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Why I’m Hesitant to Become An Academic

September 4, 2016

I’m very near graduation and many of my family members are encouraging me to finish my PhD in physics.  I definitely love physics; that isn’t my problem.  However, the more I learn about the academic world, the less enthused I am to become a part of it.  There was an excellent article written in The New Atlantis which I’d recommend everyone check out.  In it, the author talks about how the academic world is currently in a crisis.

The science world has been buffeted for nearly a decade by growing revelations that major bodies of scientific knowledge, published in peer-reviewed papers, may simply be wrong. Among recent instances: a cancer cell line used as the basis for over a thousand published breast cancer research studies was revealed to be actually a skin cancer cell line; a biotechnology company was able to replicate only six out of fifty-three “landmark” published studies it sought to validate; a test of more than one hundred potential drugs for treating amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in mice was unable to reproduce any of the positive findings that had been reported from previous studies; a compilation of nearly one hundred fifty clinical trials for therapies to block human inflammatory response showed that even though the therapies had supposedly been validated using mouse model experiments, every one of the trials failed in humans; a statistical assessment of the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map human brain function indicated that up to 70 percent of the positive findings reported in approximately 40,000 published fMRI studies could be false; and an article assessing the overall quality of basic and preclinical biomedical research estimated that between 75 and 90 percent of all studies are not reproducible. Meanwhile, a painstaking effort to assess the quality of one hundred peer-reviewed psychology experiments was able to replicate only 39 percent of the original papers’ results; annual mammograms, once the frontline of the war on breast cancer, have been shown to confer little benefit for women in their forties; and, of course, we’ve all been relieved to learn after all these years that saturated fat actually isn’t that bad for us. The number of retracted scientific publications rose tenfold during the first decade of this century, and although that number still remains in the mere hundreds, the growing number of studies such as those mentioned above suggests that poor quality, unreliable, useless, or invalid science may in fact be the norm in some fields, and the number of scientifically suspect or worthless publications may well be counted in the hundreds of thousands annually. While most of the evidence of poor scientific quality is coming from fields related to health, biomedicine, and psychology, the problems are likely to be as bad or worse in many other research areas. For example, a survey of statistical practices in economics research concluded that “the credibility of the economics literature is likely to be modest or even low.”

Few people realize that entire fields of academia, including most of neuroscience, economics, psychology, and many other fields, are complete garbage.  They write lots of papers, they have peer-reviewed journals, and they appear to be scientific and credible, but most all of it is unreliable.  These days, when you read news articles telling you about what is and isn’t healthy to eat, or hear claims about human nature (men or women), or even ideas about why different economic trends are taking place (effects of policies, etc), you shouldn’t take it all that seriously.  It doesn’t matter if they have professors and studies, and papers to support their arguments, it’s all garbage.  In many of these disciplines, only a third of these studies are close reproducible.  So much of it is a joke.  They have tiny sample sizes, make huge wide sweeping conclusions from tiny effects, they pursue their research in a biased manner, and so on.

You may say, but Jason, physics isn’t that way!  Yes, I agree, physics is actually real science.  If we publish a paper telling you that a material conducts electricity and heat in such a such manner, it does exactly that.  If we tell you a metal becomes superconducting at 32 Kelvin, it really does.  We are known to publish some crazy theoretical papers sometimes, especially in fields like cosmology where it may be difficult to confirm our ideas with experiment, but we make it quite clear that we’re speculating and are awaiting experiments that can confirm or disprove our ideas.

However, the same forces which create crappy science in other fields are all present in physics departments all across the nation.  As the biologist E.O. Wilson points out, a modern academic, “will need forty hours a week to perform teaching and administrative duties, another twenty hours on top of that to conduct respectable research, and still another twenty hours to accomplish really important research…. Make an important discovery, and you are a successful scientist in the true, elitist sense in a profession where elitism is practiced without shame…. Fail to discover, and you are little or nothing.”  No wonder so many professors push you out of their office when you go to ask them questions!  There’s a lot on their plate.

