“A mixed economy is not an economic abomination or even a regrettably unavoidable political necessity but a natural absorbing state,” and other notes on “Whither Science?” by Danko Antolovic

November 9, 2017

(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

So. I got this email one day, promoting a book that came with the following blurb:

Whither Science?, by Danko Antolovic, is a series of essays that explore some of the questions facing modern science.

A short read at only 41 pages, Whither Science? looks into the fundamental questions about the purposes, practices and future of science. As a global endeavor, which influences all of contemporary life, science is still a human creation with historical origins and intellectual foundations. And like all things human, it has its faults, which must be accounted for.

It sounded like this guy might be a crank, but they sent me a free copy so I took a look. I read the book, and I liked it. It’s written in an unusual style, kinda like what you might expect from someone with a physics/chemistry background writing about social science and philosophy. But that’s ok.

Antolovic deserves to be recognized as the next Nassim Taleb—by which, I mean a plain-speaking yet deep revealer of true structures, a philosophical autodidact with a unique combination of views.

The book is worth reading.

p.6, “Today, the practitioner of science is almost without exception an employee of a larger corporate entity (a university or a company) or of a national government. He is hemmed in by the tangible constraints of his terms of employment and funding, and by the less tangible ones of departmental, institutional and funding politics. He labors in a crowded field, in which there are increasingly fewer stones left unturned, and he climbs the ladder of corporate seniority until he retires.”

p.7, “After the Second World War, science went from being the province of the few to becoming the career path of many.”

“Since scientific development is fundamentally important to the well-being of modern societies, it is easy to see the benefits of exalting this decidedly un-adventurous walk of life with the help of a heroic foundation story. In the eyes of the supporting public, and in those of prospective practitioners, present-day science is the heir and descendant of the heroic achievements that dispelled the darkness of superstition, changed our image of the universe, and wonder-worked what we today know as the industrial world. And so it is, but we should examine the heir on his own merits.”

Well put. I have nothing to add.

“Market economy is usually held up as the paragon of a robust and efficient mechanism by which to produce and distribute wealth. For it to function, it must have a sufficiently large number of economic “players” (individuals and companies), and a pool of as of yet unowned resources – energy or raw materials – that are available for the taking. Players invest their labor, and their already owned wealth, to appropriate the resources; they work the raw resources into things that they and others consider valuable, and they trade with each other in the quest for greater wealth.”

“We must point out that the pool of unowned resources is an essential factor for the competitive market to exist: that is what the market players compete for, either directly, by extracting the resources themselves, or indirectly, by trading with others in the wealth derived from these resources.”

Compare to the hypothetical desert island whose inhabitants survive economically by taking in each others’ laundry. Or various poor countries, or poor regions of countries, that just don’t have enough unowned resources to go around. What economist Tyler Cowen calls Zero Marginal Product zones.

Just as fishing technology has allowed humans to grab all the fish, and oil drilling and coal mining technology threaten to remove that pool of unowned fossil fuel resources, so does economic development threaten to kill the golden goose etc.

I’ll have to think about this one. If it’s really true that economic exchange relies on that pool of unowned resources, then the market economy is self-defeating. Cultural contradictions of capitalism but in a different way. This is interesting because economists often recommend solving problems of unowned resources by giving them owners. Rhinos, fish, the disaster that was post-communist Russia. But to put it in Antolovic’s terms, “If the resources are intentionally distributed among the players, again by political means, we have a form of planned economy.”

So in that way a mixed economy is not an economic abomination or even a regrettably unavoidable political necessity but a natural absorbing state.

I wonder what Jeff Sachs would think of this.

p.8, “The wealth of the participants is not tokenized by money, but by a less rigidly defined currency, which we will refer to as prestige. . . . Participants use their existing prestige to appropriate the funding resources, which they convert into further prestige via the process of performing scientific research. Direct trading in research results is proscribed as unethical, since the results must nominally be original and attributable to a researcher. However, scientific results are merely ancillary to the accumulation of prestige, and prestige is freely traded for labor and further prestige: this is the politics of who collaborates with whom, who is hired in which department or research laboratory etc. Typically, those with less prestige offer their labor to those with more, with the objective of increasing their own prestige and share of resources by association.”

