by Judith Curry
The professional standards of science must impose a framework of discipline and at the same time encourage rebellion against it. – Michael Polanyi (1962)
A recent tweet by Andrea Saltelli reminded me of Michael Polanyi‘s 1962 essay “The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory.”
Polanyi provides an interesting perspective from the mid 20th century, as the U.S. and Europe were contemplating massive public investments in science. Polanyi’s perspective was colored by his early years in Hungary, which led him to oppose central planning in the sciences.
I encourage you to read Polanyi’s entire essay, it contains many interesting reflections on history and political philosophy of science. Below are some some excerpts with highlights that provide the springboard for my own reflections on the state of science (particularly climate science) in the early 21st century.
MY title is intended to suggest that the community of scientists is organised in a way which resembles certain features of a body politic and works according to economic principles similar to those by which the production of material goods is regulated.
The first thing to make clear is that scientists, freely making their own choice of problems and pursuing them in the light of their own personal judgment are in fact cooperating as members of a closely knit organisation. [T]he principle of their coordination consists in the adjustment of the efforts of each to the hitherto achieved results of the others. We may call this a coordination by mutual adjustment of independent initiatives–of initiatives which are coordinated because each takes into account all the other initiatives operating within the same system.
Such self-coordination of independent initiatives leads to a joint result which is unpremeditated by any of those who bring it about. Their coordination is guided as by ‘an invisible band’ towards the joint discovery of a hidden system of things. Since its end-result is unknown, this kind of cooperation can only advance stepwise, and the total performance will be the best possible if each consecutive step is decided upon by the person most competent to do so. We may imagine this condition to be fulfilled for the fitting together of a jig-saw puzzle if each helper watches out for any new opportunities arising along a particular section of the hitherto completed patch of the puzzle, and also keeps an eye on a particular lot of pieces, so as to fit them in wherever a chance presents itself. The effectiveness of a group of helpers will then exceed that of any isolated member. to the extent to which some member of the group will always discover a new chance for adding a piece to the puzzle more quickly than any one isolated person could have done by himself.
WHAT I have said here about the highest possible coordination of individual scientific efforts by a process of self-coordination may recall the self coordination achieved by producers and consumers operating in a market. It was, indeed, with this in mind that I spoke of ‘the invisible hand ‘ guiding the coordination of independent initiatives to a maximum advancement of science, just as Adam Smith invoked ‘ the invisible hand ‘ to describe the achievement of greatest joint material satisfaction when independent producers and consumers are guided by the prices of goods in a market.
In the case of science, adjustment takes place by taking note of the published results of other scientists; while in the case of the market, mutual adjustment is mediated by a system of prices broadcasting current exchange relations, which make supply meet demand.
[T]he decisions of a scientist choosing a problem and pursuing it to the exclusion of other possible avenues of inquiry may be said to have an economic character. For his decisions are designed to produce the highest possible result by the use of a limited stock of intellectual and material resources. The scientist fulfils this purpose by choosing a problem that is neither too hard nor too easy for him. The line the scientist must choose turns out, therefore, to be that of greatest ego involvement; it is the line of greatest excitement, sustaining the most intense attention and effort of thought. He should not hesitate to incur such a loss, if it leads him to deeper and more important problems.
BOTH the criteria of plausibility and of scientific value tend to enforce conformity, while the value attached to originality encourages dissent. This internal tension is essential in guiding and motivating scientific work. The professional standards of science must impose a framework of discipline and at the same time encourage rebellion against it. They must demand that, in order to be taken seriously, an investigation should largely conform to the currently predominant beliefs about the nature of things, while allowing that in order to be original it may to some extent go against these.
The authority of scientific standards is thus exercised for the very purpose of providing those guided by it with independent grounds for opposing it. The capacity to renew itself by evoking and assimilating opposition to itself appears to be logjcally inherent in the sources of the authority wielded by scientific orthodoxy.
