Is Physics Among the Dysfunctional Sciences?

By Sean Carroll | April 16, 2012 2:38 pm

Sorry for a post title that will attract the crazies. Carl Zimmer has a story in the New York Times that discusses a growing unease with the practice of science among scientists themselves.

In tomorrow’s New York Times, I’ve got a long story about a growing sense among scientists that science itself is getting dysfunctional. For them, the clearest sign of this dysfunction is the growing rate of retractions of scientific papers, either due to errors or due to misconduct. But retractions represent just the most obvious symptom of deep institutional problems with how science is done these days–how projects get funded, how scientists find jobs, and how they keep labs up and running.

However… essentially all the examples are from biologically-oriented fields. I’ll confess that Carl asked me if there is a similar feeling among physicists, and after some thought I decide that there really isn’t. There are certainly fumbles (faster-than-light neutrinos, anyone?) and scandals (Jan Hendrik Schön being the most obvious), but I don’t have any feeling that the problem is growing in a noticeable way. Biology and physics are fundamentally different, especially because of the tremendous pressure within medical sciences when it comes to any results that might turn out to be medically useful. Cosmologists certainly don’t have to worry about that.

But maybe this is a distorted view from within my personal bubble? Happy to hear informed opinion to the contrary. The relevant kind of informed opinion would actually involve a comparison of the situation today with the situation at some previous time, not just a litany of things you think are dysfunctional about the present day.

  • Dirk Hanson

    “I’ll confess that Carl asked me if there is a similar feeling among physicists, and after some thought I decide that there really isn’t.”
    No dissatisfaction in your field about how science is done? The direction it’s taking? Really? But wait a minute: String theory? Multiverses? Dark matter? Seems to me I just read a book called “The Trouble With Physics” by a renowned theoretical physicist…

  • Lisa Gorski

    I have always thought that a couple of the reasons for the increasing numbers of retractions in the biological sciences is the increasing pressure on scientists to publish (and in some places to publish a certain number of papers per year), and the funding situation where there is pressure for fewer and fewer research dollars.

    I’m interested at the idea that the retraction phenomenon isn’t in the other sciences as well. I would assume the same outside pressures exist.

    I’ll be following this discussion to hear what others think.

  • Emily Willingham

    I’m wondering how much the rate of retractions represents *improvements* in scientific endeavor, or at least oversight. Before the Interwebz, it was likely more difficult to find these errors, bring them to attention, “crowdsource” criticisms, or track the rate of retractions. Perhaps this is shaping up the biological sciences in that sense. That’s not to say that the rest of it–how we’re funded, hired, retained or fired, published, etc.–isn’t done inside a creaky, practically pre-modern framework that desperately needs an overhaul.

    Sorry… this isn’t addressing the question of non-biological sciences; just considering ideas.

  • Will Hill

    There is general and growing problem with journal access that harms every field of science. Big publishers have made paper journals expensive, so you can’t find them on library shelves. The general public is entirely locked out and students have an increasing difficult time with research.

  • a postdoc

    I think the main difference is that a big boom in biomed is ending, whereas physics already suffered through the ending of its postwar boom back in the 70s or so. The points about severe pressure from the increasing time and decreasing rate of success from PhD to tenure apply just as easily to physics… but long postdoc periods have been standard in physics quite a while now, so we’re used to it.

    I’ve met professors who went from PhD to faculty in two years… back in the 1960s. My PhD advisor got his PhD in 1983… and went 9 years before landing a faculty position, and another 6 or so before tenure. And this is a very successful guy! I think the biosci people are more or less going through the same painful contractions that physics went through back in the 1980s, even if the details differ (fraud is a lot easier to get away with in medicine).

    That’s not to say that there isn’t dysfunction in physics… it just isn’t particularly new dysfunction.

