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On “imaginative BS”

January 28, 2012

In the abstract, there is something remarkably glamorous about being a theorist.

Writ large, my job is to arrive at fundamental truths about the universe just by thinking about them.  I am then supposed to codify these truths in the form of mathematical equations, which (supposedly) state in an absolutely unambiguous way what the new true idea is.

It occurs to me every now and then what an outrageous job description this is.  Saying to someone that “my job is to arrive at fundamental truths just by thinking about them” fills me with something like embarrassment and trepidation, but also with a very real sense of excitement.  “Physicist” is definitely a profession that appeals to the human urge to make a permanent mark on the world during one’s finite life span.

I remember one particular moment near the beginning of graduate school when I was caught up in this kind of ego-driven excitement, thinking that in the near future I would actually derive a new law of nature.  I tried to explain to (the soon-to-be) Mrs. G&L how cool this was, and how it was conceivable that in the near future I would have my own equation.  I think she was somewhat unconvinced, but not wishing to discourage my enthusiasm, she said that when I published my first paper we would celebrate by purchasing a printed copy of the journal.

It wasn’t too long before I did publish my first paper.  But somehow I didn’t feel like celebrating.  It was a fine paper, one that offered a potential explanation of a surprising experimental result.  But somehow I had imagined that a published paper would be something more convincing.  I guess that when your only perspective on physics comes from taking physics classes, you get this sense that a derived equation is some irrefutable piece of truth that you can immediately go out and use to build airplanes or computers or particle accelerators.  But this paper had no such “irrefutable piece of truth”.  It was just a proposed explanation for something, one that was probably just as likely to be non-useful as useful.

At this point, almost 4 years and more than a dozen papers have passed since my first publication, and I still haven’t purchased any printed copies of any journals.  None of my papers have lived up to that lofty initial ideal: an unimpeachable derivation of some new law of nature.  It’s true that, in principle, one of the many equations in one of those papers could receive some terrific experimental confirmation, be adopted in a widespread way, and become known as “Skinner’s law”.  But it’s not particularly likely.

Which, it turns out, is fine.  And it doesn’t mean that I did anything wrong or dishonest.  It just means that creating a new theory is a more human process than I gave it credit for.

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There’s a line from Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (a beautiful and distinctly American novel) where a crass and skilled politician is discussing his craft:

Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. …

If you want goodness, you got to make it out of badness…  And you know why?  Because there isn’t anything else to make it out of.

The protagonist of the novel answers with

If, as you say, there is only the bad to start with, and the good must be made from the bad, then how do you recognize the good?

To which the politician replies:

You just make it up as you go along.

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Sometimes I think about All the King’s Men when I’m doing my job.  Because it turns out that a new theory about the world almost never arrives like a karate chop of enlightenment.  The world is a complex place, and it’s impossible to simultaneously take into account everything that enters a problem.  The best you can do is envision in your mind some cartoon version of the world and then solve that cartoon problem to the best of your ability.  Then you present your idea to others, being careful to acknowledge all the ways in which it is faulty, and making clear all the ways in which your cartoon world is different from the real world.  In most cases, if your theory ends up being a highly accurate and highly useful description of reality, then you should feel more fortunate than intelligent.

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My advisor has a more concise way of (unwittingly?) paraphrasing Robert Penn Warren: “When you make a theory, you’ve got to start with shit, because that’s usually all there is.”

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I don’t think there’s any real problem with the process by which theories are made.  But it has occurred to me lately there is something of a problem with the way the public perceives the process.

Recently, I wrote a paper called “the problem of shot selection in basketball“.  This paper is not a “karate chop” in any sense; the jury is still out as to how directly it can be applied to improving the performance of basketball teams.  It’s very possible that nothing will ever come of it and eventually it will be completely (and rightfully) disregarded.  But it constitutes my attempt to make a theory in a place where there was no theory.  In order to make it I had to cartoonify basketball to the point where I could solve some things, then I solved them, then I tried to discuss where the theory was lacking and where it might be improved.  It was a very fun paper to write, now that I have appropriately lowered my expectations about what a theory is.

The problem is that lots of people, upon hearing of this paper, generally thought about it using the same perspective about “published theories” as I had had 4 years ago.  Consequently, reactions to the paper largely fell into two categories: people who were amazed that I could “solve basketball”, and people who considered it an obvious and stupid fraud that I was perpetuating.  For example, one write-up about the paper had the headline “Hoops dilemma solved by physics whiz?“; on Reddit it was called “imaginative BS“.

I actually object much more to the former characterization than to the latter.

If I’m doing my job correctly, then I will throughout my career produce plenty of pieces of “imaginative BS”.  Imagination is an essential thing for establishing new understanding about the world.  And as long as I acknowledge all the ways in which a proposed theory might be “BS”, then the scientific process is working.

And perhaps this is an important thing that the public should know.  Having the freedom to create BS is an important part of science.  The only sin is pretending to produce absolute truth from a limited skill set and a finite imagination.

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Footnote:  “The problem of shot selection in basketball” is a sort of speculative paper, in the sense that the cartoon world it describes is different from the real world in a couple of very notable ways.  But it’s funny to me how the perception of it is different from similarly speculative papers that I’ve published for a physics audience.  One such paper, for example, got the following review from a referee:

Although the model used seems to be rather artificial, it is very propaedeutic and allows one to catch the main features of the process.

Translation: “The problem the authors are solving is not much like the real world, but you can still learn something from it.”

And yes, I had to look of the word propaedeutic in the dictionary, too.

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