Why Science is slowing down, Universities and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

I don’t have a very high prior in re­gards to the cor­rect­ness of Maslow’s hi­er­ar­chy of needs, but as far as gen­eral the­o­ries for un­der­stand­ing hu­man needs go, I think it’s a pretty good.

There’s cer­tainly peo­ple who seem to go strongly against it, to the point where they only re­quire self ac­tu­al­iza­tion or where they are perfectly happy in life with only their phys­iolog­i­cal needs needs barely meet.


For all of the ex­cep­tions, most peo­ple, even ex­cep­tional peo­ple, seem to roughly live their life in ac­cor­dance to it.

The grad­ual pas­sage into adult­ing can be pretty daunt­ing for peo­ple, even for well ad­justed peo­ple with lov­ing par­ents that can main­tain a com­fortable stan­dard of liv­ing, for this rea­son. Grad­u­ally you are ex­pected to find “safety” (i.e. fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity, a house, a safe place to live) and “be­long­ing” par­tially on your own.

En­ter uni­ver­si­ties, the role of in­sti­tutes of higher ed­u­ca­tion in a well ad­justed so­ciety should ar­guably be push­ing the bound­aries of hu­man knowl­edge. Be­fore they would also con­sti­tute a repos­i­tory of in­for­ma­tion by main­tain­ing huge libraries and peo­ple that could nav­i­gate them, but to­day we have the in­ter­net, .txt, .la­tex, .pdf, search en­g­ines and de­cent 10TB HDDs that sell for 100-200$ with tax, so I think it’s safe to say that role can now be played pretty cheaply.

So, uni­ver­si­ties now re­main a places that ed­u­cated and help peo­ple to nav­i­gate and en­large the bound­aries of hu­man knowl­edge.

The recog­ni­tion and most of all self satis­fac­tion given by ex­tend­ing said bound­aries is pretty great (or so I hear). So I think it’s safe to say that this role is one to be pur­sued by peo­ple that feel the needs on step 5 and pos­si­bly 4 of the pyra­mid.


In turn this is a pro­cess that re­quires a great deal of effort, ded­i­ca­tion and in­tel­li­gence, things that are hard to find and hard to di­rect for any­one that hasn’t fulfilled steps 1, 2 and 3 pretty well. Again, ex­cep­tions ex­ist, but for ba­si­cally all peo­ple it’s much eas­ier to think about food, sex, friends and not dy­ing than it is to think about novel biore­ac­tors for pro­duc­ing cheap re­com­bi­nant DNA vac­cines or n-di­men­sional non Eu­clidean spaces… we can’t help it, it’s kinda the way we are evolved.

You can try to be­come a men­tal her­mit and just not care about any of that, but I’m yet to see any ev­i­dence of that work­ing, not perfectly at any rate. Even when you look at the clini­cally in­sane, they still want food and friends first and fore­most, what­ever the voices say is usu­ally sec­ondary to eat­ing break­fast.

Con­versely, think of the fol­low­ing recipe:

  • Take one piece homo-sapien right af­ter puberty

  • Take them away from their par­ents and their friends and community

  • Give them ~100,000$ of high in­ter­est debt that can’t be cleared through bankruptcy

  • Put them in a new high-den­sity so­cial environment

  • Have them leave in a cheap room or apart­ment that meets min­i­mum san­i­tary re­quire­ments but that’s about it

  • Have them buy&cook food for them­selves, sched­ule doc­tors ap­point­ments, buy clothes and take care of rent and util­ities even though some of them barely have any ex­pe­rience do­ing this

Where ex­actly are there needs go­ing to fall in Maslow’s hi­er­ar­chy.

So why do these peo­ple at­tend uni­ver­sity ?

Why did the trend start is a com­plex is­sue with many poli­ti­cal im­pli­ca­tions.

Why does the trend hold is a much sim­pler is­sues, be­cause uni­ver­si­ties now mainly cater to step 2 and 3 of the hi­er­ar­chy.

