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“给我找一个不胡扯不吹牛就拿得到经费的学者”

“给我找一个不胡扯不吹牛就拿得到经费的学者”

本文来自微信公众号:观方翻译(ID: guanchaglobal),作者:Sabine Hossenfelder,翻译:杨瑞赓。头图来自:视觉中国


德国法兰克福高等研究所理论物理学家萨拜因·霍森菲尔德3月5日在博客上发表文章《炒作的中间商》,批判学术界盛行浮夸风,活活把科学家逼成了吹牛大王。


炒作的中间商


曾几何时,科学家的任务就是理解自然。弗朗西斯•培根将他们称为“光明的中间商”(merchants of light,出自培根的乌托邦小说《新亚特兰蒂斯》)。科学家群体由知识探索者组成,他们用实验测试假说,这便是今天我们所说的“科学方法”。“理解自然”这个理念既能满足人类的好奇心,也能改善我们的生活。


今天,科学家的任务不再是理解自然,而是通过给微小的进展披上虚假承诺的外衣,来维持进步的假象。好吧,科学家仍然是中间商,但如今他们的工作不是用光明照亮愚昧,而是制造兴奋感。


这一点在大型科研项目中表现得尤为明显,比如量子计算、个性化医疗、人工智能、人脑模拟、大型粒子对撞机,以及各种纳米和神经科学等等。虽然上述所有领域都具备硬核的科学基础,部分投资具有合理性,但更多研究都是空洞的浮夸。大部分经费都花在了炮制论文上,而这些论文要达到的目的只有一个,那就是制造一种现实意义的假象。


这样的科研泡沫迟早有一天将不可持续,然后破裂。但在当前的研究体制下,人越多钱就越多,钱越多人就更多。因此,就在一个泡沫破裂的瞬间,下一个泡沫已经产生。


这是一个自我维持的炒作周期:科学家把研究项目的前景吹的天花乱坠,换取经费;高校吃掉一部分经费,然后把成果透露给媒体;既然有利可图,媒体便大肆报道所谓突破性的科研成果;其舆论影响力能够取悦政客,让他们有吹嘘国际竞争力的资本;然后政客又会保证充裕的经费流向科研项目。


但问题在于,很少有所谓的突破性成果能产生实实在在的进步。我们的量子计算机在哪里?癌症的“私人订制”治疗法在哪里?纳米机器人在哪里?我们怎么连暗物质的构成都还没弄清楚?


大多数科学家心里其实十分清楚,他们的研究项目完全建立在空洞的承诺之上,当然他们嘴上绝不会这样说。我了解的相关情况不仅来自我的个人经历,还来自英国和澳大利亚科学家接受的一系列匿名采访,他们翔实而痛苦地讲述了撰写经费申请书的经历。这些由詹妮弗•丘博和理查德•沃特梅耶进行的采访发表在《高等教育研究》上,把我看哭了:


我在写经费申请书的时候,里面会提到所有的研究工作,但在一些次要的地方得说点假话,吹嘘它可以做一些其实做不到的事,因为只有这样才拿得到经费。你知道这是我的工作,我不得不这么做。耻辱啊,不是吗?

——英国教授


如果你能找到一个不靠胡扯、吹牛、撒谎或添油加醋就拿到经费的学者,我就可以找到一个敢跟系领导闹矛盾的学者。如果你不按行规玩儿,你在学校的表现就不好。因此,任何一个有道德感、坚持原则,不按规矩办事的人都混不好,这很可悲。

——澳大利亚教授


我们会想办法掩饰它,不,我们终究还是会放下,我们总特么能走出来,可关键是它非要让人面临道德上的困境。

——英国教授


他们只是在玩游戏——我是说,我认为这些东西根本是一堆废话,你寻求的是短期影响和回报,所以你才玩这个游戏……把东西吹上天。

——澳大利亚教授


然后我就在里面添加了一条……它或许看起来很性感,能拿到经费,但在我打心眼里不相信其中有任何相关性……如果这个项目并不是你真正想做的事情,你可能会害怕完不成计划、达不到预期而在计划书里加很多乱七八糟的东西,最后研究成果真的不怎么样。

