Thinking Outside One’s Paradigm

When I meet someone who works in a field outside of computer science, I usually ask them a lot of questions about their field that I’m curious about. (This is still relevant even if I’ve already met someone in that field before, because it gives me an idea of the range of expert consensus; for some questions this ends up being surprisingly variable.) I often find that, as an outsider, I can think of natural-seeming questions that experts in the field haven’t thought about, because their thinking is confined by their field’s paradigm while mine is not (pessimistically, it’s instead constrained by a different paradigm, i.e. computer science).

Usually my questions are pretty naive, and are basically what a computer scientist would think to ask based on their own biases. For instance:

  • Neuroscience: How much computation would it take to simulate a brain? Do our current theories of how neurons work allow us to do that even in principle?
  • Political science: How does the rise of powerful multinational corporations affect theories of international security (typical past theories assume that the only major powers are states)? How do we keep software companies (like Google, etc.) politically accountable? How will cyber attacks / cyber warfare affect international security?
  • Materials science: How much of the materials design / discovery process can be automated? What are the bottlenecks to building whatever materials we would like to? How can different research groups effectively communicate and streamline their steps for synthesizing materials?

When I do this, it’s not unusual for me to end up asking questions that the other person hasn’t really thought about before. In this case, responses range from “that’s not a question that our field studies” to “I haven’t thought about this much, but let’s try to think it through on the spot”. Of course, sometimes the other person has thought about it, and sometimes my question really is just silly or ill-formed for some reason (I suspect this is true more often than I’m explicitly made aware of, since some people are too polite to point it out to me).

I find the cases where the other person hasn’t thought about the question to be striking, because it means that I as a naive outsider can ask natural-seeming questions that haven’t been considered before by an expert in the field. I think what is going on here is that I and my interlocutor are using different paradigms (in the Kuhnian sense) for determining what questions are worth asking in a field. But while there is a sense in which the other person’s paradigm is more trustworthy — since it arose from a consensus of experts in the relevant field — that doesn’t mean that it’s absolutely reliable. Paradigms tend to blind one to evidence or problems that don’t fit into that paradigm, and paradigm shifts in science aren’t really that rare. (In addition, many fields including machine learning don’t even have a single agreed-upon paradigm.)

I think that as a scientist (or really, even as a citizen) it is important to be able to see outside one’s own paradigm. I currently think that I do a good job of this, but it seems to me that there’s a big danger of becoming more entrenched as I get older. Based on the above experiences, I plan to use the following test: When someone asks me a question about my field, how often have I not thought about it before? How tempted am I to say, “That question isn’t interesting”? If these start to become more common, then I’ll know something has gone wrong.

A few miscellaneous observations:

  • There are several people I know who routinely have answers to whatever questions I ask. Interestingly, they tend to be considered slightly “crackpot-ish” within their field; and they might also be less successful by conventional metrics, relatively to how smart they are considered by their colleagues. I think this is a result of the fact that most academic fields over-reward progress within that field’s paradigm and under-reward progress outside of it.
  • Beyond “slightly crakpot-ish academics”, the other set of people who routinely have answers to my questions are philosophers and some people in program manager roles (this includes certain types of VCs as well).
  • I would guess that in general technical fields that overlap with the humanities are more likely to take a broad view and not get stuck in a single paradigm. For instance, I would expect political scientists to have thought about most of the political science questions I mentioned above; however, I haven’t talked to enough political scientists (or social scientists in general) to have much confidence in this.
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2 Responses to Thinking Outside One’s Paradigm

  1. jrgauthier says:

    Great post, Jacob! I do the same thing — I keep a few scattered text files tracking questions I want to pose to physicists, microbiologists, etc. etc. I luckily often get the chance because I live on a college campus.

    Many of my questions are more basic/fundamental than the ones you posed. “What are the real sources of stochasticity in the universe, if any?” “Is direct democracy tenable today?”
    Like you, I find a lot of people who don’t have a ready answer, but most people are willing to spar a bit and make up an argument. In the worst case, we can discuss why it is that the question is not relevant to the field / missing a premise / etc.

    Sometimes random questions in our own field pop into my head as well. “What might be wrong about reinforcement learning as a paradigm?” “How much does neuroscience matter for a cognitive science?”
    I’ve started making a point to write these down as well and make time to develop my own answers. Maybe they should become blog posts. 🙂

    Resolutions I take from this post (in the spirit of the new year!):
    — Flag moments when newbies ask me questions and I don’t know the answer.
    — Leave “negative time” where I can pose these sorts of basic questions to myself.
    — Make the time to seriously answer these questions.

    Happy holidays from Arizona!

    • jsteinhardt says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! I hope to write a follow-up about questions in ML that are under-studied due to not fitting into an established paradigm, if you have ideas as well I’d be interested to hear them.

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