Fixing science via a basic income

I ran across Ed Hagen’s article “Academic success is either a crapshoot or a scam”, which pointed out that all the methodological discussion about science’s replication crisis is kinda missing the point: yes, all of the methodological stuff like p-hacking is something that would be valuable to fix, but the real problem is in the incentives created by the crazy publish-or-perish culture:

In my field of anthropology, the minimum acceptable number of pubs per year for a researcher with aspirations for tenure and promotion is about three. This means that, each year, I must discover three important new things about the world. […]

Let’s say I choose to run 3 studies that each has a 50% chance of getting a sexy result. If I run 3 great studies, mother nature will reward me with 3 sexy results only 12.5% of the time. I would have to run 9 studies to have about a 90% chance that at least 3 would be sexy enough to publish in a prestigious journal.

I do not have the time or money to run 9 new studies every year.

I could instead choose to investigate phenomena that are more likely to yield strong positive results. If I choose to investigate phenomena that are 75% likely to yield such results, for instance, I would only have to run about 5 studies (still too many) for mother nature to usually grace me with at least 3 positive results. But then I run the risk that these results will seem obvious, and not sexy enough to publish in prestigious journals.

To put things in deliberately provocative terms, empirical social scientists with lots of pubs in prestigious journals are either very lucky, or they are p-hacking.

I don’t really blame the p-hackers. By tying academic success to high-profile publications, which, in turn, require sexy results, we academic researchers have put our fates in the hands of a fickle mother nature. Academic success is therefore either a crapshoot or, since few of us are willing to subject the success or failure of our careers to the roll of the dice, a scam.

The article then suggests that the solution would be to have better standards for research, and also blames prestigious journal publishers for exploiting their monopoly on the field. I think that looking at the researcher incentives is indeed the correct thing to do here, but I’m not sure the article goes deep enough with it. Mainly, it doesn’t ask the obvious question of why researchers have such a crazy pressure to publish: it’s not the journals that set the requirements for promotion or getting to the tenure track, that’s the universities and research institutions. The journals are just exploiting a lucrative situation that someone else created.

Rather my understanding is that the real problem is that there are simply too many PhD graduates who want to do research, relative to the number of researcher positions available. It’s a basic fact of skill measurement that if you try to measure skill and then pick people based on how well they performed on your measure, you’re actually selecting for skill + luck rather than pure skill. If the number of people you pick is small enough relative to the number of applicants, anyone you pick has to be both highly skilled and highly lucky; simply being highly skilled isn’t enough to make it to the top. This is the situation we have with current science, and as Hagen points out, it leads to rampant cheating when people realize that they have to cheat in order to make the cut. As long as this is the situation, there will remain an incentive to cheat.

This looks hard to fix; two obvious solutions would be to reduce the number of graduate students or to massively increase the number of research jobs. The first is politically challenging, especially since it would require international coordination and lots of nations view the number of graduating PhDs as a status symbol. The second would be expensive and thus also politically challenging. One thing that some of my friends also suggested was some kind of a researchers’ basic income (or just a universal basic income in general); for fields in which doing research isn’t much more expensive than covering the researchers’ cost of living, a lot of folks would probably be happy to do research just on the basic income.

A specific suggestion that was thrown out was to give some number of post-docs a 10-year grant of 2000 euros/month; depending on the exact number of grants given out, this could fund quite a number of researchers while still being cheap in comparison to any given country’s general research and education expenses. The existence of better-paid and more prestigious formal research positions like university professorships would still exist as an incentive to actually do the research, and historically quite a lot of research has been done by people with no financial incentive for it anyway (Einstein doing his research on the side while working at the patent office maybe being the most famous example); the fact that most researchers are motivated by the pure desire to do science is already shown by the fact that anyone at all decides to go to academia today. A country being generous handing out these kinds of grants also has the potential to be made into an international status symbol, creating the incentive to actually do this. Alternatively, this could just be viewed as yet another reason to just push for a universal basic income for everyone.

