Plain English with Derek Thompson - Why There Is So Much Bullsh*t in Science

🎁Amazon Prime 📖Kindle Unlimited 🎧Audible Plus 🎵Amazon Music Unlimited 🌿iHerb 💰Binance


Hey everyone.

It’s Ariel helwani.

And I’m Chuck Mendenhall and I’m Petey Carol and together, we are three pack.

Join us on the brand-new Spotify Live app immediately, after all of the biggest fights in Combat Sports, and also during the weigh-ins, because that’s when the real drama happens.


So what are you waiting for?

Follow the Ring Worm, a show right now on our exclusive Spotify podcast feed and come join the best community and MMA purse.

We’re out of here.

Today’s episode is about a big problem in science in the last few years during the pandemic liberals and conservatives have fought over the concept of science that is science with a capital S.


You’ve got conservative saying that Anthony fauci just wants to imprison them and make America to tell it’s Aryan dictatorship.

You’ve got liberals putting signs in their front lawn saying they believe in science they follow the science of the capital.



But while these groups have been squabbling over the politics of science, something more important has been happening under the hood science has been slowing down.

This all important engine of progress of Health has been sputtering and the really scary thing is nobody is entirely sure why So we should be living in a golden age of creativity in science and technology.


We know more about the universe and ourselves than we did in any other period.

In history.

We have easier access to Superior research, tools are pace of Discovery should be accelerating, but the opposite is happening as one group of researchers at Stanford University, put it quote everywhere we look, we find that ideas are getting harder to find.


Another paper found that quote scientific knowledge has been in clear secular decline since the early 1970s and quote and yet another paper concluded that new ideas no longer fuel economic growth the way they once did.

This really concerns me as regular listeners of this podcast.


Know, I am obsessed with this topic of why it seems like in Industries as different as music and film.

And physics.

New ideas are losing ground.

It is harder to sell an original scripts or original movie to the American public.


It is harder to make an original hit song, and it is harder to publish a groundbreaking paper.

And while these I These Trends are not the same thing.

I repeat they are not the same thing.

They do rhyme in a way that I can’t stop thinking about.


How did we build a world where new ideas are so endangered?

This year, a study entitled papers and patents are becoming less disruptive.

Overtime inches, us closer to an explanation of why this is all happening.


The upshot, is that any given paper?

Today is much less likely to become influential than a paper in that same field from several decades ago.

Disruption progress is slowing down and it’s not just happening in one or two places, it is happening across the landscape of Science and Tech.


Today, I speak to one of the study’s, co-authors Russell.

Funk, Professor Funk, is a professor at the Carlson School of Management.

At the University of Minnesota, we talked about the decline of progress in science.

Why it matters why it’s happening and we give special attention to a particular theory of mine, which is that the incentive structure of modern science encourages too much research that basically doesn’t serve any purpose except to get published.


In other words, science has a bullshit paper problem.

And because science is the Wellspring from which all progress flows.

It scrap.

Paper problem is our problem.

I’m Derrick Thompson.


This is plain English.


Professor Russell Funk, welcome to the podcast.

It’s great to be here.

Thank you for having me.

So progress in science, seems to be slowing down.

Why should we pay attention to that?

Well, I think there are a couple reasons if you look back over the past couple hundred years but especially the past 100 years or so.


A lot of the great improvements in human life from you know Health do technology to education and so forth.

Have come and originated with scientific research and scientific breakthroughs.


And so just a lot of what makes the world that we know and live in today what it is has been from from scientific progress and and kind of current scientific discoveries.

There’s another Factor as well which is that scientific progress is also very closely tied up with economic growth.


And so you know, scientists make discoveries and their Laboratories doing research which then often serve as the seeds for new technologies and you think of things, you know, like the internet or space exploration and so forth, all of those had their Origins With scientific breakthroughs and then they serve as the basis of new technologies will create which create new Industries, new job opportunities, and so forth.


And so so to the extent that you know, science is slowing down.

It may be one important contributing factor that we’re seeing too slow and rates of economic growth and so forth.

And when people say that science is slowing down what are they actually talking?


Thinking about how can we actually measure the degree to which disruptive science or important breakthroughs are slowing down over time?

Well it’s a really good question and one that you know since the paper is come out has generated a lot of discussion and debate about how do you really measure scientific progress and how do you really identify breakthroughs?


And in some sense it’s a it’s hard to do because it’s a bit subjective and You know, how do you quantify things that are very different?

Like, you know, the invention of the integrated circuits and the discovery of DNA, they’re both important.


But how do you put them on a scale?

And different people have different views but they’re so it’s something that we often have to measure kind of indirectly especially if we want to look at it on a large scale.

And so people have used a number of quite a few different tricks to look at this one that I think that’s kind of interesting.


And it’s just easy to wrap your head around, looks at Nobel prizes and the discoveries that are awarded Nobel prizes.

And so Nobel prizes are kind of essentially universally recognized important breakthroughs.

And so, some things that people have done is look at the gap between the date of discovery for a certain Nobel prize-winning breakthrough.


And won.

The prize is awarded.

And what they found is that that Gap is increasing over time.

