FOM: the need for standards

Martin Davis martind at
Thu Aug 13 19:14:38 EDT 1998

At 03:23 PM 8/13/98 -0400, simpson at wrote:
>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.
I have three comments:

1. I believe that much political discourse in the US over the past decade
has been greatly distorted by the myth that resources (though finite of
course) are much scarcer than they actually are. Of course, this is getting
pretty far from F.O.M.

2. If your Professor X is perceived to have real talent and the energy to
employ it, then it will pay society in the long run to support his
widget-classification. If even 1% of such do something that ultimately turns
out to be really useful/important, it will have been an excellent
investment. And past experience does not suggest that people have been very
good at picking out the good bets ahead of time.

3. As long as resources are seen to be not merely finite but so limited that
supporting Prof. X means that some equally deserving Prof. Y will be left
out, then political power, pull, friends in high places, cliques will
inevitably (if regrettably) play a key role.


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