Why Science is slowing down, Universities and Maslow's hierarchy of needs

post by George (George3d6) · 2020-02-15T20:39:36.559Z · LW · GW · 24 comments

Contents

    
    
  So why do these people attend university ?
    
    Research is slowing down on measurable metrics
    Progress is not made by universities
    Things we can’t even imagine
    The finer things are not the work of universities
    New departments opening up in areas parallel to self-actualization
  Is there self-actualization to be found ?
None
24 comments

I don’t have a very high prior in regards to the correctness of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, but as far as general theories for understanding human needs go, I think it’s a pretty good.



There’s certainly people who seem to go strongly against it, to the point where they only require self actualization or where they are perfectly happy in life with only their physiological needs needs barely meet.

BUT

For all of the exceptions, most people, even exceptional people, seem to roughly live their life in accordance to it.

The gradual passage into adulting can be pretty daunting for people, even for well adjusted people with loving parents that can maintain a comfortable standard of living, for this reason. Gradually you are expected to find “safety” (i.e. financial stability, a house, a safe place to live) and “belonging” partially on your own.

Enter universities, the role of institutes of higher education in a well adjusted society should arguably be pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. Before they would also constitute a repository of information by maintaining huge libraries and people that could navigate them, but today we have the internet, .txt, .latex, .pdf, search engines and decent 10TB HDDs that sell for 100-200$ with tax, so I think it’s safe to say that role can now be played pretty cheaply.

So, universities now remain a places that educated and help people to navigate and enlarge the boundaries of human knowledge.

The recognition and most of all self satisfaction given by extending said boundaries is pretty great (or so I hear). So I think it’s safe to say that this role is one to be pursued by people that feel the needs on step 5 and possibly 4 of the pyramid.

BUT

In turn this is a process that requires a great deal of effort, dedication and intelligence, things that are hard to find and hard to direct for anyone that hasn’t fulfilled steps 1, 2 and 3 pretty well. Again, exceptions exist, but for basically all people it’s much easier to think about food, sex, friends and not dying than it is to think about novel bioreactors for producing cheap recombinant DNA vaccines or n-dimensional non Euclidean spaces… we can’t help it, it’s kinda the way we are evolved.

You can try to become a mental hermit and just not care about any of that, but I’m yet to see any evidence of that working, not perfectly at any rate. Even when you look at the clinically insane, they still want food and friends first and foremost, whatever the voices say is usually secondary to eating breakfast.

Conversely, think of the following recipe:

Where exactly are there needs going to fall in Maslow's hierarchy.

So why do these people attend university ?

Why did the trend start is a complex issue with many political implications.

Why does the trend hold is a much simpler issues, because universities now mainly cater to step 2 and 3 of the hierarchy.

This is arguably bad because being a jack of all trade seldom works, and we have a whole society built to cater to the first steps and are in desperate need of entities that can help us with the last.

Even more so, because universities were never intended to do this and are thus kinda bad it. What they are good at however, is giving is:

a) A false sense of future security in order to fulfill 2 (E.g. The 100,000% + 2% yearly interest debt you took in order to study modern literature will pay of in the long run when you hit the market and everyone is awed by the achievement only you and 70% of the people your age were able to attain).

b) A false sense of current security in order to fulfill 2, provided by the fact that you are living on credit and can thus afford a more expensive lifestyle than the one you can afford once you’re done.

c) A community that help towards 3, except for the fact that this community is one you will have to leave in 4 years, unless you pay even more money or manage to obtain a paid position (which, let’s be honest, usually requires you taking the gamble and paying more money to get a masters degree). Not to mention this is not the community you grew up in, so for some people connecting with it becomes harder.

BUT

Even if you assume that I am wrong in assuming a, b and c. After all there’s a surprising lack of studies (aka 0 that I could find, and I dug for them a lot) with titles around the lines of “Economic value of university degree when controlling for IQ, time lost and student debt”. The few studies I can find that look at the relevant datapoints (e.g. http://ftp.iza.org/dp8235.pdf) don’t have good enough that to disentangle them.

Note: If you know of any relevant studies on this topic, please please please email them to me at george@cerebralab.com and I shall add them here no matter their findings.

But again, even if you assume I’m wrong, that still leave us with universities that struggle to optimize for 2, 3 and maybe 4, losing out on 5 in the process.