Such that in recent decades, the prizes are going to discoveries that were made, you know, 20, 30, 40 years previously which kind of suggests that the breakthroughs that are made today are not seen as being, quite as significant as the ones that were made before.


There are other ways of looking at this as well.

So you can look at things like citation patterns in science, and you can see some citations are very important in scientific papers.


Science is usually seen as kind of a cumulative Endeavor.

And so, researchers, build off of the findings of Prior work and they indicate their kind of indebtedness to Prior work by making citations.

And and, you know, including reference list and their papers And so, you can look at things like when were the papers that researchers today are citing written.


And if you look across a lot of different fields, you’ll see that the age of the most cited papers is increasing, which suggests that, you know, the kind of older foundational knowledge or the things that people are building off of most is this older, you know, older older knowledge, and older information and they’re citing West of the newer stuff.


Which Again, could be seen as some kind of indicator of significance.

I’ll give just one more example that has been kind of established in other research, and then they could talk about what we did in our paper.

But so, there are a lot of theories that people developed in philosophy of science, economics of science, sociology, science and so forth that tries to understand like what is innovation and what is Discovery.


And one of the biggest theories is this idea of recombination.

So you know most of the things that we think of as new and Innovative aren’t just, you know, cup from cut a new from Whole cloth but they’re kind of combinations of existing things.

And so the way that we get new stuff is by taking stuff that’s out there and putting it together a new configurations, you think of like the iPhone.


None of the components of the iPhone were really knew.

We had digital cameras, we had touch screens and so forth but what made it so novel and Valuable was that it brought all these together in a way that was really easy to use and so forth and so the same thing goes for a lot of scientific discoveries.

We want to look at whether or not scientists are exploring new things and putting together new combinations and so people have trapped over time the extent to which that’s happening.


So our scientist taking ideas from disparate fields that haven’t been thought about together before under the exploring them or are they You are in the world of invention are inventors, taking different technologies that haven’t been brought together before.


And if you look at that, you see there’s these dramatic decrease in this in that over time as well.

And there’s a lot of other indicators that people have looked at, but those are just some of the some of the highlights.

There was so much there and I’m not, I promise I am not going to try to recast every single thing that you say in some kind of entertainment or Sports metaphor, but I think it is useful to just go over very, very We everything you pointed out.


You said there’s three buckets of information that tell us that progress in science is slowing down.

Number one, Nobel prizes number two citations.

And number three, this slowdown and recombinant, Tory Innovation as you said, for the first, to the way that I kind of, think of it as, like, with Nobel prizes, these are Awards.


So, it’s like, with the Academy Awards.

Imagine if the Academy Awards shifted away from honoring, movies were made in the last year, toward the bulk of those being honorary Awards.

It would suggest that most of the Great It’s in movies were happened decades ago, rather than the last 12 months.


There’s not a literal way for the Academy Awards to do that right now.

But imagine if they did, that would be a reflection of the fact that the academy itself believes that the bulk of Genius work is decades old rather than months old.

That’s something that’s happening in the Nobel.

Prize space in citations what you’re saying is, it’s hard to write a paper that is essentially among the 1% most cited papers.


It’s harder to make a hit.

And this is also something the entertainment industry has seen ironically in music.

It has become much harder to create a hit because they’re simply so many new songs that are being written.

That is harder to write a song that has a similar shot of being a 1%. 0.1% hit.


So awards are going to older work and it’s harder to write a hit paper.

These are some ideas that suggests the progress in science is slowing down.

Let’s jump into your paper.

Give me the executive summary.

What did you say here?

That was actually knew so as You can see from the summary that I’ve given you so far.


And as I said, you know, that’s just a small sampling of the various indicators that people have used to look at progress.

The there’s a lot of different metrics and a lot of them are pretty field specific.

So, a couple examples of other things I didn’t mention were Moore’s.


Law is something that, you know, a lot of people pay attention to and it basically concerns the packing of History is on an integrated circuit.

So kind of scaling down the size of of our computers and processors.


And there’s a prediction that the kind of amount of packing doubles every two years.

And so that’s a law that’s I think surprised everybody because it’s continued for a really long period of time but there’s signs that that’s started slowing down.


And you see that in a few ways, one is that there’s It requires more and more researchers and investment to make kind of incrementally smaller improvements and pushing us forward.

There’s other things as well, if you look at like crop yields per acre, if you look at improvements in Health and Longevity that come from research, efforts and Investments and so forth.


But so there’s all these different metrics that we see across different fields.

And so, those are great and they’re obviously very important metrics within Fields, but Harder to get a sense of the big picture.

We don’t really know if this is something that holds across a lot of different fields of science and technology.


Or if this is something that, you know, might maybe just by chance.

We’ve been looking at a subset of fields where this is happening.

And, you know, if we looked at kind of newer fields or other places we’d actually see, progress going up.

And so, a big part of what we want to do in this paper, was to try to take this 30,000 ft overview where we could see.


See use a common metric that would be you know in principle meaningful across a lot of different fields of Science and Technology and see, first of all whether on this metric we found or could replicate what other prior studies that said about progress going down and then also look to see if it was happening.


Was it going at similar rates across different fields, wasn’t slowing down at similar times and then the idea would be that That would give us some information or it’s at least start to think about what might be some of the different causes you write.


