Monday, May 05, 2008

Get off your ass and do this study: Introductory pep talk   posted by agnostic @ 5/05/2008 01:19:00 PM

I was recently directed to this panegyric on Wikipedia, which claims that editing Wikipedia is a better use of the cognitive surplus that might otherwise be spent watching TV. Like 99% of technology pundits, the author is so out of touch with reality that it is not worth taking him to task in depth. Instead, reading that has moved me to begin a regular column wherein I propose a fairly simple study for someone to carry out and increase our understanding of the world.

In fairness, it is often tough to think of a study to do, or how you would concretely carry it out. But since my soul is a font of generosity, I'm literally giving ideas away. We only have so much time and effort to invest in a project, so I have plenty of ideas that I just don't have time to pursue in any depth. Obviously I will keep what I think are the more original or important ones for myself, but there are several reasons why pursuing seemingly unoriginal ideas is still useful:

1) It gives you good practical experience. If you've never tried to find a good dataset that would answer your question, if you've never tried to analyze and summarize the data, and if you've never interpreted these findings in context for the target audience -- well, time to start.

2) Many supposedly established findings have the smell of academic urban legends because they are based on a single study that used an unimpressive sample size and didn't take into account some obvious confounding factors. Yet once it gets cited, it takes on a life of its own, as no one reads the original but simply "knows that study X showed Y." Replication studies are crucial to figure out if we were right.

3) Most published articles aren't terribly original anyway -- "here's yet another example of natural selection at work!" Still, the more astounding the mountain of evidence becomes, the more convinced we become that we are right. There are probably diminishing returns, though: we don't need yet another study showing that cognitive abilities all correlate with each other, but how pervasive is the influence of IQ -- do smart vs. dumb people prefer different types of art?

4) More mundane studies are easier to carry out, so you're not intimidated by the prospect of hunting down a solution to a Great Big Problem. (And if you liked chasing after Great Big Problems, you'd probably already be in academia or a private institute doing that, or preparing to do so in the near future.)

5) If the original study or idea was done awhile ago, improved technology may allow you to take a more in-depth look at it. For example, computers were pretty pathetic in the 1960s, and I'll be there are scores of dusty studies that would benefit from the power of modern home computers.

6) For mathematical models, the properties of a particular model may be so well known that you couldn't hope to contribute anything new on the abstract level. However, you could provide a novel interpretation of it by showing how it also models a phenomenon that no one has applied it to before. This is especially true for fields were the experts don't have much training in modeling, which tend to focus on human beings. Sociology is a perfect example -- here's a field that assumes the primary unit of society is the group, and that groups conflict and interact, while ignoring the individual differences within each group. This isn't a slight to the field, since there are group dynamics. Sociology cries out for differential equation models, where you ignore individuals and track classes of things, and typically only two or three classes!

7) For the studies that I will propose, the data would not be hard to collect, although the process from start to finish may be laborious (hey, that's life). So, I will not suggest studies that require fancy equipment, hundreds of unpaid volunteer subjects, and so on. If it is applying a well understood mathematical model to some new phenomenon, almost all of the work will already be done. However, I realize that we do have academic readers too, or readers who have graduate student friends in need of a study to publish, so occasionally I will propose something that would require access to many volunteers.

Now, I don't have anything against editing Wikipedia or blogging per se, but let's get very real: most of it is a waste of time, which is why almost no academics do it. There are exceptional areas of Wikipedia, and there are exceptions in the blogosphere -- well, obviously we are, and so are bloggers like Steve Sailer, Audacious Epigone, Half Sigma, Inductivist, and others who obtain and analyze data to answer a question or hunch. If the blog is just a hobby, an afterthought after real work is being done in real life (as with my personal blog), that's OK too.

What I want to see die is the practice of intellectual masturbation, where you only fool your brain into thinking that fruitful work is being done. "Participation" per se is no valid criterion for success -- I can participate in an act of masturbation, perhaps even while participating with others in a circle jerk, but I've only really accomplished something when I've contributed to increasing the fertility rate. Fortunately for everyone, though, the real world offers an abundance of problems begging to be fertilized by the seed of your brain -- get in there and tear that shit up.