  • Jess Riedel

    If the type of dysfunction you’re referring to is the kind which might be measured by retractions of papers, then I don’t think this exists much in physics. But there are certainly many critics (like me) who think that there are similar, correctable institutional problems leading to an over-investment in certain research avenues, especially in those sub-fields of physics which are untethered from experiment (e.g. quantum gravity, quantum foundations, cosmology). The criticisms of string theory by Woit, Smolin, and others are the most well-known examples, although I’m not sure if that qualifies as a “feeling among physicists”.

  • Carl Zimmer

    I don’t think anyone has broken out retraction rates for biological and physical sciences, so this is an open question. All the people who I talked to about the dysfunction of science were from the biomedical sciences, and their examples were all from there. Given that most of the spending on science in the US is biomedical, I suppose one could simply say that science in general is, overall, dysfunctional.

  • Matthew Putman

    Not sure though Carl if spending and number of submitted papers correlate. Maybe they do, but in general there are quite a lot of physics papers written by fewer authors (CERN aside), therefore less cost.

  • phd + 8

    Is the fact that women are getting massively pushed out of the system before reaching tenured / senior scientific positions a signature of dysfunction?

    This is clearly a problem for women in scientific careers, but is also a major problem for the science itself since it indicates that scientific merit is not central to the selection process of future scientists.

  • Ted Bunn

    About a year ago, a New York Times reporter by the name of Carl Zimmer wrote a piece ( about the publication of incorrect results. The refrain of that article, it seemed to me, was that there was a big problem because incorrect results weren’t being retracted. Now we’re supposed to wring our hands over the fact that they are being retracted. I can’t get too worked up about it either way.

    The question of whether grant- and job-chasing is making scientists too careerist is certainly a worthwhile one, but I’m not convinced that either of these two points of view (Science is in crisis because papers aren’t being retracted! Science is in crisis because papers are being retracted!) shed much light on it.

  • GM

    A biologist here, so I am not fully qualified to tell how things are in physics, but it has always seemed to me that in physics, especially the theoretical part of it (and even more so in math), you become successful with your ideas, and the primary way a paper can be wrong is if you got your math and logic wrong, which is quite disastrous to one’s reputation so people have a lot of incentive to check and recheck things and very little incentive to cheat. And cheating is quite difficult to begin with because of the nature of the field. In experimental physics there is probably a lot more room for that and it likely happens more often

    In biology it is totally different, because it is mostly the data that makes what they are, and that data is usually directly seen and worked with only by the authors, and most often than not, only one or very few of them. On top of that, a lot more so than it is in physics, it is where you publish that builds your reputation, not what exactly you did as few people take the time to pay attention to every methodological detail, especially these days when those are increasingly relegated to supplemental sections and people are so busy writing grants and their own paper to go in depth into articles.

    So both the opportunity and the incentive is there to cheat. And this is even without the other very big issues such as the cutthroat competition for funding, the multibillion dollar pharmaceutical and biomedical industry that is tied to the field, the public relevance of the results, the industrial mode of operation of many big labs, and so on.

    It is good that this is being talked about more and more but I don’t see the situation improving much in the foreseeable future without changing the incentive structure

  • Former postdoc

    Beyond the usual complaints about the job market (which I’ll spare you as I’m long gone), I remember of plenty of conversations about how the system rewards a lot of mediocre results and bandwagonny “me too” papers. Perhaps it’s just the nature of things, but the number of interesting papers (admittedly a really subjective measure) was depressingly few and often by a very small subset of people. Hopefully things have gotten better, but I do think there was a feeling that something was off about the direction things were going (but in a very different way than, for example, Smolin was complaining about).

    There were also a number of interesting conversations about the influence of the ArXiv and how it wasn’t necessarily an unalloyed good, but that’s a slightly different story.

  • Anonymous

    Really? You don’t see any institutional problems with how projects in physics get funded, how scientists find jobs, and how they keep labs up and running? This has got to be one of the most ridiculous statements I’ve ever read by a physicist on the internet, and as a physicist myself I’m actually mildly offended.

    I see you work at Caltech. Let me begin there.