In a way you essentially, I believe the metric that you use is called the consolidation disruption index or the CD index.

And in the article that I just wrote for the Atlantic based on this paper.

I said it’s kind of like, you know, if I write a really crappy literature review that no scientist ever references because it’s just so damn basic.


All right.

My index would be very low but if I look at a bunch of Each of findings from lets you know quantum mechanics or something and I come up with this law of quantum gravity that is so mind-blowing.

The genius that people only cite my paper and don’t even bother with the citations that I reference.


That would give me a very high CD index and what you’re finding is that across all of these domains across Science.

And Technology progress is plunging as seen by the fact that the CD index is going down.

People are publishing less disruptive Work.


Okay, this is fascinating to me.

It’s fascinating to me in large part because of this tension that you know, you mentioned recombinant, Tory Innovation.

Well, we have more knowledge than ever.

We have more scientists than ever.

We have more spending on science than ever.

We have more phds than ever.


We should be living in a golden age of productivity and Science and instead we seem to be living in something like the opposite.

So I see this as a fascinating mystery to solve and the the way that I want to think about solving it is treating it kind of like a crime mystery.


I want to think about the suspects that we can line up against the wall and blame for the decline of progress in science.

Suspect number one is this famous idea in science called the burden of knowledge and the burden of knowledge essentially says there’s so much knowledge that people have to learn before they enter into a domain likes a physics or chemistry that it becomes.


Or to push forward, the frontier science just becomes harder to do.

And a quick example here to show that it just must be true in some cases.

If you think about something like physics, take a breakthrough in physics 400 years ago.

Isaac Newton figures out the laws of gravity with a telescope, a pen and a paper.


Pretty much this de Century for two years later, discovering a new elementary particle, like the Higgs boson requires a ten billion dollar underground tunnel to smack subatomic particles, into each other at near light speed.

These are not Equivalent discoveries.


It’s much harder to build a Hadron Collider then to write the rules of gravity with pen and paper.

I should think.

So to a certain extent you have all this energy around burden of knowledge.

The problem is that we know so much that making that incremental progress in science becomes harder.


How do you feel about the burden of knowledge hypothesis to explain the slowdown in science?

Well, I definitely think that that is an important suspect, you know, to use here metaphor.

And in fact, it’s something that a lot of prominent scientists have been thinking about, for a long time.


I mean this is something that Albert Einstein talked about in wrote about how, you know, set of the golden days of physics might be over because in the coming Generations there was going to be so much that people had to learn and master that would lead to the specialization and, you know, would kind of have these adverse effects on scientific progress.


Also thinks that you start to see this in some of the data, and we include a number of examples of this in the in the paper.

And then we could include a number of analyses of this in a paper.

So one way you could start to see if this is really happening is by looking at the kinds of knowledge that scientists are building on when they’re doing the research.


And if there’s this kind of overwhelming amount of knowledge or information, Nation that people have to master to get to the frontiers, of their field.

Well, what would a natural thing to do be?

You’d find ways to kind of constrain the scope of what you needed to learn.

And so you see growing specialization within the Sciences so people really learn their particular area.


They get to know it really, really well.

But as a smaller space to the field, the smaller part of the pie that they really need to know and the kind of thing you can start to master in a lifetime.

And so one way, you might see that manifest itself is by Sing at the citation, patterns and we can actually see some interesting things going on there.


So one is that, and you hinted at this a little bit already, the diversity of Prior work that people build on is going down.

So you’re getting an increasing concentration of citations to a smaller number of kind of popular works that, you know, people read probably when they’re in their PHD programs uses to the classics.


And everybody knows that small subset is, is getting an Kris in share of the citations and they’re also becoming more semantically similar suggesting.

They’re kind of on similar sorts of topics and so forth.

And so there you see evidence of less diversity, you also see an increasing number of self citations per paper self-citations.


Just mean that, you know, I write may say a couple papers per year and then in every paper I cite some of the my own prior papers you know which presumably those are the papers, I know best because I wrote them and so it’s more familiar knowledge knowledge.

That’s In my area and again, might be one of these adaptive strategies you’ll also see the age of stuff that’s being cited going up.


Again, suggesting that people are looking at stuff that’s more familiar struggling to keep up with the existing with the existing literature.

And you don’t even need to look at the metrics, you can just kind of see that there’s so much more.


The people need to know, to get to the frontier.

There’s a couple ways you can look at this.

So This is complicated and itself.

But, you know, so many people in so many different fields are doing, not just one, but two, three, postdocs after they get their PHD.

And so by the time they really are, you know, in that kind of independent researcher position, you know, they’re well into their 30s or so forth, which if you looked at, you know, the Einsteins and de rocks and others, they were all had all long made their most important contributions by.


Then you can also just think about well, what is research looked like today to go with your We didn’t even need to think about something as big as the Large Hadron Collider.

You know, Newton could do his work was paper and pencil or pen or quill and but today, you know, if you want to do research, so data-driven you’ve got essentially become a programmer, you know, learn programming languages database management, how to Wrangle data and so forth.


In addition to all the scientific theories and so forth that the people from the last generation had to master.

