News Flash: Postdocs are a Screw Job

To people who have been involved with academic science recently (say, the past forty years), this will not come as a shock, but the National Academy has released a report concluding that, well, being a postdoc sucks. The report, released in December, was summarized by Science Careers:

The penetrating analysis in The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited comes all the way up to, but does not actually state, some inconvenient realities: For all but a small percentage of aspiring researchers, doing a postdoc at a university is a lousy idea because it will neither result in an academic job nor otherwise advance one’s career. If graduate students had accurate information about what lay ahead, many would—and should—choose not to become postdocs.

The traditional postdoc is a weird job. You typically work long hours for not enough pay in a semi-autonomous position where you have all of the responsibility, but for which much of the credit will ultimately go to your boss.

Which is to say, it is a lot like most other crappy jobs.

The thing that is so weird about postdocs, and much of academia, is that these are people who apparently have succeeded at the very highest levels. They studied hard, worked hard, became world-class experts in something. And yet they are getting paid a lot less than they would be had they taken a “regular” job.

It seems like a fundamentally untenable system, or at least one that is destined to drive the best and the brightest out of science careers. In fact, the only reason the system has not yet collapsed under the weight of its own iniquity is because of the immense capacity of people to delude themselves. The thing is, what makes it all worth it (in the mind of the delusional and underpaid postdoc) is that this is the honorable path, which will eventually lead to a coveted faculty position. But the fact is, this is the outcome for only a small minority of postdocs:

workforce infographic ASCB COMPASSimage via Talebearing

In a way, graduate students and postdocs are just like student athletes. They provide cheap labor that generates value for Universities. They are paid well below their actual worth, with two justifications: 1) they are receiving “training”, and 2) they will be rewarded later (with tenure / a professional career). The problem, of course, is that this training is of highly variable quality, and is often nonexistent for postdocs. And, as with athletes, most will not actually get that long-term payoff.

There is more and more recognition of the fact that not everyone goes on to get (or even wants) a tenure-track position. But this alone does not seem to be altering the structure of the system. Fundamentally, as long as there are enough people who are willing to put up with the current arrangement to fill the seats, there will be no real incentive to change. But there are definitely people who choose to opt out, and I worry about that.

Here’s the thing. Who is it who chooses to leave before or during a postdoc? Well, compared to the person who stays put, they are probably more self aware, better able to step back and see the big picture, better able to “think outside the box”, as they say in 1990s-era management seminars. In short, the person who looks at how postdocs work and says “screw this” is exactly the sort of person who is most likely to make a genuine contribution to science. Those who keep their heads down, don’t question the system, and carry on will certainly make great worker bees, and will competently design and perform the obvious next experiment. But will they really be the ones who give us genuine innovation and insight?

So, even if the current system is able to sustain itself for a while longer, it is already failing to do what we claim we want it to do: train and empower the brightest and most creative minds to make the next set of big discoveries.

(h/t Viviane Callier)

Introducing the Ronin Institute Newsletter: Kitsune

Happy New Year to everyone out there.

In December, the Ronin Institute published the first issue of Kitsune, a newsletter that will come out six times a year and will keep you up to date on the happenings at the Institute and in the world of alternative scholarship more generally.

That first issue is now available on the website here. If you would like to receive it in your very own inbox, send an e-mail to us at, and we’ll add you to the list. You might also add to your address book, so that your newsletter does not wind up in your spam folder.

We’ve got a lot of exciting people on the rolls now, and some cool programs in the works. Keep an eye on Kitsune, and you can stay up to date on both.

Rich Dean, Poor Student

Last week, the Institute for Policy Studies released a report on executive pay at Universities. They focused specifically on the 25 Universities with the highest compensation for the top executive at the main campus, ranging from $10.2 M at Ohio State to $3.7 M at Florida State.

First, they found that student debt has increased faster at the high-executive-pay schools than the national average, although the trend there is pretty horrific even if you’re talking about a school where the President makes a measly one million a year.

