Will we ever have the space opera future?

May 22 JDN 2459722

Space opera has long been a staple of science fiction. Like many natural categories, it’s not that easy to define; it has something to do with interstellar travel, a variety of alien species, grand events, and a big, complicated world that stretches far beyond any particular story we might tell about it.

Star Trek is the paradigmatic example, and Star Wars also largely fits, but there are numerous of other examples, including most of my favorite science fiction worlds: Dune, the Culture, Mass Effect, Revelation Space, the Liaden, Farscape, Babylon 5, the Zones of Thought.

I think space opera is really the sort of science fiction I most enjoy. Even when it is dark, there is still something aspirational about it. Even a corrupt feudal transplanetary empire or a terrible interstellar war still means a universe where people get to travel the stars.

How likely is it that we—and I mean ‘we’ in the broad sense, humanity and its descendants—will actually get the chance to live in such a universe?

First, let’s consider the most traditional kind of space opera, the Star Trek world, where FTL is commonplace and humans interact as equals with a wide variety of alien species that are different enough to be interesting, but similar enough to be relatable.

This, sad to say, is extremely unlikely. FTL is probably impossible, or if not literally impossible then utterly infeasible by any foreseeable technology. Yes, the Alcubierre drive works in theory… all you need is tons of something that has negative mass.

And while, by sheer probability, there almost have to be other sapient lifeforms somewhere out there in this vast universe, our failure to contact or even find clear evidence of any of them for such a long period suggests that they are either short-lived or few and far between. Moreover, any who do exist are likely to be radically different from us and difficult to interact with at all, much less relate to on a personal level. Maybe they don’t have eyes or ears; maybe they live only in liquid hydrogen or molten lead; maybe they communicate entirely by pheromones that are toxic to us.

Does this mean that the aspirations of space opera are ultimately illusory? Is it just a pure fantasy that will forever be beyond us? Not necessarily.

I can see two other ways to create a very space-opera-like world, one of which is definitely feasible, and the other is very likely to be. Let’s start with the one that’s definitely feasible—indeed so feasible we will very likely get to experience it in our own lifetimes.

That is to make it a simulation. An MMO video game, in a way, but something much grander than any MMO that has yet been made. Not just EVE and No Man’s Sky, not just World of Warcraft and Minecraft and Second Life, but also Facebook and Instagram and Zoom and so much more. Oz from Summer Wars; OASIS from Ready Player One. A complete, multifaceted virtual reality in which we can spend most if not all of our lives. One complete with not just sight and sound, but also touch, smell, even taste.

Since it’s a simulation, we can make our own rules. If we want FTL and teleportation, we can have them. (And I would like to note that in fact teleportation is available in EVE, No Man’s Sky, World of Warcraft, Minecraft, and even Second Life. It’s easy to implement in a simulation, and it really seems to be something people want to have.) If we want to meet—or even be—people from a hundred different sapient species, some more humanoid than others, we can. Each of us could rule entire planets, command entire starfleets.

And we could do this, if not right now, today, then very, very soon—the VR hardware is finally maturing and the software capability already exists if there is a development team with the will and the skills (and the budget) to do it. We almost certainly will do this—in fact, we’ll do it hundreds or thousands of different ways. You need not be content with any particular space opera world, when you can choose from a cornucopia of them; and fantasy worlds too, and plenty of other kinds of worlds besides.

Yet, I admit, there is something missing from that future. While such a virtual-reality simulation might reach the point where it would be fair to say it’s no longer simply a “video game”, it still won’t be real. We won’t actually be Vulcans or Delvians or Gek or Asari. We will merely pretend to be. When we take off the VR suit at the end of the day, we will still be humans, and still be stuck here on Earth. And even if most of the toil of maintaining this society and economy can be automated, there will still be some time we have to spend living ordinary lives in ordinary human bodies.

So, is there some chance that we might really live in a space-opera future? Where we will meet actual, flesh-and-blood people who have blue skin, antennae, or six limbs? Where we will actually, physically move between planets, feeling the different gravity beneath our feet and looking up at the alien sky?

Yes. There is a way this could happen. Not now, not for awhile yet. We ourselves probably won’t live to see it. But if humanity manages to continue thriving for a few more centuries, and technology continues to improve at anything like its current pace, then that day may come.

We won’t have FTL, so we’ll be bounded by the speed of light. But the speed of light is still quite fast. It can get you to Mars in minutes, to Jupiter in hours, and even to Alpha Centauri in a voyage that wouldn’t shock Magellan or Zheng He. Leaving this arm of the Milky Way, let alone traveling to another galaxy, is out of the question (at least if you ever want to come back while anyone you know is still alive—actually as a one-way trip it’s surprisingly feasible thanks to time dilation).

This means that if we manage to invent a truly superior kind of spacecraft engine, one which combines the high thrust of a hydrolox rocket with the high specific impulse of an ion thruster—and that is physically possible, because it’s well within what nuclear rockets ought to be capable of—then we could travel between planets in our solar system, and maybe even to nearby solar systems, in reasonable amounts of time. The world of The Expanse could therefore be in reach (well, the early seasons anyway), where human colonies have settled on Mars and Ceres and Ganymede and formed their own new societies with their own unique cultures.

We may yet run into some kind of extraterrestrial life—bacteria probably, insects maybe, jellyfish if we’re lucky—but we probably ever won’t actually encounter any alien sapients. If there are any, they are probably too primitive to interact with us, or they died out millennia ago, or they’re simply too far away to reach.

But if we cannot find Vulcans and Delvians and Asari, then we can become them. We can modify ourselves with cybernetics, biotechnology, or even nanotechnology, until we remake ourselves into whatever sort of beings we want to be. We may never find a whole interplanetary empire ruled by a race of sapient felinoids, but if furry conventions are any indication, there are plenty of people who would make themselves into sapient felinoids if given the opportunity.

Such a universe would actually be more diverse than a typical space opera. There would be no “planets of hats“, no entire societies of people acting—or perhaps even looking—the same. The hybridization of different species is almost by definition impossible, but when the ‘species’ are cosmetic body mods, we can combine them however we like. A Klingon and a human could have a child—and for that matter the child could grow up and decide to be a Turian.

Honestly there are only two reasons I’m not certain we’ll go this route:

One, we’re still far too able and willing to kill each other, so who knows if we’ll even make it that long. There’s also still plenty of room for some sort of ecological catastrophe to wipe us out.

And two, most people are remarkably boring. We already live in a world where one could go to work every day wearing a cape, a fursuit, a pirate outfit, or a Starfleet uniform, and yet people don’t let you. There’s nothing infeasible about me delivering a lecture dressed as a Kzin Starfleet science officer, and nor would it even particularly impair my ability to deliver the lecture well; and yet I’m quite certain it would be greatly frowned upon if I were to do so, and could even jeopardize my career (especially since I don’t have tenure).

Would it be distracting to the students if I were to do something like that? Probably, at least at first. But once they got used to it, it might actually make them feel at ease. If it were a social norm that lecturers—and students—can dress however they like (perhaps limited by local decency regulations, though those, too, often seem overly strict), students might show up to class in bunny pajamas or pirate outfits or full-body fursuits, but would that really be a bad thing? It could in fact be a good thing, if it helps them express their own identity and makes them more comfortable in their own skin.

But no, we live in a world where the mainstream view is that every man should wear exactly the same thing at every formal occasion. I felt awkward at the AEA conference because my shirt had color.

This means that there is really one major obstacle to building the space opera future: Social norms. If we don’t get to live in this world one day, it will be because the world is ruled by the sort of person who thinks that everyone should be the same.

The alienation of labor

Apr 10 JDN 2459680

Marx famously wrote that capitalism “alienates labor”. Much ink has been spilled over interpreting exactly what he meant by that, but I think the most useful and charitable reading goes something like the following:

When you make something for yourself, it feels fully yours. The effort you put into it feels valuable and meaningful. Whether you’re building a house to live in it or just cooking an omelet to eat it, your labor is directly reflected in your rewards, and you have a clear sense of purpose and value in what you are doing.

But when you make something for an employer, it feels like theirs, not yours. You have been instructed by your superiors to make a certain thing a certain way, for reasons you may or may not understand (and may or may not even agree with). Once you deliver the product—which may be as concrete as a carburetor or as abstract as an accounting report—you will likely never see it again; it will be used or not by someone else somewhere else whom you may not even ever get the chance to meet. Such labor feels tedious, effortful, exhausting—and also often empty, pointless, and meaningless.

On that reading, Marx isn’t wrong. There really is something to this. (I don’t know if this is really Marx’s intended meaning or not, and really I don’t much care—this is a valid thing and we should be addressing it, whether Marx meant to or not.)

There is a little parable about this, which I can’t quite remember where I heard:

Three men are moving heavy stones from one place to another. A traveler passes by and asks them, “What are you doing?”

The first man sighs and says, “We do whatever the boss tells us to do.”

The second man shrugs and says, “We pick up the rocks here, we move them over there.”

The third man smiles and says, “We’re building a cathedral.”

The three answers are quite different—yet all three men may be telling the truth as they see it.