At least I would argue that universities are losing out on 5 in the process. I think this is hard to prove conclusively, but I do have a few angels of attack for prove this.

1. Research is slowing down on measurable metrics

For one, there’s clear evidence that measurable metrics for progress are going down: https://web.stanford.edu/~chadj/IdeaPF.pdf.

The number of transistors we can fit on a similarly sized cheap is increasing more slowly, in spite of the fact that new researchers engage with the problem.

Progress on lifespan extension is slowing down in spite the number of researchers and publications increasing.

Crop yield is increasing only slightly if at all, in spite of the fact that there’s an exponential increase in people that are supposed to work on this subject.

… etc

For a good tear-down of this study (i.e. the counter perspective of what I’m advocating here, I strongly recommend this review.

2. Progress is not made by universities

Looking at a single university, say Oxford, it’s financing seems like something that could accomplish amazing things.

It’s last reported 1-year expenditure is 2.5 billion dollars.

This might not seem like a lot, until you compare it with companies innovating in private industry.

For reference, the budget of SpaceX, for it’s first 10 years of operation was ~1 billion dollars. Considering that after those first 10 years SpaceX build and launches it’s first rocket models. It should also be noted that most of that money cam from contracts that paid in advance, rather than funding. Most of that money seems to have come for private for-profit contract though.

So in a worst case scenario it costs ~100$ million dollars to found SpaceX, in a best case scenario (where we assume the contracts they got were not unfairly earned) it costs ~40$ million.

In other words, it would cost Oxford University (note: not all of Oxford, this doesn’t include the colleges) 1.6% to 4% of it’s yearly spending to fund the most promising program humanity ever had for colonizing space.

It would cost less than what one single large university has filled under “Others” in it’s expense tab, to fund a program that has significant potential in sending people to fucking Mars.

That’s self actualizing, expanding the human race throughout the cosmos. That’s a level 5 need, that’s what people that “want more” in life should do.

So considering that this is one 9-digits university and there exist hundreds of them. Are they really doing something more important than this ? Is it really not the best ROI for self-actualization institutions to jointly spend 0.x% of their budget to help colonize space.

Maybe Space Exploration is not where it’s at… but where is it at, where do we break the boundaries.

Machine Learning ?

Most innovation (e.g. Transformer, practical RL systems, Residual Learning) seems to come from DeepMind, GoogleBrain, OpenAI, Microsoft Research and other privately founded ventures.

What about the libraries that we need to do all this stuff ?

It’s hard to go by actual papers published, since it’s hard to rank paper importance, but looking at the tools it’s mostly free contributions and private industry.

3. Things we can’t even imagine

But maybe what’s being created inside the halls of universities shouldn’t be judged by what we already know we can do (e.g. traveling to other planets) or by progress on metrics we’ve had for a long time and which can be improved with market funding (e.g. all the ones in point 1).

Maybe it should be innovating in ways with an even longer profit-horizon or lower chances of success.

What about human immortality ? Or at least increasing healthy lifespan past the 100-110 years barrier that seems to be the limit of the human species ? Surely this is transcendental if there ever was such a thing, surely trying to beat death itself is self actualization.

So… ? Where are all the university longevity focused departments. Where do I sign up to research reversing the shrinking process of the thymus ? Or researching viral vectors to evenly spread SC promoting co-factors to damage tissue ? Or senolitics drugs ? Or… you know, that kind of stuff.

Hmh, there’s like 10 tiny biotech startups doing that you say ? And this tiny non-profit called SENS ran by this gandalf guy ? And some crazy Russians that want to build robot bodies ?

4. The finer things are not the work of universities

But there’s more ways to self actualize, one can produce beautiful philosophy, music, books, games… works of art, works dealing with the human nature.

So, let’s look at philosophy, we have a whole “crisis of meaning” going on, sure could use some psychologists and philosopher dealing with that, there seems to be a lot of self actualizing to be had there, being the savior of societies struck by doubt and depression.

Let’s say Opioid crisis and the hikikomori phenomenon, those are pretty representative of the broader issue…

And now for something literally nobody cares about:

But hey… you can rest in peace knowing that there’s over 160,365 results relating to Marxist Analysis, that’s ought to fix something… right ? https://www.jstor.org/action/doBasicSearch?Query=marxist+analysis.

What about music ?

