I don’t want your ideas

Tommaso Dorigo published a blog post on the Science 2.0 platform, where he’s been publishing his writing, that I would have liked to read. It was about whether neural networks could help design particle detectors on accelerators of the future. This is an intriguing idea considering neural networks have been pressed into improving diagnostic and problem-solving tasks in various other fields in an effort to leapfrog over barriers to the field’s expansion. And particle physics is direly in need of such efforts given the increasing gap between theoretical and experimental results.

However, I couldn’t concentrate on Dorigo’s piece because the moment I realised that he was the author (having discovered the piece through its headline), my mind was befouled by the impression I have of him as a person – which is poor. This was the result of an interaction he had had on Twitter with astrophysicist Katherine Mack last year, in which he came across – from my POV – as an insensitive and small-minded person. I had written shortly after on the basis of this interaction that as much as we need more scientific insights, they or their brilliance should not excuse troubling behaviour on the scientist’s part.

In other words, no matter how brilliant the scientist, if he is going to joke about matters no one should be joking about and simply being juvenile in his conduct, then he should not be accommodated in academia – or in public discourse – without sufficient precautions that will prevent him from damaging the morale of his non-male colleagues and peers. I am aware that there is no way Dorigo’s unwholesome ideas can affect my life but at the same time I don’t want to consume what he publishes and so contribute to the demand for his writing (even passively). This isn’t a permanent write-off: Dorigo is yet to apologise for his words (that I know of); silent repentance is not useful for those who witnessed that very public exchange with Mack.

However, at the end of all this, there is no way for me to remove the idea of neural networks designing particle detectors from my consciousness. Plus given that ideas in science have to be attributed to those who originated them, this means I can’t explore Dorigo’s idea without reading more of Dorigo’s writing.

At this point, I am tempted to ask that publishers, distributors, aggregators and platforms – all entities that share and distribute content on various platforms and through different services – ensure that the name of the author is present and accessible in the platform/service-specific metadata. This is because more and more people are starting to have discussions about whether genius should excuse, say, misogyny and concluding that it shouldn’t. People are also becoming more conscious of whose writing they are consuming and whose they are actively avoiding for various reasons. These decisions matter, and content distributors need to assist them actively.

For example, I came upon Dorigo’s article via a Google News Alert for ‘high-energy physics’. The corresponding email alert looked like this:


The headline, publisher’s name and the first score or so words of the article are visible in the article preview provided by Google. In the first item: the fact that it is also a press release is mentioned, but I am not sure if this is a regular feature. Although it is not immediately evident if the publisher is who it says it is, Google does not mask the URL if you hover over the link, there is only a forwarding prefix (`google.com/url?rct=j&sa=t&url=<link>`).

I have essentially framed my argument as a contest between discovering new ideas and avoiding others. For example, by choosing to avoid Dorigo’s writing, I am also choosing to avoid discovering the arguably unique ideas that Dorigo might have – and in the long-run give up on all that knowledge. However, this is an insular counterargument because there is a lot to be learnt out there. There is no reason I should have to put up with someone like Dorigo. Should a subsequent question arise as to whether we should tolerate someone who is doing something unique while also being misogynistic, etc.: the answer is still ‘no’ because it remains that nothing should excuse bad behaviour of that kind.