The first man is fully alienated from his labor: he does whatever the boss says, following instructions that he considers arbitrary and mechanical. The second man is partially alienated: he knows the mechanics of what he is trying to accomplish, which may allow him to improve efficiency in some way (e.g. devise better ways to transport the rocks faster or with less effort), but he doesn’t understand the purpose behind it all, so ultimately his work still feels meaningless. But the third man is not alienated: he understands the purpose of his work, and he values that purpose. He sees that what he is doing is contributing to a greater whole that he considers worthwhile. It’s not hard to imagine that the third man will be the happiest, and the first will be the unhappiest.

There really is something about the capitalist wage-labor structure that can easily feed into this sort of alienation. You get a job because you need money to live, not because you necessarily value whatever the job does. You do as you are told so that you can keep your job and continue to get paid.

Some jobs are much more alienating than others. Most teachers and nurses see their work as a vocation, even a calling—their work has deep meaning for them and they value its purpose. At the other extreme there are corporate lawyers and derivatives traders, who must on some level understand that their work contributes almost nothing to the world (may in fact actively cause harm), but they continue to do the work because it pays them very well.

But there are many jobs in between which can be experienced both ways. Working in retail can be an agonizing grind where you must face a grueling gauntlet of ungrateful customers day in and day out—or it can be a way to participate in your local community and help your neighbors get the things they need. Working in manufacturing can be a mechanical process of inserting tab A into slot B and screwing it into place over, and over, and over again—or it can be a chance to create something, convert raw materials into something useful and valuable that other people can cherish.

And while individual perspective and framing surely matter here—those three men were all working in the same quarry, building the same cathedral—there is also an important objective component as well. Working as an artisan is not as alienating as working on an assembly line. Hosting a tent at a farmer’s market is not as alienating as working the register at Walmart. Tutoring an individual student is more purposeful than recording video lectures for a MOOC. Running a quirky local book store is more fulfilling than stocking shelves at Barnes & Noble.

Moreover, capitalism really does seem to push us more toward the alienating side of the spectrum. Assembly lines are far more efficient than artisans, so we make most of our products on assembly lines. Buying food at Walmart is cheaper and more convenient than at farmer’s markets, so more people shop there. Hiring one video lecturer for 10,000 students is a lot cheaper than paying 100 in-person lecturers, let alone 1,000 private tutors. And Barnes & Noble doesn’t drive out local book stores by some nefarious means: It just provides better service at lower prices. If you want a specific book for a good price right now, you’re much more likely to find it at Barnes & Noble. (And even more likely to find it on Amazon.)

Finding meaning in your work is very important for human happiness. Indeed, along with health and social relationships, it’s one of the biggest determinants of happiness. For most people in First World countries, it seems to be more important than income (though income certainly does matter).

Yet the increased efficiency and productivity upon which our modern standard of living depends seems to be based upon a system of production—in a word, capitalism—that systematically alienates us from meaning in our work.

This puts us in a dilemma: Do we keep things as they are, accepting that we will feel an increasing sense of alienation and ennui as our wealth continues to grow and we get ever-fancier toys to occupy our meaningless lives? Or do we turn back the clock, returning to a world where work once again has meaning, but at the cost of making everyone poorer—and some people desperately so?

Well, first of all, to some extent this is a false dichotomy. There are jobs that are highly meaningful but also highly productive, such as teaching and engineering. (Even recording a video lecture is a lot more fulfilling than plenty of jobs out there.) We could try to direct more people into jobs like these. There are jobs that are neither particularly fulfilling nor especially productive, like driving trucks, washing floors and waiting tables. We could redouble our efforts into automating such jobs out of existence. There are meaningless jobs that are lucrative only by rent-seeking, producing little or no genuine value, like the aforementioned corporate lawyers and derivatives traders. These, quite frankly, could simply be banned—or if there is some need for them in particular circumstances (I guess someone should defend corporations when they get sued; but they far more often go unjustly unpunished than unjustly punished!), strictly regulated and their numbers and pay rates curtailed.

Nevertheless, we still have decisions to make, as a society, about what we value most. Do we want a world of cheap, mostly adequate education, that feels alienating even to the people producing it? Then MOOCs are clearly the way to go; pennies on the dollar for education that could well be half as good! Or do we want a world of high-quality, personalized teaching, by highly-qualified academics, that will help students learn better and feel more fulfilling for the teachers? More pointedly—are we willing to pay for that higher-quality education, knowing it will be more expensive?

Moreover, in the First World at least, our standard of living is… pretty high already? Like seriously, what do we really need that we don’t already have? We could always imagine more, of course—a bigger house, a nicer car, dining at fancier restaurants, and so on. But most of us have roofs over our heads, clothes on our backs, and food on our tables.

Economic growth has done amazing things for us—but maybe we’re kind of… done? Maybe we don’t need to keep growing like this, and should start redirecting our efforts away from greater efficiency and toward greater fulfillment. Maybe there are economic possibilities we haven’t been considering.

Note that I specifically mean First World countries here. In Third World countries it’s totally different—they need growth, lots of it, as fast as possible. Fulfillment at work ends up being a pretty low priority when your children are starving and dying of malaria.

But then, you may wonder: If we stop buying cheap plastic toys to fill the emptiness in our hearts, won’t that throw all those Chinese factory workers back into poverty?

In the system as it stands? Yes, that’s a real concern. A sudden drop in consumption spending in general, or even imports in particular, in First World countries could be economically devastating for millions of people in Third World countries.

But there’s nothing inherent about this arrangement. There are less-alienating ways of working that can still provide a decent standard of living, and there’s no fundamental reason why people around the world couldn’t all be doing them. If they aren’t, it’s in the short run because they don’t have the education or the physical machinery—and in the long run it’s usually because their government is corrupt and authoritarian. A functional democratic government can get you capital and education remarkably fast—it certainly did in South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.

Automation is clearly a big part of the answer here. Many people in the First World seem to suspect that our way of life depends upon the exploited labor of impoverished people in Third World countries, but this is largely untrue. Most of that work could be done by robots and highly-skilled technicians and engineers; it just isn’t because that would cost more. Yes, that higher cost would mean some reduction in standard of living—but it wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic as many people seem to think. We would have slightly smaller houses and slightly older cars and slightly slower laptops, but we’d still have houses and cars and laptops.

So I don’t think we should all cast off our worldly possessions just yet. Whether or not it would make us better off, it would cause great harm to countries that depend on their exports to us. But in the long run, I do think we should be working to achieve a future for humanity that isn’t so obsessed with efficiency and growth, and instead tries to provide both a decent standard of living and a life of meaning and purpose.

How can we fix medical residency?

Nov 21 JDN 459540

Most medical residents work 60 or more hours per week, and nearly 20% work 80 or more hours. 66% of medical residents report sleeping 6 hours or less each night, and 20% report sleeping 5 hours or less.

It’s not as if sleep deprivation is a minor thing: Worldwide, across all jobs, nearly 750,000 deaths annually are attributable to long working hours, most of these due to sleep deprivation.


By some estimates, medical errors account for as many as 250,000 deaths per year in the US alone. Even the most conservative estimates say that at least 25,000 deaths per year in the US are attributable to medical errors. It seems quite likely that long working hours increase the rate of dangerous errors (though it has been difficult to determine precisely how much).

Indeed, the more we study stress and sleep deprivation, the more we learn how incredibly damaging they are to health and well-being. Yet we seem to have set up a system almost intentionally designed to maximize the stress and sleep deprivation of our medical professionals. Some of them simply burn out and leave the profession (about 18% of surgical residents quit); surely an even larger number of people never enter medicine in the first place because they know they would burn out.

Even once a doctor makes it through residency and has learned to cope with absurd hours, this most likely distorts their whole attitude toward stress and sleep deprivation. They are likely to not consider them “real problems”, because they were able to “tough it out”—and they are likely to assume that their patients can do the same. One of the primary functions of a doctor is to reduce pain and suffering, and by putting doctors through unnecessary pain and suffering as part of their training, we are teaching them that pain and suffering aren’t really so bad and you should just grin and bear it.

We are also systematically selecting against doctors who have disabilities that would make it difficult to work these double-time hours—which means that the doctors who are most likely to sympathize with disabled patients are being systematically excluded from the profession.

There have been some attempts to regulate the working hours of residents, but they have generally not been effective. I think this is for three reasons:

1. They weren’t actually trying hard enough. A cap of 80 hours per week is still 40 hours too high, and looks to me like you are trying to get better PR without fixing the actual problem.

2. Their enforcement mechanisms left too much opportunity to cheat the system, and in fact most medical residents simply became pressured to continue over-working and under-report their hours.

3. They don’t seem to have considered how to effect the transition in a way that won’t reduce the total number of resident-hours, and so residents got less training and hospitals were less served.

The solution to problem 1 is obvious: The cap needs to be lower. Much lower.

The solution to problem 2 is trickier: What sort of enforcement mechanism would prevent hospitals from gaming the system?

