you read e.g. Joe Polchinski’s review you’ll notice that he questions the necessity for change. (This point was not only brought up by Joe). On the other hand I have to say if I was a postdoc in Santa Barbara most likely Joe Polchinski wouldn’t be the first person to tell that my life sucks, and that I’d rather not work on what my supervisor’s current interest is. So, again, its hard to tell how objective this opinion is.

My suggestion therefore would be to start with a survey that addresses the points raised with the aim to settle the issue whether or not there is a need to act in the first place. E.g. one would like to ask researchers which criteria they apply to chose their research topics, and to which amount these decisions are based on career considerations, co-workers, supervisors demands, how ‘risky’ these decisions are and in which regard. One might want to ask whether they pay attention to fashionable topics, whether they would change their research projects if their funding was more independent. One might want to ask what criteria they use to evaluate applications, e.g. how much attention is payed to the connections a candidate might provide to other established institutions (networking etc), whether his/her previous works are compatible with ongoing research, number of publications, citations, letters from well-known researchers, previous employment at well-known institutions, etc etc.

A second step would then be to summarize the outcome, to evaluate it, and to formulate suggestions (if necessary) to improve the situation. That could be understood e.g. as recommendations for hiring processes.

If possible, for such I would strongly recommend to use already existing structures (e.g. the physical societies) and not add additional layers of organization.

Just an idea. I’d be happy to hear your opinion.

Uncle Al said...

When process is valued over product production will bow to performance bonuses (awarded until bankruptcy).

An axiomatic system derived from an empirically untrue postulate will ultimately fail. Physical theory demands isotropic vacuum and the Equivalence Principle. Physical theory generates identical testable predictions without either. Only one approach can be correct. Only first order disjoint non-overlap is truly interesting to examine.

Process or product?

Bee said...

Hi Uncle,

to translate what you have said into what I have said: in the absence of products, it matters which performance you award with bonuses.

Though I don't particularly like the use if the word 'product' with respect to 'physical theory'.

Progress is process, not product.

Best,

B.

Moshe said...

Thanks Bee, this is probably not the type of discussion that can be carried out efficiently on a blog, I just wanted to make the point that even though the ideals you mention are widely accepted (even among evil group thinkers :-)), the only meaningful type of discussion should involve concrete and practical suggestions to be implemented in the real world, with all its constraints (and starting small is probably a good idea). Those are not that easy to come by actually, but I anticipate you'd find a very encouraging environment should you come up with good ideas.

Speaking of the real world, have to go indoctrinate the next generation now...

Bee said...

Hi Moshe,

yes. I'm just using my blog as a forum to get feedback, and I hope that I can encourage readers to think about what I write. That's a starting point. Good luck with the next generation :-)

-B.

Kris Krogh said...

Hi Bee,

I love your graphics! Have you talked to Proctor and Gamble or Nestle? I think you've found the true marketplace for these ideas!

Neil H. said...

For a related/alternate view, have you already seen Robin Hanson's "Could Gambling Save Science"? I think he's written about this more recently than 1990, but I haven't been able to find anything else:

http://hanson.gmu.edu/gamble.html

The abstract: "The pace of scientific progress may be hindered by the tendency of our academic institutions to reward being popular, rather than being right. A market-based alternative, where scientists more formally "stake their reputation", is presented here. It offers clear incentives to be careful and honest while contributing to a visible, self-consistent consensus on controversial (or routine) scientific questions. In addition, it allows funders to choose questions to be researched without choosing people or methods. The bulk of this paper is spent examining potential problems with the proposed approach. After this examination, the idea still seems plausible and worth further study."

Anonymous said...

hi bee.
as to make some constructive comment let's look at concensus among postdocs , for starters-your quote:

current system encourages working on established projects rather than investigating own ideas (which might possibly fail and/or not result in publications with well known top researchers on high-impact topics), and they agree that this is not optimal to progress.


now-what is establishment's objection to this? and if there's none, what is being done about that? and why not?

stefan said...

Dear Bee,


that's very a carefully written essay, one has to think about it for a while... and thank you for the hilarious illustrations - I wonder again and again where you find all these ideas ;-)

I find the idea of non-linear feedback effects and self-organization especially compelling, and wonder whether it can be made more explicit and somehow checked quantitativly.

For example, is it possible to analyse the huge publication record which is documented in the arxiv, and try to figure out if and how a certain paper attract publication activity away from other topics? Has something like this already be done? The arxiv may be a huge data mine for all kinds of studies of this kind, which may show the emergence and decline of "fashions"... It may also be used just to map networks and groups. That, again, may be used to gauge raw citation numbers. Bibliometrics people may have started to work on this, it would be intersting to check this out...

BTW, related to the general topic of "science and democracy", via uncertain principles and Life as a physicsist, there is an article in the Economist on the research and develpoment efforts and investments of big companies, which quotes a researcher on media applications at Microsoft:

But making this vision work technically is hard. Academics, he says, cannot do this, since they continually struggle for funds. This forces them into projects of just one or two years—even shorter than industry horizons. “It's insane,” says Mr Drucker. He reckons it means corporate research can look farther ahead, do bigger things and risk more money for a big payout.

All the best, stefan

Bee said...

Hi Kris,

thanks :-) I could not resist the temptation.

Hi Neil,

This is really interesting! No, I had not seen this before, I will have a look, thanks so much.

Hi Anonymous,

current system encourages working on established projects rather than investigating own ideas

now-what is establishment's objection to this? and if there's none, what is being done about that? and why not?


For one, the question is not whether the one or the other is just 'better' but whether the share into both (hiring people into existing programs and hiring people with their own project) is optimal. Continuation of existing programs is often favored by those working in the fields, because they consider their own project interesting, because they want to see progress in this area, and they maybe just hire people for the simple reason to work out projects they have in mind.

That is perfectly fine: in most cases these areas attract attention and smart people for a good reason. So, in many regards this system works very well.

The problem is that people who don't fit into simple categories have a hard time finding support for their application in a field that has specialized in to several sub-fields. It's not that someone actually says: No, I don't want to hire someone who wants to work on his/her own ideas instead of mine. But more or less consciously the decision is to stick to topics that are reasonably save, have good chances of getting grants, citations, and will give the institution a reputation of contributing to the front of research.

One also has to see that it is just easier to judge on somebody who is working on a familiar field, instead of somebody who is trying to start something different, a project that might indeed just fail. One also has to take into account that collaborations have increasing importance.

what is being done about that? and why not?

I believe that before one can try to solve a problem one first has to accept that it exists. This is why I think Lee's book is so important.

As I have mentioned above, the easiest thing to do is to question the critera that are applied, and to voice your opinion if you think they are not optimal. Besides this, I think it is about time to realize what companies have realized a long time ago. A growing community needs to actively make an effort to ensure communication between its subsectors. The natural thing to happen if left unattended is that communication fades out and things fall apart. We can not allow this. I don't want to introduce a management for hiring people - this could not be farther away from what I want. What I argue for is to improve the existing structure by re-adjusting it. By encouraging people to look into other sub-fields, by reminding them what is beneficial for progress, by putting more faith into young researchers, by not punishing criticism, by keeping doors open and encourage taking a risk.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Stefan,

regarding network structure of arxiv citations, I know that some people have examined that - I heard a talk about it some time ago (sorry, can't recall a name, will try to find a reference).

The problem that the citation index is a very imprecise measure and could need some improvement has also been known for a while, and I believe there are several suggestions for that (you find some info on that on SPIRES I think).

Regarding complexity: Even though I find it interesting, I don't know if there is any point for the problem at hand to analyze the complexity of that system that is our community. I don't think one needs to do that in order to understand the problem, and to find a solution.

I have only mentioned this point because (besides being interesting) it makes clear why these issues could be neglected in the past, but become important now. One of the arguments I have heard most often (and not only in this context) is 'but it has always worked'.

Yes, I keep repeating, but that something has worked fine for a long time doesn't mean it will work fine forever.

Best,

B.

ChickenBreeder said...

Although I certainly have sympathy for today's young (and some old) scientists who have "suffered" due to the less-than-perfect working condition you have described, there's a flip side of the coin.

Systematic support of scientists by the government (or society in general) is a recent thing. If we consider the relevant time frame from Newton to present, the first 200 years of science was done without NSF or DOE or a large number of tenured positions in universities. Every scientists in those times had to fight for themselves in their own ways. Yet groundbreaking sciences were done in that era. Today, despite much complaint, a young scientist in need of support can simply write a proposal, upload it to NSF web site, and wait for about a 1-in-5 (if I understand correctly) chance to get the money. On paper, this is already much much better than what scientists of the bygone era would ever dreamed of. Then, why are people so unhappy today?

