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Tullock and Scientific Inquiry

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Source: Gordon Tullock, 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).


Gordon Tullock wrote The Organization of Inquiry1 during the mid-1960s, probably the most productive decade of his career. From a purely technical perspective, this book stands out as his best-written single-authored work. The book sets out his own views on scientific method—views that he would faithfully reflect in his subsequent scholarship.

Early Methodological Influences

Because Tullock is a largely self-taught economist, his exposure to scientific method came not from the economics classroom but from his legal training, his reading, and his direct association with two leading scholars, namely Karl Popper and James M. Buchanan. The first part of this introduction traces these intellectual influences that helped to shape the book.

Let me begin, as Tullock surely did, with his legal training at the University of Chicago. Although Chicago during the 1940s was less wedded to black-letter law than were most of its rivals, the methods of the natural and social sciences were minimal elements of the curriculum. The primary focus of Chicago legal training, at that time, was inductive rather than deductive in nature and was based on a detailed evaluation of “binding legal authority” derived from a limited number of legal precedents.

Chicago, in conformity with all other leading schools of law, trained lawyers to seek out the “universal truth” of the law through a careful selection of a number of singular statements encompassed in the written judgments of the higher courts. They were right to do so, since this is the thrust of precedent and stare decisis in the Anglo-Saxon legal system. However, the movement from singular to universal statements (induction) was already, following David Hume,2 anathema to the approach endorsed by almost all economists (deduction).3

In pursuit of the inductive approach, lawyers are trained to move from the observation of facts to the formulation of theory, something that runs directly counter to the approach recommended by Karl Popper. Furthermore, because they are typically concerned with the detailed facts surrounding a particular case, lawyers are inclined to be skeptical of the model-building approach of economics, and especially of the generalizations that economists derive from such models.

Finally, because each case requires an overarching judgment derived from all relevant factual evidence and applicable law, lawyers are especially skeptical of evaluating partial relationships on ceteris paribus terms. Thus, any scholar trained in the law will be tempted to approach economics from a perspective that is radically different from that which is reflexively accepted by scholars trained in the natural and social sciences.4 The degree to which such initial prejudices can be overcome by assiduous reading will become evident later when the discussion turns to Tullock’s contribution to scientific method.

The three scholars of scientific method whose writings most influenced Tullock’s thinking are Joseph Schumpeter, Karl Popper, and Michael Polanyi.5 The relevant contributions of each will be reviewed in turn.

Joseph Schumpeter is one of the most highly regarded twentieth-century scholars of the history of economic thought. Schumpeter continually reminds the reader that all scientific theorizing begins with a “vision”—the preanalytic cognitive act that supplies the raw material for the analytic effort. “Analytic effort starts when we have conceived our vision of the set of phenomena that caught our interest, no matter whether this set lies in virgin soil or in land that has been cultivated before.”6 Schumpeter’s interpretation of this initial phase of scientific theorizing differs from that of Popper, in the sense that it is less “pure” and potentially more open to ideological interpretation.

Factual work and “theoretical” work, in an endless relation of give and take, naturally testing one another and setting new tasks for each other, will eventually produce scientific models, the provisional joint products of their interaction with the surviving elements of the original vision. . . . Now it should be perfectly clear that there is a wide gate for ideology to enter into this process.7

Even if one accepts Schumpeter’s hypothesis that science is ideological at the outset, that does not imply that the acceptance or rejection of scientific theory is also ideological.8 If scientists are truly objective in their search for truth, they will falsify or fail to falsify their theories, however devised, by solely nonideological criteria. That is a key insight of Karl Popper.

The point of departure for Popper, in his The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Logik der Forschung, 1934), concerns the method of basing general statements on accumulated observations of specific instances. This method, known as induction, was the recognized hallmark of science prior to Popper’s revolutionary contribution. It was the foundation on which Newtonian physics had long been accepted within the scientific community as the revealed truth of the law of nature.

As early as 1748, David Hume had already raised awkward questions concerning the inductive method,9 notably by pointing out that no number of singular observational statements, no matter how large, could logically authenticate an unrestrictively general statement.10 Troubling though this observation was, in the absence of an alternative approach, scientists continued to rely upon inductive reasoning for the better part of two centuries.

Popper’s seminal achievement was to provide an acceptable solution to the problem of inductive reasoning. He starts by indicating that there is a logical asymmetry between verification and falsification. In terms of the logic of statements: no number of observations of white swans justifies the universal statement, “All swans are white”; whereas one observation of a black swan justifies the universal statement, “Not all swans are white.” In this important logical sense, empirical generalizations are conclusively falsifiable, but not conclusively verifiable.

Methodologically, however, it is always possible, because of perceived error, for scientists to reject an observational statement that proves a theory false. Inevitably, scientists may abuse this escape mechanism. Popper therefore suggests, as an article of method, that scientists do not systematically evade refutation, whether by introducing ad hoc hypotheses or ad hoc definitions or by always refusing to accept the reliability of inconvenient observations. Scientists should instead formulate their theories as unambiguously as possible and should expose them as ruthlessly as possible to the test of falsification.