Second, they found that at these universities, administrative expenses increased twice as fast as scholarship expenses. The University of Minnesota received special attention for coupling a 44% increase in administrative costs with a 55% reduction in scholarship expenditures over the five years from 2007 to 2012.

When the report first came out, it was reported that these schools also had a faster-than-average increase in the use of low-wage, adjunct faculty. The report was quickly pulled, supposedly due to concerns about the quality of the data collected from the American Federation of Teachers site. The report and the data were quickly removed from the web, and an updated version of the report was published a few days later.

Well, obviously, what actually happened was that Big Adjunct got to them. (Wake up sheeple!) I assume that Liam Neeson’s daughter was kidnapped and forced to live on an adjunct salary until the report was modified to toe the party line.

But I guess some truths are just too big to hide. Even the whitewashed corrected report shows that the highest-executive-pay Universities are increasing their use of adjunct faculty at a rate 22% faster than the national average.

Their top five “most unequal” Universities are: Ohio State, Penn State, U. Michigan, U. Minnesota, and U. Delaware. So, if you live in one of these states, move before your kids go to college.

Kickstart a Two-Volume Collection of Chinese Poems

Ronin Institute Research Scholar Evelyn Ch’ien is running a Kickstarter campaign to fund the publication of 600 Chinese poems by diplomat Liao Entao. The annotated collection stands to be a real contribution to a really interesting period in Chinese history — the end of the Qing dynasty, through the Republican period, and the Chinese Civil War. Click here to check out the project, watch the video, and, of course, contribute!

Or, for the click-averse, here’s the description:

This book is a collection of 600 poems written by a diplomat (1864-1954) who lived in China, America, Cuba, Japan and Korea.

For the past 5 years I have been researching the lives of ancestors who participated in the transformation from Qing dynastic rule to the Republican period, and bore witness to the rise of Communist China. After a year in Guangzhou on a Fulbright fellowship, I returned home to find that I had a literary treasure on my hands. With co-editor Professor Puk Wing Kin at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, we created a team of literary classicists that annotated 600 poems by the professional diplomat Liao Entao (1864-1954). Notably, Entao’s brother was a major player in the 1911 Revolution and the anticipated successor to the Republic’s first president Sun Yat Sen, but sadly Liao Zhongkai was assassinated in 1925.

This collection of poems illuminates the historical events of the period and is a valuable contribution to the history of modern China, helping also to reveal the foundations of diplomacy between China and America.

These poems were originally written in Song Dynasty style and for that reason required annotations to expose its meanings in modern day language. Your participation in our artistic and diplomatic mission is greatly appreciated and will enable the successful completion of our project.

We will also be creating a website and report the progress of the translations to all our contributors, to whom we will give special access. Historical notes, sample translations of poems, and other information will be available. Gifts of $100+ include a translation of 20-30 poems, but every contributor will have access to the site and when the project is completed, the site with the translations and notes will be made public.

As of right now, the project is closing in on $7,000 of the $20,000 goal, with 22 days left. What’s the $20,000 for, you ask? Well, the Kickstarter money is going entirely to publication costs. All of the hard work of assembling, curating, and annotating the poems has already been done — paid for out of a Fulbright Scholarship and out of pocket.

Pledge gifts include copies of poems, etc. At the $200 level, you’ll get your very own copy of the two-volume set. ($50 and up for Volume I)

To be clear, the published books will be in Chinese. So, keep that in mind if you don’t read Chinese. I don’t, but I look forward to having an incomprehensible trophy on my bookshelf.

Also very cool is the translation project, which may be of more interest to the non-Chinese-speakers. The site probably won’t be up until January, but it will allow backers to follow along with the project as it progresses.

The Kickstarter is proceeding at a good pace. Maybe we can convince Evelyn to add a full set of translations as a stretch goal. :) Evelyn?

So go check it out. The poems that you see in the video are some of the actual poems that will be published. This is an excellent example of the value and power of independent scholarship. Let’s get out there and support it!