I believe the answer is very steep overtime pay requirements, coupled with regular and intensive auditing. Every hour a medical resident goes over their cap, they should have to be paid triple time. Audits should be performed frequently, randomly and without notice. And if a hospital is caught falsifying their records, they should be required to pay all missing hours to all medical residents at quintuple time. And Medicare and Medicaid should not be allowed to reimburse these additional payments—they must come directly out of the hospital’s budget.

Under the current system, the “punishment” is usually a threat of losing accreditation, which is too extreme and too harmful to the residents. Precisely because this is such a drastic measure, it almost never happens. The punishment needs to be small enough that we will actually enforce it; and it needs to hurt the hospital, not the residents—overtime pay would do precisely that.

That brings me to problem 3: How can we ensure that we don’t reduce the total number of resident-hours?

This is important for two reasons: Each resident needs a certain number of hours of training to become a skilled doctor, and residents provide a significant proportion of hospital services. Of the roughly 1 million doctors in the US, about 140,000 are medical residents.

The answer is threefold:

1. Increase the number of residency slots (we have a global doctor shortage anyway).

2. Extend the duration of residency so that each resident gets the same number of total work hours.

3. Gradually phase in so that neither increase needs to be too fast.

Currently a typical residency is about 4 years. 4 years of 80-hour weeks is equivalent to 8 years of 40-hour weeks. The goal is for each resident to get 320 hour-years of training.

With 140,000 current residents averaging 4 years, a typical cohort is about 35,000. So the goal is to each year have at least (35,000 residents per cohort)(4 cohorts)(80 hours per week) = 11 million resident-hours per week.

In cohort 1, we reduce the cap to 70 hours, and increase the number of accepted residents to 40,000. Residents in cohort 1 will continue their residency for 4 years, 7 months. This gives each one 321 hour-years of training.

In cohort 2, we reduce the cap to 60 hours, and increase the number of accepted residents to 46,000.

Residents in cohort 2 will continue their residency for 5 years, 4 months. This gives each one 320 hour-years of training.

In cohort 3, we reduce the cap to 55 hours, and increase the number of accepted residents to 50,000.

Residents in cohort 3 will continue their residency for 6 years. This gives each one 330 hour-years of training.

In cohort 4, we reduce the cap to 50 hours, and increase the number of accepted residents to 56,000. Residents in cohort 4 will continue their residency for 6 years, 6 months. This gives each one 325 hour-years of training.

In cohort 5, we reduce the cap to 45 hours, and increase the number of accepted residents to 60,000. Residents in cohort 5 will continue their residency for 7 years, 2 months. This gives each one 322 hour-years of training.

In cohort 6, we reduce the cap to 40 hours, and increase the number of accepted residents to 65,000. Residents in cohort 6 will continue their residency for 8 years. This gives each one 320 hour-years of training.

In cohort 7, we keep the cap to 40 hours, and increase the number of accepted residents to 70,000. This is now the new standard, with 8-year residencies with 40 hour weeks.

I’ve made a graph here of what this does to the available number of resident-hours each year. There is a brief 5% dip in year 4, but by the time we reach year 14 we’ve actually doubled the total number of available resident-hours at any given time—without increasing the total amount of work each resident does, simply keeping them longer and working them less intensively each year. Given that quality of work is reduced by working longer hours, it’s likely that even this brief reduction in hours would not result in any reduced quality of care for patients.

[residency_hours.png]

I have thus managed to increase the number of available resident-hours, ensure that each resident gets the same amount of training as before, and still radically reduce the work hours from 80 per week to 40 per week. The additional recruitment each year is never more than 6,000 new residents or 15% of the current number of residents.

It takes several years to effect this transition. This is unavoidable if we are trying to avoid massive increases in recruitment, though if we were prepared to simply double the number of admitted residents each year we could immediately transition to 40-hour work weeks in a single cohort and the available resident-hours would then strictly increase every year.

This plan is likely not the optimal one; I don’t know enough about the details of how costly it would be to admit more residents, and it’s possible that some residents might actually prefer a briefer, more intense residency rather than a longer, less stressful one. (Though it’s worth noting that most people greatly underestimate the harms of stress and sleep deprivation, and doctors don’t seem to be any better in this regard.)

But this plan does prove one thing: There are solutions to this problem. It can be done. If our medical system isn’t solving this problem, it is not because solutions do not exist—it is because they are choosing not to take them.

How to change minds

Aug 29 JDN 2459456

Think for a moment about the last time you changed your mind on something important. If you can’t think of any examples, that’s not a good sign. Think harder; look back further. If you still can’t find any examples, you need to take a deep, hard look at yourself and how you are forming your beliefs. The path to wisdom is not found by starting with the right beliefs, but by starting with the wrong ones and recognizing them as wrong. No one was born getting everything right.

If you remember changing your mind about something, but don’t remember exactly when, that’s not a problem. Indeed, this is the typical case, and I’ll get to why in a moment. Try to remember as much as you can about the whole process, however long it took.

If you still can’t specifically remember changing your mind, try to imagine a situation in which you would change your mind—and if you can’t do that, you should be deeply ashamed and I have nothing further to say to you.

Thinking back to that time: Why did you change your mind?

It’s possible that it was something you did entirely on your own, through diligent research of primary sources or even your own mathematical proofs or experimental studies. This is occasionally something that happens; as an active researcher, it has definitely happened to me. But it’s clearly not the typical case of what changes people’s minds, and it’s quite likely that you have never experienced it yourself.

The far more common scenario—even for active researchers—is far more mundane: You changed your mind because someone convinced you. You encountered a persuasive argument, and it changed the way you think about things.

In fact, it probably wasn’t just one persuasive argument; it was probably many arguments, from multiple sources, over some span of time. It could be as little as minutes or hours; it could be as long as years.

Probably the first time someone tried to change your mind on that issue, they failed. The argument may even have degenerated into shouting and name-calling. You both went away thinking that the other side was composed of complete idiots or heartless monsters. And then, a little later, thinking back on the whole thing, you remembered one thing they said that was actually a pretty good point.

This happened again with someone else, and again with yet another person. And each time your mind changed just a little bit—you became less certain of some things, or incorporated some new information you didn’t know before. The towering edifice of your worldview would not be toppled by a single conversation—but a few bricks here and there did get taken out and replaced.

Or perhaps you weren’t even the target of the conversation; you simply overheard it. This seems especially common in the age of social media, where public and private spaces become blurred and two family members arguing about politics can blow up into a viral post that is viewed by millions. Perhaps you changed your mind not because of what was said to you, but because of what two other people said to one another; perhaps the one you thought was on your side just wasn’t making as many good arguments as the one on the other side.

Now, you may be thinking: Yes, people like me change our minds, because we are intelligent and reasonable. But those people, on the other side, aren’t like that. They are stubborn and foolish and dogmatic and stupid.

And you know what? You probably are an especially intelligent and reasonable person. If you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance that you are at least above-average in your level of education, rationality, and open-mindedness.

But no matter what beliefs you hold, I guarantee you there is someone out there who shares many of them and is stubborn and foolish and dogmatic and stupid. And furthermore, there is probably someone out there who disagrees with many of your beliefs and is intelligent and open-minded and reasonable.

This is not to say that there’s no correlation between your level of reasonableness and what you actually believe. Obviously some beliefs are more rational than others, and rational people are more likely to hold those beliefs. (If this weren’t the case, we’d be doomed.) Other things equal, an atheist is more reasonable than a member of the Taliban; a social democrat is more reasonable than a neo-Nazi; a feminist is more reasonable than a misogynist; a member of the Human Rights Campaign is more reasonable than a member of the Westboro Baptist Church. But reasonable people can be wrong, and unreasonable people can be right.

You should be trying to seek out the most reasonable people who disagree with you. And you should be trying to present yourself as the most reasonable person who expresses your own beliefs.

This can be difficult—especially that first part, as the world (or at least the world spanned by Facebook and Twitter) seems to be filled with people who are astonishingly dogmatic and unreasonable. Often you won’t be able to find any reasonable disagreement. Often you will find yourself in threads full of rage, hatred and name-calling, and you will come away disheartened, frustrated, or even despairing for humanity. The whole process can feel utterly futile.

And yet, somehow, minds change.

Support for same-sex marriage in the US rose from 27% to 70% just since 1997.

Read that date again: 1997. Less than 25 years ago.

The proportion of new marriages which were interracial has risen from 3% in 1967 to 19% today. Given the racial demographics of the US, this is almost at the level of random assortment.

Ironically I think that the biggest reason people underestimate the effectiveness of rational argument is the availability heuristic: We can’t call to mind any cases where we changed someone’s mind completely. We’ve never observed a pi-radian turnaround in someone’s whole worldview, and thus, we conclude that nobody ever changes their mind about anything important.

But in fact most people change their minds slowly and gradually, and are embarrassed to admit they were wrong in public, so they change their minds in private. (One of the best single changes we could make toward improving human civilization would be to make it socially rewarded to publicly admit you were wrong. Even the scientific community doesn’t do this nearly as well as it should.) Often changing your mind doesn’t even really feel like changing your mind; you just experience a bit more doubt, learn a bit more, and repeat the process over and over again until, years later, you believe something different than you did before. You moved 0.1 or even 0.01 radians at a time, until at last you came all the way around.