But who is it, exactly, who exercises the authority of this orthodoxy? No single scientist has a sound understanding of more than a tiny fraction of the total domain of science. [W]hile scientists can admittedly exercise competent judgment only over a small part of science, they can usually judge an area adjoining their own special studies that is broad enough to include some fields on which other scientists have specialised. And, of course, each scientist who is a member of a group of overlapping competences will also be a member of other groups of the same kind, so that the whole of science will be covered by chains and networks of overlapping neighbourhoods.
ADMITTEDLY, scientific authority is not distributed evenly throughout the body of scientists; some distinguished members of the profession dominate over others of a more junior standing. But the authority of scientific opinion remains essentially mutual; it is established between scientists, not above them.
Let me make it clear, even without going into detail, how great and varied are the powers exercised by this authority. Appointments to positions in universities and elsewhere, which offer opportunity for independent research, are filled in accordance with the appreciation of candidates by scientific opinion. Referees reporting on papers submitted to journals are charged with keeping out contributions which current scientific opinion condemns as unsound. Representatives of scientific opinion will pounce upon newspaper articles or other popular literature which would venture to spread views contrary to scientific opinion. The teaching of science in schools is controlled likewise. And, indeed, the whole outlook of man on the universe is conditioned by an implicit recognition· of the authority of scientific opinion.
Only by securing popular respect for its own authority can scientific opinion safeguard the complete independence of mature scientists and the unhindered publicity of their results, which jointly assure the spontaneous coordination of scientific efforts throughout the world.
DURING the last 20 to 30 years, there have been many suggestions and pressures towards guiding the progress of scientific inquiry in the direction of public welfare. I appreciate the generous sentiments which actuate the aspiration of guiding the progress of science into socially beneficent channels, but I hold its aim to be impossible and nonsensical.
I argued that the present practice of filling vacant chairs by the most eminent candidate that the university can attract was the best safeguard for rational distribution of efforts over rival lines of scientific research. For the principal criterion for offering increased opportunities to a new subject was the rise of a growing number of distinguished scientists in that subject and the falling off of creative initiative in other subjects, indicating that resources should be withdrawn from them.
[L]ittle more can, or need, be done towards the advancement of science, than to assist spontaneous movements towards new fields of distinguished discovery, at the expense of fields that have become exhausted. Though special considerations may deviate from it, this procedure must be acknowledged as the major principle for maintaining a balanced development of scientific research.
Those who think that the public is interested in science only as a source of wealth and power are gravely misjudging the situation. Universities should have the courage to appeal to the electorate, and to the public in general, on their own genuine grounds. For the only justification for the pursuit of scientific research in universities lies in the fact that the universities provide an intimate communion for the formation of scientific opinion, free from corrupting intrusions and distractions. For though scientific discoveries eventually diffuse into all people’s thinking. the general public cannot participate in the intellectual milieu in which discoveries are made. Discovery comes only to a mind immersed in its pursuit. For such work the scientist needs a secluded place among like minded colleagues who keenly share his aims and sharply control his performances.
The more widely the republic of science extends over the globe, the more numerous become its members in each country and the greater the material resources at its command, the more clearly emerges the need for a strong and effective scientific authority to reign over this republic. When we reject today the interference of political religious authorities with the pursuit of science, we must do this in the name of the established scientific authority which safeguards the pursuit of science.
Consider, also, the fact that these scientific evaluations are exercised by a multitude of scientists, each of whom is competent to assess only a tiny fragment of current scientific work, so that no single person is responsible at first hand for the announcements made by science at any time. And remember that each scientist originally established himself as such by joining at some point a network of mutual appreciation extending far beyond his own horizon. Each such acceptance appears then as a submission to a vast range of value-judgments exercised over all the domains of science, which the newly accepted citizen of science henceforth endorses, although he knows hardly anything about their subject-matter. Thus, the standards of scientific merit are seen to be transmitted from generation to generation by the affiliation of individuals at a great variety of widely disparate points, in the same way as artistic, moral or legal traditions are transmitted. This conclusion gains important support from the fact that the methods of scientific inquiry cannot be explicitly formulated and hence can be transmitted only in the same way as an art, by the affiliation of apprentices to a master. The authority of science is essentially traditional.