There’s hundreds of conservatories and music schools in the US, yet if you look at the people that pushed the envelope on music in the 20th century, that re-defined what we call music… we see, what ?

People from poor villages in the South of the US, residents the slums of cities like NY and New Orleans, British teenagers that took acids and got hold of some fourth-hand instruments. These are not the kind of people that attended conservatories, the people that put the foundations to blues and jazz often didn’t know how to properly read and write, let alone read music, let alone afford to go to a conservatory.

I’d go into modern art and architecture but even I don’t enjoy beating dead horses that much.

5. New departments opening up in areas parallel to self-actualization

I’m so glad my family is here as a lay dying, I had a lovely life and I’m glad all of you are here and if there’s one last wish I have, is for you my children to collect my notes and make sure that my master-piece on SEO and Wordpress advertising is finalized and published.

Finally, I think self-actualization is rather hard to define, but I certainly think there are fields where one can’t find it. Things like marketing, sales, tech support, accounting. These are all things society needs for better or worst, but these are “safe” profession, people do them because they want financial safety, because they don’t want to or can’t put in the hard work.

And I don’t blame them, be an accountant, be a car salesman. What you do for a living is not what defines you. For most people self-actualizing might more be about raising happy children than about the discoveries they make.

But again, what are universities doing here if they care about self actualizing ?

Why have a major in sales, marketing, customer relationships, tourism or accounting ? There’s nothing to be found here, there’s no progress for humanity to make, no fame, no glory, no near-universal ethical obligation to do better.

If a good were to snap his fingers and all of those departments were to suddenly vanish not one speck of dust would differ when the archeologists of 3020 dig us up.

Is there self-actualization to be found ?

I think so, look at things like the human genome project for one example of that.

I’m not so crazy as to claim the remnants of the edifice of evidence-based understanding of the world that is still supported by universities is for nothing.

But that’s the problem, universities are still doing a lot of good in fulfilling the 5th rank of the hierarchy of needs. If they weren’t, we could just ignore the whole system, after all we don’t complain about sales pyramid schemes and expect of them to change… because the whole edifice was corrupt to being with.

Universities are slowly being devoured by rent-seeking pyramid schemes that take children out of their comfortable environments and give them short-term solutions to fulfill their more basic needs.

However there’s still enough self-actualization to be found that a lot of people that actually seek that go there. That’s the problem, those two things don’t mix, you can’t have an institution focused on lying to people about how if they just take loans to give them money (or pay higher taxes in the future in order for governments to fund them, as is the case in Western Europe).

I think this might be caused by the fact that universities want to expand, the fact is that institutions for self-actualizing through science and art are,by definition, going to be niche.

Most people don’t want to be remembered for their works in unveiling the mysteries of the world, they want to be remembered as a good father, or as that one guy that made the best sausages in Genericsmalltown. The only way to get them to attend universities in the first place is to promise them fulfillment of more basic needs.

Maybe the reason why a vast majority of people going to universities in ages past were nobles and few select gifted people was not because the system was unfair, but because those are the only people that need a self-actualization institution. People that already have their basic needs mostly fulfilled, or that are passionate enough about a subject that it becomes a basic needs for them to study it, people where self-actualization somehow hops from rank 5 to rank 2.

However, for now, we are in a weird spot. Where the institutions that are supposed to cater to the higher needs of a few intelligent people, who fulfilled this service well and with great benefit to society, are systematically being forced to instead cater to the basic needs of everyone.

Thus we have a loss-loss scenario. If you are the kind of person that would actually do well being a philosophy professor or a research physicist you either have to find your own way in life with little scaffolding or go to an institution that’s not made for you. If you are the kind of person that doesn’t care much for science or art or philosophy, you are feed systematic lies and presented and economic system that still somewhat values university degrees…. So you go to a place you dislike in order to fulfill basic needs that said place was not designed to fulfill.

The default hypothesis here would be that the current system continues along just fine, with private enterprise taking more and more of the role of higher education.

The other scenario if you trust in people being somewhat-rational agents and believe ideas like those presented by Bryan Caplan in The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money. Is that universities start leaking money very fast and collapse once people stop attending at current rates, leaving a societal dent that might be hard to fill. I think there’s some evidence to believe this since university attendance rates in the US have been dropping since around 2010, but I very much doubt this.

