Our Base Metaphors & Analogies Used In Science Have Outlived Their Usefulness: Part I

Our Base Metaphors & Analogies Used In Science Have Outlived Their Usefulness: Part I

Metaphors and analogies exhaust themselves. No matter how useful they are as guides to thought, pushed too far they can loosen our grip on Reality or lead to stagnation, and they can even cause error to be accepted as Truth. All agree with this.

I learned from the Tree of Woe a nice metaphor about analogies, Philip K Dick’s notion of the Black Iron Prison. Our metaphors and analogies form “a system of control over thought.” We are trapped behind bars that we ourselves forged. What makes it worse is that Dick said of some of his characters, which are clearly the same as us, that we are all inside the Prison and none of us know it.

Yet, now, a few do know. It’s clear to some that we have gone as far as we can with our old metaphors and analogies. Rather, that we have gone too far with them. This is so for the culture at large, where our self-wrought mental prison is wreaking havoc, but it also includes science, where the damage caused by old metaphors and analogies is less clear.

I believe most (regular) readers are with me on this. Disagreement comes only in what counts as the one step, or the last leap, too far, the point at which the analogy snaps and thought founders.

We have looked through the years at hundreds of examples of bad science. Some of it is where the metaphors and analogies are not in dispute, like math and data mistakes or fraud. Rank error or cheating to get the results you want is obviously bad philosophy and rotten science. Some is where the metaphors and analogies are in dispute, though, like laws of nature and anything to do with probability. Differences here are profound, and we have a lot of work ahead of us to convince skeptics of our philosophy.

Let’s start easy. Today, evidence research in most fields has petered out. In later posts we argue for a change in fundamental philosophy.

Quite a lot of bad science is not so much bad, as boring. And useless. Many journals exist for sole purpose for academics to publish lest they parish. No harm would come, and a great benefit would incur, by immediately pulping these journals as they left the press, or in diverting the electricity used to host their sites to mine bitcoin instead.

These non-entities are of no real harm in and of themselves, at least individually, because most are ignored, and should be. However, they do cause problems when they are massed together. Because of funding and peer review, each non-entity must still be “peer” reviewed and funded, the whole adding to the burgeoning bureaucracy. The mass makes it too easy for rulers to find “the science” which they want to support, too.

These works are all also beholden to the old metaphors and analogies, and their great bulk, married to the Voting Fallacy, gives the false impression that because so many people are working under these premises, there must be something to them. This leads to a great slowing down, even as, seemingly paradoxically, the number of researchers increase.

The paradox is resolved by recalling that the metaphors exhaust themselves and that the more researchers there are, necessarily the dumber the average intellect among researchers.

As empirical evidence of this, enter the paper “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?” appeared in 2020 by Nicholas Bloom and others in American Economic Review. Here’s the Abstract:

Long-run growth in many models is the product of two terms: the effective number of researchers and their research productivity. We present evidence from various industries, products, and firms showing that research effort is rising substantially while research productivity is declining sharply. A good example is Moore’s Law. The number of researchers required today to achieve the famous doubling of computer chip density is more than 18 times larger than the number required in the early 1970s. More generally, everywhere we look we find that ideas, and the exponential growth they imply, are getting harder to find.

Now this is put in terms of economics and something called Total Factor Productivity (TFP), so there is some scientism built into this, but not so much we can’t find something useful. See, too, links to many other studies on the same question. The results are always the same: we’re bottoming out. I highlighted another of these (blog, Substack) on the fading away of “disruptive science” (paper details at blog, Substack). The reasons for the slow fade are those already given.

Of course, trying to quantify precisely quality research output is doomed to fail, the idea not being amenable to strict measurement. Whereas numbers of researchers can be given a better (but still imperfect) number. So this picture of theirs is only crude:

I don’t want to make too much of these numbers, because even if they could be accurate quantifications, they’re not identical in every field. This is a good cartoon of the situation, though.

An area in which measurement is a lot easier, and in less dispute, is Moore’s Law (so-called).

More and more researchers are required to get the same return. But note the direction of causation cannot be inferred, and can go both ways. More researchers, poor ones, are bogging things down as well as helping.

Another area with easier quantification is crop output.