This is ar­guably bad be­cause be­ing a jack of all trade sel­dom works, and we have a whole so­ciety built to cater to the first steps and are in des­per­ate need of en­tities that can help us with the last.

Even more so, be­cause uni­ver­si­ties were never in­tended to do this and are thus kinda bad it. What they are good at how­ever, is giv­ing is:

a) A false sense of fu­ture se­cu­rity in or­der to fulfill 2 (E.g. The 100,000% + 2% yearly in­ter­est debt you took in or­der to study mod­ern liter­a­ture will pay of in the long run when you hit the mar­ket and ev­ery­one is awed by the achieve­ment only you and 70% of the peo­ple your age were able to at­tain).

b) A false sense of cur­rent se­cu­rity in or­der to fulfill 2, pro­vided by the fact that you are liv­ing on credit and can thus af­ford a more ex­pen­sive lifestyle than the one you can af­ford once you’re done.

c) A com­mu­nity that help to­wards 3, ex­cept for the fact that this com­mu­nity is one you will have to leave in 4 years, un­less you pay even more money or man­age to ob­tain a paid po­si­tion (which, let’s be hon­est, usu­ally re­quires you tak­ing the gam­ble and pay­ing more money to get a mas­ters de­gree). Not to men­tion this is not the com­mu­nity you grew up in, so for some peo­ple con­nect­ing with it be­comes harder.


Even if you as­sume that I am wrong in as­sum­ing a, b and c. After all there’s a sur­pris­ing lack of stud­ies (aka 0 that I could find, and I dug for them a lot) with ti­tles around the lines of “Eco­nomic value of uni­ver­sity de­gree when con­trol­ling for IQ, time lost and stu­dent debt”. The few stud­ies I can find that look at the rele­vant dat­a­points (e.g. http://​​ftp.iza.org/​​dp8235.pdf) don’t have good enough that to dis­en­tan­gle them.

Note: If you know of any rele­vant stud­ies on this topic, please please please email them to me at george@cere­bralab.com and I shall add them here no mat­ter their find­ings.

But again, even if you as­sume I’m wrong, that still leave us with uni­ver­si­ties that strug­gle to op­ti­mize for 2, 3 and maybe 4, los­ing out on 5 in the pro­cess.

At least I would ar­gue that uni­ver­si­ties are los­ing out on 5 in the pro­cess. I think this is hard to prove con­clu­sively, but I do have a few an­gels of at­tack for prove this.

1. Re­search is slow­ing down on mea­surable metrics

For one, there’s clear ev­i­dence that mea­surable met­rics for progress are go­ing down: https://​​web.stan­ford.edu/​​~chadj/​​IdeaPF.pdf.

The num­ber of tran­sis­tors we can fit on a similarly sized cheap is in­creas­ing more slowly, in spite of the fact that new re­searchers en­gage with the prob­lem.

Progress on lifes­pan ex­ten­sion is slow­ing down in spite the num­ber of re­searchers and pub­li­ca­tions in­creas­ing.

Crop yield is in­creas­ing only slightly if at all, in spite of the fact that there’s an ex­po­nen­tial in­crease in peo­ple that are sup­posed to work on this sub­ject.

… etc

For a good tear-down of this study (i.e. the counter per­spec­tive of what I’m ad­vo­cat­ing here, I strongly recom­mend this re­view.

2. Progress is not made by universities

Look­ing at a sin­gle uni­ver­sity, say Oxford, it’s fi­nanc­ing seems like some­thing that could ac­com­plish amaz­ing things.

It’s last re­ported 1-year ex­pen­di­ture is 2.5 billion dol­lars.

This might not seem like a lot, un­til you com­pare it with com­pa­nies in­no­vat­ing in pri­vate in­dus­try.

