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The worst possible thing for discovery is to throw more government money at it

The story of three kinds of curiosity — two genuine, one “induced”

Several wise men foresaw the decline of organized science. Here, a man called Gordon Tulloch was inspired by Popper to look at the social organisation of scientists to try to figure out what made it work. He noticed there were three kinds of researchers, one driven by curiosity for the truth, another on a mission to solve a problem, and a third with an “induced” curiosity created by demand from elsewhere — boss or government. He predicted that the system would fail if those who were induced outnumbered the truly curious, as the “induced” curiosity was not well connected to reality, whereas the other two types were. The primary aim of the induced researcher was not to solve a problem or uncover an answer but just to keep their jobs, and there were many ways to “keep their jobs” that did not involve actual discovery. Indeed for some jobs, thinks Jo, actual discovery could be a catastrophic event.

He foresaw a degenerative spiral which appears to have come to pass. Once induced researchers are managed by people without enough skill to read and assess their papers, the managers have to rely on publishers and editors to assess the work instead. But the editors of the publications are selling subscriptions to “induced” investigators — “…so a self-perpetuating process might be set in motion to a point where “a journal read only by people motivated by induced curiosity gradually slipped away from reality in the direction of superficially impressive but actually easy research projects”.”

And ain’t it the way… as the number of people with real curiosity are diluted in the field, they cannot possibly review the submissions of the induced. Before long the conclusions of the induced become the only accepted conclusions. In this way thinks Jo, the worst possible thing you can do to discovery is to get the government in and let them throw lots of taxpayers money at it. For that will surely kill real discovery stone dead.

The government is strangling science. The more money it spends the more real scientists are forced out. In the terminal stage the point of a “scientist” becomes inverted 180 degrees. Instead of questioning the orthodoxy, the neo-“scientist” is there to maintain it.  —   Jo

Gordon Tullock on the debacle of climate science

Originally posted on Catallaxy by Rafe Champion

Why have so many apparently reputable scientists endorsed “the climate caper”? The book of that name by Garth Paltridge provided some clues (scientists like to eat) and it helps to follow the money. But more is required to account for the extent of corruption that has infected parts of the scientific enterprise.

Gordon Tullock in The Organization of Inquiry (1966) helpfully provided an explanation in advance of the event. Karl Popper and Michael Polanyi inspired Tullock to write the book, and Popper himself provided a clue even earlier, in a 1945 paper, later published in The Poverty of Historicism. Popper proposed that some aspects of science should be explained in terms of institutions, traditions and the social context of science. In particular he suggested that scientific progress could be arrested by government control of the laboratories and journals, and by restrictions on free speech. Acute observers might have noticed some of that going on lately.

Under the influence of Popper, Tullock embarked on a project to explore the social organization of science and the way that scientists who he considered to be highly individualistic, nevertheless were highly coordinated. He was impressed by the way the formal and informal rules of science appeared to keep scientists honest and productive

The most effective way of ‘organizing’ science seems to be the most perfect laissez faire. This, however, is a superficial view. Science is not unorganized. There exists a community of scientists, and this community is a functioning social mechanism which co-ordinates the activity of its members.

Three kinds of curiosity

In addressing the issue of pure and applied research he identified two kinds of investigators, motivated by two different kinds of curiosity: one kind of curiosity drives the quest for truth and the other is directed towards solving practical problems. He described a third kind of curiosity, essentially a modern development – the “induced curiosity” of the nine to five scientist and also academics who are trapped on the publish or perish treadmill.

Investigators who are motivated by the first two kinds of curiosity are fully engaged with the real world, either to explain it or to make it work better but investigators in the third category may care about the real world but they do not need to if they can get away with it by publishing papers which do not advance knowledge or stand up to the test of practice. For him (sic)

Scientific concern with the real world is secondary to other matters. If he could establish and maintain his reputation, and hence his job, by reporting completely fictional discoveries, this would accomplish his end. The genuinely curious and the practical researchers have to get involved with real phenomena but “induced” investigators could simply ignore reality if there is not too much risk that they will be found out.

Tullock observed that managers of induced researchers may have difficulty in keeping the work in touch with the real world, especially if, like university administrators and public service bureaucrats, they are too busy or unqualified to even read the publications. Mostly they depend on the number of papers published in more or less respectable journals. He then sketched a scenario where the serious researchers are diluted by a massive influx of Kuhn’s “normal” (uncritical) scientists and the standards of the journal slip, so a self-perpetuating process might be set in motion to a point where “a journal read only by people motivated by induced curiosity gradually slipped away from reality in the direction of superficially impressive but actually easy research projects”.

Before the ranks of induced researchers were bloated by massive government funding the tendency to degeneration was kept under control by the serious and the applied scientists who would have protested if the contents of the journals were not helpful. He speculated about the kind of conditions that which could undermine the quality of the published work by “induced” investigators. One is a lack of practical applications for the research and another is the development of very complex methods of treating subjects which can be readily handled by simpler methods. He instanced calculus where simple arithmetic would suffice and topology instead of plane geometry. Technical sophistication trumps curiosity, imagination and criticism (including testing).

Political correctness: the end of the road

At the terminal stage of degeneration, Tullock described a situation where “there is a belief in the field that the function of the researcher is to uphold some particular point of view”.

When the point of view assumes a great deal of significance, simply presenting a rationalization for some position chosen on other grounds may be acceptable as an objective of research, and the principal criterion in judging journals may become their points of view. The concern with reality that unites the sciences, then, may be absent in this area, and the whole thing may be reduced to a pseudo-science like genetics in Lysenko’s Russia. Again, these symptoms may be found in some of the social sciences.

At the time that he wrote, in the 1960s, he thought that the traditional system of controls was still working in the natural sciences, if not in the social sciences. But times have changed and it appears that his worst case scenario has come to pass in large parts of the mainstream of government funded climate science.

More on Gordon Tullock, surely the most under-rewarded economist of recent times.


Extra — For Discussion, and from Jo: What funding model can we use?

I don’t have time to explore this today, but Philippa Martyr discussed some ideas on Quadrant: Taken for Granted, and  Commonwealth Funds Medical Research.

See also Tony Thomas on The Settled Science of Grant Snaffling for examples of just how deadly government funding can be:

“Here are some “fundamental discoveries” from the feminist glaciology paper:

“In geophysicist Henry Pollack’s articulation, ‘Ice asks no questions, presents no arguments, reads no newspapers, listens to no debates. It is not burdened by ideology and carries no political baggage as it crosses the threshold from solid to liquid. It just melts’ (Pollack, 2009: 114).”

Glaciers are under-studied from a feminist viewpoint ”that focuses on gender (understood here not as a male/female binary, but as a range of personal and social possibilities) and also on power, justice, inequality, and knowledge production in the context of ice, glacier change, and glaciology.”

I think government funding doesn’t have to be awful for science if there is an equally strong competitive private, independent sector. By independent, I don’t mean a government funded CRC, or some other pseudo-independent entity like the very dependent “Climate Commission”.

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