Guest Post by Oded Goldreich

[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

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

So this is what “FOCS” stands for

At the STOC 2009 business meeting, Silvio Micali announced a new conference, Innovations in Computer Science (ICS), whose first edition will be in Beijing in January, 2010.

This is a conference that aims to be the venue for the first papers in new areas. This prompted people to ask me afterward if we shouldn’t start a new conference devoted to second papers. I thought this was an appealing ideas, and perhaps the conference could be called Follows-up in Computer Science; a snarky colleague, however, suggested that we already have two such conferences and they are called STOC and FOCS.

ICS has a steering committee entirely composed of past and future Turing Award winners, so surely they know what they are doing. A common complaint I heard, however, was that it isn’t clear exactly what the motivations and the goals of this conference are, what papers are being sought (surely you cannot fill up a 30-paper conference with first papers, each opening up a new area), and so on.

Helpfully, Oded Goldreich, one of the promoters of ICS, has written a statement about the goals ICS, as well as a longer essay on What is wrong with STOC and FOCS. The arguments made in the essay are Oded’s motivations for the new conference.

As I have said before, I agree with the importance of conceptual innovations, and of simplicity, but I disagree with the claim that our current review system undervalues such points. Hence, I think that initiatives such as the “letter on conceptual contributions” and now ICS will not correct an imbalance, but rather will create an imbalance, penalizing the necessary, hard, and unglamorous technical work by which we understand new ideas, exploit and simplify their applications, and create the conditions such that the next new ideas are “in the air” and the right person at the right time can get them, and so on.

Giving American Flags and Conceptual Contributions to Orphans

I am worried that, lately, I am agreeing too much with James Lee. I hope my friends will stage an intervention if I start saying things like “…this group acts by isometries on Hilbert space…”

I agree with his choice of favorite STOC’08 talks, but also with his comments on the statement on the importance of conceptual contributions in theoretical computer science, which was recently written by a group of distinguished theoreticians, was briefly discussed at the STOC’08 business meeting, and was commented upon here, here and here.

In Mr. Spritz Goes to Washington, Lisa and Homer help pass a bill to divert flights from over their house by tacking their air traffic bill on a “giving orphans American flags” bill.

I felt that the statement (and the subsequent public and private discussions) similarly mixes the unobjectionable with the potentially controversial. There have been two themes that are entirely agreeable.

One is the importance, and value, of simplicity in proofs. This goes without saying, and I think that the community does a good job in recognizing simple resolutions of long-standing open questions, as well as new simplified proofs of known results. In fact, I think it would be hard to find someone who suggests that, all other things being equal, a harder proof is preferable to a simple proof.

Another is the importance of introducing new concepts and models. Indeed, there would be no theoretical computer science without its “concepts,” and the field would die if it would stop innovating. Again, nobody could possibly argue against the importance of new definitions and models.

Then, there is something which is said in the statement in a way that is not self-evident:

Once understood, conceptual aspects tend to be viewed as obvious, which actually means that they have become fully incorporated in the worldview of the expert. This positive effect is actually a source of trouble in the evaluation process, because the evaluators forget that these contributions were not obvious at all before being made.

Indeed, our community should be warned of dismissing such contributions by saying “yes, but that’s obvious”; when somebody says such a thing, one should ask “was it obvious to you before reading this article?”

I think (and I echo things that were better said in comments that I linked to above) that if something looks obvious after reading a new paper for the first time (as opposed to looking back at a classical paper from twenty or more years ago), then the paper is not making a valuable conceptual contribution. The time that it takes to read a paper cannot be sufficient to “alter the worldview” of the reader: the concept must have been “in the air.”

To be sure, usually even the greatest discoveries are in the air when they are made, a point which I want to write about in a different post. The fundamental difference, however, is that reading about a good conceptual discovery for the first time is startling and exciting, like hearing a good joke for the first time. If an expert feels nothing when reading about a conceptual discovery, it is usually a very bad sign, although one can come up with various exceptions.

Often quoted exceptions are some early papers in the great foundations-of-cryptography revolution of 1982, especially the Goldwasser-Micali-Rackoff paper on Zero Knowledge, which ended up appearing in 1985. What was special about that line of work is that it was not in the air, but, rather, ahead of its time. Obviously, I wasn’t there, so I don’t know, but I guess that people at the time were not saying “this work is obvious,” but rather “what the hell is this?,” which is quite different.

A final remark is that when a paper presents a new model or problem (and I understand that these are the kind of papers that the statement refers to), there can be no “intrinsic” value attributed the model or the problem; the value will be in the understanding and general progress that will come by studying the model and finding solutions to the problem, and how this will connect with different problems, different models, and applications.

There seem to be only two ways to validate a new conceptual proposal: one is to present preliminary evidence that one can do interesting things with it. (I think, in this case, too much emphasis is put on achieving quantitative improvement; I am impressed enough to see known, hard, results, recovered in a completely different way.) The other is the “gut feeling” of the expert, which feels that the new ideas are the “right” way to think about the issue at hand.

It seems right to reject a paper that fails both tests.