Walt Disney released Tomorrowland. I brought my little family to see it and we had a blast.

(Warning: mild spoilers ahead.)

The movie has one message: let us be techno-optimists. Instead of being driven by fear, let us embrace new challenges. Let us go to Mars or beyond. Let us cure cancer. Let us live with large robots.

The movie has some brilliant elements:

  • Early in the movie, we see a young boy who has invented a jet pack. When asked about the purpose of his invention, he replied: “to inspire people”.

    This is a great and important answer. Almost all new inventions bring very little value on their own. That is true of even radical inventions. For example, if we could cure cancer, we would only extend our life expectancy by a few years (less than five if I recall correctly).

    Techno-optimism is the belief that pushing technology forward is good in itself, if only to inspire others.

    Yes, it may take decades or more before hospitals can print me a new lung or a new heart… so maybe I will needless die of a lung or heart disease in ten years… but I am still excited about 3D printing and steam cell research.

  • The cause of much of the misery in the world of the movie can be traced back to pessimism. Once you have convinced people to stop advancing (symbolized in the movie by the closure of a NASA center), the path becomes difficult.

    I have a lot of respect for conservatives like Nassim Taleb who advocate caution in all things. What if we are killing the planet? Should we not revert back to how our ancestors lived, just in case? What if genetically modified food is killing us? But the techno-optimist in me prefers to take the gamble. And, as illustrated in the movie, that is not necessarily any riskier.

    Before we had as much technology as we did today, people died horrible deaths. Earth was ravaged. That still happens today, of course… we are causing cancers, and polluting too much… but we are, as a species, far better off than we ever were. There are more of us (a good thing) and we are healthier, and smarter.

    The techno-optimist thinks that we should push ahead faster when the problems get more difficult. We should invest more in research and development when the problems are bigger, not less.

    And, yes, maybe by tempering with stem cells, we will create a Zombie virus that will wipe out humility. But maybe these same stem cells will be able to rejuvenate our failing organs.

  • The movie shows a few marvellous inventions that can be used to differentiate the techno-optimists from the rest of the crowd.

    We have human-like “robots” that are genuinely indistinguishable from human beings, except for the fact that they do not grow or age. We have also a cure for aging. Indeed, we learn that the Tomorrowland scientists have cured aging, and all it takes is an orange juice a day… presumably the orange juice is fitted with nanotechnology that repairs the body and prevents aging.

    Most people around me are unwilling to consider these as possible inventions, even on the long term. Yet I believe that both are quite possible. I do not know yet why we would ever build human-like intelligence… but I certainly believe it will be quite possible some day.

    I do not believe that I will live forever. But I have always believed that preventing and reverting aging is a simple matter of technology. If I ever make it to an old age, will we have the technology to give me back my youth? It seems overly optimistic to think so, given that we cannot seem to make any progress against Alzheimer, and that we are probably not even close to curing cancer… But I nevertheless believe that it is simply a matter technology. And technology is accelerating all the time… so nobody can know what is possible in the medium term…

    Being a techno-optimist, I believe that we will soon significantly extend longevity. I do believe that in 20 or 30 years, they will be able to replace hearts and lungs with affordable replacement parts that are just as good (if not better) than the original. Two of my neighbours have artificial knees… and they mow their grass just as well as I do. (Admittedly, they do not do jumping jacks, but neither do I.)

    With all the money that people stand to make with it, I cannot imagine that in 30 years, we won’t be able to rejuvenate skin and muscles so that aging actresses can genuinely look as if they were just 30 or 40.

    Rejuvenating the brain, at least in some critical ways, should be commonplace in ten years. But what I really want to see is how we will extend the brain with electronics.

Of course, techno-optimism is a dogma. It is entirely possible that the net result of technology will be to shorten my life and that of my children, and makes us more miserable. But I have faith that we can find solutions through technology.

An interesting opposing dogma is what I call “biological determinism”. These people believe that we are fundamentally limited by biology. Thus, for example, we should not perturb the Earth with our technology for fear of causing irreparable harm. These people believe that the future looks bleak for people who “aren’t smart enough”…

I believe that we have been, and will continue to extend biology. It is true that people who aren’t smart do not seem to have room in Tomorrowland… but, to me, the obvious solution is to make people smarter. We can use genetics, brain augmentations… As for pollution, I think we can develop technologies that pollute less, as well as better techniques to clean toxins.

