Why Science is slowing down, Universities and Maslow's hierarchy of needs
I don’t have a very high prior in regards to the correctness of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, but as far as general theories for understanding human needs go, I think it’s a pretty good.
There’s certainly people who seem to go strongly against it, to the point where they only require self actualization or where they are perfectly happy in life with only their physiological needs needs barely meet.
For all of the exceptions, most people, even exceptional people, seem to roughly live their life in accordance to it.
The gradual passage into adulting can be pretty daunting for people, even for well adjusted people with loving parents that can maintain a comfortable standard of living, for this reason. Gradually you are expected to find “safety” (i.e. financial stability, a house, a safe place to live) and “belonging” partially on your own.
Enter universities, the role of institutes of higher education in a well adjusted society should arguably be pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. Before they would also constitute a repository of information by maintaining huge libraries and people that could navigate them, but today we have the internet, .txt, .latex, .pdf, search engines and decent 10TB HDDs that sell for 100-200$ with tax, so I think it’s safe to say that role can now be played pretty cheaply.
So, universities now remain a places that educated and help people to navigate and enlarge the boundaries of human knowledge.
The recognition and most of all self satisfaction given by extending said boundaries is pretty great (or so I hear). So I think it’s safe to say that this role is one to be pursued by people that feel the needs on step 5 and possibly 4 of the pyramid.
In turn this is a process that requires a great deal of effort, dedication and intelligence, things that are hard to find and hard to direct for anyone that hasn’t fulfilled steps 1, 2 and 3 pretty well. Again, exceptions exist, but for basically all people it’s much easier to think about food, sex, friends and not dying than it is to think about novel bioreactors for producing cheap recombinant DNA vaccines or n-dimensional non Euclidean spaces… we can’t help it, it’s kinda the way we are evolved.
You can try to become a mental hermit and just not care about any of that, but I’m yet to see any evidence of that working, not perfectly at any rate. Even when you look at the clinically insane, they still want food and friends first and foremost, whatever the voices say is usually secondary to eating breakfast.
Conversely, think of the following recipe:
Take one piece homo-sapien right after puberty
Take them away from their parents and their friends and community
Give them ~100,000$ of high interest debt that can’t be cleared through bankruptcy
Put them in a new high-density social environment
Have them leave in a cheap room or apartment that meets minimum sanitary requirements but that’s about it
Have them buy&cook food for themselves, schedule doctors appointments, buy clothes and take care of rent and utilities even though some of them barely have any experience doing this
Where exactly are there needs going to fall in Maslow's hierarchy.
So why do these people attend university ?
Why did the trend start is a complex issue with many political implications.
Why does the trend hold is a much simpler issues, because universities now mainly cater to step 2 and 3 of the hierarchy.
This is arguably bad because being a jack of all trade seldom works, and we have a whole society built to cater to the first steps and are in desperate need of entities that can help us with the last.
Even more so, because universities were never intended to do this and are thus kinda bad it. What they are good at however, is giving is:
a) A false sense of future security in order to fulfill 2 (E.g. The 100,000% + 2% yearly interest debt you took in order to study modern literature will pay of in the long run when you hit the market and everyone is awed by the achievement only you and 70% of the people your age were able to attain).
b) A false sense of current security in order to fulfill 2, provided by the fact that you are living on credit and can thus afford a more expensive lifestyle than the one you can afford once you’re done.
c) A community that help towards 3, except for the fact that this community is one you will have to leave in 4 years, unless you pay even more money or manage to obtain a paid position (which, let’s be honest, usually requires you taking the gamble and paying more money to get a masters degree). Not to mention this is not the community you grew up in, so for some people connecting with it becomes harder.
Even if you assume that I am wrong in assuming a, b and c. After all there’s a surprising lack of studies (aka 0 that I could find, and I dug for them a lot) with titles around the lines of “Economic value of university degree when controlling for IQ, time lost and student debt”. The few studies I can find that look at the relevant datapoints (e.g. http://ftp.iza.org/dp8235.pdf) don’t have good enough that to disentangle them.
Note: If you know of any relevant studies on this topic, please please please email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I shall add them here no matter their findings.
But again, even if you assume I’m wrong, that still leave us with universities that struggle to optimize for 2, 3 and maybe 4, losing out on 5 in the process.
At least I would argue that universities are losing out on 5 in the process. I think this is hard to prove conclusively, but I do have a few angels of attack for prove this.