Even worse than all of that is how the overall funding and research process works.  The central problem is that it is all individualistic.  We’ve all heard the saying that you either publish or perish, and as E.O. Wilson pointed out, if your research isn’t a big deal, making some sort of ground breaking revelations, you’re nobody.  So, in order to advance your career, get tenure, raise more money, etc., you have to let on like every bit of the research you’re doing is going to change the world.  So, there is a huge pressure to overstate the results of your findings, making wide-sweeping conclusions, claiming you’re on the verge of something huge!  Who wants to publish a paper and say, “Well, we did all this work, and it turns out we were totally wrong and all of this leads to nothing.”  Honesty is not rewarded in this system; your funding is going to dry up in a second!  So, even if you find nothing, it’s still remarkable, worthy of everyone’s attention, and has led you one step closer to some grand result.  If you combine all of this with news networks which are hungry for something sensational, you have a recipe for disaster.

Each scientist is his own little thing, only barely connected to the scientists in his or her field.  In fact, the scientists in his own field are his competitors for research money, and everyone ends up pitted against one another.  Who can publish their findings first?  It becomes some sort of stupid race.  It may sound like healthy competition, but this sort of thing is really destructive.  There’s no team work.  Despite what everyone wants to believe, big things are rarely accomplished by individuals on their own.

Our culture is way too focused around the individual.  We lift up figures like Albert Einstein, the lone genius who discovers the secrets of the universe through his brilliant mind alone.  But that’s not how science actually works.  I really recommend you all read the article I linked to above.  It talks about how the major discoveries in science over the last 150 years actually took place, such as computers, jet engines, medicine, etc.  They didn’t come about through lone geniuses, but instead were birthed slowly by countless scientists and engineers, working in unison on common projects and common goals, all being well managed and held accountable both to the public, and to managers overseeing the projects.

Most of the great technological things we enjoy today have their roots in scientific projects which originally started with the U.S. Department Of Defense.  Computers and all our modern electronic gadgets, for example, were originally all military communications systems, and that sort of thing.  When these projects were being researched, there were military generals overseeing large teams of nameless scientists, and success was not personal career advancement, but actually building technology which works.  It was a team effort.  You weren’t in competition with the guy next to you, but were his ally to help solve a common problem and protect your nation.  Very few scientists were individually doing anything “ground-breaking”, but were instead doing all the tedious grunt work and calibrations to build this stuff.  Each person did their small part, but collectively, together, when well managed and organized, their combined work led to some really great accomplishments.

I really admire that.  That’s the kind of work I want to do.  I don’t care about tenure, or becoming “well known”, or being invited to give talks, or having a long list of government grants I’ve brought in on my resume – I want my work to mean something in the larger scheme of things.  I don’t want to create abstract knowledge in some journal that nobody reads or cares about.  I don’t care if anyone knows me or who I am, or what I even did.  I’m just fine with being the guy who designed some sort of super-conducting material which made some new generation of quantum computers and advanced AI systems possible.  There might be thousands of us who worked on the project in different ways.  Fine by me, just so long as we get amazing new technology which changes our lives.

However, the current mindset governing science research today is,  “the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown.”  Many scientists feel that they are above accountability and being properly managed.  They are all lone Einsteins, and to have lesser mortals try to intervene in their “ground-breaking” work is just getting in their way.  And what does this lead to?  Entire fields where 3/4 of the work is unreliable garbage.  In physics, it leads to people working on abstract, theoretical crap which doesn’t necessarily have any sort of purpose or tangible results.  Nothing is organized.  You have thousands of little people, all going their own way, and nothing is getting done.

People have to come together for a common purpose and goal, something larger than themselves.  That often does not exist in academia.  It’s very likely that your work isn’t really doing much of anything for the world.  So, if I do get a full PhD, I’ll likely go work for the Department of Defense, working on some technology like AI, robotics, nanotechnology, etc., which will be top-secret for a while, but will trickle its way down to normal folks in twenty years time or so.  I’d be working in an organized environment, where things are getting done.  If I don’t work for them, I’ll work for some large corporation which builds and creates technology.  I want my work to actually DO something.  The best way for that to happen is by building actual real world things in an applied manner.  The work has to be directly related to actually building technology which is being used in the real world.  I worry that may not happen working in a university.  I’ll instead be caught up in some system of teaching, grading papers, writing grant proposals, chasing money, etc.  And if I’m going to be a lone wolf academic, of course I’ll just research what interests me personally because what other incentive is there?  That’s not a good thing.

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