Barrett View #3

Richard Feynman, Conferences, and Intellectual Trivia

The quote which resonated with me is from Richard Feynman's letter to his wife while attending a Gravity Conference in 1962 in Warsaw, Poland; published in his 1988 book (Feynman, Richard P. (1988). What Do You Care What Other People Think? : Further Adventures of a Curious Character. W.W. Norton, ISBN 0-393-02659-0, 2001 paperback: ISBN 0-393-32092-8), page 91 ...

"I am not getting anything out of the meeting. I am learning nothing. Because there are no experiments this field is not an active one, so few of the best men are doing work in it. The result is that there are hosts of dopes here (126) and it is not good for my blood pressure: such inane things are said and seriously discussed here that I get into arguments outside the formal sessions (say, at lunch) whenever anyone asks me a question or starts to tell me about his 'work'. The 'work' is always:

(1) completely un-understandable,

(2) vague and indefinite,

(3) something correct that is obvious and self evident, but worked out by a long and difficult analysis, and presented as an important discovery, or,

(4) a claim based on the stupidity of the author that some obvious and correct fact, accepted and checked for years, is, in fact, false (these are the worst: no argument will convince the idiot),

(5) an attempt to do something probably impossible, but certainly of no utility, which it is finally revealed at the end, fails (dessert arrives and is eaten), or

(6) just plain wrong. There is great deal of "activity in the field" these days, but this "activity" is mainly in showing that the previous "activity" of somebody else resulted in an error or in nothing useful or in nothing promising. It is like a lot of worms trying to get out of a bottle by crawling all over each other. Remind me not to come to any more gravity conferences!”

Change the word “gravity” to psychology and that just about sums up my own view of conferences. I’ve been going to these things occasionally for 30 years now. The above quotation may be nearly 50 years old – but in my experience it is more true now than it was in the 1960s. But then, I always went to conferences for the wrong reasons: to learn, engage intellectually, hear creative ideas and solutions, have my brain stretched, and to enter lively, sometimes heated, discussions of matters of real scientific substance and importance.

The best keynote I ever heard was from one of my mentors, the late great Paul Kline to an annual BPS Occupational Psychology conference many years ago; lambasting the audience en-masse for their almost mechanical use of factor analysis and presentation of statistical trivia dressed as ‘research findings’. That was a keynote that produced many a heated conversation throughout the remainder of the conference, and embarrassed many presenters who suddenly found themselves exemplars of precisely the kind of “trivia” study to which he referred.

But he asked some really big questions of those who aspired to no more than reporting a factor or ad-hoc statistical model of something. These days it’s the SEM, latent variable, HLM brigade; nothing to say of any real import or even of explanatory/predictive accuracy, but dressed in a cloak of methodological sophistication in order to disguise the fact that they really had nothing much to say of any real import.

Vision, daring, asking some really big questions, or just asking “why this and not that?”, being prepared to fail occasionally in order to innovate, the infectious excitement of working at a frontier in psychology... nearly all these qualities that set aside data clerks, managers, administrators, civil-servants from investigative scientists have been replaced by a kind of formulaic, safe, uninteresting, comfortable output whose sole aim seems to be to produce presentations and publications in quantities sufficient to satisfy the silly performance management schemes set up for academics. As P.A. Lawrence (2009) put it (reference below), paragraph on page 4, column 2..

"At the moment, evaluating individuals and departments rewards those who produce many articles, mainly because counting papers is so much simpler than reading them. Over 20 years, this mismeasurement of science has wrought a sea change in practice: no longer are communication and record the primary purposes of publishing; instead, we now use papers as tokens to get jobs and funding... "

Students are now ‘expected’ to present their work at Conferences. Why?

The pushing of students to present their thesis work (regardless of whether it should ever see the light of day) has now flooded conferences with huge volumes of thesis-based make-work; otherwise known as academic wallpaper. It’s not that students are unable to do really important or intrinsically interesting, thoughtful scientific work; rather it's that so many of their supervisors insist on them doing work of such feeble scientific import that it always amazes me how the students find the motivation to keep going, let alone have the courage to present the ghastly stuff publicly in any format.

How many times after sitting through a mind-numbing presentation have we heard others say, or even muttered to ourselves under our breath, "This is driving me nuts. Why would anyone bother wasting their time with such trivia?"

I really feel for students these days; it is as though many of their supervisors have become corporate 'drones' rather than explorers and pioneers in the fascinating domain of what constitutes human psychology.

Am I alone in this view?

No, it’s not just me. Others have stated similar views, even more harshly in some cases. A few recent examples:

Baumeister, R.F., Vohs, K.D., & Funder, D.C. (2007) Psychology as the science of self-reports and finger movements: Whatever happened to actual behavior? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2, 4, 396-403.

Drenth, P.J.D. (2008) Psychology: Is it applied enough? Applied Psychology: An International Review, 57, 3, 524-540.

Charlton, G. (2009). Why are modern scientists so dull? How science selects for perseverance and sociability at the expense of intelligence and creativity.) Medical Hypotheses, 72, 3, 237-243.

Dewsbury, D.A. (2009) Is psychology losing its foundations? Review of General Psychology, 14, 4, 281-289.

Lawrence, P.A. (2009) Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research: The granting system turns young scientists into bureaucrats and then betrays them. PLoS Biology ( ), 7, 9, 1-4.

Racjecki, D.W., & Borden, V.M.H. (2011) Psychology degrees: Employment, wage, and career trajectory consequences. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 64, 4, 321-335.

There is something deeply dysfunctional about academics who insist their students present at conferences. If the research is not designed from the outset to answer substantive research questions - the kind of questions whose answers will 'make a difference' to the theory or practice in an area; then don't inflict it on anyone else except a thesis examiner.

Likewise don't attempt to do so if its explanatory/predictive accuracy or effect sizes are so small as to be instantly forgettable, unless this is an unexpected and novel finding in an area where theory or pragmatic expectations were quite different, or where the results have empirically-justified epidemiological/substantive socioeconomic consequences.

Conferences were never the fora for students to present thesis trivia. Occasionally a student with a 'make a real difference' result might present their work - but it was a rare occurrence. Students went to conferences to learn, to absorb, to develop new connections with like-minded others, and to meet and discuss that which interested them with experts in an area.

Now they are shoehorned into having to present usually what is some "manufactured for qualification-attainment purposes" research which is embarrassing for all - both presenter and audience.

updated 7th September, 2016