When I started my blog in 2004, my goal was to blog about my research. It never happened.

You may think that I am afraid a reader could steal my ideas, or that I might worry about looking silly. But I have no such fear. However, I am afraid it could hurt the quality of my work. I need a sandbox for my research. The purpose of the sandbox is to protect my ideas from the pressure:

What scientists really need is more time and more freedom to play with their ideas without pressure to fit in, to publish, to make up their mind. (Backreaction)

Working without pressure on your own ideas is essential for science. By opening up too early on your research directions, you can face at least two problems:

  • You commit to ideas before you had a chance of fighting self-delusion. Psychologists will tell you that once you write down and explain a position, you tend to stick with it. It is irrational, but true. I claim that this effect is less significant if you sketch ideas in your own private sandbox.
  • Early on, your ideas are still fragile: an expert can destroy them by apparently reasonable criticism before you had a chance to root them into a solid framework.

In the early stage of my research, I am the best person to hold a critical view on my own work. Only later, when I have had the chance to explore the idea to my satisfaction, do I need the criticism of others.

This is not just a theory. Several years ago, I shared an idea with a prominent scientist. He generously replied—in details—about why my idea was wrong. As part of his argument, he made a specific assertion which, if true, made my work uninteresting. A year later, I finally revisited the idea, and I determined that he was wrong, in a self-serving way.

Silence and long hours alone in front of a desk are necessary for strong original ideas.

Further reading: The notion of disputation arenas by David Brin.

14 Comments

  1. Keeping ideas private seems like a kludge forced by a a social problem.

    In effect, you’re describing the brainstorming stage of idea creation. Experienced facilitators know that a successful brainstorm does not censor; Breakthroughs are often had when someone suggests an apparently silly avenue.

    That self-serving professor is toxic for a research lab. It’s sad, most fields are full of people that don’t know to avoid in-depth criticism for new projects and ideas.

    Comment by Daniel Haran — 1/8/2009 @ 11:34

  2. This post sounds more like rationalization than explanation. Sure, you may prefer to work alone and in silence. But your appeal to some psychological principles is a stretch.

    Presumably, the same psychological principles would apply to me. But I always work in a noisy environment – I have the radio on, the TV on, maybe a YouTube video playing. And while working alone works for me in some cases – coding, for example, my genuinely _creative_ moments only occur when I’m in front of an audience of some sort trying to explain why I think the way I think.

    What happens to me is the exact opposite of the principles you describe: I am more inclined to stick to a position _until_ I have to write it down, present it, or explain it. And my ideas are their strongest early on, and the criticism of experts is more likely to be placed on ‘hold’ until I’ve had the chance to work through the idea in detail.

    Comment by Stephen Downes — 1/8/2009 @ 14:58

  3. @Haran

    It is not an immediate colleague who cause this delay in my research project. It is someone from a different school.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 1/8/2009 @ 18:57

  4. @Downes

    This post sounds more like rationalization than explanation.

    Granted.

    my genuinely _creative_ moments only occur when I’m in front of an audience of some sort trying to explain why I think the way I think

    I submit to you that this is hardly typical in science.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 1/8/2009 @ 19:04

  5. Hi Daniel,

    I agree with you, it was the same with me. Commenters asked repeatedly why I don’t write about my own research, or if I do, it’s a summary of a paper I just put out. The reason is as you say. If I’m still thinking about something, I don’t want to commit to it before I’ve made up my mind. And if I’ve made up my mind, I’ll publish it.

    That is not to say I don’t talk to anybody. I talk to colleagues or friends of whom I know they are supportive rather than disruptive to my thought processes. It just isn’t a public process, and the last thing I want is “feedback” from anonymous guys on my blog.

    And thanks for the link :-)

    Best,

    B.

    Comment by Bee — 1/8/2009 @ 19:29

  6. Perhaps there is no one universal formula.

    Comment by Arun — 2/8/2009 @ 8:15

  7. Hello Daniel, I have been lurking on your blog for a couple months and I value your perspective as a professional academic. I wanted to introduce myself and share my perspective.

    I consider myself to be a “research blogger”, or, one who publicly shares their shaky new ideas. Every time I write an entry on my blog, I feel a twinge of fear that a bigger and stronger scientist might come and quash my ideas before they’ve really bloomed. But somehow, I am able to continue blogging. I suspect it’s because I have little to lose. For me, my research is a hobby whose continuation does not depend on previous success.

    Comment by Stephanie — 4/8/2009 @ 12:21

  8. @Stephanie

    How many pictures of yourself do you have on your web site? ;-) It is cute (in a good way). I can reassure you: you can be a mom and a great researcher at the same time!

    I think that research, like any other “serious” occupation is emotional. A lot of money and recognition is at stake.

    In 2002, I presented a rather benign paper at some mathematical conference. My paper and my presentation were rather boring, I think… but I had people yell at me… I had people all red out of rage. Yet, all I did was to present theorems, and plot functions. I did not even try to upset people. My tone was never out of line. I was perfectly rigorous.

    Reading your blog, I can see that you go through various emotions with respect to your research. I think that all graduate students (or prospective graduate students) go through very intense emotions regarding their research. But it does not stop there: the competition for professorship is fierce. Fighting for tenure is hard. Fighting for research grant can be very hard.

    There is no denying that emotions play a very important role in research productivity. Do you pick a daring research topic, or do you stick with a boring but safe research topic? These are highly emotional questions… even when you have job security.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 4/8/2009 @ 12:56

  9. Ha, ha — I get a lot of comments about my snapshot roll. Maybe it’s my way of showing that I’m having fun, too, while researching! As you say, emotions are an important part of research.

    Comment by Stephanie — 4/8/2009 @ 13:21

  10. What’s your opinion of, say, the Google approach to research?

    Comment by Jeremy — 4/8/2009 @ 23:49

  11. A few of the best researchers I’ve been in contact with in my career liberally share hypotheses, conjectures, and tentative thoughts. Somehow they seem oblivious to the pressure you are referring to.

    Comment by Seb — 5/8/2009 @ 15:47

  12. How do I set my avatar pic?

    Comment by Seb — 5/8/2009 @ 15:48

  13. @Seb

    Examples would be helpful. (Beyond Stephen Downes!)

    As for your avatar, just create an account at gravatar.com.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 5/8/2009 @ 16:50

  14. Well, Gilles Brassard and Alain Tapp come to mind. Note that they share thoughts verbally. I should also add that they spent long hours alone in silence in front of a desk. Best of both worlds?

    As for sharing research ideas in writing, nobody that I’ve met except for Stephen Downes. Edsger W. Dijkstra might be an example, though his EWD manuscripts contained complete lines of thought (most of the time). They were often bite-sized insights, though.

    Comment by Seb Paquet — 5/8/2009 @ 17:27

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