Division of cognitive labour in accordance with researchers' ability

post by Stefan_Schubert · 2014-01-16T09:28:02.920Z · score: 10 (11 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 69 comments

The variance in productivity between people is much greater in some areas than in others. The most productive cleaner is probably less than twice as productive as the average cleaner, whereas the most productive entrepreneur arguably is many times more productive than the average entrepreneur. One area where this difference in productivity is particularly great is research - especially in its more theoretical parts. A physicist once told me that Einstein put forth four theories worthy of the Nobel Prize in one year alone (1905, his Annus Mirabilis). That's a level of productivity that, on any reasonable  measure, dwarfs that of whole armies of lesser physicists. The same pattern recurs in many disciplines (though it is perhaps not always quite as strong).

Such a recurring pattern cries out for an explanation. In some areas the reason might be hero-worship (postmodernist philosophy springs to mind), but the pattern is strong in many serious disciplines as well, so that can't be the whole explanation.

Instead, I would argue that the reason is that science is a social activity in a much deeper sense than cleaning is. A scientific problem is "hard" due to the fact that most scientists are not sufficiently talented to solve it given our present knowledge. In most sciences, there will normally at any given point be a lot of such problems which are too hard for most scientists, but solvable by a few really smart people.

I'm not saying that but for them, there would be no progress. Clearly there would, but we would need more knowledge - clues, as it were - to solve the hard problems. Thus progress would go much slower.

If this picture - rather an elitist one - is right, what are the consequences for policy? It seems to me that the most obvious consequence is that we need to make sure that the most talented people's time is spent in a rational way. Firstly, it does not seem to me that they should spend time teaching students - their time is far too valuable for that. Overall, it's a bit strange that researchers are expected to teach since they really are two quite different jobs.

That's not my main point, however. My main point is that they should focus on what what they're best at: producing new ideas. Research today involves so much more - applying for grants, writing up articles that have to conform to all sorts of disciplinary conventions, attending seminars of questionable value, etc, etc.

It is widely noted that the present incentive structure ("publish or  perish") in the academia has led to a flood of uninteresting but publishable articles. A less-noted but to my mind more serious problem is that this incentive structure fails to make the most talented people create and (in particular) publish ideas at the pace they're capable of. I know several very talented people whose publication rates are very low even though they are positively brim full of interesting ideas.

I don't know exactly why they don't publish more but suspect that they're bored by the tedium of the peer review process (who isn't - I have two papers that haven't been reviewed after 1,5 years). Perfectionism is also to blame, I think. Many smart people are fed up with the massive amount of mediocre research that is produced, and therefore (and perhaps for other reasons) they swear to themselves never to publish anything that isn't top-notch and very well worked through. Though I share the annoyance with the massive amount of mediocre research, I think that this reaction is misguided. It would be much better for the research community as a whole if they shared their ideas, even if some of them are a bit half-baked. 

Hence we need to devise a system that makes them produce more publically available research. Reading this blog - and in particular Yudkowsky's excellent posts - it strikes me that they should have a blog where they could write down various ideas. They would need some incentive in order to do that, and hence the academia needs to start recognizing the blog as a proper medium of publication (as is actually happening in some disciplines such as macro economics, if Krugman is right).

Indeed, I think that science would usually be better off if these people left the job of proving their hypotheses, or that of making them more precise, to other people, and hurried on to the next subject. We need a much more thorough division of cognitive labour in the academia: we should not waste the most able people's time (our most precious resource) by having them work on tasks that could be left to less able people. (This principle is explicitly followed in many other organizations - e.g. it is frequently argued that various tasks done by doctors could be done by less educated, and cheaper, employees such as nurses.)

Of course you do have a fair amount of this in the academia. Professors have Ph.D. students and postdocs to do carry out simpler parts of research for them. Academic stars do tend to work on the "big problems" and leave to others to fill in the blanks. By and large, this is good. But we need to go much further in this direction. 

Apart from such obvious problems such as vested interests' resistance to change and sheer inertia (ever-present problems in all institutions), two things obstruct a change in this direction. The first is that people are poor at estimating researchers' skills. They don't recognize that the differences in skills are as large as I have argued here. Different professors earn roughly as much, have roughly the same social standing, etc - how could it possibly be that their productivity levels are vastly different, the seem to think. Also, there is the Dunning-Kruger effect, which says that incompetent people overestimate their skills, whereas competent people underestimate theirs. This contributes to the impression that productivity levels are more equal than they actually are.

Also, people are not very good at determining who's skilled and who's not. (This goes in particular for incompetent people.) In many cases, they go for superficial characteristics such as whether the researcher uses some respected technique (whether this technique is actually mastered, or even relevant in the case at hand, is often not regarded). To some extent, this is an unescapable problem, but possibly it could be alleviated somewhat by more sophisticated techniques for identifying good texts. Such simple techniques as explicitly counting the number and significance of ideas per page, could go some way towards making it more transparent who is actually an original thinker, and who is not. More advanced techniques could conceivably go much further. This is a topic rationalists should explore, I think.

