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Could Gambling Save Science: Encouraging An Honest Consensus

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Visiting Researcher, The Foresight Institute
P.O. Box 61058, Palo Alto, CA 94306 USA 510-651-7483
To appear in Social Epistemology, 1992. (version appeared: in Proc. Eighth
Intl. Conf. on Risk and Gambling, London, 7/90.)

C O U L D G A M B L I N G S A V E S C I E N C E?
Encouraging an Honest Consensus

The pace of scientific progress may be hindered by the tendency of our
academic institutions to reward being popular, rather than being right. A
market-based alternative, where scientists can more formally "stake their
reputation", is presented here. It offers clear incentives to be careful
and honest while contributing to a visible, self-consistent consensus on
controversial (or routine) scientific questions. In addition, it allows
patrons to choose questions to be researched without choosing people or
methods. The bulk of this paper is spent examining potential problems with
the proposed approach. After this examination, the idea still seems
plausible and worth further study.


After reviewing the discrepancy between what we want from academic
institutions and what we get from current institutions, a market-based
alternative called "idea futures" is suggested. It is described through
both a set of specific scenarios and a set of detailed procedures. Over
thirty possible problems and objections are examined in detail. Finally, a
development strategy is outlined and the possible advantages are summarized.


THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION Four centuries ago, some Europeans complained
that the existing academic institutions were biased against them. Insiders,
it was said, were "inflated by letters" and shunned anyone who dared
"speculate on anything out of the common way" [De]. Outsiders --
astrologers, chemists, and people like Bacon and Galileo -- argued that
they and their theories should be judged by how well they agreed with
observations, and not by how they agreed with the authorities of the day
[Gal]. This was the age of utopias [Whi], as these rebels debated possible
academic reforms and imagined whole new social institutions, for both
academia in particular and society in general.

Within a century or so, the intellectual descendants of these outsiders
became the new insiders in a process now called the "Scientific Revolution".
They introduced a new respect for observations along with new social
institutions, such as the Royal Society of London, inspired by those
utopian ideals. Since then science has made impressive progress. Most
controversial issues of four centuries ago seem long settled by now, and
continued research may well settle most of today's controversies. Academia
can claim some credit for this, and academic institutions have continued to
evolve in response to perceived problems, formalizing publication in
journals, credit in citations, and evaluation in anonymous peer review.

PROBLEMS WITH ACADEMIA Yet little has really changed. 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. Outsiders still complain about
bias, saying their evidence is ignored, and many observers
[Gh,Red,SmP,Syk,Tr,Tul] have noted some long-standing problems with the
research component of academia. {footnote: Teaching reform is beyond the
scope of this paper. I am content to observe that there are no obvious
reasons why the changes I will propose should make teaching worse.}

As currently practiced {footnote: Early peer reviewer consisted more of
personally observing experiments and trying to reproduce analyses.} peer
review is just another popularity contest, inducing familiar political
games; savvy players criticize outsiders, praise insiders, follow the
fashions insiders indicate, and avoid subjects between or outside the
familiar subjects. It can take surprisingly long for outright lying by
insiders to be exposed [Red]. There are too few incentives to correct for
cognitive [Kah] and social [My] biases, such as wishful thinking,
overconfidence, anchoring [He], and preferring people with a background
similar to your own.

Publication quantity is often the major measure of success, encouraging
redundant publication of "smallest publishable units" by many co-authors.
The need to have one's research appear original gives too little incentive
to see if it has already been done elsewhere, as is often the case, and
neglects efforts to integrate previous research. A preoccupation with
"genius" and ideological wars over "true" scientific method [Gh] needlessly
detract from just trying to be useful.

Perhaps the core problem is that academics are rewarded mainly for
telling a good story, rather than for being right. (By "right" I include
not only being literally correct, but also being on the right track, or
enabling work on the right track.) Publications, grants, and tenure are
based what other insiders think today, independent of whether one's ideas
and results are proved correct or valuable later. Even for researchers
with a good track record, grant proposals must usually describe in some
detail exactly what will be discovered and how; true exploratory work is
done on the sly. This emphasis on story-telling rewards the eloquent, who
know how to persuade by ignoring evidence that goes against their view, and
by other standard tricks [Cia].