The best case scenario is that either due to economic pressures or due to realizing their own faults universities downscale, and become institutions of self-actualization again. However, this would rely upon the idea that a large institution can be reduced in size slowly rather than just implode… If you play with those kind of odds then you probably haven't read about Pascal's Mugging.

24 comments

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comment by lionhearted · 2020-02-16T13:42:26.410Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Great post.

To one small point:

>After all there’s a surprising lack of studies (aka 0 that I could find, and I dug for them a lot) with titles around the lines of “Economic value of university degree when controlling for IQ, time lost and student debt”.

I'm reminded of Upton Sinclair's quote,

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

comment by George (George3d6) · 2020-02-16T14:28:28.391Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was alluding to that.

But at the same time, I'm pretty sure the simpler explanation might apply and people just don't understand why this study would be valuable + IQ is a sensitive topic, thus the material is hard to find.

Hence why I said I will post any studies anyone finds, I have a pretty high prior that a few exist and I'm just not seeing them.

I have a low prior they will show anything else other than "University is indeed confounded by IQ and/or IQ + income in money earning potential", but alas I based that on small-sample empirical evidence... so, eh.

comment by lionhearted · 2020-02-19T12:59:45.693Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Agreed.

>I have a low prior they will show anything else other than "University is indeed confounded by IQ and/or IQ + income in money earning potential"

Probably also confounded by...

Networks (if you inherited a lot of social connections from your upbringing, university is less useful);

Exposure to certain types of ideas (we take the scientific method and "De Omnibus Dubitandum" for granted but there's people that only get these ideas first at university);

And most interestingly, whether particular institutions are good at helping students on rare habit formation (eg, MIT seems almost uniquely exceptional at inculcating "tinker with things quickly once you get an early understanding of them").

Actually, that last point — rare habit formation — might be where the lower Maslow's Hierarchy and higher Maslow's Hierarchy needs could meet each other. Alas, this seems an underexplored area that's arguably going in the wrong direction at many institutions...

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-02-17T13:36:51.548Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most of the features you list of the university experience are not universals of university experience. In Berlin where I live plenty of people don't change their living situation when they enter university and there's also no student debt attached to it.

If you think those factors matter a lot, what outcomes do you expect to be better in a country like Germany?

comment by George (George3d6) · 2020-02-18T06:26:37.579Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think German upper education is hardest to pick on, partially because:

a) A small % of the population attends higher education relative to other countries at the income level: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_tertiary_education_attainment

b) From my knowledge a lot of what is called "tertiary education" in Germany is basically just a practical 1-2 year professional course that people can get before they're even through grade 12

c) Anyone living in big cities does indeed experience less environmental change when attending university, though I wouldn't call it close to zero, unless you happen to live next to the university and unless a lot of your high school friends attend the same university (though again, it could be argued that you get to keep your friend group, since they also live in <insert big city>

d) https://www.bbx.de/grossnet-wage-calculator-germany/ -- There's no student debt attached to it, but as I mentioned for European institutions in general, debts is analogous economically to the higher taxes one has to pay. Though indeed the "mental" effects of having that debt is non-existent (maybe partially analogous in that it makes "blue collar" professions seems less appealing ? since people end up paying > 50% of their paycheck and thus might value comfort over money more, and university is basically 4 years of comfort that promises future comfortable jobs, whereas in the American model one could work a trade job starting at 16-18 and easily retire at 40.... but I think that's stretching it, I doubt most students are even aware that taxes are a thing)

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-02-18T07:49:32.585Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As far as c) goes, if your intention is to live right next the university you would have to move. Practically, where I live most people don't move next to university. That in turn means that you also don't gain the social benefits of having your fellow students live next to you.

It seems that your comment tries to take it apart by looking at whether you like the way the system is designed and not by looking at effects of it. That means instead of trying to see whether what you are seeing is true, you expand on your ideas of how things should be.

comment by George (George3d6) · 2020-02-18T13:34:46.008Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
It seems that your comment tries to take it apart by looking at whether you like the way the system is designed and not by looking at effects of it. That means instead of trying to see whether what you are seeing is true, you expand on your ideas of how things should be.

What exactly should my reply contain ?

As in, my argument in the original post is basically:

a) Universities evolved to install and provide primary needs (safety and social circle) instead of a more niche need for self-actualization

b) Research is slowing down overall, it could partially be because universities no longer focus on self-actualization and instead focus on providing safety and a social circle.

