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The Power and Risk of Buzz Words?

Ideally, science is motivated by the curiosity of individuals and success depends on their ability to formulate well structured questions about important phenomenon. But in practice, science requires resources and these resources depend on the ability of individuals to convince those with the resources that they have an answer to some important contemporary problem. 

The process of convincing the people with the resources to fund your curiosity often hinges on the ability to provide a simple, easy to understand answer to the complex problem. This is where having the right buzz word can make all the difference. For example, in seeking funds to explore the teaming of humans with autonomous systems, one might frame the problem in terms of self-organizing dynamics or trust

I think a strong case can be made that both words are valid descriptions of important aspects of the natural phenomenon. And conversely, a case can be made that both are 'buzz' words. That is, they are fashionable terms or jargon that tend to be open to a broad range of interpretations and uses. 

As buzz words, both terms tend to suggest ways to reduce the complex problem into simpler terms. For example, the term self-organizing systems can suggest reducing the phenomenon to a particular model (e.g., coupled pendulums) or to a particular methodology (e.g., 1/f).  Similarly, trust can suggest reducing the problem of human-technology interactions to simple analogs of human-human interactions. In both cases, the buzz words tend to reduce the problem and to narrow attention to specific dimensions that are familiar and potentially manageable. Somehow the problem becomes less mysterious and there appear to be obvious solutions. 

While the reductions and suggestions of solutions are extremely useful for marketing work to funders and gaining resources, there are also obvious dangers. Too often, the reductions associated with buzz words tend to hide the natural complexity - trivializing the natural phenomenon. Thus, if the researchers get caught up in the 'buzz' of marketing - then research programs can end up being framed around the trivializations, rather than the real phenomenon. In the worse case, the Buzz words become the answers, rather than the questions; experiments often become demonstrations of trivial relations, rather than tests of interesting hypotheses; and the results tend to have little practical value relative to solving the actual phenomenon (e.g., how to improve performance of human-autonomy teams). 

For me, self-organization and trust suggest important questions about the nature of human-autonomy teaming. However, I get worried when I see them being marketed as 'answers.'



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