Bur this tradition upholds an authority which cultivates originality. Scientific opinion imposes an immense range of authoritative pronouncements on the student of science, but at the same time it grants the highest encouragement to dissent from them in some particular. Scientific tradition enforces its teachings in general, for the very purpose of cultivating their subversion in the particular.
The Republic of Science shows us an association of independent initiatives, combined towards an indeterminate achievement. It is disciplined and motivated by serving a traditional authority, but this authority is dynamic; its continued existence depends on its constant self-renewal through the originality of its followers.
The Republic of Science is a Society of Explorers. Such a society strives towards an unknown future, which it believes to be accessible and worth achieving. In the case of scientists, the explorers strive towards a hidden reality, for the sake of intellectual satisfaction. And as they satisfy themselves, they enlighten all men and are thus helping society to fulfil its obligation towards intellectual self-improvement.
Since a dynamic orthodoxy claims to be a guide in search of truth, it implicitly grants the right to opposition in the name of truth–truth being taken to comprise here, for brevity, all manner of excellence that we recognise as the ideal of self-improvement. Th[is] freedom assures them the right to speak the truth as they know it.
Polanyi’s essay provides some interesting insights, as well as some striking contrasts with the Republic of Science in the early 21st century.
Polanyi’s analogy of the scientific process with markets captures the pure incentives that drive scientists – search of truth, intellectual satisfaction and individual ego. What happens when the externalities of the Republic of Science produce perverse incentives, and careerism becomes a dominant incentive that requires publishing a lot of papers rapidly and producing headline-worthy results (who even cares if these papers don’t survive scrutiny beyond their press release)? (see What is the measure of scientific success?) What happens is that you get increasing incidence of scientific fraud (see Science: in the doghouse?), cherry picking and meaningless papers on headline grabbing topics that don’t stand up to the test of time (see Trust and don’t bother to verify).
And what happens when the ‘hand’ guiding science isn’t ‘invisible’, i.e. science is driven by politics, such as a political imperative to move away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy? Federal funding can bias science, particularly in terms of selecting which scientific problems receive attention (link).
And what of Polanyi’s statement: “Such self-coordination of independent initiatives leads to a joint result which is unpremeditated by any of those who bring it about.” The ‘result’ of dangerous anthropogenic climate change and the harms of dietary fat were hardly unpremeditated.
When science is politically relevant and has been politicized, how objective are the authorities that are keepers of the orthodoxy — journal editors, officers of professional societies, university administrators — and how open are they to dissenting perspectives? The experiences of Lennart Bengtsson (link), my being called a ‘climate heretic’ (see my essay Heresy and the creation of monsters), Christopher Essex’s essay (link), Roger Pielke Jr’s experiences, and MANY more examples among climate scientists speak to the fact that the keepers of the climate science orthodoxy are failing in this regard [link to Are climate scientists being forced to toe the line?]. Without the internet and the blogosphere, these dissenting voices would be rendered silent by the keepers of the orthodoxy.
Climate and environmental sciences are far from the only scientific fields suffering in this way – the problem is also rampant in medicine, nutrition, and psychology [link to Partisanship and silencing science.]
Where lies the solution to this? Well, one possibility is reflected in Polanyi’s statement: “[L]ittle more can, or need, be done towards the advancement of science, than to assist spontaneous movements towards new fields of distinguished discovery, at the expense of fields that have become exhausted.” Now that climate science is ‘settled’, i.e. at least it is perceived to be sufficiently settled to provide the basis for a very expensive international climate ‘agreement’ (not treaty), perhaps future investments should be directed towards other fields that are deemed important or where greater progress can be made. This is exactly what has been happening in Australia, as the Turnbull administration has been axing climate jobs at CSIRO (link).
Is climate science ‘exhausted’ in terms of diminishing returns on future research? I would argue that climate science is an immature field with many unknowns; however the current paradigm of using inadequate climate models to focus on human caused climate change has reached the point of diminishing returns. Further, the intense politicization of the subject has adversely influenced the community of scientists — in terms of biasing the scientists and also in discouraging young scientists from entering and staying in the field. So in a sense, climate science has become ‘exhausted’ by the politicization.