And so there’s just a lot more More knowledge that you need to build to be able to make a real contribution, it’s the death of the renaissance man, in a way that we’re used to science, being pushed forward in the 1600s 1700s that people, like, Benjamin Franklin, that were dabbling in chemistry, and physics, and electricity, and the future democracy.


And today, if you want to make a breakthrough in quarks and subatomic particles, you want to make a breakthrough in the efficiency of solar energy, you have to know so damn much.

At the history of photovoltaic cells or of subatomic particles.

And it takes so long to gain that Mastery.


And by the time you’re at the frontier of science, you’re not 22 anymore.

You might have a family, you might have two kids.

He doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend 15 years on one super duper big swing.

It makes sense to kind of publish publish publisher.


Way incrementally, build a lab slowly and be able to afford that mortgage.

So I think you’re right.

Right to point to the fact that the incentives here changed quite a lot before we bring in another suspect, we’ve already kind of mentioned some other suspects but I want to try to braid together.


Two things that you said one thing you said is that new knowledge tends to be a combination of old knowledge.

I don’t know that much about the Isaac Newton story but I know enough that he took observations of the Stars, the relied on people like Kepler and he blended it with breakthroughs in math and he threw that blending created a New form of educated calculus to explain the laws of gravitation.


So new knowledge is a combination of old knowledge.

You also said that the diversity of work that people are building on is going down and you think, okay?

What’s the best way to build new knowledge?

If it’s all combinatorial is to have a really really broad Pantry of knowledge that you can sort of cross-fertilize.


It’s kind of like a like a chef.

How are you going to make the best new recipe?

No, one’s ever built before you need a A huge friggin Pantry, so that you can combine flavors that no one’s ever thought to combine before.

But what you said is that, because of the burden of knowledge and other things happening in science, scientists pantries of knowledge or getting smaller, they’re getting more specialized.


And as a result, it might be harder for them to cross fertilize ideas.

That create a new big extraordinary breakthrough that opens up a feel the same way that, you know, Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Tivity or, you know, bore and quantum mechanics did a hundred years ago.


It before we move on, is that, is that a fair summary?

Is it fair for me to sort of combine those ideas in that way?

Yeah, I think so.

And, you know, I might just qualify your metaphor just a tiny bit.

So, rather than them having smaller pantries, I think that the pantries that exploded actually, so, like the pantry is now just not, you know, a closet next to the kitchen, but it’s like an entire grocery store and so there’s All the stuff that they could pick from but you know it’s hard to we’ve all spent time wandering the aisles in the grocery store trying to find something we want or something that looks interesting and you know, come up Andy empty-handed because we’re just overwhelmed.


And so instead we go and just kind of look at a small corner of the grocery store and so while there’s more stuff than ever more combinations to be made, we’re just making far fewer because we sort of effectively constrain the size of our pantry.

That’s great.

Thank you.

It’s a perfect edit for Blabbering and it brings us perfectly to suspect number two, which is the Paradox of choice.


Despite an enormous increase in scientists and papers since the middle of the 20th century, you’ve observed and others have that the number of Highly disruptive studies each year hasn’t increased.

More research has been published than ever but the result is actually slowing progress and one explanation might be your grocery store metaphor that there’s so much to read and absorb and so papers in these crowded fields are citing New work less because they there’s simply too much to read.


There’s too much to stay on top of.

And as a result, their canonizing, these sort of Highly cited articles, more people are clustering around the same, hit papers.

And as a result, they’re all kind of publishing.

The same research is kind of like, you know, if you’re home on a Friday night and you boot up Netflix and there’s just too much there you say you know what?


This is too exhausting cognizant cognitively to go through.

I’m just going to see whatever is the top streaming movie and I’m going to watch that.

And if everyone makes that decision, then ironically the amount of options available to the consumer lead to a clustering of decisions.

How do you feel about this suspect number two, a paradox of choice in science.


Yeah, no.

I think it’s, I think it’s really an important suspect.

And, you know, I think it’s it’s interesting because it does help to explain this tension of how can we have more stuff than ever.

Were to build on more possibilities, more tools that let us see so many new things but then not, you know, be seeming to move the needle forward.


So I think that’s, you know, that’s one thing we try to do in the paper with say, hey, maybe this is a way to reconcile this.

If we look at what’s there, but then what gets used and I think it’s also just really, there’s a couple other thoughts I have about that.

So one is that, you know, the explosion is just even bigger than we realized because not only are there more papers than Very but so much of science is happening in other places outside of the traditional Journal venues.


I mean, you look at Twitter, you look at blogs, you look at, you know, people’s websites, newsletters conferences conference proceedings.

All sorts of places, it’s not just one venue anymore, not just one journal or a couple journals that you need to keep up it within your field.


If you really want to keep on top of things, you got to look at all sorts of different media.

And so it’s just overwhelming in kind of a scale and scope that we haven’t seen before.

There’s also kind of an interesting, some interesting research that that suggests that you know information Technologies might be changing to some degree the way that we search for information in ways that could potentially accelerate this.


So in this is not true, not just only for the Sciences but also Kind of more broadly used to be when you were looking for what to read, or looking for a kind of, the latest information are trying to get ideas as a scientist.


You need to go to the stacks of the library, go to the library and you browse the library shelves, and maybe what you really wanted was a book on X, what is your walking there?