For refer­ence, the bud­get of SpaceX, for it’s first 10 years of op­er­a­tion was ~1 billion dol­lars. Con­sid­er­ing that af­ter those first 10 years SpaceX build and launches it’s first rocket mod­els. It should also be noted that most of that money cam from con­tracts that paid in ad­vance, rather than fund­ing. Most of that money seems to have come for pri­vate for-profit con­tract though.

So in a worst case sce­nario it costs ~100$ mil­lion dol­lars to found SpaceX, in a best case sce­nario (where we as­sume the con­tracts they got were not un­fairly earned) it costs ~40$ mil­lion.

In other words, it would cost Oxford Univer­sity (note: not all of Oxford, this doesn’t in­clude the col­leges) 1.6% to 4% of it’s yearly spend­ing to fund the most promis­ing pro­gram hu­man­ity ever had for coloniz­ing space.

It would cost less than what one sin­gle large uni­ver­sity has filled un­der “Others” in it’s ex­pense tab, to fund a pro­gram that has sig­nifi­cant po­ten­tial in send­ing peo­ple to fuck­ing Mars.

That’s self ac­tu­al­iz­ing, ex­pand­ing the hu­man race through­out the cos­mos. That’s a level 5 need, that’s what peo­ple that “want more” in life should do.

So con­sid­er­ing that this is one 9-digits uni­ver­sity and there ex­ist hun­dreds of them. Are they re­ally do­ing some­thing more im­por­tant than this ? Is it re­ally not the best ROI for self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion in­sti­tu­tions to jointly spend 0.x% of their bud­get to help colonize space.

Maybe Space Ex­plo­ra­tion is not where it’s at… but where is it at, where do we break the bound­aries.

Ma­chine Learn­ing ?

Most in­no­va­tion (e.g. Trans­former, prac­ti­cal RL sys­tems, Resi­d­ual Learn­ing) seems to come from Deep­Mind, GoogleBrain, OpenAI, Microsoft Re­search and other pri­vately founded ven­tures.

What about the libraries that we need to do all this stuff ?

  • Ten­sorflow ? Google

  • Pytroch ? Facebook

  • LAPACK ? NSF founded, many con­trib­u­tors, most seem to be work­ing at universities

  • Jax ? Google

  • cuBLAS ? Nvidia

  • Keras ? Community

  • Ei­gen ? Community

It’s hard to go by ac­tual pa­pers pub­lished, since it’s hard to rank pa­per im­por­tance, but look­ing at the tools it’s mostly free con­tri­bu­tions and pri­vate in­dus­try.

3. Things we can’t even imagine

But maybe what’s be­ing cre­ated in­side the halls of uni­ver­si­ties shouldn’t be judged by what we already know we can do (e.g. trav­el­ing to other planets) or by progress on met­rics we’ve had for a long time and which can be im­proved with mar­ket fund­ing (e.g. all the ones in point 1).

Maybe it should be in­no­vat­ing in ways with an even longer profit-hori­zon or lower chances of suc­cess.

What about hu­man im­mor­tal­ity ? Or at least in­creas­ing healthy lifes­pan past the 100-110 years bar­rier that seems to be the limit of the hu­man species ? Surely this is tran­scen­den­tal if there ever was such a thing, surely try­ing to beat death it­self is self ac­tu­al­iza­tion.

So… ? Where are all the uni­ver­sity longevity fo­cused de­part­ments. Where do I sign up to re­search re­vers­ing the shrink­ing pro­cess of the thy­mus ? Or re­search­ing viral vec­tors to evenly spread SC pro­mot­ing co-fac­tors to dam­age tis­sue ? Or seno­li­tics drugs ? Or… you know, that kind of stuff.

Hmh, there’s like 10 tiny biotech star­tups do­ing that you say ? And this tiny non-profit called SENS ran by this gan­dalf guy ? And some crazy Rus­si­ans that want to build robot bod­ies ?

4. The finer things are not the work of universities

But there’s more ways to self ac­tu­al­ize, one can pro­duce beau­tiful philos­o­phy, mu­sic, books, games… works of art, works deal­ing with the hu­man na­ture.