    I hear the Caltech physics department has had some problems attracting graduate students in recent years. Why do you think this might be? Perhaps it’s because when prospective physics graduate students visit Caltech, there has been more than one year in recent memory when the physics professors weren’t in town to greet them. Or perhaps it’s because the physics department discourages the current graduate students from making contact with the prospectives. Having met some Caltech physics graduate students myself, I certainly understand why this might be. I asked them what they did for fun, and what they did outside of campus, and they couldn’t really give me an answer — they said they pretty much spent their time on campus or at home. They couldn’t even come up with a suitable lie!

    As far as keeping a lab up and running, I hardly know where to begin. I can’t count the number of papers I have (eventually) published where the reviewer(s) had some sort of vendetta against my research group. How many professors have turned writing grant proposals into their full-time jobs? Why do government agencies reject grant proposals because of things like improperly formatted citations? How much of scientific publishing is a race to publish the fastest or most often, rather than the most profoundly? Why do people care so much about the impact factor of journals rather than the content of their work? The justification of funding is largely responsible for many of these questions.

    As far as finding jobs, you might have noticed that physics has continually had difficulty attracting females to the profession. One of the reasons for this is the uncertainty of being able to obtain stable employment. At what point in their career does a physicist have the stability to raise a family? After earning peanuts as a graduate student, and slightly more peanuts as a postdoc, most physicists don’t earn a decent salary in a stable position until their early-mid 30s or later. You could try to point to the rising number of females in physics and suggest that the problem might be getting better, but the underlying cause of the problem is the comparison between the number of available positions in comparison with the number of people being trained for those positions.

    Are things getting better or worse? I honestly don’t know. The number of jobs are increasing, but not as quickly as the number of graduate students, and the percentage of foreign students who accept domestic postdocs is rising as well. All this means that there is more competition for the few available spots.

    Overall, I can certainly understand why there might be a “growing sense among scientists that science itself is getting dysfunctional”. I see these problems myself and sometimes wonder why I’m doing what I’m doing.

  • blavag

    There is a more or less relevant literature on this see:
    Philip Mirowski, Science-Mart (2011) and his earlier The Effortless Economy of Science? (2004)

  • Lab Lemming

    Are the ground for retraction the same across all disciplines? If some fields only retract due to fabrication of primary data, and others retract simply because conclusions are later proved to be incorrect, then it willbe hard to compare.

  • Charles Norrie

    It was Lord Rutherford who said that physics was the only science and all the rest were stamp collecting.

  • Serge

    No one is saying that modern hi-tech industry is dysfunctional because ninety nine from hundred startups are failure. Startups are also mired with frauds, incompetence and poor leadership. Nevertheless startup industry as whole is healthy and one of cornerstones of modern economy. So modern science now look less than big corporations of old and more like stratups. Some area of science could be not so healthy, but the same goes with economy and that is not the end of the world. Don’t see the problem with it as long as science as whole works.

  • IanR

    One place to look is the retractionwatch blog:

  • beowulf888

    @Serge — unfortunately the modern startup industry isn’t at all healthy right now, and it might never be anything like the 90s again. Last I heard from my friends who are VCs, is that they’re funding significantly fewer startups today. Almost none of these companies or their backers see an IPO as a possible endgame. Getting bought out by a Google, Cisco, Microsoft are the only realistic outcomes that yield a profit for the investors, which makes VC firms less likely to fund blue-sky endeavors (rather they’re funding incremental stuff that a Google, Cisco, or Microsoft type of behemoth would be interested in). A lot of VC partnerships have disbanded as investors have taken their money out. Last year I heard from a friend on Sand Hill that the number of functioning VC firms had dropped by about 50 percent since the current mini-depression started. Probably more by now. And talent is harder too find now, because Zynga drove home the point that stock options even they’ve vested are mostly worthless — unless you’re lucky enough to hold founders stock.

  • wolfgang

    So what about the Bogdanov brothers?
    And what do you think about Roman Jackiw’s statement “They showed some originality and some familiarity with the jargon. That’s all I ask.” ?

  • Tom Weidig

    Yes, in a few fields of physics you have similar issues.