EDIT: Jouni Sirén made the following interesting comment in response to this article: “I think the root issue goes deeper than that. There are too many PhD graduates who want to do research, because money and prestige are insufficient incentives for a large part of the middle class. Too many people want a job that is interesting or meaningful, and nobody is willing to support all of them financially.” That’s an even deeper reason than the one I was thinking of!

Book review: The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self–Not Just Your “Good” Self–Drives Success and Fulfillment

The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self–Not Just Your “Good” Self–Drives Success and Fulfillment. By Todd Kashdan & Robert Biswas-Diener. Avery, 2014.

This book was written by a pair of psychologists who thought that the excessive focus on good and positive feelings in positive psychology was a little overblown, and that the value of so-called “negative” feelings or aspects of personality was being neglected. They do think that it’s good for us to be happy most of the time, but that it will be even better for us if we have a flexibility that allows us to switch to non-happy states of mind when it’s beneficial. They suggest an 80:20 ratio as a rough rule of thumb: be happy 80% of the time and non-happy 20% of the time. They call this philosophy “wholeness”: a person is whole if they are able to flexibly tap into all aspects of their being when it’s warranted.

The authors offer a number of examples about the value of so-called negative states. Too much comfort makes us oversensitive to inevitable discomfort. Anger motivates us to act, fix injustices, and defend ourselves and our loved ones; guilt tells us when we’ve screwed up and motivates us to improve our behavior; anxiety helps us catch mistakes and take safeguards against risks. Happy people are less persuasive, can be too trusting, and are lazier thinkers. Intentionally trying to become happy easily backfires and makes us less happy; and there are situations where happiness feels inappropriate and will make others respond worse to you. Sometimes it’s better to act on instinct or engage in mind-wandering than to always be mindful and think things through consciously. The “dark triad” traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy are all useful in moderation and provide benefits such as fearlessness and self-assuredness.

The following paragraph from the final chapter is a pretty good summary of the book’s message:

The basic idea is that psychological states are instrumental. That is, they are useful for a specific purpose, such as finding your car keys, being physically safe in a parking garage, negotiating a business deal, or arguing with your child’s teacher. Rather than viewing your thoughts and feelings as reactions to external events, we argue that you ought to view these states as tools to be used as circumstances warrant. Simply put, quit labeling your inner states as good or bad or positive or negative, and start thinking of them as useful or not useful for any given situation.

While I liked the book’s message and agreed with many of its points, I felt like it was mostly trying to tell a story that sounds plausible to a layman, rather than making a particularly rigorous argument. The authors tend to base their claims on isolated studies with no mention of their replication status; some of their example studies draw on paradigms and methods that have been seriously challenged (social priming and implicit association tests); occasionally they made claims that I thought contradicted things I knew from elsewhere; and some of the cited empirical results seem to have alternative interpretations that are more natural than the ones offered in the book. It’s plausible that they are drawing on much more rigorous academic work and that the argument has been dumbed down for a popular audience: even granting them the benefit of doubt, the book still feels way too much like a collection of examples that have been cherry-picked to make the wanted points.

Regardless, the book’s general message feels almost certainly correct – after all, why would we have evolved negative states if they weren’t sometimes useful? – so if anyone feels like they’ve been overwhelmed with too many messages of positivity, I would recommend this book for inspiration and an alternative viewpoint, if not for any of its specific details.

Meditation and mental space

One effect that I often notice after my meditation practice has been interrupted and I then manage to resume it again, is an increase in a kind of mental resilience.

That is, when I have a lower resilience, feeling bad for any reason feels much more like an emergency. It’s something that forces itself into my consciousness, takes over, and refuses to go away. I would like to ignore it, but I can’t; as long as it’s there, it’s hard to think of anything else.

When my resilience is higher, it’s like my mind has more room for thoughts and emotions. Something might be making me feel bad, but something else might also be making me feel good, and there’s space for those two to intermingle. It becomes much easier to accept that I’m feeling a little bad, but I don’t need to do anything about it. I can just go on and do something else, and the nasty feeling might go away on its own – or if it doesn’t, that’s fine too.