What I was basically saying is that I'm not sure if a applies to German universities, as in, I agree that they are probably less-so incentivized to focus on providing safety and a social circle.

I have no idea if b applies or not, as in, I'm not sure how well German universities have been doing and it's hard to measure their progress since the 30s and 40s obviously had a pretty huge negative effect on the whole upper education system.

I do overall think the example of German universities specifically (and Austrian ones, to some extent), because there's so many of them and many of them are vocation-focused specifically, giving a place to go for people that just want security, not a place in academia, is a good counter to my ideas here.

But also, my knowledge of the German education system is so poor overall, that I can't really make very specific claims here.

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-02-18T13:45:32.479Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you believe that overall research slow down is happening to factors that apply in the US but don't apply in Germany, then the logical conclusion would be that Germany should have a higher research output.

To the extend that you are interested in knowing whether your thesis is true, it would make sense to check. Rationality is not just about making plausible claims but also investigating whether they might be true.

comment by George (George3d6) · 2020-02-18T14:12:51.066Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
To the extend that you are interested in knowing whether your thesis is true, it would make sense to check.

How would I specifically go about checking this though ? As in, I do have data and knowledge on US and UK universities, I don't have data on Germany Universities.

If you have data on German university research output, then I think it's worth looking at, if not, I feel like what you're basically doing is saying: "Hey, you don't have data on this specific thing, it might go either way, your hypothesis is null and void".

Provided data on German universities existed, why not ask for data about every single country with universities.

You could argue "Well, you should become an expert in the field and have all possible data handy before making any claims", but then that claim would invalidate literally every single original thought on LessWrong that uses facts and even most academic papers.

Also, German Universities constitute a pretty bad example in my opinion, as in:

a) Murdering, exiling or routing out your highest IQ demographic and most public intellectuals

b) Having the rest taken away by the US, Russia and UK

c) Living for dozens of years in a country that's been morally, geographically and culturally divided ravaged by WW2 (plus 1/3 of it living under a brutal~ish communist dictatorship)

Would make for a pretty weird outlier in all of this no matter what.

As in, if we were to compare other rich academic systems I'd rather do Japan, Italy, France, Spain or Switzerland

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-02-18T14:53:19.976Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My complaint is that you don't look at whether countries that are differently effected by the factors you list actually do differently on research output. If you don't do that I think it's hard know whether on of the factors you list is indeed causal for the result.

comment by George (George3d6) · 2020-02-18T18:44:24.361Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What exactly do you mean by "the factors I listed" though ?

As in, I think that my basic argument goes:

"There's reason to think most kids would feel unsafe in a college environment, desire a social circle and job security, not the kind of transcendent self-actualization style goals that fuel research". I think this generally holds for anyone at the age of 18-22 outside of outlier, hence why I cited the pyramid of needs, because the research behind that basically points to us needing different things in an age-correlated way (few teenagers feel like they need self actualization). I think this is somewhat exaggerated in the US because of debt&distance but should be noticeable everywhere.

Next, there's reason to believe research inside universities is slowing down in certain areas, I have no reason to believe the lack of people desiring self-actualization is the cause for this though, except for a gut feeling that self-actualization is a better motivation to research nature than, say, wanting your paycheck at the end of the day. Most famous researcher seem to have been slightly crazy and not driven by societal goals but rather by an inner wish to "set things right" in one way or another, or to leave a mark on the world"

So basically, the best I can do to "prove" any of this would be something like:

  • Take some sort of comparative research output metric, these are hard to find, and are going to be very confounded with country-wealth (some examples: https://www.natureindex.com/country-outputs/generate/Nature%20&%20Science/global/All/score) ... "small socialist countries" produce a surprising amount of researcher per capita, but maybe that's something inherent to being a small rich country, not to have stronger communities and social support.
  • See if this correlates with % of the population working, quality of social security, some index measuring security, some index measuring happiness. Assume more research will come out of countries that perform well on this.

This will generally be true in terms of research, publications, books... etc (see Switzerland, Netherlands, Sweeden, Norway, Iceland... which seem to have a disproportionate amount of e.g. nature publications in report to the population), but you will also get outliers (see Israel, which produced a lot of research even dozens of years back when professors&students would be called on a yearly basis to fight to death against an out-numbering enemy that wanted to murder them).

