[Oded Goldreich has written an essay on the relative influence of "intellectual" versus "operational" goals in motivating our work, and on how this balance has changed in the past thirty years. In this guest post he tells us a bit about his methodology, his conclusions, and the changes he would like to see. -- L.T.]

The purpose of this post is to call your attention to my essay “On the status of intellectual values in TOC”, which is available from the web-page
www.wisdom.weizmann.ac.il/~oded/on-toc-val.html

Before providing a brief outline of this essay, let me clarify a few issues.
First, the term “values” is adopted from Sociology, where it is defined as the set of beliefs of a society (regarding what is correct, good, and/or desirable). By “intellectual values” I mean a specific type of values; that is, those that advocate curiosity, study, and understanding. In particular, I believe that the TOC community holds (and should hold) both intellectual values and instrumental values. The issue at hand is the balance between them. Second, I am talking about intellectual values, not about intellectual activities; that is, I’m talking about what exists in the background. Third, I am talking about the TOC community as a social group, not about individuals who are members in that group; that is, I’m talking about the sociology of TOC. And last, my intention is to call for corrective actions, not to complain on the current state of affairs.

In the essay I study the status of intellectual values in the TOC community during the last three decades. Specifically, analyzing the motivational parts of papers that appeared in several STOC proceedings, I found evidence to my feeling that the importance attributed to intellectual values has declined in the last decade (or so). The said evidence is conditioned on a number of assumptions, which are spelled out in the essay.

I then discuss three theories that may be used to explain the decline of intellectual values in TOC (or rather three phenomena that may cause this decline). This discussion may be of interest also to readers that are unconvinced by my thesis and/or my empirical study, because it indicates potential dangers that loom over TOC.

The most intrinsically oriented theory asserts that intellectual values play a bigger role in the early stages of the development of a field, a stage which is marked by many works of explorative nature. In the essay I explain why I do not believe in this theory in general, and point out that it fails to explain the specific data that I gathered. Instead, I suggest to seek the causes elsewhere, specifically, in sociology. Two sociological theories seem most applicable here:
The first refers to the dynamics of the field (i.e., TOC) itself, while the second refers to the effect of society at large.

The first sociological theory asserts that as a field become more successful
(or, actually, is considered so from the outside), the competition within the field intensifies, and this creates pressures towards “objective” measures of accomplishment that can be reviewed from the outside. Such measures are typically oblivious of intellectual contents. Thus, under the reign of (externally monitored) competition, intellectual values decline.

The second sociological theory refers to the effect of the Zeitgeist on any activity that takes place in society (including scientific research). Specifically, the claim here is that intellectual values are in decline in the Western society for more than one hundred years, and that the decline has become more and more drastic with time.

Although my real objective is to advocate a restoration of the intellectual values in TOC, I believe it is helpful to study the past as well as the forces that might have affected it and may affect the future. In particular, the claim that things were different in the past provides some evidence that they may be reversed in the future. I admit that opposing the social forces that cause the decline of intellectual values is far from being easy. But I think that such an opposition is possible, especially since the TOC community is relatively small (which facilitates the creation of solidarity and the effecting of change). If the TOC community is determined to change its culture, then no outsider can prevent this. The outsiders will have to adapt to what the TOC community values; they have no choice (i.e., there is no alternative TOC community). It is only up to us!

In order to avoid claims of being too lofty, I provide a few concrete suggestions for the defense and promotion of intellectual values in TOC. These suggestions refer to actions that individuals can take, but they will be effective only if these individual actions will become sufficiently common.

  • Let the intellectual values guide you in your own research and in your interaction with other researchers.
  • When presenting a scientific work, provide an explicit account of the (current) motivation for this work.
  • When serving on either a PC or a hiring/promotion committee, try to steer the committee towards taking decisions on the basis of a real understanding of the contents of the work being considered rather than on the basis of some superficial “objective-looking” measures.
  • Object to the dominance of vulgar competition wherever it emerges.

Indeed, individual actions may be much more effective if they are socially coordinated. Thus, it may be useful to make these actions a topic of social discussion, to form groups that are committed to promote them, to create forums that promote them, etc.

A final note: Due mainly to technical reasons, I expect not to be able to participate in possible discussion that may evolve in this blog. Thus, if you wish to communicate with me regarding these issues, please write me directly (via email). (I will not object if you later post our correspondance.)

Oded Goldreich

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