Friday, February 27, 2015

In praise of modest goals

Maybe it is just my personality but I increasingly find that in science and life I am out of step with the surrounding culture. I just have modest goals.  I just want to understand a few things and make some sort of reliable contribution. This means publishing in PRB, J. Chem. Phys., and occasionally in PRL. I don't aspire to publish in luxury journals, double my funding, to see my university the most highly "ranked" in Australia, or claim that my research will revolutionise materials science and molecular biology, ...
This is why I increasingly find it hard and tedious to write grant applications.
I will also be happy if Liverpool just finish in the top 4 of the Premier League....

I think good science is really hard and most advances come from long term projects with painstaking hard work and from the occasional serendipity.

Yet it seems society is sold on hype, the winner takes all mentality, and everyone should aspire to be a winner...

I am certainly interested in big questions and grand challenges. But I feel I am realistic about what contributions I and others (even the extremely gifted and well funded) can make. It is generally the long slow road. Earlier I posted about how I am skeptical and left cold by "big hairy audacious goals".

Here are a few of my inter-related problems with many of the goals and ambitions I encounter.

1. Many I find simply unrealistic, either scientifically, politically, or economically.
Furthermore, when I look at the ambitious goals that were hyped 5, 10, 20, and 30 years ago I see they have failed.

2. Many, particularly young, people are left feeling like "failures" because they did not "succeed" by becoming the "best", e.g. by publishing in a luxury journal.

3. They divert resources (time, energy, money, and talent) away from modest goals that may produce more actual fruit in the long term.
I think MOOC's, topological insulators, string theory, AdS-CFT, topological quantum computing, iron-based superconductors .... are all interesting and worth a few select groups playing around with. But I fail to see the justification for hordes of people working on them.

4. They can easily degenerate into fantasy and hype.

5. Some of these ambitious enterprises become institutionalised to the point that defending the "vision" leads to propaganda and an unwillingness to listen to criticism and change course. Peter Woit's blog does a nice job of showing how this is the case for string theory. Here are two other examples, from social activism.
Teach for America has the laudable goal of attracting gifted and privileged graduates to teach in poorly resourced schools. However, an article documents the incredible lengths they go to in order to mute negative publicity.
Microfinance is a great initiative that helps alleviate poverty in the Majority world. However, when two MIT economists, the authors of Poor Economics, did a systematic study of its effects, they found that it produced modest but tangible benefits. Unfortunately, they were roundly attacked by some not-for-profits because the study contradicted their grand claims that microfinance was completely transforming the lives of recipients.

But, maybe it is just my personality ...

Addendum: Reflecting on this more and starting teaching last week I realised that having modest goals for teaching and for seminars is also relevant. As one gets more experienced one realises just how little students (and seminar audiences) actually learn and understand. Hence, although I teach at a "high level" I try to make sure really basic points and skills are hammered home. Similarly, David Mermin's goal for a colloquium is modest.


  1. I think I would agree with essentially all that you said above. Usually, one needs to get old enough to realize that one one's goals must be "renormalized" down to the level of modesty.

    However, I do not think it is an entirely bad thing to have reasonably "big audacious goals" as a scientist when one is still young and full of energy. The problem with the world of today is all that hype that surrounds those who have "made it". Especially whenever they are young.

  2. Since the “Schön scandal”, similar thoughts have come to my mind. I have the feeling that science is more and more degenerating into a – so to speak – “scientific bubble”.

  3. During my PhD I dropped by quite often for a different perspective, and a voice of sanity. Haven't as much since leaving science as a "day job", but came back today and just wanted to express my appreciation for the sentiments...

    Though still collaborating with my old boss when I can from the sidelines, a large part of leaving was precisely the constant emphasis on "big" audacious goals, and "big" journal publications, and relatively little emphasis on thinking deeply, at least on the path to "super-stardom". My boss was an exception, but unfortunately it seems fairly clear that that is not where the community's been going, in the short term.