Governments who fund science and universities who hire scientists need to make the hard decisions regarding which fields and subfields are most worthy of investment, in terms of new breakthrough science. While I was Chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, it was my privilege and opportunity to hire 27 faculty members (24 as primary appointments, 3 as joint hires) over the course of 13 years. This is a rare opportunity for a department in the geosciences. When I became Chair in 2002, the School had 4 divisions – geochemistry, geophysics, atmospheric chemistry, and atmospheric dynamics. I made it a priority to bring ‘water’ into the School, and to hire faculty members that could interact with other scientists and engineers, beyond the geosciences, to stimulate new research areas. Apart from these broad objectives, I hired the best people that we could attract, with little preference for specific research areas. This approach resulted in a reconfiguration of the school to include oceanography, planetary and space sciences, biogeochemistry, and new subfields of geophysics.
I did not hire much in the areas of atmospheric dynamics or climate science (outside of oceanography and biogeochemistry), simply because the quality of the applicants was not as strong as in the other fields. While I have inferred that my provost was not pleased that I did not hire more in ‘climate science’, the outstanding young scientists that I did hire are garnering substantial external recognition and are being heavily recruited by other universities (good luck to the new Chair in retaining these outstanding faculty members). Why didn’t I hire more in atmospheric dynamics and climate science? The atmospheric dynamics faculty candidates generally were in the areas of data assimilation and mesoscale modeling — areas that are important, but arguably engineering rather than science that is going to lead to a breakthrough in understanding. In climate science, most of the applicants were using climate models, by running scenarios and inferring dire consequences — not the climate dynamics theorists that I was hoping for, that could help understand and untangle the complex physical, chemical and even biological processes influencing the climate system.
In a broader sense, which scientific subfields and topics are deemed to be important and why? There is no easy answer to this, but it is the job of university Deans and federal funding agencies to prioritize. There is an interesting example currently in the news, that comes from Georgia Tech’s David Hu, Associate Professor in Mechanical Engineering. He has written an essay Confessions of a Wasteful Scientist. Subtitle: Three of my projects appeared last week on a senator’s list of questionable research. Allow me to explain…
I would also like to respond to Polanyi’s statement: “universities provide an intimate communion for the formation of scientific opinion, free from corrupting intrusions and distractions.” I am very sad to report that this simply isn’t true of universities in the early 21st century. Heterodoxacademy.org is responding to the lack of intellectual diversity at universities. Universities are becoming very uncomfortable places for faculty members with minority perspectives on controversial topics.
As a result, many scientists with minority perspectives are leaving universities. Further, the internet has enabled many individuals outside of academia to make important contributions to climate science (published in refereed journals, in books, and in other reports). Polanyi wrote: “[T]he general public cannot participate in the intellectual milieu in which discoveries are made. For such work the scientist needs a secluded place among like minded colleagues who keenly share his aims and sharply control his performances.” This is a perspective on scientists that is peculiar to the 20th century [see Scientist: the evolving story of a word]. Particularly in climate science, we are seeing the emergence of a substantial and influential cohort of non-academic scientists, contributing both to the published literature and the public scientific debate. This broadening of the notions of expertise away from university elites is leading some to question whether our traditional notions of expertise are dead [link].
So, what should the Republic of Science look like in the 21st century? The overwhelming issue for the health of science is to reassert the importance of intellectual and political diversity in science, and to respect and even nurture scientific mavericks. The tension between pure (curiosity driven) science and use-inspired and applied science [see Pasteur’s quadrant] needs to be resolved in a way that supports all three, with appropriate roles for universities, government and the private sector. And finally, the reward structure for university scientists need to change to reward more meaningful science that stands the test of time, versus counting papers and press releases, which may not survive even superficial scrutiny even after being published in prestigious journals that are more interested in impact than in rigorous methods and appropriate conclusions.
Failure to give serious thought to these issues risks losing the public trust and support for elite university science (at least in certain fields). Scientists are becoming their own worst enemy when they play into the hands of politicians and others seeking to politicize their science.