[Link] Distance from Harvard

post by GLaDOS · 2013-10-16T20:43:57.107Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 13 comments

Related: Loss of local knowledge affecting intellectual trends, The Hyborian Age

This post is from Gregory Cochran's and Henry Harpending's excellent blog West Hunter.

Barry Marshall once said that if he had gone to Harvard, he would have known that stomach ulcers were caused by stress, and wouldn’t even have considered the possibility that they might be caused by a bacterium.  There are a number of other important innovators that sure look as if they benefited from living as far as possible from  the sources of establishment opinion.  Back when continental drift was officially nonsense,  quite a few geologists in South Africa and Australia thought it must be correct – partly because there are local geological facts that are hard to explain any other way (like ancient glacial moraines in Australia whose rocks originated in South Africa) but also because physical distance translates into mental distance.

Of course this does not always work – distance is useful, but not sufficient..  Indonesia is pretty far from Harvard, but is a vast wasteland, intellectually.  Ideally, you want a country full of people drawn from the  populations that actually produce creative thinkers (Europeans, mostly) instead of the populations that ought to but don’t.  And it should be really, really far away.

With the Internet and cell phones and all that,  psychological isolation is harder to find. Once even California had some thoughts of its own, but that day is long past. If we want to keep progress from stalling out, we need people that don’t get sucked into to the usual crap – because they can’t.

The only real solution is interstellar colonization: the speed of light is your friend.  A generation ship might do the job -  even if it never arrived. It would be out there for hundreds of years, years in which the inhabitants could go their own way.  Some of the ships would be boring, some of them would go crazy – but at least they’d be different.



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comment by NancyLebovitz · 2013-10-17T14:02:34.242Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

From memory of Root-Bernstein's work: Scientists are more likely to make discoveries if they are trying to solve a practical problem outside their main field of research.

This would be easier to institute than trying to get the right level of isolation.

Replies from: Gurkenglas
comment by Gurkenglas · 2013-10-19T07:42:52.269Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Because there are usually many more possible applications to practical problems than avenues of basic research in their main field, which lessens the number of people thinking the same thoughts?

comment by mwengler · 2013-10-18T13:57:07.935Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

All this an no mention of the benefits of many minds working together on a common pile of information and hypotheses? There is a human intellectual bias to notice some secondary effect and completely miss the dominant effect.

Further, those who pushed continental drift were not COMPLETELY isolated from Harvard at all! They knew the theories and the data. They were more exposed to the data in their own back yards, and may or may not have benefited from not being so close to the sphere of influence of Harvard's authority. But even this is a weak hypothesis, is there some reason to think that if Harvard had set up a remote campus in South Africa that it would not have been a Harvard geologist who revived continental drift?

As a counterexample to this all, consider the BIg Bang. Before the Big Bang, the common belief among astronomers was a steady state universe that went on and on. Was the big bang theory thrown over by astronomers remote? No, it was thrown over by astronomers and physicists at Princeton and Bell Labs,, neither of which could be imagined as anything but central and authoritative in the fields in which they participated.

We have PLENTY of people that don't get sucked into the usual crap. In fact many of them, like the Indonesians as described in the OP, don't get sucked into the good stuff either! In my opinion, we need to encourage more people to work hard to LEARN the 'usual crap' more fully before thinking they have much of use to add by being independent.

Replies from: jsteinhardt, GLaDOS
comment by jsteinhardt · 2013-10-19T06:52:18.429Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There is a human intellectual bias to notice some secondary effect and completely miss the dominant effect.

I don't think most humans do this; it seems particular to LessWrong and related subcultures.

comment by GLaDOS · 2013-10-19T07:31:20.506Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Further, those who pushed continental drift were not COMPLETELY isolated from Harvard at all! They knew the theories and the data.

He wasn't proposing complete isolation, just sufficient isolation to make fixating particular craziness difficult. It is uncharitable to think he proposed this. After all the academic community in Alpha Centauri would hardly be isolated from our own, the 4 year time lag isn't that much in academic circles, I've seen papers in some fields published abroad picked up here only after a 10 year time lag for example.