It may be in fact that some people’s minds cannot be changed—either on particular issues, or even on any issue at all. But it is so very, very easy to jump to that conclusion after a few bad interactions, that I think we should intentionally overcompensate in the opposite direction: Only give up on someone after you have utterly overwhelming evidence that their mind cannot ever be changed in any way.

I can’t guarantee that this will work. Perhaps too many people are too far gone.

But I also don’t see any alternative. If the truth is to prevail, it will be by rational argument. This is the only method that systematically favors the truth. All other methods give equal or greater power to lies.

When to give up

Jun 6 JDN 2459372

Perseverance is widely regarded as a virtue, and for good reason. Often one of the most important deciding factors in success is the capacity to keep trying after repeated failure. I think this has been a major barrier for me personally; many things came easily to me when I was young, and I internalized the sense that if something doesn’t come easily, it must be beyond my reach.

Yet it’s also worth noting that this is not the only deciding factor—some things really are beyond our capabilities. Indeed, some things are outright impossible. And we often don’t know what is possible and what isn’t.

This raises the question: When should we persevere, and when should we give up?

There is actually reason to think that people often don’t give up when they should. Steven Levitt (of Freakonomics fame)recently published a study that asked people who were on the verge of a difficult decision to flip a coin, and then base their decision on the coin flip: Heads, make a change; tails, keep things as they are. Many didn’t actually follow the coin flip—but enough did that there was a statistical difference between those who saw heads and those who saw tails. The study found that the people who flipped heads and made a change were on average happier a couple of years later than the people who flipped tails and kept things as they were.

This question is particularly salient for me lately, because the academic job market has gone so poorly for me. I’ve spent most of my life believing that academia is where I belong; my intellect and my passion for teaching and research has convinced me and many others that this is the right path for me. But now that I have a taste of what it is actually like to apply for tenure-track jobs and submit papers to journals, I am utterly miserable. I hate every minute of it. I’ve spent the entire past year depressed and feeling like I have accomplished absolutely nothing.

In theory, once one actually gets tenure it’s supposed to get easier. But that could be a long way away—or it might never happen at all. As it is, there’s basically no chance I’ll get a tenure track position this year, and it’s unclear what my chances would be if I tried again next year.

If I could actually get a paper published, that would no doubt improve my odds of landing a better job next year. But I haven’t been able to do that, and each new rejection cuts so deep that I can barely stand to look at my papers anymore, much less actually continue submitting them. And apparently even tenured professors still get their papers rejected repeatedly, which means that this pain will never go away. I simply cannot imagine being happy if this is what I am expected to do for the rest of my life.

I found this list of criteria for when you should give up something—and most of them fit me. I’m not sure I know in my heart it can’t work out, but I increasingly suspect that. I’m not sure I want it anymore, now that I have a better idea of what it’s really like. Pursuing it is definitely making me utterly miserable. I wouldn’t say it’s the only reason, but I definitely do worry what other people will think if I quit; I feel like I’d be letting a lot of people down. I also wonder who I am without it, where I belong if not here. I don’t know what other paths are out there, but maybe there is something better. This constant stream of failure and rejection has definitely made me feel like I hate myself. And above all, when I imagine quitting, I absolutely feel an enormous sense of relief.

Publishing in journals seems to be the thing that successful academics care about most, and it means almost nothing to me anymore. I only want it because of all the pressure to have it, because of all the rewards that come from having it. It has become fully instrumental to me, with no intrinsic meaning or value. I have no particular desire to be lauded by the same system that lauded Fischer Black or Kenneth Rogoff—both of whose egregious and easily-avoidable mistakes are responsible for the suffering of millions people around the world.

I want people to read my ideas. But people don’t actually read journals. They skim them. They read the abstracts. They look at the graphs and regression tables. (You have the meeting that should have been an email? I raise you the paper that should have been a regression table.) They see if there’s something in there that they should be citing for their own work, and if there is, maybe then they actually read the paper—but everyone is so hyper-specialized that only a handful of people will ever actually want to cite any given paper. The vast majority of research papers are incredibly tedious to read and very few people actually bother. As a method for disseminating ideas, this is perhaps slightly better than standing on a street corner and shouting into a megaphone.

I would much rather write books; people sometimes actually read books, especially when they are written for a wide audience and hence not forced into the straitjacket of standard ‘scientific writing’ that no human being actually gets any enjoyment out of writing or reading. I’ve seen a pretty clear improvement in writing quality of papers written by Nobel laureates—after they get their Nobels or similar accolades. Once they establish themselves, they are free to actually write in ways that are compelling and interesting, rather than having to present everything in the most dry, tedious way possible. If your paper reads like something that a normal person would actually find interesting or enjoyable to read, you will be—as I have been—immediately told that you must remove all such dangerous flavor until the result is as tasteless as possible.

No, the purpose of research journals is not to share ideas. Its function is not to share, but to evaluate. And it isn’t even really to evaluate research—it’s to evaluate researchers. It’s to outsource the efforts of academic hiring to an utterly unaccountable and arbitrary system run mostly by for-profit corporations. It may have some secondary effect of evaluating ideas for validity; at least the really awful ideas are usually excluded. But its primary function is to decide the academic pecking order.

I had thought that scientific peer review was supposed to select for truth. Perhaps sometimes it does. It seems to do so reasonably well in the natural sciences, at least. But in the social sciences? That’s far less clear. Peer-reviewed papers are much more likely to be accurate than any randomly-selected content; but there are still a disturbingly large number of peer-reviewed published papers that are utterly wrong, and some unknown but undoubtedly vast number of good papers that have never seen the light of day.

Then again, when I imagine giving up on an academic career, I don’t just feel relief—I also feel regret and loss. I feel like I’ve wasted years of my life putting together a dream that has now crumbled in my hands. I even feel some anger, some sense that I was betrayed by those who told me that this was about doing good research when it turns out it’s actually about being thick-skinned enough that you can take an endless assault of rejections. It feels like I’ve been running a marathon, and I just rounded a curve to discover that the last five miles must be ridden on horseback, when I don’t have a horse, I have no equestrian training, and in fact I’m allergic to horses.

I wish someone had told me it would be like this. Maybe they tried and I didn’t listen. They did say that papers would get rejected. They did say that the tenure track was high-pressure and publish-or-perish was a major source of anxiety. But they never said that it would tear at my soul like this. They never said that I would have to go through multiple rounds of agony, self-doubt, and despair in order to get even the slighest recognition for my years of work. They never said that the whole field would treat me like I’m worthless because I can’t satisfy the arbitrary demands of a handful of anonymous reviewers. They never said that I would begin to feel worthless after several rounds of this.

That’s really what I want to give up on. I want to give up on hitching my financial security, my career, my future, my self-worth to a system as capricious as peer review.

I don’t want to give up on research. I don’t want to give up on teaching. I still believe strongly in discovering new truths and sharing them with others. I’m just increasingly realizing that academia isn’t nearly as good at that as I thought it was.

It isn’t even that I think it’s impossible for me to succeed in academia. I think that if I continued trying to get a tenure-track job, I would land one eventually. Maybe next year. Or maybe I’d spend a few years at a postdoc first. And I’d probably manage to publish some paper in some reasonably respectable journal at some point in the future. But I don’t know how long it would take, or how good a journal it would be—and I’m already past the point where I really don’t care anymore, where I can’t afford to care, where if I really allowed myself to care it would only devastate me when I inevitably fail again. Now that I see what is really involved in the process, how arduous and arbitrary it is, publishing in a journal means almost nothing to me. I want to be validated; I want to be appreciated; I want to be recognized. But the system is set up to provide nothing but rejection, rejection, rejection. If even the best work won’t be recognized immediately and even the worst work can make it with enough tries, then the whole system begins to seem meaningless. It’s just rolls of the dice. And I didn’t sign up to be a gambler.

The job market will probably be better next year than it was this year. But how much better? Yes, there will be more openings, but there will also be more applicants: Everyone who would normally be on the market, plus everyone like me who didn’t make it this year, plus everyone who decided to hold back this year because they knew they wouldn’t make it (as I probably should have done). Yes, in a normal year, I could be fairly confident of getting some reasonably decent position—but this wasn’t a normal year, and next year won’t be one either, and the one after that might still not be. If I can’t get a paper published in a good journal between now and then—and I’m increasingly convinced that I can’t—then I really can’t expect my odds to be greatly improved from what they were this time around. And if I don’t know that this terrible gauntlet is going to lead to something good, I’d really much rather avoid it altogether. It was miserable enough when I went into it being (over)confident that it would work out all right.

Perhaps the most important question when deciding whether to give up is this: What will happen if you do? What alternatives do you have? If giving up means dying, then don’t give up. (“Learn to let go” is very bad advice to someone hanging from the edge of a cliff.) But while it may feel that way sometimes, rarely does giving up on a career or a relationship or a project yield such catastrophic results.

