Science in the 21st Century

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.

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31 Responses to Science in the 21st Century

  1. srp says:

    Smolin seems to contradict himself, since he makes a big deal about the importance of reputation and accreditation but then goes on to say that authority shouldn’t matter in deciding issues. Attacks on anonymity don’t sit well with a commitment to judging arguments on their merits. The real issue with reputation and authority (from a functional point of view) is the tradeoff between effective attention allocation, on the one hand, and objectivity in assessing arguments on the other.

    If we had limitless attention, then ideally arguments would be evaluated independently of who makes them, which is why many journals require double-blind anonymity. Even if we stipulated that X is an idiot and a bad person, if X’s argument A is correct and novel then we gain from understanding it. Because most people have trouble being that objective, separating the argument from the X label–making it anonymously–is often a good idea.

    The countervailing values to objectivity are not wasting your time reading things which are likely to be boring or wrong, and being able to rely on others’ arguments as building blocks without personally auditing them. Here, we really want to know if argument A came from X or from Y because we can never get back the time lost from reading or relying on a defective A and we’d like to play the odds based on reputation. Anonymity weakens the likelihood of our taking an argument seriously, and, if it is prevalent, makes the entire discussion less useful.

    If people want to be taken seriously, or they want their arguments to be taken seriously, I don’t see that there is a problem of incentive compatibility. The maker of an argument can weigh and balance the greater objectivity with which his or her contribution will be treated if it is anonymous against the impact on how much attention is paid to it. If they make a mistake in deciding this, they bear most of the cost. The Invisisble Hand, so to speak, will take care of the problem. (Of course, this analysis appies to scientific contributions, not personal rumor-mongering where the costs and benefits are distributed very differently.)

  2. Peter Woit says:


    There’s a difference between “reputation” in the sense of knowing about someone through their work and writings, and “reputation” in the sense of knowing where they stand in the academic hierarchy. I think Smolin is not arguing that you should judge whether to pay attention to someone’s arguments based on “authority”, but rather on your own knowledge of the quality of their previous arguments.

  3. Tony Smith says:

    Lee Smolin said (page 11 of 51 of the pdf of his talk):
    “… without a Ph.D. from a reputable research department or group
    (or in very rare cases i.e. Freeman Dyson, the equivalent)
    someone cannot make useful contributions to a scientific community.
    Scientific communities function well only because discussions among experts are restricted to those with a Ph.D. or at least those far along in a Ph.D. program …
    this is essential and not incidental …”.

    Back in the 1980s when I was beginning to formulate my physics model, I asked Yuval Neeman to discuss it with me. He agreed to meet me in his office at U. Texas Austin, and we discussed what I was doing.
    He pointed out some problems with my model as it was back then (since then I have worked through those problems)
    and I asked him about getting a Ph.D. working on the model.
    He knew that I did not need a Ph.D. for a job (my law practice gave me both reasonable income and spare time in which to work on physics), and told me (a quote to the best of my recollection):

    “If your model turns out to be right, then it is important enough that you do not need a Ph.D.
    If your model turns out to be wrong, then no matter how many Ph.D.’s you have, it will still be wrong.”

    Until recently, I have felt that Yuval Neeman’s advice would eventually be proven correct, and that my model would be evaluated on its merits.

    Now, in light of the above statement of Lee Smolin, who seems to me to be the most liberal member of the physics community with respect to unconventional ideas,
    I see that Yuval Neeman’s advice will never be effective,
    as my model will never be evaluated by the physics community.

    Tony Smith (no physics Ph.D. or “the equivalent”)

  4. Mark van Akeren says:

    My impression is that the frustration of many (but by far not all) theoretical particle physicists over the lack of a predictive model in particle physics is getting on their nerves. That should not be the case. Physics is much too interesting for this kind of resignative attitude.
    The aim of physics is to find out how the world works, not to prove that it works following certain preset mechanisms.

    There are sycophants in every community, from business to politics to science, and at every level.

    A colleague of mine remembers how a Nobel prize winner (now dead) once abruptly stopped to talk to him at a dinner and turned away when he suggested that time might not be continuous.

    In Italy and other countries, the sycophants in the community of historical science have managed to spread the idea that Galileo (victim of an anonymous denunciation, by the way – blogs did not exist then) did not have enough arguments for his astronomical statements. Look at what they have done to one of the greatest historians that Italy has ever had, Pietro Redondi.

    For the situation in Russia, read the new book from Springer Verlag which tells how in the 1970 and 1980s in Moscow, Jewish math students were given math problems that were impossible to solve correctly, in order to keep them out of university.