1. Research is slowing down on measurable metrics
For one, there’s clear evidence that measurable metrics for progress are going down: https://web.stanford.edu/~chadj/IdeaPF.pdf.
The number of transistors we can fit on a similarly sized cheap is increasing more slowly, in spite of the fact that new researchers engage with the problem.
Progress on lifespan extension is slowing down in spite the number of researchers and publications increasing.
Crop yield is increasing only slightly if at all, in spite of the fact that there’s an exponential increase in people that are supposed to work on this subject.
For a good tear-down of this study (i.e. the counter perspective of what I’m advocating here, I strongly recommend this review.
2. Progress is not made by universities
Looking at a single university, say Oxford, it’s financing seems like something that could accomplish amazing things.
It’s last reported 1-year expenditure is 2.5 billion dollars.
This might not seem like a lot, until you compare it with companies innovating in private industry.
For reference, the budget of SpaceX, for it’s first 10 years of operation was ~1 billion dollars. Considering that after those first 10 years SpaceX build and launches it’s first rocket models. It should also be noted that most of that money cam from contracts that paid in advance, rather than funding. Most of that money seems to have come for private for-profit contract though.
So in a worst case scenario it costs ~100$ million dollars to found SpaceX, in a best case scenario (where we assume the contracts they got were not unfairly earned) it costs ~40$ million.
In other words, it would cost Oxford University (note: not all of Oxford, this doesn’t include the colleges) 1.6% to 4% of it’s yearly spending to fund the most promising program humanity ever had for colonizing space.
It would cost less than what one single large university has filled under “Others” in it’s expense tab, to fund a program that has significant potential in sending people to fucking Mars.
That’s self actualizing, expanding the human race throughout the cosmos. That’s a level 5 need, that’s what people that “want more” in life should do.
So considering that this is one 9-digits university and there exist hundreds of them. Are they really doing something more important than this ? Is it really not the best ROI for self-actualization institutions to jointly spend 0.x% of their budget to help colonize space.
Maybe Space Exploration is not where it’s at… but where is it at, where do we break the boundaries.
Machine Learning ?
Most innovation (e.g. Transformer, practical RL systems, Residual Learning) seems to come from DeepMind, GoogleBrain, OpenAI, Microsoft Research and other privately founded ventures.
What about the libraries that we need to do all this stuff ?
Tensorflow ? Google
Pytroch ? Facebook
LAPACK ? NSF founded, many contributors, most seem to be working at universities
Jax ? Google
cuBLAS ? Nvidia
Keras ? Community
Eigen ? Community
It’s hard to go by actual papers published, since it’s hard to rank paper importance, but looking at the tools it’s mostly free contributions and private industry.
3. Things we can’t even imagine
But maybe what’s being created inside the halls of universities shouldn’t be judged by what we already know we can do (e.g. traveling to other planets) or by progress on metrics we’ve had for a long time and which can be improved with market funding (e.g. all the ones in point 1).
Maybe it should be innovating in ways with an even longer profit-horizon or lower chances of success.
What about human immortality ? Or at least increasing healthy lifespan past the 100-110 years barrier that seems to be the limit of the human species ? Surely this is transcendental if there ever was such a thing, surely trying to beat death itself is self actualization.
So… ? Where are all the university longevity focused departments. Where do I sign up to research reversing the shrinking process of the thymus ? Or researching viral vectors to evenly spread SC promoting co-factors to damage tissue ? Or senolitics drugs ? Or… you know, that kind of stuff.
Hmh, there’s like 10 tiny biotech startups doing that you say ? And this tiny non-profit called SENS ran by this gandalf guy ? And some crazy Russians that want to build robot bodies ?
4. The finer things are not the work of universities
But there’s more ways to self actualize, one can produce beautiful philosophy, music, books, games… works of art, works dealing with the human nature.
So, let’s look at philosophy, we have a whole “crisis of meaning” going on, sure could use some psychologists and philosopher dealing with that, there seems to be a lot of self actualizing to be had there, being the savior of societies struck by doubt and depression.
Let’s say Opioid crisis and the hikikomori phenomenon, those are pretty representative of the broader issue...
And now for something literally nobody cares about:
- Trolley Problems …. 9157 fucking results
But hey… you can rest in peace knowing that there’s over 160,365 results relating to Marxist Analysis, that’s ought to fix something… right ? https://www.jstor.org/action/doBasicSearch?Query=marxist+analysis.
What about music ?
There’s hundreds of conservatories and music schools in the US, yet if you look at the people that pushed the envelope on music in the 20th century, that re-defined what we call music… we see, what ?