Admittedly, someone who has published an unusual idea that has proven
right is thought of more highly, all else being equal. But all else is
usually not equal. Outsiders find it hard to get an unusual idea published,
and being able to say "I told you so" is of little help to academics who
have failed to gain tenure. The powerful often get credit for the
successes of those under them [Re]. Only in the most experimental fields,
where feedback is direct and frequent, can we expect people who are
disliked -- but usually right -- to be rewarded through informal

Perhaps our biggest problem is the distortion evident when a science
question becomes relevant for public policy, as in the recent debates over
"Star Wars" or the greenhouse effect. The popular media tend to focus on
those scientists prone to hyperbole. An honest consensus of relevant
experts is often lost from public view, as advocates on each side accuse
the other of bias and self-interest. Public policy can suffer dramatically
as a result, a consequence that becomes more serious as the pace of
technological change quickens.

On the whole, current academic institutions seem less than ideal, with
incentives that reward being popular, fashionable, and eloquent, instead of
being right.

INCENTIVES MATTER Are these complaints just sour grapes? Those who do
well by an existing system tend to believe problems are minor. But even if
the best ideas eventually win, we should worry if the people who advocate
those ideas don't win. Good intentions and culture can only go so far in
countering bad incentives; if you must publish or perish, you will do what
it takes to publish (or perish).

The social organization of any human effort can have a tremendous
effect on its efficiency. Consider that different past societies with
different ways of organizing science have had very different rates of
scientific progress; compare Europe with China over the last five centuries.
Our rate of progress may be less than 2% of what it could be [Be].

Are we wasting precious resources? Imagine what would happen if we
used academic peer review to decide what products to manufacture. Proposals
for new products would be reviewed anonymously by powerful people who
produce similar products. These reviewers would pass judgement without
taking any personal risk, and those judged favorably would win regardless
of how useful their product turned out to be.

I much prefer our current business system, with all of its problems,
where investors must take a personal risk when they endorse a product.
Institutions like the stock market are comparatively egalitarian and
flexible, allowing most anyone to participate in the ongoing debate about
the profit potential of any public business or the relative potential of
various industries, management styles, etc. Why can't we have academic
research institutions more like this?

ACADEMIC REFORMS Most efforts to improve academic institutions focus on
incremental reform within the existing peer review framework. Should
reviewers be anonymous? Should submissions be anonymous? How many people
should review each proposal?

Occasionally someone proposes a more radical reform within the current
framework. The surprising lack of agreement among reviewers [Cic] has lead
some [Gi] to suggest we fund equally or randomly among "qualified"
applicants, and let everything be published. Conversely, the fact that a
small fraction of scientists receive most citations [Co] has lead some [By]
to suggest that we simple give $1M a year, no strings attached, to the top
thousand scientists, chosen by an iterated popularity poll. Some have
suggested universities and private labs be funded in proportion to their
publication [Ro] or citation [Ts] count. And some [Tu] advocate prizes,
once a central method for funding research [He]. Still others suggest
scrapping the whole thing, abolishing tenure [SmP] or government funding
[Fe,Wa] in favor of some existing alternative like private patrons, popular
media, patents, or research tax credits.

Once in a while a whole new social institution is proposed. Science
courts [Kan] (also called "scientific adversary procedures") were invented
to blunt hyperbole on science controversies by using court-like proceedings
to encourage cross-examination and to document areas of agreement.
Hypertext publishing [Dr,Han88] imagines an electronic publishing medium
where any critic could directly link a criticism to any published item, and
where readers could decide what is worth reading by have software
automatically combine the direct evaluations of previous readers they

In this paper I propose a new academic institution, tentatively called
"idea futures", intended to overcome some of the limitations of existing
alternatives. It is utopian in the sense of describing a coherent vision
of how things might be rather different, but hopefully practical in the
sense of considering what could go wrong and how to start small.

WHAT WE WANT Before considering specific mechanisms, let us reflect a
moment on what we want from academic incentives. We want to encourage
honesty and fair play; the game should be open to anyone to prove
him/herself. Patrons who fund research, either private foundations or
governments, presumably want research to be directed toward the academic
subjects and questions of interest to those funders. (Patrons also include
the researchers themselves, to the extent that reduced salaries are
understood to be in exchange for some research autonomy.) On controversial
questions, we want a clear measure of the current opinion of relevant
experts, a measure which political advocates could not easily distort. And
those who contribute to such a measure should have clear incentives to be
careful and honest.

