Thursday 20 June 2024

The ratio of doing to thinking

Thinking is much more difficult and rare than doing - it is also of low status; which is why so little thinking gets done. 

I first realized this some forty years ago when I began to work as a laboratory research scientist, and noticed that there was (in the biological and medical sciences anyway) extremely little thinking about the meaning of what we were doing. 

There was, indeed, active hostility (and scorn) directed against anything that challenged, or even seriously analysed, whatever the currently-accepted meanings and purposes of research-doing. 

The ratio of doing to thinking was so high, that it seemed to me that very few bioscientists ever thought consecutively and in a focused way for even ten minutes about their subject, or even their results. 

(I formulated this in a kind of slogan that anyone who did succeed in thinking for ten minutes about the implications and purposes of some research, thereby became a leading theoretician in that field.)

I was much more disposed towards thinking-hard than I was to doing-hard (long hours in the lab were mostly a chore, though this was my daily work environment for more than seven years, in the end); I soon decided that my "edge" as a scientist would come from focusing on solo theory rather than the usual practice of trying to generate vast quantities of data by forming vast teams of collaborators*

I felt, and still feel, that this was a flaw in the biosciences and medicine (attempting to remedy which was why I edited Medical Hypotheses for seven years) - and I think the same applies to other sciences. 

So far as I can gather - even the theoretical scientists don't really think, but just apply externally-learned models in a routine fashion. In other words; theory is not thinking! - or, seldom so.  

Eventually; this insight became a kind of Master Theory about Life! For nearly everybody, it seems that the ratio of doing to thinking is way too high; indeed apparently infinitely high in many people (i.e. they never think consecutively and in a focused way; so the ratio is some-quantity, divided by zero).  

And this is a major reason why our civilization is where it is: self-painted into a corner where it is purposively destroying itself - and simultaneously trying to bring-down the rest of the world from spite.  

No amount of doing will help - only thinking. 

Some serious and sustained thinking... very likely coming at the cost of less doing. 

*Note - on-average modern researchers do Not, contrary to almost universal perception, publish significantly more papers than earlier scientists who worked largely alone. What the moderns actually do, is work in much larger teams, and share in more publications. The bigger the team, the more shared-publications. But when the number of publications is divided by the number of authors (which has increased many-fold) - there seems to have been no significant change in average publication rates. 


NLR said...

"even the theoretical scientists don't really think, but just apply externally-learned models in a routine fashion."

I think this is frequently the case.

I remember reading that some physicists thought they were at some point going to be able to just derive the values of constants such as the Gravitational constant. If you think about it, that's a pretty grandiose thing to be able to do. There's really no reason to suppose it would be possible other than that physicists want to. And even if you do, it just pushes things further back.

All right, you have a mathematical framework to derive these numbers. But why that framework? What justifies it?

And so then when they can't derive the constants, rather than saying, "I don't know why they are what they are", the physicists say that there's a multiverse. But this just comes from being stuck in the paradigm that their models *are* reality, rather than being incomplete descriptions of some aspect of reality.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NLR - There is a vast cognitive difference between really thinking about a problem, and applying standard models in the usual way. But most of the immediate incentives of modern research are heavily in favour of doing the latter. Hence...

Jacob Gittes said...

Wow. I shared this post on a very limited audience on Facebook social media, and Facebook removed it with this alert:
This goes against our Community Standards on spam.

First time it's ever happenend.

the outrigger said...

"I felt, and still feel, that this was a flaw in the biosciences and medicine (attempting to remedy which was why I edited Medical Hypotheses for seven years)"

And it showed.

From my vantage point - the bottom rung - it appeared as if the only people who were permitted to venture beyond their data were visiting guns at the top of the field.... Even teaching basic stats for biosciences the approach seemed to be: Assume you have a good hypothesis.

a_probst said...

I remember more than thirty years ago a physicist quoted as saying, "We may not have the right answers yet but we do know the right questions."

Pk said...

The do-to-think ratio extends down to the non-scientific daily decisions. We are called to do something to address every ill in the world: someone is knifed, then ban that knife, it's starting to snow, then quick spread salt, illegals crossing the wide open boarder, then give them cash money, etc, etc. Never thinking if the doing addresses the problem.