Sunday, January 19, 2014

Trouble in the Ivory Tower: Not an academic problem.

The Ivory Tower.
Image from The Neverending Story.
“Science is the only news,” Stuart Brand told us. And the news is that research misconduct is on the rise while reproducible results are in decline. Peer review, the process in which scientific publications are evaluated by anonymous peers, has become a farce as scientists’ existential worries make it an exercise in forward defense with the occasional backhand offense. Scientists produce more papers now than ever, and then hide them behind journal subscriptions so costly nobody can read them – a good idea because most published research findings are probably false, though that too is probably false. Measures for scientific success have been criticized ever since they began being used, and the academic system chokes on social effects like herding, pluralistic ignorance and groupthink.

Yes, science works, no need to call me names. But science doesn’t work as good as it could, not as good as it should, not as good as we need it to work.

Scientific institutions and scientific management are stuck in the last century. The academic system today is in no shape to cope with the demands of high connectivity in a global and increasing workforce, is unable to deal with complex trans-national and interdisciplinary problems, and can’t handle the amplification of social feedback that information technology has brought.

The academic system, in brief, has the same problem as our political, social and economic systems.

The biggest challenge mankind faces today is not the development of some breakthrough technology. The biggest challenge is to create a society whose institutions integrate the knowledge that must precede any such technology, including knowledge about these institutions themselves. All of our big problems today speak of our failure, not to envision solutions, but to turn our ideas and knowledge into reality.

It’s not that we lack creativity. It’s that the kind of creativity that comes to us naturally does not latch upon problems evolution didn’t endow us to register to begin with. We do not comprehend the interplay of large crowds of people and are unable to individually beat our own psychology, rooted in groups of tens to hundreds, not billions. To arrange our living together in groups larger than we can intuit, we agree on rules of conduct and incentives that align our individual actions with collective trends so that both are to our benefit. This requires systems design. It requires science. And before that it requires we acknowledge the problem.

But we watch. We watch with bewilderment as a video of sunrise is broadcast on Tiananmen square where thick smog forces onlookers to wear breathing masks. We watch with horrified fascination video footages of the big garbage swirl and of birds dying from indigestible plastic pieces. We watch, hypnotized, replays of negotiation failures that make our adaptation to climate change more costly by the day. The way we have arranged, organized, policed and institutionalized our living together leaves us to watch ourselves watching, stunned at our own inability to change anything about it.

And scientists, the ones who should be able to analyze the situation and to devise a solution aren’t any better.

Scientists, of course, know exactly what is wrong with academia. Leaving aside that no two of them can agree on how to do it, they know how to solve the problem. There’s no shortage of proposals for how to fix peer review and scientific publishing and for how to better distribute resources. Futures markets, auction markets, lottery systems, open peer review, and dozens of alternative metrics have been suggested, we’ve seen it all. They write papers about it and send them for peer review. The rest is the same old he-said-she-said.

So far, scientists miserably failed to adapt the academic system to the changing demands of the 21st century. They belabor the problem and devise solutions, but are unable to implement them. And in the ocean of conference proceedings they watch the giant abstract swirl.

Academia mirrors the problem of our societies in a nutshell. The members of the academe, they’re all talk but no walk. We are being told that scientists are studying now the interconnectivity of the multi-layered networks that govern our societies, and we ask for answers and advice, we ask to be informed about how to solve our problems. There’s nobody else to solve these problems.

Social systems adapt to changing demands much like organisms do, by gradual modification and selection. But this process takes time – a lot of time – and it’s time we cannot afford. The only way to accelerate this adaption is the scientific method: a targeted, controlled, and recorded series of modifications. Many existing projects today aim to track and analyze the complex interactions of our highly interwoven networked world. But not a single one of these projects addresses the real problem, which is how to use this knowledge in the very systems that are being studied. It is this feedback of knowledge about the system back into the system that is necessary for our institutions to adapt. It requires a self-consistent scientific approach to institutional design, an approach that doesn’t exist and is nowhere near existence.

We need scientists to help us create social systems that organize our living together in groups so large that our evolutionary brains, trained to deal with small groups, cannot cope with. Trial and error will take too long and the errors are too costly now. But scientists are like the overweight doctor preaching the benefits of blood-pressure regulation, evidently unable to solve their own problems first. They presently can’t help us solve any problems, and we shouldn’t listen to their advice until they’ve solved their own problems.

