It’s (not) Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)

by reestheskin on 18/06/2018

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These are a few words from the author of “Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray”, but they speak to me at least of an intellectual honesty that is (as the author argues) increasingly rare in the academy.

I am not tenured and I do not have a tenure-track position, so not like someone threatened me. I presently have a temporary contract which will run out next year. What I should be doing right now is applying for faculty positions. Now imagine you work at some institution which has a group in my research area. Everyone is happily producing papers in record numbers, but I go around and say this is a waste of money. Would you give me a job? You probably wouldn’t. I probably wouldn’t give me a job either.

What typically happens when I write about my job situation is that everyone offers me advice. This is very kind, but I assure you I am not writing this because I am asking for help. I will be fine, do not worry about me. Yes, I don’t know what I’ll do next year, but something will come to my mind.

What needs help isn’t me, but academia: The current organization amplifies rather than limits the pressure to work on popular and productive topics. If you want to be part of the solution, the best starting point is to read my book.

A quote from an earlier post I particularly like”

While the book focuses on physics, my aim is much more general. The current situation in the foundations of physics is a vivid example for how science fails to self-correct. The reasons for this failure, as I lay out in the book, are unaddressed social and cognitive biases. But this isn’t a problem specific to the foundations of physics. It’s a problem that befalls all disciplines, just that in my area the prevalence of not-so-scientific thinking is particularly obvious due to the lack of data.

I would make two observations. First, I think science is self-correcting — in the long run, at least. Just not when measured in lifetimes. Second, this takes me back to John Horgan’s book, and in particular how some domains of science are more easily corruptible that others (to be less combative, I might say, ‘less robust’). If you want to understand the modern medical research complex, you have to understand this.