Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER I: THE SOCIAL ORGANIZATION OF SCIENCE - The Selected Works of Gordon Tullock, vol. 3 The Organization of Inquiry
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CHAPTER I: THE SOCIAL ORGANIZATION OF SCIENCE - Gordon Tullock, The Selected Works of Gordon Tullock, vol. 3 The Organization of Inquiry 
The Selected Works of Gordon Tullock, vol. 3 The Organization of Inquiry, ed. and with an Introduction by Charles K. Rowley (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005).
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THE SOCIAL ORGANIZATION OF SCIENCE
The purpose of this book is to answer, or attempt to answer, certain questions about science. I should like to be able to say that these questions have deeply interested scientists and that my solutions will be widely welcomed as settling important problems. Unfortunately I cannot do so. Leaving aside the problem of the correctness of my answers, the fact remains that I have been unable to find any indications that scientists have asked the questions to which I address myself. The unwary might take this as proof that the problems are unimportant, but scientists, fully conscious of the importance of asking new questions, will not make this mistake. Personally I think that the questions are important, and the answers, if not earthshaking, at least significant enough to justify adding one more to the fifty thousand or so books that will be published this year. In the first paragraph I can hardly expect the reader to share my faith, but I think that I can ask that he maintain that open but skeptical frame of mind which characterizes the best scientific thought.
In order to set the problem in its framework, let me begin with a lengthy quotation from a speech by Lord Brain.1
. . . scientists often have no more in common with each other than that they are all seeking knowledge by means of scientific methods. Professor A uses these methods to investigate the light from receding nebulae, while Professor B is interested in the physiological clock which regulates the habits of shore-inhabiting crustaceans in relation to the tides. Dr. C is investigating the atomic nucleus and anti-matter, and so on through to Professor Z, who is studying the virus-carrying capacity of mosquitoes in a tropical forest. These scientists have probably never met one another. They may differ in age, sex, race, language, religion, and their general mode of life, and none of them may be interested in what the others are doing. As for the remote effects of their scientific activities, what Professor A does may be of importance for our ideas about the origin of the universe, while Professor B’s work may have some implications for the storage of information in the brain, and possibly for our understanding of the relationship between the brain and the mind. Dr. C deals with a subject which has already had profound importance in relation to the development of nuclear energy and today is likely to interest the philosophers of physics who are concerned with the ultimate nature of matter and the relationship between the observer and what he observes. And Professor Z’s investigation of viruses concerns a scientific topic of great importance for our understanding of cell behavior, information at the molecular level, the nature of the gene, and the cancer cell. The immediate social effects of his work may well be the elimination of a particular group of diseases in tropical areas, and a resulting increase in the local population, which is already too great for its food supplies. Unless they are rather exceptional men in their particular field of work, none of these scientists may be much interested in its more remote implications. At any rate, they can all be first-class scientists without such an interest.
I chose these examples at random, but I could well have chosen any other of the varieties of scientific work being practiced by the hundreds of thousands of scientists in the world. Scientists, of course, meet one another to exchange ideas, to promote their own particular branch of science, or science in general, or because they are aware of its social implications. Nevertheless, such collective activities, important though they may be in themselves, play a small part in their lives. Scientists, though they must always be aware of the work of their fellows in their own fields, are essentially individualists; and the body of knowledge to which they are contributing is an impersonal one. Apart from contributing to it, they have no collective consciousness, interest, or aim.
Note that Lord Brain never asks how it happens that these scientists who “have probably never met one another” and “may differ in age, sex, race, language, religion, and their general mode of life” are nevertheless contributing to an essentially co-operative activity. It happens that the particular examples he has chosen are in different fields of science, but if he had chosen men in the same field, say nuclear physics, they would still differ radically in “age, sex,” etc. They are “essentially individualists,” and “unless they are rather exceptional men in their particular field of work, none of these scientists may be much interested in its more remote implications.” Clearly, however, the scientists are contributing to these remote consequences. What is the mechanism which leads the scientist “by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention?”2 There is no central co-ordinating organization, and few scientists consciously try to make their research contribute to remote and distant goals. Further, there is no more reason to believe that there is some sort of divine guidance for science than for economic activities.3
Obviously, however, the work of these highly individualistic scientists is not really independent. It is co-ordinated by something, so that Lord Brain can, quite correctly, say that the individual parts do fit together and lead to remote and unintended consequences. The scientists have never inquired into the nature of the social mechanism which provides this necessary control. Almost every scientist in the world would agree that cancer is more likely to be overcome by giving research funds to a large number of separate scientists without any central control over their research than by setting up a major hierarchy to plan each step of the scientific advance. 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.
