Epistemic standards for “Why did it take so long to invent X?”
In seeking to understand the history of progress, I keep running across intriguing cases of “ideas behind their time”—inventions that seem to have come along much later than they could have, such as the cotton gin or the bicycle. I’ve started collecting a list here, and will update that page with new analyses as I find them.
Debates on these questions sometimes oddly devolve into arguments, with people fruitlessly talking past each other (although if people on the Internet can argue over how many days are in a week, I guess we can argue about anything). So I want to comment on how we think about such cases and what the standards for evidence are.
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Stagnation, scientific incentives, and funding models
A new paper by Jay Bhattacharya and Mikko Packalen, “Stagnation and Scientific Incentives”, argues that the focus on citations and impact factor has incentivized scientists to avoid early, exploratory work in novel areas, and instead work on more incremental advances in already-popular areas. However, since important breakthroughs usually depend on earlier, exploratory work that wasn’t obviously important at the time, this clustering of resources and attention in the later stages starves the world of the exploration needed for long-term scientific progress:
It’s an interesting theory, supported by a number of historical anecdotes. Worth reading. It would be good to see more empirical analysis to test this model of innovation and measure the magnitude of these effects.
I’ve been busy with interviews lately, here are four that were published in the last week or two:
Building Tomorrow with Paul Matzko and Aaron Ross Powell (audio & transcript)
Antipessimists with Tyler Willis (audio only)
Brown Political Review with Nick Whitaker (transcript only)
Todd Nief (audio only)
See the interviews page for more detail and all my past interviews.