Science, Nature, and Cell Aren’t the Problem, Exactly

Randy Schekman made news this week when he published a column in the Guardian, where he proclaimed that his lab would be boycotting Science, Nature, and Cell, probably the three most prominent scientific journals.

There is a lot to be happy about in Schekman’s column. Most of all for its existence: Schekman just won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, and he is using his fifteen minutes at the Bully Pulpit to draw attention to our deeply flawed system of valuing science, including how we fund and publish it. At a minimum, his column has reignited interest in an extremely important topic, and has already spawned a number of responses, including interesting thoughts from Michael Eisen, Retraction Watch, Luboš Motl, PZ Myers, Junk Science, Scholarly Kitchen, and mathbionerd.[1]

But is he right about the problem? The solution? I’m not sure.

Schekman argues that a key problem is the influence of these “luxury” journals. Yes they publish some good and interesting science, but not everything they publish is good, and not everything good gets published there. In fact, there is an argument to be made that a paper published in a quality field-specific journal is more likely to contain good, solid science than a typical luxury journal paper, at least on average.

DarwinEatsCake0085Yet, in many fields, publication in one of these fancy journals is a, if not the, primary determinant of who gets that tenure-track slot at the big research university. This, then, distorts the incentives on scientists. Rather than trying to do good science, young scientists feel that they need to do something flashy. This can lead to asking the questions that sound deep in a cocktail-party setting, rather than the questions that actually are deep, and that move the field forward in a meaningful way.

He’s right about this, of course. In fact, there are a couple of additional problems that arise from the Science/Nature/Cell-publication-equals-job system. One is stochasticity. There is always going to be a random element that goes into getting a paper accepted by these journals. There is also a degree of randomness in the nature of science itself. Sometimes you ask the right question, and the answer turns out to be a little dry, or a lot complicated. That means that, no matter how skilled a scientist you are, you’re not going to be publishing your work in one of the glossy magazines.

The other issue is a sort of nepotism. Academia, like our current economic system, is riddled with features that create rich-get-richer dynamics. The best predictor for publishing in one of the luxury magazines is having published in them before. Because, well, then you’re the sort of scientist who publishes in those magazines, so obviously your work belongs in those magazines, and so on. So, if you wind up going to the right grad school, and land in the right lab, you can co-author with one of those Science/Nature/Cell scientists, and next thing you know, you are one of those Science/Nature/Cell scientists.

For my money, this starts to get closer to the actual core of the problem: the lazy use of proxies to evaluate quality and assert expertise.

The “Hire the person with the Nature publication” phenomenon is just one facet of the systemic rot throughout academia — the thing that triggers the “Emperor has no clothes” reaction from people who are not immersed in the system. The fact is, it is extremely rare for one academic to put in the actual time and effort required to understand another academic’s research. Yet, we are always more than happy to lay out our value judgments.

You know that thing, where you read an article on the internet, and then you look at the comments, and the first comment is something super judgmental, or scolding, or something defensive and fawning? Yet it is blindingly obvious from the comment that the commenter did not actually finish reading the article?

That dynamic pretty well describes the faculty discussion of candidates in every job search in academia.

Except, on the internet, there is usually some other commenter who points out that the first one did not read the whole article. Now imagine an internet comment thread where no one finished reading the article, but where everyone felt compelled to express an opinion.

That, kids, is how tenure-track positions are filled.

Academics are deeply habituated to making quick value judgments — partly out of necessity. The pace and scope of scientific publishing is absolutely insane, and keeping up with the literature is daunting, even in a narrow field. A typical tenure-track position will receive hundreds of applications, which have to be evaluated and ranked by people who are already working crazy long hours.

This habituation is also driven partly by the social dynamics of academia. When you articulate a judgment of a paper or a candidate, you assert your own authority. You are a person with expertise and intelligence and taste, as demonstrated by your informed opinion. The broader the set of subjects on which you can express an opinion, the broader the domain of your expertise. The stronger your opinion is, the keener your intelligence. The more critical you are, the more refined your tastes must be.

