Complacency in science

I have finally read Galbraith’s Short history of financial euphoria, which Alain Aspect suggested to me during a random dinner chat a few months ago. It’s nice: it’s the first time I understand something about finance. And it triggered a concern about academia.

In finance as well as in academia, people often fall into euphoria over something that is, by all rational standards, rather worthless. In my field of research, for instance, the latest craze is the following process:

  1. Write down a new version of some criterion that tests that “something is quantum” (a new Bell inequality, a new test of contextuality, a version of Leggett-Garg…); the simpler — the more trivial — the better, because of point 2.
  2. Find a couple of friends to do an experiment for you. Better if they have been running their setup for ages and have exhausted all the serious science that could possibly be done with it, because they will be more than happy to learn that their old machinery can still be used to perform “fundamental tests”. Moreover, since your test is simple and simple quantum physics has been tested to exhaustion, you have no doubt that the experimental results will uphold your theory.
  3. If you can, present it as “the first step towards [a big goal]”. Never mind that it is rather the last use of a setup that has made its time (I refrained to use “swan’s song”, because the last song of the swan is supposed to be the most beautiful; the last concert of an 80 years old pop star would be more appropriate a metaphor). If you can’t invoke the future, present it as “the conclusive proof of [some quantum claim]”. Never mind that the claim is usually always the same, namely, that results of measurements are not pre-established, that there is intrinsic randomness, or however you want to phrase it. Also never mind the fact that there cannot be a “conclusive claim” every month.

The euphoria mechanism is entertained as follows:

  • The big journals (Nature at the forefront) prefer to publish tons of poor science rather than risking and losing a single real breakthrough. So, if someone claims to have solved “the mystery of the quantum” (the general readership of Nature finds quantum physics mysterious), better take them seriously.
  • In turn, people notice that “if you do that, you publish in Nature”. Since “that” is not that difficult after all, it’s worth while going for it.
  • Once you have published in Nature (or Science or…), you are hailed as a hero by the head of your Department, by the communication office of your university, by the agencies that granted you the funds.
  • Put yourself now at the other end, namely in the place of the one who would like to raise a dissenting voice and reveal the triviality of the result. All the legitimate instances (peer reviewed journals, heads of prestigious Departments, grant agencies, even popular magazines and newspapers!) are against you. Isn’t it “obvious” then that you are only venting your jealousy, the jealousy of the loser?

So far, the analogy with financial euphoria is clear. I guess (though I have not studied the statistics) that the speed of the crash is also analogously fast: it happens when some of the editors of the main journals take a conscious decision of having “no more of that”, because they realize that there is really nothing to gain. The rumor spreads that “refereeing has become tough”; the journals are accused of having become irrational since “if they accepted the previous paper, why they refuse this one” (while it’s one of their few moments of rationality).

And the consequences? The same too, but fortunately without criminal pursuits, despair and suicides. The very big fish get out unscathed: either their science is really serious (that is, they have invested only a small amount of their scientific capital in the euphoric topic); or their power is really big (that is, they have invested only a small amount of their political power in backing the euphoria). The opportunists will try to follow the wind as they should, and will be forgotten as it should. Those who face uncertain destiny are the young fellows, who were doing serious science when the euphoria caught them at the right time and the right place. Because of this, they have been raised to prominence. Somehow, all their capital is invested in that topic. Will they be able to find their way out and continue doing serious science? Or will they end up teaming with their buddies, set up a specialized journal for themselves and publishing there until their old age? If one day you find me as the founder of a journal called “Nonlocality”, please wake me up.

Happy Easter!


About valerio

Principal investigator at Centre for Quantum Technologies and professor at National University of Singapore

Posted on April 6, 2012, in Career, Latest topics. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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