Another problem is egalitarianism. The system I am sketching is in many ways more hierarchical than today's academia - some people would focus entirely on the hardest and most prestigious tasks, whereas others would have to do more mundane work. I also think that this could potentially be reflected in greater differences in pay (if nothing else, universities would be more reluctant to waste talented people's time if they had to pay them huge salaries). Hence people would oppose it for egalitarian reasons (most people would probably deny that there are huge differences in ability because it clashes with their egalitarian morality, but I think that some people who admit that there are such big difference in ability would oppose it nevertheless, for egalitarian reasons).

If you're not an egalitarian, this is obviously not a valid objection, but even if you are, I think that it has less force than most people would think. What is important for egalitarianism is that society as a whole is egalitarian - i.e. that the resources (including not only money but also, e.g. respect) are not too unevenly distributed - not that any particular profession is egalitarian. Why should it be more objectionable that productive professors earn five times more than an unproductive professor, than that professors earn five times more than cleaners? Now if a less egalitarian academia makes the Gini coefficient increase somewhat, this could easily be offset by introducing a bit more progressive taxes.

I leave the details of how to set up this system at the moment for now even though I think it's very important to pay great attention to the institutional arrangements of the academia, since researchers are self-interested creatures who react to incentives just like everybody else. If anyone has any ideas on this, I'd be interested in that.

I've got a lot more to say about this but this post is too long already so I leave it at that.

 

69 comments

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comment by ChristianKl · 2014-01-16T13:05:58.773Z · score: 8 (14 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

A physicist once told me that Einstein put forth four theories worthy of the Nobel Prize in one year alone (1905, his Annus Mirabilis).

But you should consider that Einstein spend that year with his wife Mileva Marić who was also a physicist at a time where woman where woman had trouble finding acceptance in the scientific community. The two agreed that the Mileva should get the money from the Nobel Prize.

I don't think it's useful to explain what Einstein published in 1905 as the work of a single person.

It also useful to note the environment in which Einstein did his work. He was not employed in academia. Einstein was not earning five times as much money as an "unproductive professor". If anything he was earning less money in 1905 where he was most productive than later when he had a well paid professorship.

If you want to have more people like Einstein it would make much more sense to push guaranteed basic income to avoid top talent from having to take a formal job and let those people focus on their research while their basic living expenses are payed.

It is widely noted that the present incentive structure ("publish or perish") in the academia has led to a flood of uninteresting but publishable articles.

A lot of influential papers are considered uninteresting at the point of which they are published.

To some extent, this is an unescapable problem, but possibly it could be alleviated somewhat by more sophisticated techniques for identifying good texts. Such simple techniques as explicitly counting the number and significance of ideas per page, could go some way towards making it more transparent who is actually an original thinker, and who is not

Being original isn't hard. The difficult thing is being original in a productive fashion.

If you reward people for being original you encourage reinvention of ideas under new names instead of citing existing work.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2014-01-16T15:10:56.362Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

push guaranteed basic income to avoid top talent from having to take a formal job and let those people focus on their research while their basic living expenses are payed.

If you could make a good estimate of young Einsteins, it would be enough to pay the basic income to the selected talented people. And it does not even have to be forever. You could just offer to pay them basic income for 10 years; and when it is 5 years till the end, evaluate them again, and if they still pass your filter, extend the time for another 5 years; possibly repeatedly. (And they can still try academia when your scholarship expires.)

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-01-16T15:42:34.484Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In some sense Yudkowsky has such a deal with Peter Thiel. And Yudkowsky is not the only person that Thiel supports in such a way.

But I think that estimating young Einsteins is a very hard problem.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-01-16T17:46:57.491Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

“I can only speak for myself. Unlike most people, I don’t “work” at all, in the sense of doing anything with the conscious goal of making money. All I do is think about what interests me, and discuss the results of that thinking with other people. As long as governments (and philanthropists like Mike Lazaridis) are willing to pay me for my non-work, I’m happy to take their money. If they ever stop paying me, I guess I’ll have to find some other source of income.” -- Scott Aaronson

comment by komponisto · 2014-01-17T00:20:15.442Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you could make a good estimate of young Einsteins, it would be enough to pay the basic income to the selected talented people.

This is exactly what academia is supposed to be, and it doesn't work. (Notably, it didn't work for Einstein, who didn't get let in until 1908.)

People are very, very bad at recognizing genius.

comment by asr · 2014-01-18T19:25:33.509Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is exactly what academia is supposed to be, and it doesn't work. (Notably, it didn't work for Einstein, who didn't get let in until 1908.)

This isn't true. Until 1905, Einstein was a graduate student (a very junior "insider"). He was still under 30 in 1908 when he was given a lectureship, which is a pretty plausible age to be given a teaching appointment. So that's three years spent outside the academy; not so very long.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-01-16T17:39:28.789Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But you should consider that Einstein spend that year with his wife Mileva Marić who was also a physicist at a time where woman where woman had trouble finding acceptance in the scientific community. The two agreed that the Mileva should get the money from the Nobel Prize.