You’re passing all these other books and all these other journals.

And you see something that catches your eye or you find the book you wanted on X and then you look over next to it and there’s something else that’s, you know, on a current topic but you think oh that’s interesting.


And so you kind of pick that up and what’s changed is that with new information Technologies in the one hand you would think this would make the process of search, you know, so much easier because everything is at our fingertips, but there’s almost a cost of everything being at our fingertips because it lets us get exactly what we want and in kind of minimizes that browse function and so some people have called this like a filter bubble, you know.


So we kind of and this happens through recommendations Algorithms as well as, you know, we’re going on, whatever the Publishers website to get our journal or the database.

And we see, you know, there’s things that we’ve looked at in the past.

And so the algorithms are giving us kind of more and more of what we’ve looked at in the past and making it harder for us to see and get exposed to those different types of ideas.


It’s really interesting, how many of the phenomena that you’re pointing out in Academia match up with phenomena, that people have observed In other let’s call it content Industries.

We had an episode last year with Ted Gioia talking about why old music is killing new music.


That’s his terminology refers to the fact.

That now, the people have access to places like Spotify and apple music, they have 40 million songs at their fingertips and old song is as far away from them as a new song.

And at the same time, it just so happens.

That people are listening to older music more than they used to.


And as a result, it’s harder to create new Shit’s because you have so many ears that are focused on Old hits.

I don’t want to create too close of a parallel here.

There’s a many, many different things between scientists writing papers, and musicians, writing songs, but there’s similar in that there seems to be a curse of Plenty, that consumers change their behavior in marketplaces of overabundance of choice.


And we might be seeing similar Dynamics.

With old papers being emphasized over newspapers, and old songs, being listened to more than new songs.

Just an interesting little Dynamic, that seems to hold across content industry is I want to bring in suspect number four.

Because in many ways, this is the suspect that I think might get the most attention and one that I’m very interested in just review.


Suspect one, was the burden of knowledge.

Suspect to was the Paradox of choice.

Suspect 3 is the bullshit paper hypothesis and the bullshit paper hypothesis is something.

This, the path to success in modern Academia, is paved in Publications, papers and citations.


And as a result, the market logic of this industry encourages budding, scientists to Simply publish or die publish as much as possible, or fail to move through this game and the narrow game of getting one’s work.


Published consistently and prestigious enough journals has supplanted the broader game.

The bigger.

More important game of disruption of replacing last Generations, Discovery is with a fresh set of Novel, breakthroughs.

And as a result, the market logic of modern Academia forces, young middle-aged even older scientists to publish more bullshit papers and fewer highly disruptive papers Professor.


What do you think about the bullshit paper hypothesis?

I think there’s something to it.

I mean, I might not use quite that strong of a term, but but, I mean, this is something that’s been reflected in a lot of the conversation that’s been happening about the papers.


Since it’s come out with people speculating about why this is happening and they talk about the incentives in Academia, you know.

One, one thing that’s happened over time is that there’s become More and more pressure to have benchmarks to evaluate academic performance, and to evaluate that on, in a seemingly objective scales.


So, how do you compare a scholar, a to scholar?

Be, are we going to give us Keller eight ten years ago?

I’d be tenure.

But how do we do that?

How do we eliminate bias in that and, you know, and so forth?

And well, what do we have that’s easily quantifiable?

We’ve got things.


Like counts of.

How many papers did you produce or like counts of how?

Any papers and top journals?

Did you produce or counts of how many citations your paper received?

And those are things that we can easily measure and quantify but it’s a lot harder to measure kind of even setting aside this, this this index that we created, it’s a lot harder to quantify.


You know, how do you shift the conversation in science?

Are you really carving out a new meaningful area?

Are you kind of making these radical improvements over what came before?

Because that’s just you know and as some of the debate about the, the paper is as shown, you know, it’s something that is in a lot of ways, more subjective.


And so I definitely think that that could be part of it.

If you think of what people are incentivized to do, they’re incentivized to get up with those numbers.

How do you get off those numbers?

Well, if you want to publish a lot of papers, it’s probably better to publish papers on things that you really know, spend less time, studying the word literature, it’s studying abroad.


Literatures working outside your field, which takes time, which might not prove to be successful.

And instead, just write things on a smaller set of topics that you know, about you kind of know how to do same thing with the getting your citations up.


I mean, we know that well, maybe in the long run, a good strategy would be to, you know, develop a new theory of gravity or some revolutionary, kind of idea, but Those take a lot longer to get picked up and they might not get picked up at all and so if you really just want to bump up your citations probably writing on stuff, that’s more familiar.


Is a good way to go as well.

I want to hold on this, because I think there’s a lot of people who have very closely held feelings about the heroic status of scientists on the right.

There’s this emerging idea that scientists are bureaucratic Dylan’s, trying to destroy our lives.


On the left, you have these signs, you know, follow the science believe in the science science with a capital S, their Heroes scientists are.

And what I’m hearing you say is scientists are people in a Mmm following incentives, just like practically every single person listening to the show is a worker in a system playing to win the game of that system.


And if you’re frustrated by the fact that modern scientists may be published too many crab papers or maybe don’t spend enough time, thinking about truly disruptive ideas, we need to recognize that they are responding to very real pressures to get grants from the NIH.