Of course, maybe techno-optimists are wrong. However, they can at least hope to be wrong in interesting ways.

Academic publishing is a bit of a perverted business. Let us recap what should be well known: professors write papers for free while publishers take the papers and resell them to universities for a large profit.

I do hope to live one day in a world where everyone can have free access to all the research in the world. There is irony in the fact that the Internet gives us free access to junk and informercials, but asks us to pay for high-quality government-sponsored sources. Sadly, that is what we have right now.

A common narrative is that universities are victims of this arrangement. They have to pay exorbitant prices to publishers, money that they would rather spend on their students.

There is just a small problem with this narrative: it does not fit the facts on the ground.

It is maybe worth pointing out that many colleges are themselves academic publishers (e.g., Oxford University Press). These college-based publishers are not shy about charging the full amount for their goods. Whenever I see a book priced upward of $40 on Amazon, it is almost always from an academic publisher. So, at a minimum, colleges are complicit in the business of overcharging for academic work.

But how much do academic publishers charge? Academic publishing is a small component of higher education. Harvard University (alone!) had a budget of over $4 billion in 2013. Meanwhile, one of the largest publishers, Elsevier, had revenues of only $3 billion. There is only a handful of large publishers, and thousands of large colleges… Even if Elsevier folded and gave away for free all its subscriptions, students would not see lower tuition fees.

Nobody likes a tax though, right?

Well. What about Microsoft and Oracle licences? Most colleges rely on Microsoft software to operate when they could as easily use free software to achieve much of the same goals. And, let us be honest, most colleges could replace their expensive Oracle software by a free alternative (PostgreSQL) with no lasting consequences. Yet few colleges have decided to do away with the “Microsoft tax“.

Why?

Because to do away with proprietary software and replacing it all by free software would not significantly affect budgets. And, at the margin, it may leave the impression that the school is too cheap to afford real software. Image is important.

The same is true with academic publishing. Library subscriptions are a small price to pay. Offering great library access, especially if it is a tad expensive for an individual, looks great.

Can you imagine a world where all the academic books and research papers were freely available? In such a world, university libraries would face an uphill battle to show their relevance.

Universities do not want to do away with their libraries and library budgets. Not really. If you are a curious fellow and want to read deeply on a subject… the current system pushes you to go to college, if only so you have good library access.

Many researchers are also very fond of publishers and librarians. They make researchers look good. I have yet to see one reputable academic calling for a library-free college. Most academics do not really want academic publishing to falter…

It may be that Elsevier is an evil company run by a Satanist cult. But keep in mind that Microsoft has been called the evil empire. Speaking for myself, I do not really worry about either Elsevier or Microsoft being evil.

Depression, obesity, stress, sleep deprivation and age affect negatively your brain. However, as I have previously argued, the commonly reported decline in intellectual productivity with age is not so simple as it was once thought.

Of course, we know that our brains incur some damage over time, so some decline of some of our abilities appears likely. However, it is probably not as simple as “we lose brain cells over time”. For example, perception problems, such as reduced hearing, can lead to the appearance of memory problems, or a lower IQ (Rabbitt, 1991). And we can compensate in many ways for a moderate decline: we can rely on cognitive jigs, we can improve our problem-solving strategies, we can use computers, and so on. The idea that our intelligence resides solely in our brain is more than a bit silly. In effect, if the hardware gets slightly slower, we can compensate with better software, and with new peripherals.

However, my belief is that a good share of the age-related cognitive decline is psychological, or caused by cognitive disuse. This sort of decline is not so easily compensated.

For example, we know that retirement significantly degrades your cognitive functions. That is, shortly (but not immediately) after retirement, you are no longer quite as sharp as you were:

Our results highlight a significant negative effect of retirement on cognitive functioning (…) all these results (…) suggest that retirement plays a significant role in explaining cognitive decline at older age. (Bonsanga et al., 2012)

Following retirement, your social network shrinks. You are less likely to engage in cognitively difficult tasks (e.g., no more driving during rush hour). Simply put, you no longer need to be as bright as you used to. And guess what happens? You lose some of your edge.

So maybe you should not worry that much about saving for your retirement?

Of course, it stands to reason that if retirement can have a large effect, so can other similar life style changes. When I was younger, I was constantly tested and pushed intellectually. I have now a much more confortable job: I could choose to let my brain rot a little more. In fact, I could even increase my professional status by doing more management and less of the highly challenging hands-on research and teaching work I enjoy.

