When Should We Stop Investing in a Scientific Project? The Halting Problem in Experimental Physics

In Kaja Damnjanović, Ivana Stepanović Ilić & Slobodan Marković (eds.), Proceedings of the XXIV Conference “Empirical Studies in Psychology”. Belgrade, Serbia: pp. 105-107 (2018)
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The question of when to stop an unsuccessful experiment can be difficult to answer from an individual perspective. To help to guide these decisions, we turn to the social epistemology of science and investigate knowledge inquisition within a group. We focused on the expensive and lengthy experiments in high energy physics, which were suitable for citation-based analysis because of the relatively quick and reliable consensus about the importance of results in the field. In particular, we tested whether the time spent on a scientific project correlates with the project output. Our results are based on data from the high energy physics laboratory Fermilab. They point out that there is an epistemic saturation point in experimenting, after which the likelihood of obtaining major results drops. With time the number of less significant publications does increase, but highly cited ones do not get published. Since many projects continue to run after the epistemic saturation point, it becomes clearer that decisions made about continuing them are not always rational.
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