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It’s So Over. Now What?
What is the metascience community to make of the delirious rise and apparent fall of LK-99?
If LK-99 turns out in the end – as it appears as of the time of writing – to be a tantalizing but ultimately failed bit of research, professional naysayers and the established superconductor research community will surely have their victory lap. After all, the overheated claims, social media hype, and countless amateurs dabbling in replication ended up with a scientific nothingburger.
Such condescension is unwarranted. Rather than dismissing the LK-99 moment, we should be celebrating, if not actively championing, the whole crazy discourse that has consumed social media over the last few weeks.
Consider LK-99 as a global spasm of participatory science. arxiv served as a launchpad for disseminating an exciting research opportunity beyond the strictures of traditional scientific publishing. Social media opened up the game, enabling seasoned experts, attention-seeking ignoramuses, weirdo basement tinkerers, and competing laboratories all to push, prod, attack, and defend the opportunity.
The result? More rapid and comprehensive scrutiny of a scientific claim than would have happened through traditional scholarly channels. We also got widespread experimental replication, an inarguably important but low-prestige and frequently underinvested-in part of the usual academic pipeline.
We can also praise LK-99 from the point of view of public pedagogy. It served to massively advance public awareness of the importance of materials science in everyday life. In the public mind, it affirmed replication as a fundamental building block of scientific validity. It highlighted the idea of science as accessible and belonging to the public, rather than the exclusive province of a scholarly high priesthood.
Despite these silver linings, it is easy to dismiss the fervor around LK-99 because it runs so against the grain of what we expect of science. We expect sober institutions run by established experts, carefully crafting experiments and publishing heavily reviewed results over a period of years. This is science as a slow-moving chess game, with a final, conclusive result of “true” or “false” being rendered to the public at the end of the process.
This was not LK-99. LK-99 was all about obsessively checking the prediction markets and a genuinely beautiful Wikipedia page every hour, gleefully and inanely shouting “we’re so back” and “it’s so over” as each new bit of data or speculation shifted the marginal epistemological balance. LK-99 was Gamestop Science, AMC Science, Meme Science.
But the point is that Institutional Science and Meme Science can reach the same end through different routes: a claim is made, it is evaluated empirically, and a conclusion is finally drawn. In this, LK-99 represents a distinct engine of scientific progress that is anarchic, radically participatory, and unprecious about institutional authority. It manifests the kind of science that Paul Feyerabend refers to when he talks about theoretical anarchism. Per Against Method: “The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes.”
Science policy succeeds when it has the widest range of different models for accelerating progress at its disposal. Encouraging Institutional Science will be the right approach in some cases, and encouraging Meme Science will be the right approach in others. Dismissing the latter out of hand because it fails to match our aesthetic sensibilities about what a respectable science should look like is to discard a powerful tool for advancing knowledge.
Rather than seeing LK-99 as a fluke, smart science governance should be aiming to understand and master these social processes. How do we trigger LK-99 moments? What levers do we have to make them more or less likely with time? How do we best absorb and scale the advancements that might be generated by such viral cycles? How do we manage the excesses and vulnerabilities of LK-99-like scientific exploration?
This mastery may be particularly urgent since we may not have the luxury of choosing whether or not we get a science without explosive LK-99 moments colliding with established scholarship. The expanding culture of preprints, the falling costs of experimentation and exploration in many domains, and the global distribution power of social media all point to a future with more wildcat breakthroughs, rather than less. In such a world, the public institutions of science must meet the moment, lest they miss the chance to shape a vibrant and ever-more important part of the research economy.
Thanks as always to Santi Ruiz for his review and comments on this piece.
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