Evaluating science in retrospect vs. prospect

It’s often said that nobody dies wishing they’d spent more time at the office. The saying encourages you not to spend your time in a way you’ll come to regret in future.

Except that lots of people do die wishing they’d spent more time at the office. That’s the trouble with trying to live so that you won’t look back with regret in the future: you’re trying to anticipate the preferences of a stranger who you’ll never meet: you, in the future. Future-you may want to look back on different things than Now-you wants right now. Future-you might even want to look back on different things than Now-you thinks Future-you will want to look back on. Youth may be wasted on the young–but only in the eyes of the old.

This isn’t an argument that you should just live for the moment or not make long-term plans. It’s just that evaluating your life in retrospect is different than evaluating it in prospect.

Lately I’ve been wondering about this in the context of science. Do scientists ever look back wishing they’d done different science? Not because of 20-20 hindsight. But just because they’ve changed.

For instance, here’s psychologist Joe Simmons describing how he now values the replicability of his research far above all other considerations (novelty, interest, importance, etc.). This represents a big change of mind for him. And crucially, he didn’t change his mind because he learned new information of which he wasn’t previously aware. Rather, he reflected on what he already knew (emphasis added):

I eventually (in 2010) reflected on what I was doing for a living, and I finally remembered that at some fundamental level a scientist’s #1 job is to differentiate what is true/replicable from what is not.

But here’s the thing: if he could travel back in time and speak to his past self, I wonder if he could change his past self’s mind about what sort of research to do. After all, it’s not as if there aren’t good arguments for valuing novelty over rigor; their relative valuations are a matter of professional judgment on which reasonable disagreement is possible. Plus, maybe if you talked Past-you into doing the sort of work that Current-you now values, Past-you wouldn’t develop into the Current-you who values that sort of work. Heck, maybe Past-you would find it a slog doing the stuff Current-you likes and would quit science!*

Or think of the evaluation of entire research programs as successes, failures, or a mix. And how those evaluations can change over time–group selection going out of fashion and then coming back into fashion, for example. One big reason why scientists’ evaluations of research programs change over time is of course 20-20 hindsight. Another is that scientists retire or die and get replaced by scientists with different perspectives and values. For instance, ecologists these days put more of a premium on statistical rigor and hypothesis testing than ecologists from previous generations. But I wonder if a third reason is that people change. Past-you “dies” and is replaced by someone different: Future-you.

I certainly have a couple of papers that I no longer like nearly as much as when I wrote them (e.g.). In part that’s because I can now see objective flaws in those papers that I didn’t see when I wrote them. But in part it’s because I weigh the strengths and weaknesses of those papers differently now than I did when I wrote them. Conversely, I have at least one old paper that I now think much more highly of than I did when I wrote it (Fox 2006). I wish I could go back in time to tell my past self not to sell that paper short and to keep building on it! But all this is a bit unfair, because Past-me isn’t around any more to defend his own professional judgments about those papers. That’s the thing about regret, in science and in life: it’s not a fair fight. Current-you gets the chance to evaluate, and perhaps regret, the things Past-you did. But Past-you never gets to evaluate, and perhaps regret (pregret?) the things Current-you does.

Are there things you look back on in your scientific career that you wish you’d done differently? Not because you now have more or better information than you had in the past, but just because you’re a different person now?

*Or, you know, vanish entirely.🙂

2 thoughts on “Evaluating science in retrospect vs. prospect

  1. Thanks for sharing this!

    I just read the piece in the Psychology Today article, and don’t see the interviews and quotes as evidence for the central claim that people wish they spent more time working. I think all of these people looking back wishing regret that they had more time to work in the future. That they were’t done. Not that they had misspent the time they had, but that they just wanted to keep doing it. Which is a huge difference.

    I do wish I had done some things differently – I think it’s taken a long time for me to figure out the questions that might matter more. But the route that I’ve taken has included a lot of serendipity and so I don’t look at this as regret, but a growing process.

    • “I think all of these people looking back wishing regret that they had more time to work in the future. That they were’t done. Not that they had misspent the time they had, but that they just wanted to keep doing it. Which is a huge difference.”

      Fair point.

      “I don’t look at this as regret, but a growing process.”

      I think that’s probably the right attitude to take. Future-you develops from Past-you, there’s no getting around that. You can’t somehow avoid or skip over that developmental process and turn Past-you into Future-you. All you can do, at each moment in your life, is the best you can. The fact that Future-you might have made different choices than Past-you, had Future-you been around back then, is just irrelevant.

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