Another question which Lord Brain did not ask relates to the accuracy of the work done by the individual scientists. How does it happen that we can depend upon scientists not only to refrain from faking research results, but to exercise the most extreme precautions to insure accuracy? Although fraud and/or carelessness are not completely unknown among scientists, they are remarkably rare. The reliability of scientific reports is probably higher than that of any other form of literature. This phenomenon is so much a part of the existing system that most scientists simply take it as a given. Like Lord Brain, they do not ask the reasons for this extraordinary level of accuracy. Here, again, the answer lies in the organization of the scientific community.
This community is a most peculiar one, with its members living in different countries and speaking different languages. Further, it is not even geographically organized. A French scientist studying a certain virus may find that the other scientists whose work is most important to him live in Japan, Italy, Russia, the United States, and Argentina. In a real sense they are his neighbors in the scientific community, but the professor of astronomy who lives next door to him is almost a foreigner in terms of their scientific relationship. Membership in this community is completely voluntary, and the scientists do not think of themselves as controlled by the community or as participating in the control of other scientists. As Lord Brain says, “apart from contributing to . . . [the body of knowledge], they have no collective consciousness, interest, or aim.” Nevertheless, their search for knowledge is far from random. It is extremely dubious that even the most careful planning of research could lead to half the rate of progress we readily attain by our present organization.
Most scientists, while quite willing to agree that planning of their work would be unwise, have never given any real thought to the reasons for the success of the present system.4 They are accustomed to it, and it certainly works well, so they worry about other things.5 Taxpayers and voters, on the other hand, sometimes get upset by the apparently cavalier attitude taken by scientists. They feel that the casual handing out of research funds to a large group of people, most of whom do not seem to be working on anything of much present interest and all of whom are violently opposed to presenting a detailed advance budget, is a risky procedure. If the scientist were really uncontrolled, such a procedure would be dangerous, since scientists are much like other men and quite capable of misusing funds. In fact, however, the scientists are not unsupervised: they are subject to very strong social controls from the scientific community, and it is therefore quite safe to leave them free of other supervision.6
The principal purpose of this book is to investigate the nature of this scientific community and to make a start on explaining why it is such a successful social instrumentality—to explain why the individual scientist, who feels quite free and unconstrained, is nevertheless led to investigate problems of interest to others, and how, without any conscious intention, he exerts influence on the research done by other scientists. These are, I think, questions that the scientists have not heretofore asked, but problems that they will recognize as important.
Clearly the present organization of the scientific community, cutting across the lines of nation states, bureaus, and almost all previously existing institutions, cannot be the result of conscious planning. There is, today, a good deal of organizational planning, but all of the instrumentalities which engage in this activity were founded after the development of science was well under way. Further, most of these organizations are parochial in nature, concerning themselves with only some special part of the scientific community like mathematical biophysics or Russian science. There is no general institution which has shaped or now can shape the development of science, only a mass of institutions which provide little more than liaison (and sometimes funds) for the scientific “producers.”7 The scientific community must therefore be a sort of natural growth, an institution which developed out of the felt needs of the individual scientist and which continues to exist and develop because it still meets these needs.
In the simplest terms, the only effective world community that now exists is the community of science. In this respect, if in no other, the vision of 18th century liberal philosophers has been achieved. For the progress of science, as they saw . . . is the progress of a set of rules and procedures which allow men to co-ordinate their thinking and to co-operate in the search for truth.8
Another problem concerns the limits of this community. Here Lord Brain does offer an indirect answer, but in my opinion an erroneous one. The scientific community’s boundaries would, presumably, be co-extensive with those of science, and hence a definition of science would delimit the scientific community. In an earlier part of the speech quoted above, Lord Brain defined “science” as “knowledge obtained . . . by the use of scientific methods.” Knowledge is the principal product of science, and it does no harm to define science so that it includes both the activity of seeking knowledge and the knowledge obtained, but not all knowledge is “scientific.” By drawing a book out of my library and opening it, I find that the fifth word in the sixth line of page 185 of Volume 1 of A. Henry Savage Landor’s China and the Allies9 is “shelter.” This is knowledge, but surely it is not science. Lord Brain, of course, specifies the use of “scientific methods,” but I do not think that he would stick to his definition if pressed. Outside my office there is an irregular clump of Korean azaleas. At this time of the year they are in bloom and are a spectacular sight. Suppose I became curious about the total weight of the blooms and, by the use of the most advanced methods, found out that on May 11, 1965, at 2:10 in the afternoon the flowers weighed exactly 3.38649 pounds. Regardless of the “scientific” nature of the procedures which I used to reach this conclusion, I doubt if Lord Brain would accept the fact as a contribution to science.