Hit that sweet spot of familiarity and surprise in proposing projects.

The NIH familiar surprise and plausibility that they feel pressured to publish as many papers as possible at a high volume to get through grad school.

Get that associate professorship, get tenure, and there is a there is a game of science that we have to understand that is bigger than the individual players and just because that game was created with the best of intentions in the middle of the 20th century.


And in the decades that followed does it mean that it’s necessarily the right game to give us the maximum number of truly disruptive papers?

Yeah I think that’s I think there’s a lot of Truth to that and you know I think if you look at the evidence from our paper and look at evidence from some other papers, you know the flowing of progress is not something that I think you can attribute to any.



Cause I mean something as complex and tied up in everything from, you know, sling rates of economic growth to how many transistors you can put on an integrated circuit to, you know, everything else is, is not, is not just going to be a silver bullet, that will fix everything.


But the nature of a lot of the causes and something you also just see in the conversation that’s come out around this paper, is that the social organization of Science by which, I mean, just the process through, which science is done the incentives that scientists face the organizations.


They need to work in seems to be a thing that is worth looking at and seeing, you know, it seems to be that some of those factors are are caused because they push scientists to look at certain types of problems and pursue them in certain types of ways.


And so thinking about are there ways that we could redesign the social organization of science or Or adapted or revise it.

So that it would make it easier to pursue these types of discoveries.

I absolutely think is something worth looking at.


We’ve already glanced at this final suspect but I just want to put a fine point on it.

I call this suspect big bad science in the last 100 years.

Science has evolved, I think, from individuals, two teams, two teams of teams that is you take a look at a domain like, say genetics.


The father of genetics Gregor.

Mendel was a monk.

Like, living alone, he figured out dominant and recessive traits by looking at keys in his backyard.

That’s great.

But fundamentally, we’re talking about a friar looking at plants in his backyard, inventing a new scientific domain.


That’s all it took to crack it open today.

If you want to move the genetics Frontier forward you can’t rely on a smart monk.

Looking at plants in his backyard you need hundreds.

Maybe thousands of people all over the world getting P sequencing genomes.


Figuring out how certain, you know, genetic traits match up with certain demonstrated traits and figuring out really complicated things about what are the polygenic origins of schizophrenia.

This stuff is maddeningly complex and it requires teams of teams and teams of teams are hard, we don’t really know how teamwork Works.


We’re still like figuring it out and if science has to move forward, one bureaucracy, at a Time.

It’s gonna be really messy and it might not be particularly efficient.

And so this is this is the final suspect that I have just throw at you.


It is the phenomenon of big bad science which essentially means science.

Got big and there are certain bad consequences of science getting big.

Yeah and I think that I also think that there’s you know, definitely some truth to that and it relates a little bit to what We were just talking about with the social organization of science.


I mean, I think that there’s research that would suggest that including some literature using this disruption indicator that we use in the paper that suggests that kind of small versus large teams.

Produce systematically different types of work and that the larger teams tend to produce work.


That’s more consolidating, or developmental in nature.

There’s a smaller teams are the ones that tend to produce those disruptive ideas.

We also know, over the same period that across all fields of Science and scholarship.

The average size of teams has gone up kind of consistently.


And so, you know, if different types of sizes of teams, produce different types of ideas and are moving in a direction of larger and larger teams than you know it’s very plausible.

And the evidence suggests that that’s a big factor in maybe helping to explain this.



I mean, I also do think it’s important to say that you know, science didn’t become big just for the sake of becoming big that there were certain problems like, you know, the atomic bomb and, you know, space exploration and sequencing of the human genome and so forth.


It just couldn’t have been done by a team, building a Large, Hadron Collider.

Yeah, it’s so interesting cause if suspect for I’m sorry to jump right in but suspect for takes us right back.

I suspect one right as the frontier of knowledge becomes harder to push forward because you’re not just looking at the characteristics of peas.


You’re figuring out the polygenic origins of a complex diseases.

Like schizophrenia you can’t rely on individuals, you need teams of teams but as scientists becomes as science becomes bureaucratic in response to the scale of these problems it can even accidentally create its own problems of scale.


It is, is that accurate?

Yes, and I think, you know, so what I would probably suggest is that it’s not that we should dismantle, you know, big science because there’s an important role for a big science but finding a way and kind of rewarding a mixed.


And ecology, you know, we’ve got some collaborations that are these Large Hadron colliders and then we’ve got some that are, you know, individuals working, either alone, or with a couple different people or maybe the same, you know, the people working on the Large, Hadron Collider, take out some time and they They work alone on their ideas and we’ve got either groups of people that are working in small teams or operating running their careers.


According to that small science, kind of style.

And then we’ve got some people that are doing big or people shift across those different types of ecosystems.

Then it’s not that, that happens, not that, every paper they gets published as 10 people, but just a lot of the pressures that we’ve talked about before are pushing for, in the direction of stuff becoming bigger and bigger.


Lots of organizational reasons and so forth and so like, how do you reward small teams?

How do you let small teams compete with big teams on some of these metrics that we use for evaluation?

You know, it’s a lot easier to pump out a lot of papers if you’re working in collaboration with other people and you can kind of divide and conquer then, if it’s one person trying to put them out all by themselves.