    I wonder how Smolin and Distler get along. The British comment that the “American academic system is a training in sycophancy” might be exaggerated, but a few people at the conference do embrace that rule, such as Distler himself. (Motl at least is an entertaining sycophant, Distler is not even that…)

    Sycophants are at work everywhere. One has to live with them, and find one’s own way.


  5. Christine says:

    Children are great scientists, the best. Carl Sagan noticed that very well. But when they grow up into adults, most of them loose their once genuine curiosity to really understand how the world works. They stop doing the right questions (usually on the mark) and the instinctive use of the scientific method through testing their ideas and hypothesis against what they observe. All the naturalness of the understanding process that encompasses a genuine scientific activity is somewhat lost.

    What happens during the growing process of children into adults is quite complex, but should be taken into serious consideration, because something very essential and important is lost. Is it just innocence? If so, then we should be more “innocent”. We should be more uncorrupted and pure. Science should be an open activity for all, and the level of exploring it only dependent on one’s technical knowledge, honesty, wisdom. The merit of one’s work should be evaluated against those qualities. PhD titles should be only marks that certifies that you have those qualities and that you have made contributions to the field. But someone without a PhD should not be dismissed from the scientific endeavor.

    Of course, what I see in reality is many PhDs that are a complete distortion of what a scientist should be. And conversely, I know people without a PhD that would make honest scientists.

  6. Bee says:

    Hi Peter,

    Thanks for the link. I will write some more about the conference if I find the time. The British participant is Harry Collins, who also gave the first talk yesterday morning. It is too bad that the recording of Steve Fuller’s talk failed. It was a very interesting argument about how metascientific measures such as e.g. the citation index are invasive to science. Best,


  7. Peter Woit says:


    I’ve never seen anything to indicate that Distler is very far from the median of the sycophancy scale of American academia.

    He was trained by the Harvard theory group, a few years after the period that Smolin and I were there. As I noted before, during this period this was a group that measured high on the arrogance scale, but at a time that they had quite a lot to be justifiably arrogant about. Unfortunately being convinced that you are always right and that people who disagree with you must be stupid goes from being annoying to seriously dysfunctional when you devote yourself to a research program that turns out not to work.

    I’d suspect Smolin gets along fine with Distler, since he’s not known for having trouble interacting with people he disagrees with, and his training at Harvard should stand him in good stead.

  8. Gil Kalai says:

    The utility of blog science-discussions for promoting various aspect of science – popularization of science, explaining scientific advances to professionals, evaluating various scientific theories and claims, discussing philosophical, sociological, and ethical aspects of science, and not the least blogs as a tool to conduct scientific research, is a very interesting question.

    The norms and ethics of blogs themselves is also a very interesting topic, and so is the specific issue of anonimious contributions. Of course, there is a huge data to try to evaluate the quality of blog discussions and the role of anonymous comments. (One can compare, for example, blogs which allow anonymous participation with those which do not allow it.) Overall, I tend to agree with ‘spr”s comments on this issue.

    I think that the main difficulty with blog science-discussions is the quick paste and huge volume. I do not see an easy way around this difficulty.

  9. Terry Hughes says:

    As many readers of this blog probably know, Oded Schramm just died in a fall while climbing:

    Reading the report of his death I was struck by how genuine his contribution as a pure mathematician to physics really was. I was especially struck by the comparision to the bloated claims of physical relevance of Singer, Witten and the rest in connection with Yau’s birthday conference. I see no mention of string theory in connection with Schramm, for example, just illumination of “a multitude of physics problems from the percolation of water through rocks to the tangling of polymers.” Actual, testable physics, not junk food for the mind. Even Yau’s interesting and charming contribution to general relativity is rather marginal to physics in the end. I mean no criticism of Yau, Singer, Witten or anyone else as pure mathematicians, but their claims to having created methematics that has central significance to real physics seem vastly overblown. Schramm seems to have been the real thing. May God receive him in peace.

  10. Christine says:

    I think scientific blogs should be like a virtual place for discussions, somewhat an extension of those discussions that usually take in real life coffee breaks among colleagues, but with the advantage of storage of what have been discussed, as well as other resources, like the use of latex for formulas (of course you may have that as well in real life, like a blackboard in the coffee room). And of course, links to the relevant sources, etc.

    Although storage is a very nice resource, the problem is how to make the information in a blog useful and organized. I often see Sabine and Peter repeating themselves (on their point of views) many times, although their blogs are reasonably organized.

    Regarding anonymous comments, I have mixed feelings. I have received in the past useful and reasonable anonymous comments, as well as rants from them. So it is a question for the owner of the blog to have a great effort to moderate.

