Friday, March 03, 2006

Write this way, Part 3

My reply to Eric. He's already promised a response. And please don't feel that you have to just spectate here--feel free to send in your own thoughts, either as e-mails to me or as comments on the blog posts.


Hi Eric,

Thanks for the response.

First things first. Do you mind if I post all this on my blog? I think it would be cool to have it all out in the open for people to follow. Especially since we're not trying to beat each other down, and because (I think) we have substantial points we agree on, as well as substantial differences.

Re your point about data and theory being intertwingled. You're right, it's not a dichotomy. It's probably a spectrum, with purely conceptual stuff at one end (although there will always be some "contamination" from empirically-established facts) and purely empirical stuff at the other (although almost always in the service of one idea or another). I think that it is easier to get more empirical stuff published. In fact, it may be quite hard to get an idea out to a broad audience unless it is piggybacked on some supporting data. That's good to the extent that it filters out some of the loonier ideas, but it's bad because it slows down the dissemination of ideas in general. I argue that the bad outweighs the good; we're already pretty good at screening out the bad ideas on our own. If I could be exposed to more ideas, faster, for the price of having to screen out more nonsense, I'd do it.

Cornell's Paul Ginsparg made a similar comment about peer review in the age of arXiv: "The role of refereeing may be over-applied at present, insofar as it puts all submissions above the minimal criterion through the same uniform filter. The observed behavior of expert readers indicates that they don't value that extra level of filtering above their preference for instant availability of material 'of refereeable quality.'"

You also make a good point about half-lives. I have John Bell Hatcher's monographs on Diplodocus and Haplocanthosaurus on the shelf, and I use them a lot. They were published in 1901 and 1903, respectively. The concepts surrounding dinosaur biology have changed tremendously in the intervening century, but the data--the observations--are just as useful as they ever were. Data are immortal, assuming that they don't get lost by the whole field, or superceded. Concepts have a faster burn time. I think that in the public sphere there is a half-joking, half-serious perception of scientists changing their theories every five minutes, every time new data comes in. That's probably too optimistic--I wish we could be perceived that well.

(It's funny to come to this so naturally in the course of our discussion, because this epigram has been rattling around in my head all week:
"Critics often make fun of scientists for changing our theories so often. Let's get something straight: the ability to change our ideas in the face of new knowledge is not a weakness of science. It is not even a strength. It is science."
Matt Wedel, 2006, thank you very much.)

What I'm arguing is that because ideas have shorter half-lives, it's stupid to make them wait around for data. Let's get them out there as fast as possible. The more ideas we have in the public pool, the richer we all are. Even if 95% of them are junk. Even if a lot them don't have any data to support them yet. If the ideas are any good, they'll attract data. Heck, if they're particularly bad they may attract data, just so people can bury them.

it's good to write ideas quickly because it's easy to forget them. I agree with you in principal here. But the reason for my agreement is NOT because we need to have some record for posterity so that philatelic historians can sift through the records to attribute the original idea to the author.

Hell no! I'm in perfect agreement with you here. Giving credit for ideas is not about hoarding credit (although some people would no doubt treat it that way).

Ideas are r-selected. Data are k-selected. But right now we're forcing ideas to propagate as slowly as data. I want ideas to travel faster. The problem is, how do you get someone to part with an idea? There has to be some kind of reward. Under the current system, you usually only get rewarded for an idea if you also gather up the data to support it. That's time consuming, and wasteful, because no one can gather enough data to test all of their ideas, and because the ideas are just waiting around in the meantime. Let's give just enough credit to get people to part with their ideas while they're still fresh, so someone else can get on with the testing--or so someone else can take the idea in an unexpected direction.

One consequence of this, which I forgot to point out in my original post, is that we may find out that ideas really are cheap. If we instituted a system like the one I'm proposing, maybe everybody would fire off all of their good ideas in the first few weeks, and then we'd all realize that the good ideas were occurring to everyone at the same time, or that there just weren't that many good ideas out there, period. In which case the value of "creativity credit" would go down, and people would have less incentive to publish ideas without data. We could very easily evolve back to a system like the one we use now.

Although I admit that that's possible, I don't think it's likely. Almost every advance in my own research has come from an utterly serendipitous contact with a new idea. Maybe I finally get around to reading that paper that I photocopied two years ago, or a conversation with a stranger makes me see my research from a new angle, or I see a talk at a meeting and realize that I could solve that guy's intractable problem with the data I already have in hand. I suspect that everyone else's research progresses the same way. We're like molecules bouncing around in idea space, but right now the number of collisions is being kept artificially low, because we're forcing all of the particles to travel at the speed of the slowest ones (i.e., data papers).

I'm just proposing that we turn up the heat.

Write back--let's keep this going.



I realized too late that I didn't reference Eric's thoughts on how we 'perform' ideas, but I think he's onto something. You probably know of one or two good ideas in your field that no-one paid any attention to, either for a long time or forever, no because they were bad ideas but because the author(s) communicated them poorly. This bears further examination.


Blogger Mike Taylor said...

Alright, Wedel, I'll see you ten and I'll raise you 452. What's stopping you from just going right ahead and putting, say, your Prosauropod pneumaticity manuscript right up there on arXiv? I dare you. Show the way.

2:33 PM  

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