Why Neglect Big Topics

From an ’04 review of Robert Triver’s ’02 book Natural Selection and Social Theory:

[Trivers’] directions on writing a classic paper …:

1. Pick an important topic.
2. Try to do a little sustained thinking on the topic, always keeping close to the task at hand.
3. Generalize outward from your chosen topic.
4. Write in the language of your discipline but, of course, try to do so simply and clearly.
5. If at all possible, reorganize existing evidence around your theory.

Those hoping this advice would get them on the fast lane to their own version of parent-offspring conflict theory or a new and groundbreaking take on reciprocal altruism may find themselves disappointed.  Most of these instructions fall into the category of easier said than done, but as Trivers also notes, “it still seems remarkable to me how often people bypass what are more important subjects to work on less important ones.”

Neglect of important subjects is remarkable if we assume academics mainly seek intellectual progress.  But it makes a lot more sense if we realize academics are not Bayesian:  Academics change their beliefs only when a sufficiently impressive work appears to earn that respect, even if that work provides little info.  And the more apparently important is the topic, the more impressive a work must be to change beliefs.

So a paper suggesting academics change their opinion on a very important subject will be held to a higher standard of impressiveness.  It must use more impressive math, data, analysis, or have a more prestigious author.  “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is true, but not so much for evidential reasons.  Academics whose contributions might be informative but cannot rise to this higher impressiveness standard are well advised to stay away from important topics.

These academic blindsides in principle offer an opportunity for bloggers to contribute to intellectual progress via thoughtful posts that add info but are not impressive enough by academic standards, and via drawing reasonable conclusions from these and other unimpressive sources to which academics refuse to listen.  But if blogger customers will not actually pay much for such progress, it is not clear bloggers will bother.

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  • Jess Riedel

    But if blogger customers will not actually pay much for such progress, it is not clear bloggers will bother.

    Uh oh. Is this a subtle call for OB readers to start making donations to the Robin Hanson fund?

  • Bloggers will blog because they need an answer to something that is gnawing at them Where else will they get such diversity of opinions for free. How many times has a blogger had an aha moment after receiving a piece of information that ties all the previous pieces of information together. Anyone care to count?

    We pay with our time and effort to visit the blogs.

    Also for the same reasons that bloggers blog.

    What a great gift to give each other.

    • “Neglect of important subjects is remarkable if we assume academics mainly seek intellectual progress.”

      All metaphor yearn for implementation in their own way.

  • Grant

    I wonder how well an academic “journal” (virtual or otherwise) would work if the author’s names were not published until a year or more later?

    Academics seem to be incentivized to view works as impressive that they think their peers will also view as impressive, either now or later down the line (as is often the case with contrarians). Since understanding academic papers is costly, they use heuristics to decide which ones to read, based on the papers perceived impressiveness. Robin seems to criticize this heuristic, but has he offered a viable alternative?

  • sohaib

    Let’s not forget that bloggers are also signallers. They want to signal their high degree of intellectual progress and courageousness in attacking the “big issues” that academics don’t want to touch. Also, let’s keep in mind academics have a career to worry about. Bloggers don’t generally risk their careers with their blog posts.

    • komponisto

      And the contrast between what is expected of bloggers and what is expected of academics is why academics have to be careful when blogging.

  • ravi hegde

    survivor bias … hey, the roulette wheel is a great way to win money!!

  • These subjects just might be that hard. Or meaningless.

  • Jay

    I don’t know how things work in the humanities, but in the sciences the biggest questions are generally either already well understood* or completely intractable.

    * By “understood”, I mean that we have equations that correctly predict the outcomes to twelve decimal places, not necessarily that anyone knows what those equations mean. Quantum mechanics, I’m looking at you.

  • Ed

    But take the case of math. People spend a great deal of effort studying small, technical problems. This is true despite the fact that it is incredibly easy to assess how worthy a paper is (either a proof works or it doesn’t, and it doesn’t usually take long to figure out which), and for this reason outsiders can make a splash (like when Perelman came up with a proof of the poincare conjecture). So the theory you have outlined seems not to really explain this case even though the phenomena to be explained are not that different in any obvious way.

    Of course math is open to the charge that the whole thing is a status game, but that sounds like a step too far.

  • You should spend some of the energy you spend blaming academics, on blaming the government agencies who provide grants, and on blaming the selective forces that decide who can get into academia. When DARPA puts out a grant solicitation for innovative work, people respond to it. But the vast majority of grant money available is for low-risk engineering problems.

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