The converse also holds true. The invention of the three-element vacuum tube will be generally accepted as a scientific achievement of the utmost importance, but it is hard to argue that it was achieved by scientific methods. De Forest was “a lone-wolf kind of Robin Hood: likable, shrewd and knavish, intent on speculative patents and on stock certificates as a means of robbing the rich in the wondrous world of wireless.” One of his principal ways of making money was to copy a device invented by someone else, with some minor variation in the hope that the courts would hold it a new invention and thus allow him to avoid the original patent. The three-element vacuum tube was the only one of these changes which had any value. The discovery that the variation was not minor but important was made several years after De Forest first produced it and came largely by accident.10 “That in the course of infringing the Fleming valve patent he should have hit on the magic intervening-grid form of control, although without really understanding its modus operandi, was the marvel of the age.”
It is certain that many such discoveries are basically accidental, and hence that they are not the result of “scientific method.” The scientists will normally say, quite correctly, that luck may help but that a prepared mind, ready to understand the unexpected experimental result, is also necessary. Fleming fully deserved his Nobel prize even if the contamination of his slide by Penicillium notatum was completely accidental. The same accident must have happened to hundreds of other researchers, but only he realized its importance. Still, his discovery of the first antibiotic was not the result of “scientific method,” but of the fact that he was a little unscientific in handling his slides, with the result that one was contaminated. Thus science sometimes advances through a failure to apply the best methods, not as a result of “scientific method.”
In addition, there is the problem of recognizing “scientific methods.” Lord Brain does not offer any explanation of how such methods are to be recognized. In practice, scientists do not have any great difficulty in differentiating between scientific and non-scientific methods, but the use of this fact to differentiate science from non-science would introduce a hopeless circularity. Scientific methods are simply those methods thought suitable by members of the scientific community, and thus we must be able to recognize that community by some other criterion. The provision of a systematic description of the scientific community which will make it possible to differentiate between scientific and non-scientific fields will be a further objective of this book.
The scientific community grew up without a conscious plan because it met a need. This need was a desire for knowledge, but knowledge of a certain type. The early scientists were looking for natural laws, laws which were the same everywhere, and which might interest people of every nationality. Further, most of these regularities which they called “laws” were both difficult to discover and likely to be of little direct interest to the mass of the population. The scientific community developed out of this search. The movement, which was simultaneously the greatest of adventures and a very unromantic drive for improved well-being, grew naturally into the present gigantic scientific enterprise. Today we have great laboratories and individual research projects employing thousands of scientists, but the interrelation between these giant laboratories, and between them and the myriad of individual investigators, is still one of voluntary, and almost unconscious, co-operation. It is not based on central planning or hierarchic organization. But as any economist knows, the fact that there is no one who can give commands does not mean that there is no social organization.
[1. ]As former president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Lord Brain gave this speech December 27, 1964, at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science at Montreal. It was published in Science, 148 (April 9, 1965), 192–98.
[2. ]Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (New York: Modern Library, 1937), p. 423. Smith continues: “Nor is it always the worse for society that it was no part of it.”
[3. ]The probable explanation for the fact that the phrase “invisible hand,” which occurs only once in Smith’s book, has been so widely quoted is the misapprehension that it refers to divine control. Smith as a follower of Leibniz probably felt that any well-functioning system in nature reflected the design abilities of the “divine clockmaker,” but the purpose of The Wealth of Nations was to explicate the quite mundane mechanisms which controlled economy.
[4. ]Michael Polanyi is, of course, a most distinguished exception. His lecture “The Republic of Science,” delivered at Roosevelt University, January 11, 1962, is an excellent discussion of the resemblances and differences between the scientific community and the market economy.
[5. ]During the thirties and early forties this was not entirely so. Scientists who were Marxists or who believed in “planning” for other reasons quite commonly were in favor of having scientific “plans” too. Happily this view no longer seems to have much importance.
[6. ]Subject, of course, to the usual auditing procedures. Presumably there are as many potential embezzlers among ten thousand scientists as among ten thousand bankers.
[7. ]The rather uneuphonious term “producers” is used in order to cover both the individual scientist and the larger scientific organizations which co-ordinate the activities of a number of scientists in a single research project.
[8. ]Charles Frankel, The Case for Modern Man (New York: Harper, 1956), p. 143.
[9. ]New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1901.
[10. ]See Robert A. Chipman, “De Forest and the Triode Detector,” Scientific American, 212, No. 3 (March, 1965), 92–100. The article set off a discussion between Lloyd Espenschied and Dr. Chipman which appeared on pages 8 and 9 of the May issue. The quotations are taken from Espenschied’s letter. Espenschied first met De Forest and his assistant, John V. L. Hogan, in 1907 and later became a lifelong friend of both.