As we grow older, we often do not need to learn quite as fast, we can rely more easily on established patterns… thus, we can let some of a cognitive abilities fall due to disuse. Doing Sudokus can maybe help a little, but I would not expect a strong overall effect.

But beyond disuse, there is also a placebo effect: if you are old and you believe that old people aren’t as sharp, you won’t be sharp. We know that this effect is real and strong. We can test it experimentally in a stereotype threat context. For example, if you invite young women to a mathematics test and you explain to them that you want to study why women do poorly in mathematics, they will do more poorly. It is that simple. It is not just women and mathematics… the same effect works for blacks and IQ tests… and, yes, it works on old people too.

In fact, the effect is so strong that removing the stereotype threat can be enough to eliminate age-related differences in specific experiments:

(…) these results demonstrate a direct link between stereotype activation and false-memory susceptibility, and they suggest that (…) age-related differences in false memories can be eliminated. (Thomas and Dubois, 2011)

If you run an experiment and you invite older people over, even the slightest hint that you are attempting to measure a decline in their cognitive functions could ensure that you will indeed measure a strong decline.

But the effect should be present outside a college laboratory as well. Old people convinced that they have rotten brains should not be expected to be sharp… “The aging process is, in part, a social construct.” (Levy, 2009). It is not just a vague theory, the effect that I describe has been put to the test repeatedly:

Those with more negative age stereotypes demonstrated significantly worse memory performance over 38 years than those with less negative age stereotypes, after adjusting for relevant covariates. (Levy et al., 2011)

Ramscar and Baayen stress that we are probably confounding many factors and unnecessarily stressing seniors about their cognitive functions:

What we do know is the changes in performance seen on tests (…) are not evidence of cognitive or physiological decline in ageing brains. Instead, they are evidence of continued learning and increased knowledge. This point is critical when it comes to older people’s beliefs about their cognitive abilities. People who believe their abilities can improve with work have been shown to learn far better than those who believe abilities are fixed. It is sobering to think of the damage that the pervasive myth of cognitive decline must be inflicting. (Ramscar and Baayen, 2014)

I think that this suggests that, to remain as smart as possible as long as possible… you should remain genuinely active professionally for as long as possible. Moving to more prestigious but less demanding jobs is maybe unwise… You probably also want to moderate your beliefs about age-related cognitive decline. Entertaining the idea that you are getting dumber might just be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Further reading: Ramscar, M., Hendrix, P., Love, B., & Baayen, H. (2013). Learning is Not Decline: The mental lexicon as a window into cognition across the lifespan. The Mental Lexicon 8:3, 450-481

Everything else being equal, you would expect short and simple papers to get a wider readership. Long sentences, complicated terms, should all discourage readers from reading further.

So you would think that researchers and academics would outcompete each other, producing ever more accessible papers… to maximize the impact of their work.

Sadly, the incentives do not work in this manner:

  • The most important step for many researchers is to get the paper published in a “prestigious” venue. They could not care less if only ten researchers ever manage to decipher half their manuscript… as long as it gets published somewhere prestigious.

    You would think that the referees would recommend well written manuscripts… and everything else being equal, they will…

    Except that pompous language exists for a reason: it is meant to impress the reader.

    If you take a result and show that, ultimately, you can make it trivial… the referee might say “it is nice, but the problem was clearly not very hard”…

    So, at least in Computer Science, research papers often end up filled with complicated details. Very few of them are distilled to the essential parts.

    Authors respond to incentives: it is more important to impress the referee than to write well.

  • The second most important step for researchers is to get cited. You would think that well written work would get more citations… And there must be an effect: if people cannot quickly decipher what your work is about, they are less likely to cite you.

    However, people generally do not read the work they cite. They may scan the abstract, the conclusion… but rarely all of it.

    So papers containing a wide range of results, or more impressive-sounding claims, are probably more likely to be cited.

    The way out of this trap is to measure influence instead of citations. That is, you can reliably identify the references that are essential to follow-up work (see Zhu et al, 2015). Sadly, it requires a bit more work than merely counting citations.

