About abundance in open science: Maybe your bucket is too big


 

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“If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possess the less, because every other possess the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.” Thomas Jefferson 1813 letter. Quoted in (Boyle 2008).

How many Abundances does Open Science use?

We have not really begun to explore the many varieties of abundance that can emerge once we abandon arbitrary scarcity in open science. Primary abundance is built into digital science objects which, like Jefferson’s thoughts, can be copied infinitely without diminishing the original. Quite the opposite, the more copies that circulate, the more valuable the original object becomes, only not as the private property of an individual, but rather as a common pool resource for the science commons.

Combinatory abundance is what happens when science objects (and scientists) enter into a collaborative mode to mix, meld, and produce new objects. This is also where the network effect applies to objects, not just to people.

The difference between humans and animals lies in the ability to collaborate, engage in business, let ideas, pardon the expression, copulate. Collaboration has explosive upside, what is mathematically called a superadditive function, i.e., one plus one equals more than two, and one plus one plus one equals much, much more than three. That is pure nonlinearity with explosive benefits—we will get into details on how it benefits from the philosopher’s stone.” (Taleb 2012) paraphrasing (Ridley 2010).

Language is a good example of the kind of combinatory abundance that open science hopes to achieve through mineable/mixable repositories of a wide variety of knowledge objects.  The English alphabet has twenty-six letters and the English language about forty phonemes. From these all the words, sentences, paragraphs, texts and conversations are spun by combining and assembling them using rules and shared semantics.

You’re an academic, you know that academics might run out of ideas, or time, or even wine, but rarely do we run out of words. In fact this is one abundance that we have always enjoyed, perhaps a bit too much. To achieve the “explosive upside” of collaboration, scientists need to build open cultures of collaboration.

Emergent abundance describes the complex objects of study, the unknowns that feed science and also science’s willingness to not seek “truth”. Whether you are tracking the micro-second changes of a single cell or the collision courses of galaxies, you begin with a never-decreasing abundance of questions. Science also has an abundance of doubts, as well as discoveries. Science swims in an ocean of doubt, as Richard Feynman reminds us: “A scientist is never certain. We all know that. We know that all our statements are approximate statements with different degrees of certainty ; that when a statement is made, the question is not whether it is true or false but rather how likely it is to be true or false” (Feynman 2005).

What emerges from these doubts is a collective form of being only slightly less…wrong. Being less wrong iterates into being somewhat more right, but never to the point of actual truth. Everything we know today will be different from what we know tomorrow. “[S]cientists gravitate toward falsification; as a community if not as individuals, they seek to disprove their beliefs. Thus, the defining feature of a hypothesis is that it has the potential to be proven wrong (which is why it must be both testable and tested), and the defining feature of a theory is that it hasn’t been proven wrong yet. But the important part is that it can be — no matter how much evidence appears to confirm it, no matter how many experts endorse it, no matter how much popular support it enjoys. In fact, not only can any given theory be proven wrong; … sooner or later, it probably will be. And when it is, the occasion will mark the success of science, not its failure” (Schultz 2011).

Infinite abundance marks the recognition that science is not a finite game. There is no way to “win” science; no ending of science; and no possibility for its rules to be fully known; these are continually subject to change. The great mistake of bringing the logic of the marketplace (a finite, zero-sum game) into the academy is that it promotes behaviors that treat science like a finite game, and it makes competitors out of colleagues.

As an “infinite game,” science finds itself in a never-ending tussle with its objects of study; “Our freedom in relation to nature is not the freedom to change nature; it is not the possession of power over natural phenomena. It is the freedom to change ourselves. We are perfectly free to design a culture that will turn on the awareness that vitality cannot be given but only found, that the given patterns of spontaneity in nature are not only to be respected, but to be celebrated” (Carse 2011).

James Carse’s book on finite and infinite games offers a great heuristic for the type of culture change needed for science to become “open science.” 

