Some Heuristics for Evaluating the Soundness of the Academic Mainstream in Unfamiliar Fields

(This post is an ex­panded ver­sion of a LW com­ment I left a while ago. I have found my­self refer­ring to it so much in the mean­time that I think it’s worth re­work­ing into a proper post. Some re­lated posts are The Cor­rect Con­trar­ian Cluster” and What is Bunk?”)

When look­ing for in­for­ma­tion about some area out­side of one’s ex­per­tise, it is usu­ally a good idea to first ask what aca­demic schol­ar­ship has to say on the sub­ject. In many ar­eas, there is no need to look el­se­where for an­swers: re­spectable aca­demic au­thors are the rich­est and most re­li­able source of in­for­ma­tion, and peo­ple claiming things com­pletely out­side the aca­demic main­stream are al­most cer­tain to be crack­pots.

The trou­ble is, this is not always the case. Even those whose view of the mod­ern academia is much rosier than mine should agree that it would be as­ton­ish­ing if there didn’t ex­ist at least some ar­eas where the aca­demic main­stream is de­tached from re­al­ity on im­por­tant is­sues, while much more ac­cu­rate views are scorned as kooky (or would be if they were heard at all). There­fore, de­pend­ing on the area, the fact that a view is way out of the aca­demic main­stream may im­ply that it’s bunk with near-cer­tainty, but it may also tell us noth­ing if the main­stream stan­dards in the area are es­pe­cially bad.

I will dis­cuss some heuris­tics that, in my ex­pe­rience, provide a re­al­is­tic first es­ti­mate of how sound the aca­demic main­stream in a given field is likely to be, and how jus­tified one would be to dis­miss con­trar­i­ans out of hand. Th­ese con­clu­sions have come from my own ob­ser­va­tions of re­search liter­a­ture in var­i­ous fields and some per­sonal ex­pe­rience with the way mod­ern academia op­er­ates, and I would be in­ter­ested in read­ing oth­ers’ opinions.

Low-hang­ing fruit heuristic

As the first heuris­tic, we should ask if there is a lot of low-hang­ing fruit available in the given area, in the sense of re­search goals that are both in­ter­est­ing and doable. If yes, this means that there are clear paths to qual­ity work open for rea­son­ably smart peo­ple with an ad­e­quate level of knowl­edge and re­sources, which makes it un­nec­es­sary to in­vent clever-look­ing non­sense in­stead. In this situ­a­tion, smart and ca­pa­ble peo­ple can just state a sound and hon­est plan of work on their grant ap­pli­ca­tions and pro­ceed with it.

In con­trast, if a re­search area has reached a dead end and fur­ther progress is im­pos­si­ble ex­cept per­haps if some ex­traor­di­nary path-break­ing ge­nius shows the way, or in an area that has never even had a vi­able and sound ap­proach to be­gin with, it’s un­re­al­is­tic to ex­pect that mem­bers of the aca­demic es­tab­lish­ment will openly ad­mit this situ­a­tion and de­cide it’s time for a ca­reer change. What will likely hap­pen in­stead is that they’ll con­tinue pro­duc­ing out­put that will have all the su­perfi­cial trap­pings of sci­ence and sound schol­ar­ship, but will in fact be in­creas­ingly pointless and de­tached from re­al­ity.

Ar­guably, some ar­eas of the­o­ret­i­cal physics have reached this state, if we are to trust the crit­ics like Lee Smolin. I am not a physi­cist, and I can­not judge di­rectly if Smolin and the other similar crit­ics are right, but some pow­er­ful ev­i­dence for this came sev­eral years ago in the form of the Bog­danoff af­fair, which demon­strated that highly cre­den­tialed physi­cists in some ar­eas can find it difficult, per­haps even im­pos­si­ble, to dis­t­in­guish sound work from a well-con­trived non­sen­si­cal imi­ta­tion. [1]