Science is the only news, but it’s not only news. It’s the canary in the coal mine. Better watch it closely.


  1. That was a little depressing Sabine. I don't think the world is as bad as all that. Biochemistry has been making great strides. Technology is looking good. But I'd say there are problems in physics. People in academia don't analyse enough, they run with the herd too much, and they don't listen enough. Let me demonstrate:

    How many fields has the electron got?

    NB: there's a spurious ) on the end of your 2nd URL.

  2. Would it be any different system if you were the major player within the dominant paradigm?

    Physics community is as well functioning community as any other community involving people. It functions adequately, favours mainstream thinking and is harsh towards non-mainstream thinkers. But paradigms do change, sometimes without clutch :-)

  3. Kimmo,

    You misunderstand the point of my post. It's not about physics, though the problems certainly also exist there. What I'm saying is that we'll not be able to solve our problems without science, but we'll also not be able to solve them with science, unless we first get to understand the process of knowledge discovery and its integration into our societies. Best,


  4. Well, If there is a need to integrate science into society I guess there should be a new descipline that will investigate this as part of the scientific proccess. Dedicated PhDs should be assigned to examine how the integration could be done and so forth and so on ...

  5. Is that the egg or the chicken of the solution?

  6. 6The chicken I guess? Or maybe the egg...

    Well I don't know:-)

  7. 1) Thou shalt not offend. Lower standards until only the certified unable preferentially qualify.
    2) Thou shalt not create unknown hazards.
    3) Thous shalt have statistics rewarding one's managers.
    4) Thou shalt not discover beyond or external to one's grant funding.
    5) "Oldthinkers unbellyfeel

    William Bradford Shockley Jr. was monstrous. Eight of Shockley’s former employees started 65 new enterprises, called "Silicon Valley." Stephanie Kwolek made Kevlar work. She did not respect "insubordination" as a parameter

  8. Contemporary science is like the stable Universe. Sometimes hot, but mostly void and empty, if not causally separated from the rest.

  9. That is to say, the flat rate charging and accusing of physicists of incompetence has no meaning, because in areas, where the strictly formal approach based on extrapolations of existing theories applies, the contemporary science works well.

    But in the areas where holistic intuitive and inquisitive approach is required for further progress, the performance of contemporary physics gets terrific. For example the cold fusion research is delayed by the eight decades with pluralistic ignorance - and I have multiple evidence it easily. Accidentally, this is just the research, which could help the people in contemporary energetic and subsequent economical crisis. It's not just about cold fusion, but about every alternative research - from scalar waves over gravity beams to magnetic motors.

    Even at the formal areas the physics doesn't perform well. The fundamental work of Burkhard Heim has been ignored in its entirety, despite it did provide the predictions of wide spectrum of elementary particles - but nobody bothers, why these calculations work so well. Currently the situation is as bad, that many garage physicist provide a theories, which are able to predict the mass of particles in explicit way (,,, - whereas the mainstream physicists are filling ArXiv with clueless abstract publications, which don't enable to predict anything in testable way.

    That is to say, the mainstream physics stagnates even at its own playground, i.e. in development of formal models.

  10. The bottom line is really quite easy to see? It really does not have to be that complicated in the understanding regarding the current discussion about how science should be handled and easily accessible. You have been doing it for a while now.


  11. So what does such an idea that works its way through science accomplish?

    Question then, why is all glass not surfaced in such a way? I think special attention was drawn to product development. Have you then not met your tower? :)

    In the end population control would seek to destroy any originality beyond what that controller would want the population to do?


  12. Zephir,

    Your comments are tiresome, off-topic and entirely uninteresting. Please stop it.

  13. I'm just wondering, if you managed to listen the Tom Beardeen opinion about mainstream science to its end (I linked it here before some time, transcription is linked there too).

    I'm following your blog carefully, so maybe you should reflect the opinion of another people sometimes. Just for not to be surprised after some time like the frog boiled in warm water.


