Live Fast, Publish Hard

Ever hear the quip that a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into proofs? Well, maybe if you up the input, you up output….

After my last post on statistical estimation of the effects of doping on baseball players, I was thinking something righteous like “People don’t need steroids to compete, they should do it on determination alone.” Sounds reasonable, but what if its not a game? What if giving soldiers alertness drugs could raise the likelihood they survive combat? What if those drugs could promise to keep them awake for weeks at a time? DARPA is constantly testing alertness drugs for just that purpose. Anyone who’s driven across US Interstate 10 has seen the variety of ephedrine-based products for truck drivers on overnight hauls, but this is arguably for their safety, unless you argue that they shouldn’t be allowed to drive unsafe hours in the first place. Use of these types of stimulants for video games seems like an unneccessary physical risk, of course, and I think most people would be disgusted with the accounts of crank pushing by managers of slaughterhouses in “Fast Food Nation,” but what if altering the body with drugs isn’t just for curing diseases, disorders, or meeting safety needs anymore? What if society starts to view this as a means of self improvement?

Here’s where the academic angle comes in: “1 in 5 ‘Nature’ readers … say they up their mental performance with drugs such as Ritalin, Provigil, and Inderal.” This came from an online poll with 1,400 respondents. Cheers to Tim for pointing this article out to me. The numbers are new, but the act certainly isn’t. Many respected contributors to civilization have used stimulants to increase concentration and creativity. I’m not just talking Paul Erdös and Phillip K. Dick. Lots of people use caffiene, specifically for work purposes. I find caffeine is the easiest way to start small talk at conferences and meetings. It seems just about everyone in academia likes to talk about caffeine like Ken Kesey talked about DMT. But what about Ritalin/Adderall?

The use of amphetamines was Erdös’ personal choice, but the real problem is that when drugs and careers mix, some of the indipendant choice is lost. A truck driver may feel the pressure to take stimulants because of competition with drivers who are willing to take on extended hours. If one military confronts another who doesn’t sleep, all soldiers may be compelled to take the same chemicals or suffer a disadvantage. Could a “free” government ever demand that soldiers take drugs? With 1/5 of scientists potentially on speed, will I ever be pressured into using stimulants simply because my colleagues and competitors are? What happens when human ability is no longer considored good enough to drive human achievement?

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5 responses to “Live Fast, Publish Hard

  1. This is the moral argument of some of the anti-suicide (anti-right-to-death) people: that although suicide is properly an intrinsic right, for utilitarian purposes we need the criminal barrier to prevent atrocities like government or private insurers requiring it (de jure or de facto) in benefit programs, e.g. you can get decent life insurance for the rest of your life as long as you guarantee at most 10 more years. It’s an interesting question – given the state of things, would it be possible to develop a stable mechanism short of criminalization, which could discourage this outcome?criminalization

    Anyway, I would argue that the era of human achievement is mostly dead anyway, the leftovers only in organized sports; organized wars; and the reckless world of high finance, and these cooling fast. We are in the world of social achievements now, so the human cost will be dramatically refactored.

  2. when reading this i remembered the 2005 meeting of the german physical society (DPG). since it was “Einstein Year” all the faculties met at one time in Berlin with about 6000 attendants. during the whole time Tschibo gave away FREE COFFEE! can you imagine the waste bins? if every physicist was having 2 coffees on average, and nearly no one was using his cup twice, that’s 12000 paper cups a day, probably 6000 in the morning alone! how they managed to keep the place clean is beyond me.

  3. I just can’t imagine the line at the bathroom…

    Seriously, though, this is an interesting point about enhancements. There’s a book called Beggars in Spain about genetically modified people who don’t need to sleep and they’re the new uber-race because they can just keep functioning while the rest of the world needs to rest. Do I feel the need to push myself with speed to work ahead? No, but I can definitely see that happening. There is an incentive – post docs & faculty positions – that comes to those who can “do the most”, so economics dictates that people are going to what ever they think they need to do to reach those goals.

  4. Hey Eric, thanks for the comment. Lets hope we both get tenure before it gets prevalent.

    I delayed my original post because I was looking for a short story I read in the AMS Notices or something similar. It was a fictional news report about a Mathematician with two Fields medals, but who was rapidly mentally degenerating as a result of decades of mental enhancers. In the story, these drugs were banned by the Fields committee, just like steroids at the Olympics, and university researchers were subject to random doping tests. Does anyone out there have a reference to this story?

  5. Nature Vol. 407 No. 6805 (2000); “Futures”, p. 679

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