That's an argument either in favour of or against feminism, but I'm not sure which one.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2014-01-16T18:17:53.929Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Imagine how much Einstein could discover if he had four wives...

comment by Moss_Piglet · 2014-01-16T18:42:38.392Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You jest, but from what I understand that's not far off. He wasn't exactly a polygamist, but at the very least a serial philanderer.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-01-17T00:18:15.575Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think it's mainly an argument for scientists getting other scientists that understand their own work as significant others so that the can do science together.

I imagine the two having deep conversations about physics while lying together in bed.

As far as policy goes, better acknowledgement of husband/wife teams that publish together papers would probably go in the right direction. I think that's fits into the feminist agenda.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-01-25T20:01:34.945Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think it's mainly an argument for scientists getting other scientists that understand their own work as significant others so that the can do science together.

The problem with that is that certain fields have heavily lopsided gender ratios.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-01-25T21:00:13.013Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The problem with that is that certain fields have heavily lopsided gender ratios.

It would only be a problem when woman in those areas would be in really high demand on the dating market. I don't think that a woman who studies physics has much better chances on the dating market than a woman that studies English literature because of the subject of study.

There nothing wrong with having highly specific expectations for a significant others when those expectations aren't what everyone else also wants.

If you are a theoretic physicist and write in your OkCupid profile: "I'm looking for a woman with whom I can discuss theoretical physics while laying in bed", you are heavily filtering. On the other hand if you are a woman who studies theoretical physics and you read the line, that might get you to send the first message.

Let's say you filter down your criteria in a way that only a hundred people in the 4 million city in which you are living make viable candidates. Those criteria aren't just about physical beauty and what other guys want. You are very public about those criteria through facebook and other means.

What happens when one of your friends meet one of those women? He might tell her about you. Given that she fits your highly selective criteria, she will be interested to get to know you if she's single.

That's basically Ramit Sethi's job hunting strategy and he also posted on his website some article about how one of his reader used it to find a significant other. Unfortunately I don't find the article at the moment.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-01-25T21:46:29.378Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't understand the relevance of this reply. What I meant is that there's no way each straight male theoretical physicist can get a straight female theoretical physicist (assuming no polyandry) if there are more of the former, because of the pigeonhole principle.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-01-16T16:53:10.055Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Being original isn't hard. The difficult thing is being original in a productive fashion.

This.

comment by chaosmage · 2014-01-16T09:56:52.935Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If the difference in success was due to a difference in skill, I'd expect people who have previously been successful scientists to be reliably also successful in other areas, say as entrepreneurs. I don't see that being the case, so I suspect the difference in success is not so much due to a difference in skill.

My intuitive theory of scientific success involves more luck, and I think of it as akin to mining. An individual researcher gets to pick a mountain to dig into, and of course the mountain of computational neuroscience can be reasonably suspected to yield more interesting ore than the mountain of dentistry. Inside the field, the researcher may try to attack a particular side of the mountain, or sub-field. But after that, the actual find of something interesting - a new and relevant phenomenon, a new and powerful explanation - has a lot to do with conscientiousness (which simply makes them "dig" a lot) and luck. Of course success has its own effects, from greater scrutiny on future work to improved communication with esteemed colleagues to the halo effect.

In that metaphor, what Einstein, Feynman and others did was possibly more like underground mining, chasing an interesting vein to wherever it led, while modern incrementally published mass research is more like surface mining - much slower, involving a lot more earth/paper, much less romantic, but ultimately more exhaustive.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-01-16T12:43:43.321Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If the difference in success was due to a difference in skill, I'd expect people who have previously been successful scientists to be reliably also successful in other areas, say as entrepreneurs. I don't see that being the case, so I suspect the difference in success is not so much due to a difference in skill.

Only if being a scientist and entrepreneur takes the same skills.

comment by chaosmage · 2014-01-16T13:13:32.939Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Only if the skillsets required for success overlap to a significant degree. I think they do, but of course I haven't tried entrepreneurship myself.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-01-16T13:39:50.412Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think it's hard to claim at the same time that there are overlapping skillsets and that science is mainly luck instead of skill.

comment by chaosmage · 2014-01-16T15:45:51.779Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry for the confusion. You were talking about merely "being a scientist", which obviously does require a skillset, so I responded to that.

In the post you replied to, I was talking about the difference between "successful scientists" who have actually made a significant scientific achievement, and other scientists, who I think will often have comparable skillsets. That difference is what I'm trying to explain. I do not think "science is mainly luck".

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-01-16T15:51:19.709Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If there's a skill that distinguishes successful scientists from scientists that aren't it's not clear that the same skill also makes successful entrepreneurs.

As a result you can assume that the skill doesn't exist just because scientific success doesn't transfer to reliable success as an entrepreneur.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-01-25T19:47:12.002Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You mean “As a result you can't assume”?