I think one of the keys is population control in science. There's a great article about it 10 years ago that I should try to find sometime. But in short, it's the population explosion (in particular, the nearly exponential growth of the number of Ph.D.s from 1960s-mid 1980s) in the last 40 years that has ruined everything. In the good old days, science progressed just fine with a relatively small number of scientists, which is an indication that that's all we need to keep science moving forward. If we now produce 10 times the number of the "minimum requirement" number of scientists, some of them aren't even very talented or inspired but got their Ph.D.s because of the lowered standard, the "quality of life" for scientists is bound to deteriorate.

This is almost like what happens in those overly populated 3rd world countries. When there are too many people, the community is unable to take care of its individual members. Everyone is reduced to just a number. When it's over populated and a significant number of the community (even 30%) are uninspired who just hang around to "make a living", "pay the bill", etc., it neutralizes the rest of the field. Those who are truly inspired are not able to stand out because they would be immediately neutralized by those careerists (in the general sense).

With the explosive growth of the number of scientists come the explosive growth of the volumes of publications. Soon no one can manage to read even a fraction of them, and no one has the time to judge the quality of the majority of the papers anymore. The distinction between good and bad is lost. Another example of the deterioration of the "quality of life" of scientists. This is also true for proposals, books, and so on.

Today a scientist, be him or her tenured or not, can still publish papers and write proposals and get funded with some effort. That to me is not the problem, as I already said it's already a situation that scientists from 200 years ago would envy. The problem is that everything is neutralized due to over population. You can publish papers but who is going to read it in detail, given that one month's worth of Physical Review is thicker than Manhattan phone book? In my opinion, it's this kind of deterioration of quality fo life that makes today's science community miserable. We are now eating microwave dinners everyday. There's no more home cooked meals.

The people who are most guilty of producing this situation are those who had been, and continue, producing an large number of Ph.D. students year after year beyond teh capacity that the science community can afford. There are senior people (or even junior "hot shot" ones) who easily have 10 students at a time, who writes proposals to get more and more students just to make his group bigger than his next door neightbor, who talk to each individual student 10 minutes per year, things like that. And of course when the students get out of the door after producing his share of papers for the senior person, the latter can care less what come about next for these students. This is irresposible reproduction, which is not just the root of the decline of science, but the root of all evil.

The solution is very simple. We need population control and responsible reproduction for science. For example, NSF should not fund anyone who already has 10 students and cannot possibly take care of an 11th, not to consider the problem of the future of the 10 students who already exist. There can be rules for that, and universities should also set similar rules.

Also, as far as I can tell, this whole discussion has nothing to do with "democracy", which palys little role in the problem nor its solution.

Kris Krogh said...

Hi Neil H.,

Just to make you happy, I've decided to formally stake my reputation on a prediction:

NASA's Gravity Probe B experiment will not see the frame-dragging effect predicted by general relativity. (Preliminary results will be announced next month at a meeting of the American Physical Society, final ones by the end of the year.)

Bee said...

Hi Chickenbreeder,

thank you for the interesting comment. Let me begin with replying to your last remark. The reason why I titled this piece 'Science and Democracy' is to emphasize that the way the scientific community pursues its goals can be influenced by its members. We do not have to accept the conditions as they are - we make them ourselves, and we are able to change them.

Your observation that the present structure of scientific publishing is no longer appropriate is absolutely correct. There are too many publications, and it has become just impossible to keep an overview. The solution to this problem can not be to just not publish - it would be a tremendous waste of time if calculations obtained once had to be redone again and again. What it needs is a better organization of published papers - I believe there are several projects planing to improve the arxiv structure etc. In this regard, technology can help a lot.

I don't have very much to say about your observation that things are now better than 200 years ago. This is certainly true in many regards. Maybe it is one of the most essential characteristics of men to never be satisfied. Another one is curiosity.

Your question whether we really need all these scientists is a valid objection. I have my bad days when I think everything we do is completely totally irrelevant and if we'd all be fired it wouldn't change anything (except raising the unemployment rate).

But one of the things that being at Perimeter Institute has taught me is that it matters what we do. PI has a very active public outreach program, and it is amazing to see how much interest and enthusiasm the general public has for our scientific endeavors.

The search and strive to understand the universe, and to find answers to the questions were we come from, what we are made of, why things are as they are, and how the world works - this is our task. This is what the society pays us for.

Do we really need that? Well, I might ask you in return, do we really 'need' contemporary art, rock-music, microwave dinners or blogs? Do we need these more than answering quesions mankind has ask since we crawled down from the trees? We might not need answers to the fundamental questions to survive, but it is what gives our life a purpose. Progress is what makes us see facets of the world that we did not know where there before.

No, I don't think there are too many scientists. Whether all of them actually do sensible work and aim to fulfil the task to understand nature is a different issue. It is in this regard that I argue we have to remind ourself of our primary goals, and ask the fundamental questions. The total number of people working in one sector of the society just does fluctuate with time. So it might very well be that you are right, and in the next decades it will turn out that we don't actually need all these people to ensure progress. I don't know, but I don't think this is likely to happen.


Best,

B.

amaragraps said...

Dear Bee:
Robin Hanson's article: Could Gambling Save Science article was published a few years later in a couple of different journals. It is part of his broader view of a concept called: Ideas Futures. If any of his writings looks interesting to you, drop him a note. He's very responsive to intelligent feedback, especially from physicists. His new blog: Overcoming Bias might appeal to you as well. I should probably tell you that I've known Robin for a couple of decades, he's one of the smartest people that I've met in my life, and he's given me hints for "selling myself" too, but I don't know if I actually took any of his advice!

Happy Equinox!

Anonymous said...

this is an amazingly insightful study and I only hope many of our colleagues are openminded enoughh to realize what you are saying is true. good luck w all

Anonymous said...

For example, NSF should not fund anyone who already has 10 students and cannot possibly take care of an 11th, not to consider the problem of the future of the 10 students who already exist.

excuse me, but this is a completely stupid idea. NSF should not fund or not-fund anybody based on the number of students, but based on research quality. if he's just a genius and keeps his students busy you want to cut him because you dont like the # 11?

Uncle Al said...

CONGRATS ON AMPLIFIED PI FUNDING!

http://sciencenow.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/2007/320/1

The managerial paradigm for Gifted support: 1) Toss in money; 2) Sit at desk with head in hands, sweating blood; 3) The Gifted toss back results.

(1) and (2) are in place. Fulfill your third of the bargain. Do left and right hands vacuum free fall identically? That could be a Media-ready paradigm shift.

Bee said...

Hi Uncle,

wow, information surely travels fast these days - I only heard of it yesterday. That's what I call good news :-)

Best,

B.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bee, thanks for a well thought out and interesting article. I do not think that the term "marketplace of ideas" is appropriate to describe either the current trends in Science, nor should the term be used to describe how Science can be improved. Progress in Science (i.e., understanding how Nature works, generally) is achieved with the Scientific Method, simple as that.

The term "markeplace of ideas" generally applies to systems where there is proprietary information, and or marketing tactics (both anathema to Science). Let us leave the "marketplace of ideas" to corporations selling widgets and to the politicians who sold us a a bad war.

BTW, you have a lot of good ideas in your articles about "Science and Democracy". Would you consider compiling and expanding them into a (possible future) book?

Cheers.

changcho

Bee said...

Hi Amara,

thanks for the info! I recall that I actually read that post at CV, but I didn't make the connection to Neil's comment.

-B.

Bee said...

Hi Changcho,

I do not think that the term "marketplace of ideas" is appropriate to describe either the current trends in Science, nor should the term be used to describe how Science can be improved. Progress in Science (i.e., understanding how Nature works, generally) is achieved with the Scientific Method, simple as that.

I don't like the term 'marketplace of ideas' either, but it doesn't matter much how you call it as long as you make clear what you mean. I am not perfectly sure what you mean with THE Scientific Method, but none of the issues I have raised referred to the actual way research is done by the individual. Instead, I am concerned with the environment in which this research is done.

Would you consider compiling and expanding them into a (possible future) book?

Definitly not before I'm tenured.

Until then, I'm afraid you'll have to keep reading my blog :-)

Best,

B.

Arun said...

Dear Bee,

Certainly you've provided a lot to think about. While I ponder over it, I'd like to reiterate your point that we are the creators of our own rat race.

Arun said...

It would be interesting to know if China, which apparently is undergoing its era of exponential growth in science funding, entertains a greater diversity in lines of scientific research as a result; or whether the gold rush has everyone following the latest, best fashion.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bee - well, I should not have used the term "Scientific Method" (it has a specific meaning, of course), but by that I meant that Science progresses, among other things, by publishing in peer-review journals, and by presenting results in scientific conferences. Anyways, great article (and great blog).

changcho

B Yen said...

"People don't buy Good Products, they buy GOOD MARKETING"
-- business saying

Good science research needs to be backed up with good salesmandship/presentation. A Caltech professor phrased this as "exposition". I've seen good researchers not get funding (bad salesmanship), & poor researchers get funding (good salesmanship).

Here's an interesting slide from IPAC/Caltech from Kip Thorne's PhD student:

- The golden rule: he who has the gold rules.