    Evidently, in real life one will not attack people during a scientific conversation, whatever the informal level of it, except if he/she is out of his mind (at least, he/she would be considered that way by some). I’ve never seen people attacking each other in such conversations if they don’t agree about a scientific question. In blogs, human aggressiveness is free to act.

    I think that blogs in their present format are not the best tool for providing an informative, educational, scientifically sound environment for discussions, although these can be carried out at a certain extent in some carefully managed blogs. A better tool for that is still missing, but what is missing mostly is honesty, empathy and collaborative posture.

  11. Christine says:

    Ah, and of course, people should try to increase their attention spans. Blogs tend to train you the other way around.

  12. ht says:

    “What happens during the growing process of children into adults is quite complex, but should be taken into serious consideration, because something very essential and important is lost.”

    Money (funding), ego, and power can get in the way of doing good science. Whereas children naturally ask a lot of “why” questions out of curiosity, if a junior researcher tries to do that in a science seminar, depending on the speaker, it could be taken as a challenge to his/her authority or competence rather than a genuine desire to understand. Who wants to offend unnecessarily in an already difficult academic environment? I’ve noticed that this tends to happen less often in mathematics, probably because of the requirement to prove every result regardless of your position in the hierarchy.

  13. Gil Kalai says:

    Anonymity can be quite useful if you would like to explore an idea without commiting to it.

  14. Peter Woit says:


    …and really annoying to the people whose time you are wasting by trying to start a discussion about something that you haven’t bothered to think through yourself…

  15. Gil Kalai says:


    in my opinion, science is a lot about the ability to explore ideas without commiting to them; so not commiting to an idea does not mean you haven’t bothered to think about it.

    Anyway, the issue of blogging and science/mathematics is something which I did think about quite a bit and even tried to explore in various ways (including having my own blog). I am still not sure if scientific blogging is a good idea to start with (do you?). It can be a waste of time. But I think it is an interesting enough idea for me to explore, and to spend some time on. (In any case, on my blog, people are welcomed to contribute thoughtful comments that can be anonymous.)

  16. Michael Bacon says:


    Would you support a practice that you only post anonymously on your own blog — solves your problem and Peter’s.

  17. Eric Habegger says:

    There was one key statement in Lee’s talk in which he said, and I’m paraphasing, that a person should be certified in the skills as a scientist to show that his “experiments” or “calculations” should have attention paid to them. This seems applicable to the technical requirements for being a scientist, which I have no argument with. But there is a very untechnical requirement for being a GOOD scientist and that is critical thinking. The ability of seeing the forest for the trees.

    I’ve been fairly disappointed in Lee lately. I read his book and was quite impressed with the apparent openness to new ideas and with his differentiation between technical and visual skills. I sense that he has reconsidered those ideas and now counts the technical skills as being the main thing of importance. His new stance seems to eliminate the probability of giving access to science to those with more critical thinking and visual skills. I’m really sorry to see him going in that direction.

  18. Chris W. says:


    Insofar as Lee’s primary concern is with theoretical physics, your emphasis on visual skills seems misplaced. Certainly a capacity for critical thinking is essential (in every field!!). But what is meant by visual skills? Visual representations—of necessity in 2 or 3 dimensions in ordinary physical space—are at best a kind of language or symbolic scheme. Admittedly they can be powerful, but they can also be profoundly misleading. They must be engaged in a dialogue with formalism; at the one throws light on the other.

    A more general comment on Christine’s observations: Unfortunately, the ongoing professionalization of science brings into science the small-mindedness of adult professionals protective of their turf and livelihoods and intent on building careers. Ambitious and energetic young people can be every bit as guilty of this as older scientists.

    I. I. Rabi observed (in John Rigden’s biography of him) that a sort of religious attitude or selflessness is essential to great scientific work—something that goes beyond simply finding science fun or rewarding in a conventional professional sense.

    (See this 1999 article about Rabi by John Rigden in Physics World.)

  19. Eric Habegger says:

    I won’t go too far into this to avoid annoying Peter. Visualizations are good things, and there are also mathematical formalizations that cannot be visualized. I was speaking of visualization in terms of Lee’s idea of “seers” in which one can have a holistic vision. He seems to be moving away from that idea to the idea that those kind of people must pass muster just the way an accountant must pass technical equivalency tests. The fact that those two different types of scientists could have “equal” value seems now to be abandoned by him. He seems to be saying now that those square pegs must be pounded into the round hole to have any credibility, which I don’t happen to agree with. In reality no scientist is completely one or the other but are shades of both. But the current system completely capitulates to encouraging just the one side.