So, let’s look at philos­o­phy, we have a whole “crisis of mean­ing” go­ing on, sure could use some psy­chol­o­gists and philoso­pher deal­ing with that, there seems to be a lot of self ac­tu­al­iz­ing to be had there, be­ing the sav­ior of so­cieties struck by doubt and de­pres­sion.

Let’s say Opi­oid crisis and the hik­iko­mori phe­nomenon, those are pretty rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the broader is­sue…

And now for some­thing liter­ally no­body cares about:

But hey… you can rest in peace know­ing that there’s over 160,365 re­sults re­lat­ing to Marx­ist Anal­y­sis, that’s ought to fix some­thing… right ? https://​​www.js­tor.org/​​ac­tion/​​doBa­sicSearch?Query=marx­ist+anal­y­sis.

What about mu­sic ?

There’s hun­dreds of con­ser­va­to­ries and mu­sic schools in the US, yet if you look at the peo­ple that pushed the en­velope on mu­sic in the 20th cen­tury, that re-defined what we call mu­sic… we see, what ?

Peo­ple from poor villages in the South of the US, res­i­dents the slums of cities like NY and New Or­leans, Bri­tish teenagers that took acids and got hold of some fourth-hand in­stru­ments. Th­ese are not the kind of peo­ple that at­tended con­ser­va­to­ries, the peo­ple that put the foun­da­tions to blues and jazz of­ten didn’t know how to prop­erly read and write, let alone read mu­sic, let alone af­ford to go to a con­ser­va­tory.

I’d go into mod­ern art and ar­chi­tec­ture but even I don’t en­joy beat­ing dead horses that much.

5. New de­part­ments open­ing up in ar­eas par­allel to self-actualization

I’m so glad my fam­ily is here as a lay dy­ing, I had a lovely life and I’m glad all of you are here and if there’s one last wish I have, is for you my chil­dren to col­lect my notes and make sure that my mas­ter-piece on SEO and Word­press ad­ver­tis­ing is fi­nal­ized and pub­lished.

Fi­nally, I think self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion is rather hard to define, but I cer­tainly think there are fields where one can’t find it. Things like mar­ket­ing, sales, tech sup­port, ac­count­ing. Th­ese are all things so­ciety needs for bet­ter or worst, but these are “safe” pro­fes­sion, peo­ple do them be­cause they want fi­nan­cial safety, be­cause they don’t want to or can’t put in the hard work.

And I don’t blame them, be an ac­coun­tant, be a car sales­man. What you do for a liv­ing is not what defines you. For most peo­ple self-ac­tu­al­iz­ing might more be about rais­ing happy chil­dren than about the dis­cov­er­ies they make.

But again, what are uni­ver­si­ties do­ing here if they care about self ac­tu­al­iz­ing ?

Why have a ma­jor in sales, mar­ket­ing, cus­tomer re­la­tion­ships, tourism or ac­count­ing ? There’s noth­ing to be found here, there’s no progress for hu­man­ity to make, no fame, no glory, no near-uni­ver­sal eth­i­cal obli­ga­tion to do bet­ter.

If a good were to snap his fingers and all of those de­part­ments were to sud­denly van­ish not one speck of dust would differ when the arche­ol­o­gists of 3020 dig us up.

Is there self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion to be found ?

I think so, look at things like the hu­man genome pro­ject for one ex­am­ple of that.

I’m not so crazy as to claim the rem­nants of the ed­ifice of ev­i­dence-based un­der­stand­ing of the world that is still sup­ported by uni­ver­si­ties is for noth­ing.

But that’s the prob­lem, uni­ver­si­ties are still do­ing a lot of good in fulfilling the 5th rank of the hi­er­ar­chy of needs. If they weren’t, we could just ig­nore the whole sys­tem, af­ter all we don’t com­plain about sales pyra­mid schemes and ex­pect of them to change… be­cause the whole ed­ifice was cor­rupt to be­ing with.

