Emergent Research
© 8 May 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Is academic research like building an ant hive?


Emergence is the idea that a grop can create something more complex than any of its constituents can imagine. A classic example is ants who appear to bumble around almost at random and yet manage to create intricate hives, both physically and socially. Another example is economics, vast a involved systems that seem to have a mind of their own despite quite clearly being composed of individuals who have no idea what the system is doing.

As I mentioned yesterday, most academic research appears to go nowhere, to be as insignificant in development of human knowledge as my decision to buy an apple appears to be in the global economy. But perhaps this is because knowledge isn’t really developed by any one person, it emerges from the combined impact of the work of many. Even ideas we do attribute to a single person may well have merely been first expressed by that person, like the ant who first says of the depression in the sand all have been building “‍hey, this is a hive!‍”

But if research is indeed emergent, then isn’t it foolishness to try to state why it is significant? Isn’t the only interesting motivation “‍I found a problem so I solved it‍”? What ant can identify why this bit of sand is the important piece? What consumer can identify why buying this brand of soap will help the economy the most?

If academic research is an emergent process, then mathematics may be the only field that does it right. In mathematics, it is often sufficient to argue “‍this is an unsolved problem‍” without needing to add “‍and I think it the most important problem too.‍” In every other field I have seen, the community requires at least lip-service to the idea that each researcher is a visionary planning the future of the field. But visionaries, almost by definition, don’t exist in emergent systems.

Either emergence and academic research are not well compared, or the bulk of academia doesn’t know how to react to its own principle activity.

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