User Tools

Site Tools



No Intellectual Freedom

You need to pay the bills…

[P]eople don't want to rethink everything..especially people who have made so many sacrifices in the name of a false understanding.

David Graeber

Easy three step process for getting depressed: 1) Go to a large academic conference 2) Listen to all the talks given by people doing boring work with no clear scientific thought behind it. 3) Imagine all the PhD students those people have advised.

My colleague George Caplin likes to quote what he calls the First Theorem of Science, which he attributes to me, but which I remember distinctly as coming from him: It is impossible to convince a person of any true thing that will cost him money. We should probably rename it the First Theorem and drop the Science part.

from A Different Universe by R. Laughlin

However, there is now the problem of making sure that young people have the freedom to wander across boundaries established by their elders without fear of jeopardizing their careers. It would be naive to say this is not a significant issue. In many areas of science we are paying for the consequences of an academic system that rewards narrowness of focus over exploration of new areas. […] we have to keep alive the feeling that our work brings us into contact with something true about nature. Many young scientists have this feeling, but in today's competitive academic environment it is not easy to maintain it over a lifetime of research. There is perhaps no better way to rekindle this feeling than to communicate with people who bring to the conversation nothing more than a strong desire to learn. […] This kind of research is inexpensive, compared with medical research or experimental elementary particle physics, but this does not make it secure. The present-day political and bureaucratic environment in which science finds itself favours big, expensive science projects that bring in the level of funding that boosts the careers of those who make the decisions about which kinds of science get supported. Nor is it easy for responsible people to commit funds to a high-risk field like quantum gravity, which has so far no experimental support to show for it. Finally, the politics of the academy acts to decrease rather than increase the variety of approaches to any problem. As more positions become earmarked for large projects and established research programs, there are correspondingly fewer positions available for young people investigating their own ideas. This has unfortunately been the trend in quantum gravity in recent years. This is not deliberate, but it is a definite effect of the procedures by which funding officers and deans measure success.

from Three Roads to Quantum Gravity by Lee Smolin

The Deferred Life Plan Trap

What was the point of being in physics if you could not pick your own problems?E. Derman in “My life as a Quant”

Most students think that it's only during the first years (during the PhD) that you have to do boring stuff that your professor assigns you. Almost everyone believes that it gets better over time. However exactly the opposite is true. As a postdoc you only have a short-term contract (2 years). During this time you have to publish as much papers as possible, because otherwise you don't get another postdoc position.

Thus, while in theory no one assigns you projects after your PhD years, you aren't free then either. To produce enough papers, you have to use the tools that you already know and work on the topic that you are already familiar with. For this reason, you can't just pick any topic you like and work on it. If you do this, you will not produce enough papers to get another postdoc.

Even if you manage to get a permanent position, you will not be able to do whatever you want.

One the one hand, by the time you get a permanent position you'll have worked already several years on one topic. This is the topic you got familiar with during your PhD, where you are now perceived as an expert. Thus, there is social pressure to continue working on this topic. Otherwise you risk losing your status within the community.

On the other hand, you have to apply for research grants. Your chances of winning grants are much higher if you propose research topics that are closely related to the topic you are perceived as an expert.

Thus in practice students really have maximum freedom during their PhD and they should use this freedom. This is only possible if they recognize that the situation does not get better over time.

This phenomenon of deferring “the good stuff” to an unspecified future is a well-known fallacy known as “deferred life plan”.

Step one: Do what you have to do […] Step two: Do what you want to do […] The lucky winners may get to step two only to find themselves aimless, directionless. Either they never knew what they ‘really’ wanted to do or they’ve spent so much time in the first step and invested so much psychic capital that they’re completely lost without it.

The Monk and the Riddle by Randy Komisar

But Markopoulou found her more radical theories were sometimes greeted with the sly criticism that they were “creative.” “The fact that you don’t look like the standard makes it hard for them; they will take longer to form judgments, which means you stay in the doubt area for longer,” she says. It was made worse by the pervasive attitude among physicists that you should gather your laurels by doing sensible calculations throughout your career, and only cook up new theories of quantum gravity in your old age.

“Before embarking in philosophy one should learn to calculate.”

N.N. Bogolubov, advice to young theoretical physicists

Further Reading

causes/no_intellectual_freedom.txt · Last modified: 2018/02/18 16:27 by jakobadmin