Of course, these inferences only make sense if your judgments are actually correct. The problem is that, in many academic settings, asserted judgments don’t get fact checked. Maybe no one else in the room has the requisite expertise to know if you’re full of shit or not. Maybe no one in the world can evaluate your judgment until years in the future, when some experiment validates or invalidates your judgment.

The resulting situation is that there are many short-term benefits to quick and firm value judgments. The costs associated with making bad value judgements — of being wrong — are typically deferred and diffuse. If you hire the “wrong” job candidate, it might not be obvious for years, and the cost is borne by the entire department. Plus, you never really know for sure, because you don’t have the appropriate controls (such as access to parallel universes in which you hired each of the other candidates).

So, you start to rely on proxies:

Where did the person go to college? Where did they go to grad school? Who was their advisor? How many publications do they have? In which journals? How many citations?

But how bad are those proxies? After all, each of these pieces of information probably does individually correlate with the thing you’re actually interested in — the quality of their work. And, of course, they let you make your evaluation quickly, which is critical if you have to work your way through a pile of, say, three hundred applications, and the new season of American Idol is coming up.

But the correlations are noisy. And, perhaps more to the point, they are correlated among themselves in a way that reflects that rich-get-richer dynamic.

So, candidate A went to Harvard, and they worked with a National Academy member, and they’ve got a paper in Cell. Awesome!

Except that maybe their paper got into Cell — at least partly — because it was co-authored with their National-Academy-member advisor. And they got to work with that advisor because they got in to Harvard. And maybe the advisor was elected to the National Academy — at least partly — because he/she landed a job at Harvard, where he/she got to know some other National Academy members, who then nominated him/her to the Academy.

By my reckoning, the number of independent data points you have about candidate A is somewhere in the vicinity of one.

When you’re in the triage phase, with your pile of hundreds of CVs, you might rely on these proxies out of necessity. But when you’re down to the a manageable pile, you really have to do better. You have to read the papers, understand them, understand the research program. [2] If everyone in the room does this, your discussion will naturally focus on the quality of the work, which is what we all care about, right? Right?

Too much to hope for? Well, consider this. If even one person in the room carefully reads the work, they can at least call out when someone else is making their judgments based on superficial (or even incorrect) aspects of a candidate and their work.

If you don’t have the time or the background knowledge to understand the research, well, you need not to be functioning in a position where you decide who gets hired and promoted and funded and published. Even though, the way academia is structured, you can probably remain in that position and get away with it for years.

In summary:

Goofus says, “George Price published a paper in Nature. He must be really smart. And I am smart because I have smartly recognized his smartness.”, because Goofus did not actually read the paper or maybe did not understand it, and is lazily relying on the journal name to signal quality and establish authority.

Gallant says, “George Price published a paper where he integrates ideas about group and kin selection through the hierarchical use of covariances. In the future, some people will view this work as true, but with limited utility in the real world — sort of like Fisher’s Fundamental Theorem. Some will even say that it is tautological and meaningless. Others will view it with an almost religious reverence, a sort of Rosetta Stone of population genetics.”, because Gallant read and understood the paper and its implications, and is attempting to provide an intellectually honest evaluation.


[1] The responses include a lot of “Hear! Hear!”, especially from people who have been fighting this battle for years. Folks are also (rightly) calling out Schekman for a degree of hypocrisy — he’s built his career through the luxury journals, publishing in Science as recently as this year.

Also, the journals that are included and excluded are a bit — not suspicious, exactly, but something like that. If you were to list extend the list of “luxury” journals to four, the fourth would probably be PNAS. Coincidentally, Schekman was the editor of PNAS for about five years.

On the other side, Schekman proposes Open Access publication as the key to solving this problem. Open Access is awesome for many reasons, but those reasons are really orthogonal to arguments about “sexy” science versus “solid” science — but that’s a subject for a different post. In particular, he calls out three Open Access publishers: PLoS, BMC, and eLife. Here, if you were to cut your list down to two, there is no question that the two would be PLoS and BMC. Coincidentally, Schekman is an editor at eLife.