- There are difficult people in the world that you have to learn how to deal with.

- Schmoozing and Salesmanship are important.

Lumo said...

Dear Bee, let me react quickly to most of your otherwise interesting points:

Selling: one may try to sell something or not - but a basic feature of a scientist is that he or she should not be affected by any easy, superficial tricks of others who try to sell themselves. This is just not how ideas are weighted in good science.

If someone has some other non-science ability, that's a good thing that helps in all possible situations but it can never be counted as a contribution to the validity or value of her or his theories by reasonable scientists.

That's e.g. why Lee Smolin remains an unimportant scientist even though he can mislead a lot of ordinary people by non-scientific superficial features.

Marketplace: sure, markets are never perfect at short timescale. But you can't mess up with them at the short timescale because this would automatically mean that you mess up with them at all timescales.

This is the usual disease that the proponents of totalitarian ideologies - such as Nazism, communism, environmentalism, and others - almost always have in mind. They want to create something "perfect" even at the short timescales. It's just impossible and what you get with this philosophy is either Holocaust, or Lysenkoism, or Kyoto protocols, or something like that.

The best thing you can do is to let the mechanisms work which will be imperfect at short timescales but will bring you the best outcome at longer time scales. This is true for any kind of a market.

Judgments: I don't understand or agree with these analyses how to social-engineer a different judgment by scientists. If science is science, scientists - at least those who are independent or lead their teams - must be able to make their own decisions. If someone dictates them from above, whatever is the ideology, what they should think and how they should rate papers, it's no science.

A rational behavior of other scientists and institutions is to hire or pick those who will maximize the expectation value of the benefits and contributions, measured by the best current standard ways to measure it that are of course evolving, too.

I disagree that fashionable topics are "non-linear response". On the contrary, the more non-linear and turbulence-like the behavior is, the less group-think you get. Your analogy with hydrodynamics is completely upside down. It is the linear regime in which all molecules tend to go in the same direction because there is no complex structure in it. The more structure you have, the more likely it is that you will measure the quality of work more accurately.

"Require adjustment of criteria": again, this is nonsense. You are thinking from the viewpoint of a Stalin (or Smolin) who dictates everyone else what criteria there should be to judge scientific work. That's not how science can work if it is science.

I think it is also wrong to have universally dictated criteria how people rate other people in science, but on the other hand, near equilibrium, when things work correctly, obviously that rating of any research will be correlated with the numerical criteria like the citation counts (of papers, or total one for people etc.). People also do other things than collecting credit for research work which is why other criteria obviously play role, too.

But I don't know what you want to achieve with these attempts to pre-define all the criteria. Some LQG people will never agree that people who are not capable to learn the current picture of physics and haven't found anything interesting yet - and haven't won any math olympiads etc. - are just not the right people to have in physics.

They will always prefer a different strategy - to have people who don't know things, who don't write interesting things, and who (incorrectly) label each other as original thinkers just because they are less able than others. They have the right for this very different strategy but if this strategy will be failing for a long time, the weights will be readjusted, too. Everything must be dynamical.

"The 'Invisible Hand' always needs to be balanced by politics to ensure the marketplace is really 'free'..."

I couldn't disagree more. Every kind of politics makes the marketplace less free, more biased, less scientific, less meritocratic. What analogy in industrialization do you have in mind? Your statement is wrong in the case of industrialization, too.

I think it's complete bullshit that people who are at the top of theoretical physics are trying to avoid high-risk high-potential choices. This is one of the lies that Lee Smolin keeps on spreading.

This question has nothing to do with loop quantum gravity because loop quantum gravity is neither high-risk nor high-potential thing. It's a 99.999999% guaranteed failure that would bring almost nothing even if it were not a failure. Every top physicist knows that. Only people manipulated by silly propaganda by Lee Smolin can think otherwise.

Thomas Larsson is not a serious physicist. There are no "limits" of black hole predictions by string theory. There are just limits what can be calculated with the tools we have already found but string theory says everything about what black holes can exist, and what their entropy is. In some backgrounds - such as those with a matrix model description - we can explicitly demonstrate this fact.

Publication bias of non-results: when we're interested in an answer to a question where both or all possible answers are a priori comparably likely, then a good scientist should guarantee that both/all kinds of answer get published with the same probability because this is necessary to avoid bias in the answers.

On the other hand when you're doing something such as guessing of a new theory of everything, it is an unlikely thing that a random guess is the right one, and one must filter them out because 99.9999+ percent of such guesses are just wrong. In this situation, the publication bias should exist because uninteresting results reporting authors' silly ideas that didn't work just can't get published all the time. That would create literature into dumping ground.

I think what I say is completely obvious. The collection of published papers must maximize the entropy or total information or its density. If your reported result is extremely likely and obvious, the paper carries a small amount of information. Publishing uninteresting results that confirm the expected things all the time is just wrong.

Once again, the bias above can't ever be used to reduce or remove one possible answer among a list that are a priori comparably likely. For example, it is of course wrong to publish mostly catastrophic climate predictions just because they're more interesting. The very goal here is to find what the climate will be, so bias of this kind is just a scientific misconduct that would give unscientific answers to questions we actually ask. The entropy/information counting obviously takes care of it.

I don't understand your comment about quality of things not being sold to all people. The highest quality papers simply ARE sold to everyone because they change the whole field. I have no idea how you can deny it. There can be noise and misjudgments about the importance of some work, especially at the short timescale, but when these imperfections go away, the impact of the work is essentially the same thing as quality. How it couldn't be?

Your comments about "fit best" directly contradict your earlier calls for originality and high-risk investments etc. What do you really believe is right? I feel that you just repeat some popular cliches without having a consistent framework.

My opinion is that it is no one's business to be prescribing how high risk someone else should be taking. Different strategies with different levels of risk should compete with each other, too, and the ideal level of risk level - the ideal strategy - is more likely to survive after some time to approach the equilibrium.

You just don't seem to understand that all these things - how important different principles are - must be dynamical when things are right. Instead, you (and Lee Smolin) want to replace them with some static dogmas about the importance of different things which is entirely counterproductive.

I disagree that the scientific marketplace lacks a measure. In business, profit is just one side of the story. The other part of the story is what you buy and what you want to buy for your money. And the answer depends on your taste, on your utility functions.

A scientist who is searching for the truth has a measure - a "truthility" function - to judge other people's work, too. There is no philosophical difference here whatsoever. It's just that the scientist when measuring these things should determine the utility by the ideas' ability to find more truth.

Different scientists can have different measures, but the same is true in business, too. Different people like to buy different beverages, for example. What's exactly the difference? I think it's isomorphic.

Again, I protest against the notions that one should derive far-reaching consequences from the observation that the marketplace doesn't work optimally. Marketplace never works optimally but it is the best working system among all conceivable systems we have both in business and in science.

And that's the memo.

Thomas Larsson said...

Hi Lubos, how is your experimental-susy-by-2006 bet going?

There are no "limits" of black hole predictions by string theory.

Let me quote from Victor Rivelles' blog:

"Gerard replied that only BPS black holes have such a description and that the real challenge is to describe the Schwarzschild black hole. Kostas then said that Schwarzschild black holes are technically very difficult to be treated but Gerard insisted that it may not be a technical problem but a matter of principle."

Evidently Gerard 't Hooft thinks that there are limits to the string black hole prediction. Whose opinion would you rather trust, 't Hooft's or Motl's?

Thomas Larsson is not a serious physicist.

Let me give an example of how serious Prof. Motl is. Some time ago, I said to Lee Smolin that "that infinite-dimensional constraint algebras generically acquire anomalies". Lubos evidently liked this phrase so much that he quoted it literally here. Alas, he lost interest when I pointed out that

1. the quote originated from me,

2. the infinite-dimensional constraint algebra of GR in 4D does not acquire anomalies within the framework of string theory.

Serious, huh.

Lumo said...

Dear Mr Larsson, my 2006 bet has been moved to 2008 since the LHC was delayed.

If you think that you invented anomalies [of infinite-dimensional constrain algebras], you should see your doctor.

Best
Lubos

Bee said...

Dear Lubos,

I have the impression you had a brief look at what I wrote and filled in the parts you skipped with what you think I might have written. To clear out your accusations that are manifestly wrong:

I disagree that fashionable topics are "non-linear response". On the contrary, the more non-linear and turbulence-like the behavior is, the less group-think you get.

I did not say anything about group-think. I don't find the concept particularly useful (and in addition, not many people are able to understand it as a sociological phenomenon rather than a personal insult.) I wrote the emergence of sub-fields is a sign of self-organization. Fashionable topics are a non-linear feedback for the following reason: a new field opens opportunities. Naturally, people are attracted by that, especially if it promises progress that is lacking elsewhere. If a topic is considered en vogue and working on it gives you the reputation to be on the front of research, more people will go there. If more people are there, the topic will raise in apparent importance, attracting even more attention, and more people go there.

