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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Blogging about Robin Hanson is not about blogging about Robin Hanson

Fancy, snug in my bed by Hairlover from flickr (CC-BY)

This post is a semi-confession, and the difference between "I find X" statements and "X" statements is significant.

When I don't like something, I can of course come with some reasonable-sounding arguments specific to the particular subject, but usually "X is not really about X, it's just status seeking game gone awry" has no trouble getting onto such list. Sometimes high, sometimes not, but it's rarely missing.

When I like something, I tend to believe "X is not about X" type of arguments don't really apply - maybe there's some status seeking involved, but it surely cannot be that significant.

So here's my main point - "X is not about X" is not about X not being about X. It is a cheap and hard to refute shot at X to lower its status - essentially "X is not about X" argument is really about raising speaker's status relative to X.

Science is not about science

For example I find it intuitively obvious that academic science is mostly silly status game, with just tiny fraction of effort directed towards seeking important truth about reality.

How else can you explain:
  • persistent disregard for statistics, reliance on cargo cult statistics like p-values and PCA
  • vast majority of papers not getting even a single replication attempt
  • most research being about irrelevant minutiae
  • nobody bothered by research results being not publicly available online
  • review by "peers", not by outsiders
  • obsession about citations
  • obsession regarding where something gets published
  • routinely shelving results you don't like
This is exactly what we'd expect if it was just one big status seeking game! Truth seeking would involve:
  • everything being public from even before experiments start
  • all results being published online immediately, most likely on researcher's blog
  • results being routinely reviewed by outsiders with most clue about statistics and methodology at least as much as by insiders with domain knowledge
  • journals wouldn't exist at all
  • citations wouldn't matter much, hyperlinks work just as well - and nobody would bother with silliness like adding classics from 1980s to bibliography like it's still commonly done in many fields
  • most research focusing on the most important issues
  • vast majority of effort being put towards reproducing others' research - if it was worth studying, it's worth verifying; and if it's not worth verifying, why did anyone bothered with original research in the first place?
  • serious statistical training as part of curriculum in place of current sham in most disciplines
It's a miracle that anything ever gets discovered at all! It would be a very cheap shot, but it's really easy to finish this line of reasoning by attributing any genuine discovery as an attempt at acquiring funding from outsiders so the status game can continue. And isn't there a huge correlation between commercial funding of science and rate of discovery?

The Not-So-Fat One - playing with water by jeff-o-matic from flickr (CC-NC-ND)

Medicine is definitely about health

And here's something I like - modern medicine. It's just obvious to me it's about health and I find claims to the contrary ridiculous.

Yes, plenty of medical interventions have only weak evidence behind them, but this is true about anything in the universe. Hard evidence is an exception (also see previous section) and among few things having hard evidence, medical interventions are unusually well represented.

And yes, a few studies show that medical spending might not be very beneficial on the margin - mostly in short term, mostly in United States, mostly on small samples, always without replication, and I could go on like this.

Anyway, modern medicine has enough defenders without me getting involved, so I'll just stop here. To me it just looks like what you'd get if it was about health, and it doesn't look like what you'd get if it was about status seeking, even if a tiny bit of it gets into it somehow.

But notice how the argument goes. Conclusions first, and you can always fit or refute status seeking in arguments later. This bothered me until I've seen even bigger point - it all works as well when you replace "seeking status" with "making money" or any other motivator!

Compare these semi-silly examples:
  • Writing books is not about content, it's about money
  • Writing blog posts is not about content, it's about status
  • Food industry is not really about food, it's about money
  • Organic food is not really about food, it's about status
  • Commercial software is not really about software, it's about money
  • Open Source is not really about software, it's about status
This is just universal and an argument like that can be applied to nearly everything. But in all these money and status are only mechanisms of compensation - people optimize for money or status because that's what people are good at, but the only reason there's a connection between money/status and given action or product is underlying connection with desirable outcome.

To pull an Inception - "X is about status, not X" is about status, not about X being about status, not X.

PS. Here's a paper claiming that 2/3 of highly cited papers had serious problems getting published at all because of peer review. How many breakthroughs didn't get published? How many got published and then ignored? How many people didn't even bother, limiting themselves to standard useless minutiae, or staying away from academic science entirely?

PPS. Here's a few more relevant links:
Notice how except for medicine nobody seems bothered by this.