The Looming Knowledge Bubble

If you owned a McMansion in 2007 or in 1999, the “bursting” of the bubble essentially meant that money you thought you had ceased to exist. With researchers placing a new emphasis on replication efforts, and academia beginning to undergo a serious transformation in general, I wonder whether we’ll soon find out that we’ve been living through a knowledge bubble. That is, the bubble will “burst,” and a lot of knowledge about the world we thought we had will cease to exist.

Academia has always been an institution that regulated itself, and within it there was never much incentive to go beyond the call of duty in ensuring published findings truly reflected the state of the world. What was there to gain by placing an emphasis on replication? A failure to replicate would cast doubt on everybody’s work, and a successful replication would merely take valuable time away from bolsterring reputations through more original research.

There are a few reasons why things are now starting to change. Scientists themselves are finally increasing efforts to ensure that published results accurately reflect real knowledge about the actual state of the world. The most well-known of these initiatives are the Reproducibility Project, which attempts to reproduce important findings, and PsychFileDrawer, which aims to catalog negative results so any apparent finding can be viewed in the context of previous attempts to uncover it. Replication studies are also becoming increasingly easier to perform. For example, The Economist has a nice story about how Mechanical Turk is facilitating the replicaiton process, particularly when it comes to seeing if WEIRD results hold up across cultures.

Last but not least, the push for open access and the growing role of non-published work (e.g. blogs, speeches, etc.) are poised to disrupt the fragile publication-based tenure system that’s long ruled academia. For years researchers have been afraid to disrupt the system because older academics built their reputations on it, and younger academics planned careers around it. But it won’t last forever. What will happen when journals start disappearing because their publishers refuse to make them accesible? A rapidly changing journal landscape will make the value of being published in a particular journal much less standardized. As the system breaks down, there is bound the be less emphasis on the quantity and location of what’s published, and more emphasis on its quality.

All of these factors will contribute to a slowdown in new published research, as well as a “loss” of existing research. Eventually the bubble of knowledge will deflate. Because it will be driven by the labor-intensive act of conducting replication research, it’s not really a bubble — it’s more like an air mattress with a small hole that you need to repeatedly jump on in order to expel air.

Whatever ill-fitting metaphor you choose, the bottom line is that a bunch of things we “know” about the world could disappear, and we’ll be left with less knowledge. While some have speculated about the dire consequences for science, and the field of psychology in particular, in the long run big structural changes will produce a healthier and more stable institution of scientific research. We’ll just have to get used to idea that for the first time recent history, we’ll know less about many things than we once did.

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