Obviously, this non-linearity has a natural damping - at some point even the dumbest guy should notice that there are too many people working on an idea at once. Progress in physics can not be accelerated arbitrarily by giving the same topic to more and more people - if anything, it will only result in the same discovery made repeatedly.


I think it's complete bullshit that people who are at the top of theoretical physics are trying to avoid high-risk high-potential choices.

I didn't say anything about 'people at the top of theoretical physics'.

I don't understand your comment about quality of things not being sold to all people. The highest quality papers simply ARE sold to everyone because they change the whole field.

I wrote the quality of our work is (on the short term) not sold to and judged by the public - and shouldn't be. I wrote exactly what you did, namely, it is sold within our field - only.

There can be noise and misjudgments about the importance of some work, especially at the short timescale, but when these imperfections go away, the impact of the work is essentially the same thing as quality. How it couldn't be?

I am concerned exactly about the noise, misjudgements and imperfections on short time scales. These are more severe when specialization into sub-fields occurs because it becomes more difficult to judge on the impact of a work.

Different strategies with different levels of risk should compete with each other, too, and the ideal level of risk level - the ideal strategy - is more likely to survive after some time to approach the equilibrium.

Again, I am exactly concerned about the time it takes to approach equilibrium. As I have written, I have no doubts it will be reached on long timescales.

Marketplace: sure, markets are never perfect at short timescale. But you can't mess up with them at the short timescale because this would automatically mean that you mess up with them at all timescales.

Is in direct contradiction to your believe that the 'truth' always survives.

Maybe I didn't make that point really clear. I am trying to avoid wasting efforts on short time scales - short being up to some decades. I am not arguing anybody should 'dictate' anything to anybody.

"The 'Invisible Hand' always needs to be balanced by politics to ensure the marketplace is really 'free'..."

I couldn't disagree more. Every kind of politics makes the marketplace less free, more biased, less scientific, less meritocratic. What analogy in industrialization do you have in mind? Your statement is wrong in the case of industrialization, too.


I believe we have had similar discussions before, and I am actually not in the mood to give you a lecture on politics and economy to explain why your believe in anarchic capitalism is hopelessly naive. To start with, you might want to read the Wiki Entry on mixed economy

"The economic freedoms that are a necessary part the capitalist portion of a mixed economy are part of a continuum of freedoms, ranging from those that require no governance to those that require very substantial governance in regard to (for example) establishing rule of law that protects private property and free markets"

To give you a very simple answer to your question: consider a company producing in country A (reservoir of employees) and selling in country B. Profit is raised if production cost is as low as possible. If the company is one of only little, maybe the only, in country A it can lower wages arbitrarily, there is no 'natural' mechanism that would avoid this. Eventually though, employees drop below poverty level, starve, and die. Unfortunately, this is an irreversible process. The company will essentially use the 'reservoir of employees' to maximize profit. Useless to say, this is not exactly what I consider to be an optimally working system. The solution is to give the majority of people (democracy) the possibility to influence these non-optimal outcomes by governmental actions.

Your comments about "fit best" directly contradict your earlier calls for originality and high-risk investments etc. What do you really believe is right? I feel that you just repeat some popular cliches without having a consistent framework.

I am stating the obvious fact that job opportunities and career options influence researchers decisions and what they pay attention to. If you deny that this is the case, you are more stupid that I thought you are. I am not contradicting what I wrote above. You are mixing up content of research with the environment it is pursued in. If more support and appreciation exist for 'high-risk' research, more people will take these opportunities. I don't see why this is a contradiction.

I can't recall I used the word 'originality' (I am not sure if 'originality' always correlates with quality).

Different scientists can have different measures, but the same is true in business, too. Different people like to buy different beverages, for example. What's exactly the difference? I think it's isomorphic.

Well, in science there is eventually, on the long run, only one beverage that can survive. A soft drink is a soft drink, it is neither right nor wrong, and can co-exist with others potentially infinitely long. The whole point of my above writing are the differences between selling beverages to scientific research.


Best,

B.

Bee said...

btw

I feel that you just repeat some popular cliches without having a consistent framework.

In case you haven't noticed, I'm the one who tries to tidy up with the 'popular cliches'. I am not sure how consistent my 'framework' is, but I haven't attempted to publish it in a scientific journal. If you have anything substantial to say, I'd be more than happy to taking it into account. E.g. a friend mentioned that I should pay more attention to the question of 'comptetition vs. collaboration' and I think he has raised a good point.

Lumo said...

Dear Bee, I know that you didn't use the word "group-think" but you talked about the concept anyway, using different words. I don't know why you don't want to allow me to use the word "group-think".

Again, your comments that "you worry" whether the truth and right equilibrium will be quickly achieved etc. are the same "worries" that are behind all totalitarian ideologies. Put your hands off these things, please. It is not your business to be increasing the speed how the hypothetical equilibrium is reached especially if you in particular have no idea whatsoever where the actual equilibrium is.

We know very well that certain people want to control other people, but I personally find it a very bad idea for people like LS who fail already at their personal level to control even larger portions of science because this means nothing else than bringing the whole science to failure.

"I didn't say anything about 'people at the top of theoretical physics'."

It doesn't matter. Lee Smolin did and you meant the same thing. Both of you are spreading this big lie that someone powerful in theoretical physics is trying to throw away original and independent people. I am just saying that it is transparently a big lie. There are many examples of hiring etc. that show how big a lie it is but I just can't go into personal things.

This lie is spread with a particular purpose to force the public into thinking that the authors of these lies are original and good physicists - which is another lie - who should be helped against others - which is an attempt to screw the whole scientific community and avoid the fair procedures in it.

Mixed economy is just an incoherent way to introduce corruption into free economy. We just agreed about it with Marcos Marino ;-) who is a Marxist - so that's quite a consensus. :-)

We completely disagree about the word "freedom". Sustaining freedom - by definition - can never require big interventions of a government or any other organized entity. Regaining liberty back can take an army but if the freedom already exists, it is essentially defined by the fact it doesn't need big institutions to sustain it. They're not really compatible with liberty.

Your salary fairy-tale is just silly. Employees in a particular occupation are paid whatever the market equilibrium dictates that the salary should be. If the employees have a better way to earn money, they will switch into a better way which will force the company to raise the salary to get the required people for the job. There is absolutely no way here to find an argument that the market has an inherent bug here. What you write is more or less isomorphic to Marx's silly writings and I thought that all people with IQ above 70 in the 21st century realize that his ideas about increasingly starving employees have been falsified.

"I am stating the obvious fact that job opportunities and career options influence researchers decisions and what they pay attention to."

I agree with that - everything is influenced by everything else, to one extent or another - but I maximally disagree with any suggestion that one should introduce new policies that are meant to fight such effects etc. These observations of yours (and Smolin) are a typical example of demagogy whose only goal is to introduce whatever rules will be more convenient for two of you personally. There is absolutely no way how the truisms you wrote - that various things are influenced by other things - should imply that one should adopt some policies. It's pure propaganda.

Again, I don't think you should be dictating others how much risk they should be taking.

Finally, I don't think you have found any qualitative differences between the market of beverages and market of ideas. In science, one answer to a particular question survives at the end. But there are many answers because there are many questions, just like there are many kinds of beverages.

amused said...

Dear Bee,

Nice post, thanks for writing about this again. And thanks for the cite! Sorry I never got around to replying to you back in the part II discussion - I had to let it slide while taking care of some real world stuff - but I
always expected there would be another chance in parts III, IV,...

I agree with you on a fair bit of this, in particular that the secondary selection criteria need to be re-evaluated from time to time depending on the situation. The criteria probably worked quite well back in the days where QCD and the Standard Model were being developed and there was clear evidence that research activities had converged on the correct direction. But in the present day, where there is ``remarkable convergence on an unproven idea'' it is certainly an appropriate time to re-evaluate them.

There is quite a bit I disagree with though (it would be boring if we agreed on everything, right?) Despite the impression from the stuff I wrote in that other comment that you quoted, I'm actually all in favour of letting market forces determine which research directions and people get supported in physics. The only alternative I see is some kind of central planning, led by a politburo (whoops, sorry, I mean committee ;)), which I think would be worse than what we have now (for reasons I mentioned in my comment in the part II discussion). My complaint about the present situation is that the market is not as free as it should be - there are artificial constraints in it which have nothing to do with promoting the best physics or people and in fact are detrimental to that. I'll describe these below, and argue that they sometimes lead to outcomes that are quite different from ones that would occur if the market was really free. As far as I'm aware these artificial constraints have always been there, and their detrimental effects are probably negligible in periods where the way forward is clear (e.g. during the development of the SM) but become magnified in situations like what we have now.

