[Linkpost] Danger of motivatiogenesis in interdisciplinary work
This is a linkpost for https://egtheory.wordpress.com/2019/03/15/motivatiogenesis/
This is a blog post from a computational biology researcher, Artem Kaznatcheev, about an epistemic phenomenon he calls ‘Motivatiogenesis’. (Building up on xkcd’s citogenesis)
This seems like an important concept to be known in these spaces, especially for people doing interdisciplinary exploration.
The following quote from his post captures the essence of the concept.
Let me first be a bit more precise about what I mean by motivatiogenesis.
I think that Kyler J. Brown first introduced me to this many years ago when we were both still at McGill. He referenced me an all-too-common misbehavior in neuroscience: A bad researcher justifies his work to a biologist with “this is the way computer scientists address this question, and it is of interest purely from theory” and when justifying the same work to a computer scientist — “this model is biologically reasonable, and of interest from science”. The biologist and computer scientist don’t know the other’s field well enough to see through this bluff, and the researcher manages to squeeze a poor publication out.
Contrast this with what a good researcher would do. She would justify her work to a biologist purely on biological grounds. And she would justify it to the computer scientists through its contribution to computer science. In other words, a good interdisciplinary scientist would contribute to both fields, and not use the border as a crutch.
But the case of the bad scientist gets worse!
Once the cycle starts and a group get a few such papers out, the auto-catalytic effect sets in: future work can justify itself by saying “we use a standard model in the field”. All of this even though the ‘standard model’ never had a justification for it. Eventually the subfield can start generating and answering its own field-endogenous questions that are fundamentally unhinged from reality.
But unlike a factoid, a false motivation is harder to burst. Especially if a subfield or cottage industry develops around the method. I think that this might be closely related to Jeremy Fox’s notion of Zombie Ideas.