Monday, December 01, 2008

When Capitalism Fails

I guess some of you have been wondering why I occasionally put you through heavy reads like the recent “Best Of All Possible Worlds,” or my earlier elaboration on the reward system in “This is Your Economy on Drugs” instead of sticking with the fun and entertaining stuff, as one is supposed to do as a blogger?

Well, that's because now that you have patiently read all these lengthy explanations - and I am sure you have - I can finally draw the conclusions. See, if I say “love” before I've said “Money” “doesn't” and “buy,” you wouldn't get the message, would you?

Thus, I will now finally tell you why financing Open Access through author-pay is a bad idea, why science journalism is more Fiction than Fact, and will answer The Question Of All Questions: Who killed the blogosphere?

Yes. You will get answers to all this if you stay with me for a little while. It lies at hand now, and this hand isn't even invisible. Ready?

Okay! To summarize the most important points of my earlier writings: For a system to work towards its primary goal that system has to be endowed with a feedback mechanism. This mechanism has to allow for evaluation of the system's status, and needs to have enough flexibility to react to this evaluation, depending on whether a change works in favor or against achieving the primary goal. In social systems, feedback is most powerful if it arises from incentives on the personal level, meaning from criteria that are both local and immediate - in particular they have to be uncomplicated. The challenging task is to ensure that from these incentives on the micro-level there arises a trend that is desirable also on the long-term and long-distance scales.

Money, Money, Money

An example for such incentives that drive a system's behavior is operation for profit in our economical system. It works stunningly well and has resulted in such a remarkable optimization of our lives that many people have come to believe in its infallibility for guiding us towards happiness, and - with quite an impressive twist of thought - have equated its activity with progress itself. However, though the correlation between economic growth and increasing well-being of a nation's citizens might hold for a long range of GDP, this is a correlation and not an equality. It's like your children's growth tells about their health, but what you really want is them to be healthy, and not continue growing eternally. This is what I refer to as the confusion of primary goals (here: health, happiness) with secondary criteria (here: growth/economic growth).

Besides this, it is also well known that operation for profit alone does not take into account many long-term and long-distance effects that a society might strive for. This is typically the cases when a development will not be initialized through individual action, either because the individual would put himself in a disadvantage by taking the action, or because she would put herself into an advantage when she was the only one not taking the action (also known as a "free ride").

Examples might be costly expenses for environmental protection (putting the company in a disadvantage with competitors who don't have these expenses), or everybody spending a tenner, so somebody can fix all these potholes (advantage of profiting from the improved pavement nevertheless if enough other people spends some bucks). This is also known as the collective action problem.

These goals are thus often achieved by changing the incentive structure through fees, taxes or simply legal restrictions. The point of balancing the economical system with a political one is that the latter gives us a way to include the pursuit of goals that would fail when only looked at from the individual point of view.

Must be funny

Money however is not the only immediate and local feedback that drives our societies. For a different kind of feedback, take the blogosphere. Here, the currency is attention. You trade it through links and comments, and count it in visits per day. Another sort of feedback are reviews at Amazon, PageRank or more generally every kind of rating. In many cases, these feedback cycles are related to money, but a priori they are goals by themselves.

However, we all have to live from something, and that something still has to be paid. Thus, whatever service it is you are asking for, somebody has to pay for it. The internet offers an astonishing amount of information - and it's free! Or is it? Well, the price you pay is that the web has gotten swamped with advertisements, because that's the only readily available way to get the money in (unless you belong to the lucky few that can survive on donations).

That wouldn't have to be the case, but currently that is where the incentives are. The more visitors you attract, the more you get in with ads, meaning the only criterion is how much people like what you put on the web. This is a feedback. It is immediate, and it results in a learning curve. This feedback however leads quite obviously towards populism. If that is your primary goal, then it works. Everything else... will be struggling.

