Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Science Is

Scientific praxis from a game theory perspective. Excerpt attached, bolding the key insight.
Secrecy was originally normal: when around 1600 a young London obstetrician called Peter Chamberlen invented the obstetric forceps, for over a century he, his younger brother, his younger brother's son and that son's son (all obstetricians) kept the invention a secret. Rich women, knowing that the Chamberlens were the best obstetricians in Europe, engaged them to deliver their babies, but the price those women paid (apart from handsome fees) was to be blindfolded and trapped alone with the Chamberlens in a locked room during labour so that no one could discover the secret of the forceps. That emerged only during the 1720s when the last Chamberlen, having retired rich but childless, finally divulged it.
It was Robert Boyle who, by his leadership of the Royal Society of London, which was created exactly 350 years ago this year, negotiated (i) the convention whereby priority - and therefore esteem - goes to the scientist who publishes first, not to the scientist who might have made the discovery earlier but who has kept the findings secret, and (ii) the convention that papers are accepted for publication only if they contain a methods section as well as a results section, to allow reproducibility.
We see here, therefore, that science is not innately a public good: it is innately a discreet one where, in a state of nature, scientists would publish not their methods but only their findings . and where they would sometimes delay or obscure the publication even of those. But it was Boyle who realised, in classic game theory mode, that if the Fellows (aka members) of the infant Royal Society collaborated with each other in publishing their findings (i) openly, and (ii) including their methods sections, then the scientists within the Society would do better, by virtue of their access to the whole of the Societyfs membershipfs collective discoveries, than would those isolated researchers who worked outside the circle of mutual disclosure. And it was because the Royal Society's original experiments were conducted collectively but in the presence only of its Fellows, and because its publications were preferentially circulated to its Fellows, that the Fellows enjoyed an advantage over non-Fellows.
Science, therefore, only appears to be public because, over the centuries, most scientists globally have gradually modelled themselves on the Royal Society's 'new' conventions, the better to take advantage of the mutuality of knowledge. But not all scientists have done so completely, and as Birkhead showed in his THE article many disciplines have elaborated the convention of publishing their findings a year or two before they publish their data, thus keeping a lead on the further study of their data
My favorite definition for science is still Jerry Pournelle's, "Science is what you can put in a letter to another colleague and he'll get the same results you did." Therefore what she calls "science" I would call "research," with one (mine) being an individual activity and another (hers) being a social phenomenon. At any rate, when we talk about funding "scientific research" for example it is the social phenomenon (her definition) we are talking about. I would argue that the key problem for a society is trying to set the rules so that researchers engage in science instead of something else.
Be pretty if you are,
Be witty if you can,
But be cheerful if it kills you.
If you're so evil, eat this kitten!

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