Adversarial Collaborations for Physics

Sometimes physics debates get ugly. For the scientists reading this, imagine your worst opponents. Think of the people who always misinterpret your work while using shoddy arguments to prop up their own, where every question at a talk becomes a screaming match until you just stop going to the same conferences at all.

Now, imagine writing a paper with those people.

Adversarial collaborations, subject of a recent a contest on the blog Slate Star Codex, are a proposed method for resolving scientific debates. Two scientists on opposite sides of an argument commit to writing a paper together, describing the overall state of knowledge on the topic. For the paper to get published, both sides have to sign off on it: they both have to agree that everything in the paper is true. This prevents either side from cheating, or from coming back later with made-up objections: if a point in the paper is wrong, one side or the other is bound to catch it.

This won’t work for the most vicious debates, when one (or both) sides isn’t interested in common ground. But for some ongoing debates in physics, I think this approach could actually help.

One advantage of adversarial collaborations is in preventing accusations of bias. The debate between dark matter and MOND-like proposals is filled with these kinds of accusations: claims that one group or another is ignoring important data, being dishonest about the parameters they need to fit, or applying standards of proof they would never require of their own pet theory. Adversarial collaboration prevents these kinds of accusations: whatever comes out of an adversarial collaboration, both sides would make sure the other side didn’t bias it.

Another advantage of adversarial collaborations is that they make it much harder for one side to move the goalposts, or to accuse the other side of moving the goalposts. From the sidelines, one thing that frustrates me watching string theorists debate whether the theory can describe de Sitter space is that they rarely articulate what it would take to decisively show that a particular model gives rise to de Sitter. Any conclusion of an adversarial collaboration between de Sitter skeptics and optimists would at least guarantee that both parties agreed on the criteria. Similarly, I get the impression that many debates about interpretations of quantum mechanics are bogged down by one side claiming they’ve closed off a loophole with a new experiment, only for the other to claim it wasn’t the loophole they were actually using, something that could be avoided if both sides were involved in the experiment from the beginning.

It’s possible, even likely, that no-one will try adversarial collaboration for these debates. Even if they did, it’s quite possible the collaborations wouldn’t be able to agree on anything! Still, I have to hope that someone takes the plunge and tries writing a paper with their enemies. At minimum, it’ll be an interesting read!

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5 thoughts on “Adversarial Collaborations for Physics

  1. itaibn

    Another difficulty with adversarial collaboration is that no person can fully represent either side. Even if both collaborators manage to write up something that is mutually satisfactory amongst themselves, if many people take a particular side for a different reason they can accuse that their preferred line of argument has not been addressed. I expect a bias in successfully completed adversarial collaborations that most collaborators would start off with more similar opinions than is typical among the two side, and this can help the accusation that one collaborator or another does not faithfully represent the side they’re taking.

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    1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

      That’s true. I think that for the more high-profile debates, there is often at least one person on each side who is trusted enough that most people wouldn’t object to them being their “representative”. But it’s definitely something to watch out for, especially when there are actually more than two “sides”.

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  2. ohwilleke

    In law, there is something similar to an adversarial collaboration. Many kinds of documents must be submitted jointedly by both sides for approval, but usually, they involve either a summary of what someone else has said, or have breakouts for ‘one side says, but the other sides says” in addition to consensus portions. Probably the closest thing in my world to an adversarial collaboration is a settlement agreement, but that only works once you’ve actually reached a settlement.

    I think your common on string theory captures a lot of the issue. The string theory-de sitter papers are works in progress and strong conjectures, not definitive results or proofs, for the most part, and that requires some benefit of that doubt that it is hard to achieve with adversaries involved.

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    1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

      Interesting regarding legal documents. In one sense, “what evidence do we have?” is the most important question to agree on with an adversarial collaboration, resolving the dispute as a whole is often too much to hope for. It sounds like the legal system already has that part (somewhat) figured out. I suppose inquisitorial judicial systems are more “science-like” in that the judge is ostensibly just trying to figure out the truth, but that does away with adversaries altogether.

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