Yup. That has the “anthropologist on Mars” ring of truth. It describes what goes on, what I and others do.

It’s important to be clear-eyed without being cynical. Prestige is the currency of science, but that does not mean that prestige is the reason we do things, nor does it mean that science is all about prestige. We have many goals in doing science, including discovery, serving societal goals, teamwork, and the joys of the scientific endeavor itself. Given that people will do crossword puzzles for diversion, it’s not such a stretch to think that science can be fun too.

One can draw an analogy to acting, where one could say the currency is fame or reputation; or professional team sports, where players are motivated both to win and to improve their personal statistics. To recognize certain goals should not be taken as to deny the existence of others.

To get back to science and its coins of prestige, I take Antolovic’s point to be, not that scientists are hypocrites to claim to seek discovery when they are nothing but careerists, or that scientists think themselves rational but are actually ruled by the same instincts, urges, and motivations that drive a society of bonobos, but rather that the accumulation and trading in of prestige is at this point a necessity for most scientists; it is baked into the scientific economy.

Consider my own case. I know myself well enough to recognize that I have an innate desire for prestige and acclaim. As a child I enjoyed being praised, and for decades now I’ve been thrilled when people come up to me and say they loved my talk, or that they’ve learned so much from my books. OK, fine. But that’s not why I do what I do. It’s more of an pleasant byproduct. I don’t choose to work on based on what will give me more praise or happy feedback, except to the extent that I want my work to be useful to others—I am a statistician, after all!—in which case the beneficiaries of my labors might well choose to thank me, which is fine.

But—and here’s where Antolovic’s argument comes in—I do seek prestige, not so much for its own sake but because of what it can buy. Again, the prestige-as-money argument. I know some people for whom accumulation of money is a major goal in itself, but most of us want money for what it can buy, and for the security it can provide. Similarly, I seek the prestige and publications which will allow me to attract top collaborators and do the best work I can, and to get the funding to hire the programmers that can allow Stan to realize its destiny, thus advancing science and technology in ways that I would like.

Prestige is the coin. It is true that my collaborators and I accumulate prestige, which we convert into grant funding and then into research results. We play the game because we want to do science. Prestige is not, by and large, the goal in itself. Antolovic writes, “Infantile gratification of personal vanity cannot remain the primary motivation for doing science.” But I think he’s missing the point here. Prestige buys us money, and money amplifies our research efforts, so we go for prestige for sensible instrumental reasons. Maybe also infantile gratification, but that’s not the primary motivation. Any more than the primary motivation of businessmen is the infantile desire to hold shiny coins and green pieces of paper.

One striking feature of the current crisis in science is the panic of people such as that embodied-cognition guy who’d built up great stores of the stuff—thousands and thousands of citations!—only to see science moving away from the germanium standard, as it were. (I don’t enjoy the dilution of my own prestige, of course—my list of journals I’ve published in, is looking more and more like a collection of vinyl records—but there’s nothing much I can do about it.)

The economic analogy works well. The realization that one can easily print more money leads to inflation, then a need for more money, then hyperinflation. Just look at the C.V.’s of recent computer science Ph.D.’s: there’s a pressure to publish dozens of conference papers a year. The field of statistics is more bimetallic, or multimetallic, with publications in various different sorts of journals. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, economics itself has, relatively speaking, remained a bastion of hard money, with the top five or so journals keeping much of their gold-standard status. (Which leads to troubles of its own, as in the career of Bruno Frey, and the recent brouhaha involving alleged insider favors in the American Economic Review.)

But I digress. What I want to say here is that I appreciate Antolovic’s insightful application of economic ideas to scientific research, and I hope that readers can get the point without getting lost in cynicism. Moving Stan forward costs a lot of money. Programmers need to be paid, and that means that I end up spending a lot of my time asking people for money.