——澳大利亚教授


在其他采访中,研究人员形容自己的申请书“毫无意义”、“编造故事”或“打哑谜”。他们为自己的处境感到难过,并以“争取经费需要”来为这种行为进行辩解。


更糟糕的是,我在上面引述的内容只反映出冰山一角。因为那些能在现行学术体制下生存的人,非常有可能对现状感到满意。这可能是因为他们真的相信自己的研究领域真如他们渲染的那样前途光明,也可能是因为他们找到了某种借口来麻醉自己。但不管怎样,当前选择科研项目的选择更看重学者会不会推销,而不那么关注研究的客观性。不用说大家也知道,这不是理解自然的最佳途径。


尽管现状真的很糟糕,但真正的悲剧还不在于此。真正可悲的是,如此显而易见的问题,竟然没有人采取任何行动。如果科学家可以靠夸夸其谈来增加获得经费的机会,他们当然会选择夸夸其谈。如果他们可以靠当好好先生来增加获得经费的机会,他们当然会选择当好好先生。如果他们发表成果时可以靠蹭热点来增加获得经费的机会,他们自然会去蹭热点。这个道理,是个人都能明白。


科学家在探索真相和养家糊口之间的利益冲突,本来可以靠终身教职来调和。但终身教职现在很少见了。即使拥有它的幸运儿也必须继续当好好先生来讨好校方,才能确保经费源源不断。在这样的环境里,谁讲真话就是在自毁前程。如果你曝光阴暗,戳穿浮夸,或质疑研究领域的前景,你将被驱逐出学术共同体。最近有人在我博客上留言评论称:


在我从事高能物理研究的时候,人们自然而然地认为,在这个学术领域,任何人只要不支持增加经费支出,特别是用于建造更大的对撞机,都是这个领域的叛徒。


我曾经写过一篇文章,专门分析为什么大型粒子对撞机当前阶段不值得投资。只要你了解这个领域的科研和技术现状,基本都不会反对我的论证,充其量只是不同意我的结论。不同意没关系,我也不指望每个人都认同我的观点。


但我也不希望大家都反对我的观点。那么问题来了:为什么除了我以外,没有任何专家愿意公开批评粒子物理学研究呢?显然这个领域并非无可指摘。


明白了这一点,你们就会理解我为什么说再也不能信任科学家了。这是一个迫切需要解决的问题。


曾经有个研究量子计算的人发出过跟我今天类似的咆哮,抱怨科学家对研究前景进行过度营销,涉及的投资规模越大,这个情况就越突出。这使科学家感到心烦意乱、灰心丧气、大失所望,进而失去了方向。


我理解,大家作为科研人员,多半没法在不危及自己饭碗的情况下站出来跟体制唱反调。不论是现在还是未来,我都不希望你牺牲自己的前途,毕竟你为之付出了巨大努力,而且这种牺牲是无谓的。但我想提醒你,在真相面前缄默不语,对虚妄大肆鼓吹,绝不是你当科学家的初衷。 


Merchants of Hype


Once upon a time, the task of scientists was to understand nature. “Merchants of Light,” Francis Bacon called them. They were a community of knowledge-seekers who subjected hypotheses to experimental test, using what we now simply call “the scientific method.” Understanding nature, so the idea, would both satisfy human curiosity and better our lives. 


Today, the task of scientists is no longer to understand nature. Instead, their task is to uphold an illusion of progress by wrapping incremental advances in false promise. Merchants they still are, all right. But now their job is not to bring enlightenment; it is to bring excitement. 


Nowhere is this more obvious than with big science initiatives. Quantum computing, personalized medicine, artificial intelligence, simulated brains, mega-scale particle colliders, and everything nano and neuro: While all those fields have a hard scientific core that justifies some investment, the big bulk is empty headlines. Most of the money goes into producing papers whose only purpose is to create an appearance of relevance. 


Sooner or later, those research-bubbles become unsustainable and burst. But with the current organization of research, more people brings more money brings more people. And so, the moment one bubble bursts, the next one is on the rise already. 


The hype-cycle is self-sustaining: Scientists oversell the promise of their research and get funding. Higher education institutions take their share and deliver press releases to the media. The media, since there’s money to make, produce headlines about breakthrough insights. Politicians are pleased about the impact, talk about international competitiveness, and keep the money flowing. 


Trouble is, the supposed breakthroughs rarely lead to tangible progress. Where are our quantum computers? Where are our custom cancer cures? Where are the nano-bots? And why do we still not know what dark matter is made of? 


