Soft methodology of science

![The course of science)(/images/course_of_science.gif)

In which I collect tips from esteemed and eminent minds about how to go about pro-actively discovering stuff. More meta-tips than detailed agendas of discovery.

Choosing research questions

My current meta-question. One starting point: John Schulman’s Opinionated Guide to ML Research.

Sidling up to the truth.

As a researcher motivated by big picture ideas (How can we survive on planet earth without being consumed in battles over dwindling resources and environmental crises?) as much as aesthetic ideas, I am sometimes considered damaged goods. A fine scientist, many claim, is safely myopic, the job of discovery being detailed piecework.

On one hand, the various research initiatives that pay my way are tied to various real world goals (“Predict financial crises!”, “Tell us the future of the climate!”). On the other, researchers involved tell me that it is useless to try and solve these large issues wholesale, but that one must identify small retail questions that one can hope to make progress on. On the other hand, they’ve just agreed to take a lot of money to solve big problems. In this school, then, the presumed logic is that one takes a large research grant to strike a light on lots of small problems that lie in the penumbra of the large issue, in the hope that one is flares up to illuminate the shade. Or burns the lot to the ground. The example given by the Oxonian scholar who most recently expounded this to me was Paul David and the path dependence of the QWERTY keyboard. Deep issue of the contingency of the world, seen through the tiny window opened by substandard keyboard design.

Truth, in these formulations, is a cat: don’t look at it directly or it will perversely slope off to rub against someone else’s leg. Your acceptance is all in the sidling-up, the feigning disinterest, and waiting for truth to come up and show you its belly.

I’m not sure I’m am persuaded by this. It’s the kind of science that would be expounded by an education film directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky.

On the other hand, I’m not sure that I buy the grant-maker’s side of this story either, at least the story that grant-makers seem to expound in Australia, which is that they give out money to go out and find something out. There are productivity outcomes on the application form where you fill out the goals that your research will fulfill; This rules out much of the research done, by restricting you largely to marginally refining a known-good idea rather than trying something new. I romantically imagine that in much research, you would not know what you were discovering in advance.

The compromise is that we meet in the middle and swap platitudes. We will “improve our understanding of X”, we will “find strategies to better manage Y”. We certainly don’t mention that we might spend a while pondering keyboard layouts when the folks ask us to work out how to manage a complex non-linear economy.

Disruption by field outsiders

Is it just stirring the pot? How many, to choose an example, physicists, can get published by ignoring everyone else’s advances?

How do you know that your left field idea is a radically simple left-field idea that causes the entire field to advance? And how do you know that it is not the crazed ramblings of someone missing the advances of the last several decades, an asylum inmate wandering out of the walled disciplinary asylum in a dressing gown, railing against the Vietnam War?