Univer­si­ties are slowly be­ing de­voured by rent-seek­ing pyra­mid schemes that take chil­dren out of their com­fortable en­vi­ron­ments and give them short-term solu­tions to fulfill their more ba­sic needs.

How­ever there’s still enough self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion to be found that a lot of peo­ple that ac­tu­ally seek that go there. That’s the prob­lem, those two things don’t mix, you can’t have an in­sti­tu­tion fo­cused on ly­ing to peo­ple about how if they just take loans to give them money (or pay higher taxes in the fu­ture in or­der for gov­ern­ments to fund them, as is the case in Western Europe).

I think this might be caused by the fact that uni­ver­si­ties want to ex­pand, the fact is that in­sti­tu­tions for self-ac­tu­al­iz­ing through sci­ence and art are,by defi­ni­tion, go­ing to be niche.

Most peo­ple don’t want to be re­mem­bered for their works in un­veiling the mys­ter­ies of the world, they want to be re­mem­bered as a good father, or as that one guy that made the best sausages in Gener­ic­s­mal­l­town. The only way to get them to at­tend uni­ver­si­ties in the first place is to promise them fulfill­ment of more ba­sic needs.

Maybe the rea­son why a vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple go­ing to uni­ver­si­ties in ages past were no­bles and few se­lect gifted peo­ple was not be­cause the sys­tem was un­fair, but be­cause those are the only peo­ple that need a self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion in­sti­tu­tion. Peo­ple that already have their ba­sic needs mostly fulfilled, or that are pas­sion­ate enough about a sub­ject that it be­comes a ba­sic needs for them to study it, peo­ple where self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion some­how hops from rank 5 to rank 2.

How­ever, for now, we are in a weird spot. Where the in­sti­tu­tions that are sup­posed to cater to the higher needs of a few in­tel­li­gent peo­ple, who fulfilled this ser­vice well and with great benefit to so­ciety, are sys­tem­at­i­cally be­ing forced to in­stead cater to the ba­sic needs of ev­ery­one.

Thus we have a loss-loss sce­nario. If you are the kind of per­son that would ac­tu­ally do well be­ing a philos­o­phy pro­fes­sor or a re­search physi­cist you ei­ther have to find your own way in life with lit­tle scaf­fold­ing or go to an in­sti­tu­tion that’s not made for you. If you are the kind of per­son that doesn’t care much for sci­ence or art or philos­o­phy, you are feed sys­tem­atic lies and pre­sented and eco­nomic sys­tem that still some­what val­ues uni­ver­sity de­grees…. So you go to a place you dis­like in or­der to fulfill ba­sic needs that said place was not de­signed to fulfill.

The de­fault hy­poth­e­sis here would be that the cur­rent sys­tem con­tinues along just fine, with pri­vate en­ter­prise tak­ing more and more of the role of higher ed­u­ca­tion.

The other sce­nario if you trust in peo­ple be­ing some­what-ra­tio­nal agents and be­lieve ideas like those pre­sented by Bryan Ca­plan in The Case against Ed­u­ca­tion: Why the Ed­u­ca­tion Sys­tem Is a Waste of Time and Money. Is that uni­ver­si­ties start leak­ing money very fast and col­lapse once peo­ple stop at­tend­ing at cur­rent rates, leav­ing a so­cietal dent that might be hard to fill. I think there’s some ev­i­dence to be­lieve this since uni­ver­sity at­ten­dance rates in the US have been drop­ping since around 2010, but I very much doubt this.

The best case sce­nario is that ei­ther due to eco­nomic pres­sures or due to re­al­iz­ing their own faults uni­ver­si­ties down­scale, and be­come in­sti­tu­tions of self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion again. How­ever, this would rely upon the idea that a large in­sti­tu­tion can be re­duced in size slowly rather than just im­plode… If you play with those kind of odds then you prob­a­bly haven’t read about Pas­cal’s Mug­ging.