FOM: the need for standards

Stephen G Simpson simpson at
Thu Aug 13 15:23:45 EDT 1998

Martin Davis writes:
 > In a social setting where enough resources are found to permit
 > talented people to do what they find interesting and worthwhile all
 > of this is a non-issue.

This land of milk and honey is irrelevant to the real world.  In the
real world, resources are limited and research programs must be
evaluated.  This is a metaphysical fact.

Given this fact, what standards are to be applied?  I have tried to
uphold a standard of general intellectual interest, but the Hardy-like
advocates of pure mathematics find even this very broadly drawn
standard too restrictive.  The question remains, what standards are
appropriate?  Is it enough that some talented people develop a vested
interest in a subject?  I don't think so.  Talent is a slippery
concept (e.g. are we talking about inspiration or perspiration?), and
in any case there is no necessary correlation between the a
researcher's talent and the value of his narrow research program.
There is a need for standards.

Incidentally, let me clear up one misunderstanding.  There is no
question of telling people what to do.  If the talented Professor X
wishes to spend his life classifying orthocomplemented widgets, so be
it, and I hope he finds happiness.  The question we are talking about
is, how are such research programs to be evaluated?  What standards
are appropriate in deciding whether to publish a paper, issue an
invitation, confer an honor, etc etc?  If general intellectual
interest isn't an appropriate standard, what is?  Political power?
Pull?  Friends in high places?  The existence of a clique of people
with similar interests?  Tell me, I'd like to know.

-- Steve

More information about the FOM mailing list