  15. Really Zephir,
    I just don't think you see yourself as others see you. I'm not talking about people with closed minds either; I'm talking about people with educated, yet still open minds. I've looked into all of Tom Bearden's stuff in an earlier lifetime and quickly realized that he is lecturing in circular talking points. In other words, he comes in with a hidden assumption that he even he does not realize and then modifies the conclusions of his thought experiments so that the end result will concur with his self hidden assumption. You are doing exactly the same.

  16. /*You are doing exactly the same*/

    Such as? Could you be more specific? Don't afraid to quote me.

    IMO what Bee composed over Sunday is a typical political essay of armchair revolutionary without any specific point. It sounds like some pre-election campaign of political opposition party to me. Bee even admits it, when she is calling for finding of this problem and admitting it instead of pointing the actual problem. She is as vague and general, as it gets.

    Sabine says in title, that the troubles in Ivory Tower aren't academic problem, but she does oppose it for whole rest. Frankly, I don't understand, which particular problem Sabine has with contemporary academia (other than lack of reliable grants and salary, which no one actually has at the present time). Which change she is proposing?

    In certain sense she does exactly what she is criticizing: she's just talking passionately. And at the moment, when I attempt to give to her essay some particular context (like the ignorance of cold fusion and success of alternative theories), Bee even gets upset immediately. It's no secret for me, that she as a quantum field theorist is actually a typical product of the contemporary physics.

  17. When Sabine talks without particular proposal, she is just an open mind ("we didn't get, what we should imagine in her story, but it's definitely serious and ugly") - but the people, who follow coherent implications (like me or Tom Bearden) are close minded?

    What the quantum gravity theorists are actually trying to do during last half of century is to derive the violations of mainstream theories just by using of these theories (and their postulates). This is a circular reasoning fallacy, not just close mind.

  18. Zephir, I didn't say, nor do I think, that Sabine has a very open mind. Just because one has a theory and someone with a closed mind does not agree with it, that does not mean one's own theory is correct. One has to do better than that. I hope that clears up just a little where I stand.

  19. Sabine: IMHO you need to analyse the physics problem. IMHO it is a physics problem, not some problem of free will or the science of knowledge. IMHO you need to play detective and retrace your steps looking for something you've taken for granted, something you've missed, something that's hidden in plain sight. IMHO you need to examine what you think you know about electromagnetism gravity and QED and test it to destruction. I'm an IT guy, analysis is what I do. So let me help you take the first step:

    How many fields has the electron got?

  20. /*...Zephir, I didn't say, nor do I think, that Sabine has a very open mind...*/

    This is not relevant to your previous accusation of Tom Beardeen and mine from close mind attitude. My theory and its validity is not relevant for it as well. Tom Beardeen is actually proponent of frontier physics. He proposes, that the magnetic domains within ferromagnetic may enable the time reversed phenomena and negentropic effects by acting like system of magnetic monopoles, which is violating CP symmetry. This is IMO pretty opened idea.

  21. Plato proposed a solution to your problem, which was to make the scientists the rulers (i.e. to make the philosophers the kings). People who tried to make this work ended up killing their colleagues and relatives.

    On a completely separate note, how much of the problems in theoretical physics are due to the institutions, and how much is due to the evident fact that the problems have simply gotten harder? Actually I suppose there would be an interaction -- the problems getting harder would make it easier for mediocrity and bureaucracy to rule.

  22. Dr. Hossenfelder,

    I don't find your essay depressing in the least bit, rather, it seems, to me, dead nuts on! However, this problem IS being addressed by Sandy Pentland, director of MIT's Human Dynamics Lab, and his dedicated team (you can read a short preview in the last issue of Scientific American: As Dr. Pentland demonstrates, there exists huge amounts of information which can be used to ENGINEER more efficient societal technologies but the first obstacle is figuring out how to safely and equitably open up the data silos; in this pursuit Dr. Pentland has proposed a "New Deal on Data." He has a book which was just recently published (Social Physics: How Ideas Turn into Actions I think he has the tiger by the tail so I try to promote his work whenever possible . . .

    Best regards,

  23. Of course when it comes to information only those who would think such control over information should stay in the hands of the few would think scientists and their relatives may fall? :p)

  24. Sabine,

    Looks like George Johnson agrees with you:

  25. Zephir:

    This blogpost is a warm-up for my FQXi essay. Believe me, I have a very detailed proposal. It will almost certainly exceed your attention span...