When people are on the fence about making a change and then do so, even based on the flip of a coin, it usually makes them better off. Note that this is different from saying you should make all your decisions randomly; if you are confident that you don’t want to make a change, don’t make a change. This advice is for people who feel like they want a change but are afraid to take the chance, people who find themselves ambivalent about what direction to go next—people like me.

I don’t know where I should go next. I don’t know where I belong. I know it isn’t Wall Street. I’m pretty sure it’s not consulting. Maybe it’s nonprofits. Maybe it’s government. Maybe it’s freelance writing. Maybe it’s starting my own business. I guess I’d still consider working in academia; if Purdue called me back to say they made a terrible mistake and they want me after all, I’d probably take the offer. But since such an outcome is now vanishingly unlikely, perhaps it’s time, after all, to give up.

Selectivity is a terrible measure of quality

May 23 JDN 2459358

How do we decide which universities and research journals are the best? There are a vast number of ways we could go about this—and there are in fact many different ranking systems out there, though only a handful are widely used. But one primary criterion which seems to be among the most frequently used is selectivity.

Selectivity is a very simple measure: What proportion of people who try to get in, actually get in? For universities this is admission rates for applicants; for journals it is acceptance rates for submitted papers.

The top-rated journals in economics have acceptance rates of 1-7%. The most prestigious universities have acceptance rates of 4-10%. So a reasonable ballpark is to assume a 95% chance of not getting accepted in either case. Of course, some applicants are more or less qualified, and some papers are more or less publishable; but my guess is that most applicants are qualified and most submitted papers are publishable. So these low acceptance rates mean refusing huge numbers of qualified people.


Selectivity is an objective, numeric score that can be easily generated and compared, and is relatively difficult to fake. This may accouunt for its widespread appeal. And it surely has some correlation with genuine quality: Lots of people are likely to apply to a school because it is good, and lots of people are likely to submit to a journal because it is good.

But look a little bit closer, and it becomes clear that selectivity is really a terrible measure of quality.


One, it is extremely self-fulfilling. Once a school or a journal becomes prestigious, more people will try to get in there, and that will inflate its selectivity rating. Harvard is extremely selective because Harvard is famous and high-rated. Why is Harvard so high-rated? Well, in part because Harvard is extremely selective.

Two, it incentivizes restricting the number of applicants accepted.

Ivy League schools have vast endowments, and could easily afford to expand their capacity, thus employing more faculty and educating more students. But that would require reducing their acceptance rates and hence jeopardizing their precious selectivity ratings. If the goal is to give as many people as possible the highest quality education, then selectivity is a deeply perverse incentive: It specifically incentivizes not educating too many students.

Similarly, most journals include something in their rejection letters about “limited space”, which in the age of all-digital journals is utter nonsense. Journals could choose to publish ten, twenty, fifty times as many papers as they currently do—or half, or a tenth. They could publish everything that gets submitted, or only publish one paper a year. It’s an entirely arbitrary decision with no real constraints. They choose what proportion of papers to publish entirely based primarily on three factors that have absolutely nothing to do with limited space: One, they want to publish enough papers to make it seem like they are putting out regular content; two, they want to make sure they publish anything that will turn out to be a major discovery (though they honestly seem systematically bad at predicting that); and three, they want to publish as few papers as possible within those constraints to maximize their selectivity.

To be clear, I’m not saying that journals should publish everything that gets submitted. Actually I think too many papers already get published—indeed, too many get written. The incentives in academia are to publish as many papers in top journals as possible, rather than to actually do the most rigorous and ground-breaking research. The best research often involves spending long periods of time making very little visible progress, and it does not lend itself to putting out regular publications to impress tenure committees and grant agencies.

The number of scientific papers published each year has grown at about 5% per year since 1900. The number of peer-reviewed journals has grown at an increasing rate, from about 3% per year for most of the 20th century to over 6% now. These are far in excess of population growth, technological advancement, or even GDP growth; this many scientific papers is obviously unsustainable. There are now 300 times as many scientific papers published per year as there were in 1900—while the world population has only increased by about 5-fold during that time. Yes, the number of scientists has also increased—but not that fast. About 8 million people are scientists, publishing an average of 2 million articles per year—one per scientist every four years. But the number of scientist jobs grows at just over 1%—basically tracking population growth or the job market in general. If papers published continue to grow at 5% while the number of scientists increases at 1%, then in 100 years each scientist will have to publish 48 times as many papers as today, or about 1 every month.


So the problem with research journals isn’t so much that journals aren’t accepting enough papers, as that too many people are submitting papers. Of course the real problem is that universities have outsourced their hiring decisions to journal editors. Rather than actually evaluating whether someone is a good teacher or a good researcher (or accepting that they can’t and hiring randomly), universities have trusted in the arbitrary decisions of research journals to decide whom they should hire.

But selectivity as a measure of quality means that journals have no reason not to support this system; they get their prestige precisely from the fact that scientists are so pressured to publish papers. The more papers get submitted, the better the journals look for rejecting them.

Another way of looking at all this is to think about what the process of acceptance or rejection entails. It is inherently a process of asymmetric information.

If we had perfect information, what would the acceptance rate of any school or journal be? 100%, regardless of quality. Only the applicants who knew they would get accepted would apply. So the total number of admitted students and accepted papers would be exactly the same, but all the acceptance rates would rise to 100%.

Perhaps that’s not realistic; but what if the application criteria were stricter? For instance, instead of asking you your GPA and SAT score, Harvard’s form could simply say: “Anyone with a GPA less than 4.0 or an SAT score less than 1500 need not apply.” That’s practically true anyway. But Harvard doesn’t have an incentive to say it out loud, because then applicants who know they can’t meet that standard won’t bother applying, and Harvard’s precious selectivity number will go down. (These are far from sufficient, by the way; I was valedictorian and had a 1590 on my SAT and still didn’t get in.)

There are other criteria they’d probably be even less willing to emphasize, but are no less significant: “If your family income is $20,000 or less, there is a 95% chance we won’t accept you.” “Other things equal, your odds of getting in are much better if you’re Black than if you’re Asian.”

For journals it might be more difficult to express the criteria clearly, but they could certainly do more than they do. Journals could more strictly delineate what kind of papers they publish: This one only for pure theory, that one only for empirical data, this one only for experimental results. They could choose more specific content niches rather than literally dozens of journals all being ostensibly about “economics in general” (the American Economic Review, the Quarterly Journal of Economics, the Journal of Political Economy, the Review of Economic Studies, the European Economic Review, the International Economic Review, Economic Inquiry… these are just the most prestigious). No doubt there would still have to be some sort of submission process and some rejections—but if they really wanted to reduce the number of submissions they could easily do so. The fact is, they want to have a large number of submissions that they can reject.

What this means is that rather than being a measure of quality, selectivity is primarily a measure of opaque criteria. It’s possible to imagine a world where nearly every school and every journal accept less than 1% of applicants; this would occur if the criteria for acceptance were simply utterly unknown and everyone had to try hundreds of places before getting accepted.


Indeed, that’s not too dissimilar to how things currently work in the job market or the fiction publishing market. The average job opening receives a staggering 250 applications. In a given year, a typical literary agent receives 5000 submissions and accepts 10 clients—so about one in every 500.

For fiction writing I find this somewhat forgivable, if regrettable; the quality of a novel is a very difficult thing to assess, and to a large degree inherently subjective. I honestly have no idea what sort of submission guidelines one could put on an agency page to explain to authors what distinguishes a good novel from a bad one (or, not quite the same thing, a successful one from an unsuccessful one).

Indeed, it’s all the worse because a substantial proportion of authors don’t even follow the guidelines that they do include! The most common complaint I hear from agents and editors at writing conferences is authors not following their submission guidelines—such basic problems as submitting content from the wrong genre, not formatting it correctly, having really egregious grammatical errors. Quite frankly I wish they’d shut up about it, because I wanted to hear what would actually improve my chances of getting published, not listen to them rant about the thousands of people who can’t bother to follow directions. (And I’m pretty sure that those people aren’t likely to go to writing conferences and listen to agents give panel discussions.)

But for the job market? It’s really not that hard to tell who is qualified for most jobs. If it isn’t something highly specialized, most people could probably do it, perhaps with a bit of training. If it is something highly specialized, you can restrict your search to people who already have the relevant education or training. In any case, having experience in that industry is obviously a plus. Beyond that, it gets much harder to assess quality—but also much less necessary. Basically anyone with an advanced degree in the relevant subject or a few years of experience at that job will probably do fine, and you’re wasting effort by trying to narrow the field further. If it is very hard to tell which candidate is better, that usually means that the candidates really aren’t that different.

To my knowledge, not a lot of employers or fiction publishers pride themselves on their selectivity. Indeed, many fiction publishers have a policy of simply refusing unsolicited submissions, relying upon literary agents to pre-filter their submissions for them. (Indeed, even many agents refuse unsolicited submissions—which raises the question: What is a debut author supposed to do?) This is good, for if they did—if Penguin Random House (or whatever that ludicrous all-absorbing conglomerate is calling itself these days; ah, what was it like in that bygone era, when anti-trust enforcement was actually a thing?) decided to start priding itself on its selectivity of 0.05% or whatever—then the already massively congested fiction industry would probably grind to a complete halt.