Before saying what these ``artificial constraints'' are, I'll start by giving my take on what the ideal free physics market should look like. The most important thing: there must be an objective measure (or measures) for evaluating researchers, and the extent to which researchers get supported should be solely (or at least primarily) determined by this. These measures should be blind to sociological factors (where you got your degree, who you have worked with, who you know, who you have managed to impress with your witty personality or well-cultivated air of brilliance, etc). The only measures I can think of which satisfy this are the traditional ones used in academia, namely journal publications. We need a hierarchy of journals, with the standards of the top ones zealously safeguarded by editors and referees, so that if someone publishes in a top journal then assessors can be sure that the work is of the highest quality and importance, even if the assessors are from a different field and therefore not able to evaluate the paper directly. This would provide a level playing field for all.

I didn't say anything about evaluation of research areas. That's because I don't think there should be any such evaluation. It will be done automatically by the market: The papers published in the top journals will be the ones representing important progresses; the people producing them will then be supported and hence the areas they work in, which are where these important progresses are happening, will be the areas that flourish as the people there get jobs. People working on dull things, or in areas where the is no interesting progress, won't have anything acceptable for the top journals so they will be less supported. All will be well with the physics world.

Impossible? Unrealistic? No way! - that is precisely the system that the maths community has, and it has stood them in very good stead over a long time while maths areas became more and more specialized and where there is no (direct) guidance from nature (experiments) at all.

Now imagine a researcher who has done what he/she considers to be good work and asks for further support. In the maths community the response would be: ``Go prove the quality and importance of your work by publishing some papers in our top journals, then we'll be happy to support you.'' In the physics QG/hep theory community the response would be: ``Er, uhm, did Ed Witten write any papers on that topic recently?'' Ok, that was a joke (sorry). More likely, it would be: ``Go find some senior influential people who are willing to wax lyrically and exuberantly about your brilliance''....''Oh, you don't know any such people? Well that's just bad luck for you. Should have done string theory, sucker!''
Which of these responses best reflects a free market in action? At this point one part of the ``artificial constraints'' in the physics market becomes clear - it can be summarized under the title `general sociological junk'.

Of course, sociological factors can never be completely eliminated in practice, and they are no doubt present in the maths community as well - I'm sure it helps for getting published in a top maths journal to be working on a fashionable topic, at an illustrious institution, and with good connections to influential people. But at least there is in principle a way to be competitive for jobs in maths while continuing to work on your preferred research topic: you ``just'' need to make sufficiently interesting and important progress to publish papers in the top maths journals. Btw, this would also prove that you have goodjudgement in your choice of research topic, since if it was a bad one there would be no sufficiently interesting progress to be made. And it does occasionally happen in practice in maths that people working on less fashionable topics at non-illustrious places manage to do this and survive.

In contrast, in physics (at least formal particle theory) if you want to survive you had better be working on a topic that plenty of influential senior people have committed themselves to. In normal circumstances this isn't such a terrible thing - such people will generally be pretty good judges of the most worthwhile topics to work on. But at present we are not in normal circumstances - as mentioned, there is currently ``remarkable convergence on an unproven idea''. (Lubos will no doubt want to dispute the ``unproven'' part, but then he should go do it with Joe Polchinski since I've just paraphrased something he wrote.) So lets imagine, hypothetically, that some interesting and important progress were to occur in some non-string topic in formal particle theory. Maybe the longstanding problem of how to formulate chiral fermions on the lattice got resolved, or something like that, and there were suddenly quite a lot of interesting things to do in that area. How would the ``free market'' respond to that? Well, that all depends on how the senior influential people react. After all, they basically are the market; whatever anyone else thinks or works on doesn't matter. So, would they check it out? Sure, some of them would. Would those that looked at it have any problem acknowledging that the developments were interesting and important? No, why should they, it is clear for all to see. Hell, Jacques Distler might even write a paper on it. But will any of those senior people start working on it in a big way, making it one of their main research topics? Hell no! After having invested so much of their careers in strings it will take something a lot more dramatic than that to make them start working on something else.

And that is exactly where we see the other part of the ``artificial constraints'' on our supposedly free market: To move the market, which in reality amounts to moving the research interests of the senior influential people, it doesn't just take an interesting and important development - the development will have to be *dramatic*. It's as if the stock prices are not free to change continuously, they can only change in dramatic jumps. This is obviously a major constraint on the freeness of a market. It forbids any changes that may have become large over time but start slowly rather than with a dramatic jump.

That's all good and well, but does it actually affect outcomes in practice? Yes, it does. Maybe not very often, but it does happen. How might one verify that? Well, hypothetically you could test it experimentally in the following scenario: Imagine again that some or other interesting and important non-string development has taken place in formal particle theory and that some young wannabe physicist, who naively believes and trusts in the freeness of the market, sees it and thinks something like this:
``Wow, major breakthrough, this stock must surely be headed up! It sure looks better value for money than that overpriced string stock. Of course, if the stringers manage to pull the rabbit out of the hat then I'll be kicking myself for not buying into it, but the chances of that happening anytime soon don't look great. More likely that the string stock will go down at some point when the current atypical, singular state of the physics market changes and reverts to the usual state of affairs where the emphasis is mainly on conservative bottom-up approaches rather than this big risk--big payoff thing. But this other stock - what was it again, something about chiral fermions on the lattice - it looks solid. It's not going to go into orbit, but there's definitely value there. It looks like just the kind of thing that the market will favour once people revert to their senses and remember that the periods of great progress in physics have almost always come via bottom-up rather than top-down. So, yeah, I'm definitely in for this.''
The person then invests his/her research efforts in that stock, and documents the progress through publications in PRL and other respectable journals. At some point he/she needs to go on the job market, and applies for two types of postdocs. The first is regular postdocs in formal particle theory groups (which are the appropriate groups to apply to as the person's research topic belongs to formal particle theory). The second is a fellowship posdoc, awarded on the basis of an open competition where the decisions are made by some broad committee. It is more attractive than the regular postdocs since higher salary and you get to be your own boss in research rather than working for someone else; consequently it is also more competitive. So now we come to the key part of the experiment: if the market is ``effectively free'' then the person should get at least as positive a reaction to his/her regular postdoc applications as to the fellowship application. On the other hand, if the market is artificially constrained as claimed above, then the person will get nowhere with the regular postdocs but may do fine for the fellowship, since in the latter case he/she is being assessed solely on the basis ofhis/her progress in research without the consideration of whether he/she happens to be working on the same or different topic than the assessors.

Well, as you probably guessed, the person in that story was me and the experiment gave the expected result in accordance with above claims. Q.E.D.
There were other things i wanted to mention about this issue but this marathon comment has gone on for far too long so I'll stop here.

Lumo said...

Dear amused,

I completely disagree with your recommendations how physicists should think and proceed.

Indeed, theoretical physicists don't pay too much attention to concepts such as those you mentioned - like whether someone publishes a paper in a certain journal or another or how many.

It is easy to publish junk and people just don't measure things just by quantity. In fact, refereed journals have become largely irrelevant in high-energy physics - not just string theory but also in particle physics, to avoid new immediate conspiracy theories.

This is just how it works because they turned out to be irrelevant. The work done by the official referees turned out to be insufficiently useful because people can judge the results themselves and if there are 2-3 extra uninteresting papers on the arXiv, it is no big deal.

Referees can recommend to publish a lot of bad papers, too. They often do. When one looks at reality, the average quality of the papers in journals just doesn't exceed the quality of preprints by a sufficient margin that would overcompensate the disadvantages of the refereeing process - delay; extra work of referees.

I don't claim that every field could work like this but high-energy physics certainly does work like this and it would be foolish to return to the previous system. The point here is that to do something really useful in high-energy physics, the author simply must be well above the average in various respects.

Something that many people could do - like sending enough papers to journals so that some of them get published - is just not good enough.

Finally, it is very natural that people care what smarter people think. It is wiser to listen to smarter people than to less smart people, and it is enough to have critical eyes - which people certainly have - to avoid most of negative consequences of the influence of smarter people.

In my opinion, e.g. Edward's Witten influence in reality is actually much lower than it should be. But Witten is a wise guy. He is not trying to control the whole science because he realizes that his abilities as a visionary are not infinite.

It is the people who are foolish enough not to realize their limitations who are trying to convince others that they should dictate where physics should be going. These people are dangerous.

Best wishes
Lubos

Bee said...

Dear Lubos,

of course you are allowed to use the word group-think. I was just pointing out who of us was talking about what.

E.g. you are the one talking about 'equilibrium', something that I think will never be achieved - and it can not be our goal to achieve it.

It doesn't matter. Lee Smolin did and you meant the same thing.

I would really appreciate it if you would not interpret what I might have meant based on what you might think Lee Smolin meant and what I think about what he might have meant. This is a completely useless distraction.

Both of you are spreading this big lie that someone powerful in theoretical physics is trying to throw away original and independent people.

I have never written or said anything in this regard.

Mixed economy is just an incoherent way to introduce corruption into free economy.