Some­what sur­pris­ingly, an­other ex­am­ple is pre­sented by some sub­fields of com­puter sci­ence. With all the new com­puter gad­gets ev­ery­where, one would think that no other field could be fur­ther from a stale dead end. In some of its sub­fields this is definitely true, but in oth­ers, much of what is stud­ied is based on decades old ma­jor break­throughs, and the known vi­able di­rec­tions from there have long since been ex­plored all un­til they hit against some fun­da­men­tally in­tractable prob­lem. (Or al­ter­na­tively, fur­ther progress is a mat­ter of hands-on en­g­ineer­ing prac­tice that doesn’t lend it­self to the way academia op­er­ates.) This has led to a situ­a­tion where a lot of the pub­lished CS re­search is in­creas­ingly dis­tant from re­al­ity, be­cause to keep the illu­sion of progress, it must pre­tend to solve prob­lems that are ba­si­cally known to be im­pos­si­ble. [2]

Ide­olog­i­cal/​ve­nal in­ter­est heuristic

Bad as they might be, the prob­lems that oc­cur when clear re­search di­rec­tions are lack­ing pale in com­par­i­son with what hap­pens when things un­der dis­cus­sion are ide­olog­i­cally charged or a mat­ter in which pow­er­ful in­ter­est groups have a stake. As Hobbes re­marked, peo­ple agree about the­o­rems of ge­om­e­try not be­cause their proofs are solid, but be­cause “men care not in that sub­ject what be truth, as a thing that crosses no man’s am­bi­tion, profit, or lust.” [3]

One ex­am­ple is the cluster of re­search ar­eas en­com­pass­ing in­tel­li­gence re­search, so­cio­biol­ogy, and be­hav­ioral ge­net­ics, which touches on a lot of highly ide­olog­i­cally charged ques­tions. Th­ese pass the low-hang­ing fruit heuris­tic eas­ily: the ex­ist­ing liter­a­ture is full of pro­pos­als for in­ter­est­ing stud­ies wait­ing to be done. Yet, be­cause of their strik­ing ide­olog­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions, these ar­eas are full of work clearly aimed at ad­vanc­ing the au­thors’ non-sci­en­tific agenda, and even af­ter a lot of read­ing one is left in con­fu­sion over whom to be­lieve, if any­one. It doesn’t even mat­ter whose side one sup­ports in these con­tro­ver­sies: whichever side is right (if any one is), it’s sim­ply im­pos­si­ble that there isn’t a whole lot of non­sense pub­lished in pres­ti­gious aca­demic venues and un­der au­gust aca­demic ti­tles.

Yet an­other aca­demic area that suffers from the same prob­lems is the his­tory of the mod­ern era. On many sig­nifi­cant events from the last two cen­turies, there is a great deal of doc­u­men­tary ev­i­dence lay­ing around still wait­ing to be as­sessed prop­erly, so there is cer­tainly no lack of low-hang­ing fruit for a smart and dili­gent his­to­rian. Yet due to the clear ide­olog­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions of many his­tor­i­cal top­ics, ide­olog­i­cal non­sense clev­erly mas­querad­ing as schol­ar­ship abounds. I don’t think any­thing re­sem­bling an ac­cu­rate world his­tory of the last two cen­turies could be writ­ten with­out mak­ing a great many con­trar­ian claims. [4] In con­trast, on top­ics that don’t arouse ide­olog­i­cal pas­sions, mod­ern his­to­ries are of­ten amaz­ingly well re­searched and free of spec­u­la­tion and dis­tor­tion. (In par­tic­u­lar, if you are from a small na­tion that has never re­ally been a player in world his­tory, your lo­cal his­to­ri­ans are likely to be full of parochial bias mo­ti­vated by the lo­cal poli­ti­cal quar­rels and grievances, but you may be able to find very ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion on your lo­cal his­tory in the works of for­eign his­to­ri­ans from the elite academia.)

