On efficiency as a virtue

”In Western societies today efficiency is a virtue”

David Hull 1988, Science as a process.

This passage lodged itself in my memory when I re-read his book for the third time.  It was summer. We had just traveled to Australia (so technically winter, but in Brisbane, who would know), and I was spending jet-lag recovery on a sofa on the porch of the gigantic queenslander where we were staying.

I had never thought of it as a virtue, but just as something that just was something given (as we so often do with the norms we culturally inherit). But it isn’t. It is something we have decided to value (hey, more bang for the buck, more things done, more answers, what is not to like?) Nevertheless it is a virtue, rather than a key to discovery.

This was a few years into the reproducibility crisis, and a lot of discussion had been on the waste inherent in producing under powered studies. It was a waste of money. It was a waste of participants time. It was a waste of researcher’s time trying to build on results that might have just as well been so much noise. It could even be harmful and wasteful for the public when interventions were created built on research with questionable results. Think implicit bias training, or inefficient medications with bad side-effects, to bring up some examples.

I agree to some extent. If we are going to go through the considerable effort that goes into running studies, of course we should do what we can to make sure we can get a reasonable answer out of it, even when nature perhaps says “nope”.

But, this virtue also has down-sides, and in the recent symposium from the Center for Open Science, one of the speakers, I think it was David Peterson talked about how meta-science has in part focused on efficiency, how this is strategically good (funders would really get behind an efficiency argument), but that it also has some strong drawbacks. As he pointed out, efficient is something you can be when you have a clear goal, and a good background that can be effectivized, but this is really not always what is conducive for doing good science. The truth may be out there, but we often only have vague guesses about what it may be.

I was always very ambivalent about the efficiency argument. Efficiency is brittle. It works in a highly structured and stable environment, but slight changes and it all comes crashing down. What you want is robust, and robust has a lot of redundancies.

I’m also not sure if efficiency is conducive to do science. I’m reminded of an account I read many years back (the source is since long forgotten) about experimenting with genetic algorithms. As the algorithm was chugging away towards some solution, there were lots of dead branches, things that went nowhere, items that weren’t used. So they tried to remove these things, and run the algorithm again. And, it didn’t end up in the same place. It seems like all those non-producing things were needed in order to find a solution.

I’m also reminded about reading histories of science.  Right now I’m going through Hassok Chang’s book “inventing temperature” (thanks Berna Devezer for the tip). I haven’t come far, but he begins chronicling the work on finding some kind of fixed point that could be used for calibrating thermometers. There were lots of suggestions, where people thought temperature might be constant enough to be used. He spends a lot of time discussing work on figuring out the temperature of boiling water, with stretches into super heating, using different kinds of materials in the vessels, what is meant by boiling – when it first start to move, or when it is full on roiling away? Some of these ending up being side-tracks (how high can you heat water without boiling?). I had no idea so much went into coming up with something I have used since I was a kid, and that I confidently though were on a ratio scale, and even an absolute scale considering the Kelvin measure. But, of course it does. The same thing is the case with discoveries that we now simply teach as facts to high-school students, without going in to all that went into establishing something that could be measured with some precision.

We shouldn’t expect that working at the edge of science – as we likely hope we are doing – should be efficient and not lead into a lot of dead end rabbit holes.

I end with the continuation of the Hull passage that follows the quote above.

“One periodically hears rumbles of discontent about how much money is wasted in science through the support of unproductive scientists. If 95 percent of all citations are to works published by 5 percent of the practicing scientists, why waste so much money supporting all those third-raters? Would not science be improved if we made it more efficient? 

Perhaps it is only mindless romanticism, but the call for efficiency in the production of great works of art is likely to strike most of us as worse than wrong headed.  The same may be true for the more creative aspects of science. It may just be possible that creative processes of all sorts are inherently inefficient and that attempts to make them too efficient are likely to destroy them. Some support is lent to this hypothesis by the character of biological evolution in the creation of new species and the incredible array of adaptations exhibited by organisms. The vast majority of germ cells produce never unite to form zygotes, the vast majority of zygotes never reach sexual maturity, and so on. Of the thousands of sexual adults released from a termite hill, only one or two ever succeed in founding a new colony. The God of the Galapagos is anything but the Protestant God of waste not, want not. “

About asehelene

... because if I'm in a room with a second person, I want to be reasonably sure I'm the crazier one.
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