To draw yet another analogy, the currency of baking is not flour or yeast but, by and large, money. A successful baker can raise the funds to buy higher-quality ingredients, to expand the bakery, to try out new recipes, and so forth, allowing more money to be raised, etc. Or he or she can run a small shop with no grander goals but will still need to make enough money to live on. But the goal of just about everyone involved (setting aside the pure hacks) is to make bread. The system must ultimately be evaluated based on the quality and quantity of bread produced (along with related concerns such as variety and sustainability).

p.12, “It is our thesis that the past half century or so has proven the bazaar-like approach to science a failure. This period has filled libraries with scientific publications to the point of bursting, while offering disappointingly little toward what has always been the underlying premise of the techno-scientific endeavor: betterment of the human condition. The great killing diseases of our time, cardiovascular disease and cancer, have remained with us through this period, and no fundamental approach to curing them is in sight. As the average population age creeps up, degenerative diseases of body and mind are becoming an ever greater economic drain, yet progress in that area moves at glacial pace. Even new infectious pathogens, such as HIV and the Ebola virus, seem to be more than what contemporary science can readily counter, despite very considerable advances in molecular and cell biology.”

Rather than argue the details of this, I want to remark on how refreshing this perspective is, to criticize the “bazaar-like approach” to anything. In a famous internet document from 1995, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, Eric Raymond contrasted the top-down and bottom-up or self-organizing approaches to construction and argued strongly and persuasively in favor of the latter. The cathedral is central planning, bureaucracy, and projects that take centuries to complete, at which point the original goals have become irrelevant. The bazaar is evolution, it’s competition, it’s small groups working together when they need to, and going their own way when appropriate.

In the context of scientific research, the cathedral is big research labs and PNAS; the bazaar is Arxiv and internet comment sections. Or is it the other way around?

Big research looks like a cathedral only from a distance; close-up it’s thousands of competing research groups. Meanwhile, Arxiv is run by a small group, and much of the discussion on the internet has been absorbed within the walls of Facebook.

Anyway, I don’t plan any cathedral/bazaar manifesto myself, I just wanted to register my interest in Anotolovic’s refusal to hold a reflexive pro-bazaar position. Instead, he recommends scientific management focused on a national level aimed at particular goals, rather than the current loose system where goals are stated but then money is given to research teams with little outside direction or management. I don’t know how well this will work, but the possibility seems worth looking into.

p.18, “Perhaps it is understandable that the supernatural has greater emotional traction in the human mind than the natural. The supernatural is the product of the mind itself, a story told to both stir and assuage the anxieties of a social animal: supernatural causes are always personal, they are somebody, good or evil. Empirical explanation, on the other hand, endeavors to discover causes that are unfamiliar, emotionally indifferent and invariably impersonal; there is, at the core of it, certain disappointing banality to every factual explanation.”

Well put.

p.19, “Religion, specifically Roman Christianity, is of course the arch-villain of the foundational narrative of science, but from the perspective of the empiricist, the conflict, or at least the intellectual part of the conflict, is entirely avoidable: insofar that religion asserts that certain doctrines are factually true without presenting factual evidence, that assertion is intellectually worthless. Any theological speculations that do not make factual claims are open to consideration, discussion or disregard, as one may wish, but science has no inherent conflict with them.”

“Intellectually worthless” is a bit too strong: if I come up with an assertion without presenting factual evidence, I still may be making a contribution if my assertion is taken as a hypothesis or if it inspires others to useful thought. Just as one can argue, for example, that Jules Verne could’ve made a useful intellectual contribution to undersea exploration, even had he decided to insist on the factual existence of Captain Nemo.

p.21, “Objections raised by romantic movements are substantive and conscientious, and they speak from the authority of their historical present. They do not represent a reflexive “opposition to progress,” but rather they are a legitimate effort of the human mind to come to terms with the full implications of the changing image of the world, emotional as much as rational; we regard the romantic periods as an integral part of the story of empiricism.”

p.22, “A new scientific theory must account for those facts that were understood under the old one before it ventures to offer new explanations.”