This means that by ranking schools and journals based on their selectivity, we are partly incentivizing quality, but mostly incentivizing opacity. The primary incentive is for them to attract as many applicants as possible, even knowing full well that they will reject most of these applicants. They don’t want to be too clear about what they will accept or reject, because that might discourage unqualified applicants from trying and thus reduce their selectivity rate. In terms of overall welfare, every rejected application is wasted human effort—but in terms of the institution’s selectivity rating, it’s a point in their favor.

Social science is broken. Can we fix it?

May 16 JDN 2459349

Social science is broken. I am of course not the first to say so. The Atlantic recently published an article outlining the sorry state of scientific publishing, and several years ago Slate Star Codex published a lengthy post (with somewhat harsher language than I generally use on this blog) showing how parapsychology, despite being obviously false, can still meet the standards that most social science is expected to meet. I myself discussed the replication crisis in social science on this very blog a few years back.

I was pessimistic then about the incentives of scientific publishing be fixed any time soon, and I am even more pessimistic now.

Back then I noted that journals are often run by for-profit corporations that care more about getting attention than getting the facts right, university administrations are incompetent and top-heavy, and publish-or-perish creates cutthroat competition without providing incentives for genuinely rigorous research. But these are widely known facts, even if so few in the scientific community seem willing to face up to them.

Now I am increasingly concerned that the reason we aren’t fixing this system is that the people with the most power to fix it don’t want to. (Indeed, as I have learned more about political economy I have come to believe this more and more about all the broken institutions in the world. American democracy has its deep flaws because politicians like it that way. China’s government is corrupt because that corruption is profitable for many of China’s leaders. Et cetera.)

I know economics best, so that is where I will focus; but most of what I’m saying here would also apply to other social sciences such as sociology and psychology as well. (Indeed it was psychology that published Daryl Bem.)

Rogoff and Reinhart’s 2010 article “Growth in a Time of Debt”, which was a weak correlation-based argument to begin with, was later revealed (by an intrepid grad student! His name is Thomas Herndon.) to be based upon deep, fundamental errors. Yet the article remains published, without any notice of retraction or correction, in the American Economic Review, probably the most prestigious journal in economics (and undeniably in the vaunted “Top Five”). And the paper itself was widely used by governments around the world to justify massive austerity policies—which backfired with catastrophic consequences.

Why wouldn’t the AER remove the article from their website? Or issue a retraction? Or at least add a note on the page explaining the errors? If their primary concern were scientific truth, they would have done something like this. Their failure to do so is a silence that speaks volumes, a hound that didn’t bark in the night.

It’s rational, if incredibly selfish, for Rogoff and Reinhart themselves to not want a retraction. It was one of their most widely-cited papers. But why wouldn’t AER’s editors want to retract a paper that had been so embarrassingly debunked?

And so I came to realize: These are all people who have succeeded in the current system. Their work is valued, respected, and supported by the system of scientific publishing as it stands. If we were to radically change that system, as we would necessarily have to do in order to re-align incentives toward scientific truth, they would stand to lose, because they would suddenly be competing against other people who are not as good at satisfying the magical 0.05, but are in fact at least as good—perhaps even better—actual scientists than they are.

I know how they would respond to this criticism: I’m someone who hasn’t succeeded in the current system, so I’m biased against it. This is true, to some extent. Indeed, I take it quite seriously, because while tenured professors stand to lose prestige, they can’t really lose their jobs even if there is a sudden flood of far superior research. So in directly economic terms, we would expect the bias against the current system among grad students, adjuncts, and assistant professors to be larger than the bias in favor of the current system among tenured professors and prestigious researchers.

Yet there are other motives aside from money: Norms and social status are among the most powerful motivations human beings have, and these biases are far stronger in favor of the current system—even among grad students and junior faculty. Grad school is many things, some good, some bad; but one of them is a ritual gauntlet that indoctrinates you into the belief that working in academia is the One True Path, without which your life is a failure. If your claim is that grad students are upset at the current system because we overestimate our own qualifications and are feeling sour grapes, you need to explain our prevalence of Impostor Syndrome. By and large, grad students don’t overestimate our abilities—we underestimate them. If we think we’re as good at this as you are, that probably means we’re better. Indeed I have little doubt that Thomas Herndon is a better economist than Kenneth Rogoff will ever be.

I have additional evidence that insider bias is important here: When Paul Romer—Nobel laureate—left academia he published an utterly scathing criticism of the state of academic macroeconomics. That is, once he had escaped the incentives toward insider bias, he turned against the entire field.

Romer pulls absolutely no punches: He literally compares the standard methods of DSGE models to “phlogiston” and “gremlins”. And the paper is worth reading, because it’s obviously entirely correct. He pulls no punches and every single one lands on target. It’s also a pretty fun read, at least if you have the background knowledge to appreciate the dry in-jokes. (Much like “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” I still laugh out loud every time I read the phrase “hegemonic Zermelo-Frankel axioms”, though I realize most people would be utterly nonplussed. For the unitiated, these are the Zermelo-Frankel axioms. Can’t you just see the colonialist imperialism in sentences like “\forall x \forall y (\forall z, z \in x \iff z \in y) \implies x = y”?)

In other words, the Upton Sinclair Principle seems to be applying here: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon not understanding it.” The people with the most power to change the system of scientific publishing are journal editors and prestigious researchers, and they are the people for whom the current system is running quite swimmingly.

It’s not that good science can’t succeed in the current system—it often does. In fact, I’m willing to grant that it almost always does, eventually. When the evidence has mounted for long enough and the most adamant of the ancien regime finally retire or die, then, at last, the paradigm will shift. But this process takes literally decades longer than it should. In principle, a wrong theory can be invalidated by a single rigorous experiment. In practice, it generally takes about 30 years of experiments, most of which don’t get published, until the powers that be finally give in.

This delay has serious consequences. It means that many of the researchers working on the forefront of a new paradigm—precisely the people that the scientific community ought to be supporting most—will suffer from being unable to publish their work, get grant funding, or even get hired in the first place. It means that not only will good science take too long to win, but that much good science will never get done at all, because the people who wanted to do it couldn’t find the support they needed to do so. This means that the delay is in fact much longer than it appears: Because it took 30 years for one good idea to take hold, all the other good ideas that would have sprung from it in that time will be lost, at least until someone in the future comes up with them.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget it: At the AEA conference a few years back, I went to a luncheon celebrating Richard Thaler, one of the founders of behavioral economics, whom I regard as one of the top 5 greatest economists of the 20th century (I’m thinking something like, “Keynes > Nash > Thaler > Ramsey > Schelling”). Yes, now he is being rightfully recognized for his seminal work; he won a Nobel, and he has an endowed chair at Chicago, and he got an AEA luncheon in his honor among many other accolades. But it was not always so. Someone speaking at the luncheon offhandedly remarked something like, “Did we think Richard would win a Nobel? Honestly most of us weren’t sure he’d get tenure.” Most of the room laughed; I had to resist the urge to scream. If Richard Thaler wasn’t certain to get tenure, then the entire system is broken. This would be like finding out that Erwin Schrodinger or Niels Bohr wasn’t sure he would get tenure in physics.

A. Gary Schilling, a renowned Wall Street economist (read: One Who Has Turned to the Dark Side), once remarked (the quote is often falsely attributed to Keynes): “markets can remain irrational a lot longer than you and I can remain solvent.” In the same spirit, I would say this: the scientific community can remain wrong a lot longer than you and I can extend our graduate fellowships and tenure clocks.

Signaling and the Curse of Knowledge

Jan 3 JDN 2459218

I received several books for Christmas this year, and the one I was most excited to read first was The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker. Pinker is exactly the right person to write such a book: He is both a brilliant linguist and cognitive scientist and also an eloquent and highly successful writer. There are two other books on writing that I rate at the same tier: On Writing by Stephen King, and The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. Don’t bother with style manuals from people who only write style manuals; if you want to learn how to write, learn from people who are actually successful at writing.

Indeed, I knew I’d love The Sense of Style as soon as I read its preface, containing some truly hilarious takedowns of Strunk & White. And honestly Strunk & White are among the best standard style manuals; they at least actually manage to offer some useful advice while also being stuffy, pedantic, and often outright inaccurate. Most style manuals only do the second part.

One of Pinker’s central focuses in The Sense of Style is on The Curse of Knowledge, an all-too-common bias in which knowing things makes us unable to appreciate the fact that other people don’t already know it. I think I succumbed to this failing most greatly in my first book, Special Relativity from the Ground Up, in which my concept of “the ground” was above most people’s ceilings. I was trying to write for high school physics students, and I think the book ended up mostly being read by college physics professors.

The problem is surely a real one: After years of gaining expertise in a subject, we are all liable to forget the difficulty of reaching our current summit and automatically deploy concepts and jargon that only a small group of experts actually understand. But I think Pinker underestimates the difficulty of escaping this problem, because it’s not just a cognitive bias that we all suffer from time to time. It’s also something that our society strongly incentivizes.

