Category Archives: Miscellaneous

Slow Science

I love this painting by Carl Larsson. Here is a domestic scene of a mother and two children shelling fresh peas into an earthenware pot, pods heaping up on the floor. They are immersed in their work in companionable silence. They can anticipate a tasty seasonal meal. This is not  opening a bag of frozen peas and boiling it for a few minutes. This is slow food, savoured for its own sake. The slow food movement, according to Wikipedia,  started in the 1980s as a protest to resist the spread of fast food. It rapidly spread with the aim to promote local foods and traditional gastronomy. In August 2012 in Aarhus I first hit on the idea of slow science. Just as with food production slowness can be a virtue: it can be a way to improve quality and resist quantity.
painting1 Continue reading Slow Science

I had to give a short speech to celebrate the end of the Interacting Minds Project and the launch of the Interacting Minds Centre. I was looking back on the preceding 5 years and wondered whether the Project would have been predicted to succeed or to fail. I found that there had been far more reason to predict failure than success. One reason was that procedures for getting started were very slow, so slow – that they made us alternately laugh and throw up our hands in disbelief.

But, what if the success of the Project was not despite the slowness, but because of it? Chris and I had been plunged from the fast moving competitive UCL environment in London into a completely different intellectual environment. This was an environment where curiosity driven research was encouraged and competition did not count for much. After coming to Denmark for some extended stays and for at least one month every year since 2007 we have been converted. We are almost in awe of slowness now. We celebrate Slow Science.

Can Slow Science be an alternative to the prevalent culture of publish or perish?Modern life has put time pressure on scientists, particularly in the way they communicate: e-mail, phones and cheap travel have made communication almost instant. I still sometimes marvel at the ease of typing and editing papers with search, delete, replace, copy and paste. Even more astonishing is the speed of searching libraries and performing data analysis. What effect have these changes in work habits had on our thinking habits?

Slow Food and Slow Science is not slowing down for its own sake, but increasing quality. Slow science means getting into the nitty gritty, just as the podding of fresh peas with your fingers is part of the production of a high quality meal. Science is a slow, steady, methodical process, and scientists should not be expected to provide quick fixes for society’s problems.

I tweeted these questions and soon got a response from Jonas Obleser who sent me the manifesto of from 2010. He had already put into words what I had been vaguely thinking about.

Science needs time to think. Science needs time to read, and time to fail. Science does not always know what it might be at right now. Science develops unsteadily, with jerky moves and unpredictable leaps forward—at the same time, however, it creeps about on a very slow time scale, for which there must be room and to which justice must be done.

Slow science was pretty much the only science conceivable for hundreds of years; today, we argue, it deserves revival and needs protection. … We do need time to think. We do need time to digest. We do need time to misunderstand each other, especially when fostering lost dialogue between humanities and natural sciences. We cannot continuously tell you what our science means; what it will be good for; because we simply don’t know yet. 

These ideas have resurfaced again and again. Science journalist John Horgan posted this on his blog in 2011 “The Slow Science Movement Must be Crushed” with the punch line that if Slow Science caught on, and scientists started publishing only high quality data that have been double- and triple-checked, then he would have nothing to write about anymore.

Does science sometimes move too fast for own good? Or anyone’s good? Do scientists, in their eagerness for fame, fortune, promotions and tenure, rush results into print? Tout them too aggressively? Do they make mistakes? Exaggerate? Cut corners? Even commit outright fraud? Do journals publish articles that should have been buried? Do journalists like me too often trumpet flimsy findings? Yes, yes, yes. Absolutely.

I liked this, but not much more was discussed on blogs until it came to the more recent so-called replication crisis. I wonder if it possibly has converted some more scientists to Slow Science. Earlier this year, Dynamic Ecology  Blog had a post “In praise of slow science” and attracted many comments:

It’s a rush rush world out there. We expect to be able to talk (or text) anybody anytime anywhere. When we order something from half a continent away we expect it on our doorstep in a day or two. We’re even walking faster than we used to.

Science is no exception. The number of papers being published is still growing exponentially at a rate of over 5% per year (i.e. doubling every 10 years or so). Statistics on growth in number of scientists are harder to come by … but it appears …the individual rate of publication (papers/year) is going up.

There has been much unease about salami slicing to create as many papers as possible; about publishing ephemeral results in journals with scanty peer review. Clearly if we want to improve quality, there are some hard questions to be answered:

How do we judge quality science? Everyone believes their science is of high quality. It’s like judging works of art. But deep down we know that some pieces of our research are just better than others. What are the hallmarks? More pain? More critical mass of data? Perhaps you yourself are the best judge of what are your best papers. In some competitive schemes you are required to submit or defend only your best three/four/five papers. This is a good way of making comparisons fairer between candidates who may have had a different career paths and shown different productivity. More is not always better.