However, you can't **** draw conclusion from numbers of publications, and things such as "security index" and "happiness index" and even "quality of social security" are very hard to measure. Plus, they are confounded by the wealth of the country.

On the other hand, there's good data on the idea that research is slowing down overall, that is much easier to place on "universities as a whole", since by all metrics is seems that research is heavily correlated with academia (see, where most researchers work, where the people that get noble prizes work ... etc).

So making the general assumption, of "research is slowing down" is much easier than doing the correlation on a per country basis.

If you can claim there is a valid way to measure basic needs that has a per-country statistic, and a various way to measure "research output" on a per country basis... than I'd be very curios in seeing that, I can even run an analysis based on various standard methods to see if there's a correlation.

So the generic claim "kids are not researcher and don't want to be researcher, universities can't do multiple things at once better than doing one thing, thus if universities have to take care of kids they will have less time to focus on actual research" is easy to look at wholistically, but harder to look at on a per-country basis.

Impossible ? I don't think so

Worthwhile ? I don't know. As in, this whole article is closer to "here's an interesting perspective, say, one that might warrant thinking about, when doing research" rather than "here's a factual claim about how stuff works". To make it any better, it would have to be elevated to a factual claim, but then I would basically have to trust the kind of analysis mentioned above (which again, I think would be impossible to run and get significant results since all the metrics I can think of are very leaky).

Honestly, it might have been a better perspective to approach this topic, I might even try to see if there's relevant data on the subject and update the article if there is, barring that, I literally don't see how this sort of hunch + basic evidence about generic human psychology plus observing a trend opinion piece differs from anything here. Maybe I've been misjudging the epistemic strength of the claims being seen in article around here... in which case, ahm... "sorry ?", but also, I don't really see your argument here.

Yes, assuming magical data fell out of the sky or our time to gather data was infinite every single piece of human thought could be improved, but I'm not sure why the stopping condition for this article would be "analysis comparing countries"... as opposed to any other random goalpost.

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-02-21T16:34:04.584Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I cited the pyramid of needs, because the research behind that basically points to us needing different things in an age-correlated way

The research behind it says that the pyramid is not how humans work. Maslow created it in a non-data driven way and researchers that did try to support the thesis with data failed.

It can be sometimes used as a decent fake framework but if you treat it as a theory that's research based you are basing your argument on quicksand.

comment by Mitchell_Porter · 2020-02-22T02:38:46.675Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can you provide references, specify what's wrong with Maslow's hierarchy, and/or supply a superior model?

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-02-22T09:15:19.875Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Viktor Frankl found that the need for self-actualization or meaning was strong in internment which in-turn links to d world war where the basic needs often weren't fulfilled and decided about who made it out alive.

When it comes to the claim that the hierarchy doesn't exist, Wikipedia links to the Atlantic which inturn links to Louis Tay et al which says:

In addition, the associations of SWB [subjective well being] with the fulfillment of specific needs were largely independent of whether other needs were fulfilled.
comment by shminux · 2020-02-15T23:31:02.385Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Universities are the Easter Island statues.

comment by gjm · 2020-02-16T01:26:39.228Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So the usual story about Easter Island is that construction and transportation of the statues used up all their palm trees, and the island's ecosystem depended on the palm trees, so they starved to death or something. (I think there's some doubt about whether that's actually right, but it's a plausible enough story and a useful analogy even if it turns out not to be literally true.)

What resource are universities in danger of consuming all of?

Money? US spending on universities seems to be on the order of a couple of percent of GDP.

Researcher time? Even supposing that university research is worthless, there's a lot of research being done by corporate R&D departments, and OP here gives some examples to suggest that some of it's pretty good. (And, for what it's worth, I don't find it plausible that university research is worthless, though no doubt some of it is.)

Students' youth? Even supposing that time spent at university is worthless, it's only a few years per person. (And, for what it's worth, I don't find it plausible that time spent at university is worthless. I know that at university I both had fun and learned things I am still glad to know; maybe I was exceptionally lucky but I don't know of any good reason to think so.)

comment by George (George3d6) · 2020-02-16T12:54:13.037Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Students' youth? Even supposing that time spent at university is worthless, it's only a few years per person.

Is that period not important though ?