They put a smoother on the data, which annoys me. But you have the idea. The story is the same.

The situation is somewhat better in cancer and heart disease:

But the “Years of life saved per 1,000 people” looks like it’s bottoming out. Note the different time scales here. The evidence into the 2020s indicates the mortality rates have also flattened, and may have grown worse. The covid panic accounts for some of this.

Here’s a better way to look at it:

Again note the different time scales. Most of this, too, is really before the woke hit and we got “pregnant men” and other medical insanities. So it will be worse by now.

The authors conclude, and we agree qualitatively:

Our robust finding is that research productivity is falling sharply everywhere we look. Taking the US aggregate number as representative, research productivity falls in half every 13 years: ideas are getting harder and harder to find. Put differently, just to sustain constant growth in GDP per person, the United States must double the amount of research effort every 13 years to offset the increased difficulty of finding new ideas.

One last cartoon, from the paper “Papers and patents are becoming less disruptive over time” mentioned above, by Michael Park, Erin Leahey and Russell J. Funk.

Their quantification is as sketchy as the others, so not much can be read into the absolute numbers. The idea, however, is plain, interesting “disruptive”, meaning truly new, work is waning. Notice that this ends in 2010, also before the woke really degraded things.

My post is not a knock-out proof that our old metaphors and analogies have been milked far past dry. But it is reasonable evidence in the direction. More to come.

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  1. The ghost of Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions is whispering our names…

  2. Incitadus

    Not to worry I hear Musk is working on the Neuro-Link Science Guy AI
    Chip with dopamine pulse jets so no matter how inane the study you’re
    gonna feel like Einstein.

  3. Robin

    Is it due to diminishing returns, bad metaphors or analogies or perhaps the monstrous, oppressive weight and intrusiveness of a legal/corporate/copyright/patent/government war against individual innovation?

    The 1980s first saw thousands of patents being applied for, and granted, around truly novel inventions just to stop anyone from inventing something even slightly different. The patent office has turned into a money machine, granting patents for things that are not novel and letting the corps otherwise duke it out in the courts. In my field, I’ve seen patents granted for things that have no novelty, just a cobbling together of things that are already very well known. It’s all gone haywire.

    There are technologies out there that are so disruptive that they are being kept more secret than JFK’s assassination (no, it’s not electric vehicles).

  4. Robert James Cihak, M.D.

    Thanks for using some semi-log charts here. Please use more of them, when appropriate, in the future.

  5. Stephen

    I wonder if this isn’t a function of higher IQ Americans not breeding and/or aborting their kids? I have not done this, but it would be interesting to look at how many siblings the most influential minds in history actually had. If it takes 8 births in a family to find 1 genius and parents only have two kids now, how many geniuses are never born? As a follow on, those who aren’t born obviously don’t reproduce, so the problem compounds over time. We replace them with immigrants, not PhD scientists and voila, we get worse outcomes.

    I think this also explains a lack of priests. There used to be huge families and each one would produce a priest. Now there are only two kids. No kids, no priests.

  6. DAA

    There is no problem with genius as such. Firstly, it is a quite indefinite concept. Is it real or just an impression? Would you concede much credit to someone that was able to deal with numbers, say, in the XII century? What if he produced good waterwheels? Or if he could build a cathedral to last in a short time span? What is then genius? To be able to memorize classical poetry? Or write it? Can we know if some so called genius was lost amidst the debris of the Library of Alexandria? Is a sportsman a genius?