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-01-25T19:50:59.747Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2014-01-17T19:56:08.393Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

At least researchers tend to display relatively consistent output within a field: http://resources.emartin.net/blog/docs/AgeAchievement.pdf

Generally, the top 10% of the most prolific elite can be credited with around 50% of all contributions, whereas the bottom 50% of the least productive workers can claim only 15% of the total work, and the most productive contributor is usually about 100 times more prolific than the least (Dennis, 1954b, 1955; also see Lotka, 1926; Price, 1963, chap. 2). Now from a purely logical perspective, there are three distinct ways of achieving an impressive lifetime output that enables a creator to dominate an artistic or scientific enterprise. First, the individual may exhibit exceptional precocity, beginning contributions at an uncommonly early age. Second, the individual may attain a notable lifetime total by producing until quite late in life, and thereby display productive longevity. Third, the individual may boast phenomenal output rates throughout a career, without regard to the career's onset and termination. These three components are mathematically distinct and so may have almost any arbitrary correlation whatsoever with each other, whether positive, negative, or zero, without altering their respective contributions to total productivity. In precise terms, it is clear that O = R(L - P), where O is lifetime output, R is the mean rate of output throughout the career, L is the age at which the career ended (longevity), and P is the age at which the career began (precocity). The correlations among these three variables may adopt a wide range of arbitrary values without violating this identity. For example, the difference L - P, which defines the length of a career, may be more or less constant, mandating that lifetime output results largely from the average output rate R, given that those who begin earlier, end earlier, and those who begin later, end later. Or output rates may be more or less constant, forcing the final score to be a function solely of precocity and longevity, either singly or in conjunction. In short, R, L, and P, or output rate, longevity, and precocity, comprise largely orthogonal components of O, the gauge of total contributions.

When we turn to actual empirical data, we can observe two points. First, as might be expected, precocity, longevity, and output rate are each strongly associated with final lifetime output, that is, those who generate the most contributions at the end of a career also tend to have begun their careers at earlier ages, ended their careers at later ages, and produced at extraordinary rates throughout their careers (e.g., Albert, 1975; Blackburn et al., 1978; Bloom, 1963; Clemente, 1973; S. Cole, 1979; Richard A. Davis, 1987; Dennis, 1954a, 1954b; Helson & Crutchfield, 1970; Lehman, 1953a; Over, 1982a, 1982b; Raskin, 1936; Roe, 1965, 1972a, 1972b; Segal, Busse, & Mansfield, 1980; R. J. Simon, 1974; Simonton, 1977c; Zhao & Jiang, 1986). Second, these three components are conspicuously linked with each other: Those who are precocious also tend to display longevity, and both precocity and longevity are positively associated with high output rates per age unit (Blackburn et al., 1978; Dennis, 1954a, 1954b, 1956b; Horner et al., 1986; Lehman, 1953a, 1958; Lyons, 1968; Roe, 1952; Simonton, 1977c; Zuckerman, 1977).

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2014-01-20T16:09:01.622Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why are you talking about "rate"? Is that like measuring programmer productivity in lines of code?

comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2014-01-17T20:11:09.784Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for providing me with some backing for what I said in the OP concerning the great differences in productivity between different researchers.

comment by CellBioGuy · 2014-01-16T15:49:04.560Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The first lab I ever worked in at NHGRI had a saying: "We do the 're' in research".

I can understand how when you are bringing together unified mathematical ideas based on centuries of other people's data, if you have the right insight you can figure some major things out quickly. But when dealing with complicated real-world systems rather than abstract logical structures you have to keep pumping. Sometimes you get lucky or you have the correct thought as to what is interesting and where to keep pushing, sometimes you need to keep pushing and pushing away.

comment by itaibn0 · 2014-01-16T13:41:00.391Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If the difference in success was due to a difference in skill, I'd expect people who have previously been successful scientists to be reliably also successful in other areas, say as entrepreneurs. I don't see that being the case, so I suspect the difference in success is not so much due to a difference in skill.

I'd expect a better test would be to see if successful scientist in one field tends to stay successful when they move to a different field. In my understanding they often do.

comment by chaosmage · 2014-01-16T15:46:30.853Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree that would be a better test.

comment by itaibn0 · 2014-01-16T22:14:05.720Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Now that you acknowledge that, I should acknowledge that my understanding did not come from any hard evidence, but rather from an accumulated intuition after hearing many stories of successful scientists. This understanding can certainly turn out to be false.

comment by itaibn0 · 2014-01-16T22:13:17.184Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Now that you acknowledge that, I should acknowledge that my understanding did not come from any hard evidence, but rather from an accumulated intuition after hearing many stories of successful scientists. This understanding can certainly turn out to be false.

comment by CellBioGuy · 2014-01-16T15:44:00.390Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perhaps because those that wouldn't be successful elsewhere accurately assess that they should never move.

comment by Vaniver · 2014-01-17T15:47:41.377Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Scientists in academia have three primary jobs:

  1. Management of graduate students and postdocs.
  2. Teaching of undergraduate and graduate students.
  3. Selling their work to the scientific community.

They are typically formally trained for 0 of those jobs.

As well, academia is much more focused on individual proof of effort (and 'novelty') than on results. In companies, people work in large teams and specialize to their narrow focus, because making the best product is the primary goal; in academia, people generally do most parts of their work themselves.

Agree that blogs are a superior method of scientific progress than publishing in journals. Disagree that we need a class of super-scientists thinking great thoughts, and journeymen implementing those thoughts; this is the sort of thing that can organically evolve from the science blogosphere. Consider the Polymath Project.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-01-17T20:11:07.626Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

As well, academia is much more focused on individual proof of effort (and 'novelty') than on results. In companies, people work in large teams and specialize to their narrow focus, because making the best product is the primary goal; in academia, people generally do most parts of their work themselves.

