This week the Perimeter Institute is hosting an unusual conference on Science in the 21st Century. One of the organizers is Sabine Hossenfelder, who has a posting discussing the conference here, and may have some more about it at her blog later.
Many of the talks are now available on-line here. I’ve only had time to watch a couple of them, but one that I found worth paying attention to was Lee Smolin’s. He covered some of the same issues discussed in his book, including the question of what science is, the ethics of how it is pursued, and the difficulties of encouraging new ideas. The discussion with the audience was also quite fascinating, including an exchange about differences between the American and British academic systems, with a British participant describing his shock at seeing how much the “American academic system is a training in sycophancy”.
The topic of blogs came up mainly in a section where Smolin discussed the ethical importance of scientists putting their name and reputation behind what they have to say about their science. He characterized anonymous criticism as one of the main reasons for the low signal/noise ratio and nasty environment of the comment sections of many blogs, describing this as far worse than anything he had encountered in his professional career, and something that is giving science a bad name. The theoretical physics group at Harvard in the 1970s was given as an example of about the worst it could get in academia. At the end of the discussion session, Paul Ginsparg took him to task about this, saying that he had been there too and it wasn’t that bad. I was there at the same time as both of them, and remember it as a rather unfriendly environment with a quite high arrogance level. But, with faculty like Coleman, Weinberg, Glashow, and postdocs like Witten, the talent and accomplishments of the people involved seemed to justify quite a bit of arrogance.
Ginsparg went on to agree with Smolin about anonymity on blogs, comparing trying to have a serious discussion in such an environment to trying to do so in a Fellini movie, being attacked by dwarves wearing masks.
Update: One talk I highly recommend is that of Eric Weinstein, with the title Sheldon Glashow Owes me a Dollar (and 17 years of interest): What happens in the marketplace of ideas when the endless frontier meets the efficient frontier? Eric’s talk includes a wide variety of thought-provoking and entertaining attempts to bring ideas from economics and finance into thinking about how science gets done and whether it can be done more efficiently.