Robin Hanson's proposal is an interesting scenario which aims to solve problems in scientific research by betting on scientific theories. He starts by summarizing the 'Problems with Academia' and dramatically sets the stage for his suggested cure 'Academia is still largely a medieval guild, with a few powerful elites, many slave-like apprentices, and members who hold a monopoly on the research patronage of princes and the teaching of their sons.' I almost feel sorry for myself.
But he has a point that the current academic system has some weaknesses. I don't want to repeat my take on the problem here (for that see Science and Democracy I, II, and III), so let me just state how I understand him. Hanson claims that the way researchers are awarded and appreciated today favors 'being popular, fashionable, and eloquent, instead of being right'. There is certainly some truth in that, though I don't think the situation is as bad as he makes it seem. Anyway, I was interested enough to learn how he thinks one can improve the situation.
So, he goes on explaining that the process by which 'the academic' receives 'credit' for making claims does not work optimal because academics judge on the quality of their own work, and form a rather closed system in their expertise. He argues that we need a 'specific mechanism' that 'encourages honesty and fair play; the game should be open to anyone to prove him/herself.'
His suggestion for such a mechanism is to bet on the outcome of scientific questions. 'Somewhat like a corn futures market, where one can bet on the future price of corn, here one bets on the future settlement of a present scientific controversy'. This, so he argues, would reward being right over being popular once the question is decided. The betting market would be open for everyone, regardless of education or degree and thus dissolve the boundaries of the rather closed academic system. Since those who eventually were right with their opinion about the scientific question, will win their bet 'Everyone would have a clear incentive to be careful and honest!'. That is, he claims financial profit is the reward that will convert the bad unethical academic to a good and honest guy.
He then investigates several cases and explains how his proposal that he calls 'Idea Futures' would work (see also Wired: Idea Futures).
After this follows a long list of possible objections with answers (which I found really a good idea. I might include something like this in one of my papers as well). Some of the questions came into my mind as well, and I will only pick out these. I don't care very much whether gambling is legal, but one obvious point is that there is no real profit in that game. If the issue to be decided is one of application, there could be real profit but then the 'real thing' to deal with are patents. Hanson's reply to this is 'Being monetarily zero sum does not make betting useless'. No, it doesn't make it useless. But it makes the whole idea far less attractive for anybody interested in making profit - and let us recall that making profit was the motivation he assumes participants have.
He also addresses the point 'Is there enough interest in science questions?' but if he answers it, I don't see how. The rather vague answer is basically 'Idea futures would thrive if it tapped only a small fraction of current interest and effort.' He also points out that it would be important to have the bets properly formulated, and the Idea Futures market therefore needs a certain amount of management and organization to operate smoothly 'Claims should avoid slippery concepts and phrasing which allows many interpretations', a demand that I totally agree on. If such a management would exists, first thing I'd do is require it for all scientific publications... Do we really solve any problem here?
So, here is my opinion: Gambling can not save science. To begin with, science is not lost, and doesn't need to be saved. In fact - excuse me - but I have the impression overall seen it works quite well.
But more importantly, one has to ask exactly which problem Robin Hanson aims at solving. On the long run, there is nature which decides on the value of scientific claims. As I have pointed out in an earlier post, a problem arises in the time between the proposal of a new idea and its verification (or falsification). In the absence of nature as a judge, we have to find other ways to judge on the quality of our work. This is what I call 'the measurement problem'. It is a crucial point because misjudgement in the meantime might mean that the best proposal doesn't survive long enough, or can not be worked out sufficiently, to be verified at all.
This however is not the problem Hanson addresses. Also in his scenario, there is only one ultimate judge that decides who wins the bet, and that is still nature. Though it is not stated explicitly I think he is aware of that: 'Most scientific controversies seem to eventually get resolved enough to settle a bet. [...]. Scientific claims are often defined as claims of "fact" which future evidence could possibly disprove [...]', 'a question about a physical property of a substance, like a bond angle of some new molecule, seems quite resolvable. As a rule, one should prefer questions closer to direct observations'. This means he can not solve 'the measurement problem' on the 'marketplace of ideas'.
Instead, the problem Hanson is concerned with is the time between nature's judgement that promotes one theory to be the best, and the time its inventor receives credits for it. In fact, this is also the problem that he investigates in his examples. I have no doubts that there have been, and still are, sad cases in which the value of a model was only recognized with delay. I do not think however, this is an inherent sickness of academia, but rather the exception than the rule. It is not the main problem that concerns me. As academical research works today, everybody who would learn of a model that explains observations better than the present one, would jump on it and use it. The remaining problem is then one of information distribution, which I believe is, and will further be, significantly improved though the ongoing changes in scientific publishing.
But besides these details, the whole idea fails on a very obvious point: There are undoubtedly scientists who like gambling and betting, as there are in every other profession. But the majority of scientists is not in academia because they want to make profit by investing smartly. If that was their motivation, they had not chosen academia in the first place. I dare to say, the vast majority of scientists would completely ignore the presence of such a betting market (as they did already ignore the proposal altogether). Even if it would possible mean they make profit, they wouldn't be sufficiently interested to pay much attention to it.
Financial profit, which Hanson assumes is the driving motor of everything ('Those who invest wisely would accumulate capital and gain influence, which they could reinvest in discretionary research or in influencing future consensuses.') is just not what drives most scientists. It is probably the case for some, but these are exceptions like those who are eager on 'being popular, fashionable, and eloquent, instead of being right'.
No, the majority of experts wouldn't pay any attention to that betting market. And without experts opinion, the whole system becomes no better than a lottery. Everybody who seriously wanted to make money would chose the stock market. For example, we could ask are neutrinos Dirac or Majorana? That I would think is a question that qualifies for the proposal, and which can be decided examining neutrinoless double-beta decay. But what is going to change for anybody whether or not some physicists or laymen have fun betting on one or the other?
I guess that there would indeed be people - experts and layman - interested in betting on scientific ideas. This is done anyhow, but such a leisure-time activity will not have any backreaction effect on the scientific research itself. It can be quite entertaining though, see e.g. Physicists who fancy a flutter.
The bottomline is: Robin Hanson's proposal is a very interesting toy model, and I give the idea a high creativity and entertainment value. But its a toy model nevertheless. Based on the assumption that maximizing profit it the driving motor for researchers, it is destined to remain an empty farce because it will not attract sufficient experts. These, I am afraid will remain busy drinking coffee with their 'many slave-like apprentices'.
Update: See also Robert Hanson's reply
TAGS: SCIENCE, SCIENCE AND SOCIETY, GAMBLING