From Less Wrong:
When looking for information about some area outside of one’s expertise, it is usually a good idea to first ask what academic scholarship has to say on the subject. In many areas, there is no need to look elsewhere for answers: respectable academic authors are the richest and most reliable source of information, and people claiming things completely outside the academic mainstream are almost certain to be crackpots.HT: Overcoming Bias who, being an economist, highlighted this bit:
The trouble is, this is not always the case. Even those whose view of the modern academia is much rosier than mine should agree that it would be astonishing if there didn’t exist at least some areas where the academic mainstream is detached from reality on important issues, while much more accurate views are scorned as kooky (or would be if they were heard at all). Therefore, depending on the area, the fact that a view is way out of the academic mainstream may imply that it's bunk with near-certainty, but it may also tell us nothing if the mainstream standards in the area are especially bad.
I will discuss some heuristics that, in my experience, provide a realistic first estimate of how sound the academic mainstream in a given field is likely to be, and how justified one would be to dismiss contrarians out of hand. These conclusions have come from my own observations of research literature in various fields and some personal experience with the way modern academia operates, and I would be interested in reading others’ opinions.
Low-hanging fruit heuristic
As the first heuristic, we should ask if there is a lot of low-hanging fruit available in the given area, in the sense of research goals that are both interesting and doable. If yes, this means that there are clear paths to quality work open for reasonably smart people with an adequate level of knowledge and resources, which makes it unnecessary to invent clever-looking nonsense instead. In this situation, smart and capable people can just state a sound and honest plan of work on their grant applications and proceed with it.
In contrast, if a research area has reached a dead end and further progress is impossible except perhaps if some extraordinary path-breaking genius shows the way, or in an area that has never even had a viable and sound approach to begin with, it’s unrealistic to expect that members of the academic establishment will openly admit this situation and decide it’s time for a career change. What will likely happen instead is that they’ll continue producing output that will have all the superficial trappings of science and sound scholarship, but will in fact be increasingly pointless and detached from reality.
Arguably, some areas of theoretical physics have reached this state, if we are to trust the critics like Lee Smolin. I am not a physicist, and I cannot judge directly if Smolin and the other similar critics are right, but some powerful evidence for this came several years ago in the form of the Bogdanoff affair, which demonstrated that highly credentialed physicists in some areas can find it difficult, perhaps even impossible, to distinguish sound work from a well-contrived nonsensical imitation. ...MUCH MORE
[But] what happens when a field fails both of them, having no clear research directions and at the same time being highly relevant to ideologues and interest groups? Unsurprisingly, it tends to be really bad.
The clearest example of such a field is probably economics, particularly macroeconomics. … Even a casual inspection of the standards in this field shows clear symptoms of cargo-cult science: weaving complex and abstruse theories that can be made to predict everything and nothing, manipulating essentially meaningless numbers as if they were objectively measurable properties of the real world, experts with the most prestigious credentials dismissing each other as crackpots....
We linked to Feynman's speech within ten days of starting this blog in 2007. Here's a reference from a 2008 post:
One way to ascertain a person's intelligence is to examine how they simplify the seemingly complex.
If you read Richard Feynman's 1974 Caltech Commencement Address "Cargo Cult Science" you get a feel for how a superior mind works. Another example is a comment he made after serving on the Presidential Commission that investigated the space shuttle Challenger disaster:
"For a successful technology," Feynman concluded, "reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.It is almost childlike in its simplicity....