    Climate Science because it has a lot of the data focus of biology, and cannot do any proper (controllable) scientific experiments to test theories.

    I would say that biology is still kind of OK. Psychology and medicine, fields where I as a PhD in theoretical physics currently venture, is much much more broken.

    It’s not just the nature of the subject they study. It is also the people who study it. They are in my experience clearly less intelligent ON AVERAGE and more emotionally driven than in a hard science.

  • CL

    I have some ‘survival bias’ so I won’t talk about my own experience. However, I have some friends in biology and some in physics. The physicists are in general reasonably happy, the biologists are in general quite unhappy, or even angry. They are all around 30-40 years old.

    I am afraid there is something wronger in biology –

  • Bee

    The reason there are no retractions in hep-th is that in the vast majority of cases nobody really cares if a paper is right or wrong. Most papers are probably never even read by anybody but some unlucky referee who, when reminded for the 3rd time, just wrote something to make the paper go away. Do you really seriously have to ask if that sounds like a dysfunctional process?

    Besides, this might be a good place to ask:

    I’m looking for stories about the dysfunctional academia for a project I’m working on. If you have something to share, something to complain about, a frustrating experience of you or a friend, please send me an email to hossi at nordita dot org, subject “academia.” I’ll respect your anonymity. It doesn’t matter which field you work in.

  • Nik Reeves-McLaren

    Is the ‘faster-than-light’ thing from Gran Sasso really a good example of a fumble, and a sign of dysfunctionality? To be honest, I think there’s a l0t there for physics to be proud of.

    The team there reported a strange but potentially important result with themselves a great deal of scepticism, and asked for help to prove or disprove it. Isn’t that exactly how science ought to work – a very public and very intense peer review process.

    The hype that was generated was more of a fumble, but that’s hardly their fault. Just my two cents…

  • another postdoc

    Got to agree with Bee at number 23! To my mind, rather a lot of theoretical high-energy physics and cosmology consists mainly of pointless speculation. Take inflation, for instance – how many countless different models are written about every year, most of which are based on various untestable, more or less ad hoc assumptions, and all of which “predict” a scalar spectral index of around 0.96 and not much else?

    Whether this is an entirely new phenomenon or not I can’t say. I wasn’t around 30 years ago, but my gut feeling is that the time lag between theoretical ideas and the experimental results that ought to drive them has grown, which leads to more pointless speculation in lieu of tackling genuinely interesting physical problems. And I think the existence of arXiv and other online citation counting websites has probably increased the temptation to rush out half-baked papers in an effort to cash in on current ‘fads’ and gain citations.

  • another postdoc

    Incidentally, Nik #27:

    You should have a look at Matt Strassler’s summary of the OPERA fiasco at especially the list down at the bottom of all the lessons from what he calls “a classic case of how not to handle a potentially sensational result”.

    In particular, don’t announce something earth-shaking without doing all your basic internal checks first; or if you do announce it, don’t announce it in a high-profile public talk at CERN; or if you have already done that, then when you discover your mistakes have the decency to announce them similarly rather than tucked away in some little mini-workshop at Gran Sasso. I don’t think their handling of the situation has exactly covered them in glory.

  • Lab Lemming

    Didn’t some Spanish astronomers try to steal an entire dwarf planet a few years back?

  • Christopher Herzog

    Regarding the state of American science (rather than science globally), I find the April 15 article by Kirk Semple “Many U.S. Immigrants’ Children Seek American Dream Abroad” more troubling than Carl Zimmer’s article. While Semple focuses on the business world, part of the strength of American science came from an ability to attract and keep top talent from all around the world. Working in high energy theoretical physics over the last decade, I perceive a marked shift. I see foreign born scientists who come here for grad school and postdocs returning home after shorter periods of time. I also see a troubling number of highly talented U.S. born scientists leaving for places such as China, India, Europe, Korea, and Japan.

