Status signaling in academia

This is how math grad students talk:

I don’t really understand this very simple concept. What is the essence of this object, and why was it needed at all? I perhaps need to construct ten different examples or think of alternate definitions before I can successfully narrow down what this means.

No. Not really. This is how math grad students (including me) talk:

Oh you’ve heard of cohomology, but what about quantum cohomology? This *insert name* French mathematician has done some amazing work in this regard, and here’s a fairly advanced book that discusses it.

Of course this changes with time. As grad students become more competent in the latter half of their PhDs, conversations like these become more rare. However, there are still a lot of big words thrown around without caution.

Almost all of this can be explained by status signaling. Graduate students work in fairly isolated and non-overlapping research areas, and are hence free from the academic competition that their undergrad experiences entailed. However, there is still an intrinsic human need for them to signal to each other their relative intelligence and their imagined positions in the status hierarchy. And what better way to do this than to lob some polysyllabic words from their research fields, waiting and hoping for their audience to become suitably impressed, who in turn are getting ready to lob some long words of their own.

However, status signaling explains much, much more than just grad school conversations in lowly student bars. Robin Hanson claims that it explains almost all of modern human society. The more I think about this article, the more true it rings. The post below is also majorly influenced by the genius of this article by Freddie deBoer.

Status signaling in academia

If you’re a researcher in the United States or any other “First World” country, how would you signal your status as an intelligent and capable scientist? You would try to discover something new, create a new technology, or perhaps prove famous scientists wrong. Note that these do run the gamut of almost all avenues still open to researchers in these countries to signal their superior positions in the status hierarchy. They do really have to create something new.

However, if you are a researcher in the “Developing World”, perhaps in a country like India, things are slightly different. You can of course signal status by creating a brand new technology, or perhaps invent a paradigm-shifting theory. However, you can also earn status by being proficient at the newest fields and technologies that were only just created in the “First World”, and that your other colleagues are too slow or stupid to understand. Given below are some conversations that the author has created out of thin air

Are you aware of Machine Learning? Oh it is so interesting. There was recently a paper in the journal Nature on how it has come to beat humans at Chess and Go. We are using this esoteric kind of unsupervised learning in our lab to harvest data on genes.

You must have heard of Bitcoin. But have you heard of Blockchain? It is the technology that all cryptocurrencies are based on. I have included a module on it to teach my students in the Financial literacy course, and also regularly lecture corporations on their importance. Cryptocurrencies are the future, and it is a shame that our country doesn’t understand it yet

Oh you’re interested in learning String Theory? Well the first thing that you have to do is read the latest paper by Edward Witten. Oh you can’t understand the Math in it? Well, keep trying, and one day you will. I believe that the math used in that paper should be taught in elementary school itself.

The last conversation is real. The former Physics grad student (who then quit Physics to completely change fields) was perhaps trying to signal his own intelligence by saying that the latest paper by Witten was easy to read. It is in fact highly advanced, and would perhaps take most Physics or Mathematics researchers many months if not years to understand. Definitely not elementary school material.

Do we see a pattern? If I am a researcher working in India, I don’t really need to create whole new technologies or paradigms. A much easier way is to just import those paradigms from the “West”, become proficient in them before others (or at least in throwing around the relevant buzzwords), and consequently signal that I’m smarter and a more capable researcher than my colleagues. Of course other ways of signaling this are writing more papers than my colleagues, having my papers published in better journals, having a higher h-index, etc. Although the best way to signal status is still creating something brand new, the other ways are just so much easier that the law of “least work” precludes those from ever happening in the developing world.

I recently read the following comment on a substack article (that I cannot recall):

Chinese and Indian research is basically a paper mill. Let’s get real, nothing of value ever gets produced there.

As an Indian researcher, I felt bad upon reading this. However, this did ring true in significant ways. Although scientific advances do come out of India from time to time, nothing is usually big enough to “hit the headlines”. Of course there is one major exception: the claim by IISc scientists to have achieved superconductivity at room temperature for the first time in history. No one was surprised when this was proven to be a fraudulent claim. Another such claim doing the rounds these days is a Nature article published by an NCBS lab, which also turned out to have fraudulent data. One of the best research labs in the country willfully manipulated data to have their paper published, wasting taxpayers’ money and further reducing trust in Indian research.

This contrasts with my experiences as a student in India. My classmates and colleagues were some of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and I continue to correspond with and learn from them. Why was it that a country, with so many intelligent and hard working people, not capable of creating a good research culture that can contribute something meaningful to the world? I think that it is a case of misplaced incentives.

As researchers, our main incentive is discovering new truths about the world around us. However, an equally important (if not more important) incentive is signaling to others that we are intelligent. And by the law of “least resistance”, we want to find the shortest and easiest path to do so. Being versed at the latest “western” theories and technologies is a much easier path than actually creating something from scratch. Hence, we inevitably choose that path. Setting up whole labs devoted to reinforcement learning, creating a research group on String Theory in all major universities, etc.

Status signaling in other domains

One form of status signaling that is often on display is between researchers and entrepreneurs. When Elon Musk invented Neuralink for instance, lots of neuroscience researchers gave interviews in which they said that Musk had not created anything new, and was merely mooching off of their research that had been in the public domain for many years. Musk, on his part, emphasized that writing papers that no one reads is the easy part, and actually engineering products and bringing them to the world is the much harder part, that only he purportedly had done. Hence, researchers and entrepreneurs often engage in status battles.

Another form of status battle takes place between different economic strata. For instance, slightly lower earning professions (like researchers, bureaucrats, etc) are often engaged in status battles with high earning professions like bankers, tech workers, etc. The “we don’t get paid very much, but we are smarter and do what we love” refrain is often heard from researchers who actively hate their lives under the aegis of university bureaucracies, but want to signal a higher status. Of course the “how come you are smarter if I am the one earning much more money” retort is then in turn heard from bankers consultants, who lead an overworked and sometimes miserable existence in order to be able to signal a higher status.

Conclusion

Robin Hanson claims that most of what we do is status signaling. I want to strengthen this claim by saying that almost all of that we do is status signaling. We don’t really want to understand the world. We want to be perceived as understanding of the world, or at least as curious about the world. We want to signal our good looks by recalling stories of people expressing interest in us, our intelligence by talking about reading books and studying in reputed colleges (some take it too far and discuss IQ test scores), our virtues by talking about the disadvantaged and how we have stepped in to help them, etc. Very often, this leads one away from actually trying to understand the world, helping the disadvantaged, etc.

Of course, writing this post itself is an attempt to signal my status. I’m trying to prove that I’ve caught on to other people who indulge in status signaling, and that I myself am above all this. However, it would also be of immense value for me if I’m able to figure out a way to escape taking part in status battles with the people in my life. And if I remain in academia, it would enrich my life to no end if I’m able to pursue my curiosity without indulging in status games with the rest of the researchers in my field. Here’s to hoping.

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Graduate student

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