There’s nothing unusual — or even necessarily wrong — with promoting entities with which you have an association. It’s just that, to me, it smacks a bit of the type of “branding” that he accuses the luxury journals of in the same column.

[2] To be fair, Schekman does make the argument that we also need not to evaluate papers based on where they are published, but this point is limited to a few sentences that are tangential to his central argument:

Funders and universities, too, have a role to play. They must tell the committees that decide on grants and positions not to judge papers by where they are published. It is the quality of the science, not the journal’s brand, that matters.

New Ronin Book on Ralph Waldo Emerson

Congratulations to Ronin Institute Research Scholar Joseph Kramp, who is publishing a new book, Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Psychological Biography, through Mellen Press. The official publication date is 2014, but if you’ve not yet finished up your holiday shopping, you can already preoder it.

Here’s the official description:

A new psychological, social and political examination of Emerson’s life and experience of symbolic loss that demonstrates the importance and purpose of individual and social transformation and revitalizes Emerson’s literary importance for contemporary American society.

So buy, Buy, BUY!!

Ask a Cool Anthropologist

It’s a problem we’ve all been faced with. You’ve got a question, the sort of question only an Anthropologist can answer. But the problem is, all of the Anthropologists you know are just so . . . uncool!

Well, today, friends, I present the solution to your problem: Ask a Cool Anthropologist

This is a new feature from Cool Anthropologist and Ronin Institute Research Scholar Kristina Baines.

Want to know if it is more than a coincidence that Homo floresiensis was found in a country with 127 active volcanoes? Ask a Cool Anthropologist

Want to know if a refrigerator will really protect you from a nuclear blast? Ask a Cool Anthropologist

Want to know what that thing on your leg is? Yeah . . . you really should probably go see a doctor about that.

Introducing the New Ronin Institute Logo

Today is a big day for the Ronin Institute. It’s the day we unveil our shiny new logo, lovingly crafted to reflect the values of the institute and to pay homage in heraldic form to its proud one-year history!

Special thanks to Kristina Killgrove, who provided the Latin translation of the institute’s motto Scientiam Consecemus! (“Let’s Chop Up Some Knowledge!”)

Be sure to look for this symbol when you are out shopping for quality independent scholarship!

Ronin Logo 4


An Outsider’s Theory of Everything

[Update (5/29): Eric Weinstein will be giving a follow-up lecture this Friday (5/31) at 2pm at Oxford’s Mathematical Institute in lecture room L2 (which, I believe, is at location 22 on this map).

Physicists and mathematicians in the area! I hope some of you will be able to attend, and will post your thoughts / reactions online. Note: if you are friends with an Oxford Physicist, please invite them to attend this lecture — this is apparently a necessary step. Update update (5/30): see also the update at the end of section 2, below.]

Original Post:

So, a couple of days ago, a fellow named Eric Weinstein gave a lecture at Oxford in which he outlined a theory that he has apparently been working on for a number of years. The theory, as I understand it, is an attempt at a Theory of Everything — specifically, a theory that would unify the standard model of particle physics with general relativity, explain dark matter and dark energy, and basically provide a synthesis that would resolve many of the big questions facing physics today.

This sort of thing is always exciting. But this proposal gained particular attention for the fact that Eric Weinstein is not a Physics professor. Yes, he has a PhD in math from Harvard, but he has been out of academia for twenty years, and his day job is at a hedge fund in New York.

The talk was the subject of two pieces that ran in the Guardian on the same day as the lecture. One was written by Marcus du Sautoy, a mathematician, and the Oxford professor who invited Weinstein to give the lecture. In it, he waxes enthusiastic at length about the beauty of Weinstein’s theory, how the theory, if correct, is much more elegant than the standard model, with certain constants and masses emerging naturally out of the theory, rather than having to be added on in an ad hoc manner. du Sautoy does not vouch for the correctness of the model, but he notes that it has that quality of beauty and elegance that makes a theory in mathematical physics smell right.

