A year ago, in a post entitled Anti-Complexitism, I tried to grapple with the strange phenomenon—one we’ve seen in force this past week—of anonymous commenters getting angry about the mere fact of announcements, on theoretical computer science blogs, of progress on longstanding open problems in theoretical computer science. When I post something about global warming, Osama Bin Laden, or (of course) the interpretation of quantum mechanics, I expect a groundswell of anger … but a lowering of the matrix-multiplication exponent ω? Huh? What was that about?
Well, in this case, some commenters were upset about attribution issues (which hopefully we can put behind us now, everyone agreeing about the importance of both Stothers’ and Vassilevska Williams’ contributions), while others honestly but mistakenly believed that a small improvement to ω isn’t a big deal (I tried to explain why they’re wrong here). What interests me in this post is the commenters who went further, positing the existence of a powerful “clique” of complexity bloggers that’s doing something reprehensible by “hyping” progress in complexity theory, or by exceeding some quota (what, exactly?) on the use of the word “breakthrough.”
One of the sharpest responses to that paranoid worldview came (ironically) from a wonderful anonymous comment on my Anti-Complexitism post, which I recommend everyone read. Here was my favorite paragraph:
The final criticism [by the anti-complexites] seems to be: complexity theory makes too much noise which people in other areas do not like. I really don’t understand this one, I mean what is wrong with people in an area being excited about their area? Is that wrong? And where do we make those noise? On complexity blogs! If you don’t like complexity theorists being excited about their area why are you reading these blogs? The metaphor would be an outsider going to a wedding and asking the people in the wedding with a very serious tone: “why is everyone happy here?”
Yesterday, in response to my reposting the above comment on Lance and Bill’s blog, another anonymous commenter had something extremely illuminating to say:
Scott, you are missing the larger socio-economical context: it’s not about excitement. It’s about researchers competing for scarce resources, primarily funding. The work involved in funding acquisition is generally loathed, and directly reduces the time scientists have for research and teaching. If some researchers ramp up their hype-level vis-a-vis the rest of the community, as the complexity community is believed to be doing (what with all them Goedel awards?), they are forcing (or are seen as forcing) the rest either to accept a lower level of funding with all the concomitant disadvantages, or invest more time in hype themselves. In other words, hypers are defecting in the prisoners dilemma type game scientists are playing, the objective of which is to minimise the labour involved in funding acquisition.
This is similar to teeth-whitening: in the past, it was perfectly possible to be considered attractive with natural, slightly yellowish teeth. Then some defected by bleaching, then more and more, and today natural teeth are socially hardly acceptable, certainly not if you want to be good-looking. Is that progress?
I posted a response on Lance and Bill’s blog, but then decided it was important enough to repost here. So:
Dear Anonymous 2:47,
Let me see whether I understand you correctly. On the view you propose, other scientists shouldn’t have praised (say) Carl Sagan for getting millions of people around the world excited about science. Rather, they should have despised him, for using hype to divert scarce funding dollars from their own fields to the fields Sagan favored (like astronomy, or Sagan’s preferred parts of astronomy). Sagan forced all those other scientists to accept a terrible choice: either accept reduced funding, or else sink to Sagan’s level, and perform the loathed task of communicating their own excitement about their own fields to the public.
Actually, there were other scientists who drew essentially that conclusion. As an example, Sagan was famously denied membership in the National Academy of Sciences, apparently because of a few vocal NAS members who were jealous and resentful of Sagan’s outreach activities. The view we’re now being asked to accept is that those NAS members are the ones who emerge from the story the moral victors.
So let me thank you, Anonymous 2:47: it’s rare for anyone to explain the motivation behind angry TCS blog comments with that much candor.
Now that the real motivation has (apparently) crawled out from underneath its rock, I can examine it and refute it. The central point is simply that science isn’t a Prisoner’s-Dilemma-type game. What you describe as the “socially optimal equilibrium,” where no scientists need to be bothered to communicate their excitement about their fields, is not socially optimal at all—neither from the public’s standpoint nor from science’s.
At the crudest level, science funding is not a fixed-size pie. For example, when Congress was debating the cancellation of the Superconducting Supercollider, a few physicists from other fields eagerly jumped on the anti-SSC bandwagon, hoping that the SSC money might then get diverted to their own fields. Ultimately, of course, the SSC was cancelled, and none of the money ever found its way to other areas of physics.
So, if you see people using blogs to talk about research results that excite them, then instead of resenting it, consider starting your own blog to talk about the research results that excite YOU. If your blog is well-written and interesting, I’ll even add you to my blogroll, game-theoretic funding considerations be damned. Just go to WordPress.com—it’s free, and it takes only a few minutes to set one up.