Thursday, August 24, 2006

Is it "vision", or is it BS?

In a comment to my previous post, Alison Chaikin tries to put the Steorn business in perspective, pointing out that many grant proposals contain an awful lot of highly improbable exaggeration of potential, too. This is going to sound self-righteous, but I'll say it anyway: I really wonder sometimes if I hamper my own academic impact (defined, say, by funding levels, citations, publications in glossy journals) because of my low tolerance for bullshit. For example, our single-molecule transistor work is really nice science, with a good mix of physics and chemistry. However, when I give talks, I try to point out that, at least as implemented now, these devices are very unlikely to be good for high speed, high performance computers. There are some reasons to be optimistic, and there remains a large amount of great basic science as well as engineering to do before we can really assess whether these gadgets will, in something like their present form, be technologically useful.

Statements like that, while realistic, are much less likely to inspire DARPA to hand me $250K/yr for three years than if I said "Within three years we [always use the royal "we" :-) ] will roll out commercial devices using single-molecule switches that operate at room temperature and GHz frequencies." The fact that this is an unrealistic goal is often irrelevant - it shows self-confidence, aggressiveness, and a vision to change the world. I'm reminded of footage of GWB debating Anne Richards for TX governor back in '94. When asked about possibly legalizing gambling in Texas in some form, Gov. Richards gave a very carefully worded, two paragraph response, explaining that this was worth considering provided it was handled correctly and that some of the taxes went to fund education and children's health programs, etc. George Bush's response was "I'm against it. I think it's a bad idea." The short, definitive, ambitious statement often beats nuance and realism - even in science.

There are some in academia (I've been told this explicitly) who view this grantsmanship stuff as an interplay between Big Picture Visionaries, and "Detail People". The Visionaries want to change the world, and often feel hectored by the Detail People, who they perceive as narrow and uncreative. Of course, the Visionaries need Detail People, since they're the ones who actually make things work. What do you all think about this? I think Vision in this context can be dangerously close to hucksterism.


Andrew said...

I think it's a big problem in publishing papers as well, especially in Science and Nature. Those journals don't like to have caveats, but I feel like most experimentalists, if there honest, have a few things that didn't quite make sense or seemed incomplete about their experiments. In fact, it's sort of the nature of the game-- you push on a system as hard as you can until it starts to deviate from what you expect.

If you understand things perfectly, you keep pushing until you don't.

But the way the journals work, you're career is better served by emphasizing the points that matched up with your model, and glossing over the points where things break down. Science, on the other hand, is better served with an upfront presentation of the problems as well.

I feel like this temptation to gloss over the details is often subconcious as well; you have a model, data mostly agree with the model. Sure, there's something here or there that doens't quite fit, but you believe in your model so strongly that "good" agreement can often become "perfect" agreement.

I have more of a problem with the type of thing you mention in actual publications than in grants. Though honesty is always important, so vision in grants should be limited to thing like "someday, this could be used for..." rather than "in three years, this will be in largescale commercial use for..", unless you really mean it.

Anonymous said...

speaking of hype...i'm sure i'm not the only one who saw the wager solicitation by jorge hirsch this morning on the arxiv. i wonder if this constitutes abuse of the comment line?

Alison Chaiken said...

The problem with hype is that scientists are losing their credibility. I certainly don't know what to believe sometimes: is an "invisibility cloak" as likely as high-Tc maglev trains and molecular supercomputers, or is it as likely as atomic force microscopes and single-molecule biodetection? Both of the latter sounded improbable in not too distant times. The public doesn't trust scientists about matters like the Steorn affair because a lot of the highly publicized science announcements are crap.

I applaud those who show restraint in their proposal and paper writing. I always deride ridiculous claims in referee reports and I urge others to do the same. (Of course I would never reject a paper or proposal on the basis of a dumb introduction if the work looks valuable.)

I certainly agree that there are Visionaries and Detail People. The very most successful scientific teams have Visionaries out beating the bushes for money while the Detail Person stays home and cranks out the results.

Peter Armitage said...

I observed early on by observation that the consequences of hucksterism doesn't usually catch up with the hucksters.

I found it quite amazing that people would roll their eyes about certain 'visionaries', make snarky comments about their constantly evolving data and interpretation, yet turn around and invite them to give talks at big conferences. Why is this? I dunno, but I guess it falls in line with the old marketing adage, "There is no such thing as bad publicity."

Regarding anon and comment line abuse: Com'on ... It's not about hype. We need more colorful characters in our field and Jorge is definitely colorful... still I'm quite incredulous that I'm the only one who bet him against his model.

Doug Natelson said...

I need to find the time to carefully read Jorge's paper. Probably won't be until a week or two from now b/c of deadlines and the start of classes. I agree with Peter - amazingly, there seem to be very few negative consequences for selling a bill of goods that you can't fill. By the way - "Detail Person", when used by a Visionary, isn't necessarily complimentary.

Incoherent Ponderer said...

agree on all points. There are very few people who have the right combo of "vision" and "detail". And what IS the right combination of the two?

In presentations, grant proposals, papers one has to watch out for a disconnect between promises of the "big picture" and the quality of the science presented.

We had a series of presentation to DOE review, where we first discussed our posters with senior scientists within our department. One of the senior people has insisted that about 30-50% of poster space needs to be spent on painting the bigger picture and future work, rather than past results. He singled out a particular poster as the best example, because it had the most amount of "fluffiness" (my word, not his) - the postdoc presenting it has started just a few months ago and simply had no concrete results to show.

This experience made me a bit depressed. On the other hand, I myself tend to give talks filled with much more fluff than when I used to be a grad student. I never felt comfortable talking about "future work" part, I often feel like our president giving a state of the union speech after 6 years on the job - if you really want to do this, why haven't you done it by now? And anyone can promise anything in a talk, it's not like someone will hold you to it several years from now.

Nevertheless, having a "visionary" approach is something that is required to get a faculty position, a grant, or invited to give a talk. So I might have to begin and end my talks with "visionary" slides and remember to take a long shower afterwards.

Alison Chaiken said...

Incoherent Ponderer says:
I never felt comfortable talking about "future work" part,

I don't see any reason to feel embarassment about talking about future work or even the importance of your own contribution as long as your comments are reasonable ones. What sets me off are outlandish claims about applications potential of work. One proposal after another that I read claims to be solving some non-existent problem in data storage technology. I get the impression that the proposal authors couldn't be bothered to do a google search about the real problems of the data storage industry.

I do like it when proposal and manuscript authors daydream about what the implications of their work might be. Daydreaming and speculation about the fundamental importance of research are in a whole different category than bogus applications claims.

Incoherent Ponderer said...

well, the part about future work is because most exciting "future" projects are the ones that are not yet possible, and are maybe 5-10 years away. So when you are giving talks and forced to repeat the "future work" slide, I feel like someone might ask me - so what's your progress on this "future work"?

I happen to have a collection of presentations from about 5-6 years ago from a number of people in my department. It's amazing how their "future work" or "broad perspective" slides haven't really changed. It might as well be called "sci-fi slide" or "give me money slide".

One of the anecdotes about Hodja Nasreddin, a wise middle-eastern literature character, claims he promised emir to teach his donkey how to read for some amount of money per year, but if the donkey still cannot read in 20 years, Hodja will be executed. Hodja's reasoning was that either the donkey, or emir, or Hodja will be dead in 20 years, so it's a safe bet to make. I have a feeling a lot of scientists follow this strategy - be it levitating superconducing trains, or molecular electronics or quantum computing.

Dodge Challenger parts said...

In fact, it's sort of the nature of the game-- you push on a system as hard as you can until it starts to deviate from what you expect.