The second piece was written by Alok Jha, a science writer. In that piece, the emphasis is a bit more on the human angle, that Weinstein is an academic outsider. It quotes David Kaplan, a physicist from Johns Hopkins who has seen at least some of Weinstein’s work, as saying that it is phenomenal “that someone from outside academia could put together something so coherent.”

Now, in an ideal world of science, no one would give a crap whether or not this guy was in academia, or even whether or not he had a PhD. But, in this world, maybe it is not surprising that the initial response was an awkward combination of excitement about the lone-wolf scientist and benign condescension.

Also not surprising was the second response. Fairly quickly, a number of posts went up around the web lodging complaints about the lecture and the Guardian articles. Andrew Pontzen, a cosmologist at Oxford, wrote a piece in the New Scientist titled “Weinstein’s Theory of Everything is Probably Nothing.” Jennifer Ouellette wrote a blog post at Scientific American titled “Dear Guardian: You’ve Been Played.” PZ Myers writes simply that “This is not science.

So what’s the backlash about? Well, I think there are a few different complaints, some more legitimate than others, but the problem is that they all get sort of tangled up together. What I’d like to do here is try to separate those complaints, and evaluate each one on its merits.

1. Where’s the Paper?

The overriding complaint seems to be the fact that, as of this time, there is no publicly available version of Weinstein’s theory, so no one is able to dig into the math and evaluate it. According to du Sautoy’s Guardian piece, Weinstein plans to put the work up on the arXiv, but has not yet done so.

Now, at first glance, that seems pretty bad. I mean, you can’t just go around talking about your research until it has been published, right? Or at least you have to make it available, like someplace on the arXiv, preferably well in advance of your talk, so that people can review the work and come to the talk prepared to ask technical questions.

That all makes perfect sense, and the academic community is completely justified in being outraged about the way that Weinstein violated procedure.

Except . . . bullshit.

The first comment (by “Unity”) on PZ Myers’s post notes that

“This is not how anyone does science.”

Except mathematicians.

Other [than] the publicity, most of which is speculative at this stage, there is nothing particularly exceptional in Weinstein having only discussed his ideas with du Sautoy or in the decision to start floating his ideas in a series of talks without first having published.

This is often how mathematicians operate, on the clear understanding that what they are present is, at this stage, provisional and that publication and peer review will necessarily follow – that is, of course, unless someone spots a serious flaw during the talk and raise it during the Q&A.

In mathematical terms, what Weinstein is doing at this stage is equivalent to putting forward a conjecture, so it necessarily has to be understood that the actual science will follow, and in that sense its really not so unusual at all.

In fact, I think we can go a step further. This is how ALL OF SCIENCE operates. Just think back to the last time you went to a conference. Did any of the talks include data that was not yet published? Or did pretty much ALL of the talks include data that was not yet published?

If someone gives a seminar in your department, and they present their latest work, do you sputter with rage: “How dare this person present research without providing a written copy to the audience in advance”?

No, you don’t do that, because you’re not an asshole. If they present something really exciting, you ask them some questions. Maybe you walk up to them after the talk, and you ask them to send you a copy of the manuscript when it is ready.

Now, should physicists around the world drop what they’re doing on the basis of this talk? Of course not. These, like all scientific claims, should be treated skeptically. But no one should be running around pretending that giving the lecture represents some sort of ethical violation.

2. The Physicists were not invited.

According to Andrew Pontzen’s piece:

Yesterday Weinstein, encouraged by du Sautoy, went public with a loud splash in British newspaper The Guardian and in a 2-hour presentation in the main physics lecture theatre here at the University of Oxford. “I’m trying to promote, perhaps, a new way of doing science. Let’s start with really big ideas, let’s be brave and let’s have a discussion,” du Sautoy told The Guardian.

Sounds fair enough, until you discover that no one thought to invite any of Oxford’s, er, physicists.

While Weinstein was delivering his lecture, the theoretical physicists were in a different room listening to a different speaker discuss a different topic (a new source of CP violation in charm physics and its implication for the unitarity triangle, if you’re curious). Only afterwards did anyone spot news of the revelatory talk that had taken place next door.