    Why do they leave? In many cases, the jobs are over seas, and the opportunities are better. For example, in the states a tenure track high energy theorist can apply for an NSF CAREER Award which pays 400,000 USD over a period of five years. Given overhead rates at most U.S. universities, this amount is not enough to hire a postdoc. In Europe, in contrast, an ERC Starting Grant offers 1.5 million Euros over five years, and many European union countries (for example Holland) offer similar grants. Moreover, overhead rates in Europe tend to be much lower and there is no summer salary to consider.

  • Thomas Larsson

    The youngest Nobel-prize-winning hep theorists (‘t Hooft and Wilczek) are 60. In five years there will be no non-retired hep theorist with a Nobel prize, since the next winners (Higgs and perhaps Englert) have already retired. Perhaps not a proof of dysfunction, but a sign of some stagnation at least.

  • Filip

    As Sean said, “biology and physics are fundamentally different”.
    Maybe out of the scope of this post (or if we look more deeply maybe not), but regarding that, the paper titled “Can a biologist fix a radio” is a nice read, drawing a parallel between biology and engineering, and existence/lack of formal approaches in two areas.

  • James Goetz

    First, there is an upside to retractions. How sad would it be if any field of science stopped caring enough to make retractions after the need for a retraction is discovered?

    Second, as Dirk said in comment 1, Lee Smolin makes important points about the trouble with various multiverse hypotheses, not that I am convinced that his upper limit for solar mass in Neutron stars really says much about the probability of a block hole generating a new spacetime quasi-universe (or verse) that forms second generation stars in his own multiverse hypothesis of cosmological natural selection. Nonetheless, Smolin makes good points about problems in other multiverse hypotheses.

    Third, most physics experiments in general are easier to control and reproduce compared to medical experiments.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Hard to see how anything could be more dysfunctional than the biomedical field right now. 95% of what isn’t retracted cannot be reproduced, even with the poor excuse for statistical analysis normally employed to give the appearance of “significance”. My career the past six years has been a painstaking attempt to corroborate the work of external researches as our new big-pharma mandate is informed by the notion that internal R&D is a losing proposition. Guess what? The external stuff is garbage. Collaborators take the money and run, accountable to no one, since their labors are validated by “peer review”. It’s gone from disheartening to depressing. If we can’t rely on academic reality checks, what can we rely on?

  • Jones

    I am a condensed matter physicist (disclaimer, grad student). In my own sub-field, I see lots of situations where data of questionable quality and impact passes review at the most prestigious journals. Some of the most outlandish claims, instead of being retracted or even corrected, are addressed in further (prestigious) publications, but their nature as corrections to previous claims are left to be read between the lines.

    Personally I think many scientists, instead of being encouraged to publish rigorous, strong work, are pressured by the need for publications to rush. It leads to a glut of mediocre work where very few real contributions can be identified.

  • Quarkgluonsoup

    There is something deeply wrong with the way science works right now, and the retraction issue and job issue are just two tips of this iceberg. In a sense the problem has a philosophical foundation: science is treated as though it is the ultimate method to understand reality, and the views of scientists are assumed to have a legitimacy that they don’t actually have. Because of this science is assumed to have accomplished a lot more in recent decades than it has. It simply doesn’t work as well as people assume.

  • Eugene A Lim

    Nature has an article out on this last year :

    I was surprised Carl Zimmer didn’t refero this article.

    I’ve had the pleasure of listening to a talk by the author Richard Van Noorden, who showed some really interesting statistics — in particular how most of the retractions occur in biological/medical sciences. I asked him if this is systematic of the field — he said a lot of it is because biological/medical sciences are really big money fields. A result can lead to millions of dollars invested (by pharmaceuticals for example) in finding uses for example. In addition, Van Noorden suggests that the sheer volume of papers in the biological sciences mean that there are just more retractions.

    However, I am not too convinced by this argument — engineering papers are pretty big time, and do has impact on the bottom line of tech companies, but retraction rates are low.

    I think the reason is because physical sciences have a much better “error feedback loop” — it is often clear what is wrong and what is right, while in biological sciences (due to, I believe, the lack of a simple model and the complexity of the system being studied) it is not clear what is “obvious” and what is not.


