Also this week: the Nobel Prize in Physics goes to a woman (!), learning vs. understanding, 2012 Jeremy vs. clickbait, and more.
Dr. Donna Strickland is among the three winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics. She is the first woman in 55 years to win the prize, and only the third ever. That a woman who has done such important work in laser physics could still hold the rank of Associate Professor has raised more than a few eyebrows (including mine), though she says in an interview that it’s because she never applied for promotion to full professor. And here is the story of the last woman before Dr. Strickland to win the Physics Nobel, Maria Mayer. She did her Nobel-winning work on the nuclear shell model of atoms in an unpaid professor position! (ht @noahpinion)
This years Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to evolutionary biologists! Well, sort of. It went to three chemists–Frances Arnold, George Smith, and Gregory Winter–who pioneered directed evolution as a way to engineer enzymes and proteins to perform desired biochemical functions.
It’s not the incentives (to publish tons of papers, to p-hack, etc.), it’s you. Very good piece. I’m still mulling it over but I think I mostly (not entirely) agree. (ht Irene Hames, via Twitter)
A clever experiment on how learning by trial and error can succeed without generating any understanding of why it succeeds. Further, partial understanding failed to enhance–and in some ways actually inhibited–learning by trial and error. Trial and error learning–aka evolution by natural selection–is tough to beat!
Another copycat Sokal Hoax blew up the academic intertubes this week. I refuse to even link to this, it’s stupid clickbait. The best thing you can do is ignore it. It’s not even a good starting point for a conversation about some broader related issue. Any intelligent commentary on broader issues that’s prompted by this stupid clickbait inevitably will be misunderstood or drowned out due to the sea of crappy commentary that was also prompted by this stupid clickbait. On balance, talking about stupid clickbait makes the world a worse place. If you have no idea what I’m on about, consider yourself blessed and try to maintain that happy state of affairs. No, don’t google it! Gah, what are you doing?! Do you need more stupidity in your life?!*
Sigh. Ok, fine, here are Twitter threads on this from Kieran Healy, Will Wilkinson, and Yascha Mounk that aren’t stupid.
You may have seen breathless news articles recently about a claimed proof of the Riemann Hypothesis–one of the most important unsolved problems in mathematics–by eminent mathematician Sir Michael Atiyah. Unfortunately, in recent years Dr. Atiyah has earned a reputation for announcing major results that don’t pan out, and this seems to be no exception. Good accessible coverage from a math blog. Includes interesting commentary on various issues to do with how the claim was reported. Further interesting discussion in the comments.
*This paragraph was written by 2012 me. Remember when I first started blogging and I used to write that way? Good times! Also bad times! Your mileage may vary.
Ok, here’s one more “intelligent commentary on broader issues inspired by that stupid clickbait” link. Dan Davies (who wrote a book on financial fraudsters) on why the ease with which X can be faked should be irrelevant to your assessment of whether there are severe problems with X, and why the actual prevalence of fraud in a system isn’t a good measure of the health of the system: http://crookedtimber.org/2018/10/05/hoaxes-in-general/
See, what did I tell you? Stupid clickbait makes the world worse:
I liked the “It’s You” link. Surely it can be generalized into a universal law (i.e., applicable to everything beyond science), no?
I wouldn’t go that far. Often it is the incentives. People respond to incentives! It’s just not the only thing they respond to.
Oh, I agree that people respond to incentives. No question about that.
But I think the linked article implicitly points out that in every situation there are different levels of incentives to respond to right? A person’s immediate environment might provide one set of incentives while the broader environment may provide a different set of incentives. People choose which set they respond to.
Think about sexual discrimination, for example. The top managers in an organization want to stamp it out because they recognize the myriad risks it creates for the organization (e.g., excluding innovative people, financial risk from lawsuit, and more), while mid-level managers, who don’t feel the big-picture incentives as strongly, are more inclined to stick to what they believe are their tried-and-true methods. Their peers also create incentives, as do their subordinates. The men below them might be kind of buddies, while the women below them are agitating for promotions that they feel they are being denied.
And, moreover, while the top managers do want to stamp it out, they *don’t* want to wreck the quarterly earnings in the process. So they provide multiple incentives that are sometimes conflicting.
So everyone has these complex incentives to respond to and they have to choose, whether they recognize that choice or not, they’re still choosing.
To me that’s the point of the article: people have to be responsible for their choice they’re making – especially when they’re consciously aware of which set of incentives they’re responding to. And I think that principle has fairly broad applicability.
Oh yeah, the paper on experimentation was really cool too. Its reminiscent of how, in all kinds of disciplines, people express everything in the context of the latest greatest craze, which becomes a kind of constraining theory and prevents people from getting the correct answer. In a discussion of process improvement recently, someone came up with the novel idea that crunching data – the latest craze, the constraining theory – won’t always do the trick, sometimes you have to actually understand the problem and go see things happen on site to find the problem….