On the whole, it seems to me that failing the ide­olog­i­cal in­ter­est test sug­gests a much worse situ­a­tion than failing the low-hang­ing fruit test. The ar­eas af­fected by just the lat­ter are still fun­da­men­tally sound, and tend to pro­duce work whose con­tri­bu­tion is way overblown, but which is still built on a sound ba­sis and in­ter­nally co­her­ent. Even if out­right non­sense is pro­duced, it’s still clearly dis­t­in­guish­able with some effort and usu­ally re­stricted to less pres­ti­gious au­thors. Areas af­fected by ide­olog­i­cal bi­ases, how­ever, tend to drift much fur­ther into out­right delu­sion, pos­si­bly lack­ing a sound core body of schol­ar­ship al­to­gether.

[Para­graphs be­low added in re­sponse to com­ments:]

What about the prob­lem of purely ve­nal in­fluences, i.e. the cases where re­searchers are un­der the pa­tron­age of par­ties that have stakes in the re­sults of their re­search? On the whole, the mod­ern Western aca­demic sys­tem is very good at dis­cov­er­ing and stamp­ing out clear and ob­vi­ous cor­rup­tion and fraud. It’s clearly not pos­si­ble for re­searchers to openly sell their ser­vices to the high­est bid­der; even if there are no for­mal sanc­tions, their rep­u­ta­tion would be ru­ined. How­ever, ve­nal in­fluences are nev­er­the­less far from nonex­is­tent, and a fas­ci­nat­ing ques­tion is un­der what ex­act con­di­tions re­searchers are likely to fall un­der them and get away with it.

Some­times ve­nal in­fluences are masked by scams such as set­ting up phony front or­ga­ni­za­tions for fund­ing, but even that tends to be dis­cov­ered even­tu­ally and tar­nish the rep­u­ta­tions of the re­searchers in­volved. What seems to be the real prob­lem is when the benefi­cia­ries of bi­ased re­search en­joy such sta­tus in the eyes of the pub­lic and such le­gal and cus­tom­ary po­si­tion in so­ciety that they don’t even need to hide any­thing when es­tab­lish­ing a per­verse sym­bio­sis that re­sults in bi­ased re­search. Such re­la­tion­ships, while fun­da­men­tally rep­re­sent­ing ve­nal in­ter­est, are in fact of­ten boasted about as benefi­cial and pro­duc­tive co­op­er­a­tion. Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal re­search is an of­ten cited ex­am­ple, but I think the phe­nomenon is in fact far more wide­spread, and reaches the height of per­verse perfec­tion in those re­search com­mu­ni­ties whose struc­ture effec­tively blends into var­i­ous gov­ern­ment agen­cies.

The re­ally bad cases: failing both tests

So far, I’ve dis­cussed ex­am­ples where one of the men­tioned heuris­tics re­turns a nega­tive an­swer, but not the other. What hap­pens when a field fails both of them, hav­ing no clear re­search di­rec­tions and at the same time be­ing highly rele­vant to ide­ologues and in­ter­est groups? Un­sur­pris­ingly, it tends to be re­ally bad.

The clear­est ex­am­ple of such a field is prob­a­bly eco­nomics, par­tic­u­larly macroe­co­nomics. (Microe­co­nomics cov­ers an ex­tremely broad range of is­sues deeply in­ter­twined with many other fields, and its sound­ness, in my opinion, varies greatly de­pend­ing on the sub­ject, so I’ll avoid a lengthy di­gres­sion into it.) Macroe­conomists lack any clearly sound and fruit­ful ap­proach to the prob­lems they wish to study, and any con­clu­sion they might draw will have im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous ide­olog­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions, of­ten ex­press­ible in stark “who-whom?” terms.

And in­deed, even a ca­sual in­spec­tion of the stan­dards in this field shows clear symp­toms of cargo-cult sci­ence: weav­ing com­plex and ab­struse the­o­ries that can be made to pre­dict ev­ery­thing and noth­ing, ma­nipu­lat­ing es­sen­tially mean­ingless num­bers as if they were ob­jec­tively mea­surable prop­er­ties of the real world [5], ex­perts with the most pres­ti­gious cre­den­tials dis­miss­ing each other as crack­pots (in more or less diplo­matic terms) when their fa­vored ide­olo­gies clash, etc., etc. Fringe con­trar­i­ans in this area (most no­tably ex­treme Aus­tri­ans) typ­i­cally have silly enough ideas of their own, but their crit­i­cism of the aca­demic main­stream is nev­er­the­less of­ten spot-on, in my opinion.