In a rich man's world

Now, why do we see so much bad science journalism and so many over-hyped sensational stories? Because there is insufficient feedback that rewards quality. Quality is just simply not a criterion that is optimized for, and increasingly less so the more funding needs to come from advertisements and via high Google ranking. Here is an extract from an email that I received from a popular science magazine after I remarked some of their advertisements are of scientifically doubtful content:
“[R]emember that ads pay for the content, paper and mailing of magazines. I trust that our readership is bright enough to appreciate the fine work of Scientists and the value of Science to their world and can sift through and filter out advertising that they don't believe is of value [...] It's important to remember that advertising pays for the value of most of a magazine. Subscribers actually only cover a small part of the cost of any magazine.”

Not that this came as a surprise to me, still, it is somehow depressing to have it stated that clearly. There is a tension in this arrangement between the goal of the advertiser and that of the publisher. It takes effort to keep up a tension, and the tendency is towards an equilibrium where advertisements match the reader's interests, for example by dumbing the reader down.

The open access movement has a similar financing problem which is that giving free access to publications doesn't pay off. There is no source for funding of necessary staff and editors. Thus, the money has to come from elsewhere than from the readers.

The most widely used model is that the author pays a charge. Though I am all in favor of open access, this option is a huge mistake if you consider what it means for science in the long run: With traditional publishing you couldn't read a paper if you couldn't afford it. With author-pay you can't publish a paper if you can't afford it. What does the incentive structure look like then? Well, the news is that journals will be interested in having good contacts to affiliations that do financially well. Does that sound like a bias you want to have on the scientific publishing process? Just asking.

The other option is to be financed through advertisements, which suffers from the same problem as journalism that I mentioned above. The incentives don't go towards quality, but towards populism. That also isn't something I want to affect scientific publishing.

There is an obvious solution to the problem. If I mention this in the presence of Americans they stare at me in disbelieve, but it seems to me a logical conclusion from what I've told you above: Open access is a public service. Thus, it should be financed like a public service. That does not necessarily mean neither it needs to be governmentally funded, nor through taxation. There are other options.

One that I discussed with Stefan a while ago is to simply use the existing library committees with a funding that possibly could be much smaller than in the traditional system. Instead of buying subscriptions however, let them rate journals according to criteria of quality and importance and distribute grants according to this. It's a flexible system of evaluation and feedback and has at least a chance to work towards quality.

But really, who killed the blogosphere?

If you read Nicholas Carr's post (and don't miss the postscriptum), you will find that he is not so much bemoaning the death of the blogosphere, but more its commercialization:

“That vast, free-wheeling, and surprisingly intimate forum where individual writers shared their observations, thoughts, and arguments outside the bounds of the traditional media is gone. Almost all of the popular blogs today are commercial ventures with teams of writers, aggressive ad-sales operations, bloated sites, and strategies of self-linking.”
And is anybody really surprised by that? As he aptly remarks later “For the lion's share of bloggers, the rewards just aren't worth the effort.” The question is now once again what does the present system with its feedback driven by popularity optimize? Individuality? Hardly.

So who killed the blogosphere? Well, we killed it by omission. It's our choice to set up the systems we operate in such that they work towards what we want. Capitalism isn't the only choice, and its invisible hand is not infallible.
    “What will we do?
    What will we say?
    When it's the end of this game that we play?
    Will we crumble into the dust my friend?
    Or will we start this game over again?”


Where is the love? It's in your hands. And these hands aren't even invisible.


  1. Hi Bee,

    “ And we’re happy to be joining an elite community of blogs that are already up and running at Discover.”
    -Cosmic Variance

    Like Carr said of this : "Elite community": now there's a telling phrase”.

    I would describe this more as a postmortem rather then a postscriptum.



  2. Hi Bee,

    Although I was never convinced totally by the philosophy of Ayn Rand's 'Objectivism'
    she did raise important points about the aspects of human nature in terms of the affects the “readers/patrons” have on the “authors/creators” of things in regards to their creations. In her fictional novel 'The Fountainhead' this is most aptly described and explained and I always considered it to contain lessons that gave Plato’s Allegory of the Cave’ a more modern context. The basic lesson found here is that individualism has its price yet for those that aspire and hold to it there is no greater reward.