As en, even assuming universities are not "magical tower that remove 4 years of life to validate IQ > 100 and conscientiousness in the 80th percentile, you could hardly argue what they teach is perfect.

But those "few years" are basically the most critical years of development we have, as in, the brain is developed enough to actually do stuff yet still plastic.

I won't go into myelination, because I'm lazy and finding good references is hard, as far as I know Giedd has a few studies on grey matter changes that everyone cites, but maybe there's better references:

https://www.pnas.org/content/101/21/8174

Gist of it is: We loss neuronal bodies as we age starting around the age of 5. The loss doesn't happen in the prefrontal cortex until we enter our teens and seems to keep happening until the reach 20.

I don't know of any good studies going after 20, there's a lot of meh studies and if you aggregate them you get this: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3004040/ (see fig2 and fig3). Though note that many of these use secondary markers or rather oudated imaging methods and basically nobody is doing brain byopsies on living humans... best you can get is DV-MRI and FMRI and postmortem biopsies (which is probably very biased, because only the very poor or the very educated will be fine with their recently dead child's brain being quickly removed and analyzed for the sake of neuroscience... come to think of it, the other 2 probably are too, either in the same way or by selecting for people with mental disorders)

This process is roughly associated with pruning, essentially making networks more efficient and/or optimizing for resource consumption. This goes in tandem with myelination: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3982854/

I.e. If a neuron is not pruned, the likelihood of it's various axons being heavily myelinated is increased and vice versa.

So now, assume that the front-cortex is indeed "what makes us different from animals", what gives us most of our ability to be intelligent in the two math and write and gather evidence part.

Assume that people with pruned cortexes are indeed noticeably smarter in everything related to engineering/science (think people in the 10+ age range vs people in the 10< age range).

Assume that indeed the studies above are true and take into account the fact that we have empirical cultural evidence (see stereotypes of learning new things as people age, underpayment of older workers in non-tenure thinking related jobs like programming and accounting, can't teach a dog new tricks... etc).

I think these are all pretty safe assumption, not true in the sense of scientific truth in physics, but true in the sense of "safe to operate using them as a rough guidelines", or at least if they are not based on your model, then I also invite you to throw out all of psychology with them.

Youth is indeed very important, the 15-25 +/- 3 year age range is critical for the development required to be a scientists, engineer, doctor or any other profession where unusual intelligence is required.

So University time might be "only 3 or 4 year per person", though let's be honest thins like med school take 6 to 10 depending on location and an alarming number of people are putting in an extra 1-3 years getting a masters. But those are 3-10 years of a person's most valuable time in life as far as brain plasticity.

<And yes, one could make the same argument about high school, but that would basically be arguing that high schools serve the triple role of counter-biasing aggressive tendencies in people that would otherwise basically be criminals, cultural indoctrination and learning... and that's a much more taboo argument to make so I'm not making it>

***

That's just answering your question though, it's not the point I'm making in the article, the point of the article is that universities basically have a lot of signaling power for "If you are smart and want to self-actualize this is the place". So if you want to think in terms of scarce resource being wasted, that's the way I'd have put it there, universities are wasting critical signaling mechanisms.

comment by gjm · 2020-02-16T13:11:17.722Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree that you can make a case that sending a lot of people to university is wasteful; maybe you can make a case that sending anyone to university is wasteful (though, for what it's worth, that feels entirely wrong to me). But shminux was making a different claim: that our universities are so wasteful that they imperil our civilization's survival. That claim seems absurdly overblown to me.

Yes, the age at which people go to university is a good age for learning new things. That would be why people of that age are often encouraged to go off to a place designed for learning new things: a university.

Maybe just getting a job will (on average) actually result in learning more valuable things, but frankly I don't see any reason to believe that. (More things valuable for becoming a cog in someone else's industrial machine, maybe, though even that isn't obvious.)

Maybe all young people (or at least all fairly bright young people?) should be trying to start their own businesses, but again I see no reason to believe that either. Starting a business is hard; most new businesses fail; most 18-year-olds lack knowledge and experience that would greatly improve their chances of starting a successful business. (There are other reasons why I think this would be a bad idea, but since I'm not even sure it's what you have in mind I'll leave it there.)

Maybe the learning people currently do at universities, or the learning they're meant to be doing at universities, or whatever other learning should replace it, should be done "in the background" while they are working a job; but I see no reason to think that's even possible in most cases. Their jobs are likely to be too demanding in time, effort and mental focus. For sure some people can do it, but if you want it to be the general case then I'd like to see evidence that it's feasible.