I really don't want to lead a political discussion here. You might be shocked to hear that the country you live in, as well as most other civilized democracies in the world are based on mixed economy. I am not sure if you deliberately chose to misunderstand my 'silly salary fairy-tale' or if you are just unable to grasp the basics. The point is that unless a free market is guaranteed, and formation of monopoles is restricted, employees might simply not be able to find 'a better way to earn money' and to 'force the company to raise the salary to get the required people for the job.'

The tool to guarantee this freedom of the employee is exactly the freedom that you deny him: voting, forming a government, and assure competition is beneficiary for the whole society.

But this is completely off-topic.

I maximally disagree with any suggestion that one should introduce new policies that are meant to fight such effects etc. These observations of yours (and Smolin) are a typical example of demagogy whose only goal is to introduce whatever rules will be more convenient for two of you personally.

Nowhere I have talked about introducing policies or rules. The only thing I have asked for is to question whether the presently realized criteria are indeed optimal.

Regarding the question whether my conviction that they are not is objective or not, I refer you to my comment above. This is a valid objection.

Finally, I don't think you have found any qualitative differences between the market of beverages and market of ideas.

Well, okay. Then take the blue pill and keep on living in your dreamworld of pleasant ignorance. I just hope you won't be surprised if it turns out theoretical physics can not be pursued like selling beverages. And if the perfectly working 'marketplace of free ideas' erases you because you don't belong to the survivors that 'fit best', then I hope you don't loose your faith in the merits of passivity.

I am not asking for anybody to adapt my opinion. All I am asking for is that everybody critically investigates whether the presently realized selection criteria are indeed still optimal to scientific progress.

Best,

B.

Lumo said...

Dear Bee, I don't understand why you think that you haven't talked about group-think. Can I quote you?

"... but it becomes increasingly important if

a) the community grows to a complex system whose dynamics is little understood (E.g. the increasing influence of 'fashionable topics' is a typical sign for a non-linear feedback effect, the emergence of sub-fields with their own group dynamics is a sign for self-organization)"

In other words, the hypothetical "increasing influence of fashionable topics" is the first "important" thing you listed in this list. I don't understand how can you deny that you talked about group-think.

Bee said...

? the term 'group-think' has a very precise meaning in the sociological context and I have not made any attempt to analyze whether it is appropriate to use it for our community or sub-fields thereof. In this regard, I have not talked about 'group-think', and I have deliberately not used the word.

Indeed, the 'increasing influence of fashionable topics' has in my opinion nothing to do with group-think whatsoever. What might have a connection to group-think is the second point in the list - the self-organization of the community and emergence of sub-structures.

All the best,

B.

Lumo said...

The same thing about the people at the top of theoretical physics. This debate is clearly silly.

You wrote:

"Risk averseness is a rather unsurprising consequence of insecurity caused by a lack of communication in a community falling apart into sub-fields. It is also supported by chronically short resources..."

I quoted you with the same thing, using extra words about the subject - top theoretical physicists - because I was assuming that you agree that these decisions are mostly made by top theoretical physicists. Do you disagree?

If you agree that these decisions are usually made by top theoretical physicists, then you can't deny that you wrote that top theoretical physicists are averse to risk when they're making decisions.

If you disagree that these decisions are made by top physicists, I am very curious who you think is making these decisions. Undergraduate students? Or secretaries?

Moreover, I don't think that at the level of organization of science, high-energy theoretical physics is split into subfields. No key people who make these decisions whom I know would be choosing people etc. just according to their "subfield". Even among phenomenology and theory, people often don't pay attention to these "two subfields".

What you write about risk averseness in the context of theoretical physics clearly disagrees with reality.

If you mean "loop quantum gravity" by the term "subfield", then the correct answer is that these people are not hired because they're considered to be bad physicists, not because they're considered to be from another subfield. Is that so hard to see?

Do I really have to be proving that the LQG people are viewed as bad physicists or will you kindly believe me?

Lumo said...

"...I have not talked about 'group-think', and I have deliberately not used the word."

Jesus Christ, but you talked about this question, and as long as you understand what you wrote, you must understand that you did.

I deliberately did use the word group-think because I want to call things by their right names. This is what you suggested about the community.

You seem to have learned the same dirty games with words as Lee Smolin is using. He clearly talks about something, everyone understands what he's saying in the same way - for example that there is group-think in string theory - but when it's discussed seriously among people who know very well that it is a lie, he is picky about the precise wording and denies what he said yesterday.

That's a very painful and immoral approach and I am afraid that just like there are at least 2 Smolins, there are at least two Sabines, too.

Bee said...

Jesus Christ, but you talked about this question, and as long as you understand what you wrote, you must understand that you did.

I deliberately did use the word group-think because I want to call things by their right names. This is what you suggested about the community.

You seem to have learned the same dirty games with words as Lee Smolin is using. He clearly talks about something, everyone understands what he's saying in the same way - for example that there is group-think in string theory - but when it's discussed seriously among people who know very well that it is a lie, he is picky about the precise wording and denies what he said yesterday.


you are obviously trying to find a reason to get upset about what I wrote.

You used the word 'group-think' but you have not explained what you mean by that. Unless you do so, I am simply not able to tell whether or not I said something about what you think it is, or not.

I have explained you why I did not talk about 'group-think'. Because I did not want to use a term that describes a certain situation which I have not investigated in a vague meaning.

Your problem, and that of many others, is that you take a word and start arguing about it based on what you think it means, without asking what the person using it meant to say. This is extremely annoying, completely unscientific, and exactly the reason why I don't like philosophy. We are scientists and we should argue about facts, not about the use of words.

Lumo said...

Dear Bee, you write:

"You used the word 'group-think' but you have not explained what you mean by that."

Why should I be explaining individual standard words? I entered this discussion with the assumption that you understand English.

"I have explained you why I did not talk about 'group-think'."

Let me give you a better explanation. You want to say and spread certain nasty and untrue myths while making it more difficult for everyone to show that you did so.

"Your problem, and that of many others, is that you take a word and start arguing about it based on what you think it means, without asking what the person using it meant to say."

It's very interesting that no one inside the normal physics community has these brutal problems in communication with other high-energy physicists. Everyone understands that you wrote that you want to fight certain social dynamics in theoretical physics such as group-think, whatever language you use to express this idea. It is probably only you who misunderstands what you wrote.

If you think that you're Jesus Christ whose every word should be interpreted, re-interpreted, and investigated for 2000 years, let me conjecture that I don't think you're Jesus Christ. If you can't express what you think in such a way that basic misunderstandings are avoided, then you should shut your mouth.

I don't think you should be entering these discussions about sociology of science if you don't understand the meaning of the word group-think or any other words that are standard in these discussions, or if you don't understand what you write yourself.

It is indeed annoying but it is squarely your fault.

amused said...

Dear Lubos,

How nice to have the chance to discuss with you without you being able to delete my comments :-)

You are completely ridiculous and spouting nonsense as usual. Apparently my arguments floored you so badly that you had to start attacking all sorts of other silly things which were not what I wrote, while trying to pass it off as a response to me. Are pathetic strawman tactics really the best you can come up with Lubos?

Anyone can see that what you were trying to respond to had nothing to do with what I wrote. Did I ever say that current journal standards in physics are good and provide a good measure for evaluating people? One of the main points of my comment was the need to establish high standard journals in physics. A deep and subtle point implicit in that suggestion is that we don't already have such high standard journals. Unlike the mathematicians, who have been able to maintain journals of the highest standards and use it as the primary value measure in their market.

So you don't think high standard journals would be worth the trouble due to refereeing hassles? Why is that? Are you worried that some urgent papers on the multiverse might get delayed by a month or two? Or that with all this new experimental data that is currently pouring in to particle physics peoples hands are just too full interpreting the data and have no time for proper refereeing? What exactly is it that's so urgent, Lubos? Are you on the verge of discovering the Theory of Everything?

Anyway, I look forward to more abuse from you but won't see it until tomorrow (some of us have other things we need to do besides rant on the internet all day). In the meantime, I hope some of your string theory colleagues will drop by and denounce you again for spouting nonsense and making up stuff that you pretend other people wrote.

Bee said...

Dear Lubos,

I'm sitting here laughing my ass off. I am the one who has written the sensible stuff. You are the one who misunderstands it. Now you claim that everybody must necessarily misunderstand it, because you read something I did not write and you are pissed off or having a bad day, or I don't know what.

What I have rather unsuccessfully tried to communicate is that I have no idea what you think 'group-think' means in 'standard-English'. If you read a word I did not write, in addition to attaching it with what you think the interpretation in 'standard-English' is, then that's your problem.

I don't think you should be entering these discussions about sociology of science if you don't understand the meaning of the word group-think or any other words that are standard in these discussions, or if you don't understand what you write yourself.

Well, I am glad to hear you are the expert on group-think in the sociological context, since you apparently have a very precise understanding of what 'standard-English' is. I understood what I wrote. You are criticizing me for not writing about things I have not studied in detail. This is just hilarious.

