|Knitted brain cap. Source: Etsy.|
I recently finished reading “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman. I haven’t read a fantasy book for a while, and I very much enjoyed it. Though I find Gaiman’s writing too vague to be satisfactory because the scientist in my wants more explanations, the same scientist is also jealous – jealous of the freedom that a fantasy writer has when turning ideas into products.Creativity in theoretical physics is in comparison a very tamed and well-trained beast. It is often only appreciated if it fills in existing gaps or if it neatly builds on existing knowledge. The most common creative process is to combine two already existing ideas. This works well because it doesn’t require others to accept too much novelty or to follow leaps of thought, leaps that might have been guided by intuition that stubbornly refuses to be cast into verbal form.
In a previous post, I summed this up as “Surprise me, but not too much.” It seems to be a general phenomenon that can also be found in the arts and in music. The next big hits are usually small innovations over what is presently popular. And while this type of ‘tamed creativity’ grows new branches on existing trees, it doesn’t sow new seeds. The new seeds, the big imaginary leaps, come from the courageous and unfortunate few who often remain under-appreciated by contemporaries, and though they later come to be seen as geniuses they rarely live to see the fruits of their labor.
An interesting recent data analysis of citation networks demonstrated that science too thrives primarily on the not-too-surprising type of creativity.
In a paper published in Science last month, a group of researchers quantified the likeliness of combinations of topics in citation lists and studied the cross-correlation with the probability of the paper becoming a “hit” ( meaning in the upper 5th percentile of citation scores). They found that having previously unlikely combinations in the quoted literature is positively correlated with the later impact of a paper. They also note that the fraction of papers with such ‘unconventional’ combinations has decreased from 3.54% in the 1980s to 2.67% in the 1990, “indicating a persistent and prominent tendency for high conventionality.” Ack, the spirit of 1969, wearing off.
It is no surprise that novelty in science is very conservative. A new piece of knowledge has to fit with already existing knowledge. Combining two previous ideas to form a new one is such a frequently used means of creativity because it’s likely to pass peer review. You don’t want to surprise your referees too much.
And while this process delivers results, if it becomes the exclusive means of novelty production two problems arise. First, combining two speculative ideas is unlikely to result in a less speculative idea. It does however contribute to the apparent relevance of the ideas being combined. We can see this happening on the arxiv all the time, causing a citation inflation that is the hep-th version of mortgage bubbles. My (unpublished) last year’s comment on the black hole firewall has been cited 18 times by now. Yeah, I plead guilty.
But secondly, and more importantly, the mechanism of combining existing ideas is a necessary, but not a sufficient, creative process for sustainable progress in science.
This study also provides another example for why measures for scientific success sow the seeds of their own demise: It is easy enough to clutter a citation list with ‘unconventional’ combinations to score according to a creativity-measure based on the correlation found in the above study. But pimping a citation list will not improve science, it will just erode the correlation and render the measure useless in the long run. This is what I refer to as the inevitable deviation of primary goals from secondary criteria.
And creativity, I would argue, is even more difficult to quantify than intelligence.
- Novelty is subjective and depends on the amount of details you pay attention to (the ‘course-graining’ if you excuse me borrowing a physics expression). Of course your toddler’s scribbles are uniquely creative but to everybody besides you they look like every other toddler’s scribbles.
- Novelty depends on your previous knowledge. You might think highly of your friend’s crocheting of Lorentz manifolds until you find the instructions on the internet. “The secret to creativity,” Einstein allegedly said, “Is knowing how to hide your sources.” Or maybe somebody creatively assigned this quotation to him.
- The appreciation of creativity depends on the value we assign to the outcome of the creative process. You create a novel product every time you take a shit, but most of us don’t value this product very much.
- We expect intent behind creativity. A six-tailed comet might be both novel and of value, but we don’t say that the comet has been creative.
In this context, let us look at another recent paper that the MIT technology review pointed out. In brief, IBM cooked up a computer code that formulates new recipes based on combinations from a database of already existing recipes. Human experts judged the new recipes to be creative and, so I assume, eatable. Can this computer rightfully be called a ‘creativity machine’?
Well, as so often it’s a matter of definition. I have no problem with the automatization of novelty production, but I would argue that rather than computerizing creativity this pushes creativity up a level to the creation of the process of automatization. You don’t even need to look at IBM’s “creativity machine” to see this shift of creativity to a metalevel. There’s no shortage of books and seminars promising to teach you how to be more creative. Everybody, it seems, wants to be more creative and nobody asks what we’re supposed to do with all these creations. Creativity is the new emotional intelligence. But to me teaching or programming creativity is like planning spontaneity, a contradiction in itself.
Anyway, let’s not fight about words. It’s more insightful to think about what IBM’s creativity machine cannot do. It cannot, for example, create recipes with new ingredients because these weren’t in the database. Neither can it create new methods of food processing. And since it can’t actually taste anything, it would never notice eg how the miracle fruit alters taste perception. IBM’s creativity machine isn’t so much creative as that it was designed to anticipate what human experts think of as creative. And you don’t want to surprise the experts too much...
It is a very thought provoking development though and it lead me to wonder whether we’re about to see a level-shift in novelty production also in science.
Let me then come back to the question posed in the title. It’s not that modern science lacks creativity, but that the creativity we have is dominated by the incremental, not-so-surprising combination of established knowledge. There are many reasons for this - peer pressure, risk-aversity, and lack of time all contribute to the hesitation of researchers to try to understand other’s leaps of thought, or trying to convince others to follow their own leaps. Maybe what we need is really an increased awareness of the possible processes of creativity in science, so that we can go beyond ‘unconventional combinations’ in literature lists.