“THERE ARE at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”
…“It is on this point that we find the most critical distinction between finite and infinite play: The rules of an infinite game must change in the course of play. The rules are changed when the players of an infinite game agree that the play is imperiled by a finite outcome—that is, by the victory of some players and the defeat of others. The rules of an infinite game are changed to prevent anyone from winning the game and to bring as many persons as possible into the play.” (Carse 2011)

Sufficient abundance reminds us that abundance does not need to be a waterfall into an overflowing bucket. As long as the bucket is full, there is abundance. A single extra drop makes it overflow. Abundance is relative to needs, and needs can be managed to the level of sufficiency, rather than expanded by market-fueled desires, manufactured from arbitrary scarcity:

“Scarcity is easier to deal with than abundance, because when something becomes rare, we simply think it more valuable than it was before, a conceptually easy change. Abundance is different: its advent means we can start treating previously valuable things as if they were cheap enough to waste, which is to say cheap enough to experiment with. Because abundance can remove the trade-offs we’re used to, it can be disorienting to the people who’ve grown up with scarcity. When a resource is scarce, the people who manage it often regard it as valuable in itself, without stopping to consider how much of the value is tied to its scarcity.” (Shirky, 2010)

Open science advocates are often asked about how they will replace (perverse) market incentives; as if these are the only incentives out there. Scientists have their own incentives, the reasons they are scientists and not, say, hedge fund managers. And scientists were fully incentivized in the decades before the marketplace intruded on the academy.

There are many articles about the mismatch between science and market incentives. A good place to start is Edwards and Roy (2016):  In this article, we will (1) describe how perverse incentives and hypercompetition are altering academic behavior of researchers and universities, reducing scientific progress and increasing unethical actions, (2) propose a conceptual model that describes how emphasis on quantity versus quality can adversely affect true scientific progress, (3) consider ramifications of this environment on the next generation of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) researchers, public perception, and the future of science itself, and finally, (4) offer recommendations that could help our scientific institutions increase productivity and maintain public trust. We hope to begin a conversation among all stakeholders who acknowledge perverse incentives throughout academia, consider changes to increase scientific progress, and uphold ‘‘high ethical standards’’ in the profession…”

Offer a scientist more time, cheaper tools, and some security to finish their research, and you will have a happy scientist. Chasing reputation points and writing endless proposals for funding would not compete with simply clearing the decks and letting research come to the fore. Managing needs can be a productive alternative to bulking up the CV with marginal publications. Open science can wean the scientist from perverse incentives by offering more with less.

Are you tired of working so hard to get just a bit more? One of the tasks of open science is to innovate to lower the costs of doing science. The most “successful” societies in the history of humanity became affluent by managing their needs:

“[Marshall] Sahlins characterized hunter-gatherers as the gurus of a “Zen road to affluence” through which they were able to enjoy “unparalleled material plenty— with a low standard of living.” Here, it seemed, was a people unconcerned with material wealth, living in harmony with their natural environments, who were also egalitarian, uncomplicated, and fundamentally free” (Suzman 2017).

Sometimes one can achieve abundance by simply finding a smaller bucket.

 

 

References:
Boyle, J., 2008. The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind. New Haven. Yale University Press.
Carse, J., 2011. Finite and infinite games. Simon and Schuster.
Edwards, M.A. and Roy, S., 2017. Academic research in the 21st century: Maintaining scientific integrity in a climate of perverse incentives and hypercompetition. Environmental Engineering Science, 34(1), pp.51-61.
Feynman, R.P., Robbins, J., Sturman, H. and Löhnberg, A., 2005. The pleasure of finding things out. Nieuw Amsterdam.
Ridley, M., 2010. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. 4th Estate.
Schultz, K., 2011. Being wrong: Adventures in the margin of error. Granta Books.
Shirky, C., 2010. Cognitive surplus: Creativity and generosity in a connected age. Penguin UK.
Suzman, J., 2017. Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.
Taleb, N.N., 2012. Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder (Vol. 3). Random House Incorporated.

One thought on “About abundance in open science: Maybe your bucket is too big

  1. “If you perceive the universe as being a universe of abundance then it will be. If you think of the universe as one of scarcity, then it will be. … I always thought that there was enough of everything to go around—that there are enough ideas in the universe and enough nourishment.”

    Milton Glaser How to think like a great graphic designer. by Debbie Millman

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