Presumably we want as much progress as possible per effort invested, at
least in situations where the following notion of "progress" makes sense.
Consider a well-posed question, such as "Is the Earth basically spherical?",
with a handful of possible answers (such as "No, it's flat"). Experience
indicates that, with enough study and evidence, one of the answers will
eventually stand out as best to most anyone who considers the question
carefully. At least this seems to happen for most questions that have been
traditionally labeled "scientific"; questions about the morality of
abortion or the nature of God may not fare as well. Where there is such a
limiting "right" answer, "progress" can mean the rate at which general
scientific opinion converges to that answer. {footnote: This definition of
progress is more objective than citation counts [Co], and hopefully avoids
debates about whether more knowledge is good, or whether there is really an
ultimate truth.}

Translating these goals to an individual level, we want our
institutions to reward academics for pushing scientific opinion toward the
"right" answer, presumably by somehow increasing their reputation,
influence, or resources. Let us imagine an academic who, after some
reflection or observation, comes to a tentative conclusion which he/she
would like others to consider. If most everyone already agrees with this
conclusion, even without seeing the new supporting evidence or analysis,
the academic should receive little credit for just making an "obvious"

However, credit should be possible if the claim is surprising, i.e., if
people who have not yet seen the evidence are not yet willing to agree. If,
upon reviewing the evidence, most everyone now agrees with the surprising
claim, then the academic should certainly receive some credit. And, in
fact, peer review can handle this case. But what if there is not uniform
agreement? It still seems that the academic should be rewarded, if this
surprising claim is eventually born out. And others who supported this
claim in the face of disagreement should also gain credit [Led], since they
helped push the general opinion in the right direction.

Why shouldn't savvy academics now win credit by supporting as many
claims as possible, or by multiplying controversies? Clearly they should
risk losing credit when they are wrong, so that credit is in some ways
conserved. The ratio of possible loss to gain should depend on how unusual
one's position is. Siding with the majority and being right should gain
one less than siding with a minority and being right. The total amount
gained or lost should depend on how much of their reputation each academic
has chosen to stake on this issue, as well as on how interesting the issue
is to the ultimate research funders.

In summary, part of what we want from academic incentives is a fair
game for staking our reputation, so that on questions of interest to
funders, we converge as fast as possible to the "right" answer.


Surprising as it may seem, such a social institution exists. It is
relatively simple, cheap, decentralized, and egalitarian. It could create
a consensus on disputed science questions that would be clear, expert,
honest, and self-consistent across a wide range of issues. This consensus
should respond quickly to new information, and predict at least as well as
any other co-existing consensus mechanism. It is well-grounded in our best
theories of decision and incentives.

And it is ancient. We need only revive and embellish a suggestion made
back during the utopian scientific revolution. Chemical physicians,
excluded by the standard physicians from teaching in the British schools,
repeatedly offered challenges like the following (circa 1651):

Oh ye Schooles. ... Let us take out of the hospitals, out of the Camps,
or from elsewhere, 200, or 500 poor People, that have Fevers, Pleurisies,
etc. Let us divide them into halfes, let us cast lots, that one halfe of
them may fall to my share, and the other to yours; ... we shall see how
many Funerals both of us shall have: But let the reward of the contention
or wager, be 300 Florens, deposited on both sides: Here your business is
decided. [De]

They proposed to bet on their medical therapies, apparently believing
bets to be a useful augmentation of the existing academic incentives! Bets
are a long-established and robust reputation mechanism, widely seen as a
cure for excessive verbal wrangling; you "put your money where your mouth
is". In science and elsewhere, phrases like "you bet" are standard ways to
express confidence. Offers to make token bets are particularly compelling,
and scientists of equal stature often make and publicize such bets, with
recent bets on resource depletion, computer chess, black holes [Hal], solar
neutrinos, nuclear weapon yields [Ev], and cold fusion [Gar,Lew,WSJ].

Nor is gambling ...

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