People from poor villages in the South of the US, residents the slums of cities like NY and New Orleans, British teenagers that took acids and got hold of some fourth-hand instruments. These are not the kind of people that attended conservatories, the people that put the foundations to blues and jazz often didn’t know how to properly read and write, let alone read music, let alone afford to go to a conservatory.
I’d go into modern art and architecture but even I don’t enjoy beating dead horses that much.
5. New departments opening up in areas parallel to self-actualization
I’m so glad my family is here as a lay dying, I had a lovely life and I’m glad all of you are here and if there’s one last wish I have, is for you my children to collect my notes and make sure that my master-piece on SEO and Wordpress advertising is finalized and published.
Finally, I think self-actualization is rather hard to define, but I certainly think there are fields where one can’t find it. Things like marketing, sales, tech support, accounting. These are all things society needs for better or worst, but these are “safe” profession, people do them because they want financial safety, because they don’t want to or can’t put in the hard work.
And I don’t blame them, be an accountant, be a car salesman. What you do for a living is not what defines you. For most people self-actualizing might more be about raising happy children than about the discoveries they make.
But again, what are universities doing here if they care about self actualizing ?
Why have a major in sales, marketing, customer relationships, tourism or accounting ? There’s nothing to be found here, there’s no progress for humanity to make, no fame, no glory, no near-universal ethical obligation to do better.
If a good were to snap his fingers and all of those departments were to suddenly vanish not one speck of dust would differ when the archeologists of 3020 dig us up.
Is there self-actualization to be found ?
I think so, look at things like the human genome project for one example of that.
I’m not so crazy as to claim the remnants of the edifice of evidence-based understanding of the world that is still supported by universities is for nothing.
But that’s the problem, universities are still doing a lot of good in fulfilling the 5th rank of the hierarchy of needs. If they weren’t, we could just ignore the whole system, after all we don’t complain about sales pyramid schemes and expect of them to change… because the whole edifice was corrupt to being with.
Universities are slowly being devoured by rent-seeking pyramid schemes that take children out of their comfortable environments and give them short-term solutions to fulfill their more basic needs.
However there’s still enough self-actualization to be found that a lot of people that actually seek that go there. That’s the problem, those two things don’t mix, you can’t have an institution focused on lying to people about how if they just take loans to give them money (or pay higher taxes in the future in order for governments to fund them, as is the case in Western Europe).
I think this might be caused by the fact that universities want to expand, the fact is that institutions for self-actualizing through science and art are,by definition, going to be niche.
Most people don’t want to be remembered for their works in unveiling the mysteries of the world, they want to be remembered as a good father, or as that one guy that made the best sausages in Genericsmalltown. The only way to get them to attend universities in the first place is to promise them fulfillment of more basic needs.
Maybe the reason why a vast majority of people going to universities in ages past were nobles and few select gifted people was not because the system was unfair, but because those are the only people that need a self-actualization institution. People that already have their basic needs mostly fulfilled, or that are passionate enough about a subject that it becomes a basic needs for them to study it, people where self-actualization somehow hops from rank 5 to rank 2.
However, for now, we are in a weird spot. Where the institutions that are supposed to cater to the higher needs of a few intelligent people, who fulfilled this service well and with great benefit to society, are systematically being forced to instead cater to the basic needs of everyone.
Thus we have a loss-loss scenario. If you are the kind of person that would actually do well being a philosophy professor or a research physicist you either have to find your own way in life with little scaffolding or go to an institution that’s not made for you. If you are the kind of person that doesn’t care much for science or art or philosophy, you are feed systematic lies and presented and economic system that still somewhat values university degrees…. So you go to a place you dislike in order to fulfill basic needs that said place was not designed to fulfill.
The default hypothesis here would be that the current system continues along just fine, with private enterprise taking more and more of the role of higher education.
The other scenario if you trust in people being somewhat-rational agents and believe ideas like those presented by Bryan Caplan in The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money. Is that universities start leaking money very fast and collapse once people stop attending at current rates, leaving a societal dent that might be hard to fill. I think there’s some evidence to believe this since university attendance rates in the US have been dropping since around 2010, but I very much doubt this.
The best case scenario is that either due to economic pressures or due to realizing their own faults universities downscale, and become institutions of self-actualization again. However, this would rely upon the idea that a large institution can be reduced in size slowly rather than just implode… If you play with those kind of odds then you probably haven't read about Pascal's Mugging.