Maybe we need different ways of optimizing 18-20-year-olds' lives for learning new and valuable things. I'd be interested to see concrete proposals. An obvious question I hope they'd address: why expect that in practice this will end up better than universities?

comment by lionhearted · 2020-02-16T13:47:06.534Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Apprenticeship seems promising to me. It's died out in most of the world, but there's still formal apprenticeship programs in Germany that seem to work pretty well.

Also, it's a surprisingly common position among very successful people I know that young people would benefit from 2 years of national service after high school. It wouldn't have to be military service — it could be environmental conservation, poverty relief, Peace Corps type activities, etc.

We actually have reasonable control groups for this both in countries with mandatory national service and the Mormon Church, whom the majority of their members go on a 2-year mission. I haven't looked at hard numbers or anything, but my sense is that both countries with national service and Mormons tend to be more successful than similar cohorts that don't undergo such experiences.

comment by George (George3d6) · 2020-02-16T13:19:39.925Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Maybe just getting a job will (on average) actually result in learning more valuable things, but frankly I don't see any reason to believe that. (More things valuable for becoming a cog in someone else's industrial machine, maybe, though even that isn't obvious.)

Ok, well I certainly wouldn't argue that a generic alternative exists, I mean, that's my original point, that they are wasteful via the fact that they steal signal-strength from any alternative that would crop up.

In my personal experience, getting a job on average is better for learning, if you look for jobs that can provide de-facto mentors/teachers, but that might be because so few young people get a job. Or maybe me and the people I know that took my advice and quite university are just very good at learning from other practitionares rather than professors.

Maybe we need different ways of optimizing 18-20-year-olds' lives for learning new and valuable things. I'd be interested to see concrete proposals. An obvious question I hope they'd address: why expect that in practice this will end up better than universities?

Well, my proposal in the article is basically that we had such a system, it was called a university, but it got slowly eroded as it went the way of a safety/community provision institution (or at least provisioning an illusion of those two).

My argument for why it worked better in the past are point 1-2 and arguably 3 and 4.

comment by gjm · 2020-02-16T19:44:47.902Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I can well believe that universities used to work well and worsened over time. The point of my question at the end there is that I would expect any New Improved University Replacement to suffer the same process.

(Of course it might be worth it anyway, if it works better for long enough.)

comment by George (George3d6) · 2020-02-16T21:42:44.700Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The point of my question at the end there is that I would expect any New Improved University Replacement to suffer the same process.

That seems reasonable, I'd assume the same.

As in, if I could think of an implementable solution I'd have tried implementing it.

My point here as to describe the problem from a certain angle, which is easy, I lay no claim on the harder task of prescribing a solution.

comment by Daniel Kokotajlo (daniel-kokotajlo) · 2020-02-16T14:32:09.244Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think I find your overall conclusion plausible, but I think your argument for it in places was dubious:

But again, even if you assume I’m wrong, that still leave us with universities that struggle to optimize for 2, 3 and maybe 4, losing out on 5 in the process.

One could instead interpret the situation as: Universities are optimizing hard for 5, and as a result they are understandably losing out on 2, 3, and 4 in the process.

Indeed, I think there is something to be said for this. A few years ago I half-jokingly wrote a paper titled "Kallipolis, USA," in which I argue that the present-day USA is in fact Plato's ideal state.

A big part of my argument was the way in which the university system works. In particular, (in conjunction with the rest of society) it seems to be optimizing pretty hard to get people to "follow their passion," and in particular by forcing everyone to go to college and take gen-ed requirements arguably the system is doing the best it can to scout and recruit people who are suited to the priesthood/academia.

comment by George (George3d6) · 2020-02-16T14:49:51.799Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I mean, I think the basic argument I would have here is:

If universities are optimizing for 5, and we can agree that 5 leads to research and that universities are one of the leaders in anything scientific-research related. Why is research slowing down ? And, respectively, why is so little of the interesting research coming out of university.

See points 1-2 and arguably 3/4 in the article.

I think there's also some evidence universities didn't optimize for 2&3 until recently, because until recently their appeal was much narrower and focused on the very intelligent and/or very well-off (i.e. people that usually want or even need self-actualization).