Weekly I/O #14
Scientists and Ambiguity, Selling Research, Time is Circle, Confidence is Overrated, Science is not about Evidence
Weekly I/O is a project where I share my learning Input/Output. Every Sunday, I write an email newsletter with five things I discovered and learned that week.
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The below is extracted from the email sent on Feb 28, 2021.
1. Most people like to believe something is or isn’t true, but great scientists can tolerate the ambiguity.
This is actually from a talk by Richard Hamming on “why do so few scientists make significant contributions and so many are forgotten in the long run?”. It’s included as the last chapter of his book The Art of Doing Science and Engineering. You can also find the full transcript of the talk at You And Your Research.
Great scientists believe the theory enough to go ahead and do the research. However, they also doubt it enough to notice the errors and faults so they can step forward and create the new replacement theory.
They are well aware of why their theories are true and where are some slight misfits that don’t fit right now. Darwin writes in his autobiography that he found it necessary to write down every piece of evidence which appeared to contradict his beliefs because otherwise, they would disappear from his mind.
If we believe too much, we’ll never notice the flaws. If we doubt too much, we won’t get started. It requires a lovely balance.
2. Researcher should spend the same time on selling their work as doing their research.
“Selling” is an awkward thing to do for a scientist. It’s ugly and scientists shouldn’t have to do it.
The world is supposed to be waiting. When we do something great, they should rush out and welcome it. Nevertheless, the fact is everyone is busy with their own work. We must present it so well that they will set aside what they are doing, look at what we’ve done, read it, come back and say, “Yes, that was good.’’
Richard Hamming suggested that when we open a journal, ask ourselves that why we read some articles and not others. Also, there are three things we have to do in selling: learn to write clearly and well so that people will read it, learn to give reasonably formal talks, and learn to give informal talks.
In the Q&A when an audience asked him about his time allocation, he answered that “I believed, in my early days, that you should spend at least as much time in the polish and presentation as you did in the original research. Now at least 50% of the time must go for the presentation. It’s a big, big number.”
3. “Everything straight lies. All truth is crooked, time itself is a circle.”
Book: Thus Spoke Zarathustra
I first knew the line from the youtube video Analysis of Tenet: Philosophy of Time Inversion. Freud, Heidegger, and Nietzsche. Cool explanation about the movie and the philosophy/science behind it.
4. Confidence is overrated. Instead of waiting for the confidence to show up, take the first step in a moment of courage, even if it’s aberrant courage. Courage is much more important than confidence.
Book: Tribe of Mentors
If we’re waiting for something to feel right like a sense of security and confidence before we do it, it’s like being on a hedonistic treadmill.
It’s like we think we need enough before we do that, but when we get whatever we think we need, we then up the ante. Therefore, we never get satisfied with whatever we think we need before we actually do something. I’ve also mentioned the treadmill concept before in This Is Water and Weekly I/O #8.
Therefore, for anybody who’s waiting for the confidence to show up, take the first step in a moment of courage, even if it’s aberrant courage. Confidence is highly overrated. Confidence really only comes from repeated attempts at doing something successfully.
Debbie Millman and Tim Ferriss also talked about this concept in the podcast How to Design a Life — Debbie Millman | The Tim Ferriss Show.
5. Science is not about evidence. Science is about properties.
Some people argued about whether wearing a mask is actually helpful for stopping the spread of COVID since there aren’t enough clinical experiments and no strong evidence to fully support that. And some people even argue that wearing a mask may lead to bad results since it may increase the chance of touching one’s nose.
On this, Taleb said that “There are no clinical data on whether it’s unsafe to jump from an airplane without a parachute at 35,000 feet, but since we understand gravity, we don’t need a clinical study.”
Science is not about evidence. Science is about properties.
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