So lining up these suspects, we’ve got to review.

Number one, the burden of knowledge number to the Paradox of choice.

Number three, Three, the bullshit paper hypothesis.

And number four.

Big bad science.

Is there a big important suspect that I left out of this lineup?


Or if there is not a big important suspect to haven’t let out let off left off this line up?

Do you want to put your finger on the scale here behind one of these culprits rather than another I think one big suspect that we haven’t talked about is this low hanging fruit Theory and so here the idea is and you can see Echoes of this.


I think all these suspects that we’ve talked about are, you know, related and maybe they were working together on the crime.

But so so this is related as well as we touched on this a little bit.

But basically the low-hanging fruit idea, you know, is this idea that all the really easy but important discoveries.


To be made in science, have already been made and so, you know, you can only do something as Monumental as discovering the theory of relativity wants or you know, if you think of Technology once the wheels invented it’s invented and it’s pretty easy but it’s a lot harder to find something else that’s that easy and that you know significant in terms of, you know improving the quality of human life and so forth.


And so that’s kind of the low hanging fruit theory that you’ve got to feel.

They Art kind of making progress, they make these big important discoveries and then everything else after that just either gets a lot harder.

Just seems a lot less significant or some kind of combination of the two.


And, you know, I think so.

We address that in the paper.

And I think, overall, what we try to suggest is that, you know, the low-hanging fruit theory is our evidence suggests that, it’s not that’s not the primary driver.


I think there’s We something to be said about that and that it’s probably an a, you know, an important contributing factor but one piece of evidence in this goes back to the beginning of what did we do and what was different.

When we looked at this 30,000 foot view, comparing the rates of change across a lot of different fields across time.


And one thing that we found is that kind of the decline happens, a fairly similar rate and across a broad set of fields at about the same time.

I’m which in my mind suggest that it’s not all the low-hanging fruit because, you know, physics is much much older than the social sciences and so if you were thinking who’s going to eat up their low-hanging fruit first, I’d say it’s physics.


And so you know, they should have seen this decline way before we even started to you know, 1945 when we started our study and then social sciences which were you know probably just seriously getting going around then you know we might see it decline a little later and you know there are differences across field.


Overall the curves, look pretty similar to one another which in my mind suggest well maybe it’s not all the low-hanging fruit but what has changed across Fields more or less at the same time.

It’s a lot of its the social organization of science.

Is there a field where disruption is declining?


The least where maybe we can look into this domain?

I think maybe remember from your paper, maybe it was the life sciences where the decline seem to be the most shallow.

Can we look into some sliver of Science and say this group seems to have figured something out or maintained some consistent batting.


Average for doing really disruptive, fantastic breakthrough, work and say maybe we can take a lesson from there and spread it to the other domains.

Yeah, I mean there are if you look at the curves, there are some different slopes, I mean, so they do decline at different rates, the life sciences, you know, and physics.


Being kind of to two examples part of the reason, though, why they decline it at slower rates?

Is that they just started out at kind of lower points and so they’re just a little bit flatter whereas the social sciences, you know, started out as being much more disruptive and so it’s had a longer way to go, you know, I’m not exactly sure where to, look for evidence of of fields that have kind of bucked this problem, because, It is quite Universal across them.


I mean, one thing though that I think will be interesting to look at and I do wish that when you’re done this study or by the end.

When you started this study, the data we were using was the latest and greatest and very up-to-date.

We ended in 2010.

But one thing that I would really like to look at and is also been part of the conversation that people have been having around the paper is what about what’s been happening in recent years.


You know there’s been a lot of seemingly fundamental changes in In, you know, both sides, there’s been scientific breakthroughs and also kind of new ways of doing science with artificial intelligence, and advances and computation and so forth.

And it seems very plausible that if we got radically new methods for doing science, and we can assist scientists with artificial intelligence and so forth that maybe that will help to overcome some of these challenges that we’ve been talking about.


You might see the curve start to bend a little so to speak.

And in fact, you can see even in our data.

And we’ve looked a little bit further than we have in the paper but in fields like computers and Communications in the in technology or patents and electrical patents that the curve seem to have flattened out and are even taking up a little biased by 2010 and in a couple of years after.


So it certainly be interesting to look at and, you know, those might be some places if we if we wanted to look for examples, that might be good places to start.

I want to end by asking you about takeaways.

I have a point that I want to make about takeaways for individuals looking at this paper for knowledge or influence about how to do breakthrough work in their own life.


What’s the most important takeaway for society?

Or for science, writ large, what do you want people to learn from this?

Well, I think there’s a couple, I mean, I think one is that hopefully this just draws attention and gets people interested in thinking.


Thinking about, you know, big questions, like, what is scientific progress, how do we manage measure it?

How do we measure scientific innovation?

And, and, you know, somewhat Sound, the Alarm bells of this is really going, there seems to be something happening.

The nature of scientific discovery is changing.


And what do we do about that?

How do we get the right mix of disruptive and development to work?

What is the Right Mix and how do we best support scientists to be able to do that?

Because this is really important.

Start from in the the progress in science.