Most scientists are well aware their research floats on empty promise, but keep their mouths shut. I know this not just from my personal experience. I know this because it has been vividly, yet painfully, documented in a series of anonymous interviews with British and Australian scientists about their experience writing grant proposals. These interviews, conducted by Jennifer Chubb and Richard Watermeyer (publishedin Studies in Higher Education), made me weep: 


“I will write my proposals which will have in the middle of them all this work, yeah but on the fringes will tell some untruths about what it might do because that’s the only way it’s going to get funded and you know I’ve got a job to do, and that’s the way I’ve got to do it. It’s a shame isn’t it?” 


(UK, Professor) 


“If you can find me a single academic who hasn’t had to bullshit or bluff or lie or embellish in order to get grants, then I will find you an academic who is in trouble with his Head of Department. If you don’t play the game, you don’t do well by your university. So anyone that’s so ethical that they won’t bend the rules in order to play the game is going to be in trouble, which is deplorable.”


(Australia, Professor) 


“We’ll just find some way of disguising it, no we’ll come out of it alright, we always bloody do, it’s not that, it’s the moral tension it places people under.” 


(UK, Professor) 


“They’re just playing games – I mean, I think it’s a whole load of nonsense, you’re looking for short term impact and reward so you’re playing a game... it’s over inflated stuff.”


(Australia, Professor) 


“Then I’ve got this bit that’s tacked on... That might be sexy enough to get funded but I don’t believe in my heart that there’s any correlation whatsoever... There’s a risk that you end up tacking bits on for fear of the agenda and expectations when it’s not really where your heart is and so the project probably won’t be as strong.”


(Australia, Professor)


In other interviews, the researchers referred to their proposals as “virtually meaningless,” “made up stories” or“charades.” They felt sorry for their own situation. And then justified their behavior by the need to get funding. 


Worse, the above quotes only document the tip of the iceberg. That’s because the people who survive in the current system are the ones most likely to be okay with the situation. This may be because they genuinely believe their field is as promising as they make it sound, or because they manage to excuse their behavior to themselves. Either way, the present selection criteria in science favor skilled salesmanship over objectivity. Need I say that this is not a good way to understand nature? 


The tragedy is not that this situation sucks, though, of course, it does. The tragedy is that it’s an obvious problem and yet no one does anything about it. If scientists can increase their chances to get funding by exaggeration, they will exaggerate. If they can increase their chances to get funding by being nice to their peers, they will be nice to their peers. If they can increase their chances to get funding by publishing on popular topics, they will publish on popular topics. You don’t have to be a genius to figure that out.


Tenure was supposed to remedy scientists’ conflict of interest between truth-seeking and economic survival. But tenure is now a rarity. Even the lucky ones who have it must continue to play nice, both to please their institution and keep the funding flowing. And honesty has become self-destructive. If you draw attention to shortcomings, if you debunk hype, if you question the promise of your own research area, you will be expelled from the community. A recent commenter on this blog summed it up like this: 


“at least when I was in [high energy physics], it was taken for granted that anyone in academic [high energy physics] who was not a booster for more spending, especially bigger colliders, was a traitor to the field.”


If you doubt this, think about the following. I have laid out clearly why I do not think a bigger particle collider is currently a good investment. No one who understands the scientific and technological situation seriously disagrees with my argument; they merely disagree with the conclusions. This is fine with me. This is not the problem. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. 


But I also don’t expect everyone to disagree with me, and neither should you. So here is the puzzle: Why can you not find any expert, besides me, willing to publicly voice criticism on particle physics? Hint: It’s not because there is nothing to criticize. 


And if you figured this one out, maybe you will understand why I say I cannot trust scientists any more. It’s a problem. It’s a problem in dire need of a solution.


This rant, was, for once, not brought on by a particle physicist, but by someone who works in quantum computing. Someone who complained to me that scientists are overselling the potential of their research, especially when it comes to large investments. Someone distraught, frustrated, disillusioned, and most of all, unsure what to do.


I understand that many of you cannot break the ranks without putting your jobs at risk. I do not – and will not –expect you to sacrifice a career you worked hard for; no one would be helped by this. But I want to remind you that you didn’t become a scientist just to shut up and advocate.


本文来自微信公众号:观方翻译(ID: guanchaglobal),作者:Sabine Hossenfelder,翻译:杨瑞赓。头图来自:视觉中国

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