Friday, June 1, 2012

Bright people and a coffee pot?

We've just finished a couple of posts on the nature or state of the kind of science that we're largely up to in the life and evolutionary sciences.  We gave a long list of reasons why our precision and rigor are simply far, far below that of physicists and chemists, who have long sneered at the imprecision of evolution and social science.

True, much of biology is not the same kind of science, but there are areas in which social, life, and evolutionary science are every bit as rigorous.  In the social sciences, some aspects of statistical sampling--as in birth and death rates and the like, are very sophisticated.  And of course in many different areas, the life sciences are just as rigorously molecular as chemistry and physics.  DNA does exist, after all, and does code for protein, and sequences do evolve phylogenetically, and so on.

But not just negative!
We complain about the business as usual, or even hyperbolic aspects of those areas of social, behavioral, evolutionary, and 'omic' sciences that are not up to snuff.  But this is not just being negative!  That's because what we know, and what it does not enable us to predict or explain precisely is real knowledge about the world.  That is positive knowledge, even if it's not what we'd like to have found.

But where what's afoot is interpretation and action based on 'judgment', as one of our Commenters suggested (correctly), with poor predictive power, and where our idea of prediction is really based on retrodiction (fitting causal ideas to existing data) and this is not yielding clearly powerful prediction, then this is not like physics and chemistry at the level of daily practice.  Those fields have their blurry edges, but more of a rigorous component.

There is no reason to think the same approaches we've been doing will solve the problem, if the complexity being discovered is real and being interpreted correctly, and the problem is our inability to make precisely specific predictions.  It's here where we question the investment in just keeping the system running, the belief people have in policy makers advised by the same professoriate, and the run o' the mill self-perpetuating university system.  We are not making these issues up!  We just harp on them, and we do that knowing few if any will listen, but perhaps of those who do, somebody will come up with a better way to do things.  You can go down the street and order up a cinnamon latte at Starbucks, but it's not possible to order up genius and transformative discovery just by putting out a request for proposals (RFP) for brilliant novelty! 

There is an historical model for how to stimulate it, however, and perhaps we could try it.

Bell Labs and Xerox
In the mid-20th century a few companies set up basic science labs. The companies had brilliant new products and plenty of ready money (or they were a monopoly and didn't have to worry about the profit bottom line).  The classic example was perhaps Bell Labs, but people also mention Xerox, Land (Polaroid) and a few others in the US, for being places that did manage to stimulate truly innovative thinking.

Basically, some bright (even wacky) people were put in a building where they couldn't avoid bumping into each other on a regular basis--e.g., they had access to only one bathroom. They were given a coffee pot.  And the door was shut.  "Just think about things," was their mandate.  From time to time the boss went in and asked if they'd been actually working, and if so had they discovered anything....even anything useful?   Of course the rest, as they say, was history.  Innovation, not just incremental changes, poured forth.

There are institutes for 'advanced' study (modestly self-named!) in various places.  Most famous is Princeton's because brilliant mathematicians and physicists including Einstein were there (but did real innovation arise, or were people there mainly after their guns had largely been fired?), and there's one at Stanford for the behavioral sciences.  Complexity became a watchword of our time, and the Santa Fe Institute, in which I have an external faculty appointment, were established with initially private funding to tackle the problem of complexity.  There's a new institute called the Evolution Institute  that we've just learned of and been in discussion with, that has innovative ambitions and internet presence, that aims to stimulate interactions designed to use 'evolutionary principles' to do good in the world.  How successful they will be as well as how such principles are decided on or evaluated remains to be seen, but at present they depend on grants and hustling donors, which is a warning sign, because that kind of dependency puts pressure to be predictable and in that sense safe, rather than truly innovative--as university research clearly shows.

Maybe these groups will succeed.  But in our view, success is more likely by attempting Bright People with a Coffee Machine in locked buildings, rather than the basically universal fancy PR, web sites, and the rest of the window dressing, often frankly self-promoting, rather than true, quiet risk-taking.  Endowment with substantial funding and few strings attached is the way at least to try to stimulate such things.  And it should not go to already well-known, award-winning scientists, but somehow work through the middle-class degree mill to find the odd-balls who can really think; many major new industries were founded by college drop-outs--and the distancing from the stultifying atmosphere of universities goes way back and includes some of the most brilliant scientists ever.  They include Einstein, Darwin, Wordsworth, and others.  There's a message there!  But there's absolutely no guarantee.

And if the result of the inhabitants' work is not a preponderance of failures, then they're not trying hard enough, and shut the place down!

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