His basic argument is not that intellectual cooperation isn't useful, his argument is that intellectual cooperation is not a good way to investigate whatever craziness happens to get fixated in the community of intellectuals in question. It seems a stronger version of the argument that science advances by scientists holding on to old theories dying off and being replaced by younger ones, he posits entire fields can most easily be fixed by being replaced by a fresh fork of them from Alpha Centauri.

To give a technobable example, if someone here proposes duotronic dylithium computers might not violate the will of the Great Zod, and might be worth investigating, he would be widely seen as violating the Geneva convention and denounced for unethical research and being a quack, everyone after all knows multitronic plasma computers are the most promising branch. But once we see the data stream from Alpha Centauri's working version and note cats are not living with dogs there yet, this becomes harder to claim.

Replies from: Douglas_Knight
comment by Douglas_Knight · 2013-10-21T16:46:10.333Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

the 4 year time lag isn't that much in academic circles, I've seen papers in some fields published abroad picked up here only after a 10 year time lag for example.

How does that happen? It's not like people are reading foreign journals at a 10 year lag. Maybe they're reading them in real time and after 10 years of seeing the paper cited repeatedly, they take it seriously. More likely, they're just not reading the foreign journals, but one day they went to a foreign conference and met the author or a protege - not going to happen with interstellar distances.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2013-10-17T18:52:16.817Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Neal Stephenson's Anathem springs to mind (following is non-spoilery)

In it, there is a mathematical/scientific organization that cloisters itself from society on four time scales - single year, ten year, a century, and a millennium. Information transfer between these is strictly regulated to meta matters like fixing the plumbing, for the duration. IIRC, horizontal transfer between chapters of the organization also have limited information sharing, though less strict.

comment by GLaDOS · 2013-10-17T06:13:42.718Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The speed of light is our friend in this regard, but I expect it is more likely we will become very fast, so what is today tiny lag will become very problematic, rather than traveling to the stars. But that is getting ahead of myself, if we don't have competing craziness we might not get starships or mind emulations. (;_;) So how can we get some of the benefit of this today where we are all one with Harvard?

A commenter there writes:

Russia is an interesting case. You’ve got a whole school of Russian linguists, with roots back in the Soviet era, who think they can reconstruct really ancient language families. American linguists (with a few exceptions — Joseph Greenberg) think they’re crazy. (I’m not competent to decide who’s right.) There’s also a tradition of Soviet/Russian sociologists, anthropologists, and archeologists doing old-fashioned investigations of ancient “ethnogenesis” of modern nationalities while Westerners have been busy convincing themselves that all this stuff is socially constructed and part of the “invention of tradition.” Peter Turchin is somebody who benefits from having a foot in the Russian camp (his dad was a dissident and his family got kicked out in the 1970s and he keeps up his ties with Russian researchers) and not worrying too much about marching in step with Western academic historians. And David Anthony’s work on Indo-European origins benefits a lot from him keeping up with former East Bloc archeology and archeologists and ignoring the “pots not people” Anglo-American orthodoxy.

As an aside I think, the pots not people people seem to have been wrong. People probably came with pots.

This seems like an argument for forcing graduate students to take a second language, and keep up with work outside English.

Any other ideas?

Replies from: knb
comment by knb · 2013-10-17T07:37:20.067Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Kind of a long shot, but monks historically did a great deal of society's intellectual work, and they were often quite isolated. Perhaps they could be persuaded to revive their intellectual traditions in non-theological areas.

comment by Metus · 2013-10-17T05:46:52.762Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This seems like an argument for forcing graduate students to take a second language, and keep up with work outside English.

This seems more like an argument for graduate students in other languages to read and publish in their own language or just not in English.

Edit: When I wrote the comment, the quoted part was in the parent and not a seperate comment.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2013-10-24T22:45:44.867Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Related: Vigen Geodakyan's evolutionary theory of sex was fairly popular in Russia in the 80's (for all I know it's still popular) but not much known in the west.

Replies from: shminux
comment by shminux · 2013-10-24T23:26:10.695Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A quick look online shows that this theory has always been a niche one, with not much interest (or criticism) outside of the Geodakyan's school, not even in Russia. Most of the citations are his own. The wiki page (in Russian) lists some "testable predictions" which are mostly "postdictions". It also lists one clinical analysis without any citations.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2013-10-18T12:10:21.755Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

UCLA math grad students I think have to pass a test in one of the "big three" to graduate (French, German, Russian).