Popper urges that scientists not abandon their theories lightly in response to adverse observations. Instead, they should treat adverse observations as an opportunity to rigorously reexamine their theories. In this sense, Popper is a naive falsificationist in logic but a critical falsificationist in methodology.11

Finally, Popper provides a presumptive answer to the issue later raised by Schumpeter concerning the process by which theories are formed. Is this initial step, inductive, based on data observation? Popper’s answer is as follows: because it is neither scientifically nor logically significant how a theory is formed, it follows that no method of formulating theory is illegitimate. The process of theory formulation is psychological, not logical.

Tullock spent six months working with Popper at the Center for Advanced Studies at Palo Alto during the mid-1950s. Through this association, Tullock discovered an interest in science that eventually culminated in his writing The Organization of Inquiry.

Tullock also acknowledges the influence of Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge.12 In the book, Polanyi rejects the ideal of scientific detachment and replaces it with the ideal of personal knowledge, thus recognizing the importance of human behavior in scientific investigation. Polanyi regards knowing as an active comprehension of things known, an action that requires skill. Polanyi cautions, however, that personal participation of the knower in all acts of understanding does not imply that knowledge is subjective. Comprehension is neither an arbitrary act nor a passive experience. It is a responsible act claiming universal validity. Personal knowledge in this sense is an act of commitment, and as such it is inherently hazardous.

Finally, I must briefly mention the insights on scientific method obtained by Tullock through his professional association with James M. Buchanan, namely, the central importance of both microeconomic theory and the self-interest axiom in explaining economic behavior and institutional evolution.

The Organization of Inquiry

In this book Tullock focuses attention on the social organization of science. Each of the book’s eight chapters raises important questions about science and provides relevant answers. This introduction offers a brief overview of the book and identifies some of the key insights.

In chapter I, Tullock notes that a gigantic worldwide scientific enterprise exists without any conscious coordination. He poses such questions as the following: How do scientists engage in apparently cooperative contributions in the absence of central planning or hierarchic organization? and Why are scientific contributions worthy for the most part of the public’s trust? The answers to these and other related questions form the basis of the remainder of the book.

In chapter II, Tullock explores the various influences that motivate scientific inquiry. Scientists, he argues, undertake investigations either because they are curious or because they hope to use the information obtained for some practical purpose. These two motives, he claims, roughly correspond, respectively, to the general fields of pure and applied research.

Tullock challenges the validity of the then strongly prevailing view, at least in the academy, that pure science is superior to applied science, explaining why the real-world interaction between the two approaches is far more complicated. By focusing only on successful examples of the subsequent practical implications of pure research, all extant studies bias the sample in favor of pure research.

Tullock also challenges the view that pure scientists in some sense are superior, presumably because they are not motivated by financial gain. He notes that most pure scientists are funded through salaries, which suggests that money can, in fact, induce curiosity. He compares the effectiveness of prize monies with the effectiveness of fixed incomes in inducing effective pure research. He also compares the relative effectiveness of journal editors with the relative effectiveness of university administrators in monitoring and ranking the quality of scientific research. In 1966 some of the answers posed by Tullock were revolutionary and deeply upsetting to many in the scientific community. With the passage of time, however, Tullock’s speculations on these matters have entered into the scientific mainstream.

In chapter III, Tullock deals with the subject and methods of scientific inquiry. Tullock defines a subject of inquiry as anything that arouses curiosity or that might prove to be practically useful. He acknowledges, but rejects, the views of such skeptics as Bishop Berkeley who argued that there is no proof that the real world corresponds to the sense impressions of those who seek to understand it. Instead Tullock claims that modern scientists firmly believe that there is an objective reality that they are engaged in uncovering.

In pursuing this objective reality, scientists place only limited faith in the truth of the specific theories they promulgate. They are sensible to do so, because the history of science has been the history of disproving specific theories. In this respect, Tullock endorses the falsificationist philosophy of Karl Popper, at least within the field of pure science.

If pure scientists seek the truth, Tullock speculates, applied scientists seek useful information. Therefore, applied scientists can use theories that are known to be false if such theories provide satisfactory solutions to practical problems. This explains why applied scientists continue to use the laws of Newtonian physics to deal with a wide range of human problems long after the theory was disproved by Albert Einstein at the cosmic or quantum level.

With respect to the methods of scientific inquiry, Tullock clearly holds fast to his Popperian training. Out of the infinite universe of possible theories, those that conflict with the evidence are the first to be ruled out. Where no theory survives this test in all aspects of its predictions, the theory that is of the higher order of generality will be preferred. Simplicity is also a rule of importance.

In this process of scientific method, Tullock argues that we gain little by asking which comes first, the hypothesis or the data. The two are often inextricably intertwined. For purposes of his book, Tullock chooses to commence with data collection, which is followed by the formulation of the hypothesis, by further data collection, and finally by the testing of the hypothesis. He claims, following Popper, that the crucial problem of science is not whether the hypothesis is derived according to proper procedure but whether it survives attempts at falsification.

In chapter IV, Tullock focuses on data collection as a major activity that leads to the formulation and testing of scientific hypotheses. Following is a brief discussion of the key elements in the chapter and how they relate to Tullock’s personal experience.