This may have been true a hundred years ago, but it hardly seems true of academia right now. Maybe you're thinking of some specific field with these characteristics, and broadly generalizing? I feel I've been to a diverse enough set of conferences to disagree with you significantly.

Agree that blogs are a superior method of scientific progress than publishing in journals.

Also strongly disagree.

EDIT:

Disagree that we need a class of super-scientists thinking great thoughts, and journeymen implementing those thoughts; this is the sort of thing that can organically evolve from the science blogosphere. Consider the Polymath Project.

The Polymath project is exactly an example of some super-mathematicians crowd-sourcing the implementation details of their great ideas....

comment by Vaniver · 2014-01-17T22:09:00.721Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This may have been true a hundred years ago, but it hardly seems true of academia right now. Maybe you're thinking of some specific field with these characteristics, and broadly generalizing?

I should have been clearer that the claim was that industry cares more about results, less about novelty, and less about individual effort than how much academia cares about those three, not that academia strictly prefers novelty to results. I'm aware that the average number of authors per paper is increasing, and have been involved in projects with ~10 PhD physicists (plus many graduate and undergraduate students) all collaborating on experiments run on a single device, and know that when you look at astronomy or plasma physics or particle physics you find hundreds if not thousands of people working on huge experiments--but I'm under the impression that those are more government projects than they are academic projects.

The comparison I'm making is between, say, three graduate students who work together on a project and three cofounders who work together on a company. In the first group, each person is expected to produce and defend work that will stand alone with just their name on it; in the second group, each person succeeds or fails with the group. I'm not aware of any set of multiple graduate students all working together on the same project, and get the impression that many (if not most) software startups have multiple founders these days.

The Polymath project is exactly an example of some super-mathematicians crowd-sourcing the implementation details of their great ideas....

As I understood Stefan_Schubert's suggestion, we would have external agents (like grant agencies) identifying the super-scientists to think great thoughts, and the journeymen to implement them. My claim was that the external agents, and the classification system, were not necessary, but I recognize that was not worded as obviously as it could be.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2014-01-17T19:18:04.697Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Agree that blogs are a superior method of scientific progress than publishing in journals.

No way, strongly disagree.

comment by Vaniver · 2014-01-17T19:59:27.520Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

No way, strongly disagree.

Science writing should have three primary characteristics: precise, clear, and brief. It's not clear to me that blogs as a medium necessarily detract from any of those three, and the one they are most likely to detract from (brief) is the one that seems least important.

I can imagine the argument that submitting to a journal forces one to be more precise and clear; but I can also imagine the argument that without actual interaction with your audience, you cannot be sure what is precise or clear.

Peer review seems better implemented by linking and post aggregation than by anonymous judging, and criticisms made in the open seem more likely to be influential. (I've read a number of papers where a seemingly throwaway comment, if you think about it, turns out to significantly change the result of the paper- and I don't know how many people glossed over the comment without thinking about it. Starting a discussion on that point in threaded comments seems like a good solution to that.)

Most of the benefits of the journal system accrue in the future- it's easier to read old papers than it is to read old blog posts- but at tremendous cost to the present (papers generally describe work done ~3 years ago; as Krugman puts it here, linked in the OP:

Partly this was because of the long lags — by the time my most successful (though by no means best) academic paper was actually published, in 1991, there were around 150 derivative papers that I knew of, and the target zone literature was running into diminishing returns.

Compare to blogging about work currently under development, bouncing ideas off other people, getting unstuck by others, collaborating with people you never would have met otherwise.

Do you want to elaborate on what you don't like about it?

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2014-01-18T02:08:31.075Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

We should distinguish communicating established science from creating new science and from checking new science by peers.


I am sure new internet tech like wikis, reddit or /. style comment systems, online version control, dropbox, etc. is helping people create better. Blogs seem great for communicating to laypeople, and marketing your stuff.


I think the dominant forces that establish peer review as a different process from what you envision are:

(a) academics function on a dual currency: $$$ and kudos, and guard kudos jealously

(b) there are personal rivalries within fields, but we still need to get work done

(c) quality peer review takes a long time, and people often view it as a chore

I am not aware of any problem w/ journals/peer review that internet tech conclusively solves, because all these problems are either social (can't solve social problems w/ tech), or are due to the fact that proper peer review is hard and takes a long time. I reviewed a paper with a 50 page proof before.

comment by Strange7 · 2014-01-22T16:25:35.697Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

(can't solve social problems w/ tech)

Did you think about this for five minutes?

comment by [deleted] · 2014-01-17T20:28:43.031Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do you want to elaborate on what you don't like about it?

  1. The only math blog I know of worth reading is Tao's, and he's a massive outlier. Same for CS and Aaronson.
  2. LaTeX/web integration is horribly broken, and will be essentially forever.

Most of the benefits of the journal system accrue in the future - it's easier to read old papers than it is to read old blog posts- at tremendous cost to the present

Preprint archives fix this problem entirely.

