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Why There Is So Much Bullshit in Science

Derek speaks with professor Russell Funk about the decline of progress in science

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We should be living in a golden age of creativity in science and technology. We know more about the universe and ourselves than we did in any other period in history, and with easy access to superior research tools, our pace of discovery should be accelerating. But as one group of researchers from Stanford put it: “Everywhere we look we find that ideas … are getting harder to find.” Another paper found that “scientific knowledge has been in clear secular decline since the early 1970s,” and yet another concluded that “new ideas no longer fuel economic growth the way they once did.”

As regular listeners of this podcast know, I am obsessed with this topic—why it seems like in industries as different as music and film and physics, new ideas are losing ground. It is harder to sell an original script, harder to make an original hit song, and harder to publish a groundbreaking paper, and while these trends are NOT all the same, they rhyme in a way I can’t stop thinking about. How did we build a world where new ideas are so endangered?

This year, a new study titled “Papers and Patents Are Becoming Less Disruptive Over Time” inches us closer to an explanation for why this is happening in science. The upshot is that any given paper today is much less likely to become influential than a paper in the same field from several decades ago. Progress is slowing down, not just in one or two places, but across many domains of science and technology.

Today, I speak to one of the study’s coauthors. Russell Funk is a professor at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. We talk about the decline of progress in science, why it matters, and why it’s happening—and we give special attention to a particular theory of mine, which is that the incentive structure of modern science encourages too much research that doesn’t serve any purpose except to get published. In other words, science has a bullshit paper problem. And because science is the wellspring from which all progress flows, its crap problem is our problem.

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In the following excerpt, Derek and Professor Funk discuss why we should be concerned about the slowdown in scientific progress, and how this can be quantified.

Derek Thompson: So progress in science seems to be slowing down. Why should we pay attention to that?

Russell Funk: Well, I think there are a couple reasons. If you look back over the past couple hundred years, but especially the past 100 years or so, a lot of the great improvements in human life, from health to technology to education and so forth, have come and originated with scientific research and scientific breakthroughs. And so just a lot of what makes the world that we know and live in today what it is has been from scientific progress and important scientific discoveries. There’s another factor as well, which is that scientific progress is also very closely tied up with economic growth.

And so scientists make discoveries in their laboratories doing research, which then often serve as the seeds for new technologies. You think of things like the internet or space exploration and so forth: All of those had their origins with scientific breakthroughs. And then they serve as the basis of new technologies, which create new industries, new job opportunities. And so to the extent that science is slowing down, it may be one important contributing factor that we’re seeing to slowing rates of economic growth.

Thompson: And when people say that science is slowing down, what are they actually talking about? How can we actually measure the degree to which disruptive science or important breakthroughs are slowing down over time?

Funk: In some sense, it’s hard to do because it’s a bit subjective. And how do you quantify things that are very different like the invention of the integrated circuits and the discovery of DNA? They’re both important, but how do you put them on a scale? And different people have different views. So it’s something that we often have to measure indirectly, especially if we want to look at it on a large scale. And so people have used a number or quite a few different metrics to look at this. One that I think that’s kind of interesting, and that’s just easy to wrap your head around, looks at Nobel Prizes and the discoveries that are awarded Nobel Prizes.

And so Nobel Prizes are essentially universally recognized important breakthroughs. And so some things that people have done is look at the gap between the date of discovery for a certain Nobel Prize–winning breakthrough and when the prize is awarded. And what they found is that that gap is increasing over time, such that in recent decades, the prizes are going to discoveries that were made 20, 30, 40 years previously, which kind of suggests that the breakthroughs that are made today are not seen as being quite as significant as the ones that were made before. There are other ways of looking at this as well. You can look at things like citation patterns in science. Citations are very important in scientific papers. Science is usually seen as kind of a cumulative endeavor. And so researchers build off of the findings of prior work and they indicate their indebtedness to prior work by making citations and including reference lists in their papers.

And so you can look at things like when were the papers that researchers today are citing written? And if you look across a lot of different fields, you’ll see that the age of the most cited papers is increasing, which suggests that the kind of older foundational knowledge or the things that people are building off of most is this older knowledge and older information and they’re citing less of the newer stuff, which again, could be seen as some kind of indicator of significance. I’ll give just one more example. ...

So there are a lot of theories that people have developed in philosophy of science, economics of science, sociology of science, and so forth that tries to understand what is innovation and what is discovery. And one of the biggest theories is this idea of recombination. So, most of the things that we think of as new and innovative aren’t just cut anew from whole cloth, but they’re kind of combinations of existing things. So the way that we get new stuff is by taking stuff that’s out there and putting it together in new configurations. You think of the iPhone. None of the components of the iPhone were really new. We add digital cameras, we add touch touchscreens, and so forth, but what made it so novel and valuable was that it brought all these together in a way that was really easy to use.

And so the same thing goes for a lot of scientific discoveries. We want to look at whether or not scientists are exploring new things and putting together new combinations. People have tracked over time the extent to which that’s happening. So are scientists taking ideas from disparate fields that haven’t been thought about together before and are they exploring them or in the world of invention, are inventors taking different technologies that haven’t been brought together before? And if you look at that, you see there’s these dramatic decreases in that over time as well.

Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Russell Funk
Producer: Devon Manze

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