Too easy explanations

I spent a lot of my final years in academia being really angry about how ridiculously uncritical many of my fellow scientists are, and how little they actually care about the truth. Here is why:

The goal of my subfield is to understand and describe in detail how a number of phenomena work.
These phenomena have zero actual relevance to people outside of my subfield — it is extremely likely that no human will ever be affected by them directly.
We study these phenomena because we find them fascinating and beautiful and important in a big-picture “where does everything come from”-sense.

But we all know that the models and explanations we fabricate in our subfield will probably never have to stand the test of people outside our own field actually trying out if it works, which would of course be different if we studied semi-conductors.

So what that means is that we make the models and explanations in our subfield, and we test and assess them ourselves. From time to time something that happens in our subfield goes to the media, normally totally distorted and wrong, but in this way the wider population of people on the planet notices that we exist and also remember that the phenomena we study exist, which is nice, because the phenomena are indeed beautiful.

Now I think that there is a huge problem in my field that models and theories become canonized too quickly.
The transition from “We have no clue how phenomenon X can be explained, maybe it has to do with Y” to “It is generally accepted that Y causes X” happens at an astonishing speed.

The reasons that this happens are among others:

  1. People, even scientist, don’t like uncertainty.
  2. Funding agencies like it even less, unless one can argue a breakthrough is imminent (which is usually a lie)
  3. As the phenomena we study have zero real life applicability, it does not actually matter to anyone outside of our subfield if we have found the final explanation for a phenomenon, or if we have fooled ourselves. Humanity may perish with the experts in my subfield wrongly believing in our explanation, and no harm will have been done. People are aware of this and so they do not feel too bad about suppressing their doubts about a certain explanation.
  4. Once a certain explanation becomes fashionable among influential people, everybody works hard to find even more evidence it is correct, instead of evidence that it might be wrong.

I personally love mysteries and open questions, and the search for truth, even if it has zero real life applicability. This is why I went into research. So I was annoyed to find that people were claiming things in my field were more or less figured out. Consequently, and for purely selfish reasons, all I did in the last years was trying to poke holes in the existing explanations. Also, I am naturally critical of authority and I was not as ambitious about my career as others. So it was more a matter of my character than of a conscious decision that I started to question previous work.

To my surprise, this was ridiculously easy. Wherevere I looked, I found problems and inconsistencies in the existing explanations and most of my papers are about them. They are cited well, I have had an easy time to find good postdoctoral positions and I have received plenty of praise for them.

However, from the start, I have also upset people and several senior people have critiziced me for being destructive instead of creative, and warned me that I was making enemies in the field by pointing out mistakes in other people’s work.

And by now I do think that my way of doing things ended my career.
Once I applied for more advanced positions, I tried to convince outside experts that

1. My subfield is interesting
2. There are problems in the widely used theory in my subfield
3. I want to explore those problems in more detail

This did not go down well.
Talking about problems in a field is not what funding agencies want to hear, especially if they do not know much about the field in the first place. They want a different story: They want to hear that the field is in a super-great state and the next big insight is just around the corner. Critical people will not get funded.

Unfortunately, by now I have become so annoyed by the naive way in which many people in my field believe everything that a famous person says that I am really unable to give a talk claiming that the field is extremely dynamic and close to a major breakthrough.
It isn’t, because there is a huge overhead of too easy, too early explanations, which we first have to destroy to create progress. It isn’t, because many people in my field are totally uncritical.

What worries me sometimes is that similar things are obviously going on in fields that have actual relevance for humanity, like medicine and economics.
My dream job would be checking up on important papers in various fields, and finding problems with them. I think this would be super-easy, at least if I was allowed to spend a few weeks per paper. If you don’t believe me, see this example in economics or this example in positive psychology.

Who wants to fund me?

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10 Responses to Too easy explanations

  1. skryazhi says:

    I think things are somewhat better in my field (evolutionary biology). My most cited paper is a critique of a widely used method. In fact, I know people who made a career dismantling false beliefs (well, I guess I should say I know of one such person). And there have been a few high-profile papers recently pointing out major problems in some super-hot fields, like cancer research, where there is a lot of BS going on. So, it is possible to thrive using your strategy, but this niche is quite limited.

    • zinemin says:

      It is interesting to hear a perspective from a different field. I don’t know of anyone who built a career out of dismantling false beliefs in my field…. I wish I did! It would be great if there was a special kind of funding for critical reevaluation of influential papers in every field. I don’t think peer-review is sufficient, especially since the reviewers don’t get paid and don’t have an incentive to dig deeper and maybe even redo some work.

  2. Ex-String-Theorist says:

    This sounds like you were doing string theory.

  3. ridicuryder says:

    Zinemin,
    If funds were more fluid here the sheer shit disturbance of what you are describing would be very entertaining. BTW I suspect X and Y are best explained by charm which perhaps leaves things a little too open ended and full of wonder for most scientists.