  3. Hi George,

    Yeah, I realize that. I've heard enough journalists complaining about their editors. I just don't like the present trend. Best,


  4. With regard to George's remark, I think we should be sympathetic. With the rise of privately funded research, and the idea of the corporate university, we also find ourselves sometime working for organizations which do not share our basic goals and ideals. Good example in my mind in college sports, which grew completely out of proportion despite being irrelevant, and sometime contradictory to the university mission.

    But, despite this we manage, and similarly I think most science writing I encounter in major newspaper and magazines is superb. Somehow though it seems to me that inaccurate and sensational writing is more common in fundamental physics than say, medical sciences. Maybe I am wrong, but I think the likes of Lisi and Kaku would not have much traction in serious publications if they made claims about finding cure for cancer or the ultimate diet pill or something. Not sure if this is right, or why that is, but I think funding structure is probably not the place to look.

  5. Hi Moshe,

    I was just picking around on science journalism because it is the area where it bothers me most. The trend towards sensationalism and cheap entertainment, away from time- and money-consuming research and quality reporting is nothing specific to science however. From the contacts that I've had with journalists I figure that this isn't quite their dreamworld either, though some give in more willingly than others (you guess which ones do better). What I am saying is just that we should not give up our basic goals too easily.

    most science writing I encounter in major newspaper and magazines is superb

    The problem is in the word 'major', which reflects that these are the only newspapers who still can afford it, and I am afraid there will come a time when even the major newspapers have to cut in these areas.



  6. This is just a side comment, not to do with the main article. My impression is that one source of dissatisfaction we feel is due to the fact that fundamental physics research is marketed to slightly different groups than what we have in mind. One group is readers of science journalism in general, educated lay people with interest in how things work, and we would probably want all writing to be targeted to them. For fundamental physics specifically, there is another niche market, especially in the US. Books like the physics of immortality are written with that market in mind, you may also notice that physics bookshelves in your generic Barnes and Noble are next to the new age ones. This is not a coincidence. This is specific to our field of interest, and has nothing to do with your main line of argument.

  7. Great food for thought Bee; I like your idea of open access as a public service.

    Tangentially related to your post, I just sent a paper to a journal that, in case it passes peer review, asks the author to pay the publishing fees. I asked my employer before sending the paper away whether they could pay, they said yes, so I sent it there. What if employer replied no? I had other options, but purely from journal-content it seemed that the (author-pays) journal that I sent it to was the best match with the contents of my manuscript.

    Again, when are you going to compile several of these types of postings into a book? I'd like to see it all in one place on paper...


    Phil, Cosmic Variance is still a very good blog even after the move I think, no?

    I also noticed the same thing in bookstores that Moshe noted, about silly far-out books like 'physics of immorality' (sorry, couldn't resist) being prominently displayed next to the new age crap; troublesome trend.

  8. There is ABBA in the post, thanks ;-)

  9. Hi Changcho,

    Indeed, one of the reasons that the topic has been on my mind recently is that I have had a discussion last week on the question of whether or not institutes should cover author fees. Unfortunately, the way it currently looks, I like neither solution. Either one promotes a financing model that I dislike in principle, or one fails to support researchers and open access journals likewise. Difficult situation. I think an alternative financing model is the only solution.

    Haven't had much time to think about the book. Above all things, what I would need is time, but unfortunately I currently have a significant lack thereof. If you come across somebody who'd provide some financial incentives though, let me know ;-)

    Sure, CV is still a good blog. I read it through a feed though, so I probably wouldn't even have noticed the move if they hadn't mentioned it. I emphasize with what Nicholas writes though, this clustering of bloggers under commercial roofs goes on the expenses of individualism. Best,


  10. What is the "basis for corruption" then?

    If we always looked at what inflation was, to imply in our cosmos what value "to write it in, in a economical way" [this is determinism?] that part of creating "something out of nothing" would not catch up to the goods and services, but only depreciates the dollar value. What the value equals then of that one dollar, now lessoned, then what it was historically? It takes more, or, Deflation. Is our universe contracting, or does is subjectively "feel so?"

    So, while one is natural in the expression cosmos, and one is most certainly aware that one is "handwritten" who is the designer here? Maybe inflation in the cosmos is unnatural too then?

