Monday, April 11, 2011

Ranking Ideas In Science

Last summer I bought and read The 100 Most Important Science Ideas after noticing it in a bookstore (my first mistake--I should have checked the ratings online first). I learned a fair amount from it, but I have to say it fares miserably in its attempt to actually rank ideas in science. First, it only covers three subjects: genetics, physics, and math. Second, even within those subjects, the topics are listed merely by date of discovery, not importance. Finally, there was little to no space devoted to methodology.

Subsequent attempts to find lists of the most important science ideas, via google searches and cold e-mails to potentially knowledgeable people, have also left me empty-handed. Lame.

A good system to rank science ideas, both historically and as they are published, would be so money. The historical list would be really useful for educating the next generations and as outreach to the public. And dynamic, post-peer review ratings would help researchers use their precious time reading the best papers, instead of relying solely on the impact factor of the journal.

Given the above, you can imagine my immense pleasure to see Scott Aaronson's announcement today of a site that allows anyone to vote on milestones in computer science.

There are at least a couple of ways this voting could be done. The first way, as they currently have the site set up, is that users can pick and choose to vote any individual idea on the list up or down. The advantage of this is that users can choose to vote only on the ideas that they actually know something about.

The second way is that the site could present two options to users, the users would choose which of those two are better, and then an algorithm would use those preferences to rank all the ideas. The advantage of this is that it's more fun. Indeed, you might recall that a similar system was employed by the young Mark Zuckerberg in facemash. Wait, you haven't seen The Social Network? C'mon now, it's #190 on the top 250. Step your game up.

Anyway, bravo to Jason, Ammar, and Scott. Now we just need to create similar lists for all other scientific disciplines, incentivize people to vote on them, and aggregate the results. We'll also def need some kind of normalization to account for the fact that computational pursuits will have at least 10x the votes, because those people are on their computers like all day.