    There is the nurture part in the old debate nature vs. nurture. I believe both contribute. With the present day climate in school and in the university with all the antics of demented people we are just stifling any kind of potential there may be. The University was created to do things “universitarian”. All this rubbish of technological research inside the walls of the guild (that is what a university is), lends of course credit to the idea that some kind of command and control should be put in place. Then comes the managerial nightmare. The actual academic work demands peace and quiet. Evaluation comes from the contact between master and pupil. Do you contract a sportsman or a craftsman from documentation alone or do you see him work? You take references from someone you know and trust, if you cannot see the man work. The same should happen. Universal university education is bollocks. Either each university recognizes any other with at least a small amount of credit (how do we start that?), or each should exactly hire from within, that so much hated in-breeding that is not that bad. Two examples: how much traveling did Newton do while in Cambridge? How much did Laplace? In the olden days changing places had to be done because you had no other way of attending classes or working with someone of note (again, how did the ‘note’ start?). Now, do you need this globetrotting? By their papers ye shall know them? I am 44 and still looking for a spot. If I am a bad scientist, which is quite possible, given my on self-assessment, but still hoping to change that, it is because since I was 23 nobody ever more taught me anything and I had only a small time frame to plan. It is now more than 20 years since the start, but at every juncture I did not know my future. And each time I had to pledge my work to some stupid area or thematic without the freedom to follow my gut (this is theoretical study, you cannot do this if you have to run an expensive experiment). So you are tossed hither and thither. There are always those that do, but do you train a scientist or organize navy-seal-like weeks to see who survives and then you go from there? No-one has even bothered to understand how a Euler or a Newton or a Pascal or a [put your favorite hear] appeared on the scene and they presume to understand anything of human nature to decide people’s futures? So much research on cognition and high performance and then in the sciences they choose like brutes? How can an idiot who just discusses abstract concepts understand who is the better person in the long run? Why do the lucky ones behind the wall of tenure get to determine people’s lives? One thing is certain: many of the so called notables were not expected, they where surprises. And they were lucky, if you can use that word. As mentioned above: I acn get to know someone if I work alongside that person. Not from a CV do I get to know them. And that can be a good measure, to choose from whom you know. However, meritocracy is queen. What that means in theoretical science beats me. Ten papers a year is fine? Lord Kelvin wrote above 600. How many are read? How many were decisive? Does anyone read the Principia anymore? It was a relevant book almost nobody read. Without the “second raters” no-one would know its content, apart from antiquarians. But until the middle of the XIX century there was noway to canvass the population looking for gifted individuals. And there was no great discrimination against women as such in this, since the club was very small and closed to almost anyone, male or female. Emmy Noether is well known today, since Hilbert said “Meine Herren, dies ist keine Badeanstalt!”. But how many boys heard “Meine Herren, dies ist kein Protestant/Fraumauerei/Befehlhaber/Viel Artikel Schreiber usw. Verein?”

    Enter the XX century and mass (miss)education and worries about untapped talent. What is being done here? No-one cared to understand human understanding, it was just war management applied to “knowledge”. If you want to build things and sell them, do as you wish. But if you want a university, this is no way to go. There is no lack of genius, because there never was much, or it is more widespread than acknowledged. But what is being done is attracting the ones who believe they can do something with their minds (and bodies) and destroy them by using and disposing of them and, of course, not granting stable positions. There were fewer taxes before and life on your own was tougher but freer. Today we live in a gulag, what with taxes all around and paying for water and energy, food and what not. If you are channeled to university life and then chewed and spat out, there is no genius that can help you. You are just done. What should never be done is using “freaks” like Terry Tao or Perelman as ideals. Those are not the result of training. There is certainly a lot of hard work on their part, but how could you even start without being recognized as highly gifted? Note the adjective: gifted. Gift (not the german word for poison, although there is a case to assume that too). A gift is not due to our actions. A gift is something given. Not earned nor conquered. No gift, no nurture; no nurture, no results. If you are plain average then you go to the meat grinder and hope to pass muster. If not, you are wasted and with no-where to go. What genius, when everyone is stifled? The present situation is exactly to be expected. Peer-review does not allow you to survive. It is not that you publish and get bashed. It is that you don’t get to publish. And by publish I mean in those journals that are recognized as part of the system. Try to live off pre-prints on arxiv and see what happens.

    No, there is no mystery hear. In intellectual matters you cannot apply industrial or sports criteria. If you cannot finance that many, just strangle the entry point when people can get on with their lives unscathed. Like this, it is essentially slavery of a higher kind. Almost all universities at this point should be closed and whatever technological development should be transferred to national or semi-private labs. The rest is for the enterprises and the market. The University, the most successful product the West ever made, adopted everywhere, has curiously died at the hands of that same West.

    ideo universitatem delendam esse

  7. Cary D Cotterman

    Holy Moly, somebody needs to dial back the caffeine.

  8. DAA

    Did you read what I wrote? Your reply proves my point.

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