Best,

B.

Lumo said...

Dear amused, I won't comment on your silly personal attacks, but let me say that your idea about establishing standard cherished journals in theoretical physics is an attempt to return the theoretical physics community by 20-30 years to the past.

We have simply grown out of the focus on some superficial features of the presentation such as the paper of journals and their name. We no longer pay attention to these "signs of quality" because they just turned out to be unnecessary and largely irrational. People care about the content, at least the people who matter - not the form or the fame behind a particular journal.

Bee said...

Hi amused,

I don't have the time to reply to your long and interesting comment above, but will do so later. Just a quick remark

Lubos said: We have simply grown out of the focus on some superficial features of the presentation such as the paper of journals and their name. We no longer pay attention to these "signs of quality" because they just turned out to be unnecessary and largely irrational. People care about the content, at least the people who matter - not the form or the fame behind a particular journal.

I have no idea who he refers to with 'we' but I can not confirm this.

Best,

B.

Lumo said...

Dear Bee, if you don't understand a word, such as groupthink, why don't you open a dictionary or an encyclopedia instead of making a fool out of yourself? I insist that all informed people who are qualified to discuss sociology of science must know the meaning of the word "groupthink" as well as many other words and concepts that you seem to misunderstand.

Lumo said...

"I have no idea who he refers to with 'we' but I can not confirm this."

I refer to the people who are compatible with the science as it existed at until 2005, at least until it came under this attack by crackpots.

If you wish, I can give you a list of people who think what I wrote. Witten, Seiberg, Strominger, Vafa, Arkani-Hamed, Randall... I could continue for a long time.

To summarize, virtually all people whom I consider to matter in theoretical physics agree that the glory of a journal where a particular result is published doesn't and couldn't significantly influence how much they value a particular article.

I think that who disagrees with this comment is simply not thinking as a scientist.

Bee said...

Lubos,

I did not say I don't understand the word 'group-think' in the way it is used in the sociological context, and I am perfectly able to do a Google search. As I wrote above, the reason why I did not use it in my text is that I have not analyzed whether or not it is relevant for our community or its sub fields, and I don't want to write about something that I have not thought about sufficiently.

Is the Wiki entry the meaning that you give to the word? If so, then thanks for the clarificacion. Now what exactly is your problem with me not talking about it?

Best,

B.

Lumo said...

Dear Bee, what game are you trying to play? What is your hypothetical alternative meaning of the term "groupthink"? Groupthink always means the very same thing.

Bee said...

Lubos, I am just clarifying what we talk about before we talk about it, since you apparently want to talk about it, and you have an impressive reputation in deliberately misunderstandig others. I apologize if you think this is annoying, but I don't want to waste my time arguing about nothing.

I suspect that the standard-English-speaking person that you'd ask on the street would not come up with the wiki entry. I also suspect that 'group-think' for many of these people would be attached with the vague impression of dumb people blindly following some set of rules. I am glad to hear that you are aware that the phenomenon of group-think has nothing to do with the personal abilities, or the intelligence, of the people belonging to that group.

Lumo said...

If you think that I have a reputation of misunderstanding others, I am afraid that the explanation is that you talk to scum too frequently.

I was focusing on the essence - and the problems with the essence - of what you wrote. You have generated an amazing amount of completely dishonest fake fog, pretending that the word "groupthink" doesn't exist or it is ambiguous, and trying to irrationally question the existence of many words I used while you wanted to deny what you wrote.

Such a discussion is completely irrational.

Lumo said...

Let me ask you very clearly. Once you have learned what the word "groupthink" means, do you believe that top people of theoretical physics such as Weinberg, Witten, Seiberg, Maldacena, Strominger, Susskind, Vafa, Arkani-Hamed, Randall, Sundrum suffer from groupthink?

Are you ready to give the same answer tomorrow or even in front of Lee Smolin?

Best
Lubos

Bee said...

Dear Lubos,

actually, you were focusing on the essence of what I did not write. I have never pretended the word 'group-think' does not exist or likewise.

Since you apparently don't want to discuss about what I wrote, I think we best leave it at this.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Let me ask you very clearly. Once you have learned what the word "groupthink" means, do you believe that top people of theoretical physics such as Weinberg, Witten, Seiberg, Maldacena, Strominger, Susskind, Vafa, Arkani-Hamed, Randall, Sundrum suffer from groupthink?

'Groupthink' in the meaning that you told me you use it is not a desease people 'suffer' from, but a sociological phenomenon.

Those people who I know from the list I am pretty sure are in the best meaning of the word 'independent thinkers', and if there is any such thing as group-think in the theoretical physics community, I do not think you would find it among them.

Are you ready to give the same answer tomorrow or even in front of Lee Smolin?

I have no problem with repeating this.

Arun said...

:)

Bee,
You should be ashamed of yourself! Here you are calling a respectable Harvard Prof. all kinds of names!

Yes, I know that you didn't use a single expletive, but it is amply clear from what you're written that you've just said all those expletives in different words.

Holy Cow! Now there are three or maybe four different Sabines! I'm quite certain that it is not a remnant of St. Patrick's Day! By Golly, Bee, this is a dirty game you play!

:)

Lumo said...

Thanks for your answer. In the first paragraph you seem to be correcting my perceived error. But it's a deep misunderstanding. I haven't made any error here.

I haven't written the word "disease" - incidentally, unlikely you, I would spell it correctly - even though I could have written the word because it is legitimate. Groupthink in science is a social disease.

If you think that the combination of words suffer from groupthink is not right, then you're wrong again.

I just don't like if people who are manifestly and obviously wrong are trying to correct people who are manifestly and obviously correct.

Lumo said...

OK, fine, so do you agree that the following quote from The Trouble with Physics is a vicious lie?

"The situation is one in which there are big issues that everyone agrees on but no one feels responsible for.

I strongly believe in my string theory friends. I believe that as individuals they are almost all more open-minded and self-critical and less dogmatic than they are en masse. How could a community act in a way so at odds with the goodwill and good sense of its individual members?

It turns out that sociologists have no problem recognizing this phenomenon. It afºicts communities of highly credentialed experts, who by choice or circumstance communicate only among themselves. It has been studied in the context of intelligence agencies and governmental policy-making bodies and majorcorporations. Because the consequences have sometimes been tragic, there is a well-developed literature describing the phenomenon, which is called groupthink."

Bee said...

Dear Arun,

:-) Sorry, I could not resist. It's just too much fun. I guess, I just miss my older brothers who'd kick and yell at me all the time.

Dear Lubos,

I have no idea what you want to prove with that Google search, or why it is relevant whether a 'combination of words' is 'right'. If you like, you can combine all words you want. Just to humor yourself, you could try a Google search for effects-of-global-warming. Is that 'combination of words' more 'right' than 'suffer-from-groupthink' because it yields several orders of magnitude more hits?

Thank you for pointing out my mistake, I apologize for misspelling 'disease'.

Best,

B.

Lumo said...

Arun, I don't care a single bit whether someone uses expletives. What I care about much more is that certain people keep on spreading outrageous lies that are meant to discredit the basic principles of science and the physics community.

Bee said...

Hi Lubos,

I am not in the mood to browse the whole book to find out whether this quotation is correct or not, would you please provide a page? And if possible would you make clear what exactly you think is a lie? I have no reason to doubt that Lee strongly believes in his string theory friends, but that can hardly be the center of your concern?

Best,

B.

Lumo said...

Bee, please don't pretend that you are even more stupid than you are.

Smolin's quote - that I copied and pasted - is a lie because, as you have agreed, his string theorist friends don't suffer from groupthink while he says they do. Got the pattern?

Otherwise I am pretty disgusted by your friendly conversation with Peter Woit.

Bee said...

Dear Lubos,

a) I don't want to discuss what Lee thinks or maybe doesn't think about his friends or swhatever. I totally fail to see why this is relevant to what I have written in my post.

b) I am generally unwilling to pay attention to an alleged quotation without a source.

c) Since your main interest seems to be in 'group-think' I am sorry that I have to repeat what I wrote already in the very beginning:

the term 'group-think' has a very precise meaning in the sociological context and I have not made any attempt to analyze whether it is appropriate to use it for our community or sub-fields thereof. In this regard, I have not talked about 'group-think', and I have deliberately not used the word.

It would probably be interesting to many of the readers of your blog - at least to me - to hear about your analysis of the question whether group-think plays a role in the dynamics of our community.

Otherwise I am pretty disgusted by your friendly conversation with Peter Woit.

Now this really bothers me tremendously.

Arun said...

All I can say is that you must be missing your brothers a lot!

Lumos, surely you see, the politer and friendlier Bee is, the less she is treating someone like her brothers. So, surely, that conversation with Peter Woit was a declaration of war! (You just have to study diplomatese :) )

Lumo said...

