Re: Unreliable research: Trouble at the lab

[Note:  This comment comes from friend Bob Frankston.  DLH]

From: “Bob Frankston” <Bob19-0501@bobf.frankston.com>
Subject: Trouble at the lab … and beyond
Date: October 22, 2013 9:56:35 AM EDT
To: dave@farber.net

The problem isn’t with science per se. It is with the business of “Science”. Part of the problem is the legacy of the success of “science” as an effective methodology leading to the power of science as a brand that promises the one truth.

The larger issue is understanding motivation as market processes and not confusing “Science” as a business (or bodies of knowledge) with “science” as an operational methodology that doesn’t seek the singular truth any more than evolution is directed towards a goal.

This is also why I speak to markets in terms of motivations and incentives for business too. We want to invest in results and want to believe that if only we had better tools we could conquer complexity and know the future. And there is no shortage of advisors that will make such promises. Same for economists, complexity theorists and others.

They appear to succeed because we rely on “proof-by-confirmation”. The powerful idea of science is to look for disproof – we advance by having our expectations confounded – and that makes it profoundly annoying.

In the short term we can make promises and deliver on them. This is the ROI that drives business and politics. (It’s very addictive).

More difficult is making the cases for processes that create opportunity. Funding basic research is a like funding startups – the odds on any particular effort “succeeding” in the sense of an immediate return on investment are very small. It’s only when we get to larger scale that the few wins make up for all the losses. This is why it’s important to have societal policies which take long view – something surely lacking. Can a transparent society have patience?

But it’s not just about science. Infrastructure like sidewalks also creates opportunity. Container shipping is another example.

As I’ve mentioned a number of times the danger is that the smarter we make cities the more they are optimized for the present rather than the future.

Of course this also applies to the new sidewalks – the Internet. The separation of IP from any particular purpose has worked out amazingly well. Yet we continue to suffer the consequences of misattribution when we call it broadband and treat the Internet as a deliverable and when we optimize it for the web.

It’s bad enough to make each science project a profit center but billing for packets is far worse. This is why the current rent-seeking model of connectivity extracts a very high cost on society. But just as with science if we focus only on the success stories we remain blissfully unaware of the frightful cost of current policies. As I’ve said – opportunity has no voice in politics.

Too bad we use the word “debt” for what should be termed “Investment in our future”. The problem is not science per se, it is the politics of justifying funding in the short term and the business of funding business efforts in isolation. In both science and business we need to understand failure as an essential part of finding larger success.