Pinker points out that a small but nontrivial proportion of published academic papers are genuinely well written, using this to argue that obscurantist jargon-laden writing isn’t necessary for publication; but he didn’t seem to even consider the fact that nearly all of those well-written papers were published by authors who already had tenure or even distinction in the field. I challenge you to find a single paper written by a lowly grad student that could actually get published without being full of needlessly technical terminology and awkward passive constructions: “A murian model was utilized for the experiment, in an acoustically sealed environment” rather than “I tested using mice and rats in a quiet room”. This is not because grad students are more thoroughly entrenched in the jargon than tenured professors (quite the contrary), nor that grad students are worse writers in general (that one could really go either way), but because grad students have more to prove. We need to signal our membership in the tribe, whereas once you’ve got tenure—or especially once you’ve got an endowed chair or something—you have already proven yourself.

Pinker seems to briefly touch this insight (p. 69), without fully appreciating its significance: “Even when we have an inlkling that we are speaking in a specialized lingo, we may be reluctant to slip back into plain speech. It could betray to our peers the awful truth that we are still greenhorns, tenderfoots, newbies. And if our readers do know the lingo, we might be insulting their intelligence while spelling it out. We would rather run the risk of confusing them while at least appearing to be soophisticated than take a chance at belaboring the obvious while striking them as naive or condescending.”

What we are dealing with here is a signaling problem. The fact that one can write better once one is well-established is the phenomenon of countersignaling, where one who has already established their status stops investing in signaling.

Here’s a simple model for you. Suppose each person has a level of knowledge x, which they are trying to demonstrate. They know their own level of knowledge, but nobody else does.

Suppose that when we observe someone’s knowledge, we get two pieces of information: We have an imperfect observation of their true knowledge which is x+e, the real value of x plus some amount of error e. Nobody knows exactly what the error is. To keep the model as simple as possible I’ll assume that e is drawn from a uniform distribution between -1 and 1.

Finally, assume that we are trying to select people above a certain threshold: Perhaps we are publishing in a journal, or hiring candidates for a job. Let’s call that threshold z. If x < z-1, then since e can never be larger than 1, we will immediately observe that they are below the threshold and reject them. If x > z+1, then since e can never be smaller than -1, we will immediately observe that they are above the threshold and accept them.

But when z-1 < x < z+1, we may think they are above the threshold when they actually are not (if e is positive), or think they are not above the threshold when they actually are (if e is negative).

So then let’s say that they can invest in signaling by putting some amount of visible work in y (like citing obscure papers or using complex jargon). This additional work may be costly and provide no real value in itself, but it can still be useful so long as one simple condition is met: It’s easier to do if your true knowledge x is high.

In fact, for this very simple model, let’s say that you are strictly limited by the constraint that y <= x. You can’t show off what you don’t know.

If your true value x > z, then you should choose y = x. Then, upon observing your signal, we know immediately that you must be above the threshold.

But if your true value x < z, then you should choose y = 0, because there’s no point in signaling that you were almost at the threshold. You’ll still get rejected.

Yet remember before that only those with z-1 < x < z+1 actually need to bother signaling at all. Those with x > z+1 can actually countersignal, by also choosing y = 0. Since you already have tenure, nobody doubts that you belong in the club.

This means we’ll end up with three groups: Those with x < z, who don’t signal and don’t get accepted; those with z < x < z+1, who signal and get accepted; and those with x > z+1, who don’t signal but get accepted. Then life will be hardest for those who are just above the threshold, who have to spend enormous effort signaling in order to get accepted—and that sure does sound like grad school.

You can make the model more sophisticated if you like: Perhaps the error isn’t uniformly distributed, but some other distribution with wider support (like a normal distribution, or a logistic distribution); perhaps the signalling isn’t perfect, but itself has some error; and so on. With such additions, you can get a result where the least-qualified still signal a little bit so they get some chance, and the most-qualified still signal a little bit to avoid a small risk of being rejected. But it’s a fairly general phenomenon that those closest to the threshold will be the ones who have to spend the most effort in signaling.

This reveals a disturbing overlap between the Curse of Knowledge and Impostor Syndrome: We write in impenetrable obfuscationist jargon because we are trying to conceal our own insecurity about our knowledge and our status in the profession. We’d rather you not know what we’re talking about than have you realize that we don’t know what we’re talking about.

For the truth is, we don’t know what we’re talking about. And neither do you, and neither does anyone else. This is the agonizing truth of research that nearly everyone doing research knows, but one must be either very brave, very foolish, or very well-established to admit out loud: It is in the nature of doing research on the frontier of human knowledge that there is always far more that we don’t understand about our subject than that we do understand.

I would like to be more open about that. I would like to write papers saying things like “I have no idea why it turned out this way; it doesn’t make sense to me; I can’t explain it.” But to say that the profession disincentivizes speaking this way would be a grave understatement. It’s more accurate to say that the profession punishes speaking this way to the full extent of its power. You’re supposed to have a theory, and it’s supposed to work. If it doesn’t actually work, well, maybe you can massage the numbers until it seems to, or maybe you can retroactively change the theory into something that does work. Or maybe you can just not publish that paper and write a different one.

Here is a graph of one million published z-scores in academic journals:

It looks like a bell curve, except that almost all the values between -2 and 2 are mysteriously missing.

If we were actually publishing all the good science that gets done, it would in fact be a very nice bell curve. All those missing values are papers that never got published, or results that were excluded from papers, or statistical analyses that were massaged, in order to get a p-value less than the magical threshold for publication of 0.05. (For the statistically uninitiated, a z-score less than -2 or greater than +2 generally corresponds to a p-value less than 0.05, so these are effectively the same constraint.)

I have literally never read a single paper published in an academic journal in the last 50 years that said in plain language, “I have no idea what’s going on here.” And yet I have read many papers—probably most of them, in fact—where that would have been an appropriate thing to say. It’s actually quite a rare paper, at least in the social sciences, that actually has a theory good enough to really precisely fit the data and not require any special pleading or retroactive changes. (Often the bar for a theory’s success is lowered to “the effect is usually in the right direction”.) Typically results from behavioral experiments are bizarre and baffling, because people are a little screwy. It’s just that nobody is willing to stake their career on being that honest about the depth of our ignorance.

This is a deep shame, for the greatest advances in human knowledge have almost always come from people recognizing the depth of their ignorance. Paradigms never shift until people recognize that the one they are using is defective.

This is why it’s so hard to beat the Curse of Knowledge: You need to signal that you know what you’re talking about, and the truth is you probably don’t, because nobody does. So you need to sound like you know what you’re talking about in order to get people to listen to you. You may be doing nothing more than educated guesses based on extremely limited data, but that’s actually the best anyone can do; those other people saying they have it all figured out are either doing the same thing, or they’re doing something even less reliable than that. So you’d better sound like you have it all figured out, and that’s a lot more convincing when you “utilize a murian model” than when you “use rats and mice”.

Perhaps we can at least push a little bit toward plainer language. It helps to be addressing a broader audience: it is both blessing and curse that whatever I put on this blog is what you will read, without any gatekeepers in my path. I can use plainer language here if I so choose, because no one can stop me. But of course there’s a signaling risk here as well: The Internet is a public place, and potential employers can read this as well, and perhaps decide they don’t like me speaking so plainly about the deep flaws in the academic system. Maybe I’d be better off keeping my mouth shut, at least for awhile. I’ve never been very good at keeping my mouth shut.

Once we get established in the system, perhaps we can switch to countersignaling, though even this doesn’t always happen. I think there are two reasons this can fail: First, you can almost always try to climb higher. Once you have tenure, aim for an endowed chair. Once you have that, try to win a Nobel. Second, once you’ve spent years of your life learning to write in a particular stilted, obscurantist, jargon-ridden way, it can be very difficult to change that habit. People have been rewarding you all your life for writing in ways that make your work unreadable; why would you want to take the risk of suddenly making it readable?

I don’t have a simple solution to this problem, because it is so deeply embedded. It’s not something that one person or even a small number of people can really fix. Ultimately we will need to, as a society, start actually rewarding people for speaking plainly about what they don’t know. Admitting that you have no clue will need to be seen as a sign of wisdom and honesty rather than a sign of foolishness and ignorance. And perhaps even that won’t be enough: Because the fact will still remain that knowing what you know that other people don’t know is a very difficult thing to do.

Motivation under trauma

May 3 JDN 2458971

Whenever I ask someone how they are doing lately, I get the same answer: “Pretty good, under the circumstances.” There seems to be a general sense that—at least among the sort of people I interact with regularly—that our own lives are still proceeding more or less normally, as we watch in horror the crises surrounding us. Nothing in particular is going wrong for us specifically. Everything is fine, except for the things that are wrong for everyone everywhere.

One thing that seems to be particularly difficult for a lot of us is the sense that we suddenly have so much time on our hands, but can’t find the motivation to actually use this time productively. So many hours of our lives were wasted on commuting or going to meetings or attending various events we didn’t really care much about but didn’t want to feel like we had missed out on. But now that we have these hours back, we can’t find the strength to use them well.