  26. Wes,

    I have read this article and several others like this. There are many similar 'big data' proposals and for me the most exciting thing about it is to see that 'social engineering' is no longer an insult as it used to be when I started writing this blog 8 years ago. However, you, as pretty much everybody else, continues to miss the central point of what I am saying. The key problem isn't collecting the data, or analyzing the data. The key problem is how to integrate this information into our societies. Just saying 'social engineering' just puts a word to what is the actual problem. Best,


  27. John,

    IMHO you need to read the comment rules.

  28. /* It will almost certainly exceed your attention span...*/
    Will be the support of cold fusion and magnetic motors included in it? BTW The brevity is the soul of wit... We may say, my attention is evolutionarily adopted to the reading of wit texts..

  29. I DO understand the central point of what you are saying; you make it quite clear in your statement:

    "Many existing projects today aim to track and analyze the complex interactions of our highly interwoven networked world. But not a single one of these projects addresses the real problem, which is how to use this knowledge in the very systems that are being studied. It is this feedback of knowledge about the system back into the system that is necessary for our institutions to adapt. It requires a self-consistent scientific approach to institutional design, an approach that doesn’t exist and is nowhere near existence."

    And you are mistaken about the "nowhere near existence" part. Read the paper, "Inducing Peer Pressure to Promote Cooperation" (; it would seem to me to directly address the feedback issue. I've read several of Pentland's papers and they've figured out how to control large groups of people without, in many cases, said people even being aware that they were being controlled. And I see no reason why the real-world experiment they have underway in Italy won't enhance their knowledge of feedback control.

    I understand what is needed quite well; a pet subject of mine is industrial symbiosis. The landmark case in Denmark simply evolved of its own accord. People were not even aware of it until a group of high schoolers started mapping pipelines for a school project and when governments tried to stimulate this symbiosis with "incentives" it proved to be an abject failure. It's a complex issue but I think Pentland and company are definitely making headway . . . and, yes, on the feedback best-practices issue.

    Hive mind is going to happen; it's a matter of when not of if. I feel this is certain because of the evolutionary fitness of it. Just wait until we have super intelligent machines which not only have access to all of the relevant data but the capability to properly utilize it; that's when the free-will question gets interesting. Of course there is a non-zero probability that we are already living under such a scenario but simply unaware of it; we exist as nested, hence, highly constrained controllers. I believe this is the position taken by the Principia Cybernetica crew as well as most mystics . . .

  30. Wes,

    Thanks for the reference, which is really interesting. I'll also totally go and buy the book because the topic is much on my mind. What I was saying in my blogpost though is this: Nobody is going to listen to him (or any other scientist for that matter) until scientists have cleaned up on their own front door. I really think the key to the whole issue is in the organization of knowledge discovery itself. Best,


  31. /* Nobody is going to listen to him (or any other scientist for that matter) until scientists have cleaned up on their own front door. I really think the key to the whole issue is in the organization of knowledge discovery itself. */

    So it is a problem of individuals, or collective organization of their communication? I presume both. For example, I do consider you completely ignorant about alternative physics, as you never wrote about it in your blog. For example, what do you know about physical motivations and objections of so-called hydrino theory? I know, it's not your business, as you're specialized in quite different topic. But this is the core of the whole problem: lack of personal interest about work of others and no communication system will change it. It's just your problem, not someone else's or organizational problem. It just requires to visit the corresponding web and to study it, study it, study it...

    The objective perspective is, that the hyperdimensional character of quantum gravity makes the proponents of existing low-dimensional theories intrinsically divergent. The people like you, who are following strictly deterministic attitude do behave like the solitons along circular ripples, which do penetrate mutually like the ghosts and they tend to diverge mutually. The people working at phenomenological models (like you) are increasingly separated each other and they're increasingly competitive, because no one of you has some big picture before eyes.

    The modern theorists are behaving like the bugs climbing along branches of tree of knowledge, which are penetrate mutually at their ends without even touching each other. In this way, many of you works on overlapping problems, but the complexity of formal models and your absence of more broad thinking makes your mutual communication impossible.

    Despite of its objective geometric nature, this problem can be solved just with adopting of more opened and holistic view at the personal level - again. There is no hidden miracle or organizational recipe, which would make the insightful people from bunch of ignorants.


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