Why aren’t there more scientific breakthroughs?

Most research papers are boring. They rehash existing work with almost no new insight. Mihai Pătraşcu blamed me for saying that big conferences were for people without imagination: what I actually wrote was that focusing on prestigious conferences tends to encourage self-reinforcing biases. The recipe is simple: a senior researcher defines whatever he does as “the right way,” the young researchers follow the senior researcher for selfish reasons, and finally, the community grows and whoever questions it is rejected. Surely, 10,000 bright people cannot be wrong? We invested millions of dollars into this field, surely, it cannot be wrong? Eventually, you get a catastrophe like classical AI or String theory. These fields are not bad in themselves, but they grab most of the attention and most of the funding for long periods of time. In effect, they work to prevent any competition from rising up. Any good gardener knows better: monolithic cultures are weak, you need a diverse set of plants.

Science should be about fostering competing ideas. You should wish that many people will challenge your ideas. I believe that we should encourage diversity and true innovation.

Paul Graham tells us Why There Aren’t More Googles. Let me revisit his essay with my concern for the lack of scientific breakthroughs:

And yet it’s the bold ideas that generate the biggest returns. Any really good new idea will seem bad to most people; otherwise someone would already be doing it. And yet most program committees are driven by consensus. The biggest factor determining how a program committee will feel about your research idea is how other researchers feel about it. I doubt they realize it, but this algorithm guarantees they’ll miss all the very best ideas. The more people who have to like a new idea, the more outliers you lose.

I challenge program committees: the list of accepted paper should be diverse. If you see strong clusters of similar ideas, and most prestigious conferences have them, then you have failed to foster the next scientific breakthrough.

You may object: surely, if an idea is any good, it will survive rejection by a program committee or two? Of course it will, but if you did not encourage crazy research, it may come much later.

One thought on “Why aren’t there more scientific breakthroughs?”

  1. I’m as frustrated with the slow pace of research as the next entrepreneur with a PhD. And I agree that the desire for professional success can be at odds with pursuing the most valuable research. Nonetheless, I think that the conservative nature of the academy does server a purpose of keeping out cranks (Alan Sokal’s hoax notwithstanding). It may be that the most breakthrough ideas seem crazy at the time, but it is also the case that most crazy ideas are not breakthroughs, but merely crazy. And if the academy does not do a good enough job of filtering out the merely crazy ideas, then the breakthroughs will drown in a sea of mediocrity. The current system is imperfect, and would benefit from some pressure to intellectually diversify, but I’m not sure that encouraging crazy research will make things better.

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