  20. anonymous fool says:

    It seems to me that most of the noise on this blog comes from non-anonymous posters, though of course it would be a bad idea to name them.

    I have no idea who is srp, but his/her post is probably the most interesting on the thread.

  21. Christine says:

    Chris W. wrote:

    “Ambitious and energetic young people can be every bit as guilty of this as older scientists.”

    Well, I see ambition positively if you have the right amount of it. Life is too hard; if you do not have some ambition then you are lost. In any case, I came to observe that ambition generally develops more after/during teenage years, because of competitiveness in school or based on behaviour of parents. I believe that you are referring to youngs of that age or a little above. I have the impression that this competitiveness imprint and the need to develop a high level of ambition in order to deal with it is specially true in American society.

    But as far as I could observe, young children in general are not naturally ambitious, in the very strong sense above. However, I may be biased because my observation is mainly from Brazilian children.

    In any case, it appears to me that kids below ~10-12 years old or so preserve the very desirable characteristics of what makes a good scientist, from the aspect of making good questions, being critical and making observations, etc. Very young kids are usually great in that respect (~5-7 years old). If you have made a outreach science presentation in class to kids at that age, you know what I mean.

  22. M. Wang says:

    Mark van Akeren Says:
    “There are sycophants in every community, from business to politics to science, and at every level.”

    This is certainly true. What sets academia above all the rest in terms of sycophancy, however, is the unchecked level of arrogance and the narrow career path.

    In politics, it is very hard to get truly arrogant when one has to beg and/or bargain for votes every few years. In finance, the masters of universe know in their hearts that luck plays a big element in their success because every single trade in the market reminds them of the fact. in Academia, and theoretical particle physics in particular, such reality checks are sadly lacking in recent years.

    Arrogant people expect sycophancy. The single file career progression in academic disciplines then amplifies the pressure to become a sycophant by many folds.

    Confucius once said, “It is shameful to be a sycophant, but doubly so to force your subordinates into sycophancy.” Tenured professors will do well to keep this in mind.

  23. srp says:

    Peter: You make a distinction without a difference. Regardless of whether authority is a matter of an individual’s formal position or the quality of his previous arguments, the tradeoff I described still holds with respect to evaluating the NEXT argument offered. But there is more to the story if we think about the asymmetric information equilibrium.

    If the argument is offered anonymously, it can be evaluated on its merits more easily but is less likely to get attention paid to it (assuming a high-authority individual). But for a low-authority individual, both incentives point in the same direction, so low-authority individuals should be more prone to adopt anonymity. Unfortunately, in equilibrium, this means that anonymous comments on average will come from lower-authority people and audiences will realize that and pay less attention to the substance of anonymous arguments. In turn, the anonymous arguer may be tempted to attract attention by being more sensational, caustic, or otherwise colorful.

    I suppose these remarks apply self-referentially, as well, except that I’m not very colorful.

    Anonymous fool: Thank you. I’m nobody in particular (an economist at a business school who thinks a lot about science and technology).

  24. Chris W. says:

    Thanks, Eric. I see what you’re getting at now. I basically agree with you, although I’m not sure I would have chosen the word “holistic”. Never mind that; it has often been observed about Einstein that as a young man he had an unmatched breadth as well as depth in his grasp of physics as it was known then. He truly embodied John Wheeler’s injunction that a physicist should not be a specialist.

    For our own time, I guess that implies that a willingness to attack deep problems may require taking greater risks of being dismissed as superficial or technically ill-equipped than in the past. In that context one could excuse Smolin for conceding that one ought to at a minimum secure a Ph.D. (Consider the case of Julian Barbour.)

  25. John Baez says:

    srp wrote:

    If we had limitless attention, then ideally arguments would be evaluated independently of who makes them…

    Not clear. Our estimate of how often someone has been right is a useful piece of information in trying to guess if they’re right this time. It’s not obvious why we’d ever willingly give this up, except perhaps in unusual circumstances like refereeing an academic paper, which is presumably supposed to be completely lay out all the evidence for the claims it makes. Most arguments are not so fully laid out.

  26. Thanks Peter for the nice review. Part of the talk was actually informed by this blog; watching the reputational attacks between physics PhDs had been quite puzzling to me as a market enthusiast.

    If you ever want to try to tease some of these issues out using the blog in an effort to improve the level of discourse, I’d be game to try.



  27. Carl Brannen says:

    Bee writes that Harry Collins is at the conference.

