The Mendel Lag

One of the key questions for anyone concerned with meaningfully advancing the human condition is: how can I recognize problems such that, if I didn’t work on them, there would be a meaningful lag in human advances?

Academia is particularly terrible in encouraging such behavior. The most certain way to advance through the ranks is to work on things that are well-recognized as respectable by the community, using methods that prove you to be a member of the inside group.

From Vannevar Bush’s 1945 essay As We May Think:

Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose. If the aggregate time spent in writing scholarly works and in reading them could be evaluated, the ratio between these amounts of time might well be startling. Those who conscientiously attempt to keep abreast of current thought, even in restricted fields, by close and continuous reading might well shy away from an examination calculated to show how much of the previous month’s efforts could be produced on call. Mendel’s concept of the laws of genetics was lost to the world for a generation because his publication did not reach the few who were capable of grasping and extending it; and this sort of catastrophe is undoubtedly being repeated all about us, as truly significant attainments become lost in the mass of the inconsequential.

In this case, the problem was mainly about information flows: Mendel lived in a small town monastery without a strong personal network and published in an obscure local journal. So one might wonder whether there are still ideas of this kind in the age of the internet.

One way to approach search for such ideas is using Spencer Greenberg’s framework, discussed in another post. Another is to start with a hypothesis about what kinds of ideas are likely to come with significant social costs:

  • Which ideas would be considered weird by established fields?
  • Which ideas consider using multiple paradigms, languages and disciplinary approaches?
  • What ideas are mocked by people with high status within a field who do not seem to be well epistemically grounded?

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