Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The dangers of scientific monopsony

Humans are social animals, naturally forming complex hierarchical structures. It doesn't take much for a meme to sweep through a population and leave almost everybody believing in a lightning-bolt wielding bearded man who lives on Mount Olympus, or some such tomfoolery. While skeptics are continuously gnawing at the party line, we are well designed to stabilize certain beliefs once their level of acceptance reaches some tipping point. Religion and politics come to mind first in this context, and the reason for that is simple: both pertain to beliefs that are extremely important to the day-to-day more-or-less smooth functioning of a tribe. Multiplicity of political opinions is extremely dangerous when your Asmat neighbors think that a boy needs to cut off your head and bring it home as proof of achieving manhood. Uneasy respect for authority is the default state of mind for most humans, and a horror vacui regarding authority is prevalent; this is responsible for the anti-market bias described by Bryan Caplan.

But, the world of quarks and prions explored by science poses different demands on the practitioners of this intellectual art. This is a multi-dimensional landscape whose shape can be only dimly glimpsed, with many a fracture and loop where minds get lost. One mind is not likely to succeed, it takes a whole army but with one crucial feature: We cannot march in lockstep. Herding behavior in science means that the mis-steps of the first few trailblazers are repeated by many, and of course missteps are guaranteed - as Einstein said "If we knew what we are doing, it wouldn't be called research, would it?".

So science, more so than any other field of human endeavor, demands a multiplicity of independent approaches, different states of mind and various skeptics generating thoughts and, very importantly, data collected from differing theoretical beachheads in the landscape, until they all converge and yield a theory that, justifiably, crushes all opposition by its sheer obviousness. If they succumb to the herding behavior, we end up with the amyloid hypothesis.

Worse happens if there are direct practical implications of a hypothesis in the political arena. Aside from the originators of the amyloid hypothesis nobody really cares about it - but there are millions of weaselly politicians, pompous bureaucrats, busybodies of all stripes and plain environmentalist numbskulls who really want climate warming to be proven anthropogenic, dangerous and blameable on their enemies. Since the NSF and a few other government agencies are the oligopsonistic buyers of most climate research, it takes only a few fervent believers placed in some key grant management positions to assure speedy publication of anything that supports their preconceived conclusions. This is really bad: billions of people are fed propaganda masquerading as science, a self-reinforcing vicious circle of delusion develops, and trillions of dollars could be washed down the drain, simply because the likes of Mann and Briffa et al. cooked up some convenient truths for the Al Gore's and Greenpeaces to regurgitate.

I used to believe that public funding of science is really a great idea but now I am no longer sure about it. Centralized funding is all too likely to convert a pluralistic enterprise into a stampede to jump on whatever bandwagon goes fastest. Instead of truth-finding we get dogma. A resilient, segmented network (as good as the sum of its nodes) becomes a brittle hierarchy (as bad as the guy on top). I am convinced that the general lack of appreciation for segmented networks and the undue reverence for hierarchy are one of the roots causes of most social evils (I will blog on it later) but for now let me just finish with the following: Beware of the taint that comes with government money. If there is the faintest suspicion that the state or some of its clients benefit from a publicly funded research result, read the minority opinion.

The truth will set you free.

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