How to improve quality in science? That’s an impossible question, especially if we can’t measure quality, and if quality may become apparent only years later. Even if there was an answer, it would have to be different for different people, and different subjects. Science is an ongoing process of reinvention. Some have suggested that it is necessary to create the right social environment to incubate new ideas and approaches, the right mix of people talking to each other. When new tender plants are to be grown, a whole greenhouse has to be there for them to thrive in. Patience is required when there is unrelenting focus on methodological excellence.

Who would benefit? Three types of scientists: First, scientists who are tending the new shoots and have to exercise patience. These are people with new ideas in new subjects. These ideas often fall between disciplines but might eventually crystallising into a discipline of their own. In this case getting grants and getting papers published in traditional journals is difficult and takes longer. Second, scientists who have to take time out for good reasons, often temporarily. If they are put under pressure, they are tempted to write up preliminary studies, and by salami slicing bigger studies. Third, fast science is a barrier for scientists who have succeeded against the odds,  suffering from neuro-developmental disorders, such as dyslexia, autism spectrum disorder, or ADHD. It is well known that they need extra time for the reviewing and writing-up part of research. The extra time can reveal a totally hidden brilliance and originality that might be otherwise lost.

We also should consider when Slow Science is not beneficial.  If there is a race on and priority is all, then speed is essential. Sometimes you cannot wait for the usual safety procedures of double checking and replication.This may be the case if you have to find a cure for a new highly contagious illness. In this case be prepared for many sleepless nights. Sometimes a short effortful spurt can produce results and the pain is worth it. But it is not possible to maintain such a pace. Extra effort mean extra hours, and hence exhaustion and eventually poorer productivity.

An excuse for being lazy? Idling, procrastinating, and plain old worrying can sometimes bring forth bright flashes of brilliance. Just going over data again and again can produce the satisfying artisanal feelings one might expect to find in a ceramic potter or furniture maker. Of course, the thoughts inspired by quiet down time will be lost if they are not put into effect. Since slow science is all about quality,  this is never achieved by idling and taking short cuts, or over-promising. Slow science is not a way of avoiding competition and not a refuge for the ultra-critical who can’t leave well enough alone. Papers don’t need to be perfect to be published.

What about the competitive nature of science? Competition cannot be avoided in a time of restricted funding and more people chasing after fewer jobs. In competition there is a high premium on coming first. I was impressed by a clever experiment by Phillips, Hertwig, Kareev and Avrahami (2014): Rivals in the dark: How competition influences search in decisions under uncertainty [Cognition, 133(1).104-119]. These authors used a visual search task, where it mattered to spot a target as quickly as possible and indicate their decision with a button press. The twist was that players  were in a competitive situation and did not know when their competitors would make their decision. If they searched carefully they might lose out because another player might get there first? If they searched only very cursorily, they might be lucky. It turned out that for optimal performance it was adaptive to search only minimally. To me this is a metaphor of the current problem of fast science.

A solution to publish or perish? There may be a way out.  Game theory comes to our aid. The publish or perish culture is like the prisoner’s dilemma. You need to be slow to have more complete results and you need to be fast to make a priority claim, all at the same time.  Erren, Shaw & Morfeld (2015) draw out this scenario between two scientists who can either ‘defect’ (publish early and flimsy data) or ‘cooperate’ (publish late and more complete data). suggest a possible escape. Rational prisoners would defect. And this seems to be confirmed by the command publish or perish. The authors suggest that it should be possible to allow researchers to establish priority using the equivalent of the sealed envelope, a practice used by the Paris Académie des Sciences in the 18th century.  Meanwhile, prestigious institutions would need to foster rules that favour the publication of high quality rather than merely novel work. If both these conditions were met the rules of the game would change. Perhaps there is a way to improve quality through slow science.


A strange find

At the beginning of December, the night before I was flying to Zürich, I tried to find some Swiss Francs in the drawer where such things are usually kept. No Francs were lurking there, but instead at the bottom of the drawer there were two tightly folded pages of lined paper. I did not think that I had ever seen them before. But, they were covered with my own handwriting, in pencil.  I was curious and apprehensive of what these pages would reveal. It turned out to be the beginning of a story that I had started to write 40 years ago.StoryDrawstoryP1

A very long time ago, in the early 1970s, I wrote a few short stories that were inspired by a Science Fiction class that Chris and I attended. I was incredibly proud when Philip Strick, our course teacher, included one of my stories in a collection called Antigrav (Arrow Books). I still list it as publication  No. 19 (1975) in my full bibliography. However, in 1975, my life changed: our son Martin was born in April that year, and our son Alex in 1978. For obvious reasons, there was no time for dilettante writing. Continue reading A strange find

Memories came back, memories of the days long before word processors and when we lived in Herne Hill. This was one of many story ideas, which started with a title, and not much more.  I never knew where the titles came from but I used to let them lead me with my pencil to somewhere I hadn’t thought of before. The title of this story “The weather at the bay” struck me as very strange, and I wondered whether it came from a dream. I was immediately determined that I would finish the story, and that I would not tinker with the text.  It already contained some few crossed out words and phrases. I think that writing stories was for me an antidote to writing journal articles. Here I could be unconcerned and playful. Would I have written more stories if my life had been different? A different life, a parallel universe…the ending quickly fell into place before I went to sleep that night.