    I loath to think any relation to a "group in society" to think I would represent an inadequate attempt to "not reason" and to assign myself to the fate of what is most natural by inclination.

    Which one?:)


  11. George for some reason I always thought you were the editor.

    I was going to comment on the use of software application in the presentation of articles, but you certainly would have nothing to do with that.

    I do enjoy your perseverance throughout the blogosphere for the sources of information.


  12. Hi Changcho,

    I wouldn’t want to leave the impression I have any particular bone to pick with Cosmic Variance. To begin with it has been all along the combined effort of many scientists rather then that of one or a few. In this respect it never lent one the impression of having a general focus or mind set so to speak. I realize this blog has two authors, yet they both for the most part have there own special subjects and focuses if you will.

    To be honest, up until discovering Backreaction I didn’t pay much attention to the whole blog thing yet rather gathered and exchanged thoughts and ideas primarily through forums. It’s the individuality that brings the sense of identity that I find the most intriguing aspect of blogs and I find to associate that with any commercial entity you are bound to lose some if not all of it in the process. Particularly when it comes to things like science I feel it more important to promote the subject rather then the brand, otherwise you run the danger of it becoming more evangelical in nature rather then it being enlightening and or challenging.



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  14. Hi Moshe & Changcho,

    Your noting of the placement of books propagating pseudoscience next to those of science just serves as further evidence to support the relevance of a concern I’ve had for some time. Currently we have a society who’s general understanding of science has not risen, yet I would contend has actually dropped, combined with it primarily having no spiritual center resultant of the dismissing of faith based philosophies.

    This in turn has ironically created a vacuum which is now being filled by a new reasonless philosophy (religion), that draws it strength deceptively and unwarrantably from science itself; a philosophy built solely on reason. This has had the effect of blurring the lines between them to the extent that I fear one day they will become indistinguishable. I find both scientists and science writers are doing little to caution the general public as to become aware of this important distinction. I also find that corporate affiliation serves to hinder rather then help stem the tide of the growth of what I see as a dangerous trend.



  15. Hi Bee! It warms my 67 year old heart to find someone as young as you quoting ABBA. Best, Chip

  16. Hi bee and Stefan,

    Greed failed more so than capitalism.

    The difference is subtle, like the difference between the philosphy of Adam Smith and John Nash.

  17. Hi Doug,

    “Greed failed more so than capitalism.The difference is subtle, like the difference between the philosphy of Adam Smith and John Nash.”

    'cap•i•tal•ism (k p -tl- z m) n.
    An economic system in which the means of production and distribution are privately or corporately owned and development is proportionate to the accumulation and reinvestment of profits gained in a free market.'

    'greed (gr d) n.
    An excessive desire to acquire or possess more than what one needs or deserves, especially with respect to material wealth:'

    The difference for many is to determine which be the cause and which the effect. I would agree that one can have greed without having capitalism. The question many would ask if greed is a necessitated aspect of capitalism and if so what system and methods could be incorporated that would mitigate its effects while maintaining a more positive motivational premise.

    When this question is seriously addressed, as to be accessed, the weakness is found to be as what comprises the system more so the system itself. It is the therefore more proper to ask what can be done to improve the components rather then the system they operate under; which refers to our aspirations and goals rather then how they be achieved.

    The limit to capitalism’s motivational tools comes down to being just the carrot and the stick, with the presumption that all that’s required to be discovered is the proper balance of each to garantee success. It has always been evident to me that this amounts to being an admission that we are all to be thought of as not being much more then donkeys.

    There does exist however other motivational tools which one may turn to when it involves our species, which are to be found in our innate desire for wanting approval and being seen as being needed. These I would find as to be the truly distinct human qualities which are most often ignored because their aspects are seen as being more complex. This I find as ironic since the other quality we all profess to share is intelligence, which in turn should be able to cope with the complexity.

    So for me it all boils down to choosing what as being effective and good is what is only that which is simple or rather what will work. I say it should be what will work.



  18. corruption here in Philippines is so rampant... I don't know why they do it esp. Politicians... That's why too many revolutionaries here... They already rich, many properties, but still they corrupt the people's money... Sounds so insane...


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