Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Wolfram's Approach DOES Deserve Better Than The Reception It's Gotten

scientificamerican  |  Most scientists would readily tell you that their discipline is—and always has been—a collaborative, communal process. Nobody can revolutionize a scientific field without first getting the critical appraisal and eventual validation of their peers. Today this requirement is performed through peer review—a process Wolfram’s critics say he has circumvented with his announcement. “Certainly there’s no reason that Wolfram and his colleagues should be able to bypass formal peer review,” Mack says. “And they definitely have a much better chance of getting useful feedback from the physics community if they publish their results in a format we actually have the tools to deal with.”

Mack is not alone in her concerns. “It’s hard to expect physicists to comb through hundreds of pages of a new theory out of the blue, with no buildup in the form of papers, seminars and conference presentations,” says Sean Carroll, a physicist at Caltech. “Personally, I feel it would be more effective to write short papers addressing specific problems with this kind of approach rather than proclaiming a breakthrough without much vetting.”

So why did Wolfram announce his ideas this way? Why not go the traditional route? “I don't really believe in anonymous peer review,” he says. “I think it’s corrupt. It’s all a giant story of somewhat corrupt gaming, I would say. I think it’s sort of inevitable that happens with these very large systems. It’s a pity.”

So what are Wolfram’s goals? He says he wants the attention and feedback of the physics community. But his unconventional approach—soliciting public comments on an exceedingly long paper—almost ensures it shall remain obscure. Wolfram says he wants physicists’ respect. The ones consulted for this story said gaining it would require him to recognize and engage with the prior work of others in the scientific community.

And when provided with some of the responses from other physicists regarding his work, Wolfram is singularly unenthused. “I’m disappointed by the naivete of the questions that you’re communicating,” he grumbles. “I deserve better.”