Dear Sabine,

what Lee thinks is relevant because you are nothing else than a puppet who uncritically reproduces most of the sh*t that he produces that includes the proposals to rape and social-engineer the community - under the leadership of the worst members - as well as is favorite technical crackpot ideas such as deformed special relativity.

Of course that groupthink plays a role. The worse scientist one looks at, the more likely it is that she or he suffers from groupthink. The worst examples of this kind are the semi-scientists, loop quantum gravity defenders, and other crackpots. They not only suffer from groupthink but they would like to impose their groupthink on others.

Being a subject of groupthink is a clearly negative feature of a scientist, every good scientist realizes it very well, which is why people who like groupthink are not being enthusiastically celebrated and accepted in good fields of science such as high-energy physics. That's another reason why people who would be repeating unscientific stupidities about background independence and millions of other stupid non-technical things can't be in science.

Unfortunately, the situation is very different in other fields such as climate science.

Best
Lubos

Bee said...

what Lee thinks is relevant because you are nothing else than a puppet who uncritically reproduces most of the sh*t that he produces that includes the proposals to rape and social-engineer the community - under the leadership of the worst members - as well as is favorite technical crackpot ideas such as deformed special relativity.

it is very easy to verify that this is complete nonsense. except for the quotation from his book that I marked as such, Lee has to my knowledge never written or said anything of what I wrote. also, as you can find out easily by checking my publication list, I have not changed my area of research significantly within the last years. my favourite crackpot ideas are still my own, and the shit I produce is entirely mine.

Anonymous said...

I see Lubos is convinced there is a conspiracy against String Theory.

And btw-String Theory is complete bullshit. The most expensive machine ever built in the history of mankind (LHC) can not verify or falsify not one of String claims.

What is the justification then for figure of 97% of jobs for theorists (as Lee said) ?

Sorry bee for the choice of words, but I believe in honesty and calling things for what they are

best

a

Anonymous said...

I meant String theorists

a

Anonymous said...

To clarify:The problem is not that we need more time for the experiment or more money as Duff suggested by comparing String Th with some other theories where that was the case.

It is the fact that String Theory HAS NO PREDICTIONS WHATSOEVER OF ANY KIND

best

a

Anonymous said...

I understand now why Lumo is such a big fan of free market forces. He thinks that by being "agressive" with ad-hominem attacks and "marketing tactics" he can force his way of thinking unto others. Now we all understand he is a true Believer and defender of the Faith (free market and/or string theory). But Nature does not care about his beliefs and convictions. In any case, he really has not addressed Bee's main points in her good post, but instead has just attacked her and nitpicked on the definition of a term. He insults people and then finishes his post with "best"; I believe that's called cynicism. Maybe he's are on the wrong field; he realy would make a good politician...

T. Larson wrote:
"Whose opinion would you rather trust, 't Hooft's or Motl's?"

I think the answer is self-evident, in light of the available evidence.

Bee said...

Dear Amused,

I finally find the time to answer to your comment. Part of your disagreement I think is due to a misunderstanding. You write

I'm actually all in favour of letting market forces determine which research directions and people get supported in physics. The only alternative I see is some kind of central planning, led by a politburo [...] My complaint about the present situation is that the market is not as free as it should be

Is exactly what I have said. I have argued that the market is not 'automatically' free, but that freedom has to be guaranteed. I have repeatedly stated that it seems to work quite well, as long as one is aware of crucial differences to the marketplace in economics. What I have argued for is to optimize the 'measure' on the marketplace by taking into account recent developments. I have not said decisions about hiring processed ought to be made by a central planning, this is far, far off my convictions. In addition I believe it will never find any support within the community. I think it is necessary though to take care of sufficient communication between sub-fields, and it might be helpful to have a committee that evaluates the status and gives recommendations, say, once per year. One has to realize that this is done anyhow in a little transparent way - when it comes to governmental funding. Somehow somebody decides what are the promising fields to support. Should that be 'somehow somebody'?

The disagreement between both our approaches is the way we think the issue can be addressed. You write

only measures I can think of which satisfy this are the traditional ones used in academia, namely journal publications. [...]I didn't say anything about evaluation of research areas. That's because I don't think there should be any such evaluation. It will be done automatically by the market: The papers published in the top journals will be the ones representing important progresses;

You want to improve the situation starting from peer reviewed journals. This is a good suggestion, but not a way that I would try. Commercial journals have their own policies, procedures and goals, most of which are not easy to influence. In addition to that, I don't think the 'measurement problem' in scientific publishing is the reason for the suboptimally working 'marketplace', but rather caused by it. Therefore, I would not start there.

A remark to Lubos' comment about peer reviewed journals not being important:

We have simply grown out of the focus on some superficial features of the presentation such as the paper of journals and their name. We no longer pay attention to these "signs of quality" because they just turned out to be unnecessary and largely irrational. People care about the content, at least the people who matter - not the form or the fame behind a particular journal.
[...]
If you wish, I can give you a list of people who think what I wrote. Witten, Seiberg, Strominger, Vafa, Arkani-Hamed, Randall... I could continue for a long time.


Well, yes, if Witten puts a paper on the arxiv and gets of order 100 quotations, nobody cares whether or not it's published in a peer reviewed journal. But for most of us 'average' people, being published is still important. I want to see the university who hires someone who only has unpublished papers on the arxiv. It might very well be though that the situation changes, since scientific publishing right now is pretty much in flow. I doubt though there is any way around peer review as quality management.

If I understood correctly the rest of what you wrote, I agree on your observations.

Best,

B.

amused said...

Dear Bee,

Thanks for your reply and for clarifying your views, I'm glad we are more in agreement than I thought. Unfortunately I'm really pressed for time right now and will have to postpone a proper response for a few days. For what it's worth, i just went back and reread your part II post and will try to frame my response within the framework for addressing these issues that you suggested there. For the moment I'll just reply to Lubos since that doesn't require any thought.

Dear Lubos,

"... the glory of a journal where a particular result is published doesn't and couldn't significantly influence how much they value a particular article."

Of course the journal a paper is published in doesn't determine the paper's value. It should be the other way around: the quality and importance of a paper determines the journal it gets published in. That's what I would like to see at any rate. Only then could journal publications be useful as an evaluation measure.

"If you wish, I can give you a list of people who think what I wrote. Witten, Seiberg, Strominger, Vafa, Arkani-Hamed, Randall... I could continue for a long time."

I'm sure you could, Lubos. In that case, surely none of those people would bother with the extra hassle involved in submitting to a certain antiquated journal; one that has draconian page limits and makes authors jump through all sorts of hoops to submit a paper there. Why would they bother with that when the submission process for, say, JHEP is so much more streamlined and hassle-free? So if I were to look up those people you mentioned on Spires I surely wouldn't discover that all of them except Seiberg have published in that particular journal in recent years, and that some of them in fact seem to have quite an affinity for it?

Don't worry Lubos, I'm not trying to suggest that getting published there means the paper must be great; just couldn't resist another chance to wind you up a bit. (You make it too easy.)

Best,
amused

sphaerenklang said...

I'm thrilled to be, for once, quotable!

However ... Lubos is right in the restricted sense that at some point, maybe several decades after the original thought, it should be possible to evaluate work in theoretical physics objectively. We do know, have done for decades, who wins in Einstein-versus-Lenard.

But this is much too slow to base funding decisions on!

Just how slow is shown by the case of the cosmological constant - after 80 or 90 years we still don't know whether it was Einstein's greatest mistake or not.

In the narrow sense of whether it was theoretically a correct and well-motivated thing to add to the equations, it was not a mistake - but whether Nature bothers to take notice of everything that we believe is theoretically correct and well-motivated is still another question.

Whether a subject is of interest can often not be evaluated in any way that stands the test of time. In say 1985 you might have found a consensus that the cosmological constant was not an interesting thing to be working on. Today it seems that almost everyone is working on it. (I exaggerate a little.)

I think the most important thing for not-catastrophically-misguided use of science money is not any kind of 'free market' (...I'm still unclear how such a thing might possibly work for government-funded operations - free markets require many buyers) nor peer review (though that is needed) - but rather honesty about what has or has not been achieved, and what may or may not be done in the future.

The worst scandal I can think for science would be not how much or little money is paid to string theorists or the LHC, even if both turn out to be useless, but rather if it turned out that some apparently important results either theoretical or experimental were simply fabrications and hoaxes. That has happened in solid state physics (J-H Schoen) and biology (cloning) but not in fundamental physics.

Smaller versions of such a scandal are provided by exaggerated statements which often appear in the media (sometimes the exaggeration is the fault of the media themselves) ... everyone can think of examples - now science should be precisely about avoiding exaggeration, shouldn't it?

Shivang said...

Has everyone noticed something?
In every such post, Lubos and Bee constantly debate, but the moment someone puts up with "the exp. proof of string theory" Lubo surprisingly vanishes.
He might have studied it a great deal and he might be convinced that it'll turn out to be right, but it's no reason to discard the 100's of other approaches that are 'not even wrong' just like the string theory.