Scientific discovery is the basis of all sorts of Technologies, going back to the beginning of our conversation, that you know, Propel the economy forward improve our quality of life.

And so it’s something that we really need to pay attention to.

There’s a number of different suspects but we really don’t have a great accounting of all the different factors that could be involved.


We don’t really know too well about how they’re interlinked together.

And so, I think the biggest thing I would take away is we should support more research on this.

We should try to look into this more systematically and, you know, try to try to address the problem.

Benjamin Paige, who’s one of the scholars who came up with the concept of burden of knowledge and has helped to bolster something.


You talked about the idea that maybe the low-hanging fruit from some domains has been picked and it’s harder to climb up higher into the tree of physics or genetics and pick that next fruit.

He did a paper with Brian Uzi at Northwest, A few years ago that’s left a really big impression on me where they looked at, you know, what are the components of a, of a hit paper.


Essentially, a paper that would be by your definition disruptive and get a ton of citations and even replace the papers that it’s sites in the literature.

And one way that it was explained to me is that these kind of papers tend to have a optimal combination of established old and new ideas.


If they create this sort of perfect fertilization between established ideas and latest breaking breakthroughs.

And one way that been described it to me, that is just incredibly memorable.

Is he said, you know, imagine that the alexandrian library is burning right?


Which it’s 2,000 years ago and you and I are sitting reading Papyrus and the alexandrian library of Egypt and it starts to burn down.

As it in fact, did in reality, we have 5 minutes to grab whatever we can in our hands before we run out the door, as the pillars fall.


What do we He grabbed, you know, there’s a specialist strategy, which says, you know, if you’re a social scientist here, under the social science stacks, and you grab as much from your domain and social sciences, you can there’s a generalist strategy that says, you run helter-skelter through this Burning library, and through the Embers in the smoke.


And you grab whatever Papyrus you can fit into your arms.

And then there’s the other strategy that Ben and Brian settled on.

And they said, With one arm, go to the part of the library that you know the most about and get the oldest volumes.


The volumes that are the most true because they’re true that have stood the test of time and then in your other arm, go to an adjacent field, it almost doesn’t even matter what it is.

That has some new knowledge and grab books there.


Grab Papyrus there.

So that when you run out of the burning Library, you have half deep.

True specialist knowledge and half essentially house talking about a chef Pantry spices that you can salt into that deep knowledge because he said these breakthrough papers seem to have this really interesting combination of deep truths and new late-breaking ideas and it’s difficult but important for scientists that feel incentivised to be Specialists to go really, really deep and vertical in Twin domain.


To maintain a kind of porous expertise where new ideas can seep into those vertical fields and fertilized some new ideas.

And I’ve always been motivated by that even in my own work to even as I find myself going deeper deeper deeper into one domain, keep a part of my mind, open to the idea that maybe some breakthrough will come from the fertilization of something that seems to have nothing to do with the subject that I’m writing about.


So I’ll leave you with that thought.

If you have any commentary on it or maybe it somewhat in flex your own approach to to science near to me.

Yeah I know I mean I think you know a couple thoughts on that I mean first of all I think it’s totally true that and there’s lots of theory to back it up that Innovations about recombination but lots of combinations aren’t valuable and you know in my teaching I teach about, you know technology in these series of come Combinations.


And I always find these examples of, you know, stupid patents or goofy patents.

And there’s, you know, when I saw, as airplane flying submarine, which basically is just a Subway, looks like, you know, one of the classic US Navy, submarines, and someone kind of glued airplane Wings onto and, you know, I’d never seen that.


As far as I know, has never developed.

But I mean, there’s lots of combinations that don’t make any sense and, you know, not all say men are good.

And so we want to think of what are ways that will have meaningful combinations.

And we need something to ground them on and so that’s kind of the existing established knowledge which, you know is both established, presumably quality and is stuff that people are familiar with as well and so it makes it easier for them to, you know, get picked up just to kind of Bring It full circle.


I mean, I really, really love the Library of Alexandria metaphor.

And there’s a quote about that that I’ve always really liked from bore Hayes the, you know, you know, Short story writer that is, says, every few centuries, the Library of Alexandria must be burned.


And I think that really relates to disruption and talks and kind of emphasizes.



And how disruption could be?

Could be valuable.

So I mean disruptions about doing away with the old carving, out space for the new kind of Shifting the conversation and we talked a lot about how this burden of knowledge can, you know, be kind of for the growth of knowledge can be Counterproductive.


And so it sort of suggests every now and then, we’ve got a clear things out.

And, and the these disruptive discoveries can do that.

Which, you know, not only do they represent big improvements but they also create new opportunities to do new things by opening up these new fields.


And so, you know, I think, I think disruption is good not only or could be good, not only because they represent these, you know, tangible improvements and things, we care about.

But also for Propelling, scientific progress forward.


That’s lovely.


Max Planck said science advances when funeral at a time I suppose you could have said science advances one burned library at a time as well.

Professor Russell Funk, thank you so much.

Thank you.

This was great, thank you for listening.

Plain English is produced by Devon manzi.


If you like the show, please go to Apple podcast or Spotify.

Give us a five star rating.

Leave a review and don’t forget to check out our Tick-Tock.

X plain English underscore.

That’s It plain English.

Underscore on tick-tock.