Daniel Lemire's blog

, 4 min read

Scientists and central planning

Overconfident individuals often win by claiming more resources than they could defend (Johnson and Fowler). If nobody knows who is strongest, whoever thinks he is the strongest might win by default. That is, there is no better way to fool others than to first fool yourself.

Accordingly, human beings are often overconfident:

  • The teachers know that lecturing is highly effective (even when it is not).
  • Sex partners know that they are great lovers (even when they are not).
  • Star scientists know that they are more often right than others (even if that’s not true).
  • Economists know how they economy work (even when they don’t).
  • The entrepreneur knows his new business will succeed (even when most fails).

In scholarship, overconfidence is a great asset. I routinely fool myself into thinking that I can make a lasting contribution with my next research projects. By being overconfident, I take risks that I would not take otherwise. If I were more cautious, I would go work in the financial industry, make a lot of money and retire early. Instead, I keep thinking that my next research project might advance Science.

Thus, scientists often develop a God complex: they somehow know that whatever theories they hold must be true. They also believe that they can accurately assess the significance of the work of others. This is not entirely conscious, of course. They know that it is impossible to make fair assessments. Yet they fool themselves long enough to believe that their assessments are largely correct (even when they are not).

This is somewhat ironic in that Science’s ultimate purpose is to tame our God complex. Yet the very people who pursue science have gigantic egos. They would never admit that Science is built on trial and error. They want you to believe that Science is driven by superior intellects. How can such pompous people be in charge of moderating our God complex? Because while the scientist might be driven by overconfidence, his tools keep him honest. The scientist is like a high speed train: he might have a huge engine, he is (mostly) forced to follow tracks. A scientist operating entirely based on his inflated ego will eventually be derailed.

The God complex leads us straight to the conventional peer review system: write a paper, send it to a journal where a handful of review will assess it. Can reviewers really tell whether the work is significant? Of course, they can’t! But they believe so, for a time. The scientific way is to try and verify. That is how, ultimately, scientists deal with their God complex. Hence all (apparently) correct research papers should be published. Work that has stood the test of time should form the foundation of a field, not work that has been selected by (false) Gods.

But surely, scientists cannot try all possible theories? They must someone select the most promising directions. However, once we acknowledge the God complex, some natural strategies emerge:

  1. We should reject central planning. We must reject the authority of the few to decide the worthwhile research directions. We should choose to support many small projects rather than fund one large initiative driven by a handful of individuals. Results matter, not authority.
  2. We should test as many different ideas as we can. Scientists should be encouraged to try many different things.

If you think that these strategies sound sensible, consider that they are almost entirely the opposite of what is being done:

  1. Science is increasingly planned centrally around large government bureaucracies. We want to build scientific heroes who will direct other (lesser) scientists. Large teams focus on a narrow set of problems and directed by experienced researchers are the gold standard. Independent thinkers who try different things “waste resources”.
  2. We encourage specialization. One argument which is often raised is that if a professor tries his hand at a new topic, he will be unable to train new Ph.D.s in this new area, thus limiting our ability to produce more Ph.D.s. It is also frowned upon to try an idea, see it fail, and write up the results as a research report: every project should lead to a publication in a respected venue.

By analogy between Science and capitalism, it is as if the government was funding large corporations at the expense of small shops. It is as if the government funded companies that are highly specific and inflexible at the expense of agile ventures because more stable companies can better train their employees. And, more importantly, it is as if the fate of start-up companies was determined by small secret committees of experts: unless such a committee concludes that the company will work, it cannot launch. It is as if we believed it best to direct the consumer to a few trusted companies, for fear that he might choose to deal with a young unpolished start-up.

In effect, the modern scientist has rejected the free market of ideas. He prefers state-directed communism where a few choose for the masses.

Wikipedia opportunity: There is no entry in Wikipedia for Garage science where independent researchers do bona fide research with modest means.

Further reading: The perils of filter-then-publish and Improve your impact with abundance-based design.

Update: The original title of this post was “scientists are communists”.