Other examples

So, what are some other in­ter­est­ing case stud­ies for these heuris­tics?

An ex­am­ple of great in­ter­est is cli­mate sci­ence. Clearly, the ide­olog­i­cal in­ter­est heuris­tic raises a big red flag here, and in­deed, there is lit­tle doubt that a lot of the re­search com­ing out in re­cent years that sup­pos­edly links “cli­mate change” with all kinds of bad things is just fash­ion­able non­sense [6]. (Another san­ity check it fails is that only a tiny pro­por­tion of these au­thors ever hy­poth­e­size that the pre­dicted/​ob­served cli­mate change might ac­tu­ally im­prove some­thing, as if there ex­isted some law of physics pro­hibit­ing it.) Thus, I’d say that con­trar­i­ans on this is­sue should definitely not be dis­missed out of hand; the re­ally hard ques­tion is how much sound in­sight (if any) re­mains af­ter one elimi­nates all the non­sense that’s in­fil­trated the main­stream. When it comes to the low-hang­ing fruit heuris­tic, I find the situ­a­tion less clear. How difficult is it to achieve progress in ac­cu­rately re­con­struct­ing long-term cli­mate trends and fore­cast­ing the in­fluences of in­creas­ing green­house gases? Is it hard enough that we’d ex­pect, even ab­sent an ide­olog­i­cal mo­ti­va­tion, that peo­ple would try to sub­sti­tute clev­erly con­trived bunk for un­reach­able sound in­sight? My con­clu­sion is that I’ll have to read much more on the tech­ni­cal back­ground of these sub­jects be­fore I can form any re­li­able opinion on these ques­tions.

Another ex­am­ple of prac­ti­cal in­ter­est is nu­tri­tion. Here ide­olog­i­cal in­fluences aren’t very strong (though not al­to­gether ab­sent ei­ther). How­ever, the low-hang­ing fruit raises a huge red flag: it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to study these things in a sound way, con­trol­ling for all the in­cred­ibly com­plex and coun­ter­in­tu­itive con­found­ing vari­ables. At the same time, it’s easy to pro­duce end­less amounts of plau­si­ble-look­ing junk stud­ies. Thus, I’d ex­pect that the main­stream re­search in this area is on av­er­age pure non­sense, with a few pos­si­ble gems of solid in­sight hope­lessly buried un­der it, and even when it comes to very ex­treme con­trar­i­ans, I wouldn’t be tremen­dously sur­prised to see any one of them proven right at the end. My con­clu­sion is similar when it comes to ex­er­cise and nu­mer­ous other lifestyle is­sues.


Fi­nally, what are the ev­i­dent ex­cep­tions to these trends?

I can think of some ex­cep­tions to the low-hang­ing fruit heuris­tic. One is in his­tor­i­cal lin­guis­tics, whose stan­dard well-sub­stan­ti­ated meth­ods have had great suc­cess in iden­ti­fy­ing the struc­ture of the world’s lan­guage fam­ily trees, but give no an­swer at all to the fas­ci­nat­ing ques­tion of how far back into the past the nodes of these trees reach (ex­cept of course when we have writ­ten ev­i­dence). No­body has any good idea how to make progress there, and the ques­tions are tan­ta­l­iz­ing. Now, there are all sorts of plau­si­ble-look­ing but fun­da­men­tally un­sound meth­ods that pur­port to an­swer these ques­tions, and pa­pers us­ing them oc­ca­sion­ally get pub­lished in pres­ti­gious non-lin­guis­tic jour­nals, but the ac­tual his­tor­i­cal lin­guists firmly dis­miss them as un­sound, even though they have no an­swers of their own to offer in­stead. [7] It’s an ex­am­ple of a com­mend­able stand against se­duc­tive non­sense.

