There are days when it feels pretty lonely in the zone of being a scientist, and actually remarking that it may be larger social forces and physics are doing science and scientists no favors. Then along comes no one less in stature than Avi Loeb, astrophysicist and Chair of the Astronomy Department at Harvard. If there’s two areas of research that get a pass on musing about how messed up we are, it’s particle physicists and astrophysicists — their stature is that high. And with his Harvard and National Academy pedigree, Avi sports the trifecta at the start of the argument. He’s recently gained notoriety with his belief that the oddly shaped meteor, Oumuamua, stating that he thinks it is likely artificial, and a light sail from a galactic civilization from long ago.
But Avi doesn’t argue from the standpoint of “I’m a famous Harvard astrophysicist — listen to me.” Nope. He says “consider the evidence, and considering how difficult it is to collect the evidence, back an observation up with a potentially causal hypothesis that captures a larger dynamic.” Now we’re memetically talking. And he talks extensively about this in this piece in Scientific American.
It makes me think I need to add one more person to my “most like to have lunch with” list. I think that Avi’s likelihood of learning about my work on structural memetics is probably on par with establishing definitive evidence that space aliens are among us, or me actually having lunch with the ghost of Antoine de St. Exupery, the other person on my list. Which, in a curious way, says something about how the War of Ideas goes. I keep going back to the famous quote by Max Planck (a particle physicist) saying “Science advances one funeral at a time.” Avi’s got friends in low places. Like Pullman, WA.
But Avi nails the crisis that I see also in science — and as he has observed on the surface, I keep hammering on the memetics. From the piece:
Too many scientists are now mostly motivated by ego, by getting honors and awards, by showing their colleagues how smart they are. They treat science as a monologue about themselves rather than a dialogue with nature. They build echo chambers using students and postdocs who repeat their mantras so that their voice will be louder and their image will be promoted. But that’s not the purpose of science. Science is not about us; it’s not about empowering ourselves or making our image great. It’s about trying to understand the world, and it’s meant to be a learning experience in which we take risks and make mistakes along the way. You can never tell in advance, when you work on the frontier, what is the right path forward. You only learn that by getting feedback from experiments.
He, of course, is diagnosing an Authoritarian-Legalistic power structure, a closed system with poor validity grounding that I’ve discussed before — scientists as authorities, instead of scientists practicing data-driven and theoretical model reasoning. As our systems become more closed, there is the larger and larger potential for what, in the systems community, we call signal drift (I write about this in a longer piece here. Data and observation are the key elements in validity grounding, and the minute you abandon our ability to do this, by positing multiple unseen dimensions, to the exclusion of other questions, you’re setting yourself up for a fall. The other vitally important one is the ability to admit you’re wrong, and change your mind. The lack of COVID theoretical remediation is one example — we’re still waiting for the most prominent voices to even acknowledge seasonality. But it goes on and on. As Avi brings up, “String theory anyone?”
Avi would be at home in the Lean/Agile community — and is also a populist. He’s got a customer — the public — and like it or not, the public are interested in aliens.
“Okay, here is my point of view. By and large, the public funds science. And the public is extremely interested in the search for alien life. So I must ask: If scientists are supported by the public, how dare they shy away from this question that can be addressed with the technologies they are developing?”
As I’ve noted, they could show up with the answers to all our problems, and because of their advanced v-Memetic development, it’s unlikely we could understand them. But Avi urges us to attempt to do so, and the article makes the case that it’s not THAT unlikely that we could discover some potential friends, who might be patient enough with us to help out with our current milieu. E.T. for therapist, instead of dissection target? Phone Home, little buddy. And if we don’t, we’ll still gain a far greater understanding of our place in the larger universe. Can’t get much more grounded-metaphysical than that.
Lest there’s any doubt that Avi is a higher v-Meme synthesizer, consider his argument on exoplanet research. Most exoplanet research is focused on finding oxygen in atmospheres. This is a relatively safe area of research, everyone can agree on hunting for oxygen and water. Throw out more odd chemical assays as bad data. But as someone with metacognitive stretch, Avi argues that we should exactly be looking for outliers, like industrial pollution on exoplanets. Good scientists look at outliers, and don’t just discard them because they’re inconvenient — it’s my key trigger to see if someone’s using their brain in understanding new phenomena. Now we’re talking.
So if you’re looking for a good, reasonably short Sunday read, here’s the link again. And if by some weird quirk of fate you know Avi, tell him there’s someone he needs to have lunch with. I’m buying.
PS — If you follow this blog, I know it likely doesn’t need saying — but here it is:
“As we relate, so we think.”
“We cannot reform science without fundamentally rethinking the social structures we create knowledge in — and subjecting them to dramatic reform.”
4 thoughts on “Quickie Post — I’m Not the ONLY Scientist Worried about the Memetics of Scientific Social Structures”
When defending a paper many years ago I presented one conclusion, and was asked by the opponent (a professor, no less): “Who said that?” It seems even the conclusions were expected to be …foregone. My co-defendant (also a professor) managed to keep a straight face when I responded “I did”.
PS Part of the story is of course that I’ve never been to university. Though I have supervised up to PhD level…
This being discussed weekly by the college professors in exile (evolutionary biologists). Heather Heying & Brett Weinstein.