Sunday, August 08, 2021

Combing two posts: Blankface (Scott Aa) and Is Science Slowing Down? (Scott Al)

(I also posted this to the Less Wrong Website. At least I tried to- I don't quite know if or when it will appear there as its my first post there.) 

Some papers result from taking two papers and combining them. Perhaps nobody else had read both of them so you can say something new! Or (looking over this post) it may guide people to two really good papers, or in this case two really good posts. 

This blog will draw from two excellent blog posts.

Scott Aaronson  blogged on  his website Aug 2, 2021 about blankfaces, people who let stupid or undefined rules dictate what you can do  without apology (see his post for a better explanation). One example that struck me I quote

No, I never applied for that grant. I spend two hours struggling to log in to a web portal designed by the world's top blankfaces until I finally gave up in despair. 

Scott Alexander blogged  on LessWrong on Nov 26, 2018 about Is science slowing down? which answers with an emphatic yes. His point is science-per-researcher is much less than it used to be, and he has graphs and stats to prove it (see his post for the evidence and some speculation as to why this is) One of the reasons he gave struck me which I quote

Certain features of the modern academic system like undepaid PhD's, interminably long postdocs, endless grant writing drudgery, and clueless funders have lowered productivity. The 1930's academic system was ineed 25x more effective at getting researchers to actually do good research.

(A commenter reminded me that Scott Alexander himself dismisses this reason. I do not.) 

(I note that he gives other reasons as well, most notably for our field that the low hanging fruit is gone. Our lack of progress on P vs NP is likely that its a hard problem, rather than the reason above. Of course, if its solved tomorrow by an outsider without funding, I will happily be proven wrong.) 

Scott Alexander hits upon two types of blankfaces (without using the term).

Grant writing drudgery: the rules for how to submit get more and more detailed an onerous. This is  what Scott Aaronson was alluding to. There are other ways its drudgery as well. 

Clueless Funders: the people deciding who gets funded might not know the area (actually in my experience the grant I've reviews have been quite good and the problem is more not enough money to award all that are deserving.) 

SO I pose the following non-rhetorically as always

1) How big a factor is the slowing down of science that blankfaces get in the way?

2) What can we do about it?


  1. Have you read the SA article? I think it says completely the opposite and dismisses the explanation you mention:

    "And through such a lens, only the “low-hanging fruits” explanation makes sense. Explanation 1 – that progress depends only on a few geniuses – isn’t enough. After all, the Greece-today difference is partly based on population growth, and population growth should have produced proportionately more geniuses. Explanation 2 – that PhD programs have gotten worse – isn’t enough. There would have to be a worldwide monotonic decline in every field (including sports and art) from Athens to the present day. Only Explanation 3 holds water."

  2. While Scott Alexander dismisses this aspect, I do not. I have put in a clarifying comment. Thanks for pointing this out.

  3. Scientific research has sometimes been compared to gold mining. After a while, all the low-hanging fruits (or more appropriately, all the shallow-lying gold) seems to be gone. But then someone stumbles on a new vein, and it's a gold rush all over again.

  4. I would posit that our growing reliance on metric-based evaluations rewards incremental research more than audacious risky projects.