To measure the relationship between writing quality and citations, Weinberger et al. (2015) have reviewed the abstracts (and not the whole papers) of several research articles. Though they do not express it in this manner, we could say that the quality of the writing has little to do with impact: differing from the average paper by more than one standard deviation on a desirable feature may coincide with a variation of the number of citations of about 5%. Their paper also fails to address the fact that citation counts have high statistical dispersion: most papers get few citations where a few get many. So any statistical analysis must be done with extra care: a few individual articles can account for much of the average. You need to take their results with a grain of salt. It worse than it sounds because, your goal as a researcher, is not increase the citations that one of your paper received from 5 to 6 (a 20% gain!)… whether it is 5 or 6, it is still inconsequential… your goal is to have about 100 citations or more for your paper… and whether you hit 80, 100, or 120 citations is irrelevant.

Nevertheless, their work shows that good writing can often coincide with fewer citations… Indeed, they found that long abstracts made of long sentences containing many adverbs and complicated or superlative words tends to coincide with more citations. They found that authors who stress the novelty of their results tend coincide with the most cited authors.

Thus, at least according to Weinberger et al. (2015), improving your writing can have a small negative effect. This should come as no surprise to those who have long observed that academic writing in unnecessarily dense. Authors write this way because it gets the job done.

Weinberger et al. explain their result as follows…

Despite the fact that anybody in their right mind would prefer to read short, simple, and well-written prose with few abstruse terms, when building an argument and writing a paper, the limiting step is the ability to find the right article. For this, scientists rely heavily on search techniques, especially search engines, where longer and more specific abstracts are favored. Longer, more detailed, prolix prose is simply more available for search. This likely explains our results, and suggests the new landscape of linguistic fitness in 21st century science.

Search engines encourage us to write poorly? Do search engines favour results with long sentences and superlative words? I think not. In any case, to make this demonstration, the authors should repeat their survey with older papers, prior to the emergence of powerful academic search engines.

A much more likely phenomenon, in my opinion, is that when looking to quickly cite a reference, one seeks impressive-sounding papers.

I used a similar trick in high school. I wanted to stand apart and impress my teachers, so I would intentionally use a very rich vocabulary. I think it worked.

So, what should you do? If your goal is to be widely read, you should still write short sentences using simple words. If your goal is to impress strangers who will probably never read you, use long and impressive sentences.

I think that Weinberger et al. made their preference clear: ironically maybe, their paper is short, to the point and well written.

If there is one skill that is needed in a modern office is email. By email, I do not refer to the specific Internet protocol. I refer to the general process of exchanging electronic text online.

We have had thousands of years to learn how to talk to each other. We know how to read each other. Our brains have evolved to cope with these intricate exchanges.

Email is much more difficult. Email is an emerging art that few master.

Here are some basic concepts:

  • Keep your emotions in check. Email does not care how you feel. It takes great care to decipher and communicate emotions accurately online. If you get angry or otherwise preoccupied with the emails themselves, you are doing it wrong. If you want to express your feelings, take a theatre class or create a YouTube channel. Email is not your therapist.
  • Every email you send is public. I would never share without permission a private email, but many others would. In many corporations, all emails are archived and can be reviewed by management. Messages you send through Facebook or Twitter are evidently public.

    When I started blogging, people asked me how I could share with the world my thoughts without care. These same people often did not think twice about sending an ugly email.

    Behave as if everyone is reading your emails and you will be more effective.

  • Debating is usually a waste of your time. There are debating clubs, but none that operate by email. If you want to try to convince people of the error of their ways, write bona fide articles.
  • No mass email. It might be ok to send an email to your tribe (less than twelve people) but any email to a larger group is flat out wrong.

    If you are the recipient of an email sent to a lot of people, please do not hit “reply to all” without due consideration.

  • Short and infrequent. Bombarding someone with emails every day is not going to get you on their Christmas list. Long emails will not be read.
  • Keep your inbox clean. You are simply not supposed to have hundreds of messages in your inbox.
  • Not every email requires an answer. Though there might be social expectations that emails require responses… only send a response if it is genuinely useful. Also, if someone is not responding to your email, they are not “ignoring” you.
  • Not every email requires an immediate response. I have cultivated a habit of delaying my responses. If I have to respond to someone who does not know me well, I will send a quick warning that my response will not be immediate. Sometimes, after waiting a few days, no response is needed anymore. Other times, by waiting a bit, I have given myself time to produce a more thoughtful and engaging reply. It can take me weeks or months to answer some emails: I am not particularly worried about it.
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