  • Eugene A Lim

    (if anything, I think Physics suffer from the opposite problem — the fear of being labeled “crackpot” means that most papers written are unadventurous safe papers.)

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  • Phillip Helbig

    “Why do they leave? In many cases, the jobs are over seas, and the opportunities are better. For example, in the states a tenure track high energy theorist can apply for an NSF CAREER Award which pays 400,000 USD over a period of five years. Given overhead rates at most U.S. universities, this amount is not enough to hire a postdoc. In Europe, in contrast, an ERC Starting Grant offers 1.5 million Euros over five years, and many European union countries (for example Holland) offer similar grants. Moreover, overhead rates in Europe tend to be much lower and there is no summer salary to consider.”

    While this is true, only a minority of people are funded by the ERC. The ERC is quite new and most funding is on the national level, and not all is good. Also, some countries don’t even have tenure-track jobs (it is either permanent or a temporary postdoc-style job with a 2-year contract or whatever). Summary: Research funding varies enormously from country to country and within a given country in Europe and one can’t compare Europe, which is much less homogeneous than the USA in this respect, as a whole with the USA. Also, not everyone in the USA is funded with an NSF Career Award. Another aspect is that in Europe there are two options: up or out. In the USA, if one isn’t good enough for the big leagues, one can often get a job at a “small teaching college” and still do a bit of research and teach science, as opposed to doing something completely different. Also, I’m sure that the fraction of the NSF and ERC grants for the person’s salary are different.

    Lest this sound too USA-friendly, I still think that on the whole the situation is better in Europe since, although there are differences between countries, nowhere is a university education as expensive as it is in the States. Before anyone mentions scholarships, consider that not everyone has one and there are people who leave the field due to lack of money while less qualified people can afford to stay in. Also, many scholarships are for children of employees of certain companies. There is also the case that financial aid from the university involves working in the cafeteria while the rich students chat after lunch (I am not making this up). Also, certain scholarships are targeted at minority or majority students. (I knew someone who had a scholarship paid for by a fund set up by a rich old maid—not sure if she was still alive or if this was from her will—which specified that the recipient had to be white and male and not too old. I am not making this up.)

  • Cosmonut

    I agree with the article that the publish-or perish ethos is to blame.
    “Publish or perish” seems to me an attempt to use market measures of productivity to science with “how much money did you make for the desk ?” replaced by “how many papers did you publish ?”.
    I think its ultimately a disaster for science.

    History suggests that the greatest scientific advances were made by people who pursued science as a hobby in some sense.
    Darwin comes to mind. So does Einstein who made his first great breakthroughs as a patent clerk doing physics in his spare time.
    The biggest advances in physics were all made in the first half of the 20th century when there was no pressure to publish in order to survive.
    Salaries were presumably much lower also., but people seem to have made great progress anyway.

    The “small businessmen” of modern academia mostly produce a bunch of garbage.
    Or at least the substance to garbage ratio is distressingly low.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    It all gets back to the incentive structure. There’s an inherent danger in for-profit science, and the fact that there is incentive to cheat should be obvious. One can label that inherent danger “evil” and trash the whole enterprise, or one can live in the real world. That means recognizing how human beings respond to risk and reward, and attempt to incentivize appropriately. For industry, that means punishing cheaters so severely that there is sufficient disincentive despite the potential rewards of cheating. You see what happens, just as in any industry, when you de-regulate. It’s pretty simple, really, as long as your surveillance system is in good working order.

    I see academia as a crucial part of that surveillance system. Unfortunately, it’s clear that the incentive structure in academia has been perverted sufficiently to make things almost as bad as one would expect would be the baseline in industry. Is academic science about the expansion of human knowledge? Maybe it should be, but I would say these days it emphatically is not. It’s another growth mechanism for universities; essentially, another revenue stream. Academic scientists are not rewarded for expanding human knowledge. They are rewarded for producing exciting positive data, and hyping it. In the biological sciences, this means your iterative advance in a small sub-field must be touted as foundational, say, the future cure for aging.