Pontzen’s complaint was repeated in the other pieces.

Okay, so that’s pretty bad, right? He’s giving a lecture on a new model for physics, but did not invite any physicists!

Except that, um, what?

I don’t know, maybe I’m missing something here, but Pontzen almost makes it sound as if this lecture was kept secret. I mean, what does it even MEAN to say that the physicists were not invited? In my experience, lectures are announced via pre-existing e-mail lists, and by flyers stuck on bulletin boards. Did these things not happen?

Also in my experience, the only time you go around and explicitly invite people to a lecture is when you are worried that there will not be enough people in the audience, and it will be embarrassing for the speaker and the organizer.

It’s a little bit like when your kid has a book report due the next day, and they’re all, “Why didn’t you make me start my homework earlier?”

Weinstein was also apparently scheduled to give a more technical version of the talk the day after the big public lecture. This would have been after Pontzen published his complaint. Did the physicists attend the next day’s lecture? The one geared towards presenting more of the technical details?

Or is there something I’m missing about how Oxford works? Are science lectures typically by invitation only? Do you get a hand stamp?

[Update (5/30): The following correction has been attached to the New Scientist piece by Andrew Pontzen:

Correction: When this article was first published on 24 May 2013, it stated that no one thought to invite physicists at the University of Oxford. New Scientist acknowledges this is not true and regrets any embarrassment caused. Marcus du Sautoy had emailed the head of department asking for the talk to be advertised. Du Sautoy was unaware that this advertisement was not widely circulated or posted on the internal website. Du Sautoy had also sent A3 posters for display in the physics department and advertised the talk in other media. Andrew Pontzen would like to apologise to Marcus Du Sautoy for not investigating these circumstances more thoroughly.

That makes sense to me. Also, full credit to Pontzen for the apology here.

Also, according to a comment from “oxfordanon” on Peter Woit’s post on this, Weinstein’s Thursday lecture (at 4pm) conflicted with the particle theory group’s long-standing weekly seminar slot (Thursdays at 4:15). So, there’s maybe a combination of unfortunate scheduling and a breakdown in the flow of information — both common failures in bureaucracies, but nothing here to require, or even imply, that anyone was acting in bad faith.]

3. Who is this guy, anyway?

The complaints and criticisms don’t come out and say, “This guy is not an academic. He’s not part of the club. He’s a nobody.”

Of course, in polite society — or even in academia — you can’t come right out and say that sort of thing. It makes you sound like a bemonocled nineteenth-century cartoon villain.

But, there does seem to be a bit of an undercurrent of that sentiment.

Here’s Pontzen, for instance:

Until yesterday Weinstein was largely unknown to us. He has a PhD in mathematical physics from Harvard University, but left academia years ago and now makes his living as an economist and consultant at a New York hedge fund.

That is not to say he doesn’t have anything to contribute, but he will have to go through the proper channels.

“Proper channels” Ha!

I take it back, apparently you CAN sound like a bemonocled nineteenth-century villain!

4. Excessive Media Hype

If there is a legitimate complaint to be had, it might be here. To my taste, both Guardian pieces overreach a bit in their efforts to convince me how cool the theory is. On the other hand, both pieces also acknowledge that the paper is not out yet, that the work has been seen by only a few people (and that they have not deeply evaluated the work), and that we have a long way to go before we find out if this theory is going to have legs or not.

Jennifer Ouellette’s criticism focuses on the media coverage. In particular, she calls out Alok Jha for deflecting criticism by preemptively playing the non-academic victim card:

Furthermore, the entire tail end of the article undercuts everything Kaplan and al-Khalili say by quoting du Sautoy (and, I’m sad to say, Frenkel) at length, disparaging the “Ivory Tower” of academia and touting this supposedly new, democratic way of doing physics whereby anyone with an Internet connection and a bit of gumption can play with the big boys.

It’s disingenuous — and pretty savvy, because it cuts off potential criticism at the knees. Now any physicist (or science writer) who objects to the piece can immediately be labeled a closed-minded big ol’ meanie who just can’t accept that anyone outside the Physics Club could make a worthwhile contribution.