The narrow field I'm currently working in is almost two years old; if Krugman were right there wouldn't be any published papers on it. Of course, there are around thirty or so.

Compare to blogging about work currently under development, bouncing ideas off other people, getting unstuck by others, collaborating with people you never would have met otherwise.

Sounds like a den of priority disputes, political drama, and other malfeasance to me. Would you rather we went back to making musicians audition in front of their judges?

comment by Vaniver · 2014-01-17T21:57:20.693Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Preprint archives fix this problem entirely.

They fix the journal publication lag problem, but not the draft writing problem, unless there are people uploading preprints with the hypotheses to experiments they haven't run yet, or with current things they're thinking about. (I know there are experiment registration systems in a handful of medical fields in order to cut down on the file drawer effect, and those seem like an okay example of this sort of thing, but I'm not aware of those in fields like physics or CS or so on.)

Sounds like a den of priority disputes, political drama, and other malfeasance to me.

Sure. But I'd rather optimize for generating knowledge quickly than for generating status in an orderly way, because I think it'll be positive on net.

Would you rather we went back to making musicians audition in front of their judges?

I think you'll have to unpack this one for me, because I'm not sure what specifically you're trying to imply and I don't want to put words in your mouth.

comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2014-01-17T17:55:40.668Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the link! Very interesting. I read the post that started the thing off, which was very good. How are they doing? A major problem must be the "who gets the credit thing", or? It seems to me that fear of theft of ideas is a major impediment to progress in science.

I agree that the academica should be more collective and cooperative. People do of course cooperate - e.g. they comment on other people's stuff on seminars, etc. - but often it is done in a quite unsystematic way. Public forums with an adequate incentive structure seems to me to be a good way of getting around this problem.

Regarding differences in capability: in my own field, philosophy, the difference in capability between researchers is just vast. Perhaps other fields are different but I doubt it. If what I am sketching concerning what you term "super-scientists and journyemen" could "evolve organically" from blog/public fora systems I'd be happy. I don't really have a take whether that is realistic at this point (perhaps I will tomorrow...).

Regarding smart people: my point was that it is probably best for science and society if they concentrate on what they do best - create great ideas - and do that on the highest possible pace. The best thing would be if they realized that themselves. Perhaps that's what Yudkowsky and other bloggers have done. Those who haven't, or have but won't act on that (perhaps they're not sufficiently altrustic) needs to be given incentives to do so, if we wish to maximize scientific progress.

I'm open for the possiblity that monetary rewards or titles aren't the best incentives (but that, e.g. peer respect is) but all-in-all I think that we do need to make use of such incentives at present.

comment by Vaniver · 2014-01-17T18:04:43.413Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

A major problem must be the "who gets the credit thing", or?

I think the credit goes to the project, and the project lists its contributors. It seems like this is done mostly (or completely) for free, like open source software, which necessitates some other source of funding (like what happens with open source software). People in the project are fairly good at figuring out how various people helped (as is the case in open source), but the further you are from the details the blurrier it gets, and most people probably overestimate their contribution by a significant amount.

If what I am sketching concerning what you term "super-scientists and journyemen" could "evolve organically" from blog/public fora systems I'd be happy.

Well, one recent example of this here might be RobbBB's Building Phenomenological Bridges, specifically this comment.

comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2014-01-17T18:17:39.688Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I see...but are they publishing lots of stuff, solving lots of problem, etc?

Thanks for the links. From the second:

"The aim is to write up open problems in Friendly AI using as little Eliezer-time as possible. It seems to be working so far."

Well that seems to be exactly what I am talking about. People here don't seem to like it, though, which surprises me a bit.

comment by Moss_Piglet · 2014-01-16T19:26:58.860Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Something which strikes me is that scientists having science as a job at all is a somewhat new idea; unless I'm wrong, it used to be that a lot of the great naturalists were either independently wealthy aristocrats and pursued scientific inquiry as a hobby, or were monks and were supported by the other brothers of their orders. On the one hand, they worked at their own paces and on topics close to their own interests (hard to imagine Mendel getting grant money, especially with his publishing rate), but on the other there are a lot of very bright people who aren't born into much money or a particularly religious bent who ought to at least consider science.

Still, I think a smart person could sort of split the difference; an ascetic or fraternal order devoted to naturalism might have some appeal and solve a few of the basic problems. New initiates could be put to work reproducing experiments which otherwise would be ignored in the rush to publish unique papers, established scientists who aren't cut out for corporate life or constant grant haggling could relax and focus on their actual jobs, the scientific community would be able to self-regulate with less direct interference by outsiders, and governments or rich individuals who want to appear smart or socially-conscious could patronize the order directly without the intermediary weirdness of setting up organizations of their own to vet applicants. There are concerns with group-think and corruption, but then again it's not like those would be novel issues given what happens in peer-reviewed journals or university departments.

Is this a terrible idea, and if not how would you sell it?

comment by MathiasZaman · 2014-01-19T17:00:18.539Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You would also need to appeal to people who aren't scientists or won't do any groundbreaking work. What kept/keeps monastic orders together was praising God, not sustaining the holy work of one individual who was best at praising God for the highest possible Praise.