It’s much harder to think of ex­am­ples where the ide­olog­i­cal in­ter­est heuris­tic fails. What field can one point out where main­stream schol­ar­ship is re­li­ably sound and ob­jec­tive de­spite its topic be­ing ide­olog­i­cally charged? Hon­estly, I can’t think of one.

What about the other di­rec­tion—fields that pass both heuris­tics but are nev­er­the­less non­sense? I can think of e.g. artsy ar­eas that don’t make much of a pre­tense to ob­jec­tivity in the first place, but oth­er­wise, it seems to me that ab­sent ide­olog­i­cal and ve­nal per­verse in­cen­tives, and given clear paths to progress that don’t re­quire ex­traor­di­nary ge­nius, the mod­ern aca­demic sys­tem is great in pro­duc­ing solid and re­li­able in­sight. The trou­ble is that these con­di­tions of­ten don’t hold in prac­tice.

I’d be cu­ri­ous to see ad­di­tional ex­am­ples that ei­ther con­firm of dis­prove these heuris­tics I pro­posed.


[1] Com­menter gw­ern has ar­gued that the Bog­danoff af­fair is not a good ex­am­ple, claiming that the broth­ers have been shown as fraud de­ci­sively af­ter they came un­der in­tense pub­lic scrutiny. How­ever, even if this is true, the fact still re­mains that they ini­tially man­aged to pub­lish their work in rep­utable peer-re­viewed venues and ob­tain doc­torates at a rep­utable (though not top-rank­ing) uni­ver­sity, which strongly sug­gests that there is much more work in the field that is equally bad but doesn’t elicit equal pub­lic in­ter­est and thus never gets re­ally scru­ti­nized. More­over, from my own read­ing about the af­fair, it was clear that in its ini­tial phases sev­eral cre­den­tialed physi­cists were un­able to make a clear judg­ment about their work. On the whole, I don’t think the af­fair can be dis­missed as an in­signifi­cant ac­ci­dent.

[2] Mold­bug’s “What’s wrong with CS re­search” is a witty and es­sen­tially ac­cu­rate overview of this situ­a­tion. He mostly limits him­self to the dis­cus­sion of pro­gram­ming lan­guage re­search, but a similar sce­nario can be seen in some other re­lated fields too.

[3] Thomas Hobbes, Le­viathan, Chap­ter XI.

[4] I have the im­pres­sion that LW read­ers would mostly not be in­ter­ested in a de­tailed dis­cus­sion of the top­ics where I think one should read con­trar­ian his­tory, so I’m skip­ping it. In case I’m wrong, please feel free to open the is­sue in the com­ments.

[5] Oskar Mor­gen­stern’s On the Ac­cu­racy of Eco­nomic Ob­ser­va­tions is a tour de force on the sub­ject, demon­strat­ing the es­sen­tial mean­ingless­ness of many sorts of num­bers that economists use rou­tinely. (Many thanks to the com­menter re­al­i­ty­grill for di­rect­ing me to this amaz­ing book.) Mor­gen­stern is of course far too pres­ti­gious a name to dis­miss as a crack­pot, so economists ap­pear to have cho­sen to sim­ply ig­nore the ques­tions he raised, and his book has been lan­guish­ing in ob­scu­rity and out of print for decades. It is available for down­load though (warn­ing: ~31MB PDF).

[6] Some amus­ing lists of ex­am­ples have been posted by the Her­i­tage Foun­da­tion and the Num­ber Watch (not in­tended to en­dorse the rest of the stuff on these web­sites). Ad­mit­tedly, a lot of the stuff listed there is not real pub­lished re­search, but rather just peo­ple’s me­dia state­ments. Still, there’s no short­age of similar things even in pub­lished re­search ei­ther, as a search of e.g. Google Scholar will show.

[7] Here is, for ex­am­ple, the lin­guist Bill Poser dis­miss­ing one such pa­per pub­lished in Na­ture a few years ago.