The Quantum Pontiff

Too Few Wrong Papers?

After watching Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk* it occurred to me to go back and look at my own scientific papers and try to assess them for how creative they were. Some things you should just never do, I guess, but it did lead me to an interesting question.

* The first 2/3 of the talk is excellent, ending not as great. I’m heartily in support of his cause, but it felt to me like he was implying that this was the one and only problem with the education system, which I find hard to swallow.

Looking at the list of my papers, I’m struck by many things. First of all I’m amazed by how tightly I’ve said in the quantum realm since I started graduate school. Now quantum computing is a big field (which leads to a quite annoying habit among faculty and students in other disciplines pegging you as narrow because you work in the quantum world) but still I’ve produce very little which perhaps could not have been predicted circa 2001 (Quoteth the Shins: “Family portrait circa 95″)

And then I think about the creativity in these papers. Certainly I feel that all these papers solved some new problem, but this just brushes things under the rug. How new? How surprising? I won’t bore you with the ego bashing resulting from my analysis, but it did raise for me the question, why haven’t I been more creative?

In assessing this I was struck by something which Sir Ken said in his talk. We are taught, especially in school, to not be wrong. Yet, Sir Ken argues, being wrong is an essential part of being creative. Now I don’t want to go so over the top touchy-feely that I emphasize wrong as right, but it does seem to me that he has got a decent point. Being wrong is a way of exploring territory. Being allowed to be wrong means that you are freer to explore ideas outside of your normal comfort zone. Being wrong can spark you to think why you are wrong and thus lead you down a very constructive new path.

Which got me thinking: do I have too few papers which are wrong? Now don’t get me wrong, I know that the papers I write aren’t perfect. I’m certain that there are many minor but hopefully zero or only a few major “errors” in the papers. I’m not talking about that kind of wrong. I’m talking about papers that present a radical idea which just doesn’t work. Those of you who know me outside of this blog (yes dear reader, there is more to me than the disembodied head a la the Wizard of Oz) know that I come up with a lot of totally whacked ideas which never make it anywhere. Oftentimes I’m kind of sad about these ideas, mostly because I often feel that they are good ideas which I am just too dense to make any progress on. Why shouldn’t I write down these ideas in some form and share them with the community? In some ways this is just a rift on the ever-recurring thought that someone should start a journal to publish negative experiments. But this is a slight twist in that these ideas are meant to push one outside of one’s comfort zone, to lead to more creativity in science, and not just a writeup of where things go wrong. Further I would hope that they would serve my egotistical purpose of improving my own creativity.

So maybe it’s time for me to write a wrong paper. Just don’t tell that to other faculty here at my university (what, cats out of the blog, you say?)

Comments

  1. #1 Ian Durham
    May 7, 2009

    > why haven’t I been more creative?

    Referees and editors, particularly at a journal or two that shall remain nameless but that are far too conservative and boring these days.

    > We are taught, especially in school, to not be wrong. Yet,
    > Sir Ken argues, being wrong is an essential part of being
    > creative.

    Admitting one is wrong is also a very important thing that very few people do. While I obviously mark my students off on problems if they’re wrong, I always emphasize the learning aspect of it. In fact, on homework, I allow students to correct it (under very specific guidelines, mind you) as a method of encouraging them to learn from their mistakes.

    Creativity is all about fits and starts. Unfortunately, this is not something that is recognized or rewarded “in real time” in science. What I mean is that, historians of science often will spend a great deal of time analyzing multiple drafts of papers, rough ideas, etc. and publish said analyses, but such things are usually only done in retrospect. It is possible open-notebook endeavors will alleviate this a bit, but I still think that well-thought out papers that challenge assumptions should be published and recognized more often than they are since it is an integral part of the learning process. Plus, I personally think it might save on some redundancy. Why spend time exploring a dead end if someone else already explored it?

  2. #2 William
    May 7, 2009

    The part of that talk that really lost me was when he started talking about saving the future by encouraging more students to do dance. Don’t think that’s going to work.

  3. #3 Steve Flammia
    May 7, 2009

    “So maybe it’s time for me to write a wrong paper.”

    You set me up! :-)

  4. #4 Jakob
    May 8, 2009

    “Why shouldn’t I write down these ideas in some form and share them with the community?”
    As blog posts, perhaps ?

  5. #5 Dave Bacon
    May 8, 2009

    “You set me up! :-)”

    The dangers of working with a lunatic, Steve :)

  6. #6 Jeremy L
    May 8, 2009

    Oh man. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. Part of the problem is that wrong has two meanings: immoral and incorrect.

    And there are two ways to be incorrect: by sheer laziness, or because you’re trying something new out. On an exam, a student is supposed to be familiar with the material so we assume that all their mistakes are out of laziness (didn’t study enough). We transfer that idea to the classroom where mistakes are also perceived as being lazy or dumb.

    Lastly, I found my colleagues in grad school too quick to throw away wrong answers. You can learn just as much about what’s right by figuring out why something is wrong. Immediately tossing something wrong out is pointless.

  7. #7 Jon
    May 8, 2009

    I think that you are looking at a conservatively biased sample of your own work by restricting yourself to publications (I agree with Ian’s first point). Unless the publications are truly representative of your work. Certainly getting something published takes more time than not getting something published, but in my own experience, I put at least as much thought into my unpublished stuff.

  8. #8 Dave Bacon
    May 8, 2009

    See Jon, that’s the problem. With the exception of stuff I did as an undergrad, I’ve always gotten my stuff published!

  9. #9 sep332
    May 11, 2009

    @William:
    “The part of that talk that really lost me was when he started talking about saving the future by encouraging more students to do dance. Don’t think that’s going to work.”

    Yeah, but it *does* work. Science might be cool and all, but it doesn’t tell you why you should *care*. Things like dance help people think about *why* they should save the future, and is much more motivating (I mean to the general population).

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