Now, it’s hard to disagree with that. Theories need to stand on their own merits. In an ideal world, your work should not get treated with kid gloves just because you’re a non-academic, just as you should not get special treatment by virtue of having a prestigious professorship.

So, what are these disingenuous quotes from du Sautoy and UC Berkeley mathematician Edward Frenkel that make it impossible to criticize Jha or Weinstein? Let’s have a look, shall we:

“I’m trying to promote, perhaps, a new way of doing science. Let’s start with really big ideas, let’s be brave and let’s have a discussion,” says du Sautoy. “Science is very much an evolutionary process and [Weinstein’s] is such a wide-ranging theory and involves such a wide area of mathematics and physics, this is an invitation to say, ‘This is speculative and it’s claiming a lot so let’s see where it can go.'”

Whatever happens, says Frenkel, Weinstein is an example of how science might change in future. “I find it remarkable that Eric was able to come up with such beautiful and original ideas even though he has been out of academia for so long (doing wonderful things in other areas, such as economics and finance). In the past week we have learned about an outstanding result about prime numbers proved by a mathematician who had been virtually unknown, and now comes Eric’s lecture at Oxford.

“I think this represents a new trend. It used to be that one had to be part of an academic hub, such as Harvard or Oxford, to produce cutting-edge research. But not any more. Part of the reason is the wide availability of scientific information on the internet. And I think this is a wonderful development, which should be supported.

“I also see two lessons coming from this. The first is for the young generation: with passion and perseverance there is no limit to what you can do, even in high-end theoretical science. The other lesson is for me and my colleagues in academia – and I say this as someone who on most days takes an elevator to his office in an Ivory Tower, as it were – we should be more inclusive and more open to ideas which come from outside the standard channels of academia, and we’ll be better off for it.”

Umm, okay. Obviously. I mean, we have an acknowledgement that information is now widely available, and a suggestion that people should be more open — or, as Ouellette puts it, “touting this supposedly new, democratic way of doing physics whereby anyone with an Internet connection and a bit of gumption can play with the big boys.”

Something here is disingenuous, anyway.

She follows up with this:

Do I sound a little angry? It’s closer to irritation. I’m currently at a conference exploring the frontiers of cosmology and theoretical physics at the University of California, Davis, where for the past several days, some of the top physicists in the world have been vigorously debating all kinds of wildly creative, speculative, alternative ideas about inflation, dark matter, dark energy, the multiverse, string theory, and so forth, and the implications for the various theoretical models in light of the latest experimental results from the Planck mission. Two weeks ago, I was at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics for a week-long conference in which physicists grappled with fitting their theoretical models to confusing results from a number of dark matter detection experiments.

This is what truly free and open scientific discussion of brave/bold new ideas looks like.

Well, I certainly hope that none of these top physicists spoke about any ideas for which there was not a preprint available!

To conclude

So, is this going to be the Theory of Everything that unifies physics and earns Weinstein the Nobel prize? Heck if I know. Statistically speaking, most efforts like this don’t pan out. On the other hand, sometimes they do, and the ones that pan out in the end look an awful lot like the ones that don’t at this stage.

I’ve never met Eric, although I’ve interacted with him a bit online. I know several people who know him, and the story from all of them echoes the image presented in all of these stories: he’s a really smart guy, and not a crackpot. So, this is at least a serious attempt at a theory, and if you’re someone out there with the skills and knowledge to evaluate it, you won’t be wasting your time by having a look.

Hopefully, the preprint will hit the arXiv soon, and people can start digging into the math. And, if that math holds up under the first rounds of scrutiny, hopefully the top physicists will engage with Weinstein in a free and open scientific discussion — maybe even at a conference.

And hopefully that discussion will be a little bit less dismissive and condescending than what we’ve seen so far.

[Update (5/30): There’s an excellent post from Peter Woit here, including a great discussion in the comments.

Zen Faulkes also has a nice post here.]