A Vision of Metascience (Article)

Interesting article from Kanjun Qiu and Michael Nielsen: A Vision of Metascience.

I like this observation:

The physicist Paul Dirac once said that the 1920s, when quantum mechanics was discovered, was a period in which it was very easy "for any second-rate physicist to do first-rate work"41. Indeed, history suggests the early days of new scientific fields are often golden ages, with fundamental questions about the world being answered quickly and easily. By contrast, later work often requires far more effort to make progress on more incremental questions. As Dirac said decades after the discovery of quantum mechanics: “There has not been such a glorious time since. It is very difficult now for a first-rate physicist to do second-rate work.” We believe science is badly bottlenecked on field formation. In particular, we believe current social processes in science are designed to support work in existing fields, but strongly inhibit work critical to the creation of new fields. What programs would dramatically increase the rate of production of fruitful new fields?

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It’s a great article, thanks for sharing it!

I also thought that this was a useful observation:

There’s no reason to expect scientists to be good at this sort of design. Scientists are users of the discovery system, not (for the most part) designers. There’s no reason they should deeply understand how to improve it, any more than someone who drives a car should understand how to design and build a great car. A good driver will notice problems with their car, and may have important insights about cars. But that doesn’t mean they’ll understand the origins of those problems in the design, or how to fix them, or how to design new and better cars. Just because someone is good at science doesn’t mean they have the skills of a good designer. Worse, they’re sometimes convinced they know , and will ignore or hold in low regard people who actually have more insight about these things. It’s all “soft skills”, not “real knowledge of science”, in this view, and so how could an outsider have anything useful to say? Contrariwise, just because someone has strong convictions about the social processes of science, doesn’t mean they actually have much insight. Indeed, we confess to much self-doubt on this point. On this issue, humanity is still figuring out how to tell the difference between people with insight and people who merely have strong convictions about how science should be54.

54 We’ve been to many metascience workshops. They’re often surprisingly monocultural: mostly science funders, or mostly economists, or mostly non-scientist founders of new research organizations, or mostly active scientists. One resulting conviction: a large (but not dominant) subgroup at any such workshop should be active, experienced scientists, to act as a check on the wilder flights of fancy of non-scientists. More generally, with a proto-field it seems likely to us that extremely robust discussion between groups with very different points of view is likely to be generative, and a good check on the myopia of any individual group. We include ourselves in this diagnosis of myopia.

My experience with scientific reforms has mostly been with scientist led initiatives and I agree that while scientists can often identify problems, they may not usually be the best people to design ambitious reforms. To echo the footnote, view point diversity among scientific reformers seems important.