Mendel probably wasn't supported by his fellow monks because he did research. He was supported by his follow monks because he was their brother and also prayed and worked with them. He just chose to spend some of his time working with beans and writing down the results.

Drawing in a supreme scientific mind might not be very hard. Drawing in all the other people to support that one person is a whole lot harder. You'd need a self-sustaining system, that produces its own food and other necessities. Monastic orders solved this problem by adding "labora" (working) to their mission of "ora" (praying). Every monk helped out to sustain his brothers by brewing beer, working in the garden... If your goal is to provide an environment where a supreme scientist can work undisturbed by earthly concerns, the other "science-monks" would need to take over his garden-duties. And I'm not sure if there is enough incentive for them to join.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-01-16T19:41:37.826Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

an ascetic or fraternal order devoted to naturalism might have some appeal and solve a few of the basic problems.

The basic problem standing in the way of people thinking deep thoughts and doing nothing else is funding, aka money. How will this fraternal order solve the money problem and if it does, what will make it different from a plain-vanilla think tank?

comment by CronoDAS · 2014-01-16T10:32:44.311Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sometimes the bottlenecks are data and money, rather than individual researcher skill. :(

comment by bokov · 2014-01-16T18:21:44.898Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The tough part will be guarding against Goodhart's Law. I suspect that the current system of publications and grant money as an indicator of ability started out as an attempt to improve the efficiency of scientific progress and has by now been thoroughly Goodharted.

As Lumifer points out, tenure was intended to give productive scientists some protected time so they could think. However, the amount of hoops you jump through on the way to getting there puts you through the opposite of protected time so by the time you get tenure you've gotten jaded, cynical, and acquired some habits useful for academic survival but harmful to academic excellence.

comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2014-01-16T19:34:09.284Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you implicitly paint a too rosy picture of researchers' psychology. I think that in many cases systems that lack sufficiently strong incentives decrease researchers' productivity because they don't have the same need to publish anymore. Most researchers are tempted by other things than science as well and if they are allowed to get away with it they might prioritize those other things.

So the current system is not quite as flawed as many of its detractors claim. We do need incentives, but they need to be tailored in a better way. Specifically, they need to be tailored so that we cram as much as possible out of our most able researchers.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-01-16T19:43:56.627Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most researchers are tempted by other things than science as well and if they are allowed to get away with it they might prioritize those other things.

I recommend whippings and an occasional gruesome execution to make sure these uppity researchers don't imagine they will be allowed to get away with it.

comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2014-01-16T20:31:16.729Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Lol. I don't think there should be anything controversial with the notion that researchers need incentives though - the same goes for other professions. Some incentives are counter-productive but that does not mean that the best system is one in which researchers are given the same funding whatever their output is.

comment by Nornagest · 2014-01-16T20:05:55.599Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"In this country, we find it wise to hang a professor from time to time to encourage the others."

comment by shminux · 2014-01-17T22:24:47.471Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If what you suggest is true, then research-oriented institutions with permanent employment, like the Institute for Advanced Study and the Perimeter Institute should be comparatively much more productive than the University Departments similar in size, skills and scope. I wonder if someone measured it.

comment by asr · 2014-01-17T22:52:20.613Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If what you suggest is true, then research-oriented institutions with permanent employment, like the Institute for Advanced Study and the Perimeter Institute should be comparatively much more productive than the University Departments similar in size, skills and scope. I wonder if someone measured it.

Richard Hamming, who was a prominent and successful scientist -- qualified to judge academic productivity -- famously argued the reverse. His comment was "The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, in my opinion, has ruined more good scientists than any institution has created, judged by what they did before they came and judged by what they did after. Not that they weren't good afterwards, but they were superb before they got there and were only good afterwards "

The explanation is that being in contact with undergrads and grad students forces you to work on and think about a lot of small problems -- and that you're more likely to have a big result if you go looking for small ones, rather than trying to work only on very hard problems.

[Via http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/YouAndYourResearch.html]

comment by [deleted] · 2014-01-25T20:02:43.315Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

but they were superb before they got there and were only good afterwards "

Regression to the mean, anyone?

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2014-01-16T18:46:15.985Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good post. I was just talking to Luke the other day, and wondering why is it that the more senior a researcher becomes, the more (s)he resembles a manager.


Different professors earn roughly as much, have roughly the same social standing,

Probably true for salary, not necessarily true for social standing: superstars are much more highly regarded.

comment by luminosity · 2014-01-17T13:05:30.142Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

wondering why is it that the more senior a researcher becomes, the more (s)he resembles a manager.

It's not the only profession where this is the case. Programming is notorious for having no career progression after your first decade unless you want to get into management and stop or slow programming activity.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-01-17T15:57:21.330Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Programming is notorious for having no career progression after your first decade unless you want to get into management

That, of course, assumes the understanding of "career progression" as climbing the ranks ladder in a hierarchical organization.

comment by asr · 2014-01-18T20:16:31.874Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In most sciences, there will normally at any given point be a lot of such problems which are too hard for most scientists, but solvable by a few really smart people.