Not quite! Sometimes science can make progress, working around well-known anomalies that resist clean explanation in any existing framework. Indeed, it could well be that certain aspects of the real world will never be explainable by human theories. 1/137, anyone?

p.25, “Putting it in a straightforward way, secular ethics asks: How should I treat others? Should I “do unto others” as I would wish to be treated (or at least give them decent consideration), or should I do unto others whatever it takes to attain my own goals, goals which, in the absence of a credible supernatural authority, I am free to set however I please?”

Well put. Here’s my definition, from my first ethics column in Chance: “An ethics problem arises when you are considering an action that (a) benefits you or some cause you support, (b) hurts or reduces benefits to others, and (c) violates some rule.”

Antolovic continues, “Empirical observation convinces me that societies in which the golden rule is generally followed are happier, free of strife, and productive; reason tells me that I can live a good life in such a society, and it can guide me in contributing to its welfare, if I so choose. But reason also tells me that, under right circumstances and with right effort, I can acquire much more for myself by manipulating, destroying, robbing and enslaving others; the same reason will help me accomplish that objective also.”

p.29, “Since its 16th century beginnings, science has reached far and wide into the world of phenomena, and for perhaps a century now, it has continuously exploited its proven methods of investigation, making available an ever greater power over that phenomenal world. However, only a small fraction of its effort has been expended toward understanding the one thing which is both the source of scientific inquiry and the recipient of its fruits: the human mind.”

Not anymore, right? Neuroscience is a big deal these days. And psychology’s been a big deal for awhile. Even more “external” social sciences have been turning inward; consider, for example, the claim by economists that theirs is the science of human behavior.

And then there’s computer science, machine learning, artificial intelligence.

But this: “We accept, and always have accepted, that procreative aggression of young males – the bellicosity of the rut – will be harnessed for state’s purposes, making them into cannon fodder for whatever cause is being fought about at the moment. We accept that civilized peoples can and will be coaxed back into the depths of pre-civilized horde loyalty and set against some conveniently chosen outside group as the ‘enemy.’ We observe public words and actions of decision makers of nuclear-armed nations, and we recognize in them thinly disguised impulses of the dominant animal in a primate horde – and we accept that as natural. We allow the fruits of technological progress to be used for vertiginous enrichment of individuals who are devoid of all but a boundless drive for acquisition, and we do not see this drive as a pathology, a personality disorder: rather, we see it as a trait to be envied and lived out vicariously through admiration.”

Ouch. As a human, I feel the shock of recognition.

p.32, “First truly scientific insights into the mind came with the work of Sigmund Freud. Freud’s method of investigation was not empirical observation, but rather introspection, but he used introspection as if it were empirical observation of external phenomena. He regarded the patients’ introspective monologues as authentic and reliable observables of the mind, although he did not treat them as literal reports, but as material to be analyzed. . . . Freud’s work has in it much that is speculative, and it does not (yet) exhibit the rigor of a developed scientific discipline . . .”

He’s no Freud-worshipper: “Proponents of psychoanalysis in their turn believe that dark subconscious impulses and conflicts can be resolved by reason, once they have been brought into the light of consciousness by analysis. In reality, psychoanalytical approach has been shown to have limited success even in its original role as a clinical therapy for neuroses, and it is entirely impractical to think that the ‘talking cure’ could be employed to lead the broader mankind out of instinctual darkness.”

But: “The contribution of [Freud’s] work lies in having proposed both a methodology and a set of working hypotheses in an area of science which is still deficient in that respect today.”

p.33, “Human governance throughout history has amounted mostly to murderous rule by individuals whose only claim to power was that they wanted it badly enough to fight for it; this accompanied by equally murderous sycophancy of the ruled, usually directed against the heretic, the infidel, the traitor to the cause, the ‘other.’ In modern times, unfettered overconsumption is practiced by most of the western populations, accompanied by equally grotesque over-accumulation of wealth and economic power by a few individuals. All of these behaviors can be readily recognized as driven by primitive instincts that were unilaterally freed from their natural constraints, their effects amplified by human power over nature.”

The rest of Antolovic’s book is interesting too.

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