The weather at the bay by Uta Frith (1974?/2014). The throng pushed into the old fashioned lift and this suddenly separated a small and mixed group of people from the milling multitude in the shopping arcade. The lift elevated them high up above the crowds. They entered a world of dark brown furniture, white tablecloths and tobacco smoke. Amelia and Harry entered the restaurant and were immediately delighted by the magnificent view of the sea through bay windows. The old head waiter in his tail coat just finished an announcement with the words: “-and the weather at the bay is fair.”

They sat down on velvet chairs with their little daughter. Henrietta wore a gown of white lace and blue ribbons and with her long brown hair looked as much like a Renoir painting as the parents had intended her to be. There was much humming and talking noise from people at other tables, eating elegant titbits, calls for hurrying waiters, clinking of china on china and silver on silver.

The sea was grey and much darker than the sky. Dashes of white foam could be seen all along the wave front. A noticeable wind added to the sensations of coolness and freshness. A very dry faintly pink sandy track ran down from the hotel to the sea. Clumps of dark pines on slender stems were visible, but the grey houses were difficult to focus and of uncertain style and form. People were down there too but seemed little more than quickly moving black and white spots.

A gong sounded and the headwaiter started to make another announcement. In the general noise, Harry & Amelia could not make out the words, except that the weather at the bay was fair. Let’s go to the sea, they decided [HERE THE STORY HAD STOPPED]

even though they had a vague impression from the announcement that a boating accident had occurred. Many people were now moving on the sandy track towards the beach. Others hurried over a bridge framed on both sides by lattice work. They could hardly be distinguished. Amelia exclaimed: “How like a dream it seems. So many people. Why are there are  there always so many people in dreams?” Henrietta asked: “Are these people not real then?” -“Of course they are”, answered Harry, “they are real while they are there”.

A loudspeaker announcement could now be heard. There was indeed a boating accident, and the small body of a child was lying on the beach, surrounded by helpers and bystanders. They drew nearer, swept along by everybody into a thickening mist. “Who is this child?” asked Amelia. “It’s Octavius Raynott”, was the reply, “we have no idea why he drowned; he was an excellent swimmer; he won some contests even; we are all devastated”. – “This cannot be true!” cried Amelia , “Octavius Raynott is my father! He died of lung cancer only 2 years ago.” Harry watched horror stricken as Amelia and Henrietta disappeared into the mist that had so rapidly formed. Before he could run after them, he had to close his eyes in a flash of pain. The weather had changed dramatically, and the sun shone directly into his eyes. He got up from the bench he was sitting on looking at a calm sea with a blue and turquoise sheen. He put on his sunglasses and left the book he had been reading lying on the bench, just as he had found it. The words on the page read “the weather at the bay is fair.” -“No, it isn’t”, he said, as he was walking towards the bright sun.

An early encounter with my future self

In March 2011 Kate Gandon asked me “when did you realise how amazing science actually was and how you just had to do it as your career”.  She was then curating the L’Oreal Young Scientist Centre at the Royal Institution. This challenged me to think as far back as I could.

Hearts.001 When I was 7 years old, I got a lovely present, a little purse to keep a handkerchief in. The purse was made of felt, with two hearts stitched together, one side in blue, the other in red. In the middle of each side was a small heart, red on blue and blue on red. Continue reading An early encounter with my future self

I remember that I much preferred the small red heart inside the large blue heart. But I was puzzled. What was wrong with the other side, when the actual shapes and colours were the same? Nothing was wrong of course, the funny thing was that I was questioning why I liked what I liked. I wanted to have a reason. It seemed strange to me that my liking was changed not by shape or colour, but by the difference in the proportion of small to large amount of colour. It is still puzzling to me now. I would probably call it a context effect.

Psychology investigates how we perceive and evaluate objects and a particularly favourite topic of mine is how context influences our perception and the value we put on things. I had no idea that this early experience has anything to do with psychology, nor that this was an example of scientific curiosity. Even at University it took me some time before I knew I must study Psychology rather than History of Art. But now I wonder whether I should not have known long ago that I wanted to be a scientist.

And what does this have to  do with social minds? I did ask members of my family wether they too preferred the combination I preferred, but I don’t remember what they said. Maybe they humoured me and  chose the same.

One of the topics that Chris and I will gr2be writing about is the rewarding effect of having one’s taste endorsed. We are gratified when we learn that others like the same thing that we like.  Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn did a great study where he showed that the reward signals in the brain shot up when the person in the scanner was told that his choice of a song was also preferred by an expert DJ.