Tullock suggests that scientists cannot formulate hypotheses in the absence of data, even if such data are strictly limited to personal observation. As demonstrated in volume 1 of the series, Tullock is archetypical of this approach.13 He deals in some detail in this chapter with the sources of such data, including the nature of the educational system. He discusses the likelihood that such sources will be accessed by curious pure scientists, induced-curious pure scientists, and applied scientists.

In an era before the information-technology revolution, Tullock’s concern, with respect to the testing of scientific theories, focuses on problems of data collection, classification, and dissemination. He notes that the problem is not one of simply accumulating information, relevant or not, but rather one of excluding data that are highly unlikely to be relevant to future scientific work and then of focusing on the careful indexing of the data. In his own work, especially in public choice, Tullock has persistently encouraged scholars to create relevant databases to support empirical testing of important hypotheses.

In chapter V, Tullock directly confronts the problem of induction, which, even now, almost four decades later, is still before the scientific community. Given his initial training in the law, it is significant that Tullock does not even discuss the role of induction in justifying a hypothesis but rather only in establishing the initial hypothesis.

Induction, in Tullock’s interpretation, involves the discovery of general principles or patterns in terms of which deductive logic can explain factual data. He illustrates his argument by reference to a number of cases in which an individual perceives patterns in the data that his sensory organs receive. Such flashes of insight, he argues, explain why sometimes an outsider will discover things that have otherwise escaped the experts. Could it be that Tullock is explaining his own behavior as an outside contributor to the scientific process?

In chapter VI, Tullock directs attention to issues concerning the verification and dissemination of scientific results. He confronts directly the possibility that scientists may lie to advance their careers and claims that the high degree of truthfulness in scientific research comes not from the superior moral probity of individual scientists but from the scientific community in which they labor. For reasons that Tullock outlines, this is especially true of the incurious pure scientist, less so of the curious pure scientist and the applied scientist.

Once scientific theories are formulated and tested, scientists disseminate promising results through journals and other publications. Tullock clearly approves of this mechanism, though he identifies potential weaknesses in editing and in refereeing, and suggests a number of timely reforms, not all of which have yet been implemented.

In chapter VII, Tullock identifies reasons for the backwardness of the social sciences in research and in scholarship. He largely rejects the viewpoint, widely held even now by many social scientists, that social science is inherently more difficult than natural science because of the absence of controlled experiments. He places the blame instead squarely on differences in the social environments that exist between social scientists and natural scientists.

Tullock notes that new natural-science discoveries are always supported initially by a minority of the scientific community but eventually extend to the majority once they have withstood independent testing and are seen to be fruitful for practical applications. Acceptance by the general public follows in due course.

Social scientists, on the other hand, are often motivated to conceal the truth, for nonscientific reasons, with respect to findings that might be offensive either to themselves or to public opinion at large. The possibility of practical application is also more limited, lowering the standard to which their theories are exposed.

These checks and balances operate less effectively in the social sciences than in the natural sciences because there is less similarity of ends and, consequently, less voluntary cooperation.

In chapter VIII, Tullock concludes The Organization of Inquiry by outlining a number of practical proposals for improving the quality of scientific output. Two proposals are especially worthy of mention because of the particular insights they offer into Tullock’s own worldview.

The first proposal underlines the classically liberal nature of Tullock’s philosophy. Because most important scientific projects require only limited funding, they should be funded individually and not be included as part of a large, creativity-stifling, bureaucratic package. To avoid this outcome, and for the same reason, foundations that award research grants should also be small.

The second proposal underscores Tullock’s healthy regard for the developing tenets of the public choice research program. Because of the importance of output rather than input, a much larger proportion of scientific research should be stimulated by direct prize awards. The system of prizes should be directed at two objectives, namely, specific discoveries and unspecified developments. Tullock suggests that a number of competing prize-awarding bodies, independent of the political process, would best protect science from cronyism and political lobbying.

charles k. rowley
Duncan Black Professor of Economics, George Mason University
Senior Fellow, James M. Buchanan Center for Political Economy, George Mason University
General Director, The Locke Institute

[1. ]Gordon Tullock, The Organization of Inquiry (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1966).

[2. ]David Hume, An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1777) (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1907).

[3. ]Mark Blaug, Economic Theory in Retrospect (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 690.

[4. ]Charles K. Rowley, “Social Sciences and Law: The Relevance of Economic Theories,” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 1 (winter 1981): 391–405.

[5. ]Joseph A. Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954); Karl R. Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (New York: Basic Books, 1959); and Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958).

[6. ]Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis, 42.

[7. ]Ibid.

[8. ]Bryan Magee, Philosophy and the Real World: An Introduction to Karl Popper (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1985), 29–30.

[9. ]David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1748) (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1907).

[10. ]Magee, Philosophy and the Real World, 15.

[11. ]Ibid., 18–19.

[12. ]Polanyi, Personal Knowledge.

[13. ]Gordon Tullock, Virginia Political Economy, The Selected Works of Gordon Tullock, ed. Charles K. Rowley, vol. 1 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003).

Last modified April 10, 2014