    Critical thinking at its best criticizes thought, I regularly get skeptical about skepticism when optimizing shit . . . Sort of like making shit up that shouldn’t work, but then being quite happy that it kinda does, all the while not caring if anyone else gets it (hey its not like I’m collecting a salary and shouting Eureka!).

    It would be pretty rough if I had a SkeptiZinemin tracker constantly opening possibilities I haven’t considered and challenging me to achieve more . . . I’d definitely wanna get paid for that.

    Happy New Year
    RidicuRyder

  4. xykademiqz says:

    I am with you — I love discovering the gaps or inconsistencies in existing knowledge. However, when I was a youngish woman too, people not only did not want to hear they were full of $hit, they would not hear of it that a young woman was there to correct them. It takes a long time and some open-minded scientific allies to start getting some traction with such work.

    There is a bit of an art in criticizing without offending (living in the US Midwest has taught me that), and it’s unfortunately even more important for women than men to master, as women are always walkin the thin line between “nice but therefore likely incompetent” and “competent but therefore too bitchy/pushy and unlikable”. In papers, you avoid saying anything outright negative: you don’t say “Joe Schmo et al. are dead stupid wrong” (which is really what should be said) but just matter-of-factly point out that “The widely accepted theory [22] does not fully explain the origin of a prominent peak in the something versus something else curve obtained by several experiments [23-29].” When you point to measured data, physicists take it as gospel.

    Btw, when you are looking for jobs, people definitely want to hear how you want to open and own a whole new exciting niche for yourself. So even inconsistencies can be cast in the light in which you don’t crap on anyone but rather use them as a foundation for your imminent rise to greatness! :-) I am only sort of kidding…

    • zinemin says:

      I only rarely wrote “Joe Schmo et al. are dead stupid wrong” in a paper… :) but I used to say things like that in preprint meetings. In retrospect, I think that made some people distrust me and find me too aggressive and arrogant, especially as a woman, which did not really help me.
      I tried to sell my application in this way that you describe, i.e. there is a problem in the current theory, my niche will be to explore this problem and hopefully solve it. This did not work out.

      • xykademiqz says:

        Of course, a disclaimer: I know only the US market and there seem to be differences from Europe, so all I say may be completely useless as I am not really sure if I can give any advice about getting a job in Europe. (I am sorry, I am not sure if you applied both in Europe and the US or even more broadly.) I have noticed, though, that European physics is not very accepting of women. As an example, I was at this conference over the summer, it was a theorists’ paradise. A full week of talks, all by invitation, from a wide variety of areas (quantum information, statistical physics, dissipative systems, quantum transport, optics, strongly correlated systems, Bose-Einstein condensates…) It was a fairly sizable meeting, probably 250+ people. I think there were 3 women total, me one of them; I don’t think the number was representative of the female population in these fields at all… Yet whenever I try to bring up similar issues with my male European colleagues, they look at me like I’ve sprouted a second head, and communicate that only in the US we bother with this silly diversity business. My point is that, based on my purely spectating experience, you may be facing real and considerable obstacles based on gender on the European physics market. If you haven’t tried already, you might fare better in the US? Although the applications look a bit different for US jobs.
        Anyway, I will shut up now and not hog your comment thread! :-)

      • zinemin says:

        Thank you for your thoughts on this. I agree that continental Europe might be behind US and UK in this aspect. It is very rare to see a female physics professor in my country, and this has certainly neither helped my application nor my own motivation to continue with this career path, especially when things became difficult.
        Several senior people in my field have recommended me to apply in the US. But I have a feeling I would be unhappy living in the US and that it would cost me a huge amount of energy to adapt to the life there. And I just don’t have this energy anymore after having moved countries three times in the last 6 years…

  5. I agree with many other comments posted. The bulk of your “problem” lies in the fact that you’re a woman and therefore it’s destructive instead of critical.

    In the field of paleontology/evolutionary biology there was a man (one of my role models) named Stephen Jay Gould. He wrote many books, some of them are putting data together in a new way that others haven’t thought of and some books outright called scientists out as wrong. One book in particular “The Mismeasure of Man” he not just calls scientists wrong but racist as well. But in that book the scientists were already dead. Can you maybe focus, at first, on the holes in the beginnings of your science. Maybe book writing is more your thing since you can be funded privately to do that. I agree government funding isn’t apt to fund people to poke holes in research they’ve already spent money on.

    I truly believe ALL science is relevant to people, even if at this moment we can’t see the connection. But who knows what information our society 50 years from now will need. I think about that all the time. How the bulk of paleontology seemed irrelevant until climate change came about. Then people realized they needed to understand how past ecosystems changed with climate. Now centuries of seemingly useless research is super-important. I wouldn’t be so quick to assume your field is just to fulfill curiosity.

  6. I’m not sure precisely what your sub-field is, but these attitudes certainly are endemic in fundamental physics, where, in the absence of empirical data, the dominant paradigm for explaining certain phenomena seems to be dictated exclusively by academic fashion.

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