April 22, 2010

The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin

Smolin's book made me think of a dilemma I face often. I find the current system of scientific funding disturbing. Chief among the "values" of a scientist is absolute honesty. Yet, the project proposals we need to fill periodically ask us to describe what we are going to do in detail for the next three years. I don't know what I am going to do during the next three weeks! It depends on what results I am going to get using my current approach during the next couple of days. Maybe I will have a brilliant idea that will change my whole approach to the problem. Maybe I will be taken over with another problem. Honestly I don't know. The only thing I can promise is that I will put all my working energy on making progress on the problem that I find most promising at the time. But apparently that is not enough to get funding, and we are forced to either (i) bend the truth, or (ii) tie ourselves to an approach that we will most likely find suboptimal in the near future.

To me the answer is simple: scientists should be funded not on promises about the future (which nobody can honestly make, let alone scientists whose job is to explore the unknown), but on past performance. That leaves the problem of young scientists who have no past. There should be a reasonable amount of seed funding for such people, just enough to make sure an adventurous spirit has enough time to risk his career tackling an important and deep problem.

Smolin's book should be required reading by all who manage scientists and scientific funding. If you are not interested in the debate on string theory, just read the last few chapters on how science works based on a shared ethic, and why we should take a bit more risk on "Seers" who tend to obsess about high risk problems and may take a long time (sometimes forever) producing anything valuable.

Chapter 17 proposes the shared ethic among scientists rather than some abstract "scientific method" as chiefly responsible for the success of science. Chapter 18 draws a distinction between two types of scientists "Seers" and "Craftspeople". In fact pretty much the whole book is an elaboration of how and why the scientific establishment does not provide enough room for "Seers" who by nature like to obsess about high risk problems and need much longer incubation times.

I find the shared ethic of science to be one of the most important creations of human culture. I had long held the view that science was about "what is" and not about "what ought to be", thus science and ethics had nothing to do each other. Recently I started to see the ethic of scientists as people, if not the result of their work, as being very relevant. Dennis Overbye describes it best:

"Not only does science not provide any values of its own, say its detractors, it also undermines the ones we already have, devaluing anything it can’t measure, reducing sunsets to wavelengths and romance to jiggly hormones. It destroys myths and robs the universe of its magic and mystery. So the story goes. But this is balderdash. Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth. That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view."

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