Conferences and seminars as cargo cults

I wrote about the wastefulness of physically travelling to conferences or to give seminars, because one could give a presentation via a video call over the internet (http://sanderheinsalu.com/ajaveeb/?p=442). Other than habit or tradition, why would scientists organise conferences and seminars with physical attendance? One explanation I offered was that physical presence is a commitment device. Herding is another justification to any tradition. Irrationality is a third, which complements herding.

Holding conferences and seminars may be rational if top researchers are presenting and providing feedback, because there is much to learn from them. Such workshops may not be useful if the participants are not on the research frontier. Nonetheless, the low-achievers may organise such gatherings, because they want to publish like the high-achievers, and they perceive that the high-achievers benefit from the research meetings of large groups. A cargo cult means imitating someone’s behaviour to reach the same goals as them, but without understanding the reason why their actions lead to the results they do. The lack of comprehension of the underlying mechanism leads the imitation subtly astray, so it does not obtain the desired results. The conferences and seminars of low-achievers are a cargo cult if the following hold: only the participation of high-achievers makes research meetups useful, the high-achievers do not attend low-prestige meetups, and the low-achievers do not understand the above. It is difficult to test the usefulness of any action in research, because publication success is noisy, influenced by many factors and with long delays. Thus it is difficult to test whether there is a cargo cult in the less advanced levels of the research community.

Besides improving quality, the feedback of top researchers can increase publication chances by making the research of those lower in the scientific hierarchy conform to the tastes of the top. This is a horizontal differentiation effect – matching idiosyncratic tastes. It is not vertical differentiation (improving quality). If top people as referees and editors favour a certain field of research or ideology, then presenting work to them may uncover their biases and enable an author to pander to them.

Another way that presenting helps with publication is the familiarity effect. When the referee or editor has seen the paper presented before reading it, then the content is familiar and thus easier to understand. The reader may interpret the ease of comprehension as clarity of the paper, not familiarity of the material. Clear writing and well-structured ideas are a positive signal to the referee and increase the publication chances.

If the second-best people imitate the highest-achievers, then the third-best may imitate the second-best, etc. The cargo cults may be multilayered. Such imitation of imitators is called herding. It may sometimes be individually rational, but may lead to socially suboptimal ignoring of later information in favour of imitating the decisions of those who acted based on earlier info. Herding strengthens the effects of mistaken imitation, thus worsening cargo cult effects.

Cargo cults occur widely – any time there is a fad, fashion or bubble, some people jump on the bandwagon because their role models did, without asking why the role models did so. The personal situation of the trailbreakers may make it rational for them to act in a certain way, but the different circumstances of the followers may make imitation counterproductive for them. An example is creating a financial bubble to profit from it (pump-and-dump strategy). The starters profit from the amount invested by the followers. The last people to become followers lose their investment when the bubble bursts. I am not the first to compare the research community to a pyramid scheme – search „Profzi scheme” online.

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