Interestingly, being on antidepressants can also give me a similar effect.

Of course, in itself this kind of an effect isn’t too surprising, given that it’s one of the explicit goals of the practice. Culadasa’s The Mind Illuminated notes that two of the goals of mindfulness practice are an increase in the amount of “conscious power” (roughly, the amount of things that can be consciously processed at a time), as well as learning to more intentionally shift the focus of attention, so that it won’t just automatically go to the most painful or pleasant thing and become preoccupied with that, but can rather be controlled in a more useful manner. Still, it’s nice to see that the practice is bearing fruit.

Anti-tribalism and positive mental health as high-value cause areas

I think that tribalism is one of the biggest problems with humanity today, and that even small reductions of it could cause a massive boost to well-being.

By tribalism, I basically mean the phenomenon where arguments and actions are primarily evaluated based on who makes them and which group they seem to support, not anything else. E.g. if a group thinks that X is bad, then it’s often seen as outright immoral to make an argument which would imply that X isn’t quite as bad, or that some things which are classified as X would be more correctly classified as non-X instead. I don’t want to give any specific examples so as to not derail the discussion, but hopefully everyone can think of some; the article “Can Democracy Survive Tribalism” lists lot of them, picked from various sides of the political spectrum.

Joshua Greene (among others) makes the argument, in his book Moral Tribes, that tribalism exists for the purpose of coordinating aggression and alliances against other groups (so that you can kill them and take their stuff, basically). It specifically exists for the purpose of making you hurt others, as well as defend yourself against people who would hurt you. And while defending yourself against people who would hurt you is clearly good, attacking others is clearly not. And everything being viewed in tribal terms means that we can’t make much progress on things that actually matter: as someone commented, “people are fine with randomized controlled trials in policy, as long as the trials are on things that nobody cares about”.

Given how deep tribalism sits in the human psyche, it seems unlikely that we’ll be getting rid of it anytime soon. That said, there do seem to be a number of things that affect the amount of tribalism we have:

* As Steven Pinker argues in The Better Angels of Our Nature, violence in general has declined over historical time, replaced by more cooperation and an assumption of human rights; Democrats and Republicans may still hate each other, but they generally agree that they still shouldn’t be killing each other.
* As a purely anecdotal observation, I seem to get the feeling that people on the autism spectrum tend to be less tribal, up to the point of not being able to perceive tribes at all. (this suggests, somewhat oddly, that the world would actually be a better place if everyone was slightly autistic)
* Feelings of safety or threat seem to play a lot into feelings of tribalism: if you perceive (correctly or incorrectly) that a group Y is out to get you and that they are a real threat to you, then you will react much more aggressively to any claims that might be read as supporting Y. Conversely, if you feel safe and secure, then you are much less likely to feel the need to attack others.

The last point is especially troublesome, since it can give rise to self-fulfilling predictions. Say that Alice says something to Bob, and Bob misperceives this as an insult; Bob feels threatened so snaps at Alice, and now Alice feels threatened as well, so shouts back. The same kind of phenomenon seems to be going on a much larger scale: whenever someone perceives a threat, they are no longer willing to give someone the benefit of doubt, and would rather treat the other person as an enemy. (which isn’t too surprising, since it makes evolutionary sense: if someone is out to get you, then the cost of misclassifying them as a friend is much bigger than the cost of misclassifying a would-be friend as an enemy. you can always find new friends, but it only takes one person to get near you and hurt you really bad)

One implication might be that general mental health work, not only in the conventional sense of “healing disorders”, but also the positive psychology-style mental health work that actively seeks to make people happy rather than just fine, could be even more valuable for society than we’ve previously thought. Curing depression etc. would be enormously valuable even by itself, but if we could figure out how to make people generally happier and resilient to negative events, then fewer things would threaten their well-being and they would perceive fewer things as being threats, reducing tribalism.