    His book Gravity’s Shadow is about the search for gravity waves but it is also a great introduction to the sociology of physics.

    I think that most of the complaints about “my theory won’t get a fair hearing” (because I don’t have a PhD) are highly exaggerated. The professionals have the same trouble getting attention to their work. I am a very lucky amateur in that regard.

  28. De Bunker says:

    Having just started an anonymous physics blog…I feel compelled to react.

    First, anonymity has an important place in science: that of peer review. In fact I wish peer review were double-blind, to eliminate some of the politics. I think it’s totally appropriate for people to anonymously criticize each other, even in public and even on blogs.

    In my experience when people first encounter the drivel that fills the comments section of any blog, they’re substantially taken aback. The dynamics of anonymous conversation are different than the dynamics of face-to-face conversation. People get inflamed more easily, and are more likely to post hostile comments. They are also off-the-cuff, so one can’t expect much in the way of scientific rigor, even on blogs run by scientists. (But I’m new to this game, maybe Peter feels differently)

    But distaste for the different dynamics is not sufficient, in my view, to deny people the right to say what they really think without fear of retribution. Let’s face it, young people won’t criticize older more established physicists…unless they can do it anonymously. And they should still be able to get a job afterwards.

    Why am I anonymous? Because I didn’t want my blog to be seen as an an “official” CERN blog. I wouldn’t have any problem attaching my name to the things I’ve written there. But then I think I may be bolder than some, and physics should able to use the work of great minds who are more timid.

  29. “Let’s face it, young people won’t criticize older more established physicists…unless they can do it anonymously. And they should still be able to get a job afterwards.”

    Fascinating. I had a completely different view of science in general and physics in particular. I can’t fit this with what I hear of Feynman, Pauli, Yang, Schwinger, Weinberg, Dyson and others as young people. Can you elaborate?

    More importantly, what do you require in terms of security that you would feel comfortable doing your job as a (non-anonymous) scientist?

  30. Peter Woit says:

    De Bunker,

    The problem with your analogy with peer review is that

    1. a referee is not anonymous to the journal editor who chose him/her. Acting unprofessionally here carries a real cost in one’s reputation, since the editor knows who you are, will judge you accordingly, and may even discuss your behavior with his or her 100 closest colleagues.

    2. a referee report is not a public document, findable with a Google search. If a referee chooses to say “the author is incompetent, an unpleasant asshole, and is known by his friends to have sex with barnyard animals”, the only people who see this are the editor and the author. In a blog entry or comment, the whole world can see, and someone can easily find that one of the top entries on Google that appears if one searches on their name is something like this.

    You might see this issue a bit differently if you were to experience the phenomenon of someone trying to destroy your professional reputation by posting on blogs things that are not true while hiding behind anonymity. Unfortunately, this is not unheard of.

    I’m not an absolutist, sometimes there are good reasons for anonymity. On the whole though, it is over-used, and this does damage to the overall level of discussion on the internet. My bottom line is that I think people should be discouraged from using anonymity, but allowed to do so as long as they behave professionally. Attacking someone else unfairly in public while hiding behind anonymity is the kind of thing that I see as way out of bounds. I do my best to stop it from happening on my blog.

    The use of anonymity by you and “Jester” is a bit unusual though, since I and presumably many others know who you are; you’re not trying hard to hide yourselves. I actually don’t believe it’s possible for a scientist to write a regular blog about their field while staying completely anonymous. Scientific fields are just too small communities: if you write enough, sooner or later your colleagues will guess who you are. Anonymous comments are different, there one can hit and run…

  31. De Bunker says:

    Fascinating. I had a completely different view of science in general and physics in particular. I can’t fit this with what I hear of Feynman, Pauli, Yang, Schwinger, Weinberg, Dyson and others as young people. Can you elaborate?

    My statement is one about humans, not about physicists in particular, and I think it’s rather obvious. People do not tend to rock the boat. They do what the herd is doing, most of the time. Opposition to the herd should be possible, and should be possible by smart people who are not as outspoken as e.g. Feynman.

    On the whole though, [anonymity] is over-used, and this does damage to the overall level of discussion on the internet

    It certainly does damage. People must learn to treat anonymous comments like a bathroom wall.

    Sometimes, anonymity is sorely needed. When it is not needed it is difficult to see why one would want it. (Indeed, making my blog anonymous certainly was not necessary) These times are exceptional, but important. They always involve a weak person challenging a strong person.

    Reputation attacks can be dealt with…most civilized societies have slander and libel laws, and these kinds of attacks existed long before the internet, and don’t necessarily have anything to do with anonymity.

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