    And posters above are correct: The experimental systems in the life sciences are so complex that the smallest perturbations can literally change the entire outcome of experiments. And it’s very, very difficult to tease out those subtleties, especially in vivo. Most physics experiments are much more rigorously defined, mathematically precise, and, quite frankly, many orders of magnitude simpler than even the simplest biological systems. The B.S. meter works better for individual experiments, in, say condensed matter physics, because the experiments are amenable to precise critique. There’s a disincentive to cheat, because it’s easier to get caught. Hence physics probably does more for the common good right now, because it’s doing more to truly expand human knowledge. We can dispense with individual values entirely. Structurally, the system is primed to deliver this benefit. At lease, better than the life sciences.

    In my very insignificant opinion, there need to be major structural changes in how life sciences are performed, and how graduate students in the life sciences are rewarded for the work they do. Otherwise, expect it to morph entirely into just an extension of for-profit science. For-profit has its useful role to play, but it’s a metastasizing menace unchecked, as our current economic troubles ought to make very clear from the example of other enterprises. Stop using for-profit values to assess academic science, or there will be dire consequences.

  • Quarkgluonsoup

    The problem with science today is deeper than what commentors are describing above. Science simply hasn’t accomplished nearly as much as people want to think. Most progress in recent decades has come from technology, not basic science. Even human lifespans have hardly changed in the last century. The average 5 year old in 2000 was only likely to live a couple more years than the average 5 year old in 1900.

  • GM

    39. Cosmonut Says:
    April 18th, 2012 at 6:40 am
    I agree with the article that the publish-or perish ethos is to blame.
    “Publish or perish” seems to me an attempt to use market measures of productivity to science with “how much money did you make for the desk ?” replaced by “how many papers did you publish ?”.
    I think its ultimately a disaster for science.
    History suggests that the greatest scientific advances were made by people who pursued science as a hobby in some sense.
    Darwin comes to mind. So does Einstein who made his first great breakthroughs as a patent clerk doing physics in his spare time.
    The biggest advances in physics were all made in the first half of the 20th century when there was no pressure to publish in order to survive.
    Salaries were presumably much lower also., but people seem to have made great progress anyway.
    The “small businessmen” of modern academia mostly produce a bunch of garbage.
    Or at least the substance to garbage ratio is distressingly low.

    While publish-or-perish is indeed a very serious problem, it is not at all clear that just because such big advances were made by people who were doing it for fun in the early 20th century, it is possible to have another explosion of knowledge advancement now if we just went back to doing it because we have a passion for it and not out of career advancement and profit motivations. We should go back to doing science for such reasons, but it may be that it is going to be very very hard to make progress from here on no matter which direction the incentive structure points to, simply because the low-hanging fruit has been picked already

  • Doug Natelson

    Sean – I agree that there is little evidence of a plague of retractions in the physical sciences. Still, that was only the opening point of an article that spent much more time talking about the way academic science gets done today. Do you have any thoughts on that aspect of the article?

  • ?

    @ 41. Quarkgluonsoup

    I’m not sure I believe you. Doing a quick calculation from the survivorship tables in the US National Vital Statistics Reports the life expectancy of a five year old changed from 60-65 to 75-80 between 1900 and 2007, not just a couple of years. Why would you want to ignore the vast improvements in early mortality anyway?

  • jpd

    this is also off topic, but quarkgluonsoup
    why are you starting with 5 year olds?
    the infant mortality rate has greatly decreased since 1900.

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  • V.H.Belvadi

    @DirkHanson – No offense to Lee Smolin, and personally I think The Trouble with Physics is a great book, but reading that book doesn’t mean you know all of physics. One should try doing some maths sometime; that should tell them a whole lot more, so you can form a more informed opinion next time.

  • Valatan

    You don’t see a problem with how physicists find jobs? Really? With the large number of grad students that spend seven years in grad school, at tremendous opportunity cost, and then spend three or four years in postdocs, at the end of which they find VAP positions waiting for them, and then finally wash out int their mid-40s, you see no problem at all?


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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