If this picture - rather an elitist one - is right, what are the consequences for policy? It seems to me that the most obvious consequence is that we need to make sure that the most talented people's time is spent in a rational way. Firstly, it does not seem to me that they should spend time teaching students - their time is far too valuable for that. Overall, it's a bit strange that researchers are expected to teach since they really are two quite different jobs.

Let me offer an alternate conclusion. We don't have enough talented scientists to go around. Therefore, our highest priority should be inspiring and training more top-notch scientists. And that means that when somebody is known to be good, we should (A) put them in front of a room to inspire young people, and (B) have them work closely with junior scientists so that the younger scientists can see how very talented people think about problems.

There's a number of scientists who have had a whole string of phenomenally successful graduate students. In physics for instance, John Wheeler had a string of excellent students (including Feynman, Thorne, and Unruh.) Likewise, Dennis Sciama advised Hawking, Rees, David Deutsch, and more. In computer science, people like David Patterson and John McCarthy have had similar influence.

We don't really know how to teach or create scientific brilliance, and so the best we have is to take promising junior people, have them work as assistants to somebody really good, and hope that they pick up some of the habits and thought patterns that worked for their advisor.

Let me put down some evidence, instead of just-so-stories. Different countries do this differently. Europe, more than the United States, goes in for research institutes with paid professional staff and no students. The Max Plank Institutes, INRIA, and so forth, are a much bigger part of the European scientific system than the national laboratories are in the US. We, instead, have much more funding directed to academic faculty who combine their research with undergraduate teaching and graduate advising. My sense is that the US model is at least as effective, and maybe more so. It certainly is not a serious handicap to American science.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2014-01-19T07:52:08.336Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I like the Max Plank system a lot. I think the US would benefit by copying it.

comment by asr · 2014-01-19T16:20:26.382Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I like the Max Plank system a lot. I think the US would benefit by copying it.

I have no direct personal experience with it. What do you like about it? What benefits do you think it offers and what are the drawbacks?

comment by Curiouskid · 2014-01-18T16:44:32.237Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you haven't already, you should read Michael Nielsen's posts on open science. His book "Reinventing Discovery" has been discussed on LW before. Also, the polymath wiki has a lot of different posts on improving science.

There are lots of other resources on improving science that I've come across (and am still synthesizing). I think the links above are the best writings I've found on the subject.

Another interesting link.

I got my PhD and looked at my options. I love differential geometry, general relativity, and particle physics. But the only options available then for a postdoc in those combined areas were in string theory, and I thought string theory was overly speculative. There are many really impressive aspects of strings — anomaly cancelation in particular — but there are other things that just seem wild and physically unsubstantiated. I had gotten lucky by investing my graduate stipend in a little company many thought was going out of business (AAPL), so I decided to go to Maui, learn to windsurf, and work on physics on my own

Science Hostels:

The physical requirements for conducting scholarly research have changed dramatically with the rise of the internet. It is now viable for researchers with laptop computers to work autonomously – with access to current articles and communication channels on par with the resources available at large universities. These new circumstances motivate the creation of a new kind of research enterprise: a Science Hostel. By providing places to live and work with other researchers, in beautiful locations, a Science Hostel could increase creative productivity and overall quality of life for scholars in the internet age.[45]

EDIT: Here's a link to another related LW post.

comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2014-01-18T18:55:55.896Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Many thanks for the links! I did read some of Nielsen's stuff yesterday (via a link someone else posted here), which I find very interesting. I'll continue to look into this.

This stuff is very important: as Bostrom points out in this article - http://www.nickbostrom.com/views/science.pdf - you can probably do more for the world if you're a really succesful "meta-scientists" (who improves the methods or institutions of science) than you can do if you're a really succesful "first-order scientist" (e.g. physicist). Given that the present institutions of science are far from ideal, as I see it, there is much room for improvement here.

Science hostels - what a lovely idea! :)

comment by Creutzer · 2014-01-16T16:39:31.831Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Trying to incentivise researchers to be productive by paying them more at first glance seems likely to exacerbate the publish-or-perish mentality and the production of lots of mediocre research in an attempt to appear productive, no? And if you're not trying to incentivise them, what are you paying them more for? I assume you're not operating on some concept of "merit".

I'm inclined to agree with ChristianKI's impression that it would be more conducive to science to give people the security to think in quiet by guaranteeing them a basic livelihood.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-01-16T16:45:51.600Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

it would be more conducive to science to give people the security to think in quiet by guaranteeing them a basic livelihood.

Isn't that precisely what tenure is?

comment by Creutzer · 2014-01-16T18:38:01.182Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, tenure is something that guarantees a livelihood to some allegedly existing academics over 45 years of age... Everybody else has to live on temporary positions.

comment by CronoDAS · 2014-01-16T09:42:29.823Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Firstly, it does not seem to me that they should spend time teaching students - their time is far too valuable for that. Overall, it's a bit strange that researchers are expected to teach since they really are two quite different jobs.

I think the idea is that they're the only ones expert enough to be able to teach their subjects.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2014-01-16T09:56:21.825Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That would make sense if what they teach = what they research. But often they also have to teach some more simple and already known stuff.

comment by CronoDAS · 2014-01-16T10:30:19.633Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, I suppose that's one good thing about more courses being taught by adjuncts and graduate students...