Knowing When to Hold/Fold ‘Em in Science

The things one learns from Wikipedia. For example, today I learned that the country song “The Gambler” was selected for preservation by the US Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or artistically significant.”

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,

Know when to walk away, know when to run.

Knowing when to “hold ’em” or “fold ’em” is important in life in general, but it’s particularly important in science.

And not just on poker night

As scientists, we’re often trying to do something no-one else has done before. That’s exciting, but it’s risky too: sometimes whatever we’re trying simply doesn’t work. In those situations, it’s important to recognize when we aren’t making progress, and change tactics. The trick is, we can’t give up too early either: science is genuinely hard, and sometimes when we feel stuck we’re actually close to the finish line. Knowing which is which, when to “hold” and when to “fold”, is an essential skill, and a hard one to learn.

Sometimes, we can figure this out mathematically. Computational complexity theory classifies calculations by how difficult they are, including how long they take. If you can estimate how much time you should take to do a calculation, you can decide whether you’ll finish it in a reasonable amount of time. If you just want a rough guess, you can do a simpler version of the calculation, and see how long that takes, then estimate how much longer the full one will. If you figure out you’re doomed, then it’s time to switch to a more efficient algorithm, or a different question entirely.

Sometimes, we don’t just have to consider time, but money as well. If you’re doing an experiment, you have to estimate how much the equipment will cost, and how much it will cost to run it. Experimenters get pretty good at estimating these things, but they still screw up sometimes and run over budget. Occasionally this is fine: LIGO didn’t detect anything in its first eight-year run, but they upgraded the machines and tried again, and won a Nobel prize. Other times it’s a disaster, and money keeps being funneled into a project that never works. Telling the difference is crucial, and it’s something we as a community are still not so good at.

Sometimes we just have to follow our instincts. This is dangerous, because we have a bias (the “sunk cost fallacy”) to stick with something if we’ve already spent a lot of time or money on it. To counteract that, it’s good to cultivate a bias in the opposite direction, which you might call “scientific impatience”. Getting frustrated with slow progress may not seem productive, but it keeps you motivated to search for a better way. Experienced scientists get used to how long certain types of project take. Too little progress, and they look for another option. This can fail, killing a project that was going to succeed, but it can also prevent over-investment in a failing idea. Only a mix of instincts keeps the field moving.

In the end, science is a gamble. Like the song, we have to know when to hold ’em and fold ’em, when to walk away, and when to run an idea as far as it will go. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s science.

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