This is because we are now, as an entire society, experiencing a form of trauma. One of the most common long-term effects of post-traumatic stress disorder is a loss of motivation. Faced with suffering we have no power to control, we are made helpless by this traumatic experience; and this makes us learn to feel helpless in other domains.

There is a classic experiment about learned helplessness; like many old classic experiments, its ethics are a bit questionable. Though unlike many such experiments (glares at Zimbardo), its experimental rigor was ironclad. Dogs were divided into three groups. Group 1 was just a control, where the dogs were tied up for a while and then let go. Dogs in groups 2 and 3 were placed into a crate with a floor that could shock them. Dogs in group 2 had a lever they could press to make the shocks stop. Dogs in group 3 did not. (They actually gave the group 2 dogs control over the group 3 dogs to make the shock times exactly equal; but the dogs had no way to know that, so as far as they knew the shocks ended at random.)

Later, dogs from both groups were put into another crate, where they no longer had a lever to press, but they could jump over a barrier to a different part of the crate where the shocks wouldn’t happen. The dogs from group 2, who had previously had some control over their own pain, were able to quickly learn to do this. The dogs from group 3, who had previously felt pain apparently at random, had a very hard time learning this, if they could ever learn it at all. They’d just lay there and suffer the shocks, unable to bring themselves to even try to leap the barrier.

The group 3 dogs just knew there was nothing they could do. During their previous experience of the trauma, all their actions were futile, and so in this new trauma they were certain that their actions would remain futile. When nothing you do matters, the only sensible thing to do is nothing; and so they did. They had learned to be helpless.

I think for me, chronic migraines were my first crate. For years of my life there was basically nothing I could do to prevent myself from getting migraines—honestly the thing that would have helped most would have been to stop getting up for high school that started at 7:40 AM every morning. Eventually I found a good neurologist and got various treatments, as well as learned about various triggers and found ways to avoid most of them. (Let me know if you ever figure out a way to avoid stress.) My migraines are now far less frequent than they were when I was a teenager, though they are still far more frequent than I would prefer.

Yet, I think I still have not fully unlearned the helplessness that migraines taught me. Every time I get another migraine despite all the medications I’ve taken and all the triggers I’ve religiously avoided, this suffering beyond my control acts as another reminder of the ultimate caprice of the universe. There are so many things in our lives that we cannot control that it can be easy to lose sight of what we can.

This pandemic is a trauma that the whole world is now going through. And perhaps that unity of experience will ultimately save us—it will make us see the world and each other a little differently than we did before.

There are a few things you can do to reduce your own risk of getting or spreading the COVID-19 infection, like washing your hands regularly, avoiding social contact, and wearing masks when you go outside. And of course you should do these things. But the truth really is that there is very little any one of us can do to stop this global pandemic. We can watch the numbers tick up almost in real-time—as of this writing, 1 million cases and over 50,000 deaths in the US, 3 million cases and over 200,000 deaths worldwide—but there is very little we can do to change those numbers.

Sometimes we really are helpless. The challenge we face is not to let this genuine helplessness bleed over and make us feel helpless about other aspects of our lives. We are currently sitting in a crate with no lever, where the shocks will begin and end beyond our control. But the day will come when we are delivered to a new crate, and given the chance to leap over a barrier; we must find the strength to take that leap.

For now, I think we can forgive ourselves for getting less done than we might have hoped. We’re still not really out of that first crate.

Do I want to stay in academia?

Apr 5 JDN 2458945

This is a very personal post. You’re not going to learn any new content today; but this is what I needed to write about right now.

I am now nearly finished with my dissertation. It only requires three papers (which, quite honestly, have very little to do with one another). I just got my second paper signed off on, and my third is far enough along that I can probably finish it in a couple of months.

I feel like I ought to be more excited than I am. Mostly what I feel right now is dread.

Yes, some of that dread is the ongoing pandemic—though I am pleased to report that the global number of cases of COVID-19 has substantially undershot the estimates I made last week, suggesting that at least most places are getting the virus under control. The number of cases and number of deaths has about doubled in the past week, which is a lot better than doubling every two days as it was at the start of the pandemic. And that’s all I want to say about COVID-19 today, because I’m sure you’re as tired of the wall-to-wall coverage of it as I am.

But most of the dread is about my own life, mainly my career path. More and more I’m finding that the world of academic research just isn’t working for me. The actual research part I like, and I’m good at it; but then it comes time to publish, and the journal system is so fundamentally broken, so agonizingly capricious, and has such ludicrous power over the careers of young academics that I’m really not sure I want to stay in this line of work. I honestly think I’d prefer they just flip a coin when you graduate and you get a tenure-track job if you get heads. Or maybe journals could roll a 20-sided die for each paper submitted and publish the papers that get 19 or 20. At least then the powers that be couldn’t convince themselves that their totally arbitrary and fundamentally unjust selection process was actually based on deep wisdom and selecting the most qualified individuals.

In any case I’m fairly sure at this point that I won’t have any publications in peer-reviewed journals by the time I graduate. It’s possible I still could—I actually still have decent odds with two co-authored papers, at least—but I certainly do not expect to. My chances of getting into a top journal at this point are basically negligible.

If I weren’t trying to get into academia, that fact would be basically irrelevant. I think most private businesses and government agencies are fairly well aware of the deep defects in the academic publishing system, and really don’t put a whole lot of weight on its conclusions. But in academia, publication is everything. Specifically, publication in top journals.

For this reason, I am now seriously considering leaving academia once I graduate. The more contact I have with the academic publishing system the more miserable I feel. The idea of spending another six or seven years desperately trying to get published in order to satisfy a tenure committee sounds about as appealing right now as having my fingernails pulled out one by one.

This would mean giving up on a lifelong dream. It would mean wondering why I even bothered with the PhD, when the first MA—let alone the second—would probably have been enough for most government or industry careers. And it means trying to fit myself into a new mold that I may find I hate just as much for different reasons: A steady 9-to-5 work schedule is a lot harder to sustain when waking up before 10 AM consistently gives you migraines. (In theory, there are ways to get special accommodations for that sort of thing; in practice, I’m sure most employers would drag their feet as much as possible, because in our culture a phase-delayed circadian rhythm is tantamount to being lazy and therefore worthless.)

Or perhaps I should aim for a lecturer position, perhaps at a smaller college, that isn’t so obsessed with research publication. This would still dull my dream, but would not require abandoning it entirely.

I was asked a few months ago what my dream job is, and I realized: It is almost what I actually have. It is so tantalizingly close to what I am actually headed for that it is painful. The reality is a twisted mirror of the dream.

I want to teach. I want to do research. I want to write. And I get to do those things, yes. But I want to them without the layers of bureaucracy, without the tiers of arbitrary social status called ‘prestige’, without the hyper-competitive and capricious system of journal publication. Honestly I want to do them without grading or dealing with publishers at all—though I can at least understand why some mechanisms for evaluating student progress and disseminating research are useful, even if our current systems for doing so are fundamentally defective.

It feels as though I have been running a marathon, but was only given a vague notion of the route beforehand. There were a series of flags to follow: This way to the bachelor’s, this way to the master’s, that way to advance to candidacy. Then when I come to the last set of flags, the finish line now visible at the horizon, I see that there is an obstacle course placed in my way, with obstacles I was never warned about, much less trained for. A whole new set of skills, maybe even a whole different personality, is necessary to surpass these new obstacles, and I feel utterly unprepared.

It is as if the last mile of my marathon must bedone on horseback, and I’ve never learned to ride a horse—no one ever told me I would need to ride a horse. (Or maybe they did and I didn’t listen?) And now every time I try to mount one, I fall off immediately; and the injuries I sustain seem to be worse every time. The bruises I thought would heal only get worse. The horses I must ride are research journals, and the injuries when I fall are psychological—but no less real, all too real. With each attempt I keep hoping that my fear will fade, but instead it only intensifies.

It’s the same pain, the same fear, that pulled me away from fiction writing. I want to go back, I hope to go back—but I am not strong enough now, and cannot be sure I ever will be. I was told that working in a creative profession meant working hard and producing good output; it turns out it doesn’t mean that at all. A successful career in a creative field actually means satisfying the arbitrary desires of a handful of inscrutable gatekeepers. It means rolling the dice over, and over, and over again, each time a little more painful than the last. And it turns out that this just isn’t something I’m good at. It’s not what I’m cut out for. And maybe it never will be.

An incompetent narcissist would surely fare better than I, willing to re-submit whatever refuse they produce a thousand times because they are certain they deserve to succeed. For, deep down, I never feel that I deserve it. Others tell me I do, and I try to believe them; but the only validation that feels like it will be enough is the kind that comes directly from those gatekeepers, the kind that I can never get. And truth be told, maybe if I do finally get that, it still won’t be enough. Maybe nothing ever will be.

If I knew that it would get easier one day, that the pain would, if not go away, at least retreat to a dull roar I could push aside, then maybe I could stay on this path. But this cannot be the rest of my life. If this is really what it means to have an academic career, maybe I don’t want one after all.

Or maybe it’s not academia that’s broken. Maybe it’s just me.