Troubling Trends in Machine Learning Scholarship

By Zachary C. Lipton* & Jacob Steinhardt*
*equal authorship

Originally presented at ICML 2018: Machine Learning Debates
[arXiv link]

1   Introduction

Collectively, machine learning (ML) researchers are engaged in the creation and dissemination of knowledge about data-driven algorithms. In a given paper, researchers might aspire to any subset of the following goals, among others: to theoretically characterize what is learnable, to obtain understanding through empirically rigorous experiments, or to build a working system that has high predictive accuracy. While determining which knowledge warrants inquiry may be subjective, once the topic is fixed, papers are most valuable to the community when they act in service of the reader, creating foundational knowledge and communicating as clearly as possible.

What sort of papers best serve their readers? We can enumerate desirable characteristics: these papers should (i) provide intuition to aid the reader’s understanding, but clearly distinguish it from stronger conclusions supported by evidence; (ii) describe empirical investigations that consider and rule out alternative hypotheses [62]; (iii) make clear the relationship between theoretical analysis and intuitive or empirical claims [64]; and (iv) use language to empower the reader, choosing terminology to avoid misleading or unproven connotations, collisions with other definitions, or conflation with other related but distinct concepts [56].

Recent progress in machine learning comes despite frequent departures from these ideals. In this paper, we focus on the following four patterns that appear to us to be trending in ML scholarship:

  1. Failure to distinguish between explanation and speculation.
  2. Failure to identify the sources of empirical gains, e.g. emphasizing unnecessary modifications to neural architectures when gains actually stem from hyper-parameter tuning.
  3. Mathiness: the use of mathematics that obfuscates or impresses rather than clarifies, e.g. by confusing technical and non-technical concepts.
  4. Misuse of language, e.g. by choosing terms of art with colloquial connotations or by overloading established technical terms.