In the previous entry, I presented some critical thesis by historian Ylva Hasselberg 1 regarding the applicability of economic theoretic tools to the study of the social construction of scientific knowledge. To those claims, I think we can respond with the following arguments. In the first place, we have to make a clear and emphatic distinction between the theoretical instruments of the analysis of science, on the one hand, and the real psychological or institutional features of the people and groups involved in real scientific practice. Understanding science ‘as if it were a market’ needs not change real science more than what understanding the reproduction of ants ‘as if it were a market’ would change the sexual behaviour of ants. The case is clearer if our object of study is not contemporary science but some historical episode. Would Hasselberg and the other critics of the economics of scientific knowledge really believe that absolutely no insight can be gained about, say, the history of the Scientific Revolution by viewing its protagonists as engaged in some types of ‘games’ or ‘epistemic markets’? Furthermore, even if being exposed to some rational-choice analysis of their own practice could lead some real scientists to change to some extent their values and strategies, it is by no means clear that this change would necessarily be in the direction towards a ‘commodification’ of science and towards losing the good-old-fashion scientific values praised by Hasselberg (and, if it is, what if scientists know better?).
In the second place, it is a fundamental miscomprehension of rational choice theoretic analysis to assume that it is based on a selfish calculation of egoistic preferences instead as on cultural norms or something like that. Rationality, in the sense of ‘utility maximisation’, only means that we make the assumption that the agents behave as if they were trying to maximally satisfy a coherent system of preferences, no matter what these preferences are: they can be ‘selfish’, or they can be as ‘altruistic’ or ‘communitarian’ as we fancy. If real scientists really have an interest in the pursuit of truth and understanding, our goal as students of science would be to determine the real strength of this interest in their overall system of preferences and motivations, not to fool ourselves by imagining that they only pursue ‘noble’ goals. Neither have we to interpret rational choice theory as assuming that the agents’ ‘decision process’ reduces to a mathematical optimisation calculus; the theory is in itself agnostic about the psychological mechanisms that lead agents to their decisions, and these mechanisms can be as ‘discretionary’ or ‘judgmental’ as we please; the only assumption rational choice theory makes (and very probably a very simplified and only approximate one) is that the outcome of every decision will be ‘optimal’ from the point of view of the agent’s preferences and values, i.e., that when they discover that they could do something that leads to a better result, they do it (though optimality not necessarily arises at the collective level if there are ‘collective action problems’).
In the third place, it is also a mistake to assume that an economic analysis leaves necessarily outside anything that has to do with ‘social norms’. Rather, on the contrary, rational choice and game-theoretic analysis can serve to illuminate the emergence of some norms, and to clarify the virtues and defects of real or possible rules and institutions. Furthermore, usually an economic analysis cannot even start in a ‘normative vacuum’, for it always presupposes some normative frame or another (for example, property rights, government power, etc.). In particular, economics of information is one branch of economics specifically devoted to explain the emergence and working of some institutions, and even to design them (see, e.g., 2).
In the fourth place, economic analysis does not always assume that social institutions work ‘as a market’. Rather, on the contrary, it can also try to explain why in some cases economic agents prefer to carry out certain activities out of the market. One classical example of this is Ronald Coase’s theory of the firm, since the capitalist company is typically an institution that competes within a market but that does not internally work according to market rules, but according to bureaucratic organisation and hierarchical values. These may not be the same values typical of science, of course, but there is nothing that prevents an economic-type explanation of why scientific research follows very different procedures and norms than the ones we find in the markets for typical economic goods, as readers of this blog will remember.
Fifth: even if epistemic values like ‘truth’ or ‘knowledge’, on the one hand, and ‘private’ values like ‘recognition’, have to be included as different variables in the scientists’ utility function, this does not necessarily mean that the latter are totally independent of the former. After all, recognition is not ‘mere recognition’, but intrinsically consists in ‘recognition for something’. Even a totally ‘cynical’ researcher, in the sense that she didn’t care at all about the epistemic value of her discoveries, would try to get really important results if their colleagues attribute a higher level of recognition to this type of findings. And a group of persons who were totally indifferent to the value of knowledge would probably find many other activities much more appealing and gratifying than boring scientific research, like people who don’t love physical exercise and the glory of being champion would hardly become athletes. The toy agents depicted in game-theoretic models of science are, in this sense, not so different from the idea Hasselberg has of real scientists.
Sixth, and last: even if you are afraid of the ‘commodification’ of science, applying ‘market’ ideas may turn out being a better strategy for you than just mourning for the loss of the good old days when science was a romantic enterprise. The reason is that competitive markets are in themselves an extraordinary force of innovation, and tend to dissolve the conservative forces that try to keep intact the existing spheres of power. These include economic entities like big corporations (that try to obtain excessive returns from their investment thanks to patents and patent laws, for example), but also intellectual monopolies, like ‘paradigms’, ‘schools’ or any other type of dominant groups within science (cf. 3). Adherence to ‘community values’ may often be just a rhetorical way to restrain innovation and to hamper the development or transmission of new, revolutionary ideas. Transforming the institutions of science so that less ‘orthodox’ ideas can flow more freely might serve to discover more quickly the ‘anomalies’ of the old paradigms. Probably the necessary institutional reforms should not lead to a kind of science as the ‘commodified’ one castigated by Hasselberg, Mirowski and others, but it’s difficult to imagine how could we scrutinize the workings of different alternative scenarios if we are not guided by some economic-like ideas about the rational behaviour of scientists under each possible set of circumstances.
Edit 13/02/2020: It was erroneously stated that Ylva Hasselberg was a “sociologist” when in reality she is a historian.
- Hasselberg, Ylva. 2012. “Demand or Discretion? The Market Model Applied to Science and its Core Values and Institutions”. Ethics in Science and Environmental Policy. 12: 35-51. ↩
- Gintis, Herbert. 2009. The bounds of reason: game theory and the unification of the behavioral sciences. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press ↩
- Boldrin, Michele, and David K. Levine. 2008. Against Intellectual Monopoly. New York: Cambridge University Press. ↩