01 July 2015

The rules ain’t always all that: lessons from Battlebots

Over the weekend, I was watching remote controlled robots bash each other into scrap metal. As one does. And an interesting situation arose in one fight:

The team running a robot called Complete Control sent their robot out with a gift-wrapped present. The other robot, Ghost Raptor, runs into it in the first few seconds, rips open the box... and there’s a net inside. It completely messes up the spinning attack arm of Ghost Raptor, and that was pretty much it for the match.

Except... everyone is going, “Whaaaa...? How is that legal?”

The Complete Control team gets quizzed fast about this net. They say they checked the rules about entanglement, “It’s not in there any more.”

Now, to me, things seemed pretty clear cut at this point. Award the win to Complete Control. They followed the rules. The rest of the teams had gotten rules, because the announcers had made some comments about the weight limits for the machines (250 pounds, if I remember right).

But no! After a commercial break, the host explained:

Given the fact that Battlebots has historically always banned the use of entanglement devices, the fight has been nullified. They have agreed to a rematch.

I found this interesting, because it’s a great example of the tension between explicit rules and community standards, which is something that is a very live and real tension in science. A lot of people want standards, want explicit rules. I find this to be particularly true of early stage students: they crave structure, so they can know if they’re doing things “right.”

The Complete Control team, however, show one of the problems with this. The team was apparently known for pushing the limits of what was allowed. As Teresa Neilsen Hayden wrote:

Over-specific rules are an invitation to people who get off on gaming the system.

In this case, “It’s known in the community” won out. Somewhat to my surprise.

The downside to the community standards approach is that it sure seems uninviting to newcomers and outsiders. There was a great example on Twitter the other day when Rachel French complained about the format of an NSF proposal. Prof-Like Substance spoke up to say, “It doesn’t really mean that,” leading to Rachel and Karen James annoyed by “super-sekrit NSF in-crowd culture” (as Karen put it). And understandably annoyed, in my view. I wouldn’t have guessed that.

“Community standards” and “community practices” at loggerheads all the time in science. How authorship is assigned and interpreted is a big one. (“We know who did what on that 1,000 author paper.”)

There has to be a balance, but with so many issues floating around these days about how science is seen by many as unwelcoming, I would like to see our scientific communities push more towards creating explicit rules than “the people in the know, know that.”

1 comment:

Kaleberg said...

So Battlebot people are like old fashioned English cricket fans. There were the rules, and there was the spirit of the game. Even if you followed the rules, if